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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 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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March 01, 2013

What the Dual Mandate Looks Like

Sometimes simple, direct points are the most powerful. For me, the simplest and most direct points in Chairman Bernanke’s Senate testimony this week were contained in the following one minute and 49 seconds of video (courtesy of Bloomberg):

At about the 1:26 mark, the Chairman says:

So, our accommodative monetary policy has not really traded off one of [the FOMC’s mandated goals] against the other, and it has supported both real growth and employment and kept inflation close to our target.

To that point, here is a straightforward picture:

Inflation and Unemployment

I concede that past results are no guarantee of future performance. And in his testimony, the Chairman was very clear that prudence dictates vigilance with respect to potential unintended consequences:

Highly accommodative monetary policy also has several potential costs and risks, which the committee is monitoring closely. For example, if further expansion of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet were to undermine public confidence in our ability to exit smoothly from our accommodative policies at the appropriate time, inflation expectations could rise, putting the FOMC's price stability objective at risk...

Another potential cost that the committee takes very seriously is the possibility that very low interest rates, if maintained for a considerable time, could impair financial stability. For example, portfolio managers dissatisfied with low returns may reach for yield by taking on more credit risk, duration risk, or leverage.

Concerns about such developments are fair and, as Mr. Bernanke makes clear, shared by the FOMC. Furthermore, the language around the Fed’s ultimate decision to end or alter the pace of its current open-ended asset-purchase program is explicitly cast in terms of an ongoing cost-benefit analysis. But anyone who wants to convince me that monetary policy actions have been contrary to our dual mandate is going to have to explain to me why that conclusion isn’t contradicted by the chart above.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

March 1, 2013 in Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Monetary Policy | 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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November 09, 2012

Getting the Questions Right

Among the plethora of post-election exit-poll results, the CNBC website highlights a particularly interesting response, linked from the mega-blog Instapundit with the title "Voters Worry More About Inflation Than You Think." The CNBC article itself, written by Allison Linn, describes the poll results in more detail:

It's no surprise that voters in Tuesday's presidential election identified the economy as the No. 1 issue in the campaign, far ahead of health care and the federal budget deficit.
But it was a surprise that so many voters identified rising prices as the biggest economic problem they face.

Linn notes something of a disconnect between this view and the facts on the ground:

...inflation has generally been running well under 2 percent, and Federal Reserve bankers repeatedly have said they feel comfortable that low inflation allows them to keep interest rates at rock-bottom levels.

Yet in an exit poll of more than 25,000 voters conducted by NBC News, 37 percent identified rising prices as the biggest problem facing people like them.

Unemployment was cited by 38 percent, only slightly more than the number who said inflation was their top economic concern. Taxes were named by 14 percent and the housing market was the top concern of 8 percent.

The policy stakes on understanding these responses are pretty high. In the end, the cost of inflation comes in the form of how it may distort behavior and the allocation of resources. So the expectation or perception of significant inflation is at least as pernicious as the measurement itself.

But what, exactly, does this concern about "inflation" actually reflect? Probably not what we think. Some time ago, my colleagues Mike Bryan and Guhan Venkatu (from the Cleveland Fed) made note of "The Curiously Different Inflation Perspectives of Men and Women." Their findings are pretty informative:

Over the past few years, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, with assistance from the Ohio State University, has studied household inflation perceptions and expectations using a monthly survey of approximately 500 Ohioans (the FRBC/OSU Inflation Psychology Survey). This survey, which records respondents' perceptions of price changes over the past 12 months as well as their expectations for price changes over the next 12 months, has uncovered a surprising result. The data indicate that the public's estimates and predictions of inflation are significantly and systematically related to the demographic characteristics of the respondents. People with high incomes perceive and anticipate much less inflation than people with low incomes, married people less than singles, whites less than nonwhites, and middle-aged people less than young people. This Commentary describes what is perhaps the most curious observation of all: Even after we hold constant income, age, education, race, and marital status, men and women hold very different views on the rate at which prices are changing.

...[S]tatistical tests reveal that even after we adjust for the respondents' age, race, education, and income, women in our survey tended to think inflation was 1.9 percentage points higher than men. A similar examination of respondents' predictions of future inflation yields the same basic result: After we account for other major demographic factors, on average, women expected prices to rise 2.1 percentage points more than men.

It is important to note that this result was not unique to the Cleveland Fed study:

An examination of survey data collected by the University of Michigan (which has recorded the inflation forecasts of U.S. households on a monthly basis since 1978) reveals that women consistently hold higher inflation expectations than men, even after we hold constant other important demographic characteristics of the respondent.

Most intriguing of all, the systematic overstatement of inflation by all consumers, relative to official statistics, and the difference in responses between men and women are not a result of ignorance about the facts, according to those official statistics:

In the August 2001 FRBC/OSU survey, we sought an answer to this question by asking, "Have you heard of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) before?" and "By about what percentage do you think the CPI went up (or down), on average, over the last 12 months?"

A significantly higher proportion of men had heard of the CPI compared to women (75 percent versus 61 percent, respectively). For those who had heard of the CPI, the average perception about how much it had risen over the past 12 months was surprisingly accurate—a perceived increase of 2.9 percent compared to an actual increase of 2.7 percent. It is also very interesting that men and women perceived the CPI's growth rate nearly identically (2.8 percent versus 3.1 percent, respectively.) However, of those who knew of the CPI, the average perception of price increases was 6.7 percent. And even within the subgroup of respondents who knew of the CPI, men had a significantly lower perception of price increases than did women (6.0 percent vs. 7.4 percent). In other words, the public believes that prices are rising more than the CPI reports, and women more so than men.

There are a couple of hypotheses that could be advanced to explain results like this. One is that the conspiracy crowd is correct and the official statistics are rigged and vastly understate true inflation. But that wouldn't get us anywhere near an understanding of why survey responses about inflation would be systematically different across men and women, higher- and low- income individuals, and just about any other demographic cuts we might make.

A second possibility it is that individuals' responses reflect price changes in their own personal market basket, which may differ from that of the average urban wage earner whose habits are reflected in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).That might explain why any demographic sub group could arrive at different inflation perceptions, but it doesn't explain why respondents as a whole systematically overstate inflation relative to the CPI.

I think the most likely explanation is that the survey respondents are expressing a much different concern than whether they believe food, gas, autos, banking services, or whatever are increasing or are likely to increase faster than the official statistics indicate. My guess is that they are telling us that they are concerned that their real—or inflation-adjusted—incomes are not rising fast enough to comfortably sustain their desired spending:


As I noted, the policy stakes are high. In the current environment, the policy prescription for fighting an incipient rise in inflation expectations would be much different than one deployed to address the reality of the chart above. All the more reason to make sure we understand the questions we are asking and the responses we get back.

Just to be sure, we monitor inflation trends and inflation expectations from a number of perspectives: Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), forecasts, and the Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey, to name just three. And all are available on the Atlanta Fed's Inflation Project for the terminally curious to monitor with us.

Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 


November 9, 2012 in Inflation | Permalink

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The question of inflation perceptions is indeed the right question, and some recent work has been done on this. See "'Real-Feel' Inflation: Quantitative Estimation of Inflation Perceptions," Business Economics, Vol. 47, No. 1, National Association for Business Economics, pp. 14-26, which tries to quantify some of the known cognitive biases that operate on inflation perceptions (or at least, to provide the first pieces of a model to do so, were it calibrated properly).

You can find a copy of the paper, although not the BE version, here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1661941

Posted by: Michael Ashton | November 09, 2012 at 11:42 AM

You are looking at the personal income data that because of the massive inequality in the US significantly overstates the income of the bulk of the population.

If you look at the average hourly and weekly earnings published by the BLS you get a very different picture of real income growth.

Average hourly earnings growth is at the record low of 0.8% and with 2% that leaves real income growth much, much weaker than your chart implies. Moreover, the higher inflation stems from food and oil that is a necessity for
the 80% of the population this measure covers.

Posted by: Spencer | November 09, 2012 at 12:24 PM

I would think an analysis of gender perception differences should take into account the % of purchasing decisions by gender.

Women make (according to studies) 70% of the purchasing decisions and by that metric, it shouldn't be a surprise that women are more tuned into household budget.

Good points by Spencer - the 80% (and all, except the disposable income for the top 20% obviously doesn't receivce the same incemental impact as the bottom 80%)... face inflationary costs 3X the rate of headline CPI when faced with health care, higher ed and energy costs.

Posted by: Barclay | November 10, 2012 at 09:53 AM

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November 02, 2012

Has Fed Behavior Changed?

To the titular question, Steve Williamson thinks the answer is "yes":

… the behavior of the FOMC has changed. Either it cares about some things it did not care about before (and in a particular way), or it cares about the same things in different ways—in particular it is less concerned about its price stability mandate.

Part of the Williamson case relies on an earlier post, where Williamson illustrates deviations of the actual path of the federal funds rate paths from his own estimated version of the Taylor rule:

New Keynesians like to think about monetary policy in terms of a Taylor rule, which specifies a target for the federal funds rate as a function of the "output gap" and the deviation of the actual inflation rate from its target value. According to standard Taylor rules, the fed funds target should go down when the output gap rises and up when the inflation rate rises. You can even fit Taylor rules to the data. I fit one to quarterly data for 1987-2007, and obtained the following:

R = 2.02 - 1.48(U-U*) + 1.17P,

where R is the fed funds rate, U is the unemployment rate, U* is the CBO natural rate of unemployment (so U-U* is my measure of the output gap) and P is the year-over-year percentage increase in the PCE deflator. You can see how it fits the historical data in the next chart.

So that's how the Fed behaved in the past. If it were behaving in the same way today, what would it be doing? Given that U = 7.8, U* = 6.0, and P = 1.5, my Taylor rule predicts R = 1.1%....

So, the Fed's behavior seems to have changed.

An obvious point: It is clear from Williamson's chart above that the predictive power of his version of the Taylor rule is far from perfect. In fact, through 2007 the standard deviation of the estimated rule's prediction error is 1.3 percentage points. From that perspective, the difference between a Williamson-Taylor rule funds-rate prediction of 1.1 percent and the actual current value of 0.14 percent doesn't seem so dramatic. I don't really see an obvious deviation from previous behavior.

More to the point, unless the metric is an absolutely slavish devotion to a particular form of the Taylor rule, I'm not exactly sure what evidence supports a conclusion that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is now "less concerned about its price stability mandate." As I argued a few weeks back, I think it is not too much of a stretch to construct a justification of post-crisis Fed actions up to the September decision entirely in terms of support for the FOMC's price stability mandate.

I don't take any great exception to Williamson's claim that, with respect to the FOMC's stated inflation objective, things look pretty much on target:

If we look at a longer horizon, as I did here, from the beginning of 2007 or the beginning of 2009, you'll get something a little higher than 2.0% (I didn't have the most recent observation in the chart in the previous post). Too low? I don't think so.

Furthermore, in my previous post I noted that while there is a plausible case that previous asset purchase programs were required to maintain this salutary record on the inflation front, the case is arguably less plausible for "QE3." But, to my mind, that just isn't enough evidence to conclude that the FOMC has downgraded its price stability goals.

Consider a homeowner with the dual mandate of keeping both the roof of the house and the driveway in good repair. If the roof isn't leaking but there are cracks in the driveway, I think you would expect to see the owner out on the weekend patching the concrete. I don't think you would conclude as a result that he or she had ceased caring as much about the condition of the roof. I do think you would conclude that attention is being focused where the problem exists.

I suppose the argument is that the Fed is raining so much liquidity down on the world that the roof is, sooner or later, bound to leak. The FOMC has expressed confidence that, if this happens, it has the tools to patch things up and will deploy those tools as aggressively as required to meet its mandate. I guess Steve Williamson feels differently. But that, then, is a difference of opinion about things to come, not about the facts on the ground.

Update: Here's Steve Williamson's response.

David Altig By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

November 2, 2012 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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I think Williamson's problem is that his U*=6 is wrong. There's been plenty of discussion in the econosphere about how the CBO's estimates of output and employment potential have been downwardly biased in recent years. Part of this reflects uncertainty about the extent to which the downturn was structural, but a lot of it is also just a matter of the data being truncated--as more data comes in, the trend estimates will be revised back up due to smoothing processes.

The results on Williamson's Taylor rule are dramatic. First, update the current unemployment to 7.9 instead of the previous 7.9 and it drops from R=1.1% to just 0.98%. Then lower the natural rate of unemployment down to a more realistic long run rate of 5.5% and the predicted interest rate drops to 0.22%, which is within the window prescribed by the fed.

Now, 5.5% is much closer to the natural rate normally used in Taylor rule calculations. Williamson did not find evidence that the Fed was behaving differently, but rather advocating that it should behave differently by being more pessimistic than normal about the economy's potential.

Posted by: Matthew | November 04, 2012 at 07:32 AM

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September 27, 2012

How Big Is the Output Gap? More Perspectives from Our Business Inflation Expectations Survey

Opinions vary widely about how much slack there is in the economy these days. Some say a lot—some say not so much.

Last month, we reached out to members of our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel for their take on the issue. The panel indicated they had more pricing power in August than they did last October. OK, that doesn't exactly gauge the amount of slack businesses think they have, but it does suggest that, however much slack there is, it's been shrinking.

Another detail revealed by our August inquiry was that retailers think they have more pricing power compared with manufacturers—a pretty good sign the latter is experiencing more slack than the former.

In this month's BIE survey we went fishing in the same murky waters, but this time we took a more direct approach. We asked our panel to provide a percentage estimate of how far their sales levels are above/below "normal." Here's what we found: On a gross domestic product (GDP)–weighted basis, the panel estimates that current sales are about 7.5 percent below normal. That's more slack than the conventional estimates, like the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) measure of the GDP gap, which puts the economy about 6 percent under its potential.

120927_tbl

But perhaps a more interesting observation from our September survey is how widely current performance varies by sector and size within our panel. Retailers, for example, say their current sales are a little less than 2 percent below normal. And firms in the leisure/hospitality and the transportation/warehousing sectors—sectors where growth has been particularly robust in recent years—say they are operating at, or just a shade above, normal levels.

Compare these estimates with those from durable goods manufacturers, which report that their current sales levels are nearly 12 percent below normal, and finance and insurance companies, which say they are almost 17 percent below normal. And construction firms? Well, best not even ask them.

And the amount of slack firms are reporting isn't just a reflection of their sector of the economy—size also matters. Firms with more than 500 employees say their current sales levels are a little less than 5 percent below normal—half as much as the amount of slack being reported by small firms.

So we're led back to the question that kicked this blog post off. How big is the output gap? Some say a lot—some say not so much. And this difference in perspective is not just among policymakers. Within the economy, experience varies at least as widely; some firms' sales are still well below normal, while others are telling us that they are very nearly back to normal, and some are already there.

But here's the rub. If the economy represents a constellation of firms operating at widely varying levels of capacity, from what viewpoint should we consider the economy relative to its potential? Are aggregate measures, like the one provided by the CBO or by our "GDP-weighted" approach, appropriate perspectives? Indeed, given widely varying measures of economic performance across firms and industries, how meaningful is an aggregate assessment of economic slack?

Ah, we'll leave these questions for the November survey.

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

 


September 27, 2012 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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Normal relative to what? To levels at the height of the bubble? Is that really a measurement of the output gap?

Posted by: Dave Schuler | September 28, 2012 at 10:04 AM

"If the economy represents a constellation of firms operating at widely varying levels of capacity, from what viewpoint should we consider the economy relative to its potential?"

maybe a fair question, but one unlikely to be addressed by a survey. One can make the same point about inflation: At any one time, some prices are rising and some are falling, so how meaningful is an aggregate measure of the overall price level? That's the macro question for the ages. Also, you ignore the fact that the rate of growth (or rebound) and ability to add capacity is different for each industry. It could be, for example, that some industries will rebound faster or slower than the overall economy and have the ability to add capacity faster (so the measured degree of slack is essentially a function of the degree of fixed or sticky cost structure).

Overall it sounds to me that while the estimate is different than the CBO, the results are still broadly consistent subject to small sample error.


Posted by: dwb | October 01, 2012 at 08:35 PM

difference in perspective is not just among policymakers. Within the economy, experience varies at least as widely; some firms' sales are still well below normal, while others are telling us that they are very nearly back to normal, and some are already there.

Posted by: escort pigerne | October 22, 2012 at 03:26 AM

And the amount of slack firms are reporting isn't just a reflection of their sector of the economy—size also matters. Firms with more than 500 employees say their current sales levels are a little less than 5 percent below normal—half as much as the amount of slack being reported by small firms.

Posted by: sexpiger | February 16, 2014 at 04:27 PM

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August 23, 2012

Do Firms Have Pricing Power?

Here's a question every policymaker would like to know the answer to: How much slack is there in the economy? You know the drill: If there's lots of slack, firms have little power to pass cost increases on to customers. But as the economy approaches full employment, the pricing power of firms strengthens, and cost pressures get more readily passed along. The problem is, there doesn't seem to be any practical consensus about the amount of slack in our economy. To paraphrase a well-known adage widely attributed to Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, we've been torturing the Phillips Curve, but it isn't talking.

We wondered if businesses might be in a better position to say what kind of pricing power they have. So this month we asked our Business Inflation Panel to weigh in on how they might adjust their prices in the face of a hypothetical, unanticipated increase in costs. Not knowing what kind of cost pressure a firm might respond to, we randomly sorted our panel into two groups—one given a 2 percent cost-increase scenario, and one given a 6 percent cost-increase scenario. Here's what we learned:

On average, firms faced with the 2 percent cost increase were likely to pass about 1.3 percentage points (or 66 percent) to their customers. In the portion of our panel considering the 6 percent cost increase, the average impact on customer prices was 3.8 percentage points (or about 63 percent of the cost increase). So in the aggregate, firms think they can pass about two-thirds of any cost increase through to prices, and that belief holds roughly true whether the cost increase is relatively modest or somewhat large.

We asked a similar question of our panel last October, but the responses we got then indicated that firms held a more conservative view of their pricing power.

What effect would an unticipated, 2 percent rise in unit costs have on your prices

Of the firms facing the 2 percent cost-hike scenario last October, only 31 percent said they would pass along most of the cost on to their customers, compared with the 53 percent that said they would do so today (see the chart above).

What effect would an unticipated, 6 percent rise in unit costs have on your prices

Likewise, of the panelists asked to consider a 6 percent cost increase, only 37 percent said they would pass most of the increase on to customers last October, compared with 60 percent who said they would do so today (see chart above).

What's behind the reported increase in firms' pricing power since October? Well, we'd be speculating on that point, but one thing that's changed since October is that a smaller proportion of firms are reporting sales levels “less than normal” (54 percent compared with 64 percent in October). Said another way, firms, in the aggregate are reporting less slack today than they were ten months ago—a finding that aligns with recent results from the NFIB small business survey showing a decrease in the percentage of firms that consider poor sales to be the primary issue they face.

Percentage of firms reporting sales less than normal

Comparisons across industry groups also suggest that slack may be influencing firms' reported pricing power. Retailers, for example, say they would pass through about 75 percent of a cost increase to their customers, compared with only 64 percent for manufacturers and 60 percent for other firms. At the same time, retailers are reporting that sales and price margins are closer to normal—a sign that their perception of “slack” is not as great as other firms.

Industry breakdown of the pass-through from the hypothetical...

    

Does the analysis above indicate that firms are running out of slack? Sorry, but we can't quite go that far on the basis of these two surveys. But one thing seems clear—while our panel of businesses says sales levels are still below normal, sales and pricing power are better today than they were last October.

Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist;

Laurel GraefeLaurel Graefe, economic policy analysis specialist;

Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, economic research analyst; and

Kate ReesKate Rees, economic research analyst, all with the Atlanta Fed

August 23, 2012 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation | Permalink

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