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Temporary price-level targeting: An alternative framework for monetary policy

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By Ben S. Bernanke

Low nominal interest rates, low inflation, and slow economic growth pose challenges to central bankers. In particular, with estimates of the long-run equilibrium level of the real interest rate quite low, the next recession may occur at a time when the Fed has little room to cut short-term rates. As I have written previously and recent research has explored, problems associated with the zero-lower bound (ZLB) on interest rates could be severe and enduring. While the Fed has other useful policies in its toolkit such as quantitative easing and forward guidance, I am not confident that the current monetary toolbox would prove sufficient to address a sharp downturn. I am therefore sympathetic to the view of San Francisco Fed President John Williams and others that we should be thinking now about adjusting the framework in which monetary policy is conducted, to provide more policy “space” in the future. In a paper presented at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, I propose an option for an alternative monetary framework that I call a temporary price-level target—temporary, because it would apply only at times when short-term interest rates are at or very near zero.

To explain my proposal, I’ll begin by briefly discussing two other ideas for changing the monetary framework:  raising the Fed’s inflation target above the current 2 percent level, and instituting a price-level target that would operate at all times.  (See my paper for more details.)

A Higher Inflation Target

One way to increase the scope for monetary policy is to retain the Fed’s current focus on hitting a targeted value of inflation, but to raise the target to, say, 3 or 4 percent.  If credible, this change should lead to a corresponding increase in the average level of nominal interest rates, which in turn would give the Fed more space to cut rates in a downturn. This approach has the advantage of being straightforward, relatively easy to communicate and explain; and it would allow the Fed to stay within its established, inflation-targeting framework.  However, the approach also has a number of notable shortcomings (as I have discussed here and here).

One obvious problem is that a permanent increase in inflation would be highly unpopular with the public.  The unpopularity of inflation may be due to reasons that economists find unpersuasive, such as the tendency of people to focus on inflation’s effects on the prices of things they buy but not on the things they sell, including their own labor.  But there are also real (if hard to quantify) problems associated with higher inflation, such as the greater difficulty of long-term economic planning or of interpreting price signals in markets.  In any case, it’s not a coincidence that the promotion of price stability is a key part of the mandate of the Fed and most other central banks. A higher inflation target would therefore invite a political backlash, perhaps even a legal challenge.

More subtle, but equally important, we know from the insightful theoretical work of Paul Krugman, Michael Woodford and Gauti Eggertsson, and others that raising the inflation target is an inefficient approach to dealing with the ZLB. Under the theoretically optimal approach, inflation should rise temporarily following a severe downturn in which monetary policy is constrained by the ZLB.  The reason for the temporary increase is that, in the optimal framework, policymakers promise to hold rates “lower for longer” when the ZLB is binding, in order to make up for the fact that the ZLB is preventing current short-term rates from falling as far as would be ideal.  The promise of “lower for longer,” if credible, should ease financial conditions before and during the ZLB period, reducing the adverse effects on output and employment but subsequently resulting in a temporary increase in inflation. As Woodford has pointed out (pp. 64-73), raising the inflation target is a suboptimal response to the ZLB problem in that it forces society to bear the costs of higher inflation at all times, instead of only transitorily after periods at the ZLB. Moreover, a once-and-for-all increase in the inflation target does not take into account that, under the theoretically optimal policy, the vigor of the policy response (and thus the magnitude of the temporary increase in inflation) should be calibrated to the duration of the ZLB episode and the severity of the economic downturn.

Price-level Targeting

An alternative monetary framework, discussed favorably by President Williams and by a number of others (see here and here) is price-level targeting.  A price-level-targeting central bank tries to keep the level of prices on a steady growth path, rising by (say) 2 percent per year; in other words, a price-level-targeter tries to keep the very-long-run average inflation rate at 2 percent.

The principal difference between price-level targeting and conventional inflation targeting is the treatment of “bygones.”  An inflation-targeter can “look through” a temporary change in the inflation rate so long as inflation returns to target after a time.  By ignoring past misses of the target, an inflation targeter lets “bygones be bygones.”  A price-level targeter, by contrast, commits to reversing temporary deviations of inflation from target, by following a temporary surge in inflation with a period of inflation below target; and an episode of low inflation with a period of inflation above target.  Both inflation targeters and price-level targeters can be “flexible,” in that they can take output and employment considerations into account in determining the speed at which they return to the inflation or price-level target.  Throughout this post I am considering only “flexible” variants of policy frameworks. These variants are both closer to the optimal strategies derived in economic models and most consistent with the Fed’s dual mandate, which instructs it to pursue maximum employment as well as price stability.

A price-level target has at least two advantages over raising the inflation target.  The first is that price-level targeting is consistent with low average inflation (say, 2 percent) over time and thus with the price stability mandate. The second advantage is that price-level targeting has the desirable “lower for longer” or “make-up” feature of the theoretically optimal monetary policy.  Under price-level targeting, there is automatic compensation by policymakers for periods in which the ZLB prevents monetary policy from providing adequate stimulus. Specifically, periods in which inflation is below target (as is likely to happen when interest rates are stuck at the ZLB) must be followed by periods in which the central bank shoots for inflation above target, with the overshoot depending (as it optimally should) on the severity of the episode and the cumulative shortfall in monetary easing. If the public understands and expects the central bank to follow the “lower-for-longer” rate-setting strategy, then the expectation of easier policy and more-rapid growth in the future should mitigate declines in output and inflation during the period in which the ZLB is binding, and indeed reduce the frequency with which the ZLB binds at all.

For these reasons, adopting a price-level target seems preferable to raising the inflation target. However, this strategy is not without its own drawbacks.  For one, it would amount to a significant change in the Fed’s policy framework and reaction function, and it is hard to judge how difficult it would be to get the public and markets to understand the new approach. In particular, switching from the inflation concept to the price-level concept might require considerable education and explanation by policymakers. Another drawback is that the “bygones are not bygones” aspect of this approach is a two-edged sword.  Under price-level targeting, the central bank cannot “look through” supply shocks that temporarily drive up inflation, but must commit to tightening to reverse the effects of the shock on the price level.[1] Given that such a process could be painful and have adverse effects on employment and output, the Fed’s commitment to this policy might not be fully credible.

Temporary Price-Level Targeting

Is there a compromise approach? One possibility is to apply a price-level target and the associated “lower-for-longer” principle only to periods around ZLB episodes, retaining the inflation-targeting framework and the current 2 percent target at other times.  As with the ordinary price-level target, this approach would implement the lower-for-longer or “make-up” strategy at the ZLB, which—if understood and anticipated by the public—should serve to make encounters with the ZLB shorter, less severe, and less frequent.  In this respect, a temporary price-level target would be similar to an ordinary price-level target, which applies at all times.  However, a temporary price-level target has two potential advantages.

First, a temporary price-level target would not require a major shift away from the existing policy framework:  When interest rates are away from the ZLB, the current inflation-targeting framework would remain in place.  And at the ZLB, what I am calling here temporary price-level targeting could be explained and communicated as part of an overall inflation-targeting strategy, as it amounts to targeting the average inflation rate over the period in which the ZLB is binding.  Thus, communication could remain entirely in terms of inflation goals, a concept with which the public and market participants are already familiar.

Second, a temporary price-level target, unlike an ordinary price-level target, would not require the Fed to tighten policy to reverse shocks that temporarily drive up inflation when rates are away from the ZLB.  Instead, following the inflation-targeter’s approach, the Fed would simply guide inflation back to target over time.  Moreover, because the Fed would be targeting 2 percent inflation in both ZLB and non-ZLB periods, inflation over long periods should average around 2 percent.

To be more concrete on how the temporary price-level target would be communicated, suppose that, at some moment when the economy is away from the ZLB, the Fed were to make an announcement something like the following:

  • The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has determined that it will retain its symmetric inflation target of 2 percent. The FOMC will also continue to pursue its balanced approach to price stability and maximum employment.  In particular, the speed at which the FOMC aims to return inflation to target will depend on the state of the labor market and the outlook for the economy.
  • However, the FOMC recognizes that, at times, the zero lower bound on the federal funds rate may prevent it from reaching its inflation and employment goals, even with the use of unconventional monetary tools. The Committee therefore agrees that, in future situations in which the funds rate is at or near zero, a necessary condition for raising the funds rate will be that average inflation since the date at which the federal funds rate first hit zero be at least 2 percent.  Beyond this necessary condition, in deciding whether to raise the funds rate from zero, the Committee will consider the outlook for the labor market and whether the return of inflation to target appears sustainable.

The charts below serve to illustrate this policy as might have been applied to the most recent ZLB episode if, hypothetically, temporary price-level targeting had been in effect. To be clear, nothing in this blog post or my paper should be taken as a commentary on current Fed policy.  I am considering instead a counterfactual world in which the announcement above had been made, and internalized by markets, prior to when the short-term rate hit zero in 2008.

Figure 1 shows the behavior of (core PCE) inflation since 2008 Q4, the quarter in which the federal funds rate effectively reached zero and thus marked the beginning of the ZLB episode. Since 2008, inflation has been below the 2 percent inflation target most of the time.

The effect of this persistent undershoot of inflation relative to the 2 percent target has been a persistent undershoot of the overall level of prices, relative to trend. Figure 2 shows recent values of the (core PCE) price level relative to a 2 percent trend starting in 2008 Q4. As the figure shows, the price level is lower than it would have been had inflation been at the Fed’s 2% inflation target over the entire period.

ES_20171011_BernankeInflationTarget2

If a temporary price-level target had been in place, the Fed would have sought to “make up” for this cumulative shortfall in inflation. The necessary condition outlined in paragraph (2) of the framework, that average inflation over the ZLB period be at least 2 percent, is equivalent to the price level (light blue line) returning to its trend (dark blue line).  A period of inflation exceeding 2 percent would be necessary to satisfy that criterion, thereby compensating for the previous shortfall in inflation during the ZLB period (i.e. the slope of the light blue line would need to increase in order to converge with the dark blue line).  The result would be a lower-for-longer rates policy, which would be communicated and internalized by markets in advance.  The easier financial conditions that would have resulted could have hastened the desired outcomes of economic recovery and the return of inflation to target.  Notably, this framework would obviate the need for (and be superior to) the use of ad hoc forward guidance about rate policy.

Importantly, under my proposal and as suggested by the mock FOMC statement above, meeting the average-inflation criterion is a necessary but not sufficient condition to raise rates from the ZLB.  First, monetary policymakers would want to be sure that the average inflation condition is being met on a sustainable basis and not as the result of a transitory shock or measurement error. Expressing the condition in terms of core rather than headline inflation, as in the figures above, would help on that score. Second, consistent with the concept of “flexible” targeting, policymakers would also want to factor in real economic conditions such as employment and output in deciding whether it was time to raise rates.

In sum, a temporary price-level target, invoked only during ZLB episodes, appears to have many of the benefits of ordinary price-level targeting. It would preserve the commitment to price stability.  Importantly, it would create the expectation among market participants that ZLB episodes will lead to “lower-for-longer” or “make-up” rate policies, which would ease financial conditions and help mitigate the frequency and severity of such episodes.  Unlike an ordinary price-level target, however, the temporary variant could be folded into existing inflation-targeting regimes in a straightforward way, minimizing the need to change longstanding policy frameworks and communications practices.  In particular, central bank communication could remain focused on inflation goals. Finally, in contrast to an ordinary price-level target, the proposed approach would allow policymakers to continue to “look through” temporary inflation shocks that occur when rates are away from the ZLB.


[1] This problem would be mitigated but not eliminated if the price-level target were defined in terms of core inflation, excluding volatile food and energy prices.



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Economy

Why Central Planning by Medical Experts Will Lead to Disaster

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A great deal of the coverage of the COVID-19 crisis has been apocalyptic. That is partly because “if it bleeds, it leads.” But it is also because some of the medical experts with media megaphones have put forward potentially catastrophic scenarios and drastic plans to deal with them, reinforced by assertions that the rest of us should “listen to the experts,” because only they know enough to determine policy. Unfortunately, those experts don’t know enough to determine appropriate policies.

Doctors, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, etc. know more things about diseases, their courses, what increases or decreases their rate of spread, and so on than most. But the most crucial of that information has been browbeaten into the rest of us by now. Limited and imperfect testing also means that the available statistics may be very misleading (e.g., is an uptick in reported cases real or the result of an increasing rate of, or more accuracy in, testing, which is crucial to determining the likely future course COVID-19?). Further, to the extent that the virus’s characteristics are unique, no one knows exactly what will happen. All of that makes “shut up and listen” advice less compelling.

More important, however, may be that in making recommendations to address COVID-19, those with detailed knowledge of the disease (the experts we have been told to obey) do not have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of their “solutions” for the economy and society to know what the costs will be. That means that they don’t know enough to accurately compare the benefits to the costs. In particular, because of their relative unawareness of the many margins at which effects will be felt, the medical experts we are being told to follow will likely underestimate those costs. When combined with their natural desire to solve the medical problem, however severe it might get, this can lead to overly draconian proposals.

This issue has been brought to the fore by the increasing number of people who have begun questioning the likelihood of the apocalyptic scenarios driving the “OMG! We need to do everything that might help” tweetstorms, on the one hand, and those who are emphasizing that “shutting down the economy” is far more costly than planners recognized, on the other.

Those who have brought up such issues (how long before they are called “COVID deniers”?) have been pilloried for it. Exhibit A is the vilification of President Trump for “ignoring the scientists,” such as the New York Times‘s claim that “Trump thinks he knows better than the doctors” after he tweeted that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

One major problem with such attacks is the substantial literature documenting the adverse health effects of worsening economic conditions. For just one example, an analysis of the 2008 economic meltdown in The Lancet estimated that it “was associated with over 260,000 excess cancer deaths in the OECD alone, between 2008–2010.” That is a massive “detail” to ignore in forming policy.

In other words, the tradeoff is not just a matter of lives lost versus money, as it is often portrayed as being (e.g., New York governor Cuomo’s assertion that “we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life”). It is a tradeoff between lives lost due to COVID and lives that will be lost due to the policies adopted to reduce COVID deaths.

Larry O’Connor put this well at Townhall when he wrote:

Why should the scientific analysis of doctors solely focusing on the spread of the coronavirus carry more weight than the very real scientific analysis of the deadly health ramifications of shutting down our economy? Doesn’t the totality of the data make the argument for a balanced approach to this crisis?

This issue reminds me of a classic discussion of specialists and planning in chapter 4 of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. “The Inevitability of Planning” is well worth noting today:

Almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized…if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity.

We all find it difficult to bear to see things left undone which everybody must admit are both desirable and possible. That these things cannot all be done at the same time, that any one of them can be achieved only at the sacrifice of others, can be seen only by taking into account factors which fall outside any specialism…[which] forces us to see against a wider background the objects to which most of our labors are directed.

Every one of the many things which, considered in isolation, it would be possible to achieve…creates enthusiasts for planning who feel confident…[of] the value of the particular objective…But it is…foolish to quote such instances of technical excellence in particular fields as evidence of the general superiority of planning.

The hopes they place in planning…are the result not of a comprehensive view of society but rather of a very limited view and often the result of a great exaggeration of the importance of the ends they place foremost…it would make the very men who are most anxious to plan society the most dangerous if they were allowed to do so—and the most intolerant of the planning of others…there could hardly be a more unbearable—and much more irrational—world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realization of their ideals.

Panic has seldom improved the rationality of decision-making (beyond the “fight or flight” reaction to facing a “man-eater,” when to stop and think means certain death). However, much of media coverage has fed panic. But the illogical and intemperate media attacks against those questioning the rationality of draconian “solutions” drown out, rather than enable, objective discussion of real tradeoffs. And if “Democracy dies in darkness,” as the Washington Post proclaims, we should remember that it does not require total darkness. The same conclusion follows when people are kept in the dark about major aspects of the reality they face.



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More Than 16 Million Americans Have Lost Their Jobs In The Past Three Weeks

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The coronavirus’s record-breaking run of bad economic news continues unabated. Thursday’s numbers from the Department of Labor reported that 6.6 million Americans filed initial claims for unemployment insurance, roughly the same as last week (which was revised to 6.9 million) and about double the previous week’s tally of 3.3 million.

Add it up, and over the course of three weeks, a total of 16.8 million seasonally adjusted unemployment claims have been filed. If we borrow the math from this Justin Wolfers piece in The New York Times last week, that means somewhere around 15 to 17 percent of the workforce might currently be without a job. (For comparison’s sake, that number was 25 percent at the height of the Great Depression.)

The U.S. has had eight recessions since 1967,1 including the one we are almost certainly in right now.2 Of those, four (1969-70, 1980, 1990-91 and 2001) never reached our current level, over 16 million unemployment claims. For the others, it took a tremendous amount of time to reach that level: between 33 weeks (1981-82) and 51 (1973-75). Even in the Great Recession a decade ago, it took 42 weeks to get 16 million total initial claims. This time around, it has taken three.

This recession is moving at hyperspeed

For U.S. recessions since 1967, number of weeks before reaching each benchmark for total initial unemployment insurance claims

Weeks before no. of total initial claims
Recession of … 3,000,000 9,000,000 16,000,000
1969-70 13 33 Never
1973-75 11 31 51
1980 8 19 Never
1981-82 7 20 33
1990-91 8 22 Never
2001 8 23 Never
2007-09 9 26 42
2020* 1 2 3

*The current economic downturn hasn’t yet met the traditional definition of a recession.

Previous recessions were considered to have started midway through the month they officially began and ended midway through the month they finished.

Sources: Department of Labor, St. Louis Federal Reserve, National Bureau of Economic Research

Now, it’s important to remember that the U.S. population has also increased by 66 percent since 1967, meaning there are more workers to potentially file claims now. Furthermore, total initial claims are not equivalent to the number of people who are actually receiving unemployment benefits.3 And, of course, economists look at much more than just unemployment when determining whether a recession has happened.

That said, the sheer job-loss numbers for this recession — and the velocity at which they were amassed — are difficult to comprehend.

Going back to previous recessions, some analysts see parallels to the 1981-82 downturn. That recession is considered to have been triggered by changes in monetary policy, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker aggressively raised interest rates to combat inflation. By comparison, this recession was triggered by widespread stay-at-home orders that effectively shuttered countless businesses and put millions out of work. (We should note that economists almost unanimously agree that this was the best decision not only for public health reasons but also for the long-term economy.) Many jobs were lost in the early 1980s, but the unemployment rate quickly dropped after the initial shock, which may provide a model for people to return to work swiftly after the coronavirus crisis lifts.

Again, though, that early 1980s recession took much longer to reach present levels of jobless claims, so in many ways our current recession represents an unprecedented situation. That’s particularly true when you consider the underlying reason why people can’t go back to work — a novel virus for which a vaccine is still quite far off — and the uncertainty around what its eventual timeline will end up being. One thing is for sure, however: Most of us have never seen a recession produce such extreme economic hardship, so quickly, as what the U.S. is going through right now.



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Newsletter: What Will the Recovery Look Like?

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This is the web version of the WSJ’s newsletter on the economy. You can sign up for daily delivery here.

Brought to You by the Letters U and V

The coronavirus pandemic will cause a severe economic contraction, 14.4 million job losses and a spike in the unemployment rate this spring, economists forecast in a Wall Street Journal survey. Business and academic economists in this month’s survey expect, on average, that the unemployment rate will hit 13% in June this year, and still be at 10% in December. The jobless rate was 4.4% in March. Still, nearly 85% of economists expect the recovery will start in the second half of the year. Economists are roughly split on whether the expected recovery will be U shaped—with a prolonged bottom—or V shaped—a sharp drop followed by a sharp rebound. They say the recovery will depend on when social-distancing measures end and whether the virus can be contained, Harriet Torry and Anthony DeBarros report.

What do you think—V, U, L or something else? Let us know at realtimeeconomics@wsj.com.

WHAT TO WATCH TODAY

U.S. jobless claims are expected to remain elevated at 5 million for the week ended April 4. They hit a record 6.648 million a week earlier. (8:30 a.m. ET)

The U.S. producer price index for March is expected to fall 0.4% from a month earlier. (8:30 a.m. ET)

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell talks about the state of the economy in a webcast hosted by the Brookings Institution at 10 a.m. ET. 

The University of Michigan preliminary consumer sentiment index for April is expected to fall to 75.0 from 89.1 at the end of March. (10 a.m. ET)

The Baker Hughes rig count is out at 1 p.m. ET.

San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly answers questions at the website Quora at 4 p.m. ET.

China’s consumer and producer price indexes for March are out at 9:30 p.m. ET. Economists expect consumer inflation to have eased a little, while producer deflation deepend, reflecting weaker demand amid the pandemic.

Note: This is a partial listing of events and subject to change.

TOP STORIES

Another Week of Heavy Job Losses

The ranks of Americans filing jobless claims likely swelled again last week. Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal expect 5 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the week ending April 4. That would bring the number of applications for the last three weeks to nearly 15 million—more than the entire labor force in the state of Texas. It isn’t clear when jobless claims will peak, but evidence suggests that they will continue to log in at high levels in the coming weeks. The federal rescue package signed into law last month increases the pool of workers who can tap benefits and, perhaps more significantly, some states are still addressing backlogs of claims, Sarah Chaney and David Harrison report.

Each additional week of historically high claims dims the prospects for a rapid economic recovery. “The biggest direct impact of the loss of jobs is going to be the loss of income and therefore the loss of spending,” said Jacob Robbins, assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Illinois and New York workers have started receiving larger unemployment payments from expanded coronavirus benefits. The two states are among the first to disburse the $600 payments—which are in addition to regular weekly unemployment checks—included in a $2 trillion federal stimulus package signed into law on March 27, Sarah Chaney and Kate King report.

Amazon’s 100,000 job openings in its warehouses and delivery network are a rare bright spot in the U.S. economy. While numerous restaurant, hospitality and hourly workers have flocked to the retail giant after being laid off or furloughed, the opportunities are also attracting seasoned professionals in traditionally white-collar jobs, Dana Mattioli reports.

Out of a job? What to know about getting unemployment benefits.

Supply Chain Reaction

The Trump administration is planning to restrict for four months the export of certain face masks and gloves designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The move shows that the U.S. is seeking to keep personal protective equipment available to U.S. citizens despite existing private contracts and international trade rules designed to protect global supply chains, William Mauldin reports.

Germany has struck a deal with China to receive large-scale shipments of supplies to battle the coronavirus. A first shipment of over eight million face masks arrived in Munich on Tuesday, Bojan Pancevski reports.

The Trump administration is turning toward the most well-worn pages of its global playbook—tariffs and threats—as it tries to stop an oil-price war from crippling dozens of U.S. companies. The tactic is aimed at leveraging U.S. power to get Saudi Arabia and Russia to reduce a flood of crude swamping the market, Timothy Puko and Christopher M. Matthews report.

Global Test

The health of the global economy comes down to a race between money flooding out of emerging markets amid the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to pump money back in. More than 90 countries have inquired about bailouts from the IMF—nearly half the world’s nations—while at least 60 have sought to avail themselves of World Bank programs. The two institutions together have resources of up to $1.2 trillion that they have said they would make available to battle the economic fallout from the pandemic, but the question is whether they can move quickly enough to reverse the mounting damage, Josh Zumbrun and David Harrison report.

Progress Report

Why a coronavirus surge hasn’t hit Washington. The state’s early work-from-home orders, school shutdowns and bans on large gatherings have played a major role in reducing the virus’s transmission rate.

Another case of an early, strict lockdownNew Zealand was on a similar trajectory to Italy and Spain—modeling suggests its 205 cases on March 25 could have grown to more than 10,000 by now if the country hadn’t implemented stringent social distancing policies. Reported cases now total 1,239. The total number has fallen for the past four days, with 29 new cases Thursday, the lowest daily number since March 23, before the lockdown began.

Italy appears to be turning the corner in its battle against the virus. New infections are declining, the number of people needing intensive therapy and other hospital care is stabilizing, and even the daily death toll is finally trending down. Its national lockdown since early March is showing that an unruly, freedom-loving Western society can come together at a critical time to contain the pandemic, Eric Sylvers and Yaroslav Trofimov report.

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