May 26th 2021

The Ghost of Arthur Burns 

NEW HAVEN – Memories can be tricky. I have long been haunted by the inflation of the 1970s. Fifty years ago, when I had just started my career as a professional economist at the Federal Reserve, I was witness to the birth of the Great Inflation as a Fed insider. That left me with the recurring nightmares of a financial post-traumatic stress disorder. The bad dreams are back.

They center on the Fed’s legendary chairman at the time, Arthur F. Burns, who brought a unique perspective to the US central bank as an expert on the business cycle. In 1946, he co-authored the definitive treatise on the seemingly rhythmic ups and downs of the US economy back to the mid-nineteenth century. Working for him was intimidating, especially for someone in my position. I had been tasked with formal weekly briefings on the very subjects Burns knew best. He used that knowledge to poke holes in staff presentations. I found quickly that you couldn’t tell him anything. 

Yet Burns, who ruled the Fed with an iron fist, lacked an analytical framework to assess the interplay between the real economy and inflation, and how that relationship was connected to monetary policy. As a data junkie, he was prone to segment the problems he faced as a policymaker, especially the emergence of what would soon become the Great Inflation. Like business cycles, he believed price trends were heavily influenced by idiosyncratic, or exogenous, factors – “noise” that had nothing to do with monetary policy.

This was a blunder of epic proportions. When US oil prices quadrupled following the OPEC oil embargo in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Burns argued that, since this had nothing to do with monetary policy, the Fed should exclude oil and energy-related products (such as home heating oil and electricity) from the consumer price index. The staff protested, arguing that it made no sense to ignore such important items, especially because they had a weight of over 11% in the CPI. Burns was adamant: If we on the staff wouldn’t perform the calculation, he would have it done by “someone in New York” – an allusion to his prior affiliations at Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Then came surging food prices, which Burns surmised in 1973 were traceable to unusual weather – specifically, an El Niño event that had decimated Peruvian anchovies in 1972. He insisted that this was the source of rising fertilizer and feedstock prices, in turn driving up beef, poultry, and pork prices. Like good soldiers, we gulped and followed his order to take food – which had a weight of 25% – out of the CPI.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we had just created the first version of what is now fondly known as the core inflation rate – that purified portion of the CPI that purportedly is free of the volatile “special factors” of food and energy, where gyrations were traceable to distant wars and weather. Burns was pleased. Monetary policy needed to focus on more stable underlying inflation trends, he argued, and we had provided him with the perfect tool to sharpen his focus.

It was a fair point – to a point; unfortunately, Burns didn’t stop there. Over the next few years, he periodically uncovered similar idiosyncratic developments affecting the prices of mobile homes, used cars, children’s toys, even women’s jewelry (gold mania, he dubbed it); he also raised questions about homeownership costs, which accounted for another 16% of the CPI. Take them all out, he insisted!

By the time Burns was done, only about 35% of the CPI was left – and it was rising at a double-digit rate! Only at that point, in 1975, did Burns concede – far too late – that the United States had an inflation problem. The painful lesson: ignore so-called transitory factors at great peril.

Fast-forward to today. Evoking an eerie sense of déjà vu, the Fed is insisting that recent increases in the prices of food, construction materials, used cars, personal health products, gasoline, car rentals, and appliances reflect transitory factors that will quickly fade with post-pandemic normalization. Scattered labor shortages and surging home prices are supposedly also transitory. Sound familiar?

There are many more lessons from the 1970s that shed light on today’s cavalier dismissal of inflation risk. When the Fed finally tried to tackle the Great Inflation, it fixated on unit labor costs – rising wages accompanied by sagging productivity. While there are always good reasons to worry about productivity, wages appear to be largely in check; unionized labor, which, in the 1970s had sparked a vicious wage-price spiral through cost-of-living indexation, has been neutralized by global competition. But that doesn’t rule out a very different form of global cost-push inflation – namely, the confluence of supply-chain congestion (think semiconductors) and protectionist clamoring to reshoreproduction.

But the biggest parallel may be another policy blunder. The Fed poured fuel on the Great Inflation by allowing real interest rates to plunge into negative territory in the 1970s. Today, the federal funds rate is currently more than 2.5 percentage points below the inflation rate. Now, add open-ended quantitative easing – some $120 billion per month injected into frothy financial markets – and the largest fiscal stimulus in post-World War II history. All of this is occurring precisely when a post-pandemic boom is absorbing slack capacity at an unprecedented rate. This policy gambit is in a league of its own.

For my money, today’s Fed waxes far too confidently about well-anchored inflation expectations. It also preaches the new gospel of “average inflation targeting,” convinced that it can condone above-target inflation for an unspecified period to compensate for years of coming in below target. My students would love to throw out their worst grade(s) as well!

No, this isn’t the 1970s, but there are haunting similarities that bear watching. Timothy Leary, one of the more memorable gurus of the Age of Aquarius, purportedly said, “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.” That doesn’t apply to the 1970s. Sleepless nights and vivid flashbacks, complete with visions of a pipe-smoking Burns – it’s almost like being there again, but without the great music.


Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
www.project-syndicate.org
 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."
Nov 2nd 2023
EXTRACT: "Of course, Putin owes his authoritarian mandate to Russians themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians – reeling from rapid, profound economic changes and the new culture of consumerist individualism – grew nostalgic for the 'strong' state. Their superpower status, historic breakthroughs in space, and grand victories on the battlefield were all long gone. Trading their new freedoms for the promise of renewed imperial glory seemed like a good deal." ----- "After Stalin, the only time the state engaged so openly in such violent repression was under Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 (he died in 1984). -- Putin, who regards Andropov as a personal hero, has reinstated the Andropov-era 'disciplinary check-ups' of cultural institutions." ------ "We are dealing with people who want 'full revenge for the fall of the Soviet empire.' The empire they want to build will include Andropov-style control over every aspect of Russian life, as well as a grander claim of being anointed by God. Like the Orwellian equation “2+2=5,” it is a story that you would have to be insane – or brutally compelled – to believe."
Oct 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The cost of electricity from solar plants has experienced a remarkable reduction over the past decade, falling by 89% from 2010 to 2022. Batteries, which are essential for balancing solar energy supply throughout the day and night, have also undergone a similar price revolution, decreasing by the same amount between 2008 and 2022. ---- These developments pose an important question: have we already crossed a tipping point where solar energy is poised to become the dominant source of electricity generation? This is the very question we sought to address in our recent study."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACT: "Sooner or later, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s destructive political magic, which has kept him in power for 15 years, was bound to usher in a major tragedy. A year ago, he formed the most radical and incompetent government in Israel’s history. Don’t worry, he assured his critics, I have “two hands firmly on the steering wheel.” But by ruling out any political process in Palestine and boldly asserting, in his government’s binding guidelines, that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu’s fanatical government made bloodshed inevitable."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACTS: "....whereas Israel can prevail militarily over any of its enemies, albeit at an increasing toll in blood and treasure, it cannot stop the most dangerous threat of all—the deadly erosion, resulting from its continuing brutal occupation, of that moral foundation on which the country was established." --- "....the Israeli public must demand the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu."
Sep 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "......today’s American body politic has little patience for long-term thinking. This was not always the case. George Kennan, first as a diplomat and later as an academic, devised the containment strategy that the United States used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Andrew Marshall, as the head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, pushed the envelope on US military strategy. And Henry Kissinger, of course, was the ultimate practitioner of what has been dubbed “Grand Strategy.” "
Sep 23rd 2023
EXTRACT: "In a recent CNN interview, Paul Krugman of The New York Times finds it hard to understand why ordinary American voters do not share his euphoric view of US President Joe Biden’s goldilocks economy – which appears to be neither hot nor cold. Inflation is falling, unemployment remains low, the economy is growing, and stock-market valuations are high. So why, Krugman asks, do voters give Biden’s economy a lousy 36% approval rating?" .... "what matters to working people is not the monthly or yearly price change taken alone. What matters is the effect on purchasing power and living standards over time. Whether these are rising or falling depends on the relationship of prices to wages. When wage growth exceeds price increases, times are generally good. When it doesn’t, they aren’t."
Sep 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The fundamental lesson, then, is that the issuer of an incumbent international currency has it within its power to defend or neglect that status. Thus, whether the dollar retains its global role will depend not simply on US relations with Russia, China, or the BRICS. Rather, it will hinge on whether the US brings its soaring debts under control, avoids another unproductive debt-ceiling showdown, and gets its economic and political act together more generally."
Aug 31st 2023
EXTRACT: "TOULOUSE – The days between Christmas and the New Year often prompt many of us to reflect on the problems facing the world and to consider what we can do to improve our own lives. But I typically find myself in this contemplative state at the end of my summer holiday, during the dog days of August. After several weeks of relaxation – reading books, taking leisurely walks, and drifting in a swimming pool – I am more open to contemplating the significant challenges that will likely dominate discussions over the coming months and pondering how I can gain a better understanding of the issues at stake."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "To the extent that international relations is an extension of interpersonal relations, how leaders publicly talk about their adversaries is important. US rhetoric about Putin, as much as shipments of F-16s, can push him – and thus the war – in various directions."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "Since the end of World War II, the United Nations has been the cornerstone of the international rules-based order. While numerous other international agreements address issues such as chemical weapons, biological warfare, and regional stability, the UN has been entrusted with the overarching role of maintaining global peace and stability. What made it effective, at least for a while, was the support of the world’s liberal democracies and, crucially, the unwavering commitment of both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States." ---- "That all changed with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, a sovereign country, in the face of fierce international opposition and without the UN Security Council’s approval. In doing so, the US severely damaged its own credibility and undermined the global rules-based system,... "Many of America’s current domestic political divisions grew out of the Iraq War. Whereas presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated that effective leaders can make the world a safer and better place, even in the face of great adversity, Bush’s presidency showed that the opposite is equally true."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACTS: "a period of parliamentary history between 1719 and 1772 called 'the age of liberty'. This marked the end of autocratic monarchy and the beginning of an era of parliamentary power " ---- "This was a period of large-scale legislative projects and freedom of speech became central to the idea of freedom from tyranny. The most important piece of legislation was the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766, a law that aimed to protect freedom of information as a means of promoting democracy. It has been amended since but its tenets remain the same. " ---- "Describing Muslims, to allude to the situation of the Qur’an burnings, as criminals would be criminal. But to burn the Qur’an is in itself not, according to the current formulation of the law, an attack on Muslims. It is rather seen as an attack on the religion of Islam. Such attacks are not illegal because the aim of the attack is not directed against a protected group of people but against a belief – an idea. That is not illegal."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACTS: "But if the dollar should lose its privileged place, what could replace it? At present, the euro, which accounts for 20% of global central-bank reserves, is the only currency that could realistically serve as a substitute. Its appeal, however, is undermined by the fragmentation of Europe’s national sovereign-debt markets, as well as lingering doubts about the European Union’s long-term viability in the wake of the UK’s departure.'" ---- "The Chinese renminbi, which accounts for less than 3% of global reserves, is not a serious threat to dollar hegemony. "