Thursday , April 27 2017
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The asymmetry of inflation or the ECB?

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From this Financial Times article: In yesterday's press conference Mario Draghi was asked about the possibility of changing the ECB's inflation target. His answer is very revealing about the extreme asymmetric nature of monetary policy these days (or...

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From this Financial Times article: In yesterday's press conference Mario Draghi was asked about the possibility of changing the ECB's inflation target. His answer is very revealing about the extreme asymmetric nature of monetary policy these days (or at least that's how the ECB sees it).

Draghi admits that the ECB is having a very difficult time reaching its target and he is now hoping this will happen by 2018. He rules out the idea of lowering the inflation target (to make reaching the target easier) because this would lead to lower inflation expectations and higher real interest rates. So what about raising the inflation target to avoid falling into the zero lower bound again (and possibly to show a stronger commitment to higher inflation)? According to Draghi it would make no sense because if they cannot reach a 2% target why would you set a higher target that you cannot reach by an even larger margin.

This might be a realistic view on how asymmetric the effects of monetary policy are these days but it also reflects on the difficulties that central banks have at communicating their targets and policies. And possibly how this confusing communication is making their actions less effective. Here are some thoughts:
  • Mario Draghi forgets that the ECB target is asymmetric in nature. The target is below (but close) to 2%. That's a signal that falling below the target is ok while being above is unacceptable. Maybe this asymmetry is partly to blame for the difficulty of reaching 2%. 
  • In his speech he clearly states that lowering inflation is always easy but that raising inflation because of the zero lower bound is much harder. But this sounds to me like a very strong argument in favor of higher targets. The fact that he does not see it that way tells us that the ECB is really averse to higher inflation.
  • The idea that the same asymmetry is present when it comes to inflation expectations might be realistic but, in my view, it sounds too pessimistic. It might be true that raising inflation is hard but not impossible. Setting a higher target should move inflation expectations in the right direction and help reach that target. The fact that he does not see it that way is, once again, a reflection of the asymmetric view of the ECB about inflation.
So maybe the asymmetry that he sees is not completely independent of the asymmetric view that the ECB and its officials clearly express every time they talk about the subject.

Interesting times for monetary policy and a reminder that we need to change the way we teach monetary policy to our students. Olivier Blanchard has some interesting suggestions for how to modify the next edition of his textbook after what we have witnessed in the crisis but I think that he might be falling short on the changes we need to explain central bank policies and their outcomes.

Antonio Fatás

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Antonio Fatas
I am the Portuguese Council Chaired Professor of European Studies and Professor of Economics at INSEAD, a business school with campuses in Singapore and Fontainebleau (France), a Senior Policy Scholar at the Center for Business and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business (Georgetown University, USA) and a Research Fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research (London, UK).

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