Elkhart County, Indiana Rides the Surge in Spending on Consumer Durables

More than 80 percent of the recreational vehicles (RV) sold in the United States are manufactured in Elkhart County, Indiana. As we discuss in the opener to Chapter 22 in Economics (Chapter 12 in Macroeconomics), being dependent on sales of expensive durable goods like RVs means that the county is particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, with local firms experiencing rising sales during economic expansions and sharply falling sales during economic recessions. Accordingly, the unemployment rate in the county fluctuates much more during the business cycle than is typical—as shown in the above graph.

For example, during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the unemployment rate in the country rose from a low of 3.9 percent in May 2007 to a high of 20 percent in March 2009, before declining during the following economic recovery.  Just before the start of the Covid-19 recession of 2020, the unemployment rate in Elkhart was 2.8 percent. It then soared to 30.8 percent in April. 

But, as we discuss in the chapter, the recovery from the 2020 recession was unusually rapid, although uneven. Many services industries, such as restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters continued to struggle well into 2021 as firms had difficulty attracting workers and as some consumers remained reluctant to spend time inside in close contact with other people. In contrast, consumer spending on durable goods was far above its pre-pandemic level, as well as being above the rate at which it had been growing during the years before the pandemic. The two graphs below show real consumer spending on durables and on services up through August 2021.

During 2021, sales of RVs through August were 50 percent higher than in the same period in 2020 and were on a pace to reach record annual sales. The success of the RV industry has led to rising incomes in Elkhart County, which, in turn, has allowed the area to attract other industries, including a logistics center that when completed will be the largest industrial building in Indiana and an Amazon warehouse that when completed will provide 1,000 new jobs. Rising incomes have also supported other businesses, such as community theaters, art galleries, and a recently reopened 1920s-era hotel.

In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal ranked Elkhart County first in its rating of metropolitan areas as measured by the index it compiles with realtor.com. The index “identifies the top metro areas for home buyers seeking an appreciating housing market and appealing lifestyle amenities.” If consumers continue to buy more goods and fewer services, it could be bad news for restaurants and other service industries, but good news for places like Elkhart that depend on goods-producing industries. 

Sources: Nicole Friedman, “RV Capital of America Tops WSJ/Realtor.com Housing Index in Third Quarter,” wsj.com, October 19, 2021; Business Wire, “Amazon Announces New Robotics Fulfillment Center and Delivery Station in Elkhart County, Creating More Than 1,000 New, Full-Time Jobs,” businesswire.com, October 7, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Hotel Elkhart Grand Opening Celebrated in Elkhart, Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, October 4, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Elkhart County Logistics Facility to Bring about 1,000 jobs in Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, August 16, 2021; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; and RV Industry Association.

WeWork Gets SPAC’d

In 2021, SPACs were the hottest trend on the stock market and had become the leading way for companies to go public. A public company is one with shares that trade on the stock market. Private firms make up more than 95 percent of all firms in the United States. Most will never become public firms because they will never grow large enough for investors to have sufficient information on the firms’ financial health to be willing to buy the firms’ stocks and bonds.

But some firms, particularly technology firms, grow rapidly enough that they are able to become public firms. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Uber, Facebook, Snap, and other firms have followed this path. When these firms went public, they did so using an initial public offering (IPO). (We briefly discuss IPOs in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2 and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2.) With an IPO, a firm uses one or more investment banks to underwrite the firm’s sales of new stocks or bonds to the public. In underwriting,investment banks typically guarantee a price for stocks or bonds to the issuing firm, sell the stocks or bonds in financial markets or directly to investors at a higher price, and keep the difference, known as the spread.

Beginning in 2020 and continuing through 2021, an increasing number of firms have used a different means of going public—merging with a SPAC. SPAC stands for special-purpose acquisition company and is a firm that holds only cash—it doesn’t sell a good or service—and only has the purpose of merging with another firm that wants to go public. Once a merger takes place, the acquired firm takes the place of the SPAC in the stock market. For instance, a SPAC named Diamond Eagle Acquisition merged with online sports betting site DraftKings in April 2020. Once the merger had been completed, DraftKings took Diamond Eagle’s place on the stock market, trading under the stock symbol DKNG. By 2021, the value of SPAC mergers had risen to being three times as much as the value of IPOs.

Some firms intending to go public prefer SPACs to traditional IPOs because they can bargain directly with the managers of the SPAC in determining the value of the firm. In addition, IPOs are closely regulated by the federal government’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In particular, the SEC monitors whether an investment bank is accurately stating the financial prospects of a firm whose IPO the bank is underwriting. The claims that SPACs make when attracting investors are less closely monitored. SPAC mergers can also be finalized more quickly than can traditional IPOs.

The experience of WeWork illustrates how some firms that have struggled to go public through an IPO have been able to do so by merging with a SPAC. Adam Neumann and Miguel McLevey founded WeWork in 2010 as a firm that would rent office space in cities, renovate the space, and then sub-lease it to other firms. In 2019, the firm prepared for an IPO that would have given the firm a total value of more than $40 billion. But doubts about the firm’s business model led to an indefinite postponement of the IPO and Neumann was forced out as CEO.

WeWork was reorganized under new CEO Sandeep Mathrani and went public in October 2021 by merging with BowX Acquisition Corporation, a SPAC. Although WeWork’s stock began trading (under stock symbol WE) at a price that put the firm’s value at about $9 billion—far below the value it expected at the time of its postponed IPO two years before—investors seemed optimistic about the firm’s future because its stock price rose sharply during the first two days it traded on the stock market. 

Some policymakers are concerned that individual investors may not have sufficient information on firms that go public through a merger with a SPAC. Under one proposal being considered by Congress, financial advisers would only be allowed to recommend investing in SPACs to wealthy investors. The SEC is also considering whether new regulations governing SPACS were needed. Testifying before Congress, SEC Chair Gary Gensler sated: “There’s real questions about who’s benefiting [from firms going public using SPACs] and [about] investor protection.” 

It remains to be seen whether SPACs will retain their current position as being the leading way for firms to go public.

Sources: Dave Sebastian, “WeWork Shares Rise on First Day of Trading, Two Years After Failed IPO,” wsj.com, October 21, 2021; Peter Santilli and Amrith Ramkumar, “SPACs Are the Stock Market’s Hottest Trend. Here’s How They Work,” wsj.com, March 29, 2021; Benjamin Bain, “SPAC Marketing Heavily Curtailed in House Democrats’ Draft Bill,” bloomberg.com, October 4, 2021; and Dave Michaels, “SEC Weighs New Investor Protections for SPACs,” wsj.com, May 26, 2021.

New 10/17/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss economic impact of infrastructure spending & the supply-chain challenges.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impact of the recent infrastructure bill and what role fiscal policy plays in determining shovel-ready projects. Also, they explore the vast impact of the economy-wide supply-chain issues and the challenges companies face. Until the pandemic, we had a very efficient supply chain but now we’re seeing companies employ the “just-in-case” inventory method vs. “just-in-time”!

Some links referenced in the podcast:

Here’s Alan Cole’s blog: https://fullstackeconomics.com/how-i-reluctantly-became-an-inflation-crank/

Neil Irwin wrote a column referencing Cole here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/10/upshot/shadow-inflation-analysis.html

Here’s a Times article on the inefficiency of subway construction in NYC:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html

A recent article on the state of CA’s bullet train:  https://www.kcra.com/article/california-bullet-trains-latest-woe-high-speed/37954851

A WSJ column on goods v. services: https://www.wsj.com/articles/at-times-like-these-inflation-isnt-all-bad-11634290202

The Pandemic and Hidden Inflation

If the price of your meal is the same, but the service is slow and the menu is limited you have experienced hidden inflation.

Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (We discuss the construction of the CPI in Chapter 9, Section 9.4 of Macroeconomics and Chapter 19, Section 19.4 of Economics.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will use instead the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.

A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone.  The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify that part of price increases that are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. So, for instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent.

During 2021, a number of observers pointed to a hidden type of inflation occurring, particularly in some service industries. For example, because many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table.  Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price but receiving less. 

Alan Cole, who was formerly a senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, noted on his blog that “goods and services are getting worse faster than the official statistics acknowledge, suggesting that our inflation problem has actually been bigger than the official statistics suggest.” As examples, he noted that “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays,” “shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.”  And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”

A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts.

The BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for these types of deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin notes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?”

As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate.  This bias may have been more than offset since the beginning of the pandemic by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.

Sources: Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” wsj.com, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” nytimes.com, October 14, 2021.

Solved Problem: The Fed’s Policy Dilemma

Supports:  Macroneconomics Chapter 15, Section 15.3; Economics Chapter 25, Section 25.3; and Essentials of Economics Chapter 17, Sections 17.3.

Solved Problem: The Fed’s Policy Dilemma

   In the fall of 2021, the inflation rate was at its highest level since 2008. The unemployment rate was above 5 percent, which was much lower than in the spring of 2020, but still well above its level of early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic. In testifying before Congress, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that he believed the high inflation rate was transitory and in the longer run “inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run 2 percent goal.”

But Powell also stated that if inflation continued to remain high the Fed would face a policy dilemma. “Almost all of the time, inflation is low when unemployment is high, so interest rates work on both problems.” But in contrast, in the fall of 2021 both the unemployment and inflation rates were high: “That’s the very difficult situation we find ourselves in.”

a. Briefly explain what Powell meant by saying that almost all of the time “interest rates work on both problems.”

b. Why did macroeconomic conditions in the fall of 2021 present Fed policymakers with a “very difficult” situation?

Source: Kate Davidson and Nick Timiraos, “Powell Says Fed Faces ‘Difficult Trade-Off’ if Inflation Doesn’t Moderate,” Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2021; and Chair Jerome H. Powell, “Testimony Before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.” September 28, 2021, federalreserve. gov..

Solving the Problem

Step 1:   Review the chapter material. This problem is about the policy situation the Fed faces when the unemployment and inflation rates are both high, so you may want to review Chapter 15, Section 15.3, “Monetary Policy and Economic Activity,” and the discussion of staflation, including Figure 13.7, in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, “Macroeconomic Equilibrium in the Long Run and the Short Run.”

Step 2:   Explain what Powell meant by “interest rates work on both problems.” We’ve seen that in the typical recession the unemployment rate increases while the inflation rate decreases. We’ve also seen that if the economy is above potential GDP, the unemployment rate is very low but the inflation rate increases. (To review these facts, see Chapter 10, Section 10.3 “The Business Cycle.”) The Fed uses changes in its target for the federal funds rate to affect the level of real GDP and the price level, as it attempts to hit its policy goals of high employment and price stability.

So “almost all of the time,” the Fed can use interest rates–changes in the target for the federal funds rate–to work on the problems of high unemployment and high inflation–depending on which is occuring during a particular period.

Step 3: Explain why macroeconomic conditions in the fall of 2021 presented Fed policymakers with a “very difficult” situation. As Powell observes, “almost all the time” Fed policy is focused on reducing either high unemployment or high inflation, but not both. As we note in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, economists refer to a situation when the unemployment and inflations rates are both high at the same time as a period of stagflation. If the inflation rate is high, then expansionary monetary policy–a low target for the federal funds rate–will reduce the unemployment rate but make an already high inflation rate even higher. Similarly, if the unemployment rate is high, then contractionary monetary policy–a high target for the federal funds rate–will reduce the inflation rate but make an already high unemploument rate even higher. A very difficult policy dilemma for the Fed!

How did Fed policymakers expect to resolve this difficulty? In his testimony, Powell explained that he believed that the high inflation rate the U.S. economy was experiencing during the fall of 2021 was transitory and would begin to decline once the supply problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic were resolved in the coming months. Referring to the supply problems he noted that “These aren’t things that we [the Fed] can control.” Therefore, the Fed did not intend to use policy to address the high inflation rate and could continue to pursue an expansionary monetary policy to push the labor market back to full employment.

Coming Attractions: Hubbard and O’Brien Principles of Economics Updated

It’s customary for textbook authors to note that “much has happened in the economy” since the last edition of their book appeared. To say that much has happened since we prepared our last edition in 2019 would be a major understatement. Never in the lifetimes of today’s students and instructors have events like those of 2020 and 2021 occurred. The U.S. and world economies had experienced nothing like the Covid-19 pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918. In the spring of 2020, the U.S. economy suffered an unprecedented decline in the supply of goods and services as a majority of businesses in the country shut down to reduce spread of the virus. Many businesses remained closed or operated at greatly reduced capacity well into 2021. Most schools, including most colleges, switched to remote learning, which disrupted the lives of many students and their parents.

During the worst of the pandemic, total spending in the economy declined as the unemployment rate soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reduced spending and closed businesses resulted in by far the largest decline in total production in such a short period in the history of the U.S. economy. Congress, the Trump and Biden administrations, and the Federal Reserve responded with fiscal and monetary policies that were also unprecedented.

Our updated Eighth Edition covers all of these developments as well as the policy debates they initiated. As with previous editions, we rely on extensive digital resources, including: author-created application videos and audio recordings of the chapter openers and Apply the Concept features; figure animation videos; interactive real-time data graphs animations; and Solved Problem whiteboard videos.

Glenn and Tony discuss the updated edition in this video:

Sample chapters will be available by October 15.

The full Macroeconomics text will available in early to mid December.

The full Microeconomics text will be available in mid to late December.

If you would like to view the sample chapters or are considering adopting the updated Eighth Edition for the spring semester, please contact your local Pearson representative. You can use this LINK to find and contact your representative.

New 09/03/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report, Fed comments, and financial stability!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report falling short of expectations. They also discuss the comments of Fed Chairman Powell’s comments at the Federal Reserve’s recent Jackson Hole conference. They also get to some of the recommendations of a Brookings Task Force, co-chaired by Glenn Hubbard, on ways to address financial stability. Use the links below to see more information about these timely topics:
Powell’s Jackson Hole speech: 


The report of Glenn’s task force: 


The most recent economic forecasts of the FOMC: 


Menu Costs in the Digital Age

Inflation imposes a number of costs on households and firms (see our discussion in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.7 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 19, Section 19.7). Economists call the costs to firms of changing prices menu costs. For instance, when supermarkets raise prices, employees have to spend time changing the prices posted on shelves. 

When restaurants raise prices, they have to print new menus (hence the general name economists give to these costs). Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, the trend toward having digital menus rather than paper ones increased.  But even with digital menus, a restaurant incurs some costs, as this sign in a coffee shop indicates. An employee has to update the digital menu to reflect the new prices and, in the meantime, the shop may experience friction from customers who see one price on the digital menu and are charged a higher price when they pay at the register. 

H/T Lena Buonanno

WELCOME BACK! New 08/20/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien return to discuss delta variant & inflation!

Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they return for a new academic year! The issues have evolved but the importance of these issues has not waned. We discuss the impact of closures related to the delta variant has on the economy. The discussion extends to the active fiscal and monetary policy that has reintroduced inflation as a topic facing our economy. Many students have little or no experience with inflation so it is a learning opportunity. Check back regularly where Glenn & Tony will continue to wrestle with these important economic concepts and relate them to the classroom!

What’s Going on with Inflation?

   The U.S. inflation rate has accelerated. As the following figure shows, in mid-2021, inflation, measured as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year (the blue line), rose above 5 percent for the first time since the summer of 2008.

As we discuss in an Apply the Concept in Chapter 25, Section 25.5 (Chapter 15, Section 15.5 of Macroeconomics), the Fed prefers to measure inflation using the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The PCE price index is a measure of the price level similar to the GDP deflator, except it includes only the prices of goods and services from the consumption category of GDP. Because the PCE price index includes more goods and services than the CPI, it is a broader measure of inflation. As the red line in the figure shows, inflation as measured by the PCE price index is generally lower than inflation measured by the CPI. The difference is particularly large during periods in which CPI inflation is especially high, as it was during 2008, 2011, and 2021.

Prices of food and energy are particularly volatile, so the measure of inflation the Fed focuses on most closely is the PCE price index, excluding food and energy prices (the green line in figure). The figure shows that this measure of inflation is more stable than either of the other two measures. For instance, during June 2021, measured by the CPI, inflation was 5.3 percent, but was 3.5 percent when measured by the PCE, excluding food and energy.

In the summer of 2021, even inflation measured by the PCE, excluding food and energy, is running well above the Fed’s long-run target rate of 2 percent. Why is inflation increasing? Most economists and policymakers believe that two sets of factors are responsible:

  1. Increases in aggregate demand. Consumption spending (see the first figure below) has increased as the economy has reopened and people have returned to eating in restaurants, going to the movies, working out in gyms, and spending at other businesses that were closed or operating at reduced capacity. Households have been able to sharply increase their spending because household saving (see the second figure below) soared during the pandemic in response to payments from the federal government, including supplemental unemployment insurance payments and checks sent directly to most households. The increase in federal government expenditures that helped fuel the increase in aggregate demand is shown in the third figure below.

Fed policy has also been strongly expansionary, with the target for the federal funds kept near zero and the Fed continuing its substantial purchases of Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities. The continuing expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet through the summer of 2021 is shown in the last of the figures below. The Fed’s asset purchases have help keep interest rates low and provided banks with ample funds to loan to households and firms. 

2. Reductions in aggregate supply. The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, reducing the goods available to consumers.  In the summer of 2021, not all of these supply chain issues had been resolved. In particular, a shortage of computer chips had reduced output of motor vehicles. New cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans were often selling above their sticker prices. High prices for new vehicles led many consumers to increase their demand for used vehicles, driving up their prices. Between July 2020 and July 2021, prices of new vehicles rose 6.4 percent and prices for used vehicles rose an extraordinary 41.7 percent.

Supply issues also exist in some service industries, such as restaurants and hotels, that have had difficulty hiring enough workers to fully reopen. 

Economists and policymakers differ as to whether high inflation rates are transitory or whether the U.S. economy might be entering a prolonged period of higher inflation. Most Federal Reserve policymakers argue that the higher inflation rates in mid-2021 are transitory. For instance, in a statement following its July 28, 2021 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee noted that: “Inflation has risen, largely reflecting transitory factors.”  Although the statement also noted that inflation is “on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.”

In a speech at the end of July, Fed Governor Lael Brainard expanded on the Fed’s reasoning:

“Recent high inflation readings reflect supply–demand mismatches in a handful of sectors that are likely to prove transitory…. I am attentive to the risk that inflation pressures could broaden or prove persistent, perhaps as a result of wage pressures, persistent increases in rent, or businesses passing on a larger fraction of cost increases rather than reducing markups, as in recent recoveries. I am particularly attentive to any signs that currently high inflation readings are pushing longer-term inflation expectations above our 2 percent objective.”

“Currently, I do not see such signs. Most measures of survey- and market-based expectations suggest that the current high inflation pressures are transitory, and underlying trend inflation remains near its pre-COVID trend…. Many of the forces currently leading to outsized gains in prices are likely to dissipate by this time next year. Current tailwinds from fiscal support and pent-up consumption are likely to shift to headwinds, and some of the outsized price increases associated with acute supply bottlenecks may ease or partially reverse as those bottlenecks are resolved.”

Brainard’s remarks highlight a point that we make in Chapter 27, Section 27.1 (Chapter 17, Section 17.1 of Macroeconomics): The expectations of households and firms of future inflation play an important part in determining current inflation. Inflation can rise above and fall below the expected inflation rate in response to changes in the labor market—which affect the wages firms pay and, therefore, the firms’ costs—as well as in response to fluctuations in aggregate supply resulting from positive or negative supply shocks—such as the pandemic’s negative effects on aggregate supply. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has argued that with households and firms’ expectations still well-anchored at around 2 percent, inflation was unlikely to remain above that level in the long run.

Some economists are less convinced that households and firms will continue to expect 2 percent inflation if they experience higher inflation rates through the end of 2021. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board summed up this view: “One risk for the Fed is that more months of these price increases will become what consumers and businesses come to expect. To use the Fed jargon, prices would no longer be ‘well-anchored.’ That may be happening.”

As we discuss in Chapter 27, Sections 27.2 and 27.3 (Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3), during the late 1960s and early 1970s, higher rates of inflation eventually increased households and firms’ expectations of the inflation rate, leading to an acceleration of inflation that was difficult for the Fed to reverse. 

Earlier this year, Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, formerly a professor of economics at MIT and director of research at the International Monetary Fund, raised the possibility that overly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies might result in the Fed facing conditions similar to those in the 1970s. The Fed would then be forced to choose between two undesirable policies:

“If inflation were to take off, there would be two scenarios: one in which the Fed would let inflation increase, perhaps substantially, and another—more likely—in which the Fed would tighten monetary policy, perhaps again substantially. Neither of these two scenarios is ideal. In the first, inflation expectations would likely become deanchored, cancelling one of the major accomplishments of monetary policy in the last 20 years and making monetary policy more difficult to use in the future. In the second, the increase in interest rates might have to be very large, leading to problems in financial markets. I would rather not go there.”

In a recent interview, Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, who served as secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, made similar points: 

“We have inflation that since the beginning of the year has been running at a 5 percent annual rate. …. Starting at high inflation, we’ve got an economy that’s going to grow at extremely high rates for the next quarter or two. … I think we’re going to find ourselves with a new normal of inflation above 3 percent. Then the Fed is either going to have to be inconsistent with all the promises and commitments it’s made [to maintain a target inflation rate of 2 percent] or it’s going to have to attempt the task of slowing down the economy, which is rarely a controlled process.”

Clearly the pandemic and the resulting policy responses have left the Fed in a challenging situation.

Sources: Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, “Federal Reserve Press Release,” federalreserve.gov, July 28, 2021; Lael Brainard, “Assessing Progress as the Economy Moves from Reopening to Recovery,” speech at “Rebuilding the Post-Pandemic Economy” 2021 Annual Meeting of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, Aspen, Colorado, federalreserve.gov, July 30, 2021; Wall Street Journal editorial board, “Powell Gets His Inflation,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2021; Olivier Blanchard, “In Defense of Concerns over the $1.9 Trillion Relief Plan,” piie.com, February 21, 2012; “Former Treasury Secretary on Consumer Prices, U.S. Role in Global Pandemic, Efforts,” wbur.org, August 22, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org.