macroblog

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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig and other Atlanta Fed economists.


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.

January 9, 2015 in Business Inflation Expectations, Forecasts, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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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).

150107a

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).

150107b

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.

150107c

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.

photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, economist, and
photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

January 7, 2015 in Business Inflation Expectations, Forecasts, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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January 05, 2015


Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 1: The Perspective of Firms

Inflation expectations matter. Just ask any central banker (such as the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, or the Bank of Japan).

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.

Household Expectations Overshoot Inflation Measures

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.

Summary Descriptive Statistics: Inflation Expectations (Oct. 2011 - Dec. 2014)

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).

Own Unit Cost Expectations by Industry and Firm Size (Oct. 2011 - Dec. 2014)
(enlarge)

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.


January 5, 2015 in Business Inflation Expectations, Forecasts, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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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.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department


August 19, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Economics, Fed Funds Futures, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy | Permalink

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Forward guidance can prove to be an effective tool for monetary policy, especially, when it is first implemented, as it is unexpected as well. Later on, however, its impact is diminished as it is only the change in expected guidance that might have an impact.

Posted by: Javier | September 21, 2013 at 11:50 AM

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July 16, 2013


Commodity Prices and Inflation: The Perspective of Firms

We’ve been thinking a lot about commodity prices lately. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve been falling. And with inflation already tracking well under the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) longer-term objective of 2 percent, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the modest downward tilt in commodity prices is likely to put even more, presumably unwanted, disinflation into the pipeline.

We take some comfort from research by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and coauthor Jonas Fisher, vice president and macroeconomist, also of the Chicago Fed. They conducted a statistical analysis of commodity prices and core inflation and found no meaningful relationship between the two in the post-Volcker era of the Fed. According to the authors,

[I]f commodity and energy prices were to lead to a general expectation of a broader increase in inflation, more substantial policy rate increases would be justified. But assuming there is a generally high degree of central-bank credibility, there is no reason for such expectations to develop—in fact, in the post-Volcker period, there have been no signs that they typically do.

We took this bit of good news to our boss here at the Atlanta Fed, Dennis Lockhart, who hit us with a question we wish we had thought to ask. To paraphrase: Is the response of inflation different for commodity price increases compared to commodity price decreases? The idea here is that, for a time at least, firms will pass commodity price increases on to their customers but simply enjoy higher margins when commodity prices decline.

So we reached out to our business inflation expectations (BIE) survey panel and put the question to them. Of the 209 firms who responded to the survey in July, half were asked how they would likely respond to an unexpected 10 percent increase in the costs of raw materials, and the other half were asked how they would likely respond to an unexpected 10 percent decrease. What we learned was that the boss was on to something.

For the half of the panel given the raw materials cost increase, about 52 percent indicated they would mostly push the materials costs on to their customers in the form of higher prices, compared to only 18 percent who indicated they would decrease their margins. But of the half of our sample that was given a decline in raw materials costs, 43 percent indicated they would mostly take their good fortune in the form of better margins and only 25 percent indicated that the drop in raw materials costs would induce them to drop their prices.

Of course, what a firm thinks it will do and what the marketplace will allow are not necessarily the same. But this got us thinking back to the earlier work at the Chicago Fed. Does this sort of “asymmetric” response to commodity prices appear in the data?

Following (roughly) the procedure that Evans and Fisher used, we computed the influence of a positive “shock” of one standard deviation (about 5 percent) to commodity prices on core inflation. (Our sample runs from 1954 to 2013.) As did Evans and Fisher, we confirmed that commodity price increases had a significant positive influence on core inflation, spread out over a period of several years. But we were surprised to see that when businesses were hit with a similar-sized decrease in commodities prices, the opposite didn’t occur. Commodity price declines did not produce any downward pressure on core inflation.

As in Evans and Fisher, focusing in on just the post-Volcker era (from 1982 forward), we found that the influence of positive commodity price increases on core inflation was significantly diminished (although it appears to be just a little stronger than what they had reported). However, the influence of commodity price decreases on core inflation remained the same—nada.

For many of you, this result probably doesn’t strike you as pathbreaking. There are many macroeconomic models where prices are “sticky” going down but pretty flexible on the way up. But if the question is whether we think the recent slide in commodity prices is likely to put added downward pressure on core inflation, we’re likely to echo Evans and Fisher with a bit more emphasis: the decline in commodity prices isn’t likely to have an influence on core inflation unless it leads to a general expectation of a broader disinflation. And there is no evidence in the data that suggests this is likely—post-Volcker era or not.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department


July 16, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation, Pricing | Permalink

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Good analysis.

Does this same dynamic apply to wages? Recent trends in real wages and corporate profits support the idea that when wages fall, firms use it to expand margins. So if we ever get wages to rise again in line with productivity, maybe we'll see firms pass on the costs to their customers. In a consumer-driven economy, wouldn't this create a self-reinforcing cycle of economic growth?

Posted by: Tom in Wisconsin | July 17, 2013 at 10:47 PM

Ha Ha! Tom! Good one!

Dude, increasing wages is the very definition of inflation!

lol!

As for Mr. Bryan's analysis: really, who did not already know this, but for him & a few others at the Atlanta Fed?

Posted by: Edward Ericson Jr. | July 28, 2013 at 08:40 AM

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June 25, 2013


Getting Back to Normal?

Central to any discussion about monetary policy is the degree to which the economy is underperforming relative to its potential, or in more ordinary language, how much slack exists. OK, so how much slack is there, and how long will it take to be absorbed? Well, if you ask the Congressional Budget Office (and a lot of people do), they would have told you last February (their latest estimate) that the economy was underperforming just a shade more than 4 percent relative to its potential last summer, and that slack was likely to increase a little by this summer (to around 4.7 percent). Go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and they tell a very similar story in their April World Economic Outlook. The IMF estimates that the amount of slack in the U.S. economy was about 4.2 percent last year, and they expected it would rise a little to about 4.4 percent this year.

As devotees of our Business Inflation Expectations survey know (and you know who you are), the Atlanta Fed has a quarterly, subjective measure of economic slack in the economy as seen by business leaders. This month, businesses told us something pretty interesting—the amount of slack they think they have narrowed pretty sharply between March and June.

Last March, the panel told us that their unit sales were 7.7 percent below "normal"—similar to their assessments in December and September. This month, however, the group cut their estimate of slack to 4.3 percent below normal, on average (see the table).

130625a

What we find most encouraging about this assessment (well, besides the speed at which the slack was being taken up) is that the improvement was most prominent among small and medium-sized firms. These are firms that, according to our survey and other reports (like this one from the National Federation of Independent Business), have been lagging behind in the recovery. Indeed, in June, mid-sized firms indicated that unit sales were only 1.5 percent below normal, a shade better than the big firms in our panel (see the table).

130625b

A look at the industry composition of our survey reveals that the pickup of slack was relatively broadly based too. Only the firms in the mining and utilities, and the professional and business services areas reported more slack relative to March (and the amounts were pretty small at that). Elsewhere, the amount of slack appears to have narrowed quite a bit.

OK, so slack is shrinking, and according to these estimates, it shrank quite a bit between March and June. Does that mean we should be anticipating growing price pressure? Well, we can turn to our panelists again for an answer, and they say no. Projecting over the year ahead, our panelists report little change in either their inflationary sentiment or their inflation uncertainty (see the table).

130625c

Last Wednesday, at the conclusion of its June meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee said that the recovery is proceeding and the labor market is improving, but inflation expectations remain stable. Our June poll of business leaders appears to have also endorsed this view of the economy.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

 

June 25, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, GDP, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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May 16, 2013


Labor Costs, Inflation Expectations, and the Affordable Care Act: What Businesses Are Telling Us

The Atlanta Fed’s May survey of businesses showed little overall concern about near-term inflation. Year-ahead unit cost expectations averaged 2 percent, down a tenth from April and on par with business inflation expectations at this time last year.

OK, we’re going to guess this observation doesn’t exactly knock you off your chair. But here’s something we’ve been keeping an eye on that you might find interesting. When we ask firms about what role, if any, labor costs are likely to play in their prices over the next 12 months, an increasing proportion have been telling us they see a potential for upward price pressure coming from labor costs (see the chart).



To investigate further, we posed a special question to our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel regarding their expectations for compensation growth over the next 12 months: “Projecting ahead over the next 12 months, by roughly what percentage do you expect your firm’s average compensation per worker (including benefits) to change?”

We got a pretty large range of responses, but on average, firms told us they expect average compensation growth—including benefits—of 2.8 percent. That’s about a percent higher than the average over the past year (as estimated by either the index of compensation per hour or the employment cost index). But a 2.8 percent rise is also about a percentage point below average compensation growth before the recession. We’re included to read the survey as a confirmation that labor markets are improving and expected to improve further over the coming year. But we’re not inclined to interpret the survey data as an indication that the labor market is nearing full employment.

We’ve also been hearing more lately about the potential for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to have a significant influence on labor costs and, presumably, to provide some upward price pressure. Indeed, several of our panelists commented on their concern about the influence of the ACA when they completed their May BIE survey. So can we tie any of this expected compensation growth to the ACA, a significant share of which is scheduled to go into effect eight months from now?

Because a disproportionate impact from the ACA will fall on firms that employ 50 or more workers, we separated our panel into firms with 50 or more employees, and those employing fewer than 50 workers. What we see is that average expected compensation growth is the same for the bigger employers and smaller employers. Moreover, the big firms in our sample report the same inflation expectation as the smaller firms.

But the data reveal that the bigger firms are a little more uncertain about their unit cost projections for the year ahead. OK, it’s not a big difference, but it is statistically significant. So while their cost and compensation expectations are not yet being affected by the prospect of the ACA, the act might be influencing their uncertainty about those potential costs.



Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


May 16, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Economics, Health Care, Inflation Expectations, Labor Markets, Pricing | Permalink

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Maybe we're finally reaching the point where firms can no longer expropriate productivity gains. If you look at the total hourly compensation for non-supervisory workers vs. productivity, the last 40 years have more or less seen the gains made during the Great Compression utterly obliterated. Now that we're back to Gilded-Age levels of income distribution, it may be that we've reached an equilibrium.

Posted by: Valerie Keefe | May 19, 2013 at 12:22 PM

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May 09, 2013


Weighing In on the Recent Discrepancy in the Inflation Statistics

Recently, there has been a divergence between inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the preferred inflation measure of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which is the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE). That divergence is fairly evident in the “core” measures of these two price statistics shown in the chart below.

This strikes us (and others, like Reuters’ Pedro da Costa) as a pretty significant development. The core CPI is telling us that the underlying inflation trend is still holding reasonably close to the FOMC’s longer-term target of 2 percent. But the behavior of the core PCE is rather reminiscent of 2010, when the inflation statistics slid to uncomfortably low levels—a contributing factor to the FOMC’s adoption of QE2. Which of these inflation statistics are we to believe?

Part of the divergence between the two inflation measures is due to rents. Rents are rising at a good pace right now, and since it’s pretty clear that the CPI over-weights their influence, we might be inclined to dismiss some part of the CPI’s more elevated signal. But then there are all those “non-market” components that have been pulling the PCE inflation measure lower—and these aren’t in the CPI. These are components of the PCE price index for which there are no clearly observable transaction prices. They include the “cost” of services provided to households by nonprofit organizations, or the benefits households receive that can only be imputed (i.e., that “free” checking account your bank provides if you maintain a high balance.) Since we can’t really observe the price of these things, we’d probably be inclined to dismiss their influence on PCE the inflation measure. But we’ve done the math, and the impact of these two influences accounts for only about a third of the recent gap between the core PCE and the core CPI inflation measures. Most of the disagreement between the two inflation estimates is coming from elsewhere.

We could continue to parse, item by item, all the various components and weights of the two statistics to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. But in the end, such an accounting exercise would merely tell us why the gap between the two measures has emerged, not which measure is giving the best signal of emerging inflation trends.

As an alternative approach, we thought we’d let the data speak for themselves and search for a common trend that runs through the detailed price data. What we have in mind is to compute the “first principal component” of the disaggregated data used to calculate the CPI and the PCE price indexes. The first principal component is a weighting of the data that explains as much of the data variation as possible. So, in effect, the detailed price data in each price index are being reweighted in a way that reveals their most commonly shared trend, and not by their share of consumer expenditure.

The chart below shows the 12-month trend of the first principal component derived from the 45 CPI components used in the computation of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s median CPI, and the first principal component derived from the 177 components used in the computation of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’s trimmed-mean PCE. (These are the most detailed component price data we could easily get our hands on.)

So what do we make of this picture? Well, three things:

First, inflation as measured by the PCE price index has tended to track about 0.25 percentage point under inflation as measured by the CPI over time. So part of the gap between the two inflation measures appears to be a long-term feature of the two inflation statistics.

Second, the first principal components of both the CPI and the PCE data have been persistently under their precrisis averages. In the case of the PCE measure, the first principal component is under the FOMC’s 2 percent target (a point that has not gone unnoticed by Paul Krugman).

A third takeaway from the chart is that the “disinflation” pattern traced out by these principal components has been gradual and modest—much more so than what the core PCE has recently indicated and what the data were telling us back in 2010.

Does that mean we should ignore the recent disinflation being exhibited in the core PCE inflation measure? Well, let’s put it this way: If you’re a glass-half-full sort, we’d say that the recent disinflation trend exhibited by the PCE price index doesn’t seem to be “woven” into the detailed price data, and it certainly doesn’t look like what we saw in 2010. But to you glass-half-empty types, we’d also point out that getting the inflation trend up to 2 percent is proving to be a curiously difficult task.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Pat HigginsPat Higgins, economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


May 9, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Economics, Inflation, Pricing | Permalink

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No, the correct takeaway is the the focus should be on nominal gdp, which is the number that we know with significantly more certainty. There is no single explanation for why CPI, the GDP deflator, and PCE diverge (the principal components are not likely to be stable through time). Sometimes the answer is rents, sometimes its import prices, sometimes the answer is the various weights. all of the above.

Posted by: dwb | May 10, 2013 at 09:48 AM

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April 16, 2013


Improvement in the Outlook? The BIE Panel Thinks So

Earlier this month, Dennis Lockhart, the Atlanta Fed’s top guy, gave his assessment of the economy and monetary policy to the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham, Alabama. Here’s the essential takeaway:

There are encouraging developments in the economy, to be sure, but the evidence of sustainable momentum that will deliver “substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market” is not yet conclusive. ... How will I, as one policymaker, determine that the balance has shifted and the time for a policy change has come? Well, one key consideration is the array of risks to the economic outlook and my degree of confidence in the outlook.

To help the boss assess the risks to the outlook, we reached out to our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel to get a sense of how they view the outlook for their businesses and, notably, how they assess the risks to that outlook. Specifically, we asked:

Projecting ahead, to the best of your ability, please assign a percent likelihood to the following changes to UNIT SALES LEVELS over the next 12 months.

The table below summarizes the answers and compares them to the responses we got to this statement last November.

First, the business outlook of our panel has improved decidedly since last November. On average, our panel sees unit sales growth averaging 1.8 percent. OK, not a spectacular number, but, to our eyes at least, much improved from the 1.2 percent the group was expecting when we queried five months ago.

And how about the assessment of the risks President Lockhart indicated was also a key consideration? Here again, the sentiment in our panel appears to have shifted favorably. Last November, our panel put the likelihood that their year-ahead unit sales growth would be 1 percent or less at 50 percent. The group now puts the chances of a downshift in business activity at 37 percent. Meanwhile, the upside potential for their sales has grown. Last November, the panel put the chances of a “significant” improvement in unit sales at about 20 percent; this month, the group thinks the likelihood is 30 percent.

And this improved sentiment isn’t centered in just a few industries—it’s spread across a wide swath of the economy. Firms in construction and real estate, which were, on average, projecting 12-month unit sales growth of 1.1 percent last November, now put that growth number at 1.8 percent. The average sales outlook of general-services firms has risen from 1 percent to 2.2 percent; finance and insurance companies went from 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent; and retailers/wholesalers’ unit sales projections rose from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. And manufacturers, who posted relatively strong expectations last November, reported about the same sales outlook this month as they did five months ago.

To be clear, President Lockhart’s recent comments—and the Federal Open Market Committee statement on which they are based—indicate he is looking for a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market, not sales. But we’re going to assume that it’s unlikely to have one without the having the other. And is our panel’s unit sales forecast “substantially” improved? Well, what constitutes “substantial” is in the eye of the beholder, but if this isn’t a substantial improvement in the outlook, it’s certainly a move in that direction.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist, and

Photo of Nick ParkerNick Parker, economic research analyst, both in the Atlanta Fed’s research department

April 16, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Economics, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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November 20, 2012


Rose-Colored Glasses Make the Future Look Blurry: Sales Uncertainty as Seen by the November BIE

Uncertainty is widely cited as being a significant contributor to the economy's subpar growth. Reddy and Thurm report in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that "half of the nation's 40 biggest publicly traded corporate spenders have announced plans to curtail capital expenditures this year or next," in large measure because of rising economic uncertainty. But how uncertain is the current economic outlook? A few economists have attempted to measure business uncertainty, often by using the degree of disagreement between various forecasts, the volatility of certain economic indicators, or some combination of the two. (Two such approaches can be found here and here.)

We thought we'd use our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey to see if we could gauge the degree of business uncertainty directly. Last week, we asked our panel to assign probabilities to various sales outcomes for their businesses for the coming year. (This methodology is the same one we have been using to measure inflation uncertainty, except in this case our business panel was asked to reveal their expectations for unit sales growth over the year ahead.)

Specifically, we put to our panel the following statement:

Projecting ahead, to the best of your ability, please assign a percent likelihood to the following changes to unit sales over the next 12 months.

Panelists were given the following five unit sales outcomes:

  1. down (less than –1 percent)
  2. about unchanged (–1 percent to 1 percent)
  3. up somewhat (1.1 percent to 3 percent)
  4. up significantly (3.1 percent to 5 percent)
  5. up very significantly (greater than 5 percent)

One hundred and ninety-four businesses responded, and here's what they told us: On average, firms expect unit sales growth of about 1.2 percent in the coming year. That's more pessimistic than the real gross domestic product (GDP) forecast of the consensus of economists for the year (about 2 percent). But the range of possible outcomes seemed, to our eyes a least, to be large and unbalanced.

Consider the chart below, which shows the probabilities the panel, on average, assigned to the various sales outcomes. They assigned a 48 percent chance that their unit sales will grow 1 percent or less in the coming year, balanced against only 23 percent likelihood that unit sales will grow more than 3 percent over the next 12 months. In other words, in the minds of our BIE panel, the range of likely sales outcomes over the year ahead is pretty wide, with a fairly weighty chance that unit sales growth may not move in a positive range at all.

121120b

Perhaps we are making a bit too much of the size of the uncertainty businesses are attaching to the outlook. After all, we don't know what uncertainties firms face even in the best of times (since this is the first time we've asked this question). But when we dug into the data a little deeper, we found something else of interest. The degree of economic uncertainty varies widely by firm. Moreover, the greatest uncertainty about the future was held by the panelists who have the most optimistic sales outlook.

Check out the table below. It shows the degree of sales forecast uncertainty on the basis of whether a firm's sales projection is high or low.

121120_tbl

Panelists with the most optimistic sales expectations (the 39 firms with the highest sales forecasts) predicted unit sales growth of a little more than 3.5 percent this year, compared with about a 0.5 percent decline in unit sales for the 39 most pessimistic panelists. But also note that those who are relatively optimistic about the coming year have much greater uncertainty about their future than those who are relatively pessimistic—in fact, they're almost twice as uncertain.

What the November BIE survey seems to be saying is that it isn't just that an uncertain business outlook is reining in our growth prospects, but that the outlook is especially uncertain for the firms that think they have the best opportunity for expansion. Apparently, those wearing rose-colored glasses are having trouble seeing through them.

Note: The regular November Business Inflation Expectations report will be released Wednesday morning.

Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Laurel GraefeLaurel Graefe, economic policy analysis specialist, and

Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, economic research analyst, all with the Atlanta Fed

 


November 20, 2012 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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But the coefficient of variation is far higher in the bottom quintile, right?

Posted by: Sebastien Turban (@PtitSeb) | November 21, 2012 at 02:21 PM

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