Archive for the Category Inflation


When should we start worrying about inflation?

Jan Hatzius is now forecasting that inflation will soon exceed the Fed’s 2% target for the PCE:

Goldman’s Jan Hatzius wrote Sunday that unemployment should continue to decline to 3% by early 2020, noting the labor market also has room to accommodate more wage growth. Hatzius predicted that average hourly earnings would likely grow in the 3.25% to 3.50% range over the next year.

That rapid pace of wage growth could set the Fed up for a “meaningful overshoot” of its 2% inflation target.

“If unemployment is (perhaps well) below 3.50% and inflation above 2%, we think Fed officials will need to be quite confident that growth will stay at or below trend to sound an all-clear on further rate increases, which could translate into a large easing in financial conditions and a return to growth rates well above trend,” Hatzius wrote.

Hatzius wrote that the economy needs to slow to avoid overheating, and worries that inflation could run away if the Fed does not take action. For now, Goldman has a baseline forecast of 2.3% for core PCE — which it noted as within the Fed’s comfort zone — but warned that inflation is poised to move higher on President Donald Trump’s tariffs.

The note also warned that with the labor market continuing to tighten, inflation will likely push “notably, not just slightly, higher.”

Hatzius said a slowdown could stabilize the unemployment rate, and already predicts that the economy will calm to a GDP growth rate of 2.6% in the fourth quarter. But if the slowdown is not enough, unemployment could destabilize into 2020 and inflation could run rampant.

If Hatzius is correct (and I greatly respect his judgment), then Fed policy is currently too expansionary.  The Philadelphia Fed consensus forecast is for 2.1% PCE inflation in 2019 and 2020.  (I’ll be very interested in the next forecast, which should be out soon.)  On the other hand, TIPS spreads continue to show sub-2% inflation over the next 5 years (once adjusted for the CPI bias) but they are subject to bias from a modest risk spread.

So what would tell me that we have an inflation problem?  Lots of news articles saying “It’s not that bad, because if you take out the rise in the price of X, inflation is only running at Y”.  I saw literally dozens of such articles in the 1960s and 1970s, and essentially 100% of them were incorrect.

It is true to inflation indices can be distorted by the actions of individual markets, but only if it reduces aggregate supply.  In that case, you’d see rising inflation, falling RGDP growth and modest NGDP growth.  In fact, both NGDP and RGDP growth have recently been quite strong, so don’t believe any articles about it not being so bad because it’s concentrated in health care, or education, or rents, or tariffs, or kiwi fruit prices, or some other special factor.  Special factors are not an excuse when NGDP growth is at a pace that is unsustainable if we hope to keep inflation close to 2%.

I’m not a forecaster, so I’m still pretty agnostic on this.  My baseline forecast is still for a slowdown in NGDP growth (predicted by the Hypermind market) and no recession or high inflation in the near term.  That’s good.  But I’ll be watching very closely for signs of excess.  The most likely policy mistake being made right now is too easy, not too tight.

PS.  Hypermind is currently forecasting 12-month 5.2% NGDP growth.  That represents a forecast of a slowdown to 4.2% over the next two quarters, from the 6.2% (actual) rate over the past two quarters.

Nothing like the 1960s?

Commenter Michael Sandifer left this comment:

One key difference between the current period and ’66 is that inflation is tame.

He’s referring to our relatively low inflation:

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 10.00.17 AMOver the previous 6 years, unemployment has fallen from 8% to 3.7%.  Inflation has mostly stayed in the 1% to 2% range, occasionally dipping below 1%, and recently rising above 2%.

In contrast, here’s the picture as of mid-1966:

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 10.02.27 AMIn this case, unemployment rose to a peak of 7% in 1961, then gradually trended down to 3.8% in mid-1966.  Inflation mostly stayed in the 1% to 2% range, occasionally dipping below 1%, and recently rising above 2%.

Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

I don’t expect the next 3 years to look anything like the late 1960s.  But if we are to avoid a repeat of the 1960s, it will not be because the current situation is radically different from 1966, it will be because we take steps right now to make sure than the future situation is radically different.  And that requires a dramatically less expansionary monetary policy that what the Fed adopted in 1966-69.

In the 1960s, the Fed tried to use monetary policy to drive unemployment to very low levels.  Let’s not make that mistake again.  Better to produce stable NGDP growth, and let unemployment find its own natural rate.

Teaching money/macro in 90 minutes

A few weeks ago I gave a 90-minute talk to some high school and college students in a summer internship program at UC Irvine.  Most (but not all) had taken basic intro to economics.  I need to boil everything down to 90 minutes, including money, prices, business cycles, interest rates, the Great Recession, how the Fed screwed up in 2008, and why the Fed screwed up in 2008.  Not sure if that’s possible, but here’s the outline I prepared:

1.  The value of money (15 minutes)

2.  Money and prices  (20 minutes)

3.  Money and business cycles (25 minutes)

4.  Money and interest rates (15 minutes)

5.  Q&A (15 minutes)


Inflation is currently running at about 2%.  It’s averaged 2% since 1990.  That’s not a coincidence, the Fed targets inflation at 2%.  But it’s also not normal.  Inflation was much higher in the 1980s, and still higher in the 1970s.  In the 1800s, inflation averaged zero and there were years like 1921 and 1930-32 where it was more like negative 10%!

We need to figure out how the Fed has succeeded in targeting inflation at 2%, then why this was the wrong target, and finally how this mistake (as well as a couple freshman-level errors) led to the Great Recession.

1. Value of Money  

Like any other product, the real value of money changes over time.

But . . . the nominal price of money stays constant, a dollar always costs $1

Value of money = 1/P (where P is price level (CPI, etc.))

Thus if price level doubles, value of a dollar falls in half.


Year      Height    Unit of measure   Real height

1980      1 yard           1.0                1 yard

2018      6 feet            1/3               2 yards

Switching from yards to feet makes the average size of things look three times larger.  This is “size inflation”.  But this boy’s measured height increased 6-fold, which means he even grew (2 times) taller in real terms.

Year      Income    Price level  Value of money   Real Income

1980     $30,000        1.0               1.0               $30,000

2018    $180,000       3.0               1/3               $60,000

The dollar lost 2/3rds of its purchasing power between 1980 and 2018, as the average thing costs three times as much.  This is “price inflation”.  But some nominal values increase by more than three times, such as this person’s income, which means the income doubled in real terms, or in purchasing power.

Punch line:  Don’t try to explain inflation by picking out items that increased in price especially fast, say rents or gas prices, rather think of inflation as a change in the value of money.  Focus on what determines the value of money . . .

2.  Money and the Price Level

. . . which, in a competitive market is supply and demand:

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.11.51 PM

Demand for Money: How much cash people prefer to hold.

Who determines how much money you carry in your wallet?  You?  Are you sure?  Is that true for everyone?

Who determines the average cash holding of everyone in the economy?  The Fed.

How can we reconcile these two perceptions?  They are both correct, in a sense.

Helicopter drop example:  Double money supply from $200 to $400/capita

==> Excess cash balances

==>attempts to get rid of cash => spending rises => AD rises => P rises

==>eventually prices double.  Back in equilibrium.

Now it takes $400 to buy what $200 used to buy.  You determine real cash holdings (the purchasing power in your wallet), while the Fed determines average nominal cash holdings (number of dollars).

Punch line:  Fed can control the price level (value of money), by controlling the money supply.

What if money demand changes?  No problem, adjust money supply to offset the change.

Fed has used this power to keep inflation close to 2% since 1991.  Before they tried, inflation was all over the map.  After they tried, they succeeded in keeping the average rate close to 2%.  That success would have been impossible if Fed did not control price level.

But, inflation targeting is not optimal:

3.  Money and business cycles

Suppose I do a study and find that on average, 40 people go to the movies when prices are $8, and 120 people attend on average when prices are $12.  Is this consistent with the laws of supply and demand?  Yes, completely consistent. But many students have trouble seeing this.

Explanation:  When the demand for movies rises, theaters respond with higher prices.  The two data points lie along a single upward-sloping supply curve.

Implication:  Never reason from a price change.  A rise in prices doesn’t tell us what’s happening in a market.  It could be more demand or less supply.  The same is true of the overall price level.  Higher inflation might indicate an overheating economy (too much AD), or a negative supply shock:

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.26.42 PM

In mid-2008, the Fed saw inflation rise sharply and worried the economy was overheating.  It was reasoning from a price change. In fact, prices rose rapidly because aggregate supply was declining.  It should have focused on total spending, aka “aggregate demand”, for evidence of overheating:

M*V = P*Y = AD = NGDP

This represents total spending on goods and services.  Unstable NGDP causes business cycles.

Example: mid-2008 to mid-2009, when NGDP fell 3%:Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.43.04 PM

Here we assume that nominal GDP was $20 trillion in 2008, and then fell in 2009, causing a deep recession and high unemployment.

Musical chairs model:  NGDP is the total revenue available to businesses to pay wages and salaries.  Because wages are “sticky”, or slow to adjust, a fall in NGDP leads to fewer jobs, at least until wages can adjust.  This is a recession.

It’s like the game of musical chairs.  If you take away a couple chairs, then when the music stops several contestants will end up sitting on the floor.

The Fed needs to keep NGDP growing about 4%/year, by adjusting M to offset any changes in V (velocity of circulation).

Punch line:  Don’t focus in inflation, NGDP growth is the key to the business cycle

Why did the Fed mess up in 2008? Two episodes of reasoning from a price change:

1.  The 2008 supply shock inflation was wrongly viewed as an overheating economy.

2.  Low interest rates were wrongly viewed as easy money.

4.  Money and Interest Rates

Below is the short and long run effects of an increase in the money supply, and then a decrease in the money supply.  Notice that easy money causes rates to initially fall, then rise much higher.  Vice versa for a tight money policy.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.26.56 PMWhen the money supply increases, rates initially decline due to the liquidity effect. The opposite occurs when the money supply is reduced.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.43.15 PMHowever, in the long run, interest rates go the opposite way due to the income and Fisher effects:

Income effect: Expansionary monetary policy leads to higher growth in the economy, more demand for credit, and higher interest rates.

Fisher effect:  Expansionary monetary policy leads to higher inflation, which causes lenders to demand higher interest rates.

In 2008, the Fed thought lower rates represented the liquidity effect from an easy money policy.

Actually, during 2008 we were seeing the income and Fisher effects from a previous tight money policy.

Don’t assume that short run means “right now” and long run means “later”.  What’s happening right now is usually the long run effect of monetary policies adopted earlier.

Punchline:  Don’t assume low rates are easy money and vice versa.  Focus on NGDP growth to determine stance of monetary policy.  That’s what matters.

(I actually ended up covering about 90% of what I intended to cover, skipping the yardstick metaphor.)

Erdogan reasons from a price change

[I wrote this a few weeks ago, and then decided not to post it.  After today’s news I changed my mind.]

Turkish President Erdogan claims that the way to lower inflation is to have the central bank hold down interest rates.  How’s that theory working out?

Turkey’s central bank sharply lifted its annual inflation forecast on Tuesday to 13.4 per cent just a week after keeping interest rates on hold as it grapples with a weakening currency.

The move to raise the outlook from a previous forecast of 8.4 per cent in April comes amid concerns by investors about the independence of the central bank, which has come under pressure from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, who is a self-declared “enemy” of high rates.

Murat Cetinkaya, the central bank governor, pushed back against claims that political interference is limiting his ability to tackle soaring inflation. Consumer price inflation hit 15.4 per cent in June — a figure three times higher the official 5 per cent target.

NeoFisherians correctly point out that a monetary policy that produces a sustained period of low inflation will be associated with low nominal interest rates.  But cutting the central bank policy rate does not cause inflation to fall, just the opposite.

As an analogy, ownership of a Ferrari is strongly correlated with being wealthy.  However purchasing a Ferrari does not cause one to be wealthier, just the opposite.

PS.  In fairness, the Turkish central bank did recently increase rates sharply.  But it was too late; years of holding rates at 8% let the inflation genie out of the bottle.  Now it’s playing catchup.

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 11.36.41 AM

Inflation before the oil shock

Tyler Cowen recently linked to an interesting William Fischel paper from 2016:

In the 1970s, unprecedented peacetime inflation, touched off by the oil cartel OPEC, combined with longstanding federal tax privileges to transform owner-occupied homes into growth stocks. The inability to insure their homes’ newfound value converted homeowners into “homevoters,” whose local political behavior focused on preventing development that might devalue their homes. Homevoters seized on the nascent national environmental movement, epitomized by Earth Day, and modified its agenda to serve local demands, thereby eroding the power of the prodevelopment coalition called the “growth machine.” The post-1970 shift in the American economy from industrial employment to knowledge-based services rewarded college graduates and regions that specialized in software and finance. Residents of suburbs in the larger urban areas of the Northeast and West Coast used existing zoning and new environmental leverage to protect the growth rate of their home values. The regional spread of these regulations has slowed the growth of the economy and perpetuated regional income inequalities. I argue that the most promising way to modify this trend is to reduce federal tax subsidies to homeownership.

1.  Consider it done.  The 2017 tax bill will lead to 60% fewer people using the mortgage interest deduction.  That didn’t take long!  Seriously, I do think this reform will help, but we should not expect miracles.  So far it doesn’t seem to have dramatically slowed the rate of appreciation in home prices, although it’s plausible that the increase would have been a bit faster without the tax change.

2.  The environmental movement did have some major successes, such as cutting air and water pollution.  But the requirement for “environmental impact statements” now seems like a major mistake, and indeed might actually hurt the environment by making it harder to build in major cities.

3.  Not to get too picky, but the idea that OPEC touched off the Great Inflation is a myth.  Here’s inflation before the oil shock of October 1973:

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 12.52.30 PM

During the early 1960s, inflation averaged a bit over 1%/year.  Monetary stimulus beginning in the mid-1960s pushed the rate up to 6% by the end of the decade.  A slightly tighter monetary policy led to a very small recession, and pushed inflation down to 4.3%.  Price controls then pushed (measured) inflation down to 3% in 1972.  But those controls were used by Nixon as cover to pump up NGDP growth to 9% right before the 1972 election.  By the third quarter of 1973, year over year NGDP growth was running at over 11%, and 12-month CPI inflation was up to 7.4%.  And this is all before the first OPEC oil shock.  It was a demand-side problem.

BTW, budget deficits also played no role in the Great Inflation, as they were quite modest during this period.  If budget deficits caused inflation, by 2019 we’d be well on our way to hyperinflation.  Overall, the Great Inflation was almost 100% monetary policy, even as year-to-year volatility was impacted by oil prices (after October 1973).

Despite these nitpicks, the Fischel abstract sounds basically correct to me—it’s a good way to frame the housing problem.