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How Full Employment Became Washington’s Creed

  • January 18, 2021

Such a government-aided rebound would come in stark contrast to what happened during the 2007 to 2009 recession. Back then, Congress’s biggest package to counter the fallout of the downturn was the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in 2009. It was exhausted long before the unemployment rate finally dipped below 5 percent, in early 2016.

At the time, concern over the deficit helped to stem more aggressive fiscal policy responses. And concerns about economic overheating pushed the Fed to begin lifting interest rates — albeit very slowly — in late 2015. As the unemployment rate dropped, central bankers worried that wage and price inflation might wait around the corner and were eager to return policy to a more “normal” setting.

But economic thinking has undergone a sea change since then. Fiscal authorities have become more confident running up the public debt at a time of very low interest rates, when it isn’t so costly to do so.

Fed officials are now much more modest about judging whether or not the economy is at “full employment.” In the wake of the 2008 crisis, they thought that joblessness was testing its healthy limits, but unemployment went on to drop sharply without fueling runaway price increases.

In August 2020, Mr. Powell said that he and his colleagues will now focus on “shortfalls” from full employment, rather than “deviations.” Unless inflation is actually picking up or financial risks loom large, they will view falling unemployment as a welcome development and not a risk to be averted.

That means interest rates are likely to remain near zero for years. Top Fed officials have also signaled that they expect to continue buying vast sums of government-backed bonds, about $120 billion per month, for at least months to come.

Fed support could help government spending kick demand into high gear. Households are expected to amass big savings stockpiles as they receive stimulus checks early in 2021, then draw them down as vaccines become widespread and normal economic life resumes. Low rates might make big investments — like houses — more attractive.

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