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I haven’t commented much in detail on dccisions by the Federal Reserve to fight inflation, mainly because they’re so thooughly covered in the press. But yesterday’s announcement by the central bank that it would raise the short-term interest rate it controls by an amount not matched in nearly thirty years could loom especially large over the nation’s economic future, and some of its ramifications deserve more attention than they’ve received.

First, as widely noted, the Fed could be tightening monetary policy – in an effort to slow and eventually reverse price increases by slowing economic activity – even though a recession sooner rather than later looks likely. In fact, the timing of yesterday’s interest rate hike and seemingly solid assurances that increases will continue for the foreseeable future may be even stranger, because the recession may already be here.

Some important signs:  Yesterday also saw the release of a Census Bureau report indicating that U.S. retail sales dipped on a monthly basis in May.  If this result holds (and we’ll find out on July 15), that would mark the first such decrease since December, and the news would be ominous given the dominant role played by personal spending in the American economy. 

In addition, on top of the economy’s shrinkage during the first quarter of this year, a well regarded source of forecasts on the path of the gross domestic product (GDP – economist’s main measure of the economy’s size and how it changes) is predicting no growth whatever in the second quarter. That result would enable the nation to skirt a recession according to one popular definition of the term holding that such slumps only occur when GDP adjusted for inflation falls for two consecutive quarters.

At the same time, a flat-line real GDP for the second quarter would mean that, on a cumulative basis, the economy has contracted over a two-quarter stretch. That sounds like a pretty good approximation of a recession to me. In fact, this cumulative shrinkage could still take place even if after-inflation GDP eaks out a small gain between April and June. (We’ll get the first official read on the subject on July 28.)

And maybe more important, when it comes to the lives of most Americans, what’s the difference between a recession (especially if it’s modest) and very slow growth? Indeed, for the record, the Fed itself yesterday lowered its own projection for real U.S. growth for this entire year from 2.8 percent to 1.7 percent.

Second, examining the Fed’s inflation-fighting record during the late-1970s – which it’s also been widely noted bears some strong resemblances to the present – raises immense questions regarding the central bank’s chances of making major inflation progress without triggering a recession that would be anything but modest.

In case you’re not old enough to remember that historical episode, inflation was actually higher during the late-1970s, and also stemmed partly a combination of oil price shocks generated by overseas events plus a development that’s too often ignored nowadays – a substantial deterioration in the nation’s international financial position. Though this current account deficit back then was tiny by today’s standards, it had just become a noteworthy shortfall as a share of GDP after years of small surplus or balance, and was broadly interpreted as a sign that Americans’s spending was spinning out of control (You’ll find a great account of this period here.)

As current Fed Chair Jerome Powell is fond of recalling, that towering late-1970s inflation was broken mainly by the steadfastness of that period’s Chair, Paul A. Volcker – who raised interest rates to levels that were as astronomical as they were wholly unprecedented. But although Volcker took the helm of the Fed when inflation (as measured by the headline Consumer Price Index, or CPI) wasn’t that much higher than today’s rates, it took a near-doubling of these rates from levels that also were much higher than today’s to bring price increases down to acceptable levels, and even this effort took three and a half years and dragged the economy into not just one, but two recessions – and severe ones at that. (My sources for the interest rate infomation is here. For the inflation and growth data, I’ve relied on the official government data tables I always use.)

Specifically, on Volcker’s first day as Fed Chair (in August, 1979), the federal funds rate it controls stood at 11 percent – versus the 1.75 percent ceiling to which the Powell Fed just approved. The annual inflation rate was 11.84 percent – versus the 8.52 percent recorded last month. And the economy was growing by three percent annually – versus the current rate of probably one percent at best.

Volcker engineered rate hikes to the 20 percent neighborhood – three times! (as depicted in the chart below) – and recessions that produced real GDP nosedives of eight and 6.1 percent (in the second quarter of 1980 and the first quarter of 1982), but the CPI didn’t retreat back into the single digits until May, 1981, and it took until the end of 1982 for a read of 3.8 percent to be recorded.

United States Fed Funds Rate

 

That history doesn’t seem to warrant much optimism that the Powell Fed can cut headline inflation to 5.2 percent by year end while increasing rates only to 3.4 percent (as it’s now expecting).

Third, at his press conference following the rate hike announcement, Powell echoed the conventional wisdom: that although the Fed can cut excessive levels of economic demand enough to tame inflation, it can’t address inflation by affecting economy’s ability to create enough supply to meet that demand, and thereby restore a satisfactory inflationary balance between the two.

But supply and demand are actuallly very closely connected. As I’ve discussed when posting about possible tariff cuts on imports from China, when consumer demand is strong enough, companies can pass along increases in their prices because their customers literally are willing to pay. When consumers are cautious, however, such price hikes become much more difficult.

To be sure, these rules don’t always hold. The big exceptions are products on which consumers will cut spending only as a last resort – like food and energy. They’re (rightly) seen as so important that demand for them is called “inelastic” by economists.

Since food and energy prices have been so central to today’s inflation, it’s easy to see why the conventional wisdom on the Fed and the economy’s supply side is generally accepted. But it’s also true that if consumers become stressed enough (for example, by interest rate increases high enough to slash growth, employment, and income levels), they’ll cut their overall spending even if they keep paying higher prices for those staples. Further, they can in principle reduce their purchases on non-staples enough to bring demand down substantially, and with it, inflationary pressures.

No one could reasonably relish this kind of outcome. But if the 1970s experience teaches any lessons for today, it’s that serious hardship for much of the population can’t be avoided if the inflation war is to be won. In my view, Powell has rightly stated that this victory is essential for America’s long-term prosperity. And President Biden deserves credit for endorsing such priorities. But will the Fed Chair actually take the Volcker-like steps needed to beat down inflation? Will a U.S. President still declaring he wants to be reelected remain a fan if he does? Because I can’t yet bring myself to believe either proposition, I can’t yet bring myself to be optimistic that inflation will drop significantly any time soon.

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