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In macroeconomics, discretionary policy is an economic policy based on the ad hoc judgment of policymakers as opposed to policy set by predetermined rules. For instance, a central banker could make decisions on interest rates on a case-by-case basis instead of allowing a set rule, such as Friedman's k-percent rule, an inflation target following the Taylor rule, or a nominal income target to determine interest rates or the money supply. In practice, most policy actions are discretionary in nature.

"Discretionary policy" can refer to decision making in both monetary policy and fiscal policy. The opposite is a commitment policy.

Arguments against

Monetarist economists in particular have been opponents of the use of discretionary policy. According to Milton Friedman, the dynamics of change associated with the passage of time presents a timing problem for public policy. The reason this poses a problem is because a long and variable time lag exists between:

  1. the need for action and the recognition of that need;
  2. the recognition of a problem and the design and implementation of a policy response; and
  3. the implementation of the policy and the effect of the policy.[1]:145

It is because of these lags that Friedman argues that discretionary public policy will often be destabilizing. For this reason, he argued the case for general rules rather than discretionary policy.

Friedman formalized his argument in the context of monetary policy as follows.[2] The quantity equation says that

where M is the money supply, V is the velocity of money, and Y is nominal GDP. Expressing this in growth rates gives

where m, v, and y are the growth rates of the money supply, velocity and nominal GDP respectively. Suppose that the policymaker wishes for the variance of nominal GDP to be as low as possible—that is, it defines a stabilizing approach to monetary policy as one which decreases nominal GDP variance. From the last equation we have