Mitchell’s Musings 6-19-2017: What If What We Know Ain’t So?

16 Jun 2017 12:09 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-19-17: What If What We Know Ain’t So?


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


The Fed keeps raising interest rates to counter inflation as the unemployment rate falls to a level (below 4½%) that someone thinks will cause price inflation to rise above the Fed’s target of 2%/annum. Let’s set aside the question of why 2% is the target. (Why not 2.5% or 1.5%? What price index is best?) The fact is that core inflation (excluding volatile food and energy prices), shows no trend toward acceleration:


Core Consumer Price Index: May of Year Shown:

12-Month Percent Change:

2008

2.3

2009

1.8

2010

0.9

2011

1.5

2012

2.3

2013

1.7

2014

2.0

2015

1.7

2016

2.2

2017

1.7


Nor is there any sign of inflation expectations accelerating above 2%:

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If we look at the labor market for signs of “wage-push,” we don’t see it. Presumably, wages would start to “push” the price level up if they rose faster than some long-term allowance for productivity. But there is no sign of such an outcome from current data:


Employment Cost Index for Private Sector:

12-Month Change, Total Compensation

Year

Qtr1

2007

3.2

2008

3.2

2009

1.9

2010

1.6

2011

2.0

2012

2.1

2013

1.9

2014

1.7

2015

2.8

2016

1.8

2017

2.3


Even if you think there is something funny in the numbers above related to benefit costs, when we look at just wages (no benefits), it’s still hard to see any wage-push.


Employment Cost Index for Private Sector:

12-Month Change, Wages and Salaries           

Year

Qtr1

2007

3.6

2008

3.2

2009

2.0

2010

1.5

2011

1.6

2012

1.9

2013

1.7

2014

1.7

2015

2.8

2016

2.0

2017

2.6


Those who argue we are in some kind of “new normal” of very modest productivity growth would surely allow at least a 1%/annum long-term increase in productivity:

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And then there is the question of what to do about the vast portfolio of assets the Fed accumulated in trying to offset the Great Recession. The flip side of the asset purchase was a big increase in the monetary base:

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If you are a firm believer in some version of the quantity theory of money, you see great danger in the enlargement of the monetary base. Too much money chasing too few goods, etc. Inflation should rip any day now once “velocity” goes back to normal. Except it hasn’t happened, despite continued predictions by monetarists that inflation was imminent since the early days of the asset accumulation.


There appears also to be a group that thinks it is unseemly for a central bank to hold a big portfolio of assets, whether or not it poses an inflation danger. It’s not clear why because something is unusual, based on past history, it has to be reversed. If asset sales were purely cosmetic, at least there could be no harm in such worrying about appearances. The difficulty is that just as the original asset purchases were viewed as expansionary (or at least resisting the downward tug of the Great Recession), asset sales have to be seen as potentially contractionary. So why do them, if there is a risk?


The problem seems to be one of “everybody knows.” Everybody knows that very low interest rates are abnormal and Bad Things. Everybody knows that when unemployment is at current levels, inflation will inevitably accelerate. Everybody knows that the Fed has too large a portfolio of assets. Actually, at most what everybody knows is that models based on the past suggest such conclusions. But nobody knows whether – given the changes in financial and labor market institutions that have occurred – those models still hold. Why is it prudent to base monetary policy on models that don’t seem to be working? Wouldn’t prudence call for not changing policy until there is clearer evidence? Just asking.

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