Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review

A quarterly research journal intended for an economically informed but broad readership—from the undergraduate student to the PhD. In print and online.

NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008 Vol. 90, No. 6

Changing the Rules: State Mortgage Foreclosure Moratoria During the Great Depression

Many U.S. states imposed temporary moratoria on farm and nonfarm residential mortgage foreclosures during the Great Depression. This article describes the conditions that led some states to impose these moratoria and other mortgage relief during the Depression and discusses the economic effects.

Mortgage Innovation, Mortgage Choice, and Housing Decisions

This paper examines some of the more recent mortgage products now available to borrowers. The authors describe how these products differ across important characteristics, such as the down payment requirement, repayment structure, and amortization schedule.

Real Interest Rate Persistence: Evidence and Implications

The real interest rate plays a central role in many important financial and macroeconomic models, including the consumption-based asset pricing model, neoclassical growth model, and models of the monetary transmission mechanism. The authors selectively survey the empirical literature that examines the time-series properties of real interest rates.

Drug Prices Under the Medicare Drug Discount Card Program

In early 2004, the U.S. government initiated the Medicare Drug Discount Card Program (MDDCP), which allowed card subscribers to obtain discounts on prescription drugs. Pharmacy-level prices were posted on the program website weekly with the hope or promoting competition among card sponsors by facilitating consumer access to prices. A large panel of pharmacy-level price data collected from this website indicates that price dispersion across cards persisted throughout the program.

Please contact Rubén Hernández-Murillo for questions regarding the data and programs for this article. He can be reached at Ruben.Hernandez@stls.frb.org.


SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008 Vol. 90, No. 5

Monetary Economic Research at the St. Louis Fed During Ted Balbach’s Tenure as Research Director

Ted Balbach served as research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis from 1975 to 1992. This paper lauds his contributions during that time, including the expanded influence of the Review, enhanced databases and data publications, and a visiting scholar program that attracted leading economists from around the world. Balbach is remembered fondly as a visionary leader and gracious mentor.

Oil and the U.S. Macroeconomy: An Update and a Simple Forecasting Exercise

Some analysts and economists recently warned that the U.S. economy faces a much higher risk of recession should the price of oil rise to one hundred dollars per barrel or more. In February 2008, spot crude oil prices closed above one hundred dollars per barrel for the first time ever, and since then they have climbed even higher. Meanwhile, according to some surveys of economists, it is highly probable that a recession began in the United States in late 2007 or early 2008. Although the findings in this paper are consistent with the view that the U.S. economy has become much less sensitive to large changes in oil prices, a simple forecasting exercise using Hamilton’s model augmented with the first principal component of 85 macroeconomic variables reveals that a permanent increase in the price of crude oil to one hundred and fifty dollars per barrel by the end of 2008 could have a significant negative effect on the growth rate of real gross domestic product in the short run. Moreover, the model also predicts that such an increase in oil prices would produce much higher overall and core inflation rates in 2009 than most policymakers expect.

Banking Crisis Solutions Old and New

In 2007 Britain experienced its first run on a bank of any macroeconomic significance since 1866. This was not dealt with by the method that had maintained banking stability for so long: letting the bank fail but supplying abundant liquidity to the markets to prevent contagion. In this paper the authors examine why that traditional solution was not used and propose changes to Britain’s deposit insurance system, to its bank insolvency regime, and in arrangements to allow customers access to banking services should their bank be closed—so that the traditional approach can once more be used to mitigate moral hazard.

The Credit Crunch of 2007-2008: A Discussion of the Background, Market Reactions, and Policy Responses

This paper discusses the events surrounding the 2007-08 credit crunch. It highlights the period of exceptional macrostability, the global savings glut, and financial innovation in mortgage-backed securities as the precursors to the crisis. The credit crunch itself occurred when house prices fell and subprime mortgage defaults increased. These events caused investors to reappraise the risks of high-yielding securities, bank failures, and sharp increases in the spreads on funds in interbank markets. The paper evaluates the actions of the authorities that provided liquidity to the markets and failing banks and indicates areas where improvements could be made. Similarly, it examines the regulation and supervision during this time and argues the need for changes to avoid future crises.


JULY/AUGUST 2008 Vol. 90, No. 4

Monetary Policy Under Uncertainty

Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Economic Policy Conference of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Complete Issue

Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Economic Policy Conference of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


Optimal Monetary Policy Under Uncertainty: A Markov Jump-Linear-Quadratic Approach

This paper studies the design of optimal monetary policy under uncertainty using a Markov jump-linear-quadratic (MJLQ) approach. To approximate the uncertainty that policymakers face, the authors use different discrete modes in a Markov chain and take mode-dependent linear-quadratic approximations of the underlying model. This allows the authors to apply a powerful methodology with convenient solution algorithms that they have developed. They apply their methods to analyze the effects of uncertainty and potential gains from experimentation for two sources of uncertainty in the New Keynesian Phillips curve. The examples highlight that learning may have sizable effects on losses and, although it is generally beneficial, it need not always be so. The experimentation component typically has little effect and in some cases it can lead to attenuation of policy.


Commentary on "Optimal Monetary Policy Under Uncertainty: A Markov Jump-Linear-Quadratic Approach"


Commentary on "Optimal Monetary Policy Under Uncertainty: A Markov Jump-Linear-Quadratic Approach"

Economic Projections and Rules of Thumb for Monetary Policy

Monetary policy analysts often rely on rules of thumb, such as the Taylor rule, to describe historical monetary policy decisions and to compare current policy with historical norms. Analysis along these lines also permits evaluation of episodes where policy may have deviated from a simple rule and examination of the reasons behind such deviations. One interesting question is whether such rules of thumb should draw on policymakers’ forecasts of key variables, such as inflation and unemployment, or on observed outcomes. Importantly, deviations of the policy from the prescriptions of a Taylor rule that relies on outcomes may be the result of systematic responses to information captured in policymakers’ own projections. This paper investigates this proposition in the context of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) policy decisions over the past 20 years, using publicly available FOMC projections from the semiannual monetary policy reports to Congress (Humphrey-Hawkins reports). The results indicate that FOMC decisions can indeed be predominantly explained in terms of the FOMC’s own projections rather than observed outcomes. Thus, a forecast-based rule of thumb better characterizes FOMC decisionmaking. This paper also confirms that many of the apparent deviations of the federal funds rate from an outcome-based Taylor-style rule may be considered systematic responses to information contained in FOMC projections.


Commentary on "Economic Projections and Rules of Thumb for Monetary Policy"


Commentary on "Economic Projections and Rules of Thumb for Monetary Policy"

House Prices and the Stance of Monetary Policy

This paper estimates a Bayesian vector autoregression for the U.S. economy that includes a housing sector and addresses the following questions: Can developments in the housing sector be explained on the basis of developments in real and nominal gross domestic product and interest rates? What are the effects of housing demand shocks on the economy? How does monetary policy affect the housing market? What are the implications of house price developments for the stance of monetary policy? Regarding the latter question, we implement a Céspedes et al. (2006) version of a monetary conditions index.


Commentary on "House Prices and the Stance of Monetary Policy"


Commentary on "House Prices and the Stance of Monetary Policy"

Assessing Monetary Policy Effects Using Daily Federal Funds Futures Contracts

This paper develops a generalization of the formulas proposed by Kuttner (2001) and others for purposes of measuring the effects of a change in the federal funds target on Treasury yields of different maturities. The generalization avoids the need to condition on the date of the target change and allows for deviations of the effective fed funds rate from the target as well as gradual learning by market participants about the target. The paper shows that parameters estimated solely on the basis of the behavior of the fed funds and fed funds futures can account for the broad calendar regularities in the relation between fed funds futures and Treasury yields of different maturities. Although the methods are new, the conclusion is quite similar to that reported by earlier researchers—changes in the fed funds target seem to be associated with quite large changes in Treasury yields, even for maturities of up to 10 years.


Commentary on "Assessing Monetary Policy Effects Using Daily Federal Funds Futures Contracts"


Commentary on "Assessing Monetary Policy Effects Using Daily Federal Funds Futures Contracts"

Panel Discussion

Announcements and the Role of Policy Guidance

By providing guidance about future economic developments, central banks can affect private sector expectations and decisions. This can improve welfare by reducing private sector forecast errors, but it can also magnify the impact of noise in central bank forecasts. I employ a model of heterogeneous information to compare outcomes under opaque and transparent monetary policies. While better central bank information is always welfare improving, more central bank information may not be.


Commentary on "Announcements and the Role of Policy Guidance"

Rules-of-Thumb for Guiding Monetary Policy

This article was originally published in the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Open Market Policies and Operating Procedures—Staff Studies, July 1971. It is reprinted here as an addendum to these conference proceedings.


MAY/JUNE 2008 Vol. 90, No. 3, Part 2

Inertial Taylor Rules: The Benefit of Signaling Future Policy

This article traces the consequences of an energy shock on the economy under two different monetary policy rules: (i) a standard Taylor rule, where the Fed responds to inflation and the output gap, and (ii) a Taylor rule with inertia, where the Fed moves slowly to the rate predicted by the standard rule. The authors show that, with both sticky wages and sticky prices, the outcome of an inertial Taylor rule is superior to that of the standard rule, in the sense that inflation is lower and output is higher following an adverse energy shock. However, if prices alone are sticky, the results are less clear and the standard rule delivers substantially less inflation than the inertial rule in the short run.

Core Inflation: A Review of Some Conceptual Issues

This paper reviews various approaches to the measurement of core inflation that have been proposed over the years using the stochastic approach to index numbers as a unifying framework. It begins with a review of how the concept of core inflation is used by the world’s major central banks, including some of the inflation-targeting central banks. The author provides a comprehensive review of many of the measures of core inflation that have been developed over the years and highlights some of the conceptual and practical problems associated with them.

Inflation Regimes and Inflation Expectations

This paper examines the formation of expectations about future inflation over long horizons. A key issue that agents must confront is the possibility that the economic policy framework—especially the monetary policy regime—could change at some future date. Agents are likely to base inferences about possible future regimes on experience over many years and decades past. This aspect of expectations formation may explain why inflation premiums in long-term bond yields are higher in countries with a long history of high inflation.

Inflation and the Size of Government

It is commonly supposed in public and academic discourse that inflation and big government are related. The authors show that economic theory delivers such a prediction only in special cases. As an empirical matter, inflation is significantly positively related to the size of government mainly when periods of war and peace are compared. The authors find a weak positive peacetime time-series correlation between inflation and the size of government and a negative cross-country correlation of inflation with non-defense spending.


MAY/JUNE 2008 Vol. 90, No. 3, Part 1

The Federal Response to Home Mortgage Distress: Lessons from the Great Depression

This article examines the federal response to mortgage distress during the Great Depression: It documents features of the housing cycle of the 1920s and early 1930s, focusing on the growth of mortgage debt and the subsequent sharp increase in mortgage defaults and foreclosures during the Depression. It summarizes the major federal initiatives to reduce foreclosures and reform mortgage market practices, focusing especially on the activities of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), which acquired and refinanced one million delinquent mortgages between 1933 and 1936. Because the conditions under which the HOLC operated were unusual, the author cautions against drawing strong policy lessons from the HOLC’s activities. Nonetheless, similarities between the Great Depression and the recent episode suggest that a review of the historical experience can provide insights about alternative policies to relieve mortgage distress.

FOMC Consensus Forecasts

In November 2007, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced a change in the way it communicates its view of the economic outlook: It increased the frequency of its forecasts from two to four times per year, and it increased the length of the forecasting horizon from two to three years. The FOMC does not release the individual members’ forecasts or standard measures of consensus such as the mean or median. Rather, it continues to release the forecast information as a range of forecasts, both the full range between the high and the low and a central tendency that omits the extreme values. This paper uses individual forecaster data from the Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF) to mimic the FOMC’s method for creating their central tendency. The authors show that the midpoint of the central tendency of the SPF is a reliable measure of the consensus, suggesting that the FOMC reporting method is also a reliable measure of consensus. For the dates when both are available, the authors also compare the relative forecast accuracy of the FOMC and SPF consensus forecasts for output growth and inflation. Overall, the differences in forecast accuracy are too small to be statistically significant.

Laffer Traps and Monetary Policy

This article focuses on the interaction, in a stylized economy with flexible prices, of monetary and fiscal policy when both are active—active in the sense that how the policy instrument is set depends on the state of the economy. Fiscal policy finances a given stream of government expenditures through distortionary labor taxes, and it operates under a strict balanced-budget rule. If monetary policy is passive, the economy may occasionally switch, because of self-fulfilling expectations, from the neighborhood of a “Laffer trap” equilibrium to the saddle-path leading to the high-welfare steady state. In the low-welfare stationary state, output, investment, and consumption are low while the tax rate is correspondingly high. However, active monetary policy may, by following a rule such that the nominal interest rate responds positively to the state of the economy, push the economy toward the high-welfare equilibrium and rule out expectation-driven business cycles.

Forecasting Inflation and Output: Comparing Data-Rich Models with Simple Rules

There has been a resurgence of interest in dynamic factor models for use by policy advisors. Dynamic factor methods can be used to incorporate a wide range of economic information when forecasting or measuring economic shocks. This article introduces dynamic factor models that underlie the data-rich methods and also tests whether the data-rich models can help a benchmark autoregressive model forecast alternative measures of inflation and real economic activity at horizons of 3, 12, and 24 months ahead. The authors find that, over the past decade, the data-rich models significantly improve the forecasts for a variety of real output and inflation indicators. For all the series that they examine, the authors find that the data-rich models become more useful when forecasting over longer horizons. The exception is the unemployment rate, where the principal components provide significant forecasting information at all horizons.


MARCH/APRIL 2008 Vol. 90, No. 2

Market Bailouts and the “Fed Put”

This article was originally presented as a speech at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., November 30, 2007.

Pandemic Economics: The 1918 Influenza and Its Modern-Day Implications

Many predictions of the economic and social costs of a modern-day pandemic are based on the effects of the influenza pandemic of 1918. Despite killing 675,000 people in the United States and 40 million worldwide, the influenza of 1918 has been nearly forgotten. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the influenza pandemic of 1918 in the United States, its economic effects, and its implications for a modern-day pandemic. The paper provides a brief historical background as well as detailed influenza mortality statistics for cities and states, including those in the Eighth Federal Reserve District, that account for differences in race, income, and place of residence. Information is obtained from two sources: (i) newspaper articles published during the pandemic and (ii) a survey of economic research on the subject.

Friedman and Taylor on Monetary Policy Rules: A Comparison

The names Milton Friedman and John Taylor are associated with different monetary policy rules; but, as shown in this paper, the difference between their perceptions of how the economy works is not great. The monetary policy rules advanced by Taylor and Friedman are compared by linking the rules to the two economists’ underlying views about nominal rigidity, the source of trade-offs, the sources of shocks, and model uncertainty. Taylor and Friedman both emphasized Phillips curve specifications that impose temporary nominal price rigidity and the long-run natural-rate restriction; and they basically agreed on the specification of shocks, policymaker objectives, and trade-offs. Where they differed was on the extent to which structural models should enter the monetary policy decisionmaking process. This difference helps account for the differences in their preferred monetary policy rules.

A Primer on the Empirical Identification of Government Spending Shocks

The empirical literature on the effects of government spending shocks lacks unanimity about the responses of consumption and wages. Proponents of shocks identified by structural vector auto­regressions (VARs) find results consistent with New Keynesian models: consumption and wages increase. On the other hand, proponents of the narrative approach find results consistent with neoclassical models: consumption and wages decrease. This paper reviews these two identifications and confirms their differences by using standard economic series. It also uses alternative measures of government spending, output, and the labor market and shows that, although there are minor fluctuations within each identification, the disparate results between the two are robust to the alternative measures. However, under the structural VAR approach, the authors find some differences between the responses to federal and state/local government spending.


JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2008 Vol. 90, No. 1

Thinking Like a Central Banker

This article was originally presented as a speech to Market News International in New York, New York, September 28, 2007.

The Microfinance Revolution: An Overview

The Nobel Prize committee awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.” The microfinance revolution has come a long way since Yunus first provided financing to the poor in Bangladesh. The committee has recognized microfinance as “an important liberating force” and an “ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty.” Although several authors have provided comprehensive surveys of microfinance, our aim is somewhat more modest: This article is intended as a non-technical overview on the growth and development of microcredit and microfinance.

A Primer on the Mortgage Market and Mortgage Finance

This article is a primer on mortgage finance. It discusses the basics of the mortgage market and mortgage finance. In so doing, it provides useful information that can aid individuals in making better mortgage finance decisions. The discussion and the tools are presented within the context of mortgage finance; however, these same principles and tools can be applied to a wide range of financial decisions.

Changing Trends in the Labor Force: A Survey

The composition of the American workforce has changed dramatically over the past half century as a result of both the emergence of married women as a substantial component of the labor force and an increase in the number of minority workers. The aging of the population has contributed to this change as well. In this paper, the authors review the evidence of changing labor force participation rates, estimate the trends in labor force participation over the past 50 years, and find that aggregate participation has stabilized after a period of persistent increases. Moreover, they examine the disparate labor force participation experiences of different demographic groups. Finally, they survey some of the studies that have provided explanations for these differences.


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