Congress Could Unload the Fed’s Weapon

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The US Capitol, seat of Congress, on the back of a fifty dollar bill.

John Cochrane’s The Fiscal Theory of the Price Level examines the relationship between fiscal policy and inflation, which many consider to be the increase in the price level of a basket of goods and services. An influential and accomplished economist at the Hoover Institution, Cochrane is one of the most forward-thinking economists today. His approach challenges conventional wisdom and presents a compelling case for reevaluating our understanding of the economy. 

I learned much from reading the book and while interviewing him about it on my Let People Prosper Show podcast. I highly recommend reading this extensive book, though I have reservations about fiscal policy trumping monetary policy when considering the influence on inflation.

Cochrane begins by laying out the foundational principles of his theory. He emphasizes the roles of government debt, taxes, and inflation expectations on prices. He argues that traditional economic models, which focus primarily on the role of central banks in controlling inflation through monetary policy, such as those by Milton Friedman, overlook the substantial effect of fiscal variables on prices. 

By uniquely integrating fiscal considerations and the public’s expectations about those factors into economic analysis, Cochrane aims to provide a more robust framework for understanding and predicting inflationary trends. He delves into various theoretical and empirical aspects of fiscal theory, drawing on a wide range of literature and evidence to support his arguments. 

He explores the implications of government budget constraints, the role of Ricardian equivalence that assumes a balanced budget over time, and the potential limitations of conventional monetary tools in controlling inflationary pressures. His thorough examination of these issues provides readers with a comprehensive understanding of the complexities of studying the relationship between fiscal policy and inflation.

Cochrane’s arguments are persuasive and well-supported, but some aspects of his analysis warrant scrutiny.

One area of contention is Cochrane’s emphasis on the primacy of fiscal policy in driving inflationary dynamics, particularly his assertion that the Federal Reserve plays a secondary role compared to Congress in shaping inflation outcomes. While Cochrane makes a compelling case for the importance of fiscal variables, the penultimate creator of inflation is the Fed when it creates more money than the goods and services produced. 

Milton Friedman, who extensively studied the role of the Fed in economic activity and inflation, said: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. It is a result of a greater increase in the quantity of money than in the output of goods and services which is available for spending.”

The Fed controls what’s called “high-powered money” of various assets on its balance sheet. These assets include mostly Treasury securities from the tens of trillions of dollars in debt issued by the federal government. It also includes mortgage-backed securities, lending to financial institutions, federal agency debt, and other lending facilities. 

I agree with Cochrane that federal deficits give ammunition to the Fed when it purchases Treasury debt, grows high-powered money, contributes to more money chasing too few goods and services, and results in inflation. But other assets on the Fed’s balance sheet also matter, especially since the Great Financial Crisis in 2008 when the Fed started quantitative easing. 

Cochrane’s framework overlooks the significant role of monetary policy in influencing inflation expectations and shaping the broader economic environment. While fiscal policy can play a role in determining long-term inflation trends, as the debt distorts interest rates in the market, the Fed’s control of the money supply to target the federal funds rate and influence other rates along the yield curve remains a potent tool for managing expectations. 

While we should challenge Congress to adopt a fiscal rule for sustainable budgets to relieve excessive spending that drives up the national debt, this does not undermine the source of inflation: the Fed. 
But if Congress could balance its budget, which hasn’t happened since 2001, it would remove a bullet the Fed could shoot at the economy. In other words, a sustainable fiscal policy, wherein Congress passes balanced budgets by limiting government spending — the ultimate burden of government and the source of budget deficits — would help control inflation. While this could mitigate the assets available for the Fed to add to high-powered money, it would not solve the inflation problem because of many other available assets.