The Fed’s Latest Dilemma: The Link between Monetary Policy and Financial Stability

AP photo from the Wall Street Journal

Congress has given the Federal Reserve a dual mandate of high employment and price stability. In addition, though, as we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.1 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.1) and at greater length in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 15, Section 15.1, the Fed has other goals, including the stability of financial markets and institutions. 

Since March 2022, the Fed has been rapidly increasing its target for the federal funds rate in order to slow the growth in aggregate demand and bring down the inflation rate, which has been well above the Fed’s target of 2 percent. (We discuss monetary policy in a number of earlier blog posts, including here and here, and in podcasts, the most recent of which (from February) can be found here.) The target federal funds rate has increased from a range of 0 percent to 0.25 percent in March 2022 to a range of 4.5 percent to 4.75 percent. The following figure shows the upper range of the target for the federal funds rate from January 2015 through March 14, 2023.

This morning (Tuesday, March 14, 2023), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its data on the consumer price index for February. The following figure show inflation as measured by the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year (which is the inflation measurement we use most places in the text) and as the percentage change in core CPI, which excludes prices of food and energy. (The inflation rate computed by the percentage change in the CPI is sometimes referred to as headline inflation.) The figure shows that although inflation has slowed somewhat it is still well above the Fed’s 2 percent target. (Note that, formally, the Fed assesses whether it has achieved its inflation target using changes in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index rather than using changes in the CPI. We discuss issues in measuring inflation in several blog posts, including here and here.)

One drawback to using the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year is that it reduces the weight of the most recent observations. In the figure below, we show the inflation rate measured by the compounded annual rate of change, which is the value we would get for the inflation rate if that month’s percentage change continued for the following 12 months. Calculated this way, we get a somewhat different picture of inflation. Although headline inflation declines from January to February, core inflation is actually increasing each month from November 2022 when, it equaled 3.8 percent, through February 2023, when it equaled 5.6 percent. Core inflation is generally seen as a better indicator of future inflation than is headline inflation.

The February CPI data are consistent with recent data on PCE inflation, employment growth, and growth in consumer spending in that they show that the Fed’s increases in the target for the federal funds rate haven’t yet caused a slowing of the growth in aggregate demand sufficient to bring the inflation back to the Fed’s target of 2 percent. Until last week, many economists and Wall Street analysts had been expecting that at the next meeting of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on March 21 and 22, the FOMC would raise its target for the federal funds rate by 0.5 percentage points to a range of 5.0 percent to 5.25 percent.

Then on Friday, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was forced to close the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). As the headline on a column in the Wall Street Journal put it “Fed’s Tightening Plans Collide With SVB Fallout.” That is, the Fed’s focus on price stability would lead it to continue its increases in the target for the federal funds rate. But, as we discuss in this post from Sunday, increases in the federal funds rate lead to increases in other interest rates, including the interests rates on the Treasury securities, mortgage-backed securities, and other securities that most banks own. As interest rates rise, the prices of long-term securities decline. The run on SVB was triggered in part by the bank taking a loss on the Treasury securities it sold to raise the funds needed to cover deposit withdrawals.

Further increases in the target for the federal funds rate could lead to further declines in the prices of long-term securities that banks own, which might make it difficult for banks to meet deposit withdrawals without taking losses on the securities–losses that have the potential to make the banks insolvent, which would cause the FDIC to seize them as it did SVB. The FOMC’s dilemma is whether to keep the target for the federal funds rate unchanged at its next meeting on March 21 and 22, thereby keeping banks from suffering further losses on their bond holdings, or to continue raising the target in pursuit of its mandate to restore price stability.

Some economists were urging the FOMC to pause its increases in the target federal funds rate, others suggested that the FOMC increase the target by only 0.25 percent points rather than by 0.50 percentage points, while others argued that the FOMC should implement a 0.50 increase in order to make further progress toward its mandate of price stability.

Forecasting monetary policy is a risky business, but as of Tuesday afternoon, the likeliest outcome was that the FOMC would opt for a 0.25 percentage point increase. Although on Monday the prices of the stocks of many regional banks had fallen, during Tuesday the prices had rebounded as investors appeared to be concluding that those banks were not likely to experience runs like the one that led to SVB’s closure. Most of these regional banks have many more retail deposits–deposits made be households and small local businesses–than did SVB. Retail depositors are less likely to withdraw funds if they become worried about the solvency of a bank because the depositors have much less than $250,000 in their accounts, which is the maximum covered by the FDIC’s deposit insurance. In addition, on Sunday, the Fed established the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP), which allows banks to borrow against the holdings of Treasury and mortgage-back securities. The program allows banks to meet deposit withdrawals by borrowing against these securities rather than by having to sell them–as SVB did–and experience losses.

On March 22, we’ll find out how the Fed reacts to the latest dilemma facing monetary policy.

NEW! 3/13/23 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the collapse of SVB in the context of a classic bank run. Is it? Listen & find out.

Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they review the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in the context of a classic bank run. What lessons can be learned to avoid other bank collapses in this unchartered economic territory? Will this become a contagion? Or, is it simply an example of a bank searching for additional return in an uncertain economic world? Our discussion covers these points but you can also check for updates on our blog post that can be found HERE.

Soft Landing, Hard Landing … or No Landing?

During the recovery from the Covid–19 pandemic, inflation as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCEprice index, first rose above the Federal Reserve’s target annual inflation rate of 2 percent in March 2021. Many economists inside and outside of the Fed believed the increase in inflation would be transitory because it was thought to be mainly the result of supply chain problems and an initial burst of spending as business lockdowns were ended or mitigated in most areas.

Accordingly, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) kept its target for the federal funds rate at effectively zero (a range of 0 to 0.25 percent) until March 2022 and continued its quantitative easing (QE) program of buying long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) until that same month.

As the following figure shows, by March 2022 inflation had been well above the FOMC’s target for a year. The Fed responded by raising its target for the federal funds rate and switched from QE to quantitative tightening (QT). Although some supply chain problems were still contributing to the high inflation rate during the spring of 2022, the main driver appeared to be very expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. (This blog post from May 2021 has links to contributions to the debate over macro policy at the time. Glenn’s interview that month with the Financial Times can be found here. In November 2022, Glenn argued that overly expansionary fiscal policy was the main driver of inflation in this op-ed in the Financial Times (subscription or registration may be required).We discuss inconsistencies in the Fed’s forecasts of unemployment and inflation here. And in this post we discuss the question of whether the Fed made a mistake in not attempting to preempt inflation before it accelerated.)

Since March 2022, the FOMC has raised its target for the federal funds rate multiple times. In February 2023, the target was a range of 4.50 to 4.75 percent. Longer-term interest rates have also increased. In particular, the average interest rate on residential mortgage loans increased from 3 percent in March 2022 to 7 percent in November 2022, before falling back to around 6 percent in February 2023.  In the fall of 2022, there was optimism among some economists that the Fed had succeeded in slowing the economy enough to put inflation on a path back to its 2 percent target. Although many economists had expected that inflation would only return to the target if the U.S. economy experienced a recession—labeled a hard landing—the probability that inflation could be reduced without a recession—labeled a soft landing—appeared to be increasing. 

Economic data for January 2023 made a soft landing seem less likely. Consumer spending remained above its trend from before the pandemic, employment increases were unexpectedly high, and inflation reversed its downward trend. A continuation of low rates of unemployment and high rates of inflation wasn’t consistent with either a hard landing or a soft landing. Some observers, particularly in Wall Street financial firms, began describing the situation as no landing. But given the Fed’s strong commitment to returning to its 2 percent target, the no landing scenario couldn’t persist indefinitely.

Many investors had anticipated that the FOMC would end its increases in the federal funds target by mid-2023 and would have made one or more cuts to the target by the end of the year, but that outcome now seems unlikely. The FOMC had increased the federal funds target by only 0.25 percent at its February meeting but many economists now expected that it would announce a 0.50 percent increase at its next meeting on March 21 and 22. Unfortunately, the odds of a hard landing seem to be increasing.

A couple of notes: Although there are multiple ways of measuring inflation, the percentage increase in the PCE is the formal way in which the FOMC determines whether it is hitting its inflation target. To judge what the underlying inflation is—in other words, the inflation rate likely to persist in at least the near future—many economists look at core inflation. In the earlier figure we show movements in core inflation as measured by the PCE excluding prices of food and energy. Note that over the period shown PCE and core PCE follow the same pattern, although core PCE inflation begins to moderate earlier than does core PCE.

Some economists use other adjustments to PCE or to the consumer price index (CPI) in an attempt to better measure underlying inflation. For instance, housing rents and new and used car prices have been particularly volatile since early 2020, so some economists calculate PCE or CPI excluding those prices, as well as food and energy prices. As we discuss in this blog post from last September some economists prefer median CPI as the best measure of underlying inflation. (We discuss some of the alternative ways of measuring inflation in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 and Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5.) Nearly all these alternative measures of inflation indicated that the moderation in inflation that began in the summer of 2022 had ended in January 2023. So, choosing among measures of underlying inflation wasn’t critical to understanding the current path of inflation. 

Finally, the inflation, employment, and output measures that in January seemed to show that the U.S. economy was still in a strong expansion and that the inflation rate may have ticked up are all seasonally adjusted. Seasonal adjustment factors are applied to the raw (unadjusted) data to account for regular seasonal fluctuations in the series. For instance, unadjusted employment declined in January as measured by both the household and establishment series. Applying the seasonal adjustment factors to the data resulted in the actual decline in employment from December to January turning into an adjusted increase. In other words, employment declined by less than it typically does, so on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that it had increased. Seasonal adjustments for the holiday season may be distorted, however, because the 2020–2021 and 2021–2022 holiday seasons occurred during upsurges in Covid. Whether the reported data for January 2023 will be subject to significant revisions when the seasonal adjustments factors are subsequently revised remains to be seen.  The latest BLS employment report, showing seasonally adjusted and not seasonally adjusted data, can be found here.

NEW! 2/19/23 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the Fed’s response to economic conditions and their ability to execute a soft-landing.

Join author Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien in their first Sprint 2023 podcast where they revisit inflation as the major topic facing our country, our economy, and our classrooms. Glenn & Tony discuss the Federal Reserve response and the outlook for the economy. While rates have continued to move up, is a soft-landing still possible?

NEW! 11/17/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss inflation, the Fed’s Response, FTX collapse, and also share thoughts on economics themes in holiday movies!

In the Face of Hyperinflation, Some People in Argentina Don’t Save Currency, They Save … Bricks

Argentina’s Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa coming from a meeting in Washington, DC with the International Monetary Fund to discuss the country’s hyperinflation. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Argentina has been through several periods of hyperinflation during with the price level has increased more than 50 percent per month. The following figure shows the inflation rate as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index from the previous month for since the beginning of 2018. The inflation rate during these years has been volatile, being greater than 50 percent per month during several periods, including staring in the spring of 2022. High rates of inflation have become so routine in Argentina that an article in the Wall Street Journal quoted on store owner as saying, “Here 40% [inflation] is normal. And when we get past 50%, it doesn’t scare us, it simply bothers us.”

As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.5 (Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.5 ), when an economy experiences hyperinflation, consumers and businesses hold the country’s currency for as brief a time as possible because the purchasing power of the currency is declining rapidly. As we noted in the chapter, in some countries experiencing high rates of inflation, consumers and businesses buy and sell goods using U.S. dollars rather than the domestic currency because the purchasing power of the dollar is more stable. This demand for dollars in countries experiencing high inflation rates is one reason why an estimated 80 percent of all $100 bills circulate outside of the United States. 

The increased demand for U.S. dollars by people in Argentina is reflected in the exchange rate between the Argentine peso and the U.S. dollar. The following figure shows that at the beginning of 2018, one dollar exchanged for about 18 pesos. By November 2022, one dollar exchanged for about 159 pesos. The exchange rate shown in the figure is the official exchange rate at which people in Argentina can legally exchange pesos for dollars. In practice, it is difficult for many individuals and small firms to buy dollars at the official exchange rate. Instead, they have to use private currency traders who will make the exchange at an unofficial—or “blue”—exchange rate that varies with the demand and supply of pesos for dollars. A reporter for the Economist described his experience during a recent trip to Argentina: “Walk down Calle Lavalle or Calle Florida in the centre of Buenos Aires and every 20 metres someone will call out ‘cambio’ (exchange), offering to buy dollars at a rate that is roughly double the official one.” 

People in Argentina are reluctant to deposit their money in banks, partly because the interest rates banks pay typically are lower than the inflation rate, causing the purchasing power of money deposited in banks to decline over time.  People are also afraid that the government might keep them from withdrawing their money, which has happened in the past. As an alternative to depositing their money in banks, many people in Argentina buy more goods than they can immediately use and store them, thereby avoiding future price increases on these goods. The Wall Street Journalquoted a university student as saying: “I came to this market and bought as much toilet paper as I could for the month, more than 20 packs. I try to buy all [the goods] I can because I know that next month it will cost more to buy.”

Devon Zuegel, a U.S. software engineer and economics blogger who travels frequently to Argentina, has observed one unusual way that some people in Argentina save while experiencing hyperinflation:

“Bricks—actual bricks, not stacks of cash—are another common savings mechanism, especially for working-class Argentinians. The value of bricks is fairly stable, and they’re useful to a family building out their house. Argentina doesn’t have a mortgage industry, and thus buying a pallet of bricks each time you get a paycheck is an effective way to pay for your home in installments. (Bricks aren’t fully monetized, in that I don’t think people buy bricks and then sell them later, so people only use this method of saving when they actually have something they want to use the bricks for.)”

Sources: “Sergio Massa Is the Only Thing Standing Between Argentina and Chaos,” economist. com, October 13, 2022;  Devon Zuegel, “Inside Argentina’s Currency Exchange Black Markets,” devonzuegel.com, September 10, 2022; Silvina Frydlewsky and Juan Forero, “Inflation Got You Down? At Least You Don’t Live in Argentina,” Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, FRED data set.

Should the Fed Be Looking at the Median CPI?

For years, all the products for sale in Dollar Tree stores had a price of $1.00 or less. But as inflation increased, the company had to raise its maxium prices to $1.25. (Thanks to Lena Buonanno for sending us the photo.)

There are multiple ways to measure inflation. Economists and policymakers use different measures of inflation depending on the use they intend to put the measure of inflation to. For example, as we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) constructs the consumer price index (CPI) as measure of the cost of living of a typical urban household. So the BLS intends the percentage change in the CPI to measure inflation in the cost of living as experienced by the roughly 93 percent of the population that lives in an urban household. (We are referring here to what the BLS labels CPI–U. As we discuss in this blog post, the BLS also compiles a CPI for urban wage earners and clerical workers (or CPI–W).)

As we discuss in an Apply the Concept in Chapter 15, Section 15.5, because the Fed is charged by Congress with ensuring stability in the general price level, the Fed is interested in a broader measure of inflation than the CPI. So its preferred measure of inflation is the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, which the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) issues monthly. 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 suits the Fed’s need for a broader measure of inflation. The Fed uses changes in the PCE to evaluate whether it’s meeting its target of a 2 percent annual inflation rate.

In using either the percentage change in the CPI or the percentage change in the PCE, we are looking at what inflation has been over the previous year. But economists and policymakers are also looking for indications of what inflation may be in the future. Prices of food and energy are particularly volatile, so the BLS issues data on the CPI excluding food and energy prices and the BEA does the same with respect to the PCE. These two measures help avoid the problem that, for example, a period of high gasoline prices might lead the inflation rate to temporarily increase. Note that inflation caclulated by excluding the prices of food and energy is called core inflation.

During the surge in inflation that began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the fall of 2022, some economists noted that supply chain problems and other effects of the pandemic on labor and product markets caused the prices of some goods and services to spike. For example, a shortage of computer chips led to a reduction in the supply of new cars and sharp increases in car prices. As with temporary spikes in prices of energy and food, spikes resulting from supply chain problems and other effects of the pandemic might lead the CPI and PCE—even excluding food and energy prices—to give a misleading measure of the underlying rate of inflation in the economy. 

To correct for this problem, some economists have been more attention to the measure of inflation calculated using the median CPI, which is compiled monthly by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The median CPI is calculated by ranking the price changes of every good or service in the index from the largest price change to the smallest price change, and then choosing the price change in the middle. The idea is to eliminate the effect on measured inflation of any short-lived events that cause the prices of some goods and services to be particularly high or particularly low. Economists at the Cleveland Fed have conducted research that shows that, in their words, “the median CPI provides a better signal of the underlying inflation trend than either the all-items CPI or the CPI excluding food and energy. The median CPI is even better at forecasting PCE inflation in the near and longer term than the core PCE price index.”

The following figure shows the three measures of inflation using the CPI for each month since January 2019. The red line shows the unadjusted CPI, the green line shows the CPI excluding food and energy prices, and the blue line shows median CPI. To focus on the inflation rate in a particular month, in this figure we calculate inflation as the percentage change in the index at an annual rate. That is, we calculate the annual inflation rate assuming that the inflation rate in that month continued for a year.

Note that for most of the period since early 2021, during which the inflation rate accelerated, median inflation was well below inflation measured by changes in the unadjusted CPI. That difference reflects some of the distortions in measuring inflation arising from the effects of the pandemic.

But the last two values—for July and August 2022—tell a different story. In those months, inflation measured by changes in the CPI excluding food and energy prices or by changes in median CPI were well above inflation measured by changes in the unadjusted CPI.  In August 2022, the unadjusted CPI shows a low rate of inflation—1.4 percent—whereas the CPI excluding food and energy prices shows an inflation rate of 7.0 percent and the median CPI shows an inflation rate of 9.2 percent. 

We should always be cautious when interpreting any economic data for a period as short as two months. But data for inflation measured by the change in median CPI may be sending a signal that the slowdown in inflation that many economists and policymakers had been predicting would occur in the summer of 2022 isn’t actually occurring. We’ll have to await the release of future data to draw a firmer conclusion.

Sources: Michael S. Derby, “Inflation Data Scrambles Fed Rate Outlook Again,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2022; Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, “Median CPI,” clevelandfed.org; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Why Might Good News for the Job Market Be Bad News for the Stock Market?

Photo from the New York Times.

On Tuesday, August 30, 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report for July 2022. The report indicated that the U.S. labor market remained very strong, even though, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), real gross domestic product (GDP) had declined during the first half of 2022. (In this blog post, we discuss the possibility that during this period the real GDP data may have been a misleading indicator of the actual state of the economy.)

As the following figure shows, the rate of job openings remained very high, even in comparison with the strong labor market of 2019 and early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting the U.S. economy. The BLS defines a job opening as a full-time or part-time job that a firm is advertising and that will start within 30 days. The rate of job openings is the number of job openings divided by the number of job openings plus the number of employed workers, multiplied by 100.

In the following figure, we compare the total number of job openings to the total number of people unemployed. The figure shows that in July 2022 there were almost two jobs available for each person who was unemployed.

Typically, a strong job market with high rates of job openings indicates that firms are expanding and that they expect their profits to be increasing. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 (Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2) the price of a stock is determined by investors’ expectations of the future profitability of the firm issuing the stock. So, we might have expected that on the day the BLS released the July JOLTS report containing good news about the labor market, the stock market indexes like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the Nasdaq Composite Index would rise. In fact, though the indexes fell, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average declining a substantial 300 points. As a column in the Wall Street Journal put it: “A surprisingly tight U.S. labor market is rotten news for stock investors.” Why did good news about the labor market could cause stock prices to decline? The answer is found in investors’ expectations of the effect the news would have on monetary policy.

In August 2022, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) were in the process of tightening monetary policy to reduce the very high inflation rates the U.S. economy was experiencing. In July 2022, inflation as measured by the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) was 8.5 percent. Inflation as measured by the percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index—which is the measure of inflation that the Fed uses when evaluating whether it is hitting its target of 2 percent annual inflation—was 6.3 percent. (For a discussion of the Fed’s choice of inflation measure, see the Apply the Concept “Should the Fed Worry about the Prices of Food and Gasoline,” in Macroeconomics, chapter 15, Section 15.5 and in Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5.)

To slow inflation, the FOMC was increasing its target for the federal funds rate—the interest rate that banks charge each other on overnight loans—which in turn was leading to increases in other interest rates, such as the interest rate on residential mortgage loans. Higher interest rates would slow increases in aggregate demand, thereby slowing price increases. How high would the FOMC increase its target for the federal funds rate? Fed Chair Powell had made clear that the FOMC would monitor economic data for indications that economic activity was slowing. Members of the FOMC were concerned that unless the inflation rate was brought down quickly, the U.S. economy might enter a wage-price spiral in which high inflation rates would lead workers to push for higher wages, which, in turn, would increase firms’ labor costs, leading them to raise prices further, in response to which workers would push for even higher wages, and so on. (We discuss the concept of a wage-price spiral in this earlier blog post.)

In this context, investors interpretated data showing unexpected strength in the economy—particularly in the labor market—as making it likely that the FOMC would need to make larger increases in its target for the federal fund rate. The higher interest rates go, the more likely that the U.S. economy will enter an economic recession. During recessions, as production, income, and employment decline, firms typically experience lower profits or even suffer losses. So, a good JOLTS report could send stock prices falling because news that the labor market was stronger than expected increased the likelihood that the FOMC’s actions would push the economy into a recession, reducing profits. Or as the Wall Street Journal column quoted earlier put it:

“So Tuesday’s [JOLTS] report was good news for workers, but not such good news for stock investors. It made another 0.75-percentage-point rate increase [in the target for the federal funds rate] from the Fed when policy makers meet next month seem increasingly likely, while also strengthening the case that the Fed will keep raising rates well into next year. Stocks sold off sharply following the report’s release.”

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover–July 2022,” bls.gov, August 30, 2022; Justin Lahart, “Why Stocks Got Jolted,” Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2022; Jerome H. Powell, “Monetary Policy and Price Stability,” speech at “Reassessing Constraints on the Economy and Policy,” an economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 26, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

How Should We Measure Inflation?

Image from the Wall Street Journal.

In the textbook, we discuss several measures of inflation. In Macroeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.4 (Economics, Chapter 18, Section 18.4) we discuss the GDP deflator as a measure of the price level and the percentage change in the GDP deflator as a measure of inflation. In Chapter 9, Section 9.4, we discuss the consumer price index (CPI) as a measure of the price level and the percentage change in the CPI as the most widely used measure of inflation. 

            In Chapter 15, Section 15.5 we examine the reasons that the Federal Reserve often looks at the core inflation rate—the inflation rate excluding the prices of food and energy—as a better measure of the underlying rate of inflation. Finally, in that section we note that the Fed uses the percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCEprice index to assess  of whether it’s achieving its goal of a 2 percent inflation rate.

            In this blog post, we’ll discuss two other aspects of measuring inflation that we don’t cover in the textbook. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes two versions of the CPI:  (1) The familiar CPI for all urban consumers (or CPI–U), which includes prices of goods and services purchased by households in urban areas, and (2) the less familiar CPI for urban wage earners and clerical workers (or CPI–W), which includes the same prices included in the CPI–U. The two versions of the CPI give slightly different measures of the inflation rate—despite including the same prices—because each version applies different weights to the prices when constructing the index.

            As we explain in Chapter 9, Section 9.4, the weights in the CPI–U (the only version of the CPI we discuss in the chapter) are determined by a survey of 36,000 households nationwide on their spending habits. The more the households surveyed spend on a good or service, the larger the weight the price of the good or service receives in the CPI–U. To calculate the weights in the CPI–W the BLS uses only expenditures by households in which at least half of the household’s income comes from a clerical or wage occupation and in which at least one member of the household has worked 37 or more weeks during the previous year.  The BLS estimates that the sample of households used in calculating the CPI–U includes about 93 percent of the population of the United States, while the households included in the CPI–W include only about 29 percent of the population. 

            Because the percentage of the population covered by the CPI–U is so much larger than the percentage of the population covered by the CPI–W, it’s not surprising that most media coverage of inflation focuses on the CPI–U. As the following figure shows, the measures of inflation from the two versions of the CPI aren’t greatly different, although inflation as measured by the CPI–W—the red line—tends to be higher during economic expansions and lower during economic recessions than inflation measured by the CPI–U—the blue line. 

One important use of the CPI–W is in calculating cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) applied to Social Security payments retired and disabled people receive. Each year, the federal government’s Social Security Administration (SSA) calculates the average for the CPI–W during June, July, and August in the current year and in the previous year and then measures the inflation rate as the percentage increase between the two averages. The SSA then increases Social Security payments by that inflation rate. Because the increase in CPI–W is often—although not always—larger than the increase in CPI–U, using CPI–W to calculate Social Security COLAs increases the payments recipients of Social Security receive. 

            A second aspect of measuring inflation that we don’t mention in the textbook was the subject of discussion following the release of the July 2022 CPI data. In June 2022, the value for the CPI–U was 295.3. In July 2022, the value for the CPI–U was also 295.3. So, was there no inflation during July—an inflation rate of 0 percent? You can certainly make that argument, but typically, as we note in the textbook (for instance, see our display of the inflation rate in Chapter 10, Figure 10.7) we measure the inflation rate in a particular month as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year. Using that approach to measuring inflation, the inflation rate in July 2022 was the percentage change in the CPI from its value in July 2021, or 8.5 percent.  Note that you could calculate an annual inflation rate using the increase in the CPI from one month to the next by compounding that rate over 12 months. In this case, because the CPI was unchanged from June to July 2022, the inflation rate calculated as a compound annual rate would be 0 percent.  

            During periods of moderate inflation rates—which includes most of the decades prior to 2021—the difference between inflation calculated in these two ways was typically much smaller. Focusing on just the change in the CPI for one month has the advantage that you are using only the most recent data. But if the CPI in that month turns out to be untypical of what is happening to inflation over a longer period, then focusing on that month can be misleading. Note also that inflation rate calculated as the compound annual change in the CPI each month results in very large fluctuations in the inflation rate, as shown in the following figure.

Sources: Anne Tergesen, “Social Security Benefits Are Heading for the Biggest Increase in 40 Years,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2022; Neil Irwin, “Inflation Drops to Zero in July Due to Falling Gas Prices,” axios.com, August 10, 2022; “Consumer Price Index Frequently Asked Questions,” bls.gov, March 23, 2022; Stephen B. Reed and Kenneth J. Stewart, “Why Does BLS Provide Both the CPI–W and CPI–U?” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Beyond the Numbers, Vol. 3, No. 5, February 2014; “Latest Cost of Living Adjustment,” ssa.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Senator Elizabeth Warren vs. Economist Lawrence Summers on Monetary Policy

Senator Elizabeth Warren (Photo from the Associated Press)

Lawrence Summers (Photo from harvardmagazine.com)

As we’ve discussed in several previous blog posts, in early 2021 Lawrence Summers, professor of economics at Harvard and secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration, argued that the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, was likely to cause a sharp acceleration in inflation. When inflation began to rapidly increase, Summers urged the Federal Reserve to raise its target for the federal funds rate in order to slow the increase in aggregate demand, but the Fed was slow to do so. Some members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) argued that much of the inflation during 2021 was transitory in that it had been caused by lingering supply chain problems initially caused by the Covid–19 pandemic. 

At the beginning of 2022, most members of the FOMC became convinced that in fact increases in aggregate demand were playing an important role in causing high inflation rates.  Accordingly, the FOMC began increasing its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022. After two more rate increases, on the eve of the FOMC’s meeting on July 26–27, the federal funds rate target was a range of 1.50 percent to 1.75 percent. The FOMC was expected to raise its target by at least 0.75 percent at the meeting. The following figure shows movements in the effective federal funds rate—which can differ somewhat from the target rate—from January 1, 2015 to July 21, 2022.

In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren argued that the FOMC was making a mistake by increasing its target for the federal funds rate. She also criticized Summers for supporting the increases. Warren worried that the rate increases were likely to cause a recession and argued that Congress and President Biden should adopt alternative measures to contain inflation. Warren argued that a better approach to dealing with inflation would be to, among other steps, increase the federal government’s support for child care to enable more parents to work, provide support for strengthening supply chains, and lower prescription drug prices by allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices with pharmaceutical firms. She also urged a “crack down on price gouging by large corporations.” (We discussed the argument that monopoly power is responsible for inflation in this blog post.)

 Summers responded to Warren in a Twitter thread. He noted that: “In the 18 months since the massive stimulus policies & easy money that [Senator Warren] has favored & I have opposed, the inflation rate has risen from below 2 to above 9 percent & workers purchasing power has, as a consequence, declined more rapidly than in any year in the last 50.” And “[Senator Warren] opposes restrictive monetary policy or any other measure to cool off total demand.  Why does she think at a time when there are twice as many vacancies as jobs that inflation will come down without some drop in total demand?”

Clearly, economists and policymakers continue to hotly debate monetary policy.

Source: Elizabeth Warren, “Jerome Powell’s Fed Pursues a Painful and Ineffective Inflation Cure,” Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2022.