‘No one silver bullet’ to fix systemic economic racial inequality

Atlanta Fed President Bostic says redressing long-standing US racial economic inqualities requires a deep reckoning.

Karl Franz Williams, founder and owner of 67 Orange Street, a bar and restaurant in Harlem, New York, United States, where a rising stock market alongside 11 percent unemployment presents a quandary over economic fairness [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]
Karl Franz Williams, founder and owner of 67 Orange Street, a bar and restaurant in Harlem, New York, United States, where a rising stock market alongside 11 percent unemployment presents a quandary over economic fairness [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

A rising stock market alongside 11 percent unemployment has put the United States Federal Reserve in a quandary as a national debate rages over racial and economic fairness: Is the US central bank helping fix the problems its top officials agree need fixing, or deepening divides between Black and white, and rich and poor Americans?

Atlanta Federal Reserve President Raphael Bostic, pressing what he hopes will be a transformative discussion about race and economic inequality, said in an interview with Reuters news agency that fixating on questions like today’s stock prices “kind of misses the reality” of how deep and long-standing the economic wedge is between US minority populations and most whites.

“We did not get to this point in like three days. So there is not going to be one silver bullet or one action” that dents problems like the roughly 10-to-one gap between Black and white household wealth, differences in income that persist regardless of education levels, or a Black jobless rate nearly double that of whites before the pandemic.

Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank President, Raphael Bostic said he “could imagine” a day when the unemployment rate for Black people gets highlighted in Fed statements as a way to measure the true strength of the labour market [File: Ann Saphir/Reuters]

The reckoning needs to be deeper, grappling with a legacy of economic disadvantages from slavery through legal segregation, he said. Far from being levelled by market forces or government policy, those have compounded over time to the detriment not just of Black people but of the country as a whole.

“Economic models don’t have ‘reachback loops’ for things that have happened in the past to figure out what an optimal strategy for today might be,” said Bostic, the first Black person to head one of the Fed’s 12 regional branches. “We are leaving talent on the table. We are leaving money on the table. And it is in all of our interest to try to find that money.”

It is an insight that opens a broader discussion – of whether monetary reparations to repair the damage of discrimination make sense, for example, of how tax, social and employment policy should change, of whether the Fed should build racial metrics into its policy analysis or be given broader powers to help individual households.

We are leaving talent on the table. We are leaving money on the table. And it is in all of our interest to try to find that money.

Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic

Bostic remains open to all ideas and “could imagine” a day when the unemployment rate for Black people gets highlighted in Fed statements as a way to measure the true strength of the labour market. As in the decade-long recovery that just ended, it is only late in economic cycles that the gap in joblessness between Black and white people tends to narrow.

Bostic is speaking on Thursday at an event with Jared Bernstein, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and a proponent of the Fed using Black unemployment to measure the “full employment” side of its dual mandate of plentiful jobs and stable inflation. That is among the recommendations offered by a Democratic “unity task force” that would make the Fed more squarely responsible for ensuring the benefits of economic growth are better shared.

Pushing the boundaries

For some, the discussion is overdue.

The Fed’s 1970s fight with inflation still defines much of its debate and analysis, even though the risks to growth posed by economic inequality may be greater today than the risks of prices rising too fast, said Mehrsa Baradaran, a University of California Irvine law professor. She argues the Fed needs to expand from its current practice of working mostly through the banking system.

“Immediately, tomorrow,” she said, the Fed could start buying municipal bonds of “every city or area that is a low-income or formerly red-lined community. They float bonds and the Fed buys it up and creates that market.”

It may seem a stretch – and Baradaran and others of like mind acknowledge their ideas are more fiscal in nature, and should be the province of Congress.

People line up to find assistance with their unemployment claims in Frankfort, Kentucky [File: Bryan Woolston/Reuters]

Yet the pandemic has led the Fed to buy corporate bonds, make short-term loans to municipalities with adequate credit ratings and participate in direct loans to smaller companies – boundary-breaking steps and evidence the Fed can push in new directions.

 “I think the Federal Reserve has more agency in structuring its programmes than they may want to admit,” said former Fed Governor and Duke University law professor Sarah Bloom Raskin.

Raskin noted the Fed has taken bold steps with no prior record of how tools like corporate bond-buying might work in the US to achieve goals like raising employment. So why not take others as well?

“We don’t exactly understand how buying a fixed-income (Exchange Traded Fund) transmits to high employment … It is an experiment that has not yet been proven,” she said of one new Fed programme meant to stabilise the corporate bond market.

I think the Federal Reserve has more agency in structuring its programmes than they may want to admit.

Former Fed Governor and Duke University law professor Sarah Bloom Raskin

Fed officials take a narrow view of how much they can influence the distribution of economic gains, arguing they can not change the technological or legal structure of the economy, act outside of governing statutes or political constraints, or do much beyond trying to drive unemployment as low as possible.

But the central bank also has been paying attention. As a group they speak more frequently about racial disadvantages and overall inequality, and Bostic recently wrote an essay on the subject – all part of a “bully pulpit” campaign Bostic says can be influential and is here to stay.

Formal analysis being presented to the Federal Open Market Committee is including more and deeper looks at how inequality affects the overall economy, and Bostic said if nothing else the Fed can drive research to help other officials craft better policies and help businesses revamp, for example, hiring and promotion practices.

Progress, Bostic said, will need to involve everyone.

“This may be a moment in time when there is a broader collection of people starting to coalesce … There is a recognition that distributions do matter,” he said. “I don’t think policymakers are going to have the luxury to just ignore that.”

Source : Reuters

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