There’s a lot of talk these days about the so-called “neutral” (or “natural” or “terminal”) interest rate projections of the Federal Reserve. In fact, their projection of this number is a key argument in their ongoing decision to keep rates at historically very-low levels for what has been an extended period of time. (Specifically, Federal Reserve officials have argued that the neutral interest rate has sharply declined in recent years, meaning that apparently ultra-low interest rates do not really signify easy monetary policy.)
What is this neutral rate? The neutral rate, it is argued, is simply the federal funds rate at which the economy is in equilibrium or balance. If the federal funds rate were at this mysterious neutral rate level, monetary policy would be neither loose nor tight, and the economy neither too hot nor too cold, but rather just chugging along at its long-run optimal potential. The underlying theory is that loose monetary policy — where the Fed’s policy rate is set below the neutral rate — can temporarily stimulate the economy, but only by causing price inflation that exceeds the Fed’s desired target (which, by the way, eventually causes overheating and a crash). On the other hand, if the Fed is too tight and sets the policy rate above the neutral rate, then unemployment creeps higher than desired and price inflation comes in below target.
In short, the neutral interest rate is one where the central bank is not itself distorting the economy. Monetary policy would really be nonexistent, as the Fed would not be altering the interest rate resulting from a free market discovery process between borrowers and savers. (This of course raises the question, why do central planners need to fabricate something that would naturally exist in their absence?) This is near where Yellen actually thinks we are these days, hence she sees little urgency in raising rates and thus lessening what, on the face of it, looks like a very loose current monetary policy.
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