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How Do You Like Your Central Planners, Bookish or Flamboyant?

August 30, 2013 in Economics

By Peter G. Klein

“Do we really want a system in which one person’s personality type has such a huge effect on the global economy,” I asked in a critique of the Fed. Today’s Economist vividly illustrates my point, in making the case for Yellen over Summers:

Both Ms. Yellen and Mr. Summers are “doves,” rightly worrying more about economic weakness than any threat from inflation, but it is clearer how Ms Yellen would go about putting her views into practice. As the Fed’s vice-chairman she has pushed the current set of unconventional policies, from bond-buying to “forward guidance”. Under her leadership the central bank would influence market expectations with even more detail around its future plans. Her public demeanor would be much like Mr Bernanke’s: technocratic and based on meticulous command of the data. Her cautious, consensus-building approach would minimize surprises (and financial-market volatility) as the current chairman has.

Mr. Summers has a less clearly articulated approach to monetary policy and more political baggage. He has said little in public about how central banks can best support economies when short-term rates are at zero. Judging by his record in other areas, he is likely to push for creative solutions but to prefer not to have the Fed’s hands tied by promises about its future direction. The chances are that a Summers Fed would be even bolder, but less predictable, than the Bernanke Fed. Mr Summers’s dazzling intellect would make for bravura public performances, but he would be more likely to unsettle the markets with unscripted comments and to alienate both other Fed governors and lawmakers.

I knew Yellen in grad school and have encountered Summers in person, and I agree fully with these characterizations. But the Economist’s editorialist misses entirely the bizarre, indeed grotesque, context of this discussion. The Fed is the world’s most powerful government economic planning organization and its decisions affect the lives and prosperity of millions, if not billions. All this will hinge on the personality of one person? How about a system in which authority is decentralized, power is limited, and nobody cares who calls himself “Fed Chair”?

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