Taking Stock of Inflation and the Recent Fed Pause
The Federal Reserve announced last week that it was pausing its campaign of inflation-fighting interest rate hikes, leaving the target for the federal funds rate in the 5–5.25% range. Does the pause mean mission accomplished and that is time to celebrate? Not so fast.
The good news: progress has been made. According to data released last week, the May consumer price index (CPI) inflation rate came in at 4%, which is far less than the 9% peak from mid-2022. However, now is not the time to move the goalposts. For years, the Federal Reserve has said its inflation target is 2%, and the economy is running at twice that rate. By contrast, before passage of the American Rescue Plan Act stimulus bill in early 2021, the economy had consistently remained at or below 2% inflation for the better part of a decade and had not hit 9% in over four decades. It turns out that former Treasury Secretary and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers was spot on in spring 2021 when he warned that “I think this is the least responsible macroeconomic policy we’ve had in the last 40 years.”
What is the reason for falling inflation? One explanation can immediately be ruled out. No, the Inflation Reduction Act (a misnomer if there ever was one) did not defeat inflation. For one thing, inflation was already falling before the bill passed in August 2022. Secondly, many of the provisions of the law have yet to go into effect. In fact, the treasury department and IRS just released guidance on some of the significant provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act just last week—nearly a full year after the bill’s passage.
The idea that the Inflation Reduction Act was going to reduce inflation has always been implausible, seeing as its tax hike provisions constrain supply, and its supposed deficit reduction does not begin to take place until 2028. The law increases deficits in the years 2024–2027. More artificially stimulated demand and constrained supply is not a recipe for bringing down inflation. If anything, the Congressional Budget Office is likely taking an overly sanguine view by saying that the law will have a negligible effect on inflation.
Instead, the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes and the expiration of American Rescue Plan Act provisions are likely the key factors behind the decline in inflation. Broadly speaking, there are essentially two ways to bring down inflation: reduce spending demand or expand the supply of goods and services. The second approach is preferable in that it simultaneously allows for lower inflation and higher economic growth, but the types of regulatory and tax policy changes needed to expand supply would require consensus in Congress and the White House abandoning the anti-growth policy agenda pushed by many progressives.
The first approach (reducing demand) is what the Federal Reserve has pursued. As the Fed raises rates, borrowing becomes costlier, which makes it less attractive for consumers to purchase things like houses, vehicles, and appliances using credit. Higher interest rates also make saving more attractive. The result: consumers pull back demand. Similarly, the expiration of stimulus from the American Rescue Plan Act reduces overheated demand while the expiration of anti-work provisions removes part of the straitjacket imposed on supply.
Is the falling inflation a surprise? Prognosticators have been all over the map with their inflation forecasts during the past two years, but it ought not to be surprising that inflation would come down once the Federal Reserve finally began to take action and hike rates. At the beginning of the year, soon after the release of the December 2022 inflation data, I published a blog post with a forecast of where inflation might be headed in the first half of 2023. In the spirit of accountability, the figure above shows my inflation projection through May 2023 compared to how inflation has actually played out in reality.
The red (projection) and blue (actual) curves track each other remarkably well in 2023. In fact, my earlier blog post stated “topline year-over-year inflation readings are set to fall rapidly over the next several months—possibly even falling below 4% by early summer.” As a reminder: the May inflation rate came in at exactly 4%. Although my projections were mildly on the optimistic side, they have mostly held up.
Does that mean inflation is no longer a problem? Quite the contrary. The figure below shows that higher prices have essentially been locked in. The Federal Reserve is not even attempting to bring prices down. It is just trying to moderate the future pace of price increases to historic norms. Unfortunately, purchasing power is still more than 3% lower than it was at the beginning of 2021, as shown in the figure below. Until wages start to consistently outpace prices, workers will continue to suffer from the lingering effects of the inflation surge. Here, too, the economy faces serious headwinds, considering that labor productivity is on the decline. But addressing the low productivity crisis is a topic for another day.
Where do we go from here? There is no such thing as almost landing an airplane. You either land it, or you crash. In this case, the Federal Reserve has one task: to land inflation at 2% sooner rather than later. The longer it takes to achieve the 2% target, the less inflation-fighting credibility the Fed will have as people start to accept a persistently higher inflation rate as normal, which will make the Fed’s job even more difficult.
While the headline inflation number is moving rapidly in the right direction (and will likely continue to do so at least for one more month), some of the components of inflation are still concerning. In particular, core inflation (which excludes food and energy) is falling much more slowly. The latest core inflation rate from the CPI report is 5.3%, which is only modest progress from the 5.6% rate from the start of the year. One glimmer of hope is that housing costs have been a significant recent driver of inflation, but the data are lagging. Because most people who rent sign one-year leases, large rent increases from several months ago when conditions were different in the rental market still affect current inflation readings. As tenants begin to roll over into new leases, the data should adjust and likely show a slowdown in rent increases.
The bottom line is that the inflation picture has improved, but we are arguably entering a murkier phase over the next several months. The Federal Reserve made clear in its statement regarding pausing rates that it was likely not done raising rates. Rather, the pause is an opportunity for more data to come in to guide future actions. But one thing is clear: the mission is not yet accomplished.