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What is the Fed thinking?

Feb 08,2024 - Last updated at Feb 08,2024

BERKELEY — At its monthly meeting on January 31, the Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) held firm on interest rates. “The committee judges that the risks to achieving its employment and inflation goals are moving into better balance,” the FOMC explained in its press release. But the “economic outlook is uncertain, and the committee remains highly attentive to inflation risks”. As a result, “[t]he committee does not expect it will be appropriate to reduce the target range until it has gained greater confidence that inflation is moving sustainably toward 2 per cent.”

I must say, this announcement left me somewhat alarmed, particularly the parts about keeping the target range for the federal funds rate at 5.25-5.5 per cent. After all, the US macroeconomy is already moving forward at a sustainable cruising speed. It is in balance, with an unemployment rate of 3.7 per cent, implying “full employment”. The core personal consumption expenditures index (excluding food and energy) over the past six months shows that inflation has fallen steadily toward the Fed’s target.

Moreover, I see no significant private-sector forces at work that would imminently strengthen demand by enough to boost inflation, or that would push the economy into recession. And neither does anybody else.

True, a few commentators still worry that the somewhat elevated state of the Beveridge curve (reflecting the relationship between job vacancies and the unemployment rate) indicates the potential for growing wage-inflation pressures. But to harbour such fears, one must pretend that job-vacancy postings in the digital age mean the same thing as they did in the past. Before widespread adoption of the Internet, employers had to spend money to advertise vacancies and then interview those who responded. Now, firms can post vacancies for free and reject applicants with ease. And since job applications are usually sent to a mass audience, a rejection today does not amount to a negative signal that would impede a firm-worker match in the future.

With these changes, it would be astonishing if the current Beveridge employment-vacancy relationship was anything like previous cycles. Those who have attempted to forecast with an estimated slope for the Beveridge curve have missed the mark massively.

There also may be some commentators who worry that rising real (inflation-adjusted) wages are jeopardising macroeconomic stability. But just as margins cannot expand forever, labour’s share of income cannot fall forever. After a generation of capital’s share of income rising at labour’s expense, we should expect a shift in the other direction, especially as some of the factors that boosted capital’s bargaining power have ebbed.

Moreover, one must consider productivity growth, which counteracts the inflationary effects of wage growth. A high-pressure full-employment economy tends to deliver higher productivity growth, because businesses find that training workers and investing in their productivity is an attractive option compared to fishing in a shallower pool of potential hires. This effect was evident in the latest US Bureau of Labour Statistics report, according to which annualised nonfarm-business productivity grew by 3.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2023, capping off a 2.7 per cent year-on-year increase.

Thus, neither the Beveridge curve nor real-wage increases offer a reliable foundation for forecasting a rebound of inflation. Still, looming over the Fed’s deliberations is the zero lower bound: The Fed can always raise interest rates, but it cannot cut them below zero. This asymmetry thus imposes a strategic constraint on monetary policy. The last thing the Fed wants is to find itself in a situation where it might have to cut its policy rate to zero.

But this risk must be weighed against the presumption that in a balanced, neutral economy like the current one, monetary policy, too, should be neutral. That means setting interest rates at their long-run neutral level: The shadowy, mysterious variable r*, at which monetary policy is neither stimulative nor restrictive.

I seriously doubt that even a small handful of FOMC members believe that today’s r* corresponds to a policy rate in the range 5.25-5.5 per cent. If I am right, that means most members recognise that current policy is not neutral but restrictive. And yet, the latest announcement carried a strong message that the FOMC is in no hurry to align policy rates with the presumed value of the neutral rate r*.

That concerns me, and it should concern us all. What is the thinking, about current inflation pressures, r*, and the likely distribution of future supply and demand shocks, that justifies such a reluctance to move policy rates back toward a neutral level? When a boat is already pointed at its destination, its tiller should be straight, not hard-a-starboard.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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