Will ghost of Arthur Burns haunt Federal Reserve again?

Stephen Roach in this Proj Synd Piece revokes his years at Federal Reserve under chair Burns:

  Memories can be tricky. I have long been haunted by the inflation of the 1970s. Fifty years ago, when I had just started my career as a professional economist at the Federal Reserve, I was witness to the birth of the Great Inflation as a Fed insider. That left me with the recurring nightmares of a financial post-traumatic stress disorder. The bad dreams are back.

They center on the Fed’s legendary chairman at the time, Arthur F. Burns, who brought a unique perspective to the US central bank as an expert on the business cycle. In 1946, he co-authored the definitive treatise on the seemingly rhythmic ups and downs of the US economy back to the mid-nineteenth century. Working for him was intimidating, especially for someone in my position. I had been tasked with formal weekly briefings on the very subjects Burns knew best. He used that knowledge to poke holes in staff presentations. I found quickly that you couldn’t tell him anything.

Yet Burns, who ruled the Fed with an iron fist, lacked an analytical framework to assess the interplay between the real economy and inflation, and how that relationship was connected to monetary policy. As a data junkie, he was prone to segment the problems he faced as a policymaker, especially the emergence of what would soon become the Great Inflation. Like business cycles, he believed price trends were heavily influenced by idiosyncratic, or exogenous, factors – “noise” that had nothing to do with monetary policy.

This was a blunder of epic proportions. When US oil prices quadrupled following the OPEC oil embargo in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Burns argued that, since this had nothing to do with monetary policy, the Fed should exclude oil and energy-related products (such as home heating oil and electricity) from the consumer price index. The staff protested, arguing that it made no sense to ignore such important items, especially because they had a weight of over 11% in the CPI. Burns was adamant: If we on the staff wouldn’t perform the calculation, he would have it done by “someone in New York” – an allusion to his prior affiliations at Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Then came surging food prices, which Burns surmised in 1973 were traceable to unusual weather – specifically, an El Niño event that had decimated Peruvian anchovies in 1972. He insisted that this was the source of rising fertilizer and feedstock prices, in turn driving up beef, poultry, and pork prices. Like good soldiers, we gulped and followed his order to take food – which had a weight of 25% – out of the CPI.

Similar to today?

Fast-forward to today. Evoking an eerie sense of déjà vu, the Fed is insisting that recent increases in the prices of food, construction materials, used cars, personal health products, gasoline, car rentals, and appliances reflect transitory factors that will quickly fade with post-pandemic normalization. Scattered labor shortages and surging home prices are supposedly also transitory. Sound familiar?

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