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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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 Fed's Approach to Risk Management

“[W]e may well at present be seeing the first stirrings of an increase in the inflation rate--something that we would like to happen.”  Stanley Fischer, Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Board

The primary task of the central bank is to avert catastrophe, making sure that nothing really bad happens. This risk management approach imparts a natural asymmetry to policymakers’ words and deeds. Sometimes, it calls for bold, aggressive action. Others times, it means cautious plodding. Everyone agrees that 2008 was a clear case of the former. Most Federal Reserve officials argue that the current circumstance exemplifies the latter...

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Is the Fed Behind the Curve?

Imagine Fed Governor Rip van Winkle started his nap at the beginning of 2007 and just woke up to find that inflation is close to the Fed’s objective and the unemployment rate is at its 30-year average. You could forgive him for expecting the federal funds rate to be close to its long-run norm of about 4%, and for his surprise upon learning that the funds rate is at 0.1% and Fed assets are five times where they were when his snooze began.

Is the Fed already behind the curve? Why do policymakers emphasize their expectation that rates will stay low “for a considerable time” beyond October (when asset purchases are expected to halt)? What risks are they seeking to balance?


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Growth and dynamism: troubling facts

When the U.S. economy was booming in the 1990s, new firms flourished and willing workers found jobs quickly. In the current decade, these patterns faded. Startup and job finding rates have slowed so that employment has only just surpassed its 2007 peak. While part of current U.S. frailty remains cyclical, these trends suggest a worrying loss of economic dynamism...

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