Paul Volcker’s New Memoir: A Broadside Against his Successors?

By: Jeff Deist
Paul A. Volcker

Paul Volcker, the cigar smoking former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, literally and figuratively towers over his successors (he is reportedly 6’7″). Mr. Volcker is the the last Chair under whose tenure American savers could earn a decent rate of interest, the last Chair who demonstrated any meaningful political independence (clashing with presidents Carter and Reagan), the last Chair who really hated inflation, and the last Chair who eschewed the technocratic management of monetary policy. He’s the last of the old-guard central bankers who saw monetary policy as a regulator and not a stimulus machine. As bad as he was on gold—as an undersecretary in Nixon’s Treasury department he advocated the suspension of gold convertibility— Volcker was a gut-level banker who understood complex markets but also the concerns of average people. He was never a policy wonk with his head in the clouds. 

Still active and robust at 91, he’s written a new memoir documenting his long tenure at the central bank. If his comments (excerpted from the book) in this recent Bloomberg opinion piece are any indication, it should be a welcome refutation of the technocratic management of monetary policy by his successors—particularly when it comes to the current bizarro-world understanding of inflation and deflation: 

More recently, a remarkable consensus has developed among central bankers that there’s a new “red line” for policy: A 2 percent rate of increase in some carefully designed consumer price index is acceptable, even desirable, and at the same time provides a limit.

I puzzle about the rationale. A 2 percent target, or limit, was not in my textbooks years ago. I know of no theoretical justification. It’s difficult to be both a target and a limit at the same time. And a 2 percent inflation rate, successfully maintained, would mean the price level doubles in little more than a generation.

Who else in the world of central banking even mentions inflation these days, other than to tell us it’s not a problem? Do any Fed or ECB economists think doubling prices on consumer goods every couple of decades is a good thing? Why do today’s policy makers think prices are rising too slowly, a position totally at odds with the public? Volcker points out the absurdity of their thinking:

Yet, as I write, with economic growth rising and the unemployment rate near historic lows, concerns are being voiced that consumer prices are growing too slowly — just because they’re a quarter percent or so below the 2 percent target! Could that be a signal to “ease” monetary policy, or at least to delay restraint, even with the economy at full employment?

Certainly, that would be nonsense. How did central bankers fall into the trap of assigning such weight to tiny changes in a single statistic, with all of its inherent weakness?

Perhaps an increase to 3 percent to provide a slight stimulus if the economy seems too sluggish? And, if 3 percent isn’t enough, why not 4 percent?

I’m not making this up. I read such ideas voiced occasionally by Fed officials or economists at the International Monetary Fund, and more frequently from economics professors. In Japan, it seems to be the new gospel. I have yet to hear, in the midst of a strong economy, that maybe the inflation target should be reduced!

He also provides some very clear thinking about the bogeyman known as deflation. Systemic crises, in the form of deep recessions, are the danger—not falling prices. Of course deep recessions are deflationary, as banks, businesses, and households shed debt and lower consumption. But loose monetary policy, not Volckerian rate hiking, creates the biggest risk of a future systemic crises: 

The lesson, to me, is crystal clear. Deflation is a threat posed by a critical breakdown of the financial system. Slow growth and recurrent recessions without systemic financial disturbances, even the big recessions of 1975 and 1982, have not posed such a risk.

The real danger comes from encouraging or inadvertently tolerating rising inflation and its close cousin of extreme speculation and risk taking, in effect standing by while bubbles and excesses threaten financial markets. Ironically, the “easy money,” striving for a “little inflation” as a means of forestalling deflation, could, in the end, be what brings it about. 

Mr. Volcker’s memoirs hopefully will serve as a much-needed corrective against the inanity of monetary policy today and a warning against the folly of what Nomi Prins calls “financial alchemy,” the false belief that central bankers can conjure up prosperity using technical wizardry. Production, productivity increases, profit, and investment are the only way to create a truly prosperous and sustainable economy, and no amount of policy tinkering can change this. Volcker is not an Austrian, but he is someone who understands the threat to America’s economic future posed by disconnected central bank policies. Fed officials, current and former, would be well-served to worry less about Donald Trump’s tweets and more about their own reputations. As R. Christopher Whalen reminds us in this excellent analysis, “the greatest threat to the central bank’s existence is the tendency of Fed governors and economists to pursue abstract economic theories that make no sense in real world terms and often do more harm than good.”

Let’s hope Jay Powell reads Mr. Volcker’s book.

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