Fed wonders if its basic inflation models still work

FOMC meeting debates why there isn't more inflation, if rate hikes are the right response

WASHINGTON • Federal Reserve officials are looking under the hood of their most basic inflation models and starting to ask if something is wrong.

Minutes from the July 25-26 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting showed a revealing debate over why the economy is not producing more inflation in a time of easy financial conditions, tight labour markets and solid economic growth.

The central bank has missed its 2 per cent price goal for most of the past five years. Still, the majority of FOMC participants favour further rate increases.

The July minutes showed an intensifying debate over whether that is the right policy response.

"These minutes were troubling," said chief financial economist Ward McCarthy at Jefferies in New York. "They don't have confidence in their policy decisions; and they don't have confidence that they can provide the right kind of guidance."

The FOMC tried hard to avoid that kind of message. In several passages, the minutes asserted that most officials were sticking with a forecast that higher inflation would eventually show up.

However, the debate over resource-slack models and whether standard data sources were telling them the whole story also showed convictions about their forecast are fraying.

Price indexes have shown unusual inertia even as the United States unemployment rate has fallen, matching a 16-year low of 4.3 per cent last month.

The US consumer price index rose 1.7 per cent for the 12 months ending July, while the Fed's preferred measure, which is tied to consumption, rose 1.4 per cent in June.

Another gauge calculated by the Dallas Fed, which trims index outliers to highlight the underlying price trend, rose 1.7 per cent for the 12 months ending June. That was the same as May, which was down from 1.74 per cent in April.

The minutes said a few officials described resource-slack models as "not particularly useful", while most thought the framework was valid.

The committee also pondered a number of theories as to why inflation was not responding to tightening labour resources, such as "the possibility that slack may be better measured by labour market indicators other than unemployment".

Mr Ethan Harris, head of global economic research at Bank of America in New York, said: "It is a battle between data and theory."

He added that if there was a policy cue in the minutes, it was that the majority of the committee and some of its leaders maintain a low bar for further increases.

That message was affirmed in an Associated Press interview with Mr William Dudley, New York Fed president and vice-chair of the FOMC, earlier this week. Mr Dudley said he would be in favour of another rate hike later this year if growth holds up.

The minutes also included an unusual signal that someone - possibly in the committee's leadership - saw additional rate increases as striking the "appropriate balance" on policy goals.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'Fed wonders if its basic inflation models still work'. Print Edition | Subscribe