Posting the video mysteriously causes formatting problems for the blog, so took it down and replaced it with link to the video:
Chris Sims: Inflation, Fear of Inflation, and Public Debt
Posting the video mysteriously causes formatting problems for the blog, so took it down and replaced it with link to the video:
Chris Sims: Inflation, Fear of Inflation, and Public Debt
Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed:
..I’m a member of the Federal Open Market Committee—the FOMC—and, as a monetary policymaker, my discussion will be framed by the goals of monetary policy. Congress has charged the FOMC with making monetary policy so as to promote price stability and maximum employment. I’ll discuss the state of the macroeconomy in terms of these goals.
Let me start with price stability. The FOMC has translated the price stability objective into an inflation rate goal of 2 percent per year. This inflation rate target refers to the personal consumption expenditures, or PCE, price index. ... That rate currently stands at 1.6 percent, which is below the FOMC’s target of 2 percent. In fact, the inflation rate has averaged 1.6 percent since the start of the recession six and a half years ago, and inflation is expected to remain low for some time. For example, the minutes from the June FOMC meeting reveal that the Federal Reserve Board staff outlook is for inflation to remain below 2 percent over the next few years.
In a similar vein, earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted that inflation will not reach 2 percent until 2018—more than 10 years after the beginning of the Great Recession. I agree with this forecast. This means that the FOMC is still a long way from meeting its targeted goal of price stability.
The second FOMC goal is to promote maximum employment. What, then, is the state of U.S. labor markets? The latest unemployment rate was 6.2 percent for July. This number is representative of the significant improvement in labor market conditions that we’ve seen since October 2009, when the unemployment rate was 10 percent. And I expect this number to fall further through the course of this year, to around 5.7 percent. However, this progress in the decline of the unemployment rate masks continued weakness in labor markets.
There are many ways to see this continued weakness. I’ll mention two that I see as especially significant. First, the fraction of people aged 25 to 54—our prime-aged potential workers—who actually have a job is still at a disturbingly low rate. Second, a historically high percentage of workers would like a full-time job, but can only find part-time work. Bottom line: I see labor markets as remaining some way from meeting the FOMC’s goal of full employment.
So I’ve told you that inflation rates will remain low for a number of years and that labor markets are still weak. It is important, I think, to understand the connection between these two phenomena. As I have discussed in greater detail in recent speeches, a persistently below-target inflation rate is a signal that the U.S. economy is not taking advantage of all of its available resources. If demand were sufficiently high to generate 2 percent inflation, the underutilized resources would be put to work. And the most important of those resources is the American people. There are many people in this country who want to work more hours, and our society is deprived of their production. ...
The risks from tightening policy too soon are much greater than the risks from leaving policy in place too long:
The Forever Slump, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It’s hard to believe, but almost six years have passed since the fall of Lehman Brothers ushered in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. ... Recovery is far from complete, and the wrong policies could still turn economic weakness into a more or less permanent depression.
In fact, that’s what seems to be happening in Europe as we speak. And the rest of us should learn from Europe’s experience. ...
European officials eagerly embraced now-discredited doctrines that allegedly justified fiscal austerity even in depressed economies (although America has de facto done a lot of austerity, too, thanks to the sequester and cuts at the state and local level). And the European Central Bank, or E.C.B., not only failed to match the Fed’s asset purchases, it actually raised interest rates back in 2011 to head off the imaginary risk of inflation.
The E.C.B. reversed course when Europe slid back into recession, and, as I’ve already mentioned, under Mario Draghi’s leadership, it did a lot to alleviate the European debt crisis. But this wasn’t enough. ...
And now growth has stalled, while inflation has fallen far below the E.C.B.’s target of 2 percent, and prices are actually falling in debtor nations. It’s really a dismal picture. ... Europe will arguably be lucky if all it experiences is one lost decade.
The good news is that things don’t look that dire in America, where job creation seems finally to have picked up and the threat of deflation has receded, at least for now. But all it would take is a few bad shocks and/or policy missteps to send us down the same path.
The good news is that Janet Yellen, the Fed chairwoman, understands the danger; she has made it clear that she would rather take the chance of a temporary rise in the inflation rate than risk hitting the brakes too soon, the way the E.C.B. did in 2011. The bad news is that she and her colleagues are under a lot of pressure to do the wrong thing from [those] who seem to have learned nothing from being wrong year after year, and are still agitating for higher rates.
There’s an old joke about the man who decides to cheer up, because things could be worse — and sure enough, things get worse. That’s more or less what happened to Europe, and we shouldn’t let it happen here.
David Andolfatto of the St. Louis Fed:
The Gold Standard and Price Inflation: Why doesn’t the U.S. return to the gold standard so that the Fed can’t “create money out of thin air”?
The phrase “create money out of thin air” refers to the Fed’s ability to create money at virtually zero resource cost. It is frequently asserted that such an ability necessarily leads to “too much” price inflation. Under a gold standard, the temptation to overinflate is allegedly absent, that is, gold cannot be “created out of thin air.” It would follow that a return to a gold standard would be the only way to guarantee price-level stability.
Unfortunately, a gold standard is not a guarantee of price stability. It is simply a promise made “out of thin air” to keep the supply of money anchored to the supply of gold. To consider how tenuous such a promise can be, consider the following example. On April 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all gold coins and certificates of denominations in excess of $100 turned in for other money by May 1 at a set price of $20.67 per ounce. Two months later, a joint resolution of Congress abrogated the gold clauses in many public and private obligations that required the debtor to repay the creditor in gold dollars of the same weight and fineness as those borrowed. In 1934, the government price of gold was increased to $35 per ounce, effectively increasing the dollar value of gold on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet by almost 70 percent. This action allowed the Federal Reserve to increase the money supply by a corresponding amount and, subsequently, led to significant price inflation.
This historical example demonstrates that the gold standard is no guarantee of price stability. Moreover, the fact that price inflation in the U.S. has remained low and stable over the past 30 years demonstrates that the gold standard is not necessary for price stability. Price stability evidently depends less on whether money is “created out of thin air” and more on the credibility of the monetary authority to manage the economy’s money supply in a responsible manner.
From the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics:
Inflation in the Great Recession and New Keynesian Models, by Marco Del Negro, Marc Giannoni, Raiden Hasegawa, and Frank Schorfheide: Since the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the Great Recession, many commentators have been baffled by the “missing deflation” in the face of a large and persistent amount of slack in the economy. Some prominent academics have argued that existing models cannot properly account for the evolution of inflation during and following the crisis. For example, in his American Economic Association presidential address, Robert E. Hall called for a fundamental reconsideration of Phillips curve models and their modern incarnation—so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models—in which inflation depends on a measure of slack in economic activity. The argument is that such theories should have predicted more and more disinflation as long as the unemployment rate remained above a natural rate of, say, 6 percent. Since inflation declined somewhat in 2009, and then remained positive, Hall concludes that such theories based on a concept of slack must be wrong.
In an NBER working paper and a New York Fed staff report (forthcoming in the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics), we use a standard New Keynesian DSGE model with financial frictions to explain the behavior of output and inflation since the crisis. This model was estimated using data up to 2008. We find that following the increase in financial stress in 2008, the model successfully predicts not only the sharp contraction in economic activity, but also only a modest decline in inflation. ...
How the incipient inflation freak-out could wreck the recovery, by Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein: As predictable as August vacations, numerous economists and Federal Reserve watchers are arguing that the nation’s central bank must raise interest rates or risk an outbreak of spiraling inflation. Their campaign has heated up a bit in recent months, as one can cherry pick an indicator or two showing slightly faster growth in prices or wages.
But an objective analysis of the recent data, along with longer-term wage trends, reveals that the stakes of premature tightening are unacceptably high. The vast majority of the population depends on their paychecks, not their stock portfolios. If the Fed were to slam on the breaks by raising interest rates as soon as workers started to see some long-awaited real wage gains, it would be acting to prevent most of the country from seeing improvements in living standards.
To understand why continued support from the Fed is unlikely to be inflationary, consider three factors: the current state of key variables, the mechanics of inflationary pressures and the sharp rise in profits as a share of national income in recent years, along with its corollary, the fall in the compensation share. ...
Will the US inflate away its public debt?, by Ricardo Reis, Vox EU: Should the US Federal Reserve raise the inflation target from its current level of 2%? And will it? One benefit would be to make hitting the zero lower bound less likely, which would lead to less severe recessions, as Olivier Blanchard, Giovanni Dell’Ariccia, and Paolo Mauro (2010), Daniel Leigh (2010), and Laurence Ball (2013) have argued on this website. Other benefits of higher inflation that Kenneth Rogoff has been emphasising for a while might include accelerating the fall in real wages during the recession, and deflating away debt overhang (Rogoff 2014).1
One of the most indebted economic agents is the government. The federal debt limit has had to be raised repeatedly in the past few years, and at the end of the 2013 fiscal year the gross federal debt outstanding was 101% of GDP – the highest ratio since 1948. It is therefore natural to imagine – like Aizenman and Marion (2009) –that inflating away the public debt is possible, perhaps effective, and maybe even desirable. Using a simple rule of thumb to estimate the effect of higher inflation on the real value of debt, they venture that US inflation of 6% for four years could reduce the debt-GDP ratio by roughly 20%.
However, in our recent work we show that the probability that US inflation lowers the real value of the debt by even as little as 4.2% of GDP is less than 1% (Hilscher, Raviv and Reis, 2014). Why is this estimate so small? We show that there are two reasons: first, the private sector holds shorter maturity debt; second, high levels of inflation in the next few years are extremely unlikely. ...
One way or another, budget constraints will always hold. This is true as much for a household or a firm as it is for the central bank or the government as a whole. If the US government is to pay its debt, then it must either raise fiscal surpluses or hope for higher economic growth; the former is painful and the latter is hard to depend on. It is therefore tempting to yield to the mystique of central banking and believe in a seemingly feasible and reliable alternative: expansionary monetary policy and higher inflation.3 Crunching through the numbers we find that this alternative is not really there.
Tim Duy (see Dean Baker too):
On That ECI Number: The employment cost index is bearing the blame for today's market sell-off. Sam Ro at Business Insider reports:
...traders agree that today's sell-off is probably due to one stat: the 0.7% jump in the employment cost index (ECI) in the second quarter.
This number, which crossed at 8:30 a.m. ET, was a bit higher than the 0.5% expected by economists. And it represents a year-over-year growth rate of over 2%.
It's a big deal, because it's both a sign of inflation and labor market tightness, two forces that put pressure on the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy sooner than later.
The ECI gain was driven by the private sector (compensation for the public sector was up just 0.5%, same as the first quarter), and I would be cautious about reading too much into those numbers. The Fed will take the Q2 reading in context of the low Q1 reading:
The first two quarters averaged a just 0.46% increase, pretty much the same as recent trends of the past five years. And look at the year-over-year-trend:
Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Benefit costs for private sector workers also accelerated, but I think the Fed will likely interpret this as an anomaly:
Again, not out-of-line with readings both before and after the recession.
Bottom Line: I understand why market participants might be a little hypersensitive to anything related to wages. Indeed, wage growth is the missing link in the tight labor market story. But I don't think the Fed will react much to these numbers; they will place them in context of recent behavior, and in that context they are not much different than current trends. Watch the upcoming employment reports for signs of diminishing underutilization of labor - that is where the Fed will be looking.
Another false alarm on US inflation?, by Gavyn Davies: There have been a few false alarms about a possible upsurge in inflation in the US in the past few years... There is an entrenched belief among some observers that the huge rise in central bank balance sheets must eventually leak into consumer prices, and they have not been deterred by the lack of evidence in their favour so far.
Another such scare has been brewing recently. ... As so often in the past, this happened because of temporary spikes in commodity prices, especially oil. But these have usually been reversed before a generalised inflation process has been triggered. ....
It now seems probable that part of the recent jump in core inflation was just a random fluctuation in the data. There have been suggestions that seasonal adjustment may have been awry in the spring.
But the main reason for the lack of concern is that wage pressures in the economy have remained stable, on virtually all the relevant measures. ...
On today’s evidence, there has been yet another false alarm on US inflation.
What does "inflation addiction" tell us?:
Addicted to Inflation, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The first step toward recovery is admitting that you have a problem. That goes for political movements as well as individuals. So I have some advice for so-called reform conservatives trying to rebuild the intellectual vitality of the right: You need to start by facing up to the fact that your movement is in the grip of some uncontrollable urges. In particular, it’s addicted to inflation — not the thing itself, but the claim that runaway inflation is either happening or about to happen. ...
Yet despite being consistently wrong for more than five years,... at best, the inflation-is-coming crowd admits that it hasn’t happened yet, but attributes the delay to unforeseeable circumstances. ... At worst, inflationistas resort to conspiracy theories: Inflation is already high, but the government is covering it up. The ... inflation conspiracy theorists have faced well-deserved ridicule even from fellow conservatives. Yet the conspiracy theory keeps resurfacing. It has, predictably, been rolled out to defend Mr. Santelli.
All of this is very frustrating to those reform conservatives. If you ask what new ideas they have to offer, they often mention “market monetarism,” which translates under current circumstances to the notion that the Fed should be doing more, not less. ... But this idea has achieved no traction at all with the rest of American conservatism, which is still obsessed with the phantom menace of runaway inflation.
And the roots of inflation addiction run deep. Reformers like to minimize the influence of libertarian fantasies — fantasies that invariably involve the notion that inflationary disaster looms unless we return to gold — on today’s conservative leaders. But to do that, you have to dismiss what these leaders have actually said. ...
More generally, modern American conservatism is deeply opposed to any form of government activism, and while monetary policy is sometimes treated as a technocratic affair, the truth is that printing dollars to fight a slump, or even to stabilize some broader definition of the money supply, is indeed an activist policy.
The point, then, is that inflation addiction is telling us something about the intellectual state of one side of our great national divide. The right’s obsessive focus on a problem we don’t have, its refusal to reconsider its premises despite overwhelming practical failure, tells you that we aren’t actually having any kind of rational debate. And that, in turn, bodes ill not just for would-be reformers, but for the nation.
Via email, a comment on my comments about the difficulty of settling questions about the Phillips curve empirically:
Dear Professor Thoma,
I saw your recent post on the difficulty of empirically testing the Phillips Curve, and I just wanted to alert you to a survey paper on this topic that I wrote with Sophocles Mavroeidis and Jim Stock: "Empirical Evidence on Inflation Expectations in the New Keynesian Phillips Curve". It was published in the Journal of Economic Literature earlier this year (ungated working paper).
In the paper we estimate a vast number of specifications of the New Keynesian Phillips Curve (NKPC) on a common U.S. data set. The specification choices include the data series, inflation lag length, sample period, estimator, and so on. A subset of the specifications amount to traditional backward-looking (adaptive expectation) Phillips Curves. We are particularly interested in two key parameters: the extent to which price expectations are forward-looking, and the slope of the curve (how responsive inflation is to real economic activity).
Our meta-analysis finds that essentially any desired parameter estimates can be generated by some reasonable-sounding specification. That is, estimation of the NKPC is subject to enormous specification uncertainty. This is consistent with the range of estimates reported in the literature. Even if one were to somehow decide on a given specification, the uncertainty surrounding the parameter estimates is typically large. We give theoretical explanations for these empirical findings in the paper. To be clear: Our results do not reject the validity of the NKPC (or more generally, the presence of a short-run inflation/output trade-off), but traditional aggregate time series analysis is just not very informative about the nature of inflation dynamics.
PhD candidate in economics, Harvard University
New Keynesians do stuff like one-period-ahead price setting or Calvo pricing, in which prices are revised randomly. Practicing Keynesians have tended to rely on “accelerationist” Phillips curves in which unemployment determined the rate of change rather than the level of inflation.
So what has happened since 2008 is that both of these approaches have been found wanting: inflation has dropped, but stayed positive despite high unemployment. What the data actually look like is an old-fashioned non-expectations Phillips curve. And there are a couple of popular stories about why: downward wage rigidity even in the long run, anchored expectations.
What the data actually look like is an old-fashioned non-expectations Phillips curve.
OK, here is where we disagree. Certainly this is not true for the data overall. It seems like Paul is thinking that the system governing the relationship between inflation and output changes between something with essentially a vertical slope (a “Classical Phillips curve”) and a nearly flat slope (a “Keynesian Phillips Curve”). I doubt that this will fit the data particularly well and it would still seem to open the door to a large role for “supply shocks” – shocks that neither Paul nor I think play a big role in business cycles.
Simon Wren-Lewis also has something to say about this in his post from earlier today, Has the Great Recession killed the traditional Phillips Curve?:
Before the New Classical revolution there was the Friedman/Phelps Phillips Curve (FPPC), which said that current inflation depended on some measure of the output/unemployment gap and the expected value of current inflation (with a unit coefficient). Expectations of inflation were modelled as some function of past inflation (e.g. adaptive expectations) - at its simplest just one lag in inflation. Therefore in practice inflation depended on lagged inflation and the output gap.
After the New Classical revolution came the New Keynesian Phillips Curve (NKPC), which had current inflation depending on some measure of the output/unemployment gap and the expected value of inflation in the next period. If this was combined with adaptive expectations, it would amount to much the same thing as the FPPC, but instead it was normally combined with rational expectations, where agents made their best guess at what inflation would be next period using all relevant information. This would include past inflation, but it would include other things as well, like prospects for output and any official inflation target.
Which better describes the data? ...
[W]e can see why some ... studies (like this for the US) can claim that recent inflation experience is consistent with the NKPC. It seems much more difficult to square this experience with the traditional adaptive expectations Phillips curve. As I suggested at the beginning, this is really a test of whether rational expectations is a better description of reality than adaptive expectations. But I know the conclusion I draw from the data will upset some people, so I look forward to a more sophisticated empirical analysis showing why I’m wrong.
I don't have much to add, except to say that this is an empirical question that will be difficult to resolve empirically (because there are so many different ways to estimate a Phillips curve, and different specifications give different answers, e.g. which measure of prices to use, which measure of aggregate activity to use, what time period to use and how to handle structural and policy breaks during the period that is chosen, how should natural rates be extracted from the data, how to handle non-stationarities, if we measure aggregate activity with the unemployment rate, do we exclude the long-term unemployed as recent research suggests, how many lags should be included, etc., etc.?).
The Unemployment Cost of Below-Target Inflation: Recently, inflation in the United States has been consistently below its 2% target. The situation in Sweden is similar, but has lasted much longer. The Swedish Riksbank announced a 2% CPI inflation target in 1993, to apply beginning in 1995. By 1997, the target was credible in the sense that inflation expectations were consistently in line with the target. From 1997 to 2011, however, CPI inflation only averaged 1.4%. In a forthcoming paper in the AEJ: Macroeconomics, Lars Svensson uses the Swedish case to estimate the possible unemployment cost of inflation below a credible target...
The unemployment rate would be about 0.8% lower if inflation averaged 2% (and presumable lower still if inflation averaged slightly above 2%). ...
Svensson concludes with policy implications:"I believe the main policy conclusion to be that if one wants to avoid the average unemployment cost, it is important to keep average inflation over a longer period in line with the target, a kind of average inflation targeting (Nessén and Vestin 2005). This could also be seen as an additional argument in favor of price-level targeting...On the other hand, in Australia, Canada, and the U.K., and more recently in the euro area and the U.S., the central banks have managed to keep average inflation on or close to the target (the implicit target when it is not explicit) without an explicit price-level targeting framework.Should the central bank try to exploit the downward-sloping long-run Phillips curve and secretly, by being more expansionary, try to keep average inflation somewhat above the target, so as to induce lower average unemployment than for average inflation on target?...This would be inconsistent with an open and transparent monetary policy."
[See the full post for more details.]
Is Wage Growth the Problem or the Solution?, by Josh Bivens, WSJ Think Tank: Lots of talk has percolated recently about whether a sudden burst of rapid wage growth would force the Fed’s hand in pulling back monetary stimulus... Some who, like me, do not see any evidence of an imminent wage take-off have argued that the Fed should wait for some evidence of wage inflation before hitting the brakes.
These arguments essentially treat a pickup of wage growth as a problem to be guarded against. But the most conspicuous failure in the U.S. economy over the past generation, by far, has been too slow wage growth for the vast majority of American workers. ...
So one part of the “how much slack” debate that too often goes unaddressed is that there is not only a lack of evidence that wages are about to start growing rapidly but also that it wouldn’t be a big problem if they did. In fact, it would be a good thing.
I also think the economy is picking up, and I agree that as slack diminishes, we will probably see real wage growth and an uptick in inflation.
Moreover, note that this is largely consistent with the Federal Reserve's outlook as well. Recall St. Louis Federal Reserve President John Williams from April, via Bloomberg:
Williams, who forecast the Fed will start raising interest rates in the second half of next year, said inflation has “bottomed out” and will gradually accelerate to the central bank’s 2 percent target. He said prices have been held down by temporary forces such as a slowdown in health care costs.
The Federal Reserve has consistently predicted higher inflation, and consistently been surprised that that inflation has not yet arrived despite rapidly falling unemployment rates. It would appear, however, that their forecasts are finally coming true. Hence, I also agree with Calculated Risk when he says:
On inflation: I'm sympathetic to people like Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider who is looking for signs of inflation increasing; I'm starting to look for signs of real wage increases and inflation too. I just think inflation isn't a concern right now (Weisenthal was correct on inflation over the last several years in contrast to the people who were consistently wrong on inflation).
It is enough to simply say that inflation is coming. That in and of itself is insufficient. Any inflation call needs to be placed in the context of magnitude and expected monetary policy response. Regarding both, follow Calculated Risk's warning:
Monetary policy can't halt the violence in Iraq or make it rain in California - and this is why it is important to track various core measures of inflation.
The Fed doesn't target core inflation. They target headline inflation. But they also believe that headline inflation will revert to core, and as such tend to be more concerned with core inflation in excess of 2%. Consider the history of core inflation since 1985:
I included a 25pb "forecast error" band around the Federal Reserve stated 2% target for PCE inflation; no one believes they can consistently hit 2% in the short-term, hence it is a medium term target. The most obvious feature is that for the last twenty years, core measures of inflation have more often than not been at or below the the upper range of the Fed's error band, especially for core-PCE inflation. Average core-PCE inflation: 1.7%. Average core-CPI inflation: 2.2%. Indeed, if core-PCE were the target, it is fairly clear that the Fed would have been on average undershooting its objective for the past two decades.
It is simply difficult for me to become too worried about inflation given the history of the past twenty years - twenty years in which the US economy was at times substantially outperforming the current environment no less. Underlying inflation simply has not be a problem.
It was not a problem because the Federal Reserve tightened policy multiple times to preempt inflation. Expect the same during this cycle as well - the Fed will begin to gradually raise interest rates sometime next year, and they will maintain a gradual pace of tightening as long as they believe core-PCE will consistently average 2.25% or less. Currently, I anticipate the first rate hike will occur in the second quarter of 2015. If the unemployment rate falls to 5.5% by the end of this year, I would expect the first hike to be in the first quarter of 2015.
What about headline inflation? Headline inflation is at the mercy of the Middle East and the weather, leaving it more volatile than core:
Average PCE inflation since 1994: 1.9%. Average CPI inflation since 1994: 2.4%. Arguably a pretty good track record. It is really no wonder that it is so difficult to motivate the inflation lectures in Principles of Macroeconomics. All the students are twenty or less years old. They simply have no experience with inflation as a troubling 1970s-style phenomenon.
How will headline inflation influence monetary policy? If you combine headline inflation well in excess of 2.25% (I suspect something more like 3%) with tight labor markets and rapid wage/unit labor cost growth, I think the Fed will accelerate the pace of tightening (indeed, the second two conditions alone would probably do the trick). If we experience high headline inflation in the context of weak wage growth, expect the gradual pace of tightening to continue. Under those circumstances, the Fed will believe that headline inflation will depress demand and lessen inflationary pressures endogenously.
Bottom Line: If you are making a short-term bet on higher headline inflation, primarily you are making a bet on energy and food. That bet is about the Middle East and weather, not monetary policy. I don't have an opinion on that bet. If you are betting on inflation over the medium-term, primarily you are making a bet on higher core inflation. More to the point, you are betting against the Fed. You are essentially betting that the Fed will not do what it has done since Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volker - tighten policy in the face of credible inflationary pressures. I would think twice, maybe three times before making that bet.
Yifan Cao and Adam Shapiro:
Will Inflation Remain Low?, by Yifan Cao and Adam Shapiro, FRBSF Economic Letter: Over the past two years, inflation has remained persistently low. As measured by the core personal consumption expenditures price index (core PCEPI), which excludes volatile energy and food prices, annual inflation has been below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target since April 2012. Given the recent path of inflation, a natural question to consider is how likely it is to remain low in the future. Recent research using financial market forecasts (Bauer and Christensen 2014) shows that inflation will remain low going forward. In this Economic Letter, we examine the outlook for inflation using model-based forecasts.
We rely on the well-known Phillips curve model and examine its implications for inflation over the next two years. In its most basic form, this model posits that inflation depends on past inflation and a measure of slack in the overall economy. We show that a basic Phillips curve implies that inflation is likely to remain low over the next two years.
As with any forecasting model, the basic Phillips curve is sensitive to the assumptions inherent in its underlying structure. The basic model has very few components and leaves out several potentially important determinants of inflation. Indeed, over the years, numerous extensions to the basic Phillips curve framework have incorporated additional factors that are likely to affect the dynamics of inflation. In this Economic Letter, we focus on two simple extensions that are potentially important to the current inflation outlook.
The first extension incorporates anchored inflation expectations with the constraint that long-run inflation eventually returns to the Fed’s inflation target of 2% (see Williams 2006, Stock and Watson 2010, and Cogley, Primiceri, and Sargent 2010). The second extension uses an alternative measure of economic slack that excludes the long-term unemployed and focuses on the short-term unemployed (see Gordon 2013, Rudebusch and Williams 2014, and Watson 2014). A Phillips curve model that incorporates these two extensions predicts a path for inflation that is still low but is higher than implied by the basic model.
The basic Phillips curve model
The Phillips curve framework is based on the premise that, during times of economic prosperity when overall demand rises higher than overall supply in the economy, there will be increasing pressure to push prices up. By contrast, during times of economic distress when demand falls relative to supply, there is a downward pressure on prices. The model therefore suggests that inflation depends on some indicator of unused productive capacity in the economy, or “slack.” While there are numerous measures of slack, a popular choice among economists is a measure referred to as the unemployment gap. This gap is defined as the difference between the level of the current unemployment rate and what the unemployment rate should be if the economy were operating at its full capacity. This latter measure is referred to as NAIRU, or the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, and an estimate of it is produced by the Congressional Budget Office. The underlying intuition is that, when the economy is in distress, the unemployment rate will lie above NAIRU.
The basic Phillips curve describes the behavior of current inflation as a function of the past unemployment gap and past inflation. We estimate this model using data going back to 1985. We then use the parameters from our estimates to project future inflation, assuming that the unemployment gap follows some specified future path. We assume that the unemployment rate for the second quarter of 2014 will be 6.3%, as measured in May 2014, and thereafter it will move at a steady pace toward 5.55% by the end of 2015, which is the average unemployment rate projection from the Fed’s most recent Summary of Economic Projections (Board of Governors 2014).
Projected PCEPI inflation: Basic Phillips curve model
Sources: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and
Board of Governors, Summary of Economic Projections.
Figure 1 depicts actual inflation, measured by the annualized quarterly change in core PCEPI and the projection for inflation using the basic Phillips curve model. The basic model implies inflation is very persistent and projects core PCEPI inflation will remain below 2% through the end of 2015.
Extensions to the basic model
The basic Phillips curve is a parsimonious model and therefore leaves out a myriad of different variables that may affect the path of inflation. Indeed, throughout the past few decades, economists have extended the basic Phillips curve in a host of different ways. Looking at these variations can help give some insights into how certain components can change the outlook for future inflation. For this Economic Letter, we consider two simple extensions of the model that are particularly relevant given the current situation.
In our first exercise, we examine how much a credible Fed inflation target would affect the inflation forecast generated by the Phillips curve. Specifically, we impose a restriction that steady-state core PCEPI inflation lies at the Fed’s perceived inflation target, currently 2%. This is equivalent to assuming that, on average, consumers and firms believe that future inflation is “well anchored” around the Fed’s inflation target level (see Williams 2006). The assumption is reasonable if firms are forward-looking, setting prices based on expectations of future demand and cost, and incorporating the Fed’s explicit inflation target.
Projected inflation: Basic vs. anchored expectations
Sources: BEA and Board of Governors, Summary of Economic Projections.
Figure 2 depicts this Phillips curve model that imposes inflation expectations anchored at the Fed’s target, alongside the basic model projection. The modified projection is slightly higher, but still lies below 2% by the end of 2015. This slow movement of inflation from its current level, even assuming anchored expectations at 2%, highlights the strong persistence of inflation implied by the data and the model. Generally, most models of inflation dynamics agree on this key trait, that is, inflation moves sluggishly over time.
Breakdown of unemployment: Short-term vs. long-term
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In our second exercise, we alter the measure of slack used in the Phillips curve inflation forecast. The years since the most recent recession have been marked not just by higher overall unemployment, but also by different durations of unemployment taking divergent paths. As Figure 3 shows, the short-term unemployment rate, defined as the number of people out of work for less than 27 weeks divided by the labor force, has dropped precipitously since the most recent recession ended. In terms of the short-term unemployed, the economy is back to its historical average. By contrast, the long-term unemployment rate has remained elevated. As Robert Gordon (2013) and Mark Watson (2014) recently pointed out, these long-term unemployed may be exerting less upward pressure on wages and prices than the short-term unemployed. For instance, this may be the case if firms compete more for potential employees who have only recently become unemployed than for those whose skills may have eroded or who may otherwise be scarred by prolonged unemployment.
For this exercise, we alter our measure of economic slack to account for this dichotomy. Rather than using overall unemployment, we focus on the short-term unemployed. Specifically, we create a short-term unemployment gap measure by gauging how monthly rates over the 1985 to 2014 sample period deviate from the average short-term unemployment rate.
Projected inflation: Short-term unemployment as slack
Sources: BEA and Board of Governors, Summary of Economic Projections.
Figure 4 shows that the projections for inflation using the short-term unemployment gap exceed the projections of the basic model using the overall unemployment gap. If we also impose well-anchored inflation expectations, inflation rises at a relatively fast pace, surpassing 2% by the end of 2015. The reason for the higher inflation projection is that, in terms of the short-term unemployment rate, there is currently little economic slack. In fact, the short-term unemployment rate projects excess demand over the next two years, which implies strong upward pressure on prices.
Inflation, as measured by the core PCEPI, currently stands below the Fed’s 2% target. A simple empirical Phillips curve implies that inflation will remain relatively low in the near future. Estimating just how low depends a great deal on the assumptions in the model. We test two specific variations to the basic model, altering the measure of slack and the assumptions about inflation expectations. We find that these variations produce some higher projections for future inflation. However, it is difficult to prove that any one specification of the model is the true one. Instead, examining the effects of various specifications can be instructive in exploring how various factors affect forecasts of inflation.
Bauer, Michael D., and Jens H.E. Christensen. 2014. “Financial Market Outlook for Inflation.” FRBSF Economic Letter 2014-14 (May 12).
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. 2014. “Economic Projections of Federal Reserve Board Members and Federal Reserve Bank Presidents, June 2014.” Table 1, Summary of Economic Projections.
Cogley, Timothy, Giorgio E. Primiceri, and Thomas J. Sargent. 2010. “Inflation-Gap Persistence in the U.S.” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 2(1), pp. 43–69.
Gordon, Robert. 2013. “The Phillips Curve Is Alive and Well: Inflation and the NAIRU during the Slow Recovery.” NBER Working Paper 19390.
Rudebusch, Glenn, and John Williams. 2014. “A Wedge in the Dual Mandate: Monetary Policy and Long-Term Unemployment.” FRB San Francisco Working Paper 2014-14 (May).
Stock, James, and Mark Watson. 2010. “Modeling Inflation after the Crisis.” NBER Working Paper 16488.
Watson, Mark. 2014. “Inflation Persistence, the NAIRU, and the Great Recession.” American Economic Review 104(5, May), pp. 31–36.
Williams, John. 2006. “Inflation Persistence in an Era of Well-Anchored Inflation Expectations.” FRBSF Economic Letter 2006-27 (October 13).
Greg Ip echoes Tim Duy on 'Inflation Hysteria':
The spontaneous combustion theory of inflation: In the last few weeks, ominous warnings of inflation's imminent resurgence have multiplied... On factual, theoretical and strategic grounds, I find the panic over inflation perplexing.
First, factual. Yes, core CPI inflation has rebounded to 2% from 1.6% in February and today we learned that core PCE inflation has risen to 1.5% from 1.1%. What should we infer from this? Nothing. In the short run inflation oscillates...
Second, theoretical. ... The New Keynesian theory, to which the Fed subscribes, considers inflation a function of slack and expectations. The evidence is pretty persuasive that while slack has shrunk in the last five years..., it remains ample. Expectations, likewise, have oscillated but shown no trend up or down. ...
What if you consider inflation always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon? I consider the money supply pretty useless for forecasting anything, but even if were a monetarist, I wouldn't be worried..., M2 is up just 6.5% in the last year...
Third, strategic. ... Of course, the Fed might wait too long to tighten and inflation could eventually rise above the 2% target. But,... overshooting inflation is clearly a lesser evil than undershooting inflation. This, more than anything else, is why the panic over inflation is misplaced.
This is a good follow-up to my column (linked in the post below this one):
The Economy May Be improving. Worker Pay Isn’t, by Neil Irwin, Washington Post: The latest economic data out Tuesday morning was generally good. Home building activity rebounded nicely in May after weak results in April. Consumer prices rose 0.4 percent in May, such that inflation over the last year is now 2.1 percent, about in line with what the Federal Reserve aims for.
But that inflation news carried with it a depressing side note. ... Average hourly earnings for private-sector American workers rose about 49 cents an hour over the last year... But that wasn’t enough to cover inflation over the year, so in “real” or inflation adjusted terms, hourly worker pay fell 0.1 percent over the last 12 months. Weekly pay shows the same story...
Pause for just a second to consider that. Five years after the economic recovery began, American workers have gone the last 12 months without any real increase in what they are paid. ...
There had been some hints here and there that worker pay was starting to rise in the last few months... But it wasn’t sustained. ...
The latest numbers should give pause to any Federal Reserve officials ... who see wage pressures as evidence that the economy is overheating..., the evidence points to more of what we’ve seen for most of the last six years: Employees have little negotiating power to demand higher pay.
I have a new column:
The Latest Inflation Worry Is, As Usual, Overblown, by Mark Thoma: Worries about inflation have been pervasive ever since the Fed began trying to lift the economy out of recession. If the Fed does not tighten policy very soon we have been told repeatedly, an outbreak of inflation is inevitable. But so far, those worries have been unfounded.
The latest round of worries is tied to the belief that labor markets are tighter than it appears from standard statistics such as the unemployment rate. ...
You Can’t Have A Wage-Price Spiral Without Wages: There was a fairly characteristic argument over dinner last night about when the Fed should tighten. I’m in the camp that says it should wait until we see wages rising at least at pre-crisis rates. The other side says that wages are a lagging indicator, and if it waits that long the Fed will be behind the curve.
My answer to this is that I’m much more worried about a slide into a Japan-style trap of low or negative inflation than I am of a return to 70s-style stagflation, and that the big risk is that the Fed will tighten much too soon.
One thing should be clear: there is no sign of wage pressure... — and also no hint that we’ve been closing the gap between actual and potential output.
So my plea to the Fed: hold your fire.
That's my pleas as well.
Josh Bivins at the WSJ:
... Much recent discussion about potential price inflation seems to take as a given that it would be sparked by a pickup of wage growth. But looking at data from the non-financial corporate sector–which accounts for well more than half of all private-sector economic activity and for which rich data are available–what’s really striking about price growth since the end of the Great Recession is how much of it has been driven by rising profits, not rising labor costs. In fact, labor costs have been essentially flat between the end of the Great Recession and the first quarter of 2014. Profits earned per unit sold, on the other hand, have been rising at an average annual growth rate of nearly 9% since the recovery’s beginning. To the degree that there is any inflationary pressure in the U.S. economy over that time, it is surely not coming from labor costs. ...
Glenn Rudebusch and John Williams:
A Wedge in the Dual Mandate: Monetary Policy and Long-Term Unemployment, by Glenn D. Rudebusch and John C. Williams, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco: Abstract In standard macroeconomic models, the two objectives in the Federal Reserve's dual mandate -- full employment and price stability -- are closely intertwined. We motivate and estimate an alternative model in which long-term unemployment varies endogenously over the business cycle but does not a ect price in ation. In this new model, an increase in long-term unemployment as a share of total unemployment creates short-term tradeoffs for optimal monetary policy and a wedge in the dual mandate. In particular, faced with high long-term unemployment following the Great Recession, optimal monetary policy would allow inflation to overshoot its target more than in standard models.
I'll believe the Fed will allow *intentional overshooting* of its inflation target when I see it.
Predictions and Prejudice: The 2008 crisis and its aftermath have been a testing time for economists — and the tests have been moral as well as intellectual. After all, economists made very different predictions about the effects of the various policy responses to the crisis; inevitably, some of those predictions would prove deeply wrong. So how would those who were wrong react?
The results have not been encouraging.
Brad DeLong reads Allan Meltzer in the Wall Street Journal, issuing dire warnings about the inflation to come. Newcomers to this debate may not be fully aware of the history here, so let’s recap. Meltzer began banging the inflation drum five full years ago, predicting that the Fed’s expansion of its balance sheet would cause runaway price increases; meanwhile, some of us pointed both to the theory of the liquidity trap and Japan’s experience to say that this was not going to happen. ...
Tests in economics don’t get more decisive; this is where you’re supposed to say, “OK, I was wrong, and here’s why”.
Not a chance. And the thing is, Meltzer isn’t alone. Can you think of any prominent figure on that side of the debate who has been willing to modify his beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence? ...
Were the freshwater guys always just pretending to do something like science, when it was always politics? Is there simply too much money and too much vested interest behind their point of view?
Even if we do get a bit of inflation at some point, the people who have been warning about it repeatedly for the last half decade won't be able to say they predicted it in any real sense. Warning that there will be, say, a tornado every day for five years until one finally comes is not much of a track record, or helpful in any way. And if it never comes...
I have a new "explainer" -- their term -- at Moneywatch:
Explainer: Why is deflation so harmful?, by Mark Thoma, CBS News: John Makin, writing for conservative-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute, warned on Monday that "Now is the time to preempt deflation." Conservatives are usually inflation hawks. So, why are some of them calling for "aggressive monetization" to avoid the deflation threat in the U.S. and Europe?
Deflation is an actual fall in prices, rather than just the inflation rate getting lower, which is call disinflation. Recall that the fear of deflation was the main reason the Federal Reserve instituted the first round of quantitative easing. What was the Fed so afraid of?
There are three main reasons to fear deflation. ...
Class interests stand in the way of raising the inflation target:
Oligarchs and Money, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Econonerds eagerly await each new edition of the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook. ... This latest report ... in effect makes a compelling case for raising inflation targets above 2 percent, the current norm in advanced countries. ...
First, let’s talk about the case for higher inflation. ... It’s good for debtors — and therefore good for the economy as a whole when an overhang of debt is holding back growth and job creation. It encourages people to spend rather than sit on cash — again, a good thing in a depressed economy. And it can serve as a kind of economic lubricant, making it easier to adjust wages and prices...
But ... would it be enough to get back to 2 percent, the official inflation target...? Almost certainly not.
You see, monetary experts ... thought that 2 percent was high enough to ... make liquidity traps ... very rare. But America has now been in a liquidity trap for more than five years. Clearly, the experts were wrong.
Furthermore,... there’s strong evidence that changes in the global economy are increasing the tendency of investors to hoard cash..., thereby increasing the risk of liquidity traps unless the inflation target is raised. But the report never dares to say this outright.
So why is the obvious unsayable? One answer is that serious people like to prove their seriousness by calling for tough choices and sacrifice (by other people, of course). They hate being told about answers that don’t involve more suffering.
And behind this attitude, one suspects, lies class bias. Doing what America did after World War II — using low interest rates and inflation to erode the debt burden — is often referred to as “financial repression,” which sounds bad. But who wouldn’t prefer modest inflation and a bit of asset erosion to mass unemployment? Well, you know who: the 0.1 percent... Modestly higher inflation, say 4 percent, would be good for the vast majority of people, but it would be bad for the superelite. And guess who gets to define conventional wisdom.
Now, I don’t think that class interest is all-powerful. Good arguments and good policies sometimes prevail even if they hurt the 0.1 percent — otherwise we would never have gotten health reform. But we do need to make clear what’s going on, and realize that in monetary policy as in so much else, what’s good for oligarchs isn’t good for America.
The Fed has consistently missed its inflation target:
Monetary Policy And Secular Stagnation, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: ...The Fed’s goal is to achieve the target of 2% inflation in the long-term, and its preferred price index is the core personal consumption expenditure price index that excludes the volatile food and energy sectors (or core PCE for short). So how has the Fed performed in achieving its target of 2% inflation in the past 15 years?
The chart above plots the implied core PCE index if inflation had met its 2% target (red line), and the actual core PCE index (blue line) starting from 1999. ... The divergence between target and actual inflation is all the more striking given the elevated rate of unemployment during the sample period. ...
It is hard to fault the Fed for not trying... The Fed’s difficulty in maintaining a 2% target is not just about the Great Recession. The divergence started in the 2000′s... In fact the only period when the blue line runs parallel to the red (implying a 2% rate of inflation for a while) is the 2004-2006 period when the economy witnessed an unprecedented growth in credit. ...
What we are witnessing is the limit of what monetary policy alone can do. Sometimes there is a tendency to assume that the Fed can “target” any inflation rate it wishes, or that it can target the overall price level – the so-called nominal GDP targeting. The evidence suggests that the Fed may not be so omnipotent. ...
Another interpretation is that, at least during normal times, the Fed does have quite a bit of control over the inflation rate, but it treats 2% inflation as a ceiling (i.e. inflation must never rise above 2%) rather than a central tendency (i.e. inflation is allowed to fluctuate both above and below the 2% target so that, on average, inflation is 2%).
Following up on the post below this one, from the Dallas Fed today:
Trimmed Mean PCE Inflation Rate: The Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate is an alternative measure of core inflation in the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE). It is calculated by staff at the Dallas Fed, using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
The Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate for January was an annualized 0.6 percent. According to the BEA, the overall PCE inflation rate for January was 1.2 percent, annualized, while the inflation rate for PCE excluding food and energy was 1.1 percent.
The tables below present data on the Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate and, for comparison, the overall PCE inflation and the inflation rate for PCE excluding food and energy. The tables give annualized one-month, six-month and 12-month inflation rates.
|One-month PCE inflation, annual rate|
|Six-month PCE inflation, annual rate|
|12-month PCE inflation|
|NOTE: These data are subject to revision|
The following chart plots the evolution of the distribution of price increases in the monthly component data over the past year. The chart shows the percentage of components each month, weighted by their shares in total spending, for which prices grew between 0 and 2 percent (at an annual rate); between 2 and 3 percent; between 3 and 5 percent; between 5 and 10 percent; and more than 10 percent.
Why has the Fed been so concerned about inflation?
The Inflation Obsession, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Recently the Federal Reserve released transcripts of its monetary policy meetings during the fateful year of 2008. And boy, are they discouraging reading. ... The economy was plunging, yet all many people at the Fed wanted to talk about was inflation. ...
Historians of the Great Depression have long marveled at the folly of policy discussion at the time. For example, the Bank of England, faced with a devastating deflationary spiral, kept obsessing over the imagined threat of inflation. ... But it turns out that modern monetary officials facing financial crisis were just as obsessed with the wrong thing as their predecessors three generations before.
And it wasn’t just a bad call in 2008..., inflation obsession has persisted, year after year, even as events have refuted its supposed justifications. And this tells us that something more than bad analysis is at work. At a fundamental level, it’s political.
This is fairly obvious... The overall picture is that most conservatives are inflation obsessives, and nearly all inflation obsessives are conservative.
Why...? In part it reflects the belief that the government should never seek to mitigate economic pain, because the private sector always knows best. ...
The flip side of this antigovernment attitude is the conviction that any attempt to boost the economy, whether fiscal or monetary, must produce disastrous results — Zimbabwe, here we come! And this conviction is so strong that it persists no matter how wrong it has been, year after year.
Finally, all this ties in with a predilection for acting tough and inflicting punishment whatever the economic conditions. ...William Keegan once described this as “sado-monetarism,” and it’s very much alive today.
Does any of this matter? It’s true that the Fed hasn’t surrendered to the sado-monetarists. Notably, it didn’t panic in 2011, when another blip in gasoline prices briefly raised the headline rate of inflation, and Republicans began inveighing against the “debasement” of the dollar.
But I’d argue that the clamor from inflation obsessives has intimidated the Fed, which might otherwise have done more. And it has also been part of a general climate of opposition to anything that might address our continuing jobs crisis.
As I suggested, we used to marvel at the wrongheadedness of policy makers during the Great Depression. But when the Great Recession struck, and we were given a chance to do better, we ended up repeating all the same mistakes.
Do Oil Prices Predict Inflation?, by Mehmet Pasaogullari and Patricia Waiwood, FRB Cleveland: Some analysts pay particular attention to oil prices, thinking they might give an advance signal of changes in inflation. However, using a variety of statistical tests, we find that adding oil prices does little to improve forecasts of CPI inflation. Our results suggest that higher oil prices today do not necessarily signal higher CPI inflation next year, although they do help to explain short-term movements in the CPI. ...
In the long-run, inflation is driven primarily by changes in money growth, but over shorter timeframes the connection is not as strong:
Prices from a Monetary Perspective, by Owen F. Humpage and Margaret Jacobson, FRB Cleveland: Economists like to remind people that inflation and deflation are monetary phenomena and that they ultimately stem from central banks’ monetary policies. Inflation results when a nation’s central bank creates more money than its public wants to hold, and deflation occurs when a central bank creates too little. The connection between central banks’ monetary policies and inflation, however, is imprecise and often drawn out over many years. This imprecision happens for two reasons: Not all price changes stem from inflation; some instead reflect an emerging scarcity or abundance of particular goods. And the public’s demand for money, the amount it wants to hold, often is not very stable. Economists can, however, employ a simple technique that helps us see more clearly the relationship between money and price movements.
To get at the monetary nature of inflation and deflation, economists can divide price changes into two components: excess-money growth and changes in the velocity of money. Excess-money growth is simply the difference between the growth of money and the growth in real output. The velocity of money, in theory, represents the average rate at which money changes hands in a given time period. In practice, economists calculate velocity as anything that affects aggregate prices besides excess-money growth. Velocity might, for example, respond to relative price changes, price controls, and factors that affect money demand besides real GDP, like interest rates or inflation expectations.
Applying this framework to the U.S. GDP deflator—a very broad price measure—provides an example. The GDP deflator rose 1.3 percent on average during the first three quarters of 2013. This average price change consisted of a 4.3 percent increase in excess-money growth and a 3 percent decline in velocity. As this method shows, the connection between aggregate price movements and U.S. money growth over the course of 2013 was so loose as to be unapparent.
This imprecision is not unusual. Over the short run—a year or two—excess-money growth explains very little of the changes in the GDP deflator. If excess-money growth explained all of the annual price changes, the dots in the scatter plot below would line up along the 45-degree line, and all price movements would be inflation—strictly a monetary phenomenon. Instead, the dots are spread about, showing almost no correspondence between the annual change in the GDP deflator and excess-money growth. The simple correlation coefficient is only 0.10. Moreover, the typical annual dispersion of price changes from excess-money growth is about 4 percentage points, but there are some enormous outliers. Many of the largest deviations occurred during the Great Depression and the Second World War, both highly disruptive and uncertain economic events. Likewise many dots associated with the recent Great Recession years also seem well off the mark. Clearly, central banks do not have much control over aggregate-price movements on a year-to-year basis.
As time passes, the effects of nonmonetary events (velocity) on the GDP deflator fade and the connection between excess-money growth and prices starts to predominate. Five-year averages of excess-money growth and price changes, for example, line up more closely along the 45 degree line. At this interval, the correlation between excess-money growth and price changes increases to 0.72, and the typical annual dispersion of price changes from excess-money growth falls by roughly half, to about 2 percentage points. Still, big outlying observations exist; particularly noticeable are again those associated with the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The velocity of money often falls during recessions or shortly thereafter, and its decline can persist for a long time after an economic recovery has taken hold. This is certainly true today. Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, the velocity of money in the United States has fallen sharply, at an annual average rate of 3.1 percent. This decline has offset average annual excess-money growth of 4.9 percent, resulting in an average annual increase in the GDP deflator of 1.8 percent.
While many factors affect prices that are beyond the Federal Reserve’s direct control, eventually monetary policy tends to re-emerge as the key driver of inflation. After abstracting from short-term movements caused by economic disruptions, recessions, and wars, inflation is ultimately a monetary phenomenon: since 1929, the average annual percentage increase in the GDP deflator has been 2.8 percent, and the average annual growth in excess money has been 2.9 percent.
Robots and Economic Luddites: They Aren't Taking Our Jobs Quickly Enough: Lydia DePillis warns us in the Post of 8 ways that robots will take our jobs. It is amazing how the media have managed to hype the fear of robots taking our jobs at the same time that they have built up fears over huge budget deficits bankrupting the country. You don't see the connection? Maybe you should be an economics reporter for a leading national news outlet.
Okay, let's get to basics. The robots taking our jobs story is a story of labor surplus, too many workers, too few jobs. Everything that needs to be done is being done by the robots. There is nothing for the rest of us to do but watch.
There can of course be issues of distribution. If the one percent are able to write laws that allow them to claim everything the robots produce then they can make most of us very poor. But this is still a story of society of plenty. We can have all the food, shelter, health care, clean energy, etc. that we need; the robots can do it for us.
Okay, now let's flip over to the budget crisis that has the folks at the Washington Post losing sleep. This is a story of scarcity. We are spending so much money on our parents' and grandparents' Social Security and Medicare that there is no money left to educate our kids.
Some confused souls may say that the problem may not be an economic one, but rather a fiscal problem. The government can't raise the tax revenue to pay for both the Social Security and Medicare for the elderly and the education of our kids. This is confused because if we are living in the world where the robots are doing all the work then the government really doesn't need to raise tax revenue, it can just print the money it needs to back its payments.
Okay, now everyone is completely appalled. The government is just going to print trillions of dollars? That will send inflation through the roof, right? Not in the world where robots are doing all the work it won't. If we print money it will create more demands for goods and services, which the robots will be happy to supply. As every intro econ graduate knows, inflation is a story of too much money chasing too few goods and services. But in the robots do everything story, the goods and services are quickly generated to meet the demand. Where's the inflation, robots demanding higher wages?
In short, you can craft a story where we have huge advances in robot technology so that the need for human labor is drastically reduced. You can also craft a story where an aging population leads to too few workers being left to support too many retirees. However, you can't believe both at the same time unless you write on economic issues for the Washington Post.
Just in case anyone cares about what the data says on these issues, the robots don't seem to be winning out too quickly. Productivity growth has slowed sharply over the last three years and it is well below the pace of 1947-73 golden age. (Robots are just another form of good old-fashioned productivity growth.)
On the other hand, the scarcity mongers don't have much of a case either. Even if productivity growth stays at just a 1.5 percent annual rate its impact on raising wages and living standards will swamp any conceivable tax increases associated with caring for a larger population of retirees.
My latest "Explainer" At CBS MoneyWatch:
Should CPI vor PCE be used, and should it be core or overall inflation? It depends...
Ramesh Ponnuru is paranoid about Republican paranoia:
Republican Inflation Paranoia Is Political Suicide, by Ramesh Ponnuru: In the years since the financial crisis, Republican politicians have increasingly embraced a “hard money” critique of the Federal Reserve.
They’ve warned that its policies are too loose and dangerously inflationary, even as inflation has stayed well below historical levels. Now some conservatives are arguing that criticizing loose money should be a more prominent part of their case to voters. It’s a winning issue, they say, and Republicans should make the most of it.
They’re wrong on both counts. ...
Republicans do need to rethink their approach to economics. Intensifying their already excessive focus on inflation isn’t the way to do it.
Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville:
Greenspan’s dilemma revived, by Izabella Kaminska: Deficit continues to be a dirty word in the US..., whilst the idea that the US is an unsustainable deficit spender increasingly propagates in mainstream circles.
But, as Ethan Harris at Bank of America Merrill Lynch shows on Monday, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the US deficit is contracting at a relatively speedy rate... And, bar the employment situation..., all of this comes in the context of an ever more quickly reviving economy...
Which leaves the following as the most notable point being made by Harris, in reference to the natural unemployment rate (NAIRU):
If inflation persists below 1.5%, we would expect the interest rate forecast to drop further. We also expect the FOMC to cut its unemployment rate guidepost for hiking rates from 6.5% to 5.5% or lower. Ultimately, the Fed may decide to “overshoot” the inflation-neutral NAIRU to force inflation back up to target.
This in itself could become ever more crucial in the months to come. In short, it echoes exactly the same sort of dilemma Alan Greenspan faced all the way back in 1996. Do you raise rates despite little obvious inflationary pressure and risk stagnating growth? Or do you give the notion of a “new economy” — the idea that technological change is fuelling a boom in productivity and alleviating inflationary pressures — the benefit of the doubt?
Janet Yellen, it must be said, is uniquely positioned to make that call if she is confirmed. Not only was she there the first time around, she may have had more input on Greenspan’s ultimate decision than many remember. Call it something akin to mea culpa dotcom crash hindsight. ...
Paul Krugman (the red line in the graph is the CPI):
Free-Floating Inflation Hysteria: Brad DeLong has some fun with Senator Pat Roberts, who has gone from praising Janet Yellen in August to denouncing her as a dangerous inflationist now. So the senator is willing to say whatever the Tea Party wants him to say; big surprise.
What remains notable, however, is just what all Republicans are obliged to say: Ron Paul monetary theory has become obligatory:
Vice Chair Yellen will continue the destructive and inflationary policy of pouring billions of newly printed money every month into our economy, and artificially holding interest rates to near zero. This policy has been in place far too long.
So, the Fed began rapidly expanding its balance sheet when Lehman fell — more than five years ago. Here’s the result of that “destructive and inflationary” policy so far:
It’s not often that you see an economic theory fail so utterly and completely. Yet that theory’s grip on the GOP has only strengthened as its failure becomes ever more undeniable. ...
Why is Chicken Little so popular?:
Addicted to the Apocalypse, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Once upon a time, walking around shouting “The end is nigh” got you labeled a kook... These days, however,... you more or less have to subscribe to fantasies of fiscal apocalypse to be considered respectable.
And I do mean fantasies. Washington has spent the past three-plus years in terror of a debt crisis that keeps not happening, and, in fact, can’t happen to a country like the United States, which has its own currency and borrows in that currency. Yet the scaremongers can’t bring themselves to let go.
Consider, for example, Stanley Druckenmiller... Or consider the deficit-scold organization Fix the Debt, led by the omnipresent Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. ... [gives examples of doomsaying] ...
As I’ve already suggested, there are two remarkable things about this kind of doomsaying. ... On the Chicken Little aspect: It’s actually awesome, in a way, to realize how long cries of looming disaster have filled our airwaves and op-ed pages. For example, I just reread an op-ed article by Alan Greenspan ... warning that our budget deficit will lead to soaring inflation and interest rates ... published in June 2010... — and both inflation and interest rates remain low. So has the ex-Maestro reconsidered his views after having been so wrong for so long? Not a bit. ...
Meanwhile, about that oft-prophesied, never-arriving debt crisis:... two and half years ago, Mr. Bowles warned that we were likely to face a fiscal crisis within around two years... They just assume that it would cause soaring interest rates and economic collapse, when both theory and evidence suggest otherwise. ...
Look at Japan, a country that, like America, has its own currency and borrows in that currency, and has much higher debt relative to G.D.P. than we do. Since taking office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, in effect,... persuaded investors that deflation is over and inflation lies ahead, which reduces the attractiveness of Japanese bonds. And the effects on the Japanese economy have been entirely positive! ...
Why, then, should we fear a debt apocalypse here? Surely, you may think, someone in the debt-apocalypse community has offered a clear explanation. But nobody has.
So the next time you see some serious-looking man in a suit declaring that we’re teetering on the precipice of fiscal doom, don’t be afraid. He and his friends have been wrong about everything so far, and they literally have no idea what they’re talking about.
Calculated Risk notes that inflation is still running below the Fed's target:
Key Measures Show Low Inflation in August: The Cleveland Fed released the median CPI and the trimmed-mean CPI this morning...
This graph shows the year-over-year change for ... four key measures of inflation. On a year-over-year basis, the median CPI rose 2.1%, the trimmed-mean CPI rose 1.7%, the CPI rose 1.5%, and the CPI less food and energy rose 1.8%. Core PCE is for July and increased just 1.2% year-over-year.
On a monthly basis, median CPI was at 2.1% annualized, trimmed-mean CPI was at 1.5% annualized, and core CPI increased 1.5% annualized. Also core PCE for July increased 0.9% annualized.
These measures indicate inflation is below the Fed's target.
Unemployment is too high and inflation is too low (and inflation expectations are stable). Why are we talking about tapering?
David Andolfatto wants you to explain why he's wrong about NGDP targeting (this is part of a much longer post):
...let's take a look at the (log) PCE from 1990 onward, together with linear trend:
The PCE inflation rate since 1990 averaged 2.09% per annum.
What's interesting about this diagram is that even though the Fed does not officially target the PCE price level, the data above suggests that the Fed is behaving as if it does.
As a price-level (PL) target is equivalent to a nominal GDP (NGDP) target in a wide class of macroeconomic models (especially under the assumption of constant productivity growth), then what more does the NGDP crowd expect from an official NGDP target? Seems to me that they are just asking for more price inflation and wishfully hoping that some of the subsequent rise in NGDP will take the form of real income.
Tell me I'm wrong (and why).
One more -- Antonio Fatas is reevaluating how he teaches about inflation:
Teaching about inflation is fun (but dangerous): Teaching about inflation is fun. Most people who have never been exposed to macroeconomics before are surprised when you show the correlation between inflation and money growth in a large sample of countries. You then produce some data about some hyperinflation countries that include a picture of some bank note with lots of zeros (thank you Zimbabwe) and the students love it. ...
The notion that inflation is (mainly) a monetary phenomenon is new to many students and going through the history of inflation and monetary policy regimes is a very rewarding exercise for a teacher.
But there is a problem with the way we teach inflation: in many countries inflation has been under control for decades now. And this control does not come from the fact that monetary policy was anchored to a physical commodity such as gold but from the actions and credibility of the central bank. ...
In this environment, inflation is almost constant and the correlation between money supply and inflation is inexistent. But we leave this fact for the last five minutes of the class given how much fun it was to talk about Germany in 1923, Hungary in 1946 and Zimbabwe in 2008.
So given the way we have been teaching about inflation it is not that surprising that for the last five years some have been worrying so much about inflation or even hyperinflation as central banks balance sheets have grown very fast. [There is, of course, the mistake that many do of not understanding the difference between the monetary base and the money supply but I will leave that for another post.]
Next time I teach my macroeconomics course I will spend less time talking about inflation and if I talk about it, I will not show the picture of the one hundred trillion dollars note from Zimbabwe, instead I will spend more time about the incredible stability of inflation in many countries. ...
The point about the difference between the monetary base and the money supply is important. Money piling up in banks is not inflationary, it has to be spent to create the demand needed to force prices up. Having the money stockpiled and available makes people and businesses feel safer in bad economic times, but once things improve there's a danger that quite a bit of the pent up demand could hit the marketplace all at once creating large upward pressure on prices. So long as the Fed can vacuum up the money through open market operations, or hold it in place with mechanisms such as paying higher interest on reserves as conditions improve there won't be an inflation problem. I am confident the Fed can do this, my fear is that they will get antsy and start the process too soon which could harm economic growth.
Noah Smith says moderate inflation would be a good thing (each point is explained in detail in his post):
Learn to stop worrying and love (moderate) inflation, by Noah Smith: The Federal Reserve's unprecedented programs of Quantitative Easing have not, as many predicted, resulted in substantially increased inflation. But I view this as a failure of the policy, not a success.
Inflation is grossly underappreciated. Economists consistently fail to educate the public about what they mean by the term "inflation". People think it just means "a rise in the price of something" (though that's not really what it means). And people don't like prices rising, because it seems like it should make stuff more expensive - and who wants that?
We're told that inflation is a necessary cost of improving the economy. And in fact, that's exactly what monetarist macroeconomists (think of Mike Woodford, Miles Kimball, etc.) tell us that it is. We must accept higher inflation, they tell us, in order to also get better GDP growth. But given our 'druthers, they tell us, we'd rather have very low inflation. No one wants to become like Zimbabwe, or the Weimar Republic, right??
I'm not so sure this is true, and I'll explain why later. But first, let me dispel a couple of popular myths about inflation.
Popular Inflation Myth 1: "Inflation means I can't buy as much stuff." ...
Popular Inflation Myth 2: "Inflation punishes savers." ...
Inflation Benefit 1: Your debt goes away. ...
Inflation Benefit 2: The federal government debt goes away. ...
Inflation Benefit 3 (?): "Balance sheet recession" might go away! ...
Now, I have to be fair, so I should mention that of course inflation has its costs as well. One of these is the pure nuisance cost - constantly changing prices is a nuisance, and that nuisance can become extremely economically damaging in a hyperinflation. Second, high inflation leads to variable inflation, increasing uncertainty and depressing investment. And finally there might even be government moral hazard; if the government decides it can simply inflate away its debt, it might engage in more irresponsible spending. These costs are all especially severe for higher levels of inflation.
But anyway I hope, after reading this, that you will be a little more wary of all those warnings about the evils of inflation. stop listening to poorly informed politicians, "Austrian" forum trolls, and your uncle who thinks he's still in the 70s. Inflation does not rob the poor man of his hard-earned wages; in fact, it is more likely to unburden the poor man from his crippling debt. And inflation helps get rid of all that debt, both public and private, that many people believe is clogging up our economic system.
We don't want to let inflation get out of hand. But a higher Fed inflation target for the next decade - say, 4% or 5%, instead of our current 2% - would probably be a good thing for most Americans.
I'm not so sure about raising the target that high for an entire decade, but overshooting the 2% target (o raising the target) during the recovery could have helped to speed the return to normal.
One of the big lessons of the recession for me is that inflation isn't so easy to create as the textbooks imply when the economy is mired in a severe recession. It's not a matter of just increasing bank reserves -- if the reserves sit idle in banks, even at extraordinarily low interest rates, then there increase in aggregate demand and no upward pressure on prices. Somehow, the idle reserves must get into the hands of people who will use them for consumption or investment (and government can fulfill this role as well), but we haven't been willing to pursue those polices.
Anyway, here's Paul Krugman arguing that if I'd just internalized the message in his 1998 paper, I wouldn't have been surprised at all!:
Hawks, Doves, and Ostriches, by Paul Krugman: More than four years ago Allan Meltzer issued a dire prediction: the Fed’s policy of expanding its balance sheet will lead to high inflation. We’re still waiting for that to happen. So it might behoove Meltzer to admit that he was wrong and ask where his analysis went wrong.
OK, you can stop laughing now. What Meltzer does, instead, is complain that the Fed has undermined his perfectly fine analysis. You see, those dastardly officials are paying interest on reserves – a hefty 0.25 percent – and this has led to something totally unexpected:
The US Federal Reserve Board has pumped out trillions of dollars of reserves, but never have so many reserves produced so little monetary growth. Neither the hawks nor the doves (nor anyone else) expected that.
So the money supply broadly defined hasn’t taken off – a complete surprise! – and hence no inflation.
Except that this isn’t at all a surprise; it’s exactly what those of us who had analyzed the liquidity trap predicted would happen when you expand the monetary base in an economy at the zero lower bound. ...
Nor was it just theory. Meltzer claims support from the lessons of history; but the relevant history is of other liquidity-trap episodes. Consider, in particular, the case of Japan’s quantitative easing in the early 2000s...
Unlike the Fed, the Bank of Japan didn’t pay interest on reserves. Nonetheless, a huge increase in the monetary base just sat there, mostly in the form of increased bank reserves – the same as what happened in America later.
We might add further that if the Fed can neutralize the supposedly awesome inflationary effect of quantitative easing by paying ¼ percent interest on reserves, it should be very easy to contain the inflationary threat in future.
Anyway, I do get kind of annoyed here. Some of us came into the global crisis with a well-worked-out theory of monetary and fiscal policy in a liquidity trap; the predictions of that theory have been completely consistent with actual experience. People like Meltzer chose to disregard all of that, insisting that terrible inflation (and high interest rates) were just around the corner. You almost never get that clear a test of rival economic views, and the results should be considered decisive.
Instead, the usual suspects stick their heads in the sand and pretend that they have been right all along. ...
Nick Rowe checks in with David Laidler:
David Laidler goes meta on "What would Milton have said?": I tried to persuade David Laidler to join us in the econoblogosphere, especially given recent arguments about Milton Friedman. I have not yet succeeded, but David did say I could use these two paragraphs from his email:However - re. the "what Milton would have said" debate - When I was just getting started in the UK, I got thoroughly fed up with being told "what Maynard [Keynes] would have said" -- always apparently that the arguments of people like me were nonsense and therefore didn't have to be addressed in substance. I took a vow then never to channel the ghosts of dead economists as a substitute for analysis, and still regard it as binding!MF was a big supporter of QE for Japan at the end of the '90s. I know that, because one of his clearest expressions of the view was in response to a question I put to him on a video link at a BofC conference. But so was Allan Meltzer at that time, and he is now (a) virulently opposed to QE for the US and (b) on the record (New York Times, Nov. 4th 2010 "Milton Friedman vs. the Fed.") as being sure that Milton would have agreed with him. In my personal view (a) demonstrates that even as wise an economist as Meltzer can sometimes give dangerous policy advice, and (b) shows that he knows how to deploy pure speculation to make a rhetorical splash when he does so. Who could possibly know what Milton would have said? He isn't here.
David Laidler is probably the person best qualified to answer the question "What would Milton have said?", and that's his answer.
Speaking of Meltzer and substitutes for analysis, his last op-ed warns yet again about inflation. Mike Konczal responds:
Denialism and Bad Faith in Policy Arguments, by Mike Konczal: Here’s the thing about Allan Meltzer: he knows. Or at least he should know. It’s tough to remember that he knows when he writes editorials like his latest, "When Inflation Doves Cry." This is a mess of an editorial, a confused argument about why huge inflation is around the corner. “Instead of continuing along this futile path, the Fed should end its open-ended QE3 now... Those who believe that inflation will remain low should look more thoroughly and think more clearly. ”
But he knows. Because here’s Meltzer in 1999 with "A Policy for Japanese Recovery": “Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Bank of Japan and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations.”
He knows that there’s an actual debate, with people who are “thinking clearly,” about monetary policy at the zero lower bound as a result of Japan. He participated in it. So he must have been aware of Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman, Michael Woodford, and Lars Svensson all also debating it at the same time. But now he’s forgotten it. In fact, his arguments for Japan are the exact opposite of what they are now for the United States. ...
The problem here isn’t that Meltzer may have changed his mind on his advice for Japan. If that’s the case, I’d love to read about what led to that change. The problem is one of denialism, where the person refuses to acknowledge the actually existing debate, and instead pantomimes a debate with a shadow. It involves the idea of a straw man, but sometimes it’s simply not engaging at all. For Meltzer, the extensive debate about monetary policy at the zero lower bound is simply excised from the conversation, and people who only read him will have no clue that it was ever there.
There’s also another dimension that I think is even more important, which is whether or not the argument, conclusions, or suggestions are in good faith. ...
This Time Was Predictable, by Paul Krugman: Bruce Bartlett continues his interesting series on inflation panic, this time focusing on the economists and politicians who keep predicting runaway inflation year after year after year, and never seem to acknowledge having been wrong. ...
And that ... gets at the true sin of the inflationphobes. They were wrong; well, that happens to everyone now and then. But the question is what you do when events prove your doctrine wrong — especially when they unfold almost exactly the way people with a different doctrine predicted. Do you admit that maybe your premises were misguided? Do you admit that maybe those other guys were on to something? Or do you just keep predicting the same thing, never admitting your past mistakes?
Guess what the answer turned out to be.
From Calculated Risk:
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.5 percent in June on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.8 percent before seasonal adjustment. The gasoline index rose sharply in June and accounted for about two thirds of the seasonally adjusted all items change. ... The index for all items less food and energy increased 0.2 percent in June, the same increase as in May. ...
On a year-over-year basis, CPI is up 1.8 percent, and core CPI is up also up 1.6 percent. Both are below the Fed's target. ...
Inflation is too low (and unemployment is too high):
Yes, We Have No Inflation, by Binyamin Appelbaum, NY Times: Inflation remained sluggish in May. Prices continued to rise at the slowest pace in at least half a century, up just 1.1 percent over the previous year, the Bureau of Economic Analysis said Thursday. ...
As he goes on to explain:
Slow inflation may sound like a good thing, but it’s not. Particularly not now.
Ben S. Bernanke ... and other Fed officials have shown relatively few signs of concern lately. The Fed’s most recent policy statement, and its economic projections, both released last week, show that Fed officials expect the pace of inflation to increase gradually. ...
“There are a number of transitory factors that may be contributing to the very low inflation rate,” Mr. Bernanke said last week. “For example, the effects of the sequester on medical payments, the fact that nonmarket prices are extraordinarily low right now. So these are some things that we expect to reverse and we expect to see inflation come up a bit. If that doesn’t happen, we will obviously have to take some measures to address that. And we are certainly determined to keep inflation not only — we want to keep inflation near its objective, not only avoiding inflation that’s too high, but we also want to avoid inflation that’s too low.”
If they "want to avoid inflation that’s too low," they should be doing more about it now instead of coming up with reasons, yet again, to wait and see. Why not say, for example, we'll do more now, and if it turns out we overshoot our target a bit due to medical prices going up, "we will obviously have to take some measures to address that."
I need a quick post today, so I'll turn to the most natural blogger I can think of, Paul Krugman:
Debased Economics: John Boehner’s remarks on recent financial events have attracted a lot of unfavorable comment, and they should. ... I mean, he’s the Speaker of the House at a time when economic issues are paramount; shouldn’t he have basic familiarity with simple economic terms?
But the main thing is that he’s clinging to a story about monetary policy that has been refuted by experience about as thoroughly as any economic doctrine of the past century. Ever since the Fed began trying to respond to the financial crisis, we’ve had dire warnings about looming inflationary disaster. When the GOP took the House, it promptly called Bernanke in to lecture him about debasing the dollar. Yet inflation has stayed low, and the dollar has remained strong — just as Keynesians said would happen.
Yet there hasn’t been a hint of rethinking from leading Republicans; as far as anyone can tell, they still get their monetary ideas from Atlas Shrugged.
Oh, and this is another reminder to the “market monetarists”, who think that they can be good conservatives while advocating aggressive monetary expansion to fight a depressed economy: sorry, but you have no political home. In fact, not only aren’t you making any headway with the politicians, even mainstream conservative economists like Taylor and Feldstein are finding ways to advocate tighter money despite low inflation and high unemployment. And if reality hasn’t dented this dingbat orthodoxy yet, it never will.
“Labor market conditions have improved since last summer, suggesting the Committee could slow the pace of purchases, but surprisingly low inflation readings may mean the Committee can maintain its aggressive program over a longer time frame,” Bullard concluded.
This is not surprising. Bullard has long been more focused on the implications of inflation for policy, believing that employment is largely out of the Fed's hands at this point. More from Reuters:
"What's not encouraging in this picture is that it's (inflation) just going down and so far it hasn't moved back at all. So I would have expected our very aggressive purchase program to turn that process, inflation expectations would go up and actual inflation would follow behind, which is what happened in the QE2 period," said St. Louis Fed President James Bullard.
I think that Bullard is something of an outlier at this point. Ongoing declines in inflation would eventually cause his worries to spread further through the Fed, and could very well delay any effort to cut back on asset purchases. That, however, is not the baseline case. As a general rule, policymakers are more focused on the path of unemployment, which leads them to expect tapering to begin as early as in a few months. See Robin Harding here.
On the subject of tapering, Jon Hilsenrath had this to say over the weekend:
The hangup for Fed officials is the word “tapering” suggests a slow, steady and predictable reduction from the current level of $85 billion a month at a succession of Fed meetings, say to $65 billion per month, then to $45 billion and so on. And that’s not necessarily what Fed officials envision.
Because Fed officials are uncertain about the economic outlook and the pros and cons of their own program, they might reduce their bond purchases once and then do nothing for a while. Or they might cut their bond buying once and then later increase it if the economy falters. Or they might indeed reduce their purchases in a series of steps if warranted by economic developments — but they don’t want the markets to think that’s a set plan. It is, as Fed officials like to say, “data dependent.”
Which is interesting given that Bullard had this to say regarding inflation and policy:
"Maybe this is noise in the data, maybe this will turn around, but I'd like to see some reassurance that this is going to turn around before we start to taper our asset purchase program," he said.
If the Fed wants us to stop using the word "taper," they will need to take the lead. Or is Bullard just being honest - any reasonable forecast matched against their past behavior suggests the Fed tapers. On financial stability, Bullard adds this:
He noted that the Fed remains vigilant about the potential for financial market excess in the U.S. “An important concern for the FOMC is that low interest rates can be associated with excessive risk-taking in financial markets,” Bullard said. “So far, it appears that this type of activity has been limited since the end of the recession in 2009.” While the Dodd-Frank Act is meant to help contain some dimensions of this activity, “Still, this issue bears careful watching: Both the 1990s and the 2000s were characterized by very large asset bubbles,” he added.
The Fed is keeping an eye out for bubbles, but the bulk of policymakers aren't finding them. Consequently, the issue of financial stability is not a primary driver of policy. At best it is a distant third, far behind unemployment first and inflation second.
Bottom Line: Bullard remains focused on inflation. If his colleagues were to join him, they would stop pointing us toward cutting asset purchases in the next few months. As a general rule, however, for now low inflation is seen as an aberration, not the forecast.
Why don't politicians care about the unemployed?:
The Big Shrug, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...For more than three years some of us have fought the policy elite’s damaging obsession with budget deficits ... that led governments to cut investment when they should have been raising it, to destroy jobs when job creation should have been their priority. That fight seems largely won —... I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the sudden intellectual collapse of austerity economics as a policy doctrine.
But while insiders no longer seem determined to worry about the wrong things, that’s not enough; they also need to start worrying about the right things — namely, the plight of the jobless and the immense continuing waste from a depressed economy. And that’s not happening. Instead, policy makers both here and in Europe seem gripped by a combination of complacency and fatalism, a sense that nothing need be done and nothing can be done. Call it the big shrug.
Even the people I consider the good guys ... aren’t showing much sense of urgency these days. For example,... the Federal Reserve’s ... talk of “tapering,” of letting up on its efforts, even though inflation is below target, the employment situation is still terrible and the pace of improvement is glacial at best. ...
Why isn’t reducing unemployment a major policy priority? One answer may be that inertia is a powerful force... As long as we’re adding jobs, not losing them, and unemployment is basically stable or falling ... policy makers don’t feel any urgent need to act.
Another answer is that the unemployed don’t have much of a political voice. ... A third answer is that while we aren’t hearing so much these days from the self-styled deficit hawks, the monetary hawks ... have, if anything, gotten even more vociferous. It doesn’t seem to matter that the monetary hawks, like the fiscal hawks, have an impressive record of being wrong about everything (where’s that runaway inflation they promised?). ...
The tragedy is that it’s all unnecessary. Yes, you hear talk about a “new normal”..., but all the reasons given for this ... fall apart when subjected to careful scrutiny. If Washington would reverse its destructive budget cuts, if the Fed would show the “Rooseveltian resolve” that Ben Bernanke demanded of Japanese officials back when he was an independent economist, we would quickly discover that there’s nothing normal or necessary about mass long-term unemployment.
So here’s my message to policy makers: Where we are is not O.K. Stop shrugging, and do your jobs.
Remember those predictions that we'd have runaway inflation by now?:
Little Cause for Inflation Worries, by Catherine Rampell, NYT: Periodically I am asked whether we should worry about inflation, given how much money the Federal Reserve has pumped into the economy. Based on the Bureau of Economic Analysis data released Friday morning, this answer is still emphatically no.
The personal consumption expenditures, or P.C.E., price index, which the Fed has said it prefers to other measures of inflation, fell from March to April by 0.25 percent. On a year-over-year basis, it was up by just 0.74 percent. Those figures are quite low by historical standards...
When looking at price changes, a lot of economists like to strip out food and energy, since costs in those spending categories can be volatile. Instead they focus on so-called “core inflation.” On a monthly basis, core inflation was flat. But year over year, this core index grew just 1.05 percent, which is the lowest pace since the government started keeping track more than five decades ago. ...
When Will The Divergence Between PCE and CPI Matter?, by Tim Duy: The divergence between PCE and CPI measures of inflation remains in the headlines. Pedro da Costa at Reuters sees a test of the Fed's credibility at hand:
With the inflation rate about half of the Federal Reserve's 2.0 percent target, the central bank is facing a major test and some experts wonder whether it will eventually need to ramp up its already aggressive bond buying program.
The challenge for policymakers is that they are clearly falling short of their dual mandate and that should open the door for additional asset purchases. But, but, but...I think that additional asset purchases is just about the last thing they want to do right now. We will see if their thinking evolved much at the last FOMC meeting, but the minutes of the March meeting clearly indicate that a large contingent of FOMC members are looking to end the asset purchase program by the end of this year. Take ongoing improvements in labor markets, add in concerns about financial stability, mix in some cost-benefit analysis about the efficacy of additional QE, and top-off with a dash of improving housing markets, bake at 350 for 40 minutes, and you get monetary policymakers hesitant to push the QE lever any further.
My sense is that policymakers will thus try to find reasons to dismiss falling PCE inflation as a non-issue. From an email exchange last week, today da Costa quotes me as saying:
"The Fed may view the divergence between the two measures as indicating that worries about deflation are premature," said Tim Duy, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon. "If core CPI was trending down as well, the Fed would be more likely to conclude that their inflation forecasts should be guided lower."
And also last week, Greg Ip at the Economist had this observation:
If CPI inflation were to converge to PCE inflation, that would be a concern. Goldman expects CPI inflation to drop to 1.8% in coming years and PCE inflation to rise to 1.5%. It would be preferable for both to converge to 2%; but so long as inflation expectations remain where they are, it is of little consequence for monetary policy – and a tangible plus for incomes and spending.
Yesterday, Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Charles Plosser had this to add, via the Wall Street Journal:
As of right now, “I’m not concerned” about inflation drifting too far under the central bank’s price target of 2%, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Charles Plosser said in response to reporter’s questions at a conference here.
Inflation expectations “look pretty well anchored,” and it’s likely that price pressures as measured by the personal consumption expenditures price index will drift back up to 2% over time and reconverge with the consumer price index, he said.
Today, Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans seemed resigned to low inflation. Again, from the Wall Street Journal:
“Inflation is low, and it’s lower than our long-run objective,” Mr. Evens said in an interview on Bloomberg Television, adding that he would like to see inflation closer to 2% but expects it to stay below 2% for several more years. Inflation, he said, “can be too low” when the central bank’s objective is 2%.
Asked if low inflation should prompt a policy response from the Fed, Mr. Evans said “I think it’s way too early to think like that.” In the debate over how the Fed might exit from the asset purchase program, Mr. Evans, a voting member of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee, said he remains “open minded [and] I’m listening to my colleagues.”
The general story seems to be that as long as inflation expectations remain anchored, and CPI inflation does not drift much below 2%, then the Fed will resist accelerating the pace of asset purchases.
Also note that the downward inflation drift is an underlying trend, or so concludes the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's macroblog. The authors use a principle component model to estimate a common trend in the price data, and get these results:
The author's note that by this measure, the decline in PCE is not as ominous as it first seems, but it is clear that inflation by either measure is missing the Fed's target and currently trending away from that target. They conclude:
Does that mean we should ignore the recent disinflation being exhibited in the core PCE inflation measure? Well, let’s put it this way: If you’re a glass-half-full sort, we’d say that the recent disinflation trend exhibited by the PCE price index doesn’t seem to be “woven” into the detailed price data, and it certainly doesn’t look like what we saw in 2010. But to you glass-half-empty types, we’d also point out that getting the inflation trend up to 2 percent is proving to be a curiously difficult task.
Indeed, very curious given that we tend to think that at a minimum the monetary authority should be able to raise inflation rates. You are left with thinking that either the Federal Reserve still had more work to do or that monetary policy can do little more at this point than put a floor under the economy. If the latter, and if you want something more, you need to turn to fiscal policy.
Bottom Line: I suspect that at this point the Fed tends to think the costs of additional action still outweigh the benefits, and thus below-target inflation only induces pressure to maintain the current pace of QE longer than they currently anticipate rather than increase the pace of purchases.