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Monday June 14, 2004 - 18:19:43 GMT
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Greenspan To Honor Ray Charles...Inflation On My Mind: Foreign Exchange Analytics (FXA)

Greenspan To Honor Ray Charles...Inflation On My Mind

Greenspan's first career was a jazz band saxophonist and for someone so well acquainted with music and no doubt in awe of Ray Charles, it follows that he will sing a rendition of Ray Charles' standard Georgia On My Mind in Tuesday's Senate Banking confirmation hearings, though Greenspan's version will be Inflation On My Mind. And like the Charles standard it will be a melancholic, sentimental tune about home. After all what central banker is not at home with inflation? Okay it is not a peaceful setting...more like Archie and Edith Bunker but it is a union and they go hand in hand (centralmbanking and fighting inflation).

Well almost always except where the Fed is involved. The Fed, thanks to Congress, practices is married to growth and inflation and has been deeply distracted by growth since the collapse of the stock market bubble in 2000. And it took to the growth partner with zeal, cutting Fed funds to a 46-year low in 2003 and taking extra care to make sure that growth did not run off with deflation.

Tuesday will be the first time Greenspan has addressed Congress with inflation on his mind since the 2000 bubble burst. And it is far from clear that Congress is eager to see the Fed take the punch bowl away...especially Republican legislators. Still Greenspan owes the financial markets on this testimony and will steer clear of shaping his message to the vagaries of the November election. What does he owe the financial markets? An explanation of why Fed funds are still 1.00% when inflation measures uniformly show accelerating prices and wages, decent employment growth, a robust growth rate, record corporate profits, extended household debt and elevated real estate prices. Indeed the market needs to hear more than simply it is doing the work of the Fed. Greenspan must assure that the Fed is ready to act and will embrace a Volcker-like response if inflation gains a foothold in the economy and expectations. By the way it is worth asking the question what would Volcker do (if he were Fed Chairman). To begin with I doubt he would be starting a tightening cycle from 1.00% (try 2.00%). Volcker had a bias toward inflation over growth and never would have bought into the deflation risk that the Fed used to usher in at least 50 basis points of easing in 2003 and then held rates there for nearly 12 months. And surely Volcker would have hiked rates in early May when Greenspan chose to wait and see. And it is hard to imagine Volcker visiting the White House nearly 70 times over a 36-month period.

And what is Greenspan's take? Not what is good for price stability 12 to 18 months out but what the next relevant economic statistic looks like. Where is the vision? Or more precisely, where is the Fed inflation forecast? Maybe it is just me...but it seems obvious that an inflation anchor would limit this kind of conditionality and micro-managing of monetary policy Greenspan has called risk management. Since when does a rate hike impact inflation contemporaneously? Try never. Monetary policy impacts with lags. The Fed has to assume some risk here. Make an inflation forecast and adjust policy to achieve the desired rate of inflation...even given its current ad hoc modus operandi.

No I have not come to bury Greenspan. Nor have I come to praise him. It just seems strange that there is no critique of US monetary policy in the financial press or for that matter in the financial markets with a few exceptions like Bill Gross, Paul Krugman (a fiscal policy critique), James Grant, Caroline Baum and a handful of other cranks like myself. Sure Greenspan has a good record on balance. But this is the modern age and as an appointed official more accountability it required, not simply desired. Must we wait decades before the reality of Greenspan can be separated from the myth of Greenspan. Unfortunately, the Senate Banking Cmte Tuesday is likely to continue to praise the Chairman and his risk(y) management approach to monetary policy, doing a collective foot tapping to Inflation On My Mind. If in the process inflation becomes imbedded, we suspect the future will not be as kind on the Chairman as the present.

David Gilmore


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