[A speech by Stanley Fischer at Jackson Hole turned into a pretend interview]
Hello, and thank you for talking with us.
Let me start by asking if you feel like it gives the Fed a bad image to have a conference in an elite place like Jackson Hole. Why not have the conference in, say, a disadvantaged area to send the signal that you care about these problems, to provide some stimulus to the area, etc.?
I am delighted to be here in Jackson Hole in the company of such distinguished panelists and such a distinguished group of participants.
Okay then. Let me start be asking about your view of the economy. How close are we to a full recovery?:
Although the economy has continued to recover and the labor market is approaching our maximum employment objective, inflation has been persistently below 2 percent. That has been especially true recently, as the drop in oil prices over the past year, on the order of about 60 percent, has led directly to lower inflation as it feeds through to lower prices of gasoline and other energy items. As a result, 12-month changes in the overall personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index have recently been only a little above zero (chart 1).
Why are you telling us about headline inflation? What about core inflation? Isn't that what the Fed watches?
...measures of core inflation, which are intended to help us look through such transitory price movements, have also been relatively low (return to chart 1). The PCE index excluding food and energy is up 1.2 percent over the past year. The Dallas Fed's trimmed mean measure of the PCE price index is higher, at 1.6 percent, but still somewhat below our 2 percent objective. Moreover, these measures of core inflation have been persistently below 2 percent throughout the economic recovery. That said, as with total inflation, core inflation can be somewhat variable, especially at frequencies higher than 12-month changes. Moreover, note that core inflation does not entirely "exclude" food and energy, because changes in energy prices affect firms' costs and so can pass into prices of non-energy items.
So are you saying you don't believe the numbers? Why bring up that core inflation is highly variable unless you are trying to de-emphasize this evidence? In any case, isn't there reason to believe these numbers are true, i.e. doesn't the slack in the labor market imply low inflation?
Of course, ongoing economic slack is one reason core inflation has been low. Although the economy has made great progress, we started seven years ago from an unemployment rate of 10 percent, which guaranteed a lengthy period of high unemployment. Even so, with inflation expectations apparently stable, we would have expected the gradual reduction of slack to be associated with less downward price pressure. All else equal, we might therefore have expected both headline and core inflation to be moving up more noticeably toward our 2 percent objective. Yet, we have seen no clear evidence of core inflation moving higher over the past few years. This fact helps drive home an important point: While much evidence points to at least some ongoing role for slack in helping to explain movements in inflation, this influence is typically estimated to be modest in magnitude, and can easily be masked by other factors.
If that's true, if the decline in the slack in the labor market does not translate into a notable change in inflation, why is the Fed so anxious to raise rates based upon the notion that the labor market has almost normalized? Is there more to it than just the labor market?
...core inflation can to some extent be influenced by oil prices. However, a larger effect comes from changes in the exchange value of the dollar, and the rise in the dollar over the past year is an important reason inflation has remained low (chart 4). A higher value of the dollar passes through to lower import prices, which hold down U.S. inflation both because imports make up part of final consumption, and because lower prices for imported components hold down business costs more generally. In addition, a rise in the dollar restrains the growth of aggregate demand and overall economic activity, and so has some effect on inflation through that more indirect channel.
That argues against a rate increase, not for it. Anyway, I interrupted, please continue.
Commodity prices other than oil are also of relevance for inflation in the United States. Prices of metals and other industrial commodities, and agricultural products, are affected to a considerable extent by developments outside the United States, and the softness we've seen in these commodity prices, has in part reflected a slowing of demand from China and elsewhere. These prices likely have also been a factor in holding down inflation in the United States.
So you must believe that all of these forces holding down inflation (many of which are stripped out by core inflation measures, which are also low) that these factors are easing, and hence a spike in inflation is ahead?
The dynamics with which all these factors affect inflation depend crucially on the behavior of inflation expectations. One striking feature of the economic environment is that longer-term inflation expectations in the United States appear to have remained generally stable since the late 1990s (chart 6). ... Expectations that are not stable, but instead follow actual inflation up or down, would allow inflation to drift persistently. In the recent period, movements in inflation have tended to be transitory.
Let's see, lots of factors holding down inflation, longer-term inflation expectations have been stable throughout the recession and recovery, remarkably so, yet the Fed still thinks a rate raise ought to come fairly soon?
We should however be cautious in our assessment that inflation expectations are remaining stable. One reason is that measures of inflation compensation in the market for Treasury securities have moved down somewhat since last summer (chart 7). But these movements can be hard to interpret, as at times they may reflect factors other than inflation expectations, such as changes in demand for the unparalleled liquidity of nominal Treasury securities.
I have to be honest. That sounds like the Fed is really reaching to find a reason to justify worries about inflation and a rate increase. Let me ask this a different way. In the Press Release for the July meeting of the FOMC, the committee said it can be " reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term." Can you explain this please? Why are you "reasonably confident" in light of recent history?
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
Yet when these forces were absent -- they weren't there throughout the crisis -- inflation was still stable. But this time will be different? I guess falling slack in the labor market will make all the difference? More on labor markets in a moment, but let me ask if you have more to say about inflation expectations first.
...with regard to expectations of inflation, it is possible to consult the results of the SEP, the Survey of Economic Projections, which FOMC participants complete shortly before the March, June, September, and December meetings. In the June SEP, the central tendency of FOMC participants' projections for core PCE inflation was 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent this year, 1.6 percent to 1.9 percent next year, and 1.9 percent to 2.0 percent in 2017. There will be a new SEP for the forthcoming September meeting of the FOMC.
Reflecting all these factors, the Committee has indicated in its post-meeting statements that it expects inflation to return to 2 percent. With regard to our degree of confidence in this expectation, we will need to consider all the available information and assess its implications for the economic outlook before coming to a judgment.
You will need to consider all the available information, I agree wholeheartedly with that. I just hope that information includes how poor forecasts like those just cited have been in the past, and the Fed's own eagerness to see "green shoots" again and again, far before it was time for such declarations.
What might deter the Fed from it's intention to raise rates sooner rather than later?
Of course, the FOMC's monetary policy decision is not a mechanical one, based purely on the set of numbers reported in the payroll survey and in our judgment on the degree of confidence members of the committee have about future inflation. We are interested also in aspects of the labor market beyond the simple U-3 measure of unemployment, including for example the rates of unemployment of older workers and of those working part-time for economic reasons; we are interested also in the participation rate. And in the case of the inflation rate we look beyond the rate of increase of PCE prices and define the concept of the core rate of inflation.
I find these kinds of statement difficult to square with the statement that labor markets are almost back to normal. Anyway, what, in particular, will you look at?
While thinking of different aspects of unemployment, we are concerned mainly with trying to find the right measure of the difficulties caused to current and potential participants in the labor force by their unemployment. In the case of the core rate of inflation, we are mainly looking for a good indicator of future inflation, and for better indicators than we have at present.
How do recent events in China change the outlook for policy?
In making our monetary policy decisions, we are interested more in where the U.S. economy is heading than in knowing whence it has come. That is why we need to consider the overall state of the U.S. economy as well as the influence of foreign economies on the U.S. economy as we reach our judgment on whether and how to change monetary policy. That is why we follow economic developments in the rest of the world as well as the United States in reaching our interest rate decisions. At this moment, we are following developments in the Chinese economy and their actual and potential effects on other economies even more closely than usual.
I know you won't answer this directly, but let me try anyway. When will rates go up?
The Fed has, appropriately, responded to the weak economy and low inflation in recent years by taking a highly accommodative policy stance. By committing to foster the movement of inflation toward our 2 percent objective, we are enhancing the credibility of monetary policy and supporting the continued stability of inflation expectations. To do what monetary policy can do towards meeting our goals of maximum employment and price stability, and to ensure that these goals will continue to be met as we move ahead, we will most likely need to proceed cautiously in normalizing the stance of monetary policy. For the purpose of meeting our goals, the entire path of interest rates matters more than the particular timing of the first increase.
As expected, that was pretty boilerplate. When rates do go up, how fast will they rise?
With inflation low, we can probably remove accommodation at a gradual pace. Yet, because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2 percent to begin tightening. Should we judge at some point in time that the economy is threatening to overheat, we will have to move appropriately rapidly to deal with that threat. The same is true should the economy unexpectedly weaken.
The Fed has said again and again that it's 2 percent inflation target is symmetric with respect to errors, i.e. it will get no more worried or upset about, say, a .5 percent overshoot of the target than it will an undershoot of the same magnitude (2.5 percent versus 1.5 percent). However, many of us suspect that the 2 percent target is actually a ceiling, not a central tendency, or that at the very least the errors are not treated symmetrically, and statements such as this do nothing to change that view.
I have quite a few more questions, and I wish we had time to hear your response to the charge that the 2 percent target is functionally a ceiling, but I know you are out of time and need to go, so let me just thank you for talking with us today. Thank you.