Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke suggested that he would be open to an increase in the central bank’s 2 percent inflation target.
“I don’t see anything magical about targeting 2 percent inflation,” he told a conference in Washington sponsored by the International Monetary Fund.
His comments come as the Fed and other major central banks are struggling to prevent their economies from falling into a disinflationary trap of diminished expectations. IMF officials have proposed that the monetary authorities raise their inflation goals to help limit the danger of future deflation.
Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer and European Central Bank Executive Board member Peter Praet are slated to discuss the issue Thursday at George Washington University in a session titled “The Elusive Pursuit of Inflation.” The session is being held in conjunction with the spring meetings of the fund and the World Bank.
The U.S. central bank adopted its 2 percent goal in January 2012 when Bernanke was chairman. It has fallen short of meeting that objective for 34 straight months. In February, inflation, as measured by the personal consumption expenditure price index, the Fed’s preferred gauge, was 0.3 percent.
Some economists, such as professor Laurence Ball of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, have called on the Fed to raise its target to 4 percent. Others, such as Scott Sumner of Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, argue that the Fed should adopt a goal for the growth of nominal gross domestic product, rather than focusing on a price index.
Bernanke pointed to a number of practical difficulties in making a change in the Fed’s objective. Such a switch could cause confusion among the public about the central bank’s intentions and undermine its credibility, he said.
“The very fact that the target is being changed could sow some doubts,” he said.
A “broad buy-in” by Congress to any adjustment would be needed, he said, adding that he thought the chances of that occurring were low.
Bernanke also made the case in his presentation for keeping the Fed’s balance sheet big in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
“Most other major central banks have permanently large balance sheets and are able to implement monetary policy without problems,” he said.
Under Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed flooded the banking system with $2.6 trillion of excess reserves through bond purchases known as quantitative easing, a program designed to combat the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression by holding down longer-term borrowing costs.
Bernanke left the central bank in January 2014, and the buying ended in October.
Policy makers have said they aim to shrink the balance sheet in the coming years and “hold no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently,” according to a statement in September.
Bernanke said he was not making a recommendation about how big the balance sheet ultimately should be. Instead, he said, he was trying to encourage debate about the issue.
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