Monday, October 2, 2023
HomeMacroeconomicsInflation Is Falling. Don’t Thank the Fed – J. W. Mason

Inflation Is Falling. Don’t Thank the Fed – J. W. Mason

(I write a monthly opinion piece for Barron’s. This one was published there in September. My previous pieces are here.)

You wouldn’t necessarily guess it from the headlines, but we may soon be talking about inflation in the past tense. After peaking at close to 10% in the summer of 2022, inflation has fallen even faster than it rose. Over the past three months inflation, as measured by the CPI, has been slightly below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target. Nearly every other measure tells a similar story.

Predicting the future is always risky. But right now, it seems like the conversation about how to fix the inflation problem is nearing its end. Soon, we’ll be having a new debate: Who, or what, should get credit for solving it?

The Fed is the most obvious candidate. Plenty of commentators are already giving it at least tentative credit for delivering that elusive soft landing. And why not? Inflation goes up. The central bank raises interest rates. Inflation goes back down. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? 

The problem is, monetary policy does not work through magic. The Fed doesn’t simply tell private businesses how much to charge. Higher interest rates lead to lower prices only by reducing demand. And so far, that doesn’t seem to have happened – certainly not on a scale that could explain how much inflation has come down.  

In the textbook story, interest rates affect prices via labor costs. The idea is that businesses normally set prices as a markup over production costs, which consist primarily of wages. When the Fed raises rates, it discourages investment spending — home construction and business spending on plant and equipment — which is normally financed with credit. Less investment means less demand for labor, which means higher unemployment and more labor market slack generally. As unemployment rises, workers, with less bargaining power vis-a-vis employers, must accept lower wages. And those lower wages get passed on to prices.

Of course this is not the only possible story. Another point of view is that tighter credit affects prices through the demand side. In this story, rather than businesses producing as much as they can sell at given costs, there is a maximum amount they can produce, often described as potential output. When demand rises above this ceiling, that’s when prices rise. 

Either way, the key point — which should be obvious, but somehow gets lost in macro debates — is that prices are determined by real conditions in individual markets. The only way for higher rates to slow down rising prices, is if they curtail someone’s spending, and thereby production and employment. No business — whether it’s selling semiconductors or hamburgers — says “interest rates are going up, so I guess I’ll charge less.” If interest rates change their pricing decisions, it has to be through some combination of fall in demand for their product, or in the wages they pay.

Over the past 18 months, the Fed has overseen one of the fast increases in short-term interest rates on record. We might expect that to lead to much weaker demand and labor markets, which would explain the fall in inflation. But has it?

The Fed’s rate increases have likely had some effect. In a world where the Federal Funds rate was still at zero, employment and output might well be somewhat higher than they are in reality. Believers in monetary-policy orthodoxy can certainly find signs of a gently slowing economy to credit the Fed with. The moderately weaker employment and wage growth of recent months is, from this point of view, evidence that the Fed is succeeding.

One problem with pointing to weaker labor markets as a success story, is that workers’ bargaining power matters for more than wages and prices. As I’ve noted before, when workers have relatively more freedom to pick and choose between jobs, that affects everything from employment discrimination to productivity growth. The same tight labor markets that have delivered rapid wage growth, have also, for example, encouraged employers to offer flexible hours and other accommodations to working parents — which has in turn contributed to women’s rapid post-pandemic return to the workplace. 

A more basic problem is that, whether or not you think a weaker labor market would be a good thing on balance, the labor market has not, in fact, gotten much weaker.

At 3.8%, the unemployment rate is essentially unchanged from where it was when at the peak of the inflation in June 2022. It’s well below where it was when inflation started to rise in late 2020. It’s true that quits and job vacancy rates, which many people look to as alternative measures of labor-market conditions, have come down a bit over the past year. But they still are extremely high by historical standards. The prime-age employment-population ratio, another popular measure of labor-market conditions, has continued to rise over the past year, and is now at its highest level in more than 20 years. 

Overall, if the labor market looks a bit softer compared with a year ago, it remains extremely tight by any other comparison. Certainly there is nothing in these indicators to explain why prices were rising at an annual rate of over 10% in mid-2022, compared with just 2% today.

On the demand side, the case is, if anything, even weaker. As Employ America notes in its excellent overview, real gross domestic product growth has accelerated during the same period that inflation has come down. The Bureau of Economic Analysis’s measure of the output gap similarly shows that spending has risen relative to potential output over the past year. For the demand story to work, it should have fallen. It’s hard to see how rate hikes could be responsible for lower inflation during a period in which people’s spending has actually picked up. 

It is true that higher rates do seem to have discouraged new housing construction. But even here, the pace of new housing starts today remains higher than at any time between 2007 and the pandemic. 

Business investment, meanwhile, is surging. Growth in nonresidential investment has accelerated steadily over the past year and a half, even as inflation has fallen. The U.S. is currently seeing a historic factory boom — spending on new manufacturing construction has nearly doubled over the past year, with electric vehicles, solar panels and semiconductors leading the way. That this is happening while interest rates are rising sharply should raise doubts, again, about how important rates really are for business investment. In any case, no story about interest rates that depends on their effects on investment spending can explain the recent fall in inflation. 

A more disaggregated look at inflation confirms this impression. If we look at price increases over the past three months compared with the period of high inflation in 2021-2022, we see that inflation has slowed across most of the economy, but much more so in some areas than others.

Of the seven-point fall in inflation, nearly half is accounted for by energy, which makes up less than a tenth of the consumption basket. Most of the rest of the fall is from manufactured goods. Non-energy services, meanwhile, saw only a very modest slowing of prices; while they account for about 60% of the consumption basket, they contributed only about a tenth of the fall in inflation. Housing costs are notoriously tricky; but as measured by the shelter component of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they are rising as fast now as when inflation was at its peak.

Most services are not traded, and are relatively labor-intensive; those should be the prices most sensitive to conditions in U.S. product and labor markets. Manufactured goods and especially energy, on the other hand, trade in very internationalized markets and have been subject to well-publicized supply disruptions. These are exactly the prices we might expect to fall for reasons having nothing to do with the Fed. The distribution of price changes, in other words, suggests that slowing inflation has little to do with macroeconomic conditions within the US, whether due to Fed action or otherwise.

If the Fed didn’t bring down inflation, what did? The biggest factor may be the fall in energy prices. It’s presumably not a coincidence that global oil prices peaked simultaneously with U.S. inflation. Durable-goods prices have also fallen, probably reflecting the gradual healing of pandemic-disrupted supply chains. A harder question is whether the supply-side measures of the past few years played a role. The IRA and CHIPS Act have certainly contributed to the boom in manufacturing investment, which will raise productive capacity in the future. It’s less clear, at least to me, how much policy contributed to the recovery in supply that has brought inflation down.

But that’s a topic for another time. For now it’s enough to say: Don’t thank the Fed.

(Note: Barron’s, like most publications I’ve worked with, prefers to use graphics produced by their own team. For this post, I’ve swapped out theirs for my original versions.)



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