At last week’s FOMC press conference, Chair Powell was unequivocal about his discomfort with persistently high inflation. Had the January FOMC been a forecast meeting, he told us, he would have revised up his inflation forecast for 2022 by “a few tenths.” The Fed is set on tightening policy this year. Bringing down inflation through monetary policy means slower growth, but how much inflation and growth will decline is the question.
A dirty little secret about the economics profession is how imprecisely we understand the inflation-generating process. The Fed and most mainstream economists have in mind a version of an “expectations-augmented Phillips curve” to describe cyclical inflation. Inflation is driven by inflation expectations and whether the economy has slack and inflation falls or is overextended and inflation rises.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A [a]quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.” Rev. 6:5
That cyclical component ignores other short-term factors, like swings in oil prices or the current supply chain frictions, that can temporarily push inflation up or down. Framing inflation this way has some thorny implications for the next few years, particularly if most of current inflation is cyclical, not temporary.
Core PCE inflation just hit roughly 5%, or about 3 percentage points above the Fed’s target. If the extra inflation is cyclical, policy will have to slow the economy to create enough slack to bring it down. If it is mostly Covid driven and temporary, inflation will come down on its own. Our house view is that the majority of the extra inflation is Covid driven, not cyclical, but what if we are wrong?
Suppose two-thirds of the extra inflation (2 percentage points) is cyclical and only one-third is temporary. The Fed’s baseline estimate of the Phillips curve has a slope of about 0.1, that is, a 1-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate lowers core PCE inflation by only one-tenth of a percentage point. Simple arithmetic says that a 20-percentage-point increase in unemployment is needed to bring inflation down by 2 percentage points. But even if the relationship is 5 times larger, as may have been the case decades ago, the Fed would need to orchestrate a 4-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate to wring out those 2 percentage points of inflation. Any time unemployment has risen by 50bp, we have had a recession.
Of course, the Fed does not want to intentionally cause a recession, so something would have to give.
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