Inflation target

Navigating in Cloudy Skies

Stargazers hate clouds. Even modest levels of humidity and wind make it hard to “see” the wonders of the night sky. Very few places on our planet have consistently clear, dark skies.

Central bankers face a similar, albeit earthly, challenge. Even the simplest economic models require estimation of unobservable factors; something that generates considerable uncertainty. As Vice Chairman Clarida recently explained, the Fed depends on new data not only to assess the current state of the U.S. economy, but also to pin down the factors that drive a wide range of models that guide policymakers’ decisions.

In this post, we highlight how the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC’s) views of two of those “starry” guides—the natural rates of interest (r*) and unemployment (u*)—have evolved in recent years. Like sailors under a cloudy sky, central bankers may need to shift course when the clouds part, revealing that they incorrectly estimated these economic stars. The uncertainty resulting from unavoidable imprecision not only affects policy setting, but also complicates policymakers’ communication, which is one of the keys to making policy effective….

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Inflation and Price Measurement: A Primer

People use a variety of statistics to gauge how the economy is doing. It is fairly straightforward to measure nominal GDP, so the challenge of estimating real economic growth arises from the need for accurate measures of prices. Price measurement also is key for inflation-targeting central bankers, who need a number as a guide and for public accountability. To be credible, that number must be based on an index constructed using established scientific methods.

Reflecting a set of well-known (and nearly insurmountable) difficulties, measured inflation has an upward bias. That is, the inflation numbers that statistical agencies report are consistently higher than the theoretical construct we would like to compute. As a consequence of this upward bias in inflation measurement, our estimates of growth in real output and real incomes are systematically too low.

The big question today is whether the bias in inflation measurement, and hence the bias in the measurement of growth, has increased in recent years. As Martin Feldstein describes in detail, the answer to this question is important, as it affects how we collectively view long-run progress. If published statistics show sluggish real growth, as well as slow growth in real wages and incomes, then people may be unduly pessimistic. A worsening bias would add to that pessimism.

In practice, however, careful recent analysis suggests that inflation measurement bias has not changed much since the early 2000s….

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The Fed's Price Stability Achievement

Over the past decade, critics of all stripes have assailed Federal Reserve monetary policy. At one end of the spectrum, some argued that the Fed’s expansionary balance sheet policy risked currency debasement and high inflation. While some of these critics sought merely to influence ongoing policy, others called for replacing the Fed altogether, and restoring the Gold Standard. And then there were those promoting oversight over monetary policy operations that would significantly curtail central bank independence.

At the other end, a different set of critics worried about outright deflation: according to monthly averages from Google Trends, since 2004, U.S. searches for deflation were twice as frequent as those for hyperinflation. Some economists called for a higher inflation target. Squarely in the second camp, officials inside the Federal Reserve System developed deflation probability trackers like this one (here is another from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta).

These diverse perspectives form the backdrop to this year's report for the U.S Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) that we co-authored with Michael Feroli, Peter Hooper and Anil Kashyap. In that paper, we document that the trend in U.S. inflation has been remarkably low and stable since the early 1990s....


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