As Economy Sputters, a Timid Fed: Whenever officials at the Federal Reserve confront a big decision, they have to weigh two competing risks. Are they doing too much to speed up economic growth and touching off inflation? Or are they doing too little and allowing unemployment to stay high? It’s clear which way the Fed has erred recently. It has done too little. It stopped trying to bring down long-term interest rates early last year under the wishful assumption that a recovery had taken hold, only to be forced to reverse course by the end of year. Given this recent history, you might think Fed officials would now be doing everything possible to ensure a solid recovery. But they’re not. Once again, many of them are worried that the Fed is doing too much. And once again, the odds are rising that it’s doing too little.
Higher oil prices, government layoffs, Japan’s devastation and Europe’s debt woes are all working against the recovery. Already, a prominent research firm founded by a former Fed governor, Macroeconomic Advisers, has downgraded its estimate of economic growth in the current quarter to a paltry 2.3 percent, from 4 percent. The Fed’s own forecasts, notes that former governor, Laurence Meyer, “have been incredibly optimistic.” Why is this happening? Above all, blame our unbalanced approach to monetary policy. One group of Fed officials and watchers worries constantly about the prospect of rising inflation, no matter what the economy is doing.... There is no equivalent group — at least not one as influential — that obsesses over unemployment. Instead, the other side of the debate tends to be dominated by moderates, like Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, and Mr. Meyer, who sometimes worry about inflation and sometimes about unemployment.
The result is a bias that can distort the Fed’s decision-making. Just look at the last 18 months. Again and again, the inflation worriers, who are known as hawks, warned of an overheated economy. In one speech, a regional Fed president even raised the specter of Weimar Germany....
The problem is that some Fed officials already seem to have made up their minds, regardless of the data. In their public remarks, officials continue to wring their hands about QE2 rather than prepare people for the possibility of QE3. Some hawks have gone so far as to suggest halting QE2 early.
Meanwhile, the recovery looks uncertain, and the job market remains weak. Even if job growth were to accelerate sharply in coming months, the economy would be years away from so-called full employment. But never mind that, the hawks say — rampant inflation is just around the corner.