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For release on delivery
1:15 p.m. EDT (12:15 p.m. CDT)
September 12, 2016

The “New Normal” and What It Means for Monetary Policy
Remarks by
Lael Brainard
Member
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
at
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Chicago, Illinois

September 12, 2016

In the months ahead, my colleagues and I will continue to assess what policy path
will best promote the sustained attainment of our goals. With that in mind, I would like
to start by describing the contours of today’s economy that will be particularly important
in shaping the appropriate path of policy before reviewing recent developments. These
contours represent noteworthy departures from the “old normal” that prevailed in the
decades prior to the financial crisis. I would argue that policy today must rely less on the
old normal as a guidepost and instead be sensitive to the contours that shape today’s
“new normal.” 1
Key Features of the “New Normal”
Because monetary policy is forward looking, policymakers must assess how key
features of the economic environment are most likely to influence the future path of the
economy and shape policy accordingly. At a time when our assessment of the economy
is evolving, several features of the “new normal”--some of which are interrelated--appear
particularly noteworthy for our policy deliberations:
1. Inflation Has Been Undershooting, and the Phillips Curve Has Flattened
First, for the past several decades, policymakers relied on the empirical
relationship between unemployment and inflation embodied in the Phillips curve as a key
guidepost for monetary policy. The Phillips curve implied that as labor market slack
diminished and the economy approached full employment, upward pressure on inflation
would result. However, since 2012, inflation has tended to change relatively little--both
absolutely and relative to earlier decades--as the unemployment rate has fallen

1

These remarks represent my own views, which do not necessarily represent those of the Federal Reserve
Board or the Federal Open Market Committee.

-2considerably. 2 At a time when the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.2 percent to
4.9 percent, inflation has undershot our 2 percent target now for 51 straight months. 3 In
other words, the Phillips curve appears to be flatter today than it was previously.
With the Phillips curve appearing to be a less reliable guidepost than it has been
in the past, the anchoring role of inflation expectations remains critically important. On
expected similar to realized inflation, recent developments suggest some reasons to be
concerned more about undershooting than overshooting. Although some survey
measures have remained well anchored at 2 percent, consumer surveys have moved to the
lower end of their historical ranges and have not risen sustainably. 4 Meanwhile,
market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined noticeably over the past
two years at longer-term horizons, and have shown little improvement despite the recent
stabilization in the price of oil and the exchange rate. Thus, we cannot rule out that the
sustained period of undershooting the inflation target along with global disinflationary
pressures are weighing on inflation expectations.
Recognition of these developments is reflected in the evolution of the forecasts of
Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants in the Summary of Economic
Projections (SEP) from June 2012 to June 2016. The SEP forecasts have shown repeated
mark downs of the central tendency of the projection for core PCE (personal
consumption expenditures) inflation, and the attainment of 2 percent at the upper end of
the range has been pushed out repeatedly from 2012 initially to 2017 most recently.

2

See Blanchard (2016), Kiley (2015b), and Brainard (2015a),
The inflation information refers to core PCE (personal consumption expenditures) inflation measured on a
12-month average basis.
4
For example, over the past 12 months, median 5-to-10 year-ahead inflation expectations from the
University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers were 1/4 percentage point below the average over the prior
10 years.
3

-3The apparent flatness of the Phillips curve together with evidence that inflation
expectations may have softened on the downside and the persistent undershooting of
inflation relative to our target should be important considerations in our policy
deliberations. In particular, to the extent that the effect on inflation of further gradual
tightening in labor market conditions is likely to be moderate and gradual, the case to
tighten policy preemptively is less compelling.
2. Labor Market Slack Has Been Greater than Anticipated
Second, and related, although we have seen important progress on employment,
this improvement has been accompanied by evidence of greater slack than previously
anticipated. This uncertainty about the true state of the economy suggests we should be
open to the possibility of material further progress in the labor market. Indeed, with
payroll employment growth averaging 180,000 per month this year, many observers
would have expected the unemployment rate to drop noticeably rather than moving
sideways, as it has done. It is true that today’s unemployment rate of 4.9 percent is only
0.1 percentage point from the median SEP participant’s estimate of the longer-run level
of unemployment. However, the natural rate of unemployment is uncertain and can vary
over time. Indeed, in the SEP, the central tendency of the projection for the longer-run
natural rate of unemployment has come down significantly, from a range of 5.2 to
6.0 percent in June 2012 to 4.7 to 5.0 percent in June 2016--a reduction of 1/2 to
1 percentage point. 5 We cannot rule out that estimates of the natural unemployment rate
may move even lower.

5

For information from current and previous SEPs, see
http://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/fomccalendars.htm.

-4In addition, the unemployment rate is not the only gauge of labor market slack,
and other measures have been suggesting there is some room to go. The share of
employees working part time for economic reasons, for example, has remained
noticeably above its pre-crisis level. Of particular significance, the prime-age labor force
participation rate, despite improvement this year, remains about 1-1/2 percentage points
below its pre-crisis level, suggesting room for further gains. While it is possible that the
current low level of prime-age participation reflects ongoing pre-crisis trends, we cannot
rule out that it reflects a lagged and still incomplete response to a very slow recovery
in job opportunities and wages. 6
This possibility is reinforced by the continued muted recovery in wage growth.
Although wage growth has picked up to about a 2-1/2 percent pace in recent quarters, this
pace is only modestly above that which prevailed over much of the recovery and well
below growth rates seen prior to the financial crisis. 7
My main point here is that in the presence of uncertainty and the absence of
accelerating inflationary pressures, it would be unwise for policy to foreclose on the
possibility of making further gains in the labor market.

6

For analyses of the determinants of labor force participation, see Aaronson and others (2014), Erceg and
Levin (2014), and Council of Economic Advisers (2016).
7
Over the 12 months ending in August 2016, average hourly earnings increased 2.4 percent. Over the
12 months ending in June, the employment cost index for private-sector workers also increased 2.4 percent.
The more volatile compensation per hour measure for the business sector has increased at an annual rate of
2.6 percent over the past eight quarters. From the fourth quarter of 2009 to the fourth quarter of 2014, these
measures all increased at an average annual rate of around 2 percent. From the fourth quarter of 2003 to
the fourth quarter of 2007, the compensation per hour and employment cost index measures increased at an
average annual rate of around 3-1/2 percent. Average hourly earnings for all workers were not available
for this period.

-53. Foreign Markets Matter, Especially because Financial Transmission is Strong
Third, disinflation pressure and weak demand from abroad will likely weigh on
the U.S. outlook for some time, and fragility in global markets could again pose risks
here at home. 8 In Europe, recovery continues, but growth is slow and inflation is very
low. Low growth and a flat yield curve are contributing to reduced profitability and a
higher cost of equity financing for banks, which in turn could impair bank lending, one of
the main transmission channels of monetary policy in the euro area’s bank-centric
financial system. A low growth, low inflation environment also makes progress on fiscal
sustainability difficult and leaves countries with high debt-to-gross domestic product
(GDP) ratios vulnerable to adverse demand shocks. Against this backdrop, uncertainty
about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union could damp business
sentiment and investment in Europe.
Japan remains greatly challenged by weak growth and low inflation. Indeed, it is
striking that despite active and creative monetary policies in both the euro area and Japan,
inflation remains below target levels. The experiences of these economies highlight the
risk of becoming trapped in a low-growth, low-inflation, low-inflation-expectations
environment and suggest that policy should be oriented toward minimizing the risk of the
U.S. economy slipping into such a situation.

8

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has repeatedly marked down its forecast of world economic
growth in recent years. From April 2014 to July of this year, for example, the IMF revised down 2015
growth from 3.9 percent to 3.1 percent. And from April 2015 to July of this year, the IMF revised down
2016 growth from 3.8 percent to 3.1 percent. See the IMF’s World Economic Outlook at
http://www.imf.org/external/ns/cs.aspx?id=29.

-6Downside risks are also present in emerging market economies, where growth has
slowed rapidly in recent years. 9 Most importantly, China is undergoing a challenging
transition from a growth model based on investment, exports, and debt-fueled stateowned enterprises to one driven by consumption, services, and dynamic private
businesses. Because of the adjustment costs along this transition path and demographic
trends, Chinese growth will likely continue to slow. Given that China has experienced
very high growth in corporate debt, this downshift could pose risks. Importantly, Chinese
authorities have made some progress on clarifying their policy stance, and capital
outflows have slowed in recent months. Nonetheless, considerable uncertainty remains,
and further volatility cannot be ruled out. The importance of Chinese growth and
stability to many emerging market economies and to global markets more broadly implies
that these risks have global implications.
Headwinds from abroad should matter to U.S. policymakers because recent
experience suggests global financial markets are tightly integrated, such that disturbances
emanating from Chinese or euro-area financial markets quickly spill over to U.S.
financial markets. The fallout from adverse foreign shocks appears to be more
powerfully transmitted to the U.S. than previously. Indeed, recent research suggests that
changes in expectations regarding the path of policy in the United States relative to other
major economies lead to exchange rate movements that appear to be several times bigger
than they were several years ago. 10 The fact that many advanced economies are suffering
from deficient demand and have policy rates at or near the zero bound and that the U.S.

9

Emerging market growth, as weighted by a country’s share of U.S. exports, has decreased from an
average pace of 5-1/4 percent from the fourth quarter of 2009 to the fourth quarter of 2012 to a little over 2
percent last year.
10
See Curcuru (forthcoming). The confidence intervals around the estimated effects are quite large.

-7dollar is a favored safe-haven asset may imply that adverse foreign demand shocks have a
particularly strong effect on the value of the dollar, effectively transmitting the weakness
to the U.S. economy. 11
In turn, U.S. activity and inflation appear to be importantly influenced by these
exchange rate movements. In particular, estimates from the FRB/US model suggest that
the nearly 20 percent appreciation of the dollar from June 2014 to January of this year
could be having an effect on U.S. economic activity roughly equivalent to a 200 basis
point increase in the federal funds rate. Interestingly, it appears that this effect showed
through in decreased business investment activity and stagnant manufacturing output,
while the anticipated effect on net exports may have been somewhat dampened by
depressed demand for imports of capital goods, among other factors.
4. The Neutral Rate Is Likely to Remain Very Low for Some Time
Fourth, perhaps most salient for monetary policy, it appears increasingly clear that
the neutral rate of interest remains considerably and persistently lower than it was before
the crisis. Over the current expansion, with a federal funds rate at, or near, zero and the
additional support provided by asset purchases and reinvestment, GDP growth has
averaged a very modest rate upward of 2 percent, and inflation has averaged only
1-1/2 percent. Ten years ago, based on the underlying economic relationships that
prevailed at the time, it would have seemed inconceivable that real activity and inflation
would be so subdued given the stance of monetary policy. To reconcile these
developments, it is difficult not to conclude that the current level of the federal funds rate
is less accommodative today than it would have been 10 years ago. Put differently, the

11

See Caballero, Farhi, and Gourinchas (2015).

-8amount of aggregate demand associated with a given level of the interest rate is now
much lower than before the crisis.
In the early stages of the recovery, most observers thought that the cyclical
headwinds restraining demand and lowering the neutral rate would dissipate, and that the
neutral rate would move gradually back to the pre-crisis norm of 2 percent. But seven
years into the expansion and with little sign of a significant acceleration in activity, the
low neutral rate looks likely to persist. Indeed, developments over the past year confirm
that the underlying causes will be with us for some time. 12 Foreign consumption and
investment are weak, while foreign demand for savings is high, along with an elevated
demand for safe assets. Productivity growth, which increased at an average annual rate
of nearly 2-1/2 percent from 1950 to 2000, has increased only 1/2 percent on average
over the past five years, and demographics also suggest a persistent slowing of the labor
force.
Recognition of the reduction in the long-run neutral federal funds rate is perhaps
the most consequential change in the SEP forecasts. In the four years between June 2012
and June 2016, the estimate of the long-run federal funds rate has declined from
4.25 percent to 3.0 percent--nearly one-third. Over one-third of that adjustment has
occurred between December 2015 and June 2016. It is notable that this recent step-down
in the SEP estimate has coincided with a period of easing in financial conditions and a
stabilization in the exchange rate as market participants have taken into account changes
in the perceived FOMC policy reaction function.

12

For a fuller description of the likely contributors to a persistent low neutral rate, see Brainard (2015b)
and Goodfriend (2016).

-9Several econometric models and estimates from market participants suggest the
current real neutral rate is at or close to zero, and any increase is likely to be shallow and
slow. 13 These estimates imply that it may require a relatively more modest adjustment in
the policy rate to return to neutral over time than previously anticipated.
5. Policy Options Are Asymmetric
The four features just discussed that define the new normal make it likely that we
will continue to grapple with a fifth new reality for some time: the ability of monetary
policy to respond to shocks is asymmetric. With policy rates near the zero lower bound
and likely to return there more frequently even if the economy only experiences shocks
similar in magnitude to those experienced pre-crisis, due to the low level of the neutral
rate, there is an asymmetry in the policy tools available to respond to adverse
developments. Conventional changes in the federal funds rate, our most tested and best
understood tool, cannot be used as readily to respond to downside shocks to aggregate
demand as it can to upside shocks. While there are, of course, other policy options, these
alternatives have constraints and uncertainties that are not present with conventional
policy. 14 From a risk-management perspective, therefore, the asymmetry in the
conventional policy toolkit would lead me to expect policy to be tilted somewhat in favor
of guarding against downside risks relative to preemptively raising rates to guard against
upside risks.

13

See, for example, Laubach and Williams (2015); Del Negro, Giannoni, and Smith (2016); Cúrdia (2015);
Lubik and Matthes (2015); Kiley (2015a); and Johannsen and Mertens (2016) for econometric estimates of
the neutral rate, or the closely related concept of the natural rate of interest. See the Federal Reserve Bank
of New York’s most recent Survey of Market Participants
(https://www.newyorkfed.org/markets/survey_market_participants.html) and Survey of Primary Dealers
(https://www.newyorkfed.org/markets/primarydealer_survey_questions.html) for forecasters’ estimates of
the current neutral rate.
14
See Reifschneider (2016).

- 10 Because a persistently low neutral rate implies less room for conventional
monetary policy to adjust to adverse developments, it will be important to assess whether
our current policy tools are adequate to respond to negative shocks and, if not, what
adjustments would be most appropriate. There is a growing literature on such policy
alternatives, such as raising the inflation target, moving to a nominal income target, or
deploying negative interest rates. 15 These options merit further assessment. However,
they are largely untested and would take some time to assess and prepare. For the time
being, the most effective way to address these concerns is to ensure that our policy
actions align with our commitment to achieving the existing inflation target, which the
Committee has recently clarified is symmetric around 2 percent--and not a ceiling--along
with maximum employment.
Recent Developments Suggest Gradual Progress
Against the backdrop of these five features of the new normal that are most salient
for conditioning policy, I will briefly summarize my take on recent economic
developments and their implications for policy. The economy has seen welcome
progress on some fronts in recent months, supported by the cautious approach taken by
the Committee and a corresponding easing in financial conditions: The labor market has
continued to improve, consumer confidence has remained high, and we have navigated
past near-term risks from abroad.
Overall, the recent data on the labor market and aggregate spending suggest that
we are continuing to move toward full employment, but that progress has been, and likely
will be, somewhat gradual. This year, monthly job gains have averaged 180,000, below

15

See Romer (2011), Blanchard, Dell’Ariccia and Mauro (2010), Ball (2014), Haldane (2015), Bernanke
(2015), and Goodfriend (2016).

- 11 last year’s pace but still sufficient to reduce labor market slack. The slowing pace of job
gains has been associated with a flattening out in the unemployment rate over the past
year, along with a heartening 1/2 percentage point increase in the prime-age labor force
participation rate. These developments suggest that an improving job market has made
joining, or remaining in, the labor force increasingly attractive, and may imply that the
labor market has room for further improvement.
Recent spending data suggest a pickup in third-quarter growth. In particular, real
consumer spending increased at nearly a 4 percent annual pace over the three months
ending in July, driven by continued job growth, buoyant consumer sentiment, and rising
household wealth. Nonetheless, spending in other sectors has been disappointing. Weak
foreign growth and the net appreciation of the dollar over the past two years have
weighed heavily on net exports, corporate profitability, business investment, and
manufacturing production. Business investment has declined in each of the past three
quarters, and the latest data on housing permits suggest that residential investment slowed
noticeably in the middle of this year. As a result, economic activity over the past three
quarters has been disappointing, with growth in GDP and gross domestic income each
averaging less than 1 percent, a significant step-down from the same period in 2015.
Looking ahead, the stabilization of the dollar and oil prices suggests that growth
in these components should move higher over the second half of the year. Indeed,
exports, which have declined since the end of 2014, moved slightly higher last quarter,
and the number of oil drilling rigs in operation has begun to edge up after sharp declines
over the past two years, a positive sign for business investment. In addition, inventory

- 12 investment, which edged lower last quarter, should step up over the second half of the
year to a level more in line with continued moderate increases in final sales.
We have also seen signs of progress on our inflation mandate. In July, the
12-month change in core PCE prices was 1.6 percent, higher than a year ago, but still
noticeably below our 2 percent target. The stabilization of the dollar and oil prices
should lead inflation to move back toward our target in coming quarters. Non-oil import
prices, which fell steadily from the end of 2014 through the first quarter of this year,
edged up in the second quarter and, if the dollar remains steady, should continue to rise
going forward. Continued progress in inflation will also depend on inflation expectations
remaining well anchored and not drifting lower. The evidence here is mixed, as I noted
earlier.
Policy Implications
The five features of the current economic landscape that I have highlighted lean
roughly in the same direction: In today’s new normal, the costs to the economy of
greater-than-expected strength in demand are likely to be lower than the costs of
significant unexpected weakness. In the case of unexpected strength, we have well-tried
and tested tools and ample policy space in which to react. Moreover, because of Phillips
curve flattening, the possibility of remaining labor market slack, the likely substantial
response of the exchange rate and its depressing effect on inflation, the low neutral rate,
and the fact that inflation expectations are well anchored to the upside, the response of
inflation to unexpected strength in demand will likely be modest and gradual, requiring a
correspondingly moderate policy response and implying relatively slight costs to the
economy. In the face of an adverse shock, however, our conventional policy toolkit is

- 13 more limited, and thus the risk of being unable to adequately respond to unexpected
weakness is greater. The experience of the Japanese and euro-area economies suggest
that prolonged weakness in demand is very difficult to correct, leading to economic costs
that can be considerable.
This asymmetry in risk management in today’s new normal counsels prudence in
the removal of policy accommodation. I believe this approach has served us well in
recent months, helping to support continued gains in employment and progress on
inflation. I look forward to assessing the evolution of the data in the months ahead for
signs of further progress toward our goals, bearing in mind these considerations.

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