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Is Low Inflation Really a Mystery?

Summary:
Over the past decade, inflation has persistently undershot the Fed's inflation target. The Fed's preferred measure of inflation, the core PCE deflator, has average 1.56 percent over this time compared to a target of 2 percent. The Fed officially begin inflation targeting in 2012, but was implicitly targeting 2 percent long before that time. So below-target inflation has been happening for close to a decade and for many observers it is a mystery. There have been a spate of articles as to why the Fed has not been able to hit its inflation target. Some have wondered if the Fed really understands or even controls the inflation rate. Even Fed officials have been perplexed by the low inflation since it cannot be explained by their Phillips curve models. As a result, they sometimes

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Is Low Inflation Really a Mystery?

Over the past decade, inflation has persistently undershot the Fed's inflation target. The Fed's preferred measure of inflation, the core PCE deflator, has average 1.56 percent over this time compared to a target of 2 percent. The Fed officially begin inflation targeting in 2012, but was implicitly targeting 2 percent long before that time. So below-target inflation has been happening for close to a decade and for many observers it is a mystery.

There have been a spate of articles as to why the Fed has not been able to hit its inflation target. Some have wondered if the Fed really understands or even controls the inflation rate. Even Fed officials have been perplexed by the low inflation since it cannot be explained by their Phillips curve models. As a result, they sometimes attribute the persistently low inflation to developments such as falling oil prices, demographics, global competition, changes in labor’s share of income, safe asset shortage, and even the rise of Amazon.

These explanations, however, are not satisfactory since the Fed should be able to determine the inflation rate over the medium to long-run. That is, the Fed should be able to respond over time to developments that might cause inflation to drift off target. The Fed should be, in theory, the final arbiter of the trend inflation rate.

So why has inflation been so low? In my view, the answer is simple: the Fed is getting the inflation it wants. There is no mystery. One does not get a decade of trend inflation that is below target by accident. Instead, revealed preferences tell us inflation is where it is because the FOMC allowed it to be there.  Put differently, the Fed has chosen not to fully offset the shocks and secular forces listed above that have pushed inflation down. This is a policy choice.

Fed officials and others may disagree, but the revealed preference argument is hard to ignore. Moreover, there are other reason to believe that the low inflation is, in fact, the desired outcome of the FOMC. They are presented below.

SEP Core Inflation Forecasts
The first reason to believe the low inflation is a desired outcome comes from the FOMC itself. The FOMC's Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) provides a central tendency forecasts for core PCE inflation. The FOMC's definition of the SEP is as follows (my emphasis):
Each participant’s projections are based on his or her assessment of appropriate monetary policy.
The SEP, in other words, reveals FOMC members forecasts of economic variables conditional on the Fed doing monetary policy right. And up until recently, doing monetary policy right was not overshooting 2 percent inflation in the following year, as seen in the figure below. Even now, 2 is still seen largely as a ceiling. There is nothing symmetric about 2 percent in these SEP forecasts.

Is Low Inflation Really a Mystery?

Most FOMC members, therefore, have treated 2 percent as a ceiling over the past decade. This is "appropriate" monetary policy for them. Keep in mind, that at this forecast horizon most of them also believe they have meaningful influence on inflation. Both of these observations point to the low inflation as a choice.

Textual Analysis
The second reason to believe that low inflation is a desired outcome comes from a recent study by the San Francisco Fed. It is titled "Taking the Fed at its Word: Direct Estimation of Central Bank Objectives using Text Analytics" and the abstract reads (my emphasis):
We directly estimate the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) loss function, including the implicit inflation target, from the tone of the language used in FOMC transcripts, minutes, and members’ speeches. Direct estimation is advantageous because it requires no knowledge of the underlying macroeconomic structure nor observation of central bank actions. We find that the FOMC had an implicit inflation target of approximately 1.5 percent on average over our baseline 2000 - 2013 sample period.
Fed officials, via their words, actually want 1.5 inflation on average. And shocker of all shockers, they are very close to getting that just that rate of inflation since 2009. 

The Neel Kashkari Counterfactual
The third reason to believe low inflation is a desired outcome comes from imagining a counterfactual FOMC. Imagine a FOMC that has twelve members that are all clones of Neel Kashkari, as seen below. In this FOMC, where interest rates were not raised over the past few years--and maybe even lowered--do we really think inflation would be the same? I find that hard to believe.

Is Low Inflation Really a Mystery?

To be clear, I do think there are important secular forces pushing down trend inflation, like the demand for safe assets. But again, the Fed should be able to offset such pressures if it chose to do so. The real question, then, is why the Fed has settled for trend inflation near 1.5 percent. That is a question for a different post. This post is simply a retort to all those who think the low inflation is a mystery. Folks, it is not a mystery. It is a choice.

It is worth nothing that this choice is actually more than a choice for trend inflation. It is implicitly a choice for lower trend aggregate demand (AD) growth. As seen below, aggregate demand growth was averaging 5.6 percent in the decades before the crisis. Since the recovery started, it has averaged about 3.6 percent. That is a 2 percentage point decline in the trend. The red line in the figure shows what a naive autoregressive forecast would have predicted over the past decade conditional on past nominal expenditure history. There has been a sizable AD shortfall.

Is Low Inflation Really a Mystery?

In my view, it is this dearth of aggregate demand growth rather than the low inflation that is a problem. The slowdown in AD growth has arguably contributed to problems like hysteresis and populism. If so, this policy choice has been costly.

P.S. Adam Ozimek gives us estimates of how costly this AD shortfall has been.

David Beckworth
I am an associate professor of economics at Western Kentucky University, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a former economist at the U.S. Department of Treasury.

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