Ranking the Fed

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Writing about Alan Greenspan’s record made me wonder if there was a way to measure the performance of a Fed Chairman, systematically without biases.

The Misery Index

The Fed has a dual mandate: maintaining both price stability and maximum employment. Back in the ’70s, these factors of unemployment and inflation were added up into what was known at the time as “the misery index.” The job of the Federal Reserve is to keep both unemployment and inflation low (i.e., keep the misery index low). It hasn’t always succeeded:

inflation and unemployment.PNG

In the early 1960s, the US economy experienced both low inflation and low unemployment. Inflation steadily trended higher and peaked in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, the United States faced a phenomenon known as stagflation, simultaneously high unemploymentwhichand high inflation. It perplexed economists, as traditionally there was a trade-off between unemployment and inflation. The cure for inflation was unemployment, the cure for unemployment was some inflation. In the 1970s, this relationship broke down, and both soared to next heights.

This is why the misery index peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Inflation has not crept back in a meaningful way since its defeat in the early 1980s. Most increases in the misery index since the beginning of the 1980s are due to increases in unemployment.

misery

Ranks

I decided to rank the chairmen by the net change experienced in the misery index during their tenure. By this measure, no chairman can match the record of Paul Volcker. His tough monetary medicine (double digit interest rates) caused a brutal recession in the early 1980s, but this was the medicine that the economy needed to finally break inflation.

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Regarding the average level of the misery index, the best chairman was William McChesney Martin. The data I used only covered a portion of his tenure in the 1960s. It would likely look even better if I included the 1950s. Martin presided over a period of simultaneously low unemployment and low inflation. The next best by this measure was Alan Greenspan.

By the metric of unemployment, Martin also experienced the lowest average unemployment rate. The lowest inflation rate was experienced by Janet Yellen. Inflation has been declining under her tenure, with inflation being virtually zero in 2015 due to the collapse of oil prices. The decline in inflation during this decade defied the expectations who expected the massive monetary easing of the Bernanke era to result in high levels of inflation.

Are the Rankings Fair?

Trying to empirically measure the performance of the Federal Reserve is a difficult task. My preferred measure is not the absolute level of misery, but the net change in the misery index during the tenure. By this metric, Paul Volcker is the winner.

Some might say that a chairman like Volcker is uniquely advantaged with this list because his starting point for unemployment and inflation was so staggeringly high. I would counter this and say that Volcker deserves the highest ranking for what he accomplished. In retrospect, it might seem like Volcker’s actions were obvious (tighten the money supply to restrain inflation), but this was a monumental challenge. He made the incredibly difficult decision of focusing solely on inflation. The medicine was tough for the economy: double digit unemployment and interest rates. Volcker’s policies caused an immense public backlash. Construction workers sent Volcker 2×4’s to protest his policies. The public was outraged, but Volcker’s tough medicine worked. He broke the back of inflation and unemployment soon followed.

Ronald Reagan also deserves credit for standing behind Volcker. It is quite tempting for a President to encourage the Fed to loosen monetary policy. Nixon did this in the 1970s, which helped create the stagflation problem in the first place. George H.W. Bush put similar pressure on Alan Greenspan, who didn’t give in. George H.W. Bush blamed his election loss on Greenspan. The temptation was massive for Ronald Reagan to try to twist Volcker’s arm in 1982. We remember Reagan as being popular, but at that point in the depths of the recession, Reagan had a 40% approval rating. He didn’t give in despite the public outcry, and neither did Volcker. They both deserve immense credit for that.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

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