Former MPC member Posen: Forward guidance no substitute for policy

This is not the hope you're looking for.

In a piece written for the CEPR pamphlet "Is Inflation Targeting Dead? Central Banking After the Crisis", former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Adam Posen has dismissed the idea of forward guidance for monetary policy as a "gimmick".

Forward guidance is the idea that a monetary policy committee can pre-commit to a certain course of policy in order to drive outcomes in the direction they want. It's a particularly trendy idea right now, driven, Posen writes, "by the question about whether central banks should be explicitly focusing on GDP (or unemployment) as well as inflation".

If forward guidance works as it should, then a bank can boost the economy by assuaging fears amongst investors that monetary policy will be tightened shortly. Armed with that guidance, they will (ideally) go off and take actions which strengthen the economy, which they may not have taken if they were expecting an imminent rise in interest rates.

But Posen points out that that rarely happens. He cites three examples, in Canada, Sweden and the US, where forward guidance has been issued, but later statements from the central bank have served to instil doubt in the markets. For instance, in the US:

The Federal Reserve recently embraced a version of pre-commitments when the FOMC announced in November 2012 that they were switching to a ‘thresholds model’. Namely, they would not raise rates until unemployment fell unless the inflation threshold was violated.
I think that was the right stance of policy. Then we saw the next month, based on some comments in the minutes from the FOMC meeting, the market sold off.

His evidence is backed up by the fact that in the UK – where pre-commitment is explicitly foresworn – "the impact of quantitative easing was very closely comparable… to that of the US". As a result, Posen, writes, "the bottom line lesson… is that talk is cheap."

Of course, it may still be the case that in some hypothetical situation where the central bank managed to release a series of statements which were all consistent with the forward guidance in the eyes of the market that the policy would have the desired effect. But, he argues, "believing that jawboning had some effect is not the same as believing that it is an independent tool of monetary policy with a lasting and credible effect."

The intervention may come as a disappointment to incoming Bank of England governor Mark Carney. Posen explicitly calls out Carney for placing too much faith in forward guidance, and attributes it to "frustration – the lack of recovery despite massive monetary-policy shifts." It's certainly true that many of Carney's supporters are hoping that this will be the policy shift which actually works, but Posen provides a hope of his own:

The fact is we could have pursued more aggressive monetary policy, achieved better goals and been totally consistent with the current inflation target…

Forward guidance is no substitute for sufficient policy action.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.