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Rules versus discretion at the Federal Reserve System: On to the second century


  • Friedman, Benjamin M.


Much of the experience of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, during the institution’s first hundred years, has revolved around controversies that fit squarely within the classical debate over rules versus discretion in economic policymaking. This paper looks back at the major episodes in this history since World War II, including the initial freeing of monetary policy from war-related interest-pegging, the Federal Reserve’s delayed but ultimately successful response to the inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, the brief experiment with monetary aggregate targets, the extraordinary actions prompted by the 2007-9 financial crisis, and the current tentative exploration of inflation targeting. The paper concludes that the tension between the desire for rule-based policymaking and the practicalities that lead central bankers to preserve discretion in actual policy decisions does not admit of any easy, straightforward solution, and therefore that this tension is likely to persist into the Federal Reserve’s next century too.

Suggested Citation

  • Friedman, Benjamin M., 2012. "Rules versus discretion at the Federal Reserve System: On to the second century," Journal of Macroeconomics, Elsevier, vol. 34(3), pages 608-615.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jmacro:v:34:y:2012:i:3:p:608-615 DOI: 10.1016/j.jmacro.2012.05.009

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Cúrdia, Vasco & Woodford, Michael, 2016. "Credit Frictions and Optimal Monetary Policy," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 84(C), pages 30-65.
    2. Kenneth Rogoff, 1985. "The Optimal Degree of Commitment to an Intermediate Monetary Target," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 100(4), pages 1169-1189.
    3. Akram, Q. Farooq & Eitrheim, Øyvind, 2008. "Flexible inflation targeting and financial stability: Is it enough to stabilize inflation and output?," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 32(7), pages 1242-1254, July.
    4. Grossi, Michele & Tamborini, Roberto, 2012. "Stock prices and monetary policy: Re-examining the issue in a New Keynesian model with endogenous investment," Economics - The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), vol. 6, pages 1-47.
    5. Barro, Robert J. & Gordon, David B., 1983. "Rules, discretion and reputation in a model of monetary policy," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(1), pages 101-121.
    6. Charles Goodhart, 1988. "The Evolution of Central Banks," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262570734, July.
    7. Benjamin M. Friedman, 2004. "Why the Federal Reserve Should Not Adopt Inflation Targeting," International Finance, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 7(1), pages 129-136, March.
    8. Tobin, James, 1983. "Monetary Policy: Rules, Targets, and Shocks," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 15(4), pages 506-518, November.
    9. Bagehot, Walter, 1873. "Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market," History of Economic Thought Books, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, number bagehot1873.
    10. Taylor, John B., 1993. "Discretion versus policy rules in practice," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 39(1), pages 195-214, December.
    11. Kydland, Finn E & Prescott, Edward C, 1977. "Rules Rather Than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 85(3), pages 473-491, June.
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    More about this item


    Monetary policy; Rules versus discretion; Interest rates; Monetary targets; Inflation targeting;

    JEL classification:

    • E52 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Monetary Policy, Central Banking, and the Supply of Money and Credit - - - Monetary Policy
    • E58 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Monetary Policy, Central Banking, and the Supply of Money and Credit - - - Central Banks and Their Policies


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