Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Fed: Rooting for Higher Inflation

While the financial markets have started to worry about a reflation scenario, Fed officials continue to hope that inflation will rise in 2018 to hit their target of 2.0% for the core PCED rate. It was 1.5% last year on a December-to-December basis.

The minutes of the January 30-31 meeting of the FOMC were released on February 21. The word “inflation” was mentioned 129 times. The word “unemployment” was mentioned just 13 times. However, that doesn’t mean that Fed officials are worrying about higher inflation. Rather, they seemed to spend most of their time on the subject trying to convince one another that it should rise back up to 2.0% this year now that the economy is at full employment.

In my new book, Predicting the Markets: A Professional Autobiography, I note that the FOMC has a tradition of starting the year with a “Statement on Long-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy.” They’ve been doing that since January 25, 2012. They’ve invariably expressed the following view that was repeated in the latest minutes:

“The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee reaffirms its judgment that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate.”

In fact, inflation, based on the core PCED, has been below 2.0% most of the time since 2008, even as monetary policy turned ultra-easy. The FOMC’s confidence in the notion that inflation is mostly a monetary phenomenon in the long run begs the question: “Are we there yet?” Nope! If not, then why not? The answer could be that inflation isn’t just a monetary phenomenon. There are powerful structural forces keeping it down, including competition unleashed by globalization, deflationary technological innovations, and aging demographics, as I thoroughly discuss in my book.

The latest FOMC minutes note that the Fed’s staff presented “three briefings on inflation analysis and forecasting.” Here are a few excerpts from the minutes rendition and my reaction:

(1) Inflation models are error prone. “The presentations reviewed a number of commonly used structural and reduced-form models. These included structural models in which the rate of inflation is linked importantly to measures of resource slack and a measure of expected inflation relevant for wage and price setting—so-called Phillips curve specifications—as well as statistical models in which inflation is primarily determined by a time-varying inflation trend or longer-run inflation expectations.”

And how well have those models been working? “Overall, for the set of models presented, the prediction errors in recent years were larger than those observed during the 2001–07 period but were consistent with historical norms and, in most models, did not appear to be biased.” I think that means: The models have worked terribly since 2007, but that’s normal.

(2) Resource utilization is hard to measure. Monetary policy presumably “influences” inflation by affecting resource utilization. “The briefings highlighted a number of other challenges associated with estimating the strength and timing of the linkage between resource utilization and inflation, including the reliability of and changes over time in estimates of the natural rate of unemployment and potential output and the ability to adequately account for supply shocks.” In other words, the macro inflation models depend on variables that really can’t be observed and measured.

(3) Inflationary expectations are also hard to measure. The Fed also presumably can influence long-term inflationary expectations, which should drive actual inflation. “Moreover, although survey-based measures of longer-run inflation expectations tended to move in parallel with estimated inflation trends, the empirical research provided no clear guidance on how to construct a measure of inflation expectations that would be the most useful for inflation forecasting.”

(4) Insanity is using the same flawed models knowing they are flawed. No comment is necessary on the following: “Following the staff presentations, participants discussed how the inflation frameworks reviewed in the briefings informed their views on inflation and monetary policy. Almost all participants who commented agreed that a Phillips curve–type of inflation framework remained useful as one of their tools for understanding inflation dynamics and informing their decisions on monetary policy.”

And what about long-term inflationary expectations? The minutes noted: “They [FOMC participants] commented that various proxies for inflation expectations—readings from household and business surveys or from economic forecasters, estimates derived from market prices, or estimated trends—were imperfect measures of actual inflation expectations, which are unobservable. That said, participants emphasized the critical need for the FOMC to maintain a credible longer-run inflation objective and to clearly communicate the Committee’s commitment to achieving that objective.”

Groupthink continues to flourish at the Fed. While the Fed staff are conceding that their macro inflation models aren’t working, Fed officials continue relying on them.

(5) Tapering the balance sheet. Meanwhile, the Fed started to taper its balance sheet last October at an announced pace that will reduce its holdings of US Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) by $300 billion over the current fiscal year (through September 2018) and then by $600 billion during the following fiscal years. At this pace, the Fed’s balance sheet will be back down to where it was in August 2008 by June 2024. Over the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, the Fed is scheduled to reduce its holdings of Treasuries by $540 billion and MBS by $360 billion.

So while the Fed is tapping on the monetary brakes, fiscal policy is stepping on the gas with tax cuts and more spending. Fasten your seat belts.

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