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Curing Stagflation

{Walter Baghot}
Walter Baghot

On Wednesday April 30, 2008 the Federal Reserve lowered short term interest rates by 0.25% (to 2%) . It had been rumored they would lower rates even more, but it became more than a rumor that two members of the Open Market Committee resisted. Paul Volcker the former chairman gave a speech describing what he had successfully done in similar circumstances, which was to raise interest rates, not lower them. On the same day, Brian Westbury published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, advocating that the Federal Reserve lift interest rates back to their natural rate, which is somewhere north of 5%. A day earlier, John L. Chapman had written in the same publication that the dollar needed strengthening, which is effectively the same as raising national interest rates. All of these dissenters are more fearful of stagflation than recession, or November elections. All of them are echoing the classic opinion of Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist between 1860 and 1877 . Nevertheless, the people entrusted to act are still lowering interest rates, and the rest of us retreat before their superior information sources.

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Paul Volcker

Bagehot (pronounced baa-joe) always made his points in few words. The solution to what is now known as stagflation is to raise interest rates to punitive levels, while cutting taxes. Punitive levels are of course punishing, and unpopular. Furthermore, since the Democratic candidates for President have boxed themselves into advocacy of raising taxes because President George W. Bush had cut them, the tax-cutting part of Bagehot's terse prescription is also opposed, D versus R. To explain a little, stagflation defines a situation where there is simultaneously rising unemployment and rising inflation. That's not supposed to happen according to the rule of Phillips Curve. The theory behind the Bagehot approach is that the unemployment in this circumstance is caused by the inflation, so you must attack the inflation with higher interest rates, even though a lot of people will be fearful that unemployment is caused by other things, and will go up. Raising interest rates will likely worsen unemployment temporarily, so it takes grit to do it and keep doing it. Industry must be encouraged to invest by dangling inflated untaxed profits in front of its greedy nose. Class warfare opposition is likely to be fierce and unfair. This whole situation prompted one observer to wish we had Gerald Ford back as President, because he was the only President in fifty years to have the country's interest at heart. That's perhaps extreme, but the general reaction is supportable.

It begins to look as though some economist ought to make himself famous with a curve. Going from left to right, it would show that inflating the currency by lowering interest rates will initially help a recession and unemployment. But above a certain level, continued inflating will generate more unemployment by injuring employers. Let's call it a Bagehot Curve.

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