By Design, the Fed May Be Tightening Too Much



The Fed has often moved interest rates by 0.75 percentage point or more in recent decades. But until this week, it had always done so in a downward direction. Indeed, it was a hallmark of Fed policy that it always cut interest rates faster, with less prompting, than it raised them.


This asymmetry reflected the Fed’s perception of risks. If it cut rates too little, the economy might spiral down and the financial system implode. If it cut them too much, inflation might, some years later, rise. Throughout this prepandemic period, inflation was low and, at times, too low, but that wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, during that low-inflation, low-interest-rate era, rates couldn’t fall very much — the Fed called this the “zero lower bound” — so best to act quickly to forestall a downward spiral. If inflation was a problem, there was no limit to how high rates could go.

This philosophy got taken too far. The Fed kept rates too low for too long last year (and the Biden administration enacted too much fiscal stimulus) out of a mistaken belief that inflation was a remote threat compared with prolonged high unemployment.

The result is that risks are now asymmetric in the other direction. Inflation is too high and a self-sustaining wage-price spiral is a real threat. Asked why, after carefully laying the groundwork for a half-point increase, the Fed raised rates by 0.75 point Wednesday, Mr. Powell pointed to an “eye-catching” report that showed long-term inflation expectations rising ominously.

Author(s): Greg Ip

Publication Date: 16 Jun 2022

Publication Site: WSJ