Hoover Institution Podcast with Lawrence Summers and John Cochrane

Lawrence Summers (Photo from harvardmagazine.com.)
John Cochrane (Photo from hoover.org.)

In several of our blog posts and podcasts, we’ve discussed Lawrence Summers’s forecasts of inflation. Beginning in February 2021, Summers, an economist at Harvard who served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, argued that the United States was likely to experience rates of inflation that would be higher and persist longer than Federal Reserve policymakers were forecasting. In March 2021, the members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee had an average forecast of inflation of 2.4 percent in 2021, falling to 2.0 percent in 2022. (The FOMC projections can be found here.)

In fact, inflation measured by the CPI has been above 5 percent every month since June 2021; the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation—the percentage change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures—has been above 5 percent every month since October 2021. Summers’s forecasts of inflation have turned out to be more accurate than those of the members of the Federal Open Committee. 

In this podcast, Summers discusses his analysis of inflation with four scholars from the Hoover Institution, including economist John Cochrane. Summers explains why he came to believe in early 2021 that inflation was likely to be much higher than generally expected, how long he believes high rates of inflation will persist, and whether the Fed is likely to be able to achieve a soft landing by bringing inflation back to its 2 percent target without causing a recession. The first half of the podcast, in particular, should be understandable to students who have completed the monetary and fiscal policy chapters (Macroeconomics, Chapters 15 and 16; Economics, Chapters 25 and 26).  Background useful for understanding the podcast discussion of monetary policy during the 1970s can be found in Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3.

The Employment Cost Index, Inflation, and the Possibility of a Wage-Price Spiral

In respect to its mandate to achieve price stability, the Federal Open Market Committee focuses on data for the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index and the core PCE price index. (The core PCE price index omits food and energy prices, as does the core consumer price index.) After the March, June, September, and December FOMC meetings, each committee member projects future values of these price indexes. The projections, which are made public, provide a means for investors, businesses, and households to understand what the Fed expects to happen with future inflation.

In his press conference following the December 2021 FOMC meeting, Chair Jerome Powell surprised some economists by discussing the importance of the employment cost index (ECI) in the committee’s evaluation of the current state of inflation. Powell was asked this question by a journalist: “I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what prompted your recent pivot toward greater wariness around inflation.” He responded, in part:

“We got the ECI reading on the eve of the November meeting—it was the Friday before the November meeting—and it was very high, 5.7 percent reading for the employment compensation index for the third quarter … That’s really what happened [that resulted in FOMC deciding to focus more on inflation]. It was essentially higher inflation and faster—turns out much faster progress in the labor market.”

The ECI is compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is published quarterly. It measures the cost to employers per employee hour worked. The BLS publishes data that includes only wages and salaries and data that includes, in addition to wages and salaries, non-wage benefits—such as contributions to retirement accounts or health insurance—that firms pay workers. The figure below shows the ECI including just wages and salaries (red line) and including all compensation (blue line). The difference between the two lines shows that wages and salaries have been increasing more rapidly than has total compensation. 

A focus on the labor market when analyzing inflation is unsurprising. In Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.1 (Economics, Chapter 27, Section 27.1) we discuss how the Phillips curve links the state of the labor market—as measured by the unemployment rate—to the inflation rate. The link between the unemployment rate and the inflation rate operates through the labor market: When the unemployment rate is low, firms raise wages as they attempt to attract the relatively small number of available workers and to keep their own workers from leaving. (As first drawn by economist A.W. Phillips, the Phillips curve showed the relationship between the unemployment rate and the rate of wage inflation, rather than the relationship between the unemployment rate and the rate of price inflation.) As firms’ wage costs rise, they increase prices. So, as Powell noted, we would expect that if wages are rising rapidly, the rate of price inflation will also increase. 

Powell noted that the FOMC is concerned that rising wages might eventually lead to a wage-price spiral in which higher wages lead to higher prices, which, in turn, cause workers to press for higher nominal wages to keep their real wages from falling, which then leads firms to increases their prices even more, and so on. Some economists interpret the inflation rates during the Great Inflation for 1968–1982 as resulting from a wage-price spiral. One condition for a wage-price spiral to begin is that workers and firms cease to believe that the Fed will be able to return to its target inflation rate—which is currently 2 percent.

In terms of the Phillips curve analysis of Chapter 17, a wage-price spiral can be interpreted as a shifting up of the short-run Phillips curve. The Phillips curve shifts up when households, firms, and investors increase their expectations of future inflation. We discuss this process in Chapter 17, Section 17.2. As the short-run Phillips curve shifts up the tradeoff between inflation and unemployment becomes worse. That is, the inflation rate is higher at every unemployment rate.  For the Fed to reduce the inflation rate—bring it back down to the Fed’s target—becomes more difficult without causing a recession. The Great Inflation was only ended after the Fed raised its target for the federal funds rate to levels that helped cause the severe recession of 1981–1982.

The FOMC has been closely monitoring movements in the ECI to make sure that it heads off a wage-price spiral before it begins.  

Sources:  The transcript of Chair Powell’s press conference can be found here; the most recent economic projections of FOMC members can be found here; and a news article discussing Powell’s fears of a wage-price spiral can be found here (subscription may be required).

Takeaways from the January 25-26 Federal Open Market Committee Meeting

Fed Chair Jerome Powell (Photo from the Associated Press)

The results of the meeting were largely as expected: The FOMC statement indicated that the Fed remained concerned about “elevated levels of inflation” and that “the Committee expects it will soon be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate.” 

In a press conference following the meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell suggested that the FOMC would begin raising its target for the federal funds at its March meeting. He also noted that it was possible that the committee would have to raise its target more quickly than previously expected: “We will remain attentive to risks, including the risk that high inflation is more persistent than expected, and are prepared to respond as appropriate.”

Some other points:

  •  The Federal Reserve Act gives the Federal reserve the dual mandate of “maximum employment” and “price stability.” Neither policy goal is defined in the act. In its new monetary policy strategy announced in August 2020, the Fed stated that it would consider the goal of price stability to have been achieved if annual inflation measured by the change in the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index averaged 2 percent over time. The Fed was less clear about defining the meaning of maximum employment, as we discussed in this blog post.

As we noted in the post, as of December, some labor market indicators—notably, the unemployment rate and the job vacancy rate—appeared to show that the labor market’s recovery from the effects of the pandemic was largely complete. But both total employment and employment of prime age workers remained significantly below the levels of early 2020, just before the effects of the pandemic began to be felt on the labor market.

In his press conference, Powell indicated that despite these conflicting labor market indicators: “Most FOMC participants agree that labor market conditions are consistent with maximum employment in the sense of the highest level of employment that is consistent with price stability. And that is my personal view.” 

  • In March 2020, as the target for the federal funds rate reached the zero lower bound, the Fed turned to quantitative easing (QE), just as it had in November 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis. To carry out its policy of QE, the Fed purchased large quantities of long-term Treasury securities with maturities of 4 to 30 years and mortgage backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae—so-called agency MBS. As a result of these purchases, the Fed’s asset holdings (often referred to as its balance sheet) soared to nearly $9 trillion. 

In addition to raising its target for the federal funds rate, the Fed intends to gradually shrink the size of this asset holdings. Some economists refer to this process as quantitative tightening (QT). Following its January meeting, the FOMC issued a statement on “Principles for Reducing the Size of the Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet.” The statement indicated that increases in the federal funds rate, not QT, would be the focus of its shift to a less expansionary monetary policy: “The Committee views changes in the target range for the federal funds rate as its primary means of adjusting the stance of monetary policy.” The statement also indicated that as the process of QT continued the Fed would eventually hold primarily Treasury securities, which means that the Fed would eventually stop holding agency MBS. Some economists have speculated that the Fed’s exiting the market for agency MBS might have a significant effect on that market, potentially causing mortgage interest rates to increase.

  • Finally, Powell indicated that the FOMC would likely raise its target for the federal funds more rapidly than it had during the 2015 to 2018 period. Financial market are expecting three or four 0.25 percent increases during 2022, but Powell would not rule out the possibility that the target could be raised during each remaining meeting of the year—which would result in seven increases. The FOMC’s long-run target for the federal funds rate—sometime referred to as the neutral rate—is 2.5 percent. With the target for the federal funds rate currently near zero, four rate increases during 2022 would still leave the target well short of the neutral rate.

Sources: The statements issued by the FOMC at the close of the meeting can be found here; Christopher Rugaber, “Fed Plans to Raise Rates Starting in March to Cool Inflation,” apnews.com, January 26, 2022; Nick Timiraos, “Fed Interest-Rate Decision Tees Up March Increase,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2022; Olivia Rockeman and Craig Torres, “Powell Back March Liftoff, Won’t Rule Out Hike Every Meeting,” bloomberg.com, January 26, 2022; and Olivia Rockeman and Reade Pickett, “Powell Says U.S. Labor Market Consistent with Maximum Employment,” bloomberg.com, January 26, 2022. 

New Information on Fed Policy Affects Stock and Bond Prices

Jerome Powell (photo from the Wall Street Journal)

Most economists believe that monetary policy actions, such as changes in the Fed’s pace of buying bonds or in its target for the federal funds rate, affect real GDP and employment only with a lag of several months or longer. But monetary policy actions can have a more immediate effect on the prices of financial assets like stocks and bonds. 

Investors in financial markets are forward looking because the prices of financial assets are determined by investors’ expectations of the future. (We discuss this point in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2, Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2, and Money, Banking and the Financial System, Chapter 6.) For instance, stock prices depend on the future profitability of firms, so if investors come to believe that future economic growth is likely to be slower, thereby reducing firms’ profits, the investors will sell stocks causing stock prices to decline.

Similarly, holders of existing bonds will suffer losses if the interest rates on newly issued bonds are higher than the interest rates on existing bonds. Therefore, if investors come to believe that future interest rates are likely to be higher than they had previously expected them to be, they will sell bonds, thereby causing their prices to decline and the interest rates on them to rise. (Recall that the prices of bonds and the interest rates (or yields) on them move in opposite directions: If the price of a bond falls, the interest rate on the bond will increase; if the price of a bond rises, the interest rate on the bond will decrease. To review this concept, see the Appendix to Economics and Microeconomics Chapter 8, the Appendix to Macroeconomics Chapter 6, and MoneyBankingand the Financial System, Chapter 3.)

Because monetary policy actions can affect future interest rates and future levels of real GDP, investors are alert for any new information that would throw light on the Fed’s intentions. When new information appears, the result can be a rapid change in the prices of financial assets. We saw this outcome on January 5, 2022, when the Fed released the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting held on December 14 and 15, 2021. At the conclusion of the meeting, the FOMC announced that it would be reducing its purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities.  These purchases are intended to aid the expansion of real GDP and employment by keeping long-term interest rates from rising. The FOMC also announced that it intended to increase its target for the federal funds rate when “labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee’s assessments of maximum employment.”

When the minutes of this FOMC meeting were released at 2 pm on January 5, 2022, many investors realized that the Fed might increase its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022—earlier than most had expected. In this sense, the release of the FOMC minutes represented new information about future Fed policy and the markets quickly reacted. Selling of stocks caused the S&P 500 to decline by nearly 100 points (or about 2 percent) and the Nasdaq to decline by more than 500 points (or more than 3 percent). Similarly, the price of Treasury securities fell and, therefore, their interest rates rose. 

Investors had concluded from the FOMC minutes that economic growth was likely to be slower during 2022 and interest rates were likely to be higher than they had previously expected. This change in investors’ expectations was quickly reflected in falling prices of stocks and bonds.

Sources: An Associated Press article on the reaction to the release of the FOMC minutes can be found HERE; the FOMC’s statement following its December 2021 meeting can be found HERE; and the minutes of the FOMC meeting can be found HERE.