Paul Krugman and Larry Summers both have very good columns this morning noting the economy's continuing weakness and warning against excessive rate hikes by the Fed. While I fully agree with their assessment of the state of the economy and the dangers of Fed rate hikes, I think they are overly pessimistic about the Fed's scope for action if the economy weakens.
While the Fed did adopt unorthodox monetary policy in this recession in the form of quantitative easing, the buying of long-term debt, it has another tool at its disposal that it chose not to use. Specifically, instead of just targeting the overnight interest rate (now zero), the Fed could have targeted a longer term interest rate.
For example, it could set a target of 1.0 percent as the interest rate for the 5-year Treasury note, committing itself to buy more notes to push up the price, and push down the interest rate to keep it at 1.0 percent. It could even do the same with 10-year Treasury notes.
This is an idea that Joe Gagnon at the Peterson Institute for International Economics put forward at the depth of the recession, but for some reason there was little interest in policy circles. The only obvious risk of going the interest rate targeting route is that it could be inflationary if it led to too rapid an expansion, but excessively high inflation will not be our problem if the economy were to again weaken. Furthermore, if it turned out that targeting was prompting too much growth, the Fed could quickly reverse course and let the interest rate rise back to the market level.
Of course, it would be best if we could count on fiscal policy to play a role in getting us back to full employment (lowering supply through reduced workweeks and work years should also be on the agenda), but the Fed does have more ammunition buried away in the basement and we should be pressing them to use it if the need arises.