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April 19, 2017
The Fed’s Inflation Goal: What Does the Public Know?
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent since January 25, 2012. In its statement announcing the target, the FOMC said, "Communicating this inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee's ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances."
If communicating this goal to the public enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy, one natural question is whether the public is aware of this 2 percent target. We've posed this question a few times to our Business Inflation Expectations Panel, which is a set of roughly 450 private, nonfarm firms in the Southeast. These firms range in size from large corporations to owner operators.
Last week, we asked them again. Specifically, the question is:
What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run?
Unsurprisingly, to us at least—and maybe to you if you're a regular macroblog reader—the typical respondent answered 2 percent (the same answer our panel gave us in 2015 and back in 2011). At a minimum, southeastern firms appear to have gotten and retained the message.
So, why the blog post? Careful Fed watchers noticed the inclusion of a modifier to describe the 2 percent objective in the March 2017 FOMC statement (emphasis added): "The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal." And especially eagle-eyed Fed watchers will remember that the Committee amended its statement of longer-run goals in January 2016, clarifying that its inflation objective is indeed symmetric.
The idea behind a symmetric inflation target is that the central bank views both overshooting and falling short of the 2 percent target as equally bad. As then Minneapolis Fed President Kocherlakota stated in 2014, "Without symmetry, inflation might spend considerably more time below 2 percent than above 2 percent. Inflation persistently below the 2 percent target could create doubts in households and businesses about whether the FOMC is truly aiming for 2 percent inflation, or some lower number."
Do such doubts actually exist? In a follow-up to our question about the numerical target, in the latest survey we asked our panel whether they thought the Fed was more, less, or equally likely to tolerate inflation below or above its targe. The following chart depicts the responses.
One in five respondents believes the Federal Reserve is more likely to accept inflation above its target, while nearly 40 percent believe it is more likely to accept inflation below its target. Twenty-five percent of firms believe the Federal Reserve is equally likely to accept inflation above or below its target. The remainder of respondents were unsure. This pattern was similar across firm sizes and industries.
In other words, more firms see the inflation target as a threshold (or ceiling) that the Fed is averse to crossing than see it as a symmetric target.
Lately, various Committee members (here, here, and in Chair Yellen's latest press conference at the 42-minute mark) have discussed the symmetry about the Committee's inflation target. Our evidence suggests that the message may not have quite sunk in yet.
March 02, 2017
Gauging Firm Optimism in a Time of Transition
Recent consumer sentiment index measures have hit postrecession highs, but there is evidence of significant differences in respondents' views on the new administration's economic policies. As Richard Curtin, chief economist for the Michigan Survey of Consumers, states:
When asked to describe any recent news that they had heard about the economy, 30% spontaneously mentioned some favorable aspect of Trump's policies, and 29% unfavorably referred to Trump's economic policies. Thus a total of nearly six-in-ten consumers made a positive or negative mention of government policies...never before have these spontaneous references to economic policies had such a large impact on the Sentiment Index: a difference of 37 Index points between those that referred to favorable and unfavorable policies.
It seems clear that government policies are holding sway over consumers' economic outlook. But what about firms? Are they being affected similarly? Are there any firm characteristics that might predict their view? And how might this view change over time?
To begin exploring these questions, we've adopted a series of "optimism" questions to be asked periodically as part of the Atlanta Fed's Business Inflation Expectations Survey's special question series. The optimism questions are based on those that have appeared in the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook survey since 2002, available quarterly. (The next set of results from the CFO survey will appear in March.)
We first put these questions to our business inflation expectations (BIE) panel in November 2016 . The survey period coincided with the week of the U.S. presidential election, allowing us to observe any pre- and post-election changes. We found that firms were more optimistic about their own firm's financial prospects than about the economy as a whole. This finding held for all sectors and firm size categories (chart 1).
In addition, we found no statistical difference in the pre- and post-election measures, as chart 2 shows. (For the stat aficionados among you, we mean that we found no statistical difference at the 95 percent level of confidence.)
We were curious how our firms' optimism might have evolved since the election, so we repeated the questions last month (February 6–10).
Among firms responding in both November and February (approximately 82 percent of respondents), the overall level of optimism increased, on average (chart 3). This increase in optimism is statistically significant and was seen across firms of all sizes and sector types (goods producers and service providers).
The question remains: what is the upshot of this increased optimism? Are firms adjusting their capital investment and employment plans to accommodate this more optimistic outlook? The data should answer these questions in the coming months, but in the meantime, we will continue to monitor the evolution of business optimism.
March 2, 2017 in Books, Business Inflation Expectations, Economic conditions, Economic Growth and Development, Forecasts, Inflation Expectations, Saving, Capital, and Investment, Small Business | Permalink
July 18, 2016
Lockhart Casts a Line into the Murky Waters of Uncertainty
Is uncertainty weighing down business investment? This recent article makes the case.
Uncertainty as an obstacle to business decision making and perhaps even a "propagation mechanism" for business cycles is an idea that that has been generating a lot of support in economic research in recent years. Our friend Nick Bloom has a nice summary of that work here.
Last week, the boss here at the Atlanta Fed gave the trout in the Snake River a break and made some observations on the economy to the Rocky Mountain Economic Summit, casting a line in the direction of economic uncertainties. Among his remarks, he noted that:
The minutes of the June FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] meeting clearly pointed to uncertainty about employment momentum and the outcome of the vote in Britain as factors in the Committee's decision to keep policy unchanged. I supported that decision and gave weight to those two uncertainties in my thinking.
At the same time, I viewed both the implications of the June jobs report and the outcome of the Brexit vote as uncertainties with some resolution over a short time horizon. We've seen, now, that the vote outcome may be followed by a long tail of uncertainty of quite a different character.
But he followed that with something of a caution…
If uncertainty is a real causative factor in economic slowdowns, it needs to be better understood. Policymaking would be aided by better measurement tools. For example, it would help me as a policymaker if we had a firmer grip on the various channels through which uncertainty affects decision-making of economic actors.
I have been thinking about the different kinds of uncertainty we face. Often we policymakers grapple with uncertainty associated with discrete events. The passage of the event to a great extent resolves the uncertainty. The outcome of the Brexit referendum would be known by June 24. The interpretation of the May employment report would come clear, or clearer, with the arrival of the June employment report on July 8. I would contrast these examples of short-term, self-resolving uncertainty with long-term, persistent, chronic uncertainty such as that brought on by the Brexit referendum outcome.
As President Lockhart indicated in his speech, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta conducts business surveys that attempt to measure the uncertainties that businesses face. From July 4 through July 8, we had a survey in the field with a question on how the Brexit referendum was influencing business decisions.
We asked firms to indicate how the outcome of the Brexit vote affected their sales growth outlook. Respondents could select a range of sentiments from "much more certain" to "much more uncertain."
Responses came from 244 firms representing a broad range of sectors and firm sizes, with roughly one-third indicating their sales growth outlook was "somewhat" or "much" more uncertain as a result of the vote (see the chart). Those noting heightened uncertainty were not concentrated in any one sector or firm-size category but represented a rather diverse group.
As President Lockhart noted in his speech, "[w]e had a spirited internal discussion of whether one-third is a big number or not-so-big." Ultimately, we decided that uncovering how these firms planned to act in light of their elevated uncertainty was the important focus.
In an open-ended, follow-up question, we then asked those whose sales growth outlook was more uncertain how their plans might change. We found that the most prevalent changes in planning were a reduction in capital spending and hiring. Many firms mentioned these two topics in tandem, as this rather succinct quote illustrates: "Slower hiring and lower capital spending." Our survey data, then, provide some support for the idea that uncertainties associated with Brexit were, in fact, weighing on firm investment and labor decisions.
Elevated measures of financial market and economic policy uncertainty immediately after the Brexit vote have abated somewhat over subsequent days. Once the "waters clear," as our boss would say, perhaps this will be the case for firms as well.
June 23, 2015
Approaching the Promised Land? Yes and No
Last Friday, we released our June installment of the Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey. Among the questions we put to our panel of businesses was a quarterly question on slack, asking firms to consider how their current sales levels compare to what they would consider normal.
The good news is, on average, the gap between firms' current unit sales levels and what they would consider normal sales levels continues to close (see the chart).
By our measure, firm sales, in the aggregate, are 1.9 percentage points below normal, a bit better than when we polled them in March (when they were 2.1 percent below normal) and much improved from this time last year (3.7 percent below normal). For comparison, the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimate of slack on a real gross domestic product (GDP) basis was 2.6 percent in the first quarter (though this estimate will almost certainly be revised to something closer to 2.4 percent when the revised GDP estimates are reported later today). And if GDP growth this quarter comes in around 2.5 percent as economists generally expect, the CBO's GDP-based slack estimate will be 2.2 percent this quarter, just a shade larger than what our June survey data are saying.
Now, as we have emphasized frequently (for example, in macroblog posts in May 2015, February 2015, and June 2013), performance in the aggregate and performance within select firm groups can differ widely. For example, while small firms continue to have greater slack than larger firms, their pace of improvement has been much more rapid (see the table).
Likewise, some industries (such as transportation and finance) see current sales as better than normal. But others, like manufacturers, are currently reporting considerable slack—and findings from this group appear to show a marginal worsening in sales levels over the past 12 months.
Another item that caught our attention this month was the differing pace of narrowing in the sales gap among those firms with significant export exposure (greater than 20 percent of sales) relative to those with no direct export exposure. We connected these dots using responses to this month's special question, in which responding firms specified their share of customers by geographic area: local, regional (the Southeast, in our case), national, and international (see the table).
So things are still getting better for the economy overall, and the small firms in our panel have displayed particularly rapid improvement during the last year. But if you've got exposure to the "soft" export markets, as mentioned in the June 17 FOMC statement, you've likely experienced a slower pace of improvement.
May 18, 2015
Sales Flexing Muscle at More Firms
The news in this month's Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) report is that, in the aggregate, firms' unit sales levels continue to strengthen: Specifically, the survey question measures firms' perceptions of current unit sales levels relative to "normal times."
This month, 70 percent of firms indicated their sales levels are at or above what they consider normal. Last November, that share was 61 percent, and one year ago, it was only 54 percent. We typically report the aggregate results in a diffusion index (see the chart), which also shows the overall progression toward "normal times" (a value of 0).
But, typical of aggregate statistics, these results obscure the diversity of experience among sectors. Digging deeper, we found that most (but not all) of the sectors represented in our panel have shown further improvement in their sales performance relative to last November (see the chart).
Retailers and those in the real estate and rental leasing/construction sectors reported the most significant improvement since November, with retailers approaching what they consider normal sales levels. This news is likely to be most welcome to Dennis Lockhart, our boss here in Atlanta, who has put the performance of the consumer on his "must watch" list. Two industries—finance and insurance, and transportation and warehousing—reported above-normal sales levels in our recent survey.
Only the manufacturers in our panel indicated that their sales performance has deteriorated since November, and they are now reporting sales well below normal. Of course, this news shouldn't be terribly surprising given the recent softness in the manufacturing indexes from both the Institute for Supply Management and industrial production data. This information was also on the boss's watch list, as he made clear in his speech:
Well, judging from our May BIE report, manufacturers aren't seeing improvement quite yet.
The stronger dollar was likely reflected in a drag on net exports...[and] looking ahead, I expect net exports to be a modest drag on economic activity over much of the year.... It should be noted, however, that in recent weeks the dollar has stabilized and oil prices have begun to move up a little. These developments, if they stick, could dilute somewhat what would otherwise be drags on the economy in the near term. We shall see.
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February 20, 2015
Business as Usual?
Each month, we ask a large panel of firms to compare their current sales with "normal times." In our February survey, the firms in our panel reported their sales were approaching normal. Indeed, on average, larger firms (those with 100 or more employees) tell us sales levels this month were right at normal. But smaller firms, although improving, are still lagging their larger counterparts (see the chart).
These qualitative assessments suggest a continuation of the trend we've seen in our quarterly quantitative data (these data are compiled at the end of each quarter). In December, our panel of firms reported sales levels about 2.7 percent below normal—virtually identical to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of the output gap. Here, too, our survey data show that on average, sales of the larger firms in our panel were essentially back to normal, but smaller firms were still reporting ample slack (see the chart).
Our next quantitative assessment of slack in U.S. business is due for release on March 20.
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January 09, 2015
Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 3: Do Firms Know What They Don’t Know?
In the previous two macroblog posts, we introduced you to the inflation expectations of firms and argued that the question you ask matters a lot. In this week's final post, we examine another important dimension of our data: inflation uncertainty, a topic of some deliberation at the last Federal Open Market Committee meeting (according to the recently released minutes).
Survey data typically measure only the inflation expectation of a respondent, not the certainty surrounding that prediction. As a result, survey-based measures often use the disagreement among respondents as a proxy for uncertainty, but as Rob Rich, Joe Tracy, and Matt Ploenzke at the New York Fed caution in this recent blog post, you probably shouldn't do this.
Because we derive business inflation expectations from the probabilities that each firm assigns to various unit cost outcomes, we can measure the inflation uncertainty of a respondent directly. And that allows us to investigate whether uncertainty plays a role in the accuracy of firm inflation predictions. We wanted to know: Do firms know what they don't know?The following table, adapted from our recent working paper, reports the accuracy of a business inflation forecast relative to the firm's inflation uncertainty at the time the forecast was made. We first compare the prediction accuracy of firms who have a larger-than-average degree of prediction uncertainty against those with less-than-average uncertainty. We also compare the most uncertain firms with the least uncertain firms.
On average, firms provide relatively accurate, unbiased assessments of their future unit cost changes. But the results also clearly support the conclusion that more uncertain respondents tend to be significantly less accurate inflation forecasters.Maybe this result doesn't strike you as mind-blowing. Wouldn't you expect firms with the greatest inflation uncertainty to make the least accurate inflation predictions? We would, too. But isn't it refreshing to know that business decision-makers know when they are making decisions under uncertainty? And we also think that monitoring how certain respondents are about their inflation expectation, in addition to whether the average expectation for the group has changed, should prove useful when evaluating how well inflation expectations are anchored. If you think so too, you can monitor both on our website's Inflation Project page.
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January 07, 2015
Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 2: The Question You Ask Matters—A Lot
In our previous macroblog post, we discussed the inflation expectations of firms and observed that—while on average these expectations look similar to that of professional forecasters—they reveal considerably more variation of opinion. Further, the inflation expectations of firms look very different from what we see in the household survey of inflation expectations.
The usual focal point when trying to explain measurement differences among surveys of inflation expectations is the respondent, or who is taking the survey. In the previous macroblog post, we noted that some researchers have indicated that not all households are equally informed about inflation trends and that their expectations are somehow biased by this ignorance. For example, Christopher Carroll over at Johns Hopkins suggests that households update their inflation expectations through the news, and some may only infrequently read the press. Another example comes from a group of researchers at the New York Fed and Carnegie Mellon They've suggested that less financially literate households tend to persistently have the highest inflation expectations.
But what these and related research assume is that whom you ask the question of is of primary significance. Could it be that it's the question being asked that accounts for such disagreement among the surveys?
We know, for example, that professional forecasters are asked to predict a particular inflation statistic, while households are simply asked about the behavior of "prices in general" and prices "on the average." To an economist, these amount to pretty much the same thing. But are they the same thing in the minds of non-economists?You may be surprised, but the answer is no (as a recent Atlanta Fed working paper discussed). When we asked our panel of firms to predict by how much "prices will change overall in the economy"—essentially the same question the University of Michigan asks households—business leaders make the same prediction we see in the survey of households: Their predictions seem high relative to the trend in the inflation data, and the range of opinion among businesses on where prices "overall in the economy" are headed is really, really wide (see the table).
But what if we ask businesses to predict a particular inflation statistic, as the Philly Fed asks professional forecasters to do? We did that, too. And you know what? Not only did a majority of our panelists (about two-thirds) say they were "familiar" with the inflation statistic, but their predictions looked remarkably similar to that of professional forecasters (see the table).
So when we ask firms to answer the same question asked of professional forecasters, we got back something that was very comparable to responses given by professional forecasters. But when you ask firms the same question typically asked of households, we got back responses that looked very much like what households report.
Moreover, we dug through the office file cabinets, remembering a related table adapted from a joint project between the Cleveland Fed and the Ohio State University that was highlighted in a 2001 Cleveland Fed Economic Commentary. In August 2001, a group of Ohio households were asked to provide their perception of how much the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had increased over the last 12 months, and we compared it with how much they thought "prices" had risen over the past 12 months.The households reported that the CPI had risen 3 percent—nearly identical to what the CPI actually rose over the period (2.7 percent). However, in responding to the vaguely worded notion of "prices," the average response was nearly 7 percent (see the table). So again, it seems that the loosely defined concept of "prices" is eliciting a response that looks nothing like what economists would call inflation.
So it turns out that the question you ask matters—a lot—more so, evidently, than to whom you ask the question. What's the right question to ask? We think it's the question most relevant to the decisions facing the person you are asking. In the case of firms (and others, we suspect), what's most relevant are the costs they think they are likely to face in the coming year. What is unlikely to be top-of-mind for business decision makers is the future behavior of an official inflation statistic or their thoughts on some ambiguous concept of general prices.
In the next macroblog post, we'll dig even deeper into the data.
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January 05, 2015
Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 1: The Perspective of Firms
Central bankers measure inflation expectations in more than a few ways, which is another way of saying no measure of inflation expectations is entirely persuasive.
Survey data on inflation expectations are especially hard to interpret. Surveys of professional economists, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's Survey of Professional Forecasters, reveal inflation expectations that, over time, track fairly close to the trend in the officially reported inflation data. But the inflation predictions by professional forecasters are extraordinarily similar and call into question whether they represent the broader population.
The inflation surveys of households, however, reveal a remarkably wide range of opinion on future inflation compared to those of professional forecasters. Really, really wide. For example, in any particular month, 13 percent of the University of Michigan's survey of households predicts year-ahead inflation to be more than 10 percent, an annual inflation rate not seen since October 1981. Even in the aggregate, the inflation predictions of households persistently track much higher than the officially reported inflation data (see the chart). These and other curious patterns in the household survey data call into question whether these data really represent the inflation predictions on which households act.
Even if you're unfamiliar with the literature on this subject, the above observations may not strike you as particularly hard to believe. Economists are, presumably, expert on inflation, while households experience inflation from their own unique—some would suggest even uninformed—perspectives.
We have yet another survey of inflation expectations, one from the perspective of businesses leaders. We think this may be an especially useful perspective on future inflation since business leaders, after all, are the price setters. Our survey has been in the field for a little more than three years now—just long enough, we think, to step back and take stock of what business inflation expectations look like, especially in comparison to the other survey data.
Our initial impressions are reported in a recent Atlanta Fed working paper, and the next few macroblog posts will share some of our favorite observations from this research.
We have been asking firms to assign probabilities to possible changes in their unit costs over the year ahead. From these probabilities, we compute how much firms think their costs are going to change in the coming year and how certain they are of that change (see the table). What we find is that the inflation expectations of firms, on average, look something like the inflation predictions of professional forecasters, but not so much like the predictions of households.
But we also find that there is a significant range of opinion among firms, more so than the range of opinions that forecasting professionals express. Some of the variation among firms appears to be related to their particular industries and are broadly correlated with the uneven cost pressures shown in similar industrial breakdowns of the Producer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see the table).
So what we have now are three surveys of inflation expectations, each yielding very different inflation predictions. What accounts for the variation we see across the surveys? Our survey allows us to experiment a bit, which was one of the motivations for conducting it. We didn't just want to measure the inflation expectations of firms; we wanted to learn about those expectations. In the next few macroblog posts, we'll tell you a few of the things we've learned. And we think some of our initial findings will surprise you.
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August 19, 2013
Does Forward Guidance Reach Main Street?
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been operating with two tools (well described in a recent speech by our boss here in Atlanta). The first is our large-scale asset purchase program, or QE to everyone outside of the Federal Reserve. The second is our forward guidance on the federal funds rate. Here’s what the fed funds guidance was following the July FOMC meeting:
[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
The quarterly projections of the June FOMC meeting participants give more specific guidance on the fed funds rate assuming “appropriate” monetary policy. All but one FOMC participant expects the funds rate to be lifted off the floor in 2015, with the median projection that the fed funds rate will be 1 percent by the end of 2015.
But forward guidance isn’t worth much if the public has a very different view of how long the fed funds rate will be held near zero. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has a good read on Wall Street’s expectation for the federal funds rate. Its June survey of primary dealers (a set of institutions the Fed trades with when conducting open market operations) saw a 52 percent chance that the fed funds rate will rise from zero in 2015, and the median forecast of the group saw the fed funds rate at 0.75 percent at the end of 2015. In other words, the bond market is broadly in agreement with the fed funds rate projections made by FOMC meeting participants.
But what do we know about Main Street’s perspective on the fed funds rate? Do they even have an opinion on the subject?
Our perspective on Main Street comes from our panel of businesses who participate in the monthly Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) Survey. And we used our special question to the panel this month to see if we could gauge how, indeed whether, businesses have opinions about the future of the federal funds rate. Here’s the specific question we put to the group:
Currently the fed funds rate is near 0%. [In June, the Federal Reserve projected the federal funds rate to be 1% by the end of 2015.] Please assign a percentage likelihood to the following possible ranges for the federal funds rate at the end of 2015 (values should sum to 100%).
In the chart below, we plot the distribution of panelists’ median-probability forecast (the green bars) compared to the distribution of the FOMC’s June projection (we’ve simply smushed the FOMC’s dots into the appropriately categorized blue bars).
Seventy-five percent of our respondents had a median-probability forecast for the fed funds rate somewhere between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent by the end of 2015. That forecast compares very closely to the 73 percent of the June FOMC meeting participants.
You may have noticed in the above question a bracketed bit of information about the Federal Reserve’s forecast for the federal funds rate: “In June, the Federal Reserve projected the federal funds rate to be 1% by the end of 2015.” Actually, this bit of extra information was supplied only to half of our panel (selected at random). A comparison between these two panel subsets is shown in the chart below.
These two subsets are very similar. (If you squint, you might see that the green bars appear a little more diffuse, but this isn’t a statistically significant difference…we checked.) This result suggests that the extra bit of information we provided was largely extraneous. Our business panel seems to have already had enough information on which to make an informed prediction about the federal funds rate.
Finally, the data shown in the two figures above are for those panelists who opted to answer the question we posed. But, at our instruction, not every firm chose to make a prediction for the federal funds rate. With this month’s special question, we instructed our panelists to “Please feel free to leave this question blank if you have no opinion.” A significant number of our panelists exercised this option.
The typical nonresponse rate from the BIE survey special question is about 2 percent. This month, it was 22 percent—which suggests that an unusually high share of our panel had no opinion on the future of the fed funds rate. What does this mean? Well, it could mean that a significant share of Main Street businesses are confused by the FOMC’s communications and are therefore unable to form an opinion. But a high nonresponse rate could also mean that some segment of Main Street businesses don’t believe that forward guidance on the fed funds rate affects their businesses much.
Unfortunately, the data we have don’t put us in a very good position to distinguish between confusion and apathy. Besides, we’re optimistic sorts. We’re going to emphasize that 78 percent of those businesses we surveyed responded to the question, and that typical response lined up pretty well with the opinions of FOMC meeting participants and the expectations of Wall Street. So, while not everyone is dialed in to our forward guidance, Main Street seems to get it.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Brent Meyer, economist, and
Nicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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- Gauging Firm Optimism in a Time of Transition
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