Are the Fed’s Forecasts of Inflation and Unemployment Inconsistent?

The Federal Reserve building in Washington, DC. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

Four times per year, the members of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) publish their projections, or forecasts, of the values of the inflation rate, the unemployment, and changes in real gross domestic product (GDP) for the current year, each of the following two years, and for the “longer run.”  The following table, released following the FOMC meeting held on March 15 and 16, 2022, shows the forecasts the members made at that time.

  Median Forecast Meidan Forecast Median Forecast 
 202220232024Longer runActual values, March 2022
Change in real GDP2.8%2.2%2.2%1.8%3.5%
Unemployment rate3.5%3.5%3.6%4.0%3.6%
PCE inflation4.3%2.7%2.3%2.0%6.6%
Core PCE inflation4.1%2.6%2.3%No forecast5.2%

Recall that PCE refers to the consumption expenditures price index, which includes the prices of goods and services that are in the consumption category of GDP. Fed policymakers prefer using the PCE to measure inflation rather than the consumer price index (CPI) because the PCE includes the prices of more goods and services. The Fed uses the PCE to measure whether it is hitting its target inflation rate of 2 percent. The core PCE index leaves out the prices of food and energy products, including gasoline. The prices of food and energy products tend to fluctuate for reasons that do not affect the overall long-run inflation rate. So Fed policymakers believe that core PCE gives a better measure of the underlying inflation rate. (We discuss the PCE and the CPI in the Apply the Concept “Should the Fed Worry about the Prices of Food and Gasoline?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5)).

The values in the table are the median forecasts of the FOMC members, meaning that the forecasts of half the members were higher and half were lower.  The members do not make a longer run forecast for core PCE.  The final column shows the actual values of each variable in March 2022. The values in that column represent the percentage in each variable from the corresponding month (or quarter in the case of real GDP) in the previous year.  Links to the FOMC’s economic projections can be found on this page of the Federal Reserve’s web site.

At its March 2022 meeting, the FOMC began increasing its target for the federal funds rate with the expectation that a less expansionary monetary policy would slow the high rates of inflation the U.S. economy was experiencing. Note that in that month, inflation measured by the PCE was running far above the Fed’s target inflation rate of 2 percent. 

In raising its target for the federal funds rate and by also allowing its holdings of U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities to decline, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the other members of the FOMC were attempting to achieve a soft landing for the economy. A soft landing occurs when the FOMC is able to reduce the inflation rate without causing the economy to experience a recession. The forecast values in the table are consistent with a soft landing because they show inflation declining towards the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent while the unemployment rate remains below 4 percent—historically, a very low unemployment rate—and the growth rate of real GDP remains positive. By forecasting that real GDP would continue growing while the unemployment rate would remain below 4 percent, the FOMC was forecasting that no recession would occur.

Some economists see an inconsistency in the FOMC’s forecasts of unemployment and inflation as shown in the table. They argued that to bring down the inflation rate as rapidly as the forecasts indicated, the FOMC would have to cause a significant decline in aggregate demand. But if aggregate demand declined significantly, real GDP would either decline or grow very slowly, resulting in the unemployment rising above 4 percent, possibly well above that rate.  For instance, writing in the Economist magazine, Jón Steinsson of the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the FOMC’s “combination of forecasts [of inflation and unemployment] has been dubbed the ‘immaculate disinflation’ because inflation is seen as falling rapidly despite a very tight labor market and a [federal funds] rate that is for the most part negative in real terms (i.e., adjusted for inflation).”

Similarly, writing in the Washington Post, Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers noted that “over the past 75 years, every time inflation has exceeded 4 percent and unemployment has been below 5 percent, the U.S. economy has gone into recession within two years.”

In an interview in the Financial Times, Olivier Blanchard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, agreed. In their forecasts, the FOMC “had unemployment staying at 3.5 percent throughout the next two years, and they also had inflation coming down nicely to two point something. That just will not happen. …. [E]ither we’ll have a lot more inflation if unemployment remains at 3.5 per cent, or we will have higher unemployment for a while if we are actually to inflation down to two point something.”

While all three of these economists believed that unemployment would have to increase if inflation was to be brought down close to the Fed’s 2 percent target, none were certain that a recession would occur.

What might explain the apparent inconsistency in the FOMC’s forecasts of inflation and unemployment? Here are three possibilities:

  1. Fed policymakers are relatively optimistic that the factors causing the surge in inflation—including the economic dislocations due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the surge in federal spending in early 2021—are likely to resolve themselves without the unemployment rate having to increase significantly. As Steinsson puts it in discussing this possibility (which he believes to be unlikely) “it is entirely possible that inflation will simply return to target as the disturbances associated with Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine dissipate.”
  2. Fed Chair Powell and other members of the FOMC were convinced that business managers, workers, and investors still expected that the inflation rate would return to 2 percent in the long run. As a result, none of these groups were taking actions that might lead to a wage-price spiral. (We discussed the possibility of a wage-price spiral in earlier blog post.) For instance, at a press conference following the FOMC meeting held on May 3 and 4, 2022, Powell argued that, “And, in fact, inflation expectations [at longer time horizons] come down fairly sharply. Longer-term inflation expectations have been reasonably stable but have moved up to—but only to levels where they were in 2014, by some measures.” If Powell’s assessment was correct that expectations of future inflation remained at about 2 percent, the probability of a soft landing was increased.
  3. We should mention the possibility that at least some members of the FOMC may have expected that the unemployment rate would increase above 4 percent—possibly well above 4 percent—and that the U.S. economy was likely to enter a recession during the coming months. They may, however, have been unwilling to include this expectation in their published forecasts. If members of the FOMC state that a recession is likely, businesses and households may reduce their spending, which by itself could cause a recession to begin. 

Sources: Martin Wolf, “Olivier Blanchard: There’s a for Markets to Focus on the Present and Extrapolate It Forever,” ft.com, May 26, 2022; Lawrence Summers, “My Inflation Warnings Have Spurred Questions. Here Are My Answers,” Washington Post, April 5, 2022; Jón Steinsson, “Jón Steinsson Believes That a Painless Disinflation Is No Longer Plausible,” economist.com, May 13, 2022; Federal Open Market Committee, “Summary of Economic Projections,” federalreserve.gov, March 16, 2022; and Federal Open Market Committee, “Transcript of Chair Powell’s Press Conference May 4, 2022,” federalreserve.gov, May 4, 2022. 

Inflation, Interest Rates, and Stock Prices

Caution: Long post!

An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted an economist at a financial services firm as noting that strong growth in wages could lead to sustained inflation. The article stated that as a result “the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note [rose to] within reach of 2%” and that: “Rising [bond] yields this year have rattled markets and hurt tech stocks in particular ….”

What are the links between wage inflation and price inflation, inflation and bond yields, and bond yields and stock prices—particularly the prices of tech stocks?

The link between wage inflation and price inflation. The monthly “Employment Situation” reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in addition to providing data on payroll employment and the unemployment rate, also provide data on average hourly earnings (AHE). AHE are the wages and salaries per hour worked that private, nonfarm business pay workers. AHE don’t include the value of benefits that firms provide workers, such as contributions to 401(k) retirement accounts or health insurance. The following figure shows changes in AHE from the same month in the previous year. The figure shows that since the Covid-19 pandemic first began to affect the U.S. economy in March 2020, AHE have moved erratically. But since the fall of 2021, growth in AHE has been consistently above the 2 percent to 4 percent range that prevailed in the years after the end of the Great Recession of 2007–2009.

Employee compensation is the largest cost for most firms.  For the economy as whole, employee compensation is about 80 percent of total costs. When firms pay higher wages per hour, their costs per unit of output don’t rise unless the wage increases are greater than the rate of growth of labor productivity, or output per hour worked. Increases in wages in the range of 5 percent to 6 percent are well above the rate of growth of labor productivity and, so, firms are likely to pass through the wage increases by raising prices. Note that the higher prices may prompt workers to push for higher wage increases to offset the decline in the real purchasing power of their wages, potentially setting off a wage-price spiral. (We discussed the possibility of a wage-price spiral in a recent post here.)

The link between inflation and bond yields.  When investors lend money by, for instance, buying a bond, they are concerned with the interest rate they will receive after correcting for the effects of inflation. In other words, they focus on the real interest rate, which is equal to the nominal interest rate, or the stated interest rate on the loan or bond, minus the expected inflation rate:

            Real interest rate = Nominal interest rate – Expected inflation rate.

We can rewrite this relationship as:

            Nominal interest rate = Real interest rate + Expected inflation rate.

The second equation indicates that if investors expect the inflation rate to increase, then, unless the real interest rate changes, the nominal interest rate will increase.  The Fisher effect is the idea associated with Yale economist Irving Fisher that the nominal interest rate rises or falls by the same number of percentage points as the expected inflation rate. So, for instance, if investors expect that the inflation rate will increase from 3 percent to 5 percent, then the nominal interest rate will also increase by two percentage points.

Because of real-world frictions, such as the broker fees that investors pay when buying and selling bonds and the taxes investors pay when they sell a bond that has increased in price, the Fisher effect doesn’t hold exactly. Still, most economists agree that an increase in the expected inflation rate will cause an increase in nominal interest rates. The following figure shows movements in the interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes (blue line) and in inflation (red line). Note that, roughly speaking, the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note is higher when inflation is higher and lower when inflation is lower.  (We discuss real and nominal interest rates in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.6 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.6. We discuss the Fisher effect in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 4, Section 4.3.)

The link between bond yields and stock prices. As wage inflation leads to price inflation and price inflation leads to higher interest rates on bonds—particularly U.S. Treasury bonds—why might stock prices be affected? First, investors consider U.S. Treasury bonds to be default risk free, which means that investors are certain that the Treasury will make the interest and principal payments on the bonds. Stock investments are much riskier because they depend on the future profits of the firms issuing the stocks and those profits may fluctuate in ways that are difficult for investors to anticipate. So as interest rates on Treasury bonds increase, some investors will decide to sell stocks and buy bonds, which will cause a decline in stock prices. 

Second, most people value funds they will receive now or soon more highly than funds they will receive in the more distant future. For instance, if someone offered to pay you $1,000 today or $1,000 one year from now, you will prefer to receive the money today.  In other words, the present value, or value today, of a payment you won’t receive until the future is worth less than the face value of the payment. For instance, the present value of $1,000 you won’t receive for a year is worth less than $1,000 in present value. The higher the interest rate is, the lower the present value of payments, such as dividends, that you will receive in the future. 

Economists believe that price of a financial investment, like a bond or a stock, is equal to the present value of the payments you will receive from owning the asset. If you own a bond, you will receive interest payments and payment of the bond’s principal when the bond matures. If you own a stock, you will receive dividends, which are the payments that firms make to shareholders from the firms’ profits. Therefore stock prices should reflect the present value of the dividends that investors expect to receive from owning the stock. (We discuss present value and the relationship between interest rates and stock and bond prices in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Appendix, in Economics, Chapter 8, Appendix, and, more completely, in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 3, Section 3.2 and Chapter 6, Section 6.2.)

The Wall Street Journal article we quoted above notes that the rising interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note was causing price declines in tech stocks in particular. The explanation is that tech firms often go through an initial period in which they may make very low profits or even suffer losses. Investors may still be willing to buy stock in tech firms because they expect the firms eventually to increase their profits and the dividends they pay. But because those profits will be earned in the future—often after a period of losses that may stretch for years—the present value of the profits and, therefore, the price of the stock depends more on the interest rate than would be true of a firm making breakfast cereal or frozen pizza that will be steadily earning profits through the years. Therefore, we would expect, as the article indicates, that the prices of tech firms are more likely to decline—or to decline more—when interest rates rise than is true of other firms. 

The following figure shows the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note (blue line with scale given on the left) and the values of the Nasdaq composite stock index (red line with the value for January 1, 2010 set equal to 100 and the scale given on the right). The Nasdaq includes the stocks of more tech firms than is true of the other widely followed stock market indexes—the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The figure shows that the declining interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes that began in late 2018 and continued through mid-2020 coincided with increases in the prices of the stocks in the Nasdaq index—apart from the spring of 2020 during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The most recent period shows that increases in the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury note have corresponded with a decline in the Nasdaq, as noted in the article.

Source: Sam Goldfarb, “Elevated Bond Yields Approach Key Milestone,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2022; U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Prices, Costs, and Profit per Unit of Real Gross Value Added of Nonfinancial Domestic Corporate Business,” January 27, 2022; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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).