Phillips curve

Inflation risks and inflation expectations

U.S. inflation has been low and steady for three decades. This welcome stability is not merely a consequence of good fortune. Shocks that in the past might led to higher trend inflation—like the energy price increases—continue to buffet the economy much as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation rose to a peacetime record. Rather, it reflects the improved monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, which began acting as an inflation-targeting central bank in the mid-1980s, long before it announced a 2% target for inflation in 2012. As a consequence of the Fed’s sustained efforts, long-run inflation expectations have remained close to 2% for more than 20 years. One result is that temporary disturbances that drive inflation above or below target quickly fade.

This is the optimistic conclusion of the 2017 U.S. Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) report. Since the adoption of the de facto inflation-targeting regime, one-off shocks have little impact on the inflation trend. Moreover, as many have observed, the relationship between unemployment and inflation—the Phillips curve (see our primer)—is now notably weaker. However, the authors of that earlier report warn that the Phillips curve “flattening” could be a direct consequence of the Fed’s success. Furthermore, since the sample period from 1984 to 2016 excludes any sustained period of a very tight economywide labor market, it would not be possible to detect an outsized impact, if any, of persistently low unemployment on inflation.

Enter the 2019 USMPF report, which focuses on the possibility that inflation may indeed respond differently when the unemployment rate is very low and projected to remain low for several years (see, for example the FOMC’s latest Summary of Economic Projections). The logic is straightforward: if labor is very scarce for an extended period, employers will bid up wages and (unless they are prepared to accept declining profits) pass on those cost increases in the form of higher prices….

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Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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The Phillips Curve: A Primer

Economists have debated the relationship between inflation and unemployment at least since A.W. Phillips’s study of U.K. data from 1861 to 1957 was published 60 years ago. The idea that a tight or slack labor market should result in faster or slower wage gains seems like a natural corollary to standard economic thinking about how prices respond to deviations of demand from supply. But, over the years, disputes about this Phillips curve relationship have been and remain fierce.

As the U.S. labor market tightens, and unemployment approaches levels we have not seen in more than 15 years, the question is whether inflation is going to make a comeback. More broadly, how useful is the Phillips curve as a guide for Federal Reserve policymakers who wish to achieve a 2-percent inflation target over the long run?

To anticipate our conclusion, despite evidence of a negative relationship between wage inflation and unemployment, central banks ought not rely on a stable Phillips curve for setting monetary policy.

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The case for a higher inflation target gets stronger

For several years, economists and policymakers have been debating the wisdom of raising the inflation target. Today, roughly two-thirds of global GDP is produced in countries that are either de jure or de facto inflation targeters (see our earlier post). In most advanced economies, the target is (close to) 2 percent. Is 2 percent enough?

Advocates of raising the target believe that central banks need greater headroom to use conventional interest rate policy in battling business cycle downturns. More specifically, the case for a higher target is based on a desire to reduce the frequency and duration of zero-policy-rate episodes, avoiding the now well-known problems with unconventional policies (including balance sheet expansions that may prove difficult to reverse) and the limited scope for reducing policy rates below zero.

We have been reticent to endorse a higher inflation target. In our view, the most important counterargument is the enormous investment that central banks have made in making the 2-percent inflation target credible. Yet, several lines of empirical research recently have combined to boost the case for raising the target….

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