Richard W. Fisher – Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)
Excerpt from remarks before the Commonwealth Club of California
San Francisco, California
May 28, 2008
Tonight, I want to talk about a different matter. In keeping with Bill Martin’s advice, I have been scanning the horizon for danger signals even as we continue working to recover from the recent turmoil. In the distance, I see a frightful storm brewing in the form of untethered government debt. I choose the words-“frightful storm”-deliberately to avoid hyperbole. Unless we take steps to deal with it, the long-term fiscal situation of the federal government will be unimaginably more devastating to our economic prosperity than the subprime debacle and the recent debauching of credit markets that we are now working so hard to correct.
You might wonder why a central banker would be concerned with fiscal matters. Fiscal policy is, after all, the responsibility of the Congress, not the Federal Reserve. Congress, and Congress alone, has the power to tax and spend. From this monetary policymaker’s point of view, though, deficits matter for what we do at the Fed. There are many reasons why. Economists have found that structural deficits raise long-run interest rates, complicating the Fed’s dual mandate to develop a monetary policy that promotes sustainable, noninflationary growth. The even more disturbing dark and dirty secret about deficits-especially when they careen out of control-is that they create political pressure on central bankers to adopt looser monetary policy down the road. I will return to that shortly. First, let me give you the unvarnished facts of our nation’s fiscal predicament.
Eight years ago, our federal budget, crafted by a Democratic president and enacted by a Republican Congress, produced a fiscal surplus of $236 billion, the first surplus in almost 40 years and the highest nominal-dollar surplus in American history. While the Fed is scrupulously nonpartisan and nonpolitical, I mention this to emphasize that the deficit/debt issue knows no party and can be solved only by both parties working together. For a brief time, with surpluses projected into the future as far as the eye could see, economists and policymakers alike began to contemplate a bucolic future in which interest payments would form an ever-declining share of federal outlays, a future where Treasury bonds and debt-ceiling legislation would become dusty relics of a long-forgotten past. The Fed even had concerns about how open market operations would be conducted in a marketplace short of Treasury debt.