Photo from the Wall Street Journal.
The Federal Reserve’s goal has been to end the current period of high inflation by bringing the economy in for a soft landing—reducing the inflation rate to closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target while avoiding a recession. Although Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said repeatedly during the last year that he expected the Fed would achieve a soft landing, many economists have been much more doubtful.
It’s possible to read recent economic data as indicating that it’s more likely that the economy is approaching a soft landing, but there is clearly still a great deal of uncertainty. On April 12, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest CPI data. The figure below shows the inflation rate as measured by the CPI (blue line) and by core CPI—which excludes the prices of food and fuel (red line). In both cases the inflation rate is the percentage change from the same month in the previous year.
The inflation rate as measured by the CPI has been trending down since it hit a peak of 8.9 percent in June 2022. The inflation rate as measured by core CPI has been trending down more gradually since it reached a peak of 6.6 percent in September 2022. In March, it was up slightly to 5.6 percent from 5.5 percent in February.
As the following figure shows, payroll employment while still increasing, has been increasing more slowly during the past three months—bearing in mind that the payroll employment data are often subject to substantial revisions. The slowing growth in payroll employment is what we would expect with a slowing economy. The goal of the Fed in slowing the economy is, of course, to bring down the inflation rate. That payroll employment is still growing indicates that the economy is likely not yet in a recession.
The slowing in employment growth has been matched by slowing wage growth, as measured by the percentage change in average hourly earnings. As the following figure shows, the rate of increase in average hourly earnings has declined from 5.9 percent in March 2022 to 4.2 percent in March 2023. This decline indicates that businesses are experiencing somewhat lower increases in their labor costs, which may pass through to lower increases in prices.
Credit conditions also indicate a slowing economy As the following figure shows, bank lending to businesses and consumers has declined sharply, partly because banks have experienced an outflow of deposits following the failure of Silicon Valley and Signature Banks and partly because some banks have raised their requirements for households and firms to qualify for loans in anticipation of the economy slowing. In a slowing economy, households and firms are more likely to default on loans. To the extent that consumers and businesses also anticipate the possibility of a recession, they may have reduced their demand for loans.
But such a sharp decline in bank lending may also be an indication that the economy is not just slowing, on its way to a making a soft landing, but is on the verge of a recession. The minutes of the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) included the information that the FOMC’s staff economists forceast “at the time of the March meeting included a mild recession starting later this year, with a recovery over the subsequent two years.” (The minutes can be found here.) The increased chance of a recession was attributed largely to “banking and financial conditions.”
At its next meeting in May, the FOMC will have to decide whether to once more increase its target range for the federal funds rate. The target range is currently 4.75 percent to 5.00 percent. The FOMC will have to decide whether inflation is on a course to fall back to the Fed’s 2 percent target or whether the FOMC needs to further slow the economy by increasing its target range for the federal funds rate. One factor likely to be considered by the FOMC is, as the following figure shows, the sharp difference between the inflation rate in prices of goods (blue line) and the inflation rate in prices of services (red line).
During the period from January 2021 to November 2022, inflation in goods was higher—often much higher—than inflation in services. The high rates of inflation in goods were partly the result of disruptions to supply chains resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and partly due to a surge in demand for goods as a result of very expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. Since November 2022, inflation in the prices of services has remained high, while inflation in the prices of goods has continued to decline. In March, goods inflation was only 1.6 percent, while services inflation was 7.2 percent. In his press conference following the last FOMC meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that as long as services inflation remains high “it would be very premature to declare victory [over inflation] or to think that we’ve really got this.” (The transcript of Powell’s news conference can be found here.) This statement coupled with the latest data on service inflation would seem to indicate that Powell will be in favor of another 0.25 percentage point increase in the federal funds rate target range.
The Fed’s inflation target is stated in terms of the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index, not the CPI. The Bureau of Economic Analysis will release the March PCE on April 28, before the next FOMC meeting. If the Fed is as closely divided as it appears to be over whether additional increases in the federal funds rate target range are necessary, the latest PCE data may prove to have a significan effect on their decision.
So—as usual!—the macroeconomic picture is murky. The economy appears to be slowing and inflation seems to be declining but it’s still difficult to determine whether the Fed will be able to bring inflation back to its 2 percent target without causing a recession.