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In the Media | April 2014

CEA's Furman Looks at "Great Moderation"

By Robert Feinberg
MoneyNews, April 30, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Jason Furman, the brilliant economist who chairs the Council of Economic Advisers, spoke recently at the 23rd Annual Hyman Minsky Conference, sponsored by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. 

The title of Furman's presentation was "Whatever Happened to the Great Moderation?" He argued that with the right economic policies, as advocated by the administration, this mythical Great Moderation could be restored. 

I suspect a priori that the Great Moderation was a result of official policies that suppressed normal adjustments that should have taken place in the economy, for example, by neglecting prudential and consumer protection regulation of "too big to fail" banks, so that when the 2008 episode of the permanent financial crisis erupted, it was much more costly and disruptive than it would otherwise have been. 

Ironically, after having written this sentence, I found that a similar suggestion had been made by a famous economist — none other than Hyman Minsky. The very informative Wikipedia entry on the Great Moderation also contains a reference to a 2003 speech by University of Chicago economist Robert Lucas as president of the American Economic Association celebrating the idea that the profession had practically solved "the central problem depression prevention." 

Furman defined the Great Moderation as the reduction in the volatility of a wide range of economic variables, and to the associated increase in the longevity of economic expansions and reduction in the frequency and severity of economic contractions. Among the economists cited as having contributed research on this subject are former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (2004) and Douglas Elmendorf (2006), currently director of the Congressional Budget Office. 

Furman dated the beginning of the debate over the Great Moderation to the early 1990s. To his credit, Furman took time out to question, as I do, whether "there ever was a 'Great Moderation,' let alone that it has returned and rendered further policy steps unnecessary."

Furman dismissed the idea that policy responses are not needed, because recessions serve a purpose and little can be done, on the ground that while this might be true in "normal times," these times are characterized by a large shortfall in output, and policy responses are needed. He seems not to have considered that maybe these are "normal times," and that the slow growth and shortfall in output are due to previous misguided policies. 

Instead, he offered some new misguided policies, a lot of them, under what he calls "The Unfinished Agenda for Economic Stability." This is ironic, because it seems that Minsky himself was highly skeptical that "economic stability" could be achieved by policy. 

It almost becomes amusing to consider the grab bag of measures Furman offers as holding out hope of averting or coping with future downturns. He claimed that Obamacare will have a counter-cyclical effect, a notion that is heatedly disputed, and he also pointed to increased progressivity in taxation. Reducing inequality is highly speculative as a counter-cyclical measure, but maybe they can start with salaries of reckless bank executives and their feckless regulators. 

Finally, Furman pointed to implementation of Dodd-Frank and Housing and Finance Reform, which are laughable, because neither is likely to happen, and they might not produce the effects he expects even if they do. 

As a political document, the speech represents how desperate the administration is to establish a positive legacy as President Obama's popularity declines.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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