Federal Reserve officials are finally waking up to the fact that there’s something wrong with their inflation models. It only took them five years.
As Bloomberg points out, the minutes from the Fed’s July policy meeting, released yesterday, included a debate about whether the models that help the central bank set its inflation target are no longer functioning properly.
“Federal Reserve officials are looking under the hood of their most basic inflation models and starting to ask if something is wrong.
Minutes from the July 25-26 Federal Open Market Committee meeting showed a revealing debate over why the economy isn’t producing more inflation in a time of easy financial conditions, tight labor markets and solid economic growth.
The central bank has missed its 2 percent price goal for most of the past five years. Still, a majority of FOMC participants favor further rate increases. The July minutes showed an intensifying debate over whether that is the right policy response.”
Some economists worry that if the Fed begins to publicly question their methods, it could ruin what little credibility the central bank has left.
“These minutes to me were troubling,” said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies LLC in New York. “They don’t have their confidence in their policy decisions; and they don’t have confidence that they can provide the right kind of guidance.”
Of course, Fed officials did everything in their power to communicate that these questions were being raised by a small minority on the FOMC, and didn’t represent anything resembling an official opinion.
“In several passages, the minutes asserted that “most” officials were sticking with a forecast that higher inflation would eventually show up. However, the debate over resource slack models and whether standard data sources were telling them the whole story also showed convictions about their forecast are fraying.”
As Bloomberg explains, prices have been resistant to any upward movement even as the US unemployment rate has fell to a 16-year low of 4.3 percent in July. The U.S. consumer price index rose 1.7 percent for the 12 months ending July, while the PCE price index, the Fed’s preferred measure, which is tied to consumption, rose 1.4 percent in June. Another gauge calculated by the Dallas Fed, which trims index outliers to highlight the underlying price trend, rose 1.7 percent for the 12 months ending June. That was the same as May, which was down from 1.74 percent in April.
A few officials pointed out what many investors have believed for years: That the Fed's inflation forecasting model is totally useless.
“The minutes said “a few” officials described resource slack models as “not particularly useful” while “most” thought the framework was valid.
Members also questioned whether there’s another theory that might better explain the inertia in prices.
The committee also pondered a number of theories as to why inflation wasn’t responding to tightening labor resources, such as “the possibility that slack may be better measured by labor market indicators other than unemployment.”
One notable economist described it as “a battle between data and theory.”
“It is a battle between data and theory,” said Ethan Harris, head of global economic research at Bank of America Corp. in New York.
But it almost doesn’t matter that the Fed’s vaunted inflation models no longer make any sense, because, the Fed is going to keep hiking no matter what now that the risks have struck the “appropriate balance” – at least that’s what one member of the leadership (probably Chairwoman Yellen) believes.
“The minutes also included an unusual signal that someone - possibly a member of the committee’s leadership - saw additional rate increases as striking the “appropriate balance” on policy goals, dedicating two sentences to the views of “one participant.”
“That seems like an awful lot of air time as well as a very definitive answer coming from a mere ‘one participant’ - unless that single person happened to be someone really important - like, I don’t know, maybe the Chair?,” Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities in New York, wrote in a note to clients, referring to Janet Yellen.”
Maybe in whatever model they concoct to replace this one, the Fed should include a metric probably more relevant today than economists realize: The amount of time Americans’ spend on Instagram per day.