Has the Fed Learned Its Lesson?

I have been pretty critical of the Fed throughout the crisis. I still don’t think policy is aggressive enough, and the Fed has been behind the developments in the economy due to its propensity to see green shoots that aren’t actually there. But at least it’s leaning in the right direction:

Has the Fed Learned Its Lesson?, Mark, Thoma, CBS News: COMMENTARY Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke seems to have learned an important lesson. In his appearance before House Committee on Financial Services, Chairman Bernanke said the monetary policy committee does “not anticipate further substantial declines in the unemployment rate over the course of this year. Looking beyond this year, FOMC participants expect the unemployment rate to continue to edge down only slowly toward levels consistent with the Committee’s statutory mandate.” In addition, “participants agreed that strains in global financial markets posed significant downside risks to the economic outlook.” There were other cautionary statements as well.

That is quite a change from Bernanke’s pronouncement that the Fed was seeing “green shoots” in the economy back in 2009, and similar optimistic statements about the prospects for recovery many times after that. Time and again, however, the green shoots withered and policy ended up in catch up mode rather than out in front of the economy as it ought to be. Policymakers were consistently behind.

I don’t think either monetary or fiscal policymakers have been aggressive enough throughout the crisis, and I have also worried that policymakers in Congress and at the Fed would withdraw support for the economy too soon and harm the recovery. There’s little chance that policy will march the aggressiveness I believe is called for, especially this late in the game, and I’m still very worried about Congress turning to budget balancing before the economy is ready to handle it. Premature austerity could damage our recovery prospects.

But I’m becoming less concerned that the Fed will withdraw support too soon. It has committed to keeping interest rates low through the end of 2014, an extension of an earlier commitment through mid 2013. However, the commitment has wiggle room, and there are voices on the Fed who are calling for interest rate increases now. But as Chairman Bernanke made clear today, the Fed as a whole remains cautious and monetary policymakers as a whole are not ready to conclude our troubles are over. I think that’s exactly the right stance to take — hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. In the past the Fed let its hopes interfere with its preparation, but this time does indeed appear to be different.

This post originally appeared at Economist’s View and is posted with permission.