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April 02, 2018
Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework, Part 4: Flexible Price-Level Targeting in the Big Picture
In the second post of this series, I enumerated several alternative monetary policy frameworks. Each is motivated by a recognition that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is likely to confront future scenarios where the effective lower bound on policy rates comes into play. Given such a possibility, it is important to consider the robustness of the framework.
My previous macroblog posts have focused on one of these frameworks: price-level targeting of a particular sort. As I hinted in the part 3 post, I view the specific framework I have in mind as a complement to, and not a substitute for, many of the other proposals that are likely to be considered. In this final post on the topic, I want to expand on that thought, considering in turn the options listed in part 2.
- Raising the FOMC's longer-run inflation target
The framework I described in part 3 was constructed to be consistent with the FOMC's current long-run objective of 2 percent inflation. But nothing in the structure of the plan I discussed would bind the Committee to the 2 percent objective. Obviously, a price-level target line can be constructed for any path that policymakers choose. The key is to have such a target and coherently manage monetary policy so that it achieves that target. The slope of the price-level path—that is, the underlying long-run inflation rate—is an entirely separate issue.
- Maintaining the 2 percent longer-run inflation target and policy framework more or less as is, relying on unconventional tools when needed
As noted, the flexible price-level targeting example I discussed in part 3 was constructed with a long-run 2 percent inflation rate as the key benchmark. In that regard, it is clearly consistent with the Fed's current inflation goal.
Further, a central question in the current framework is how to interpret a goal of 2 percent inflation in the longer run. One interpretation is that the central bank aims to deliver an inflation rate that averages 2 percent over some period of time. Another interpretation is that the central bank aims to deliver an inflation rate that tends toward 2 percent, letting bygones be bygones in the event that realized inflation rates deviate from 2 percent.
The bounded price-level targets I have presented do not force a particular answer to the question I raise, and both views can be supported within the framework. Hence, the framework is consistent with whichever view the FOMC might adopt. The only caveat is that deviations from 2 percent cannot be so large and persistent that they push the price level outside the target bounds.As to the problem of the federal funds rate falling to a level that makes further cuts infeasible, nothing in the notion of a price-level target rules out (or demands) any particular policy tool. If anything, bounded price-level targets could expand the existing toolkit. They certainly do not constrain it.
Targeting nominal gross domestic product (GDP) growth
Targeting nominal GDP growth, which is the sum of real GDP growth and the inflation rate, represents a deviation from the price-level targeting I have described. In this framework, the longer-run rate of inflation depends on the longer-run rate of real GDP growth.
To see how this works, consider the period from 2003 to 2013. In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office projected an average annual potential GDP growth rate of 2.9 percent over the next 10 years. Had there been a nominal GDP growth target of 5 percent at this time, the implicit annualized inflation target would have been just over 2 percent. However, current CBO estimates indicate that actual potential GDP growth over this period averaged just 1.5 percent, which would suggest an inflation target of 3.5 percent. As data came in and policymakers saw this lower level of growth, they would have responded by shifting upward the implicit inflation target.
For advocates of using a nominal GDP target, shifting inflation targets is a key feature and not a bug, as it allows policy to adjust in real time to unforeseen cyclical and structural developments. What nominal GDP targeting doesn't satisfy is the principle of bounded nominal uncertainty. Eventually, price-level bounds that are set with an assumed potential real growth path will be violated if shifts in potential growth are sufficiently large. The appeal of nominal GDP targeting depends on how one weighs the benefits of inflation-target flexibility against the costs of price-level uncertainty inherent in that framework.
- Adopting flexible inflation targets that are adjusted based on economic conditions
Recently, my colleague Eric Rosengren, president of the Boston Fed, offered a proposal (here and here) that has some of the flavor of nominal GDP targeting but differs in important respects. Like nominal GDP targeting, President Rosengren's framework would adjust the target inflation rate given structural shifts in the economy. However, if I understand his idea correctly, the FOMC would deliberate specifically on the desired rate of inflation and adjust the target within a predetermined range.
Relying on the target's appropriate range opens the possibility of compatibility between President Rosengren's framework and the one I presented. Policymakers could use price-level targeting concepts in developing a range of policy options given the state of the economy. The breadth of the range of options would depend on the bounds the FOMC felt represented an acceptable degree of price-level uncertainty.
Summing all of this up, then—to me, the important characteristic of a sound monetary policy framework is that it provides a credible nominal anchor while maintaining flexibility to address changing circumstances. I think some form of flexible price-level targeting can be a part of such a framework. I look forward to a robust and constructive debate.
March 28, 2018
Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework, Part 3: An Example of Flexible Price-Level Targeting
I want to start my discussion in this post with two points I made in the previous two macroblog posts (here and here). First, I think a commitment to delivering a relatively predictable price-level path is a desirable feature of a well-constructed monetary framework. Price stability is in my view achieved if people can have confidence that the purchasing power of the dollars they hold today will fall within a certain range at any date in the future.
My second point was that, as a matter of fact, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) delivered on this definition of price stability during the years 1995–2012. (The FOMC formally adopted its 2 percent long-run inflation target in 2012.)
If you are reading this blog, you're almost certainly aware that since 2012, the actual personal consumption expenditures (PCE) inflation rate has persistently fallen short of the 2 percent goal. That, of course, means that the price level has fallen increasingly short of a reference 2 percent path, as shown in chart 1 below.
Is this deviation from the price-level path a problem? The practical answer to that question will depend on how my proposed definition of price stability is implemented.
By way of example, let's suppose that the FOMC commits to conducting monetary policy in such a way that the price level will always fall within plus-or-minus 5 percent of the long-run target path (which itself we define as the path implied by a constant 2 percent inflation rate). This policy—and how it relates to the actual path of PCE price inflation—is illustrated in chart 2.
So would inflation falling short of the 2 percent longer-run goal be a problem if the Fed was operating within the framework depicted in chart 2? In a sense, the answer is no. The current price level would be within the bounds of a hypothetical commitment made in 1995. If the central bank could perpetually deliver 2 percent annual inflation, that promise would remain intact, as shown in chart 3.
Of course, chart 3 depicts a forward path for prices whose margin for error is quite slim. Continued inflation below 2 percent would, in short order, push the price level below the lower bound, likely requiring a relatively accommodative monetary policy stance—that is, if policymakers sought to satisfy a commitment to this framework's definition of price stability.
Central bankers in risk management mode might opt for policies designed to deliberately move the price level toward the 2 percent average inflation midpoint in cases where the price level moves too close for the Committee's comfort to one of the bounds (as, perhaps, in chart 3). It bears noting that in such cases there are a wide range of options available to policymakers with respect to the timing and pace of that adjustment.
This scenario illustrates the flexibility of the price-level targeting framework I'm describing. I think it's important to think in terms of gradual adjustments that don't risk whipsawing the economy or force the central bank to be overly precise in its short-run influence on inflation and economic activity. A key feature of such a policy framework includes considerable short- and medium-run flexibility in inflation outcomes.
But the other key feature is that the framework limits that same flexibility—that is, it satisfies the principle of bounded nominal uncertainty. Suppose you and another person agree that you will receive a $1 payment in 10 years in exchange for a service provided today. If the inflation rate over this 10-year period is exactly 2 percent per year, then the real value of that dollar in goods and services would be 82 cents.
In my example (the one with a plus-or-minus 5 percent bound on the price level), monetary policymakers have essentially committed that the agreed-upon payment would not result in real purchasing power of less than 78 cents (and the payer could be confident that the real purchasing power relinquished would not be more than 86 cents).
The crux of my argument is that a "good" monetary policy framework limits the degree of uncertainty associated with contracts involving transfers of dollars over time. In limiting uncertainty, monetary policy contributes to economic efficiency.
The 5 percent bound I chose for my illustration is obviously arbitrary. The magnitude of the acceptable deviations from the price-level path would be a policy decision. I'm not sure we know a whole lot about what range of deviations from an expected price path contributes most consistently to economic efficiency. A benefit of the framework I am describing is that it would focus research, discussion, and debate squarely on that question.
This series of posts is going on hiatus for a few days. Tomorrow, the Atlanta Fed is going to release its 2017 Annual Report, and I certainly don't want to steal its thunder. And Friday, of course, will begin the Easter weekend for many people.
But I want to conclude this post by emphasizing that the framework I am describing is more of a refinement of, and not a competitor to, many of the framework proposals I discussed in Monday's post. This is an important point and one that I will turn to in the final installment of this series, to be published next Monday.
March 27, 2018
Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework, Part 2: The Principle of Bounded Nominal Uncertainty
In yesterday's macroblog post, I discussed one of the central monetary policy questions of the day: Is the possibility of hitting the lower bound on policy rates likely to be an issue for the Fed going forward, do we care, and—if we do—what can we do about it?
The answers to the first questions are, in my opinion, yes and yes. That's the easy part. The last question—what can we do about it?—is the hard part. In the end, this is a question about the framework for conducting monetary policy. The menu of options includes:
- Raising the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) longer-run inflation target;
- Maintaining the current policy framework, including the 2 percent longer-run inflation target, relying on unconventional tools when needed;
- Targeting the growth rate of nominal gross domestic product;
- Adopting an inflation range with flexible inflation targets that are adjusted based on the state of the economy (a relatively recent entry to the list suggested by Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren );
- Price-level targeting.
Chicago Fed president Charles Evans, San Francisco Fed president John Williams, and former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, among others, have advocated for some version of the last item on this list of options. I am going to add myself to the list of people sympathetic to a policy framework that has a form of price-level targeting at its center.
I'll explain my sympathies by discussing principles that are central to my thinking.
First, I think the Fed's commitment to the long-run 2 percent inflation objective has served the country well. I recognize that the word “commitment” in that sentence might be more important than the specific 2 percent target value. But credibility and commitment imply objectives that, though not immutable, rarely change—and then only with a clear consensus on a better course. With respect to changing the 2 percent objective as a longer-run goal, my feet are not set in concrete, but they are in pretty thick mud.
Second, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan offered a well-known definition of what it means for a central bank to succeed on a charge to deliver price stability. Paraphrasing, Chairman Greenspan suggested that the goal of price stability is met when households and business ignore inflation when making key economic decisions that affect their financial futures.
I agree with the Greenspan definition, and I believe that the 2 percent inflation objective has helped us meet that criterion. But I don't think we have met the Greenspan definition of price stability solely because 2 percent is a sufficiently low rate of inflation. I think it is also critical that deviations of prices away from a path implied by an average inflation rate of 2 percent have, in the United States, been relatively small.
Here's how I see it: until recently, the 2 percent inflation objective in the United States has essentially functioned as a price-level target centered on a 2 percent growth path. The orange line in the chart below shows what a price-level path of 2 percent growth would have been over the period from 1995 to 2012. I chose to begin with 1995 because it arguably began the Fed's era of inflation targeting. Why does the chart end in 2012? I'll get to that tomorrow, when I lay out a specific hypothetical plan.
The green line in the chart is the actual path of the price level, as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures. The chart explains what I mean when I say the FOMC effectively delivered on a 2 percent price-level target. Over the period depicted in this chart, the price level did not deviate much from the 2 percent path.
I believe the inflation outcome apparent in the chart is highly desirable. Why? Because the resulting price-level path satisfies what I will call the “principle of bounded nominal uncertainty.” In essence, the principle of bounded nominal uncertainty means that if you save a dollar today you can be “reasonably confident” about what the real value of that saving will be in the future.
For example, suppose that in January 1995 you had socked away $1 in cash that you intended to spend exactly five years later. If you believed that the Fed was going to deliver an average annual inflation rate of 2 percent over this period, you'd expect that dollar to be worth about 90 cents in real purchasing power by January 2000. (Recall that cash depreciates at the rate of inflation—I didn't say this was the best way to save!)
In fact, because the price level's realized path over that time hewed very closely to the expected 2 percent growth path, the actual value of the dollar you saved would have been very close to the 90 cents you expected. And this, I think, epitomizes a reasonable definition of price stability. If you and I enter into a contract to exchange a dollar at some future date, we can confidently predict within some range that dollar's purchasing power. Good monetary policy, in my view, will satisfy the principle of bounded nominal uncertainty.
This is the starting point of my thinking about a useful monetary policy framework—and how I think about price-level targeting generally. Tomorrow, I will expand on this thought and offer a specific example of how a price-level target might be put into operation in a way that is both flexible and respectful of the principle of bounded nominal uncertainty.
March 26, 2018
Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework: Framing the Question
"Should the Fed stick with the 2 percent inflation target or rethink it?" This was the very good question posed in a special conference hosted by the Brookings Institution this past January. Over the course of roughly two decades prior to the global financial crisis, a consensus had formed among monetary-policy experts and practitioners the world over that something like 2 percent is an appropriate goal—maybe even the optimal goal—for central banks to pursue. So why reconsider that target now?
The answer to that question starts with another consensus that has emerged in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In particular, there is now a widespread belief that, once monetary policy has fully normalized, the federal funds rate—the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) reference policy rate—will settle significantly below historical norms.
Several of my colleagues have spoken cogently about this phenomenon, which is often cast in terms of concepts like r-star, the natural rate of interest, the equilibrium rate of interest, or (in the case of my colleague Jim Bullard ), r-dagger. I like to think in terms of the "neutral" rate of interest; that is, the level of the policy rate consistent with the FOMC meeting its longer-run goals of price stability and maximum sustainable growth. In other words, the level of the federal funds rate should be consistent with 2 percent inflation, the unemployment rate at its sustainable level, and real gross domestic product at its potential.
Estimates of the neutral policy rate are subject to imprecision and debate. But a reasonable notion can be gleaned from the range of projections for the long-run federal funds rate reported in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) released just after last week's FOMC meeting. According to the latest SEP, neutral would be in a range 2.3 to 3.0 percent.
For some historical context, in the latter half of the 1990s, as the 2 percent inflation consensus was solidifying, the neutral federal funds rate would have been pegged in a range of something like 4.0 to 5.0 percent, roughly 2 percentage points higher than the range considered to be neutral today.
The implication for monetary policy is clear. If interest rates settle at levels that are historically low, policymakers will have limited scope for cutting rates in the event of a significant economic downturn (or at least more limited scope than they had in the past). I think it's fair to say that even relatively modest downturns are likely to yield policy reactions that drive the federal funds rate to zero, as happened in the Great Recession.
My view is that the nontraditional tools deployed after December 2008, when the federal funds rate effectively fell to zero, were effective. But it is accurate to say that our experience with these tools is limited, and the effectiveness of those tools remains controversial. I join the opinion that, all else equal, it would be vastly preferable to conduct monetary policy through the time-tested approach of raising and lowering short-term policy rates, if such an approach is available.
This point is where the challenge to the 2 percent inflation target enters the picture. The neutral rate I have been describing is a nominal rate. It is roughly the sum of an inflation-adjusted real rate—determined by fundamental saving and investment decisions in the global economy—and the rate of inflation. The downward drift in the neutral rate I have been describing is attributable to a downward drift in the inflation-adjusted real rate. A great deal of research has documented this phenomenon, such as some influential research by San Francisco Fed president John Williams and Thomas Laubach, the head of the monetary division at the Fed's Board of Governors.
In the long run, a central bank cannot reliably control the real rate of interest. So if we accept the following premises...
- A neutral rate that is too low to give the central bank enough room to fight even run-of-the-mill downturns is problematic;
- Cutting rates is the optimal strategy for addressing downturns; and
- The real interest rate is beyond the control of the central bank in the long run
...then we must necessarily accept that raising the neutral rate, thus affording monetary policymakers the desired rate-cutting scope when needed, would require raising the long-run inflation rate. Hence the argument for rethinking the Fed's 2 percent inflation target.
But is that the only option? And is it the best option?
The answer to the first question is clearly no. The purpose of the Brookings Institution sessions is addressing the pros and cons of the different strategies for dealing with the low neutral rate problem, and I commend them to you. But in upcoming macroblog posts, I want to share some of my thoughts on the second question.
Tomorrow, I will review some of the proposed options and explain why I am attracted to one in particular: price-level targeting. On Wednesday, I will propose what I think is a potentially useful model for implementing a price-level targeting scheme in practice. I want to emphasize that these are preliminary thoughts, offered in the spirit of stimulating the conversation and debate. I welcome that conversation and debate and look forward to making my contribution to moving it forward.
April 19, 2017
The Fed’s Inflation Goal: What Does the Public Know?
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent since January 25, 2012. In its statement announcing the target, the FOMC said, "Communicating this inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee's ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances."
If communicating this goal to the public enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy, one natural question is whether the public is aware of this 2 percent target. We've posed this question a few times to our Business Inflation Expectations Panel, which is a set of roughly 450 private, nonfarm firms in the Southeast. These firms range in size from large corporations to owner operators.
Last week, we asked them again. Specifically, the question is:
What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run?
Unsurprisingly, to us at least—and maybe to you if you're a regular macroblog reader—the typical respondent answered 2 percent (the same answer our panel gave us in 2015 and back in 2011). At a minimum, southeastern firms appear to have gotten and retained the message.
So, why the blog post? Careful Fed watchers noticed the inclusion of a modifier to describe the 2 percent objective in the March 2017 FOMC statement (emphasis added): "The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal." And especially eagle-eyed Fed watchers will remember that the Committee amended its statement of longer-run goals in January 2016, clarifying that its inflation objective is indeed symmetric.
The idea behind a symmetric inflation target is that the central bank views both overshooting and falling short of the 2 percent target as equally bad. As then Minneapolis Fed President Kocherlakota stated in 2014, "Without symmetry, inflation might spend considerably more time below 2 percent than above 2 percent. Inflation persistently below the 2 percent target could create doubts in households and businesses about whether the FOMC is truly aiming for 2 percent inflation, or some lower number."
Do such doubts actually exist? In a follow-up to our question about the numerical target, in the latest survey we asked our panel whether they thought the Fed was more, less, or equally likely to tolerate inflation below or above its targe. The following chart depicts the responses.
One in five respondents believes the Federal Reserve is more likely to accept inflation above its target, while nearly 40 percent believe it is more likely to accept inflation below its target. Twenty-five percent of firms believe the Federal Reserve is equally likely to accept inflation above or below its target. The remainder of respondents were unsure. This pattern was similar across firm sizes and industries.
In other words, more firms see the inflation target as a threshold (or ceiling) that the Fed is averse to crossing than see it as a symmetric target.
Lately, various Committee members (here, here, and in Chair Yellen's latest press conference at the 42-minute mark) have discussed the symmetry about the Committee's inflation target. Our evidence suggests that the message may not have quite sunk in yet.
January 15, 2016
Are Long-Term Inflation Expectations Declining? Not So Fast, Says Atlanta Fed
"Convincing evidence that longer-term inflation expectations have moved lower would be a concern because declines in consumer and business expectations about inflation could put downward pressure on actual inflation, making the attainment of our 2 percent inflation goal more difficult."
—Fed Chair Janet Yellen, in a December 2, 2015, speech to the Economic Club of Washington
To be sure, Chair Yellen's claim is not controversial. Modern macroeconomics gives inflation expectations a central role in the evolution of actual inflation, and the stability of those expectations is crucial to the Fed's ability to achieve its price stability mandate.
The real question on everyone's mind is, of course, what might constitute "convincing evidence" of changes in inflation expectations. Recently, several economists, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, have weighed in on this issue. Yesterday, President Bullard cited downward movements in the five-year/five-year forward breakeven rates from the five- and 10-year nominal and inflation-protected Treasury bond yields. In November, Summers appealed to measures based on inflation swap contracts. The view that inflation expectations are declining has also been echoed by the New York Fed President William Dudley and former Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota.
Broadly speaking, there seems to be a growing view that market-based long-run inflation expectations are declining and drifting significantly away from the Fed's 2 percent target and that this decline is troublingly correlated with oil prices.
A problem with this line of argument is that the breakeven and swap rates are not necessarily clean measures of inflation expectations. They are really better referred to as measures of inflation compensation because, in addition to inflation expectations, these measures also include factors related to liquidity conditions in the markets for these securities, technical features of the inflation protection in each security, and inflation risk premia. Here at the Atlanta Fed, we've built a model to separate these different components and isolate a better measure of true inflation expectations (IE).
In technical terms, we estimate an affine term structure model—similar to that of D'Amico, Kim and Wei (2014)—that incorporates information from the markets for U.S. Treasuries, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), inflation swaps, and inflation options (caps and floors). Details are provided in "Forecasts of Inflation and Interest Rates in No-Arbitrage Affine Models," a forthcoming Atlanta Fed working paper by Nikolay Gospodinov and Bin Wei. (You can also see Gospodinov and Wei (2015) for further analysis.) Essentially, we ask: what level of inflation expectations is consistent with this entire set of financial market data? And we then follow this measure over time.
As chart 1 illustrates, we draw a very different conclusion about the behavior of long-term inflation expectations. The chart plots the five-year/five-year forward TIPS breakeven inflation (BEI) and the model-implied inflation expectations (IE) for the period January 1999–November 2015 at a weekly frequency. Unlike the raw BEI, our measure is quite smooth, suggesting that long-term inflation expectations have been, and still are, well anchored.
After making an adjustment for the inflation risk premium, we term the difference between BEI and IEs a "liquidity premium," but it really includes a variety of other factors. Our more careful look at the liquidity premium reveals that it is partly made up of factors specific to the structure of inflation-indexed TIPS bonds. For example, since TIPS are based on the non-seasonally adjusted consumer price index (CPI) of all items, TIPS yields incorporate a large positive seasonal carry yield in the first half of the year and a large negative seasonal carry yield in the second half. Chart 2 illustrates this point by plotting CPI seasonality (computed as the accumulated difference between non-seasonally adjusted and seasonally adjusted CPI) and the five-year breakeven inflation.
Redemptions, reallocations, and hedging in the TIPS market after oil price drops and global financial market turbulence can further exacerbate this seasonal pattern. Taken together, these factors are the source of correlation between the BEI measures and oil prices. To confirm this, chart 3 plots (the negative of) our liquidity premium estimate and the log oil price (proxied by the nearest futures price).
Our measure of long-term inflation expectations is also consistent with long-term measures from surveys. Chart 4 presents the median along with the 10th and 90th percentiles of the five-year/five-year forward CPI inflation expectations from the Philadelphia Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF) at quarterly frequency. This measure can be compared directly with our IE measure. Both the level and the dynamics of the median SPF inflation expectation are remarkably close to that for our market-based IE. It is also interesting to observe that the level of inflation "disagreement" (measured as the difference between the 10th and 90th percentiles) is at a level similar to the level seen before the financial crisis.
Finally, we note that TIPS and SPF are based on CPI rather than the Fed's preferred personal consumption expenditure (PCE) measure. CPI inflation has historically run above PCE inflation by about 30 basis points. Accounting for this difference brings our measure of the level of long-term inflation expectations close to the Fed's 2 percent target.
To summarize, our analysis suggests that (1) long-run inflation expectations remain stable and anchored, (2) the seemingly large correlation of market-implied inflation compensation with oil prices arises mainly from the dynamics of the TIPS liquidity premium, and (3) long-run market- and survey-based inflation expectations are remarkably close in terms of level and dynamics over time. Of course, further softness in the global economy and commodity markets may eventually drag down long-term expectations. We will continue to monitor the pure measure of inflation expectations for such developments.
By Nikolay Gospodinov, financial economist and policy adviser; Paula Tkac, vice president and senior economist; and Bin Wei, financial economist and associate policy adviser, all of the Atlanta Fed's research department
September 21, 2015
What Do U.S. Businesses Know that New Zealand Businesses Don't? A Lot (Apparently).
A recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, picked up by the Financial Times and the Washington Post, suggests that when it comes to communicating their inflation objective, central banks have a lot of work to do. This conclusion is based primarily on two pieces of evidence.
The first piece is that when businesses in New Zealand are asked about their expectations for changes in "overall prices"—which presumably corresponds with their inflation expectation—the responses, on average, appear to be much too high relative to observed inflation trends. And the responses vary widely from business to business. According to this survey, the average firm in New Zealand expects 4 to 5 percent inflation on a year-ahead basis, and 3.5 percent inflation over the next five to 10 years. Those expectations are for the average firm. Apparently, about one in four firms in New Zealand think inflation in the year ahead will be more than 5 percent, and about one in six firms believe inflation will top 5 percent during the next five to 10 years. Certainly, these aren't the responses one would expect from businesses operating in an economy (like New Zealand) where the central bank has been targeting 2 percent inflation for the past 13 years, over which time inflation has averaged only 2.2 percent (and a mere 0.9 percent during the past four years).
But count us skeptical of this evidence. In this paper from last year, we challenge the assumption that asking firms (or households, for that matter) about expected changes in "overall prices" corresponds to an inflation prediction.
The second piece of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of inflation targeting is more direct—the authors of this paper actually asked New Zealand businesses a few questions about the central bank and its policies, including this one:
What annual percentage rate of change in overall prices do you think the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is trying to achieve? (Answer: ______%)
The distribution of answers by New Zealand firms is shown in the chart below. According to the survey, the median New Zealand firm appears to think the central bank's inflation target is 5 percent. Indeed, more than a third of firms in New Zealand reported that they think the central bank is targeting an inflation rate greater than 5 percent. Only about 12 percent of the firms were able to correctly identify their central bank's actual inflation target of 2 percent (actually, the New Zealand inflation target is a range of between 1 and 3 percent, centered on 2 percent).
If this weren't embarrassing enough for central bankers, the study also reports that New Zealand households (like U.S. households) don't seem to know who the head of the central bank is. In fact, the authors show that there are more online searches for "puppies" than for information about macroeconomic variables.
OK, to be honest, we don't find that last result very surprising. Puppies are adorable. Central bankers? Not so much. But we were very surprised to see just how high and wide-ranging businesses in New Zealand perceived their central bank's inflation target to be. We're surprised because that bit of information doesn't fit with our understanding of U.S. firms.
In December 2011, the month before the Fed officially announced an explicit numerical target for inflation, we wanted to know whether firms had already formed an opinion about the Fed's inflation objective. So we asked a panel of Southeast businesses the following question:
What we learned was that 16 percent of the 151 firms who responded to our survey had no opinion regarding what rate of inflation the Federal Reserve was aiming for. But of the firms that had an opinion, 58 percent identified a 2 percent inflation target.
But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison to the recent survey of New Zealand businesses. In our 2011 survey, firms had only six options to choose from (including "no opinion"). It could be that our choice of options biased the responses away from high inflation values. So last week, we convened another panel of firms and asked the question in the same open-ended format given to New Zealanders:
What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run? (Answer: ______%)
The only material distinction between their question and ours is that we substituted the word "inflation" for the phrase "changes in overall prices." (For this special survey, we polled a national sample of firms that had never before answered one of our survey questions.) The chart below shows what we found relative to the results recently reported for New Zealand firms.
Our survey results look very similar to our results of four years ago. About one in five of the 102 firms that answered our survey was unsure about the Fed's inflation target. But almost 53 percent of the firms that responded answered 2 percent. (On average, U.S. firms judged the central bank's inflation target to be 2.2 percent, just a shade higher than our actual target.)
Furthermore, the distribution of responses to our survey was very tightly centered on 2 percent. The highest estimate of the Fed's inflation target (from only one firm) was 5 percent. So again, our results don't at all resemble what has been reported for the firms down under.
Why is there a glaring difference between what the survey of New Zealand firms found and what we're finding? Well, as noted earlier, we've got our suspicions, but we'll keep studying the issue. And in the meantime, have you seen this?
Editor's note: Learn more about inflation and the consumer price index in an ECONversations webcast featuring Atlanta Fed economist Brent Meyer.
September 04, 2015
5-Year Deflation Probability Moves Off Zero
Since 2010, our Bank has regularly posted 5-year deflation probabilities derived from prices of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) on our Deflation Probabilities web page. Each deflation probability, which measures the likelihood of a decline in the Consumer Price Index over a fixed five-year window, is estimated by comparing the price of a recently issued 5-year TIPS with a 10-year TIPS issued about five years earlier. Because the 5-year TIPS has more "deflation protection" than the 10-year TIPS, the implied deflation probability rises when the 5-year TIPS becomes more valuable relative to the 10-year TIPS. (See this macroblog post for a more detailed explanation, or this appendix with the mathematical details.)
From early September 2013 to the first week of August 2015, the five-year deflation probability estimated with the most recently issued 5-year TIPS was identically 0 as the chart shows.
Of course, we should not interpret this long period of zero probability of deflation too literally. It could easily be the case that the "true" deflation probability was slightly above zero but that confounding factors—such as differences in the coupon rates, maturity dates, or liquidity of the TIPS issues—prevented the model from detecting it.
Since August 11, however, the deflation probability has had its own "liftoff" of sorts, fluctuating between 0.0 and 1.3 percent over the 16-day period ending August 26 before rising steadily to 4.1 percent on September 2. Of course, this rise off zero could be temporary, as it proved to be in the summer of 2013.
How seriously should we take this recent liftoff? We can look at options prices on Consumer Price Index inflation (inflation caps and floors) to get a full probability distribution for future inflation; see this published article by economists Yuriy Kitsul and Jonathan Wright or a nontechnical summary in this New York Times article. An alternative is simply to ask professional forecasters for their subjective probabilities of inflation falling within various ranges like "1.0 to 1.4 percent," "1.5 to 1.9 percent," and so forth. The Philly Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters does just this, with the chart below showing probabilities of low inflation for the Consumer Price Index excluding food and energy (core CPI) from each of the August surveys since 2007.
Although the price index, and the horizon for the inflation outcome, differs from the TIPS-based deflation probability, we see that the shape of the curves is broadly similar to the one shown in the first chart. In the most recent survey, the probability that next year's core CPI inflation rate will be low was small and not particularly elevated relative to recent history. However, the deadline date for this survey was August 11, before liftoff in either the TIPS-based deflation probability or the recent volatility in global financial markets. So stay tuned.
July 17, 2015
Getting to the Core of Goods and Services Prices
In yesterday's macroblog post, I highlighted an aspect of a recent Wall Street Journal article that concerns how households perceive inflation. Today, I'm going back to the same well to comment on another aspect of that story, which correctly notes that service-sector prices are rising at a faster clip than the price of goods.
Of course, this isn't just a recent event. Core services prices have outpaced core goods prices over the past 50 years, save a few short-lived deviations. What's unusual about the current recovery, as the chart below shows, is how low services inflation has been.
In the nearly six years since the end of the 2007–09 recession, core services prices have risen at an annualized pace of 2.1 percent, a full percentage point below their average during the last expansion. Conversely, the annualized growth rate in core goods prices during the recovery has been 0.5 percent, compared to a decline of 0.6 percent during the last expansion (see the chart below).
To see how broad-based the slowdown across core services prices has been relative to that of core goods prices, let's take a deeper dive into the components. The chart below compares the difference between a particular component's annualized growth rate during the current expansion and its growth rate during the previous expansion. A negative number here means that a component's price is growing more slowly now than it did prior to the recession.
It's evident that the slowdown in core services prices is fairly broad-based (17 of 22 components are exhibiting disinflation relative to their growth rate over the previous expansion). For core goods components, that number is just five of 15 components. So, if we accept the premise of the WSJ article—that trends in services prices more closely reflect "unused domestic capacity"—then it's possible we could be farther away than we think.
July 16, 2015
Different Strokes for Different Folks
A recent Wall Street Journal article offered an interesting conjecture. The author stated,"[b]ecause consumers pay service bills more often than they buy most goods other than food and gasoline, perceptions of inflation skew on the high side."
Research supports the idea that inflation perceptions are unusually influenced by particular prices. For example, some authors have noted that inflation expectations appear to be unusually influenced by movements in gasoline prices.
This research by Georganas, Healy, and Li shows that inflation perceptions are affected by how frequently people buy a particular good—so that nondurable goods prices like gasoline affect inflation perceptions more than durable goods.
And recent work by Johannsen at the Federal Reserve Board shows that demographic groups who have a more disperse set of inflation experiences also tend to hold more disperse inflation expectations. One thing I think we can say is that different demographic groups appear to have different inflation experiences, as this research by Hobjin, Mayer, Stennis, and Topa indicates.For example, let's take a look at the difference between the inflation experiences of two households. The first is a single older female (over 55 years of age) who rents her home and has a relatively low income (less than $30,000 a year). The second is a young couple (younger than 35 years old) who own their home and have a high income (over $70,000 annually). Both households have high school educations. Recently, the difference between the inflation experiences of these two demographic groups has opened up to a sizable 2.0 percentage points (see the chart). Why?
Well, the spending habits of these two groups contain a few striking differences. For example, the older female spends a lot more of her household income on food at home, rent, and medical care than the young couple does (see the table). Also, the young couple appears to spend a larger fraction of their income on transportation (a large portion of which is gasoline).
Comparison of myCPI Weights
Average of the previous five years (through December 2014)
A young couple, homeowner, high income, high school education
Older female, renter, low income, high school education
Food at home
Food away from home
Household furnishings and equipment
Note: "Other" includes personal care, alcohol, tobacco, reading, and miscellaneous goods and services
What's the inflation experience for someone in your particular demographic group? Let's find out. We've developed a tool called myCPI. It allows users to track a measure of the cost of living that captures some of the variation that occurs between demographic groups. In less than a minute, you can answer a few questions about your demographic category, and we'll show you the cost-of-living trends for "your" group. And if you want, we'll send you updates of your demographic group's inflation with every consumer price index (CPI) report.
Why not get your myCPI report? And when tomorrow's CPI report is released, we'll send you a note telling your how your group's cost-of-living adjustment compares to the average urban consumer in the headline CPI.
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