Prices of many goods and services have increased in recent months. Are these increases permanent or temporary or will they continue rising in the future? Before exploring those questions, it is important to understand the measures of inflation we are considering. What is the current rate of inflation in the United States? U.S. inflation in September was 3.0% (Compound annual rate of change for Consumer Price Index without food and energy prices over the month of September), or 4.0% (percent change from a year ago) or 5.4% (percent change from a year ago including food and energy prices). What does it mean if this is temporary or long lasting?
If prices remain where they are today after the 5.4% increase from a year ago, inflation going forward would be zero even though the cost of living would be permanently higher. If inflation is long lasting it means that prices will continue to rise for some time (years). What are the factors that influence the future behavior of prices? What should we expect in the U.S.?
The price of a good or service increases when its demand exceeds its supply and similarly for prices in general (when aggregate demand exceeds aggregate supply). As prices are measured in a country’s currency, supplying too much of the currency (generally when the money supply grows more rapidly than the supply of goods and services) causes its value to fall (i.e., prices in the country’s currency to rise).
On the cost side, firms will hire workers and pay them a particular wage (and related benefits) when it adds more to the company’s income than it costs, which includes the cost of the tools they use (capital). Workers will accept a job when its benefits (pecuniary and nonpecuniary) are the best they can find. The inflation expected by the employer and the employee over the period of the wage contract is an important factor in determining what will be offered and what will be accepted.
Because of changes in consumer demands, worker preferences, halving of work visas for immigrants, and supply chain disruptions, labor markets are temporarily in turmoil. September unemployment in the U.S. was 7.674 million while there were 10.4 million job vacancies. Employers are raising wages in an effort to fill those vacancies. As reported by Scott Lincicome: “Goldman Sachs analysts saw a ‘perfect storm of factors that have significantly reduced the supply of workers who are currently looking for jobs at the same time that labor demand—as measured by job openings—has risen to an all-time high.’ This includes… state and federal benefits, early retirements, severely restricted immigration, a switch to self-employment, fear of COVID, and a geographic mismatch between unemployed workers and available jobs. Combined, these factors account for most of the missing workers out there.” “What if the labor shortage isn’t transitory?”
In short, the labor force has shrunk just as the demand for output is increasing. This excess demand for workers is driving up labor costs and thus pushing up output prices. If the 5 or 6 percent price increase experienced over the present year is expected to be temporary, i.e., if prices are expected to return to their level a year ago, because the supply of labor returns to its pre-pandemic level, wage increases should be temporary as well, falling back to their pre pandemic level and growing thereafter on average with labor productivity plus the 2% inflation target of the central bank once there is full employment and better labor market balance.
More likely, if the inflation is expected to be temporary, i.e., the current 5 to 6 percent inflation stops but prices remain at their increased level, wages will remain at the increased level, but their real (inflation adjusted) value will fall back to their original level. In other words, if these higher prices are expected to be “permanent,” the nominal wage increases now being experienced will not result in any increase in real wages and the worker short fall might remain.
While some of those who withdrew from the labor force will probably return, it is not likely to fully satisfy the demand for various reasons (early retirement, fall in immigration, etc.). Filling (or attempting to fill) the remaining labor shortage will require additional wage increases (unless the public’s demand for goods and services falls–see below). In that case, firms will plan to pass on their higher cost of labor to their customers. If we, the customers, can continue to pay the higher prices, the inflation will continue. Expectations of higher prices and or inflation will be realized.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused a sharp fall in output and thus to most people’s incomes. The government provided extraordinary financial support to temporarily fill the resulting income gap. Such support did not increase the output of goods and services or even prevent their decline but rather temporarily redistributed income from those saving it to avoid hunger and defaults on rents, mortgages, and other financial obligations by those who lost it. “The new covid-19 support bill” Because personal incomes were substantially maintained while actual output fell, personal savings rates increased dramatically and continue to be well above pre pandemic levels.
The Federal Reserve pitched in by buying up huge amounts of the resulting government debt increasing its balance sheet from $3.5 trillion in February 2020 to $6.3 trillion in August 2021 (measured by the monetary base, M0). This fueled an increase in board money (M3–M0 plus bank deposits and similar liquid assets of the public) from $15.5.0 trillion in February 2020 to $20.8 trillion in August 2021. This increase, though substantial, was significantly less than the increase in M0 (which almost doubled) because the Fed paid interest to banks for keeping the new base money with the Fed (excess reserves) rather than lending it to the public, by paying banks interest on all bank reserves kept with the central bank.
Historical experience is that the public will not be willing to hold these larger amounts of money for ever. They will eventually attempt to spend them down to their traditional (normal) levels, thus adding to aggregate demand for goods and services (and inflationary pressure).
Eventually, the demand for goods and services (aggregate demand) must fall to match real output, or output must rise to match demand. But if the Federal Reserve continues to print money faster than its real value is being inflated away, the inflationary process will continue or accelerate. Similarly, if the government continues to redistribute income from those with a lower propensity to consume (generally higher income families with a higher savings rate) to those with a higher propensity to consume (generally lower income families that save little), aggregate demand will remain excessive perpetuating inflation.
Historically, hyperinflation episodes invariably exploded in the collapse of the currency. “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe” Turkey has come closest to a high inflation “equilibrium.” From the mid 1980s to the end of the 1990s Turkey’s inflation rate varied between 80 and a 120 percent. A high inflation “equilibrium” would be characterized by nominal interest rates and wage rates that fully incorporate the ongoing expected rate of inflation in order to preserve the appropriate real (inflation adjusted) rates. Interest rates in Turkey in this period generally exceeded 100%, as did wage growth.
In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund stated that: “In settings where inflation is rising amid still-subdued employment rates and risks of expectations de-anchoring are becoming concrete, monetary policy may need to be tightened to get ahead of price pressures, even if that delays the employment recovery.” “World Economic Outlook-October 2021”
As stands out clearly from the increasingly but unevenly rising inflation in the 1970, the process of increasing inflation is not linear (see the chart above). As inflation increased, the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy (raised interest rates to slow monetary growth) to slow inflation, causing real output to slow or decline. Policy then eased prematurely, and inflation and the expectation of higher inflation took off again, each time reaching a higher peak (until Paul Volcker stepped on the breaks and ended the game in 1979-80–the exciting year I worked at the Federal Reserve Board).
The Federal Reserve is smarter today than it was in the 1970s and has the tools to prevent the acceleration of inflation and the unhinging of inflation expectation. But the excess money balances and personal saving are very large and the government’s seeming willingness to run up unprecedented deficits create a powerful inflationary head wind. The tightening of monetary policy that will be needed (sooner rather than later in my view) will reduce the Fed’s purchases of Treasury debt and increase interest rates. Higher interest rates will increase government spending for debt service on its very large stock of debt, which will further increase government borrowing and debt or require cuts in spending for other programs. This must be added to the economic challenges of confronting climate change, the continuing recovery and adjustments from the Covid-19 pandemic, the deepening and destructive partisan divide that is stifling Congress, and the growing lack of public trust that drives it.
Whether our current inflation is temporary or longer lasting depends on how quickly and decisively the Federal Reserve tightens monetary policy and how quickly people go back to work. Whether the U.S. economy and the government’s large stock of debt continue to enjoy safe haven status around the world depends heavily on whether our government brings its spending and tax policies under better control.