The U.S. Inflation Expectations Game by Michele Mazzoleni, Research Affiliates

Key Points

  1. We believe the Federal Reserve is overstating the importance of falling inflation expectations, which have become disconnected from the Fed’s target and shown to be poor predictors of CPI inflation.
  2. We propose a bottom-up approach to forecasting that is independent of the expectation proxies. Our approach suggests that inflation will reach the 2% target by year-end 2016, a significantly higher forecast than what is currently expected by swap and TIPS markets.
  3. Deflationary risks in the United States are minimal, and investors should anticipate that the Fed will achieve its inflation target sooner than otherwise suggested.

U.S. Federal Reserve officials have expressed concerns about falling inflation expectations, which according to their models should lead to a higher deflationary risk. Indeed, the macroeconomic models favored by the central bankers identify inflation expectations as a key driver of price dynamics and, as such, expectations have become a major target of monetary policy. Recent research suggests, however, the American public has little knowledge of the Fed and its policy goals. Fortunately, we do not find this cause for despair: precisely for this reason—that is, the disconnect between the American public and the Fed—we believe central bank officials should not be concerned about falling consumer inflation expectations, and calls for renewed monetary easing are unwarranted.

The Fed: Who?

The U.S. Federal Reserve is probably the most scrutinized and carefully followed institution in the financial industry. Yet, this popularity is in stark contrast with reality for most U.S. households, as explained in a paper recently presented at the American Economic Association meetings in San Francisco. Macroeconomist Yuriy Gorodnichenko and his coauthors (Kumar et al., 2015) document that the American public is largely unaware of the Fed and its leadership. Recent household surveys show that only about one-third of respondents could identify Janet Yellen as the chairwoman of the Fed, even when given her name as one of four possible choices. In addition, the respondents had difficulty accurately describing recent inflation dynamics as well as providing confident long-term forecasts, thus highlighting the divide between the U.S. monetary authority and the public.

As a Fed official, facing the reality of obscurity in the contemporary American experience must be heartbreaking. Since 2012, the Fed has been explicitly communicating its long-term inflation target of 2% in an effort to influence and direct public expectations. The Fed greatly relies on this policy tool to maintain “firmly anchored” expectations, which are viewed as a requisite means of avoiding potential deflationary and inflationary pressures such as those experienced, respectively, in Japan over the last 20 years and in the United States in the 1970s.

Officials, such as New York Fed President William Dudley (2016), are beginning to express concerns regarding the risk of expectations becoming unanchored with the continued fall in energy prices. Although the influence of the price of oil on inflation is known to be generally transitory in nature, some officials are concerned that a sustained fall in energy prices might lead to deflationary pressure. As Figure 1 shows, falling energy prices have depressed both market-based and consumer expectations about inflation at different horizons, a dynamic that could gain speed if consumers postpone purchases and businesses delay new investments.

Inflation Expectations

The combination of low energy prices and a “low-visibility” central bank could increase investor uncertainty about both short-term and long-term U.S inflation rates. While the Fed worries about inflation expectations, the public pays little attention to the Fed’s goals and focuses on those items directly related to their daily experience, such as commuting costs. In our view, the Fed has no need to worry at the moment about the public’s expectations. Indeed, consumer and market-based forecasts have been inferior predictors of future inflation, a fact sufficient to cast doubt on the models evoked by some Fed officials.1

Unaligned Expectations

The theoretical rational behind the Fed’s interest in influencing inflation expectations is the expectations-augmented Phillips curve, or New-Keynesian Phillips curve, which links the realized inflation rate to expectations as well as to measures of real economic activity, such as the unemployment rate or the output gap. But although the modern Phillips curve provides an important theoretical benchmark, its empirical robustness is still debated.

Ideally, the Phillips curve’s expectation proxy would be a measure of firms’ inflation expectations; unfortunately, no such statistic exists and we must rely on another proxy. Three common proxies are plotted in Figure 2: the one-year-ahead inflation forecasts of consumers, financial markets, and professional forecasters. The differences among these series are substantial. In recent years, consumers’ expectations have been systematically higher than other forecasts and actual inflation. In addition, consumer and market-based expectations have been significantly more volatile—suggestive of a higher correlation with oil prices—than those of professional forecasters; hence, using the Phillips curve to model inflation can result in drastically different forecasts depending on the choice of expectations proxy.

Inflation Expectations

We can judge the accuracy of the various proxies by comparing their forecasting errors, reported in Figure 3. We calculate the forecasting error (i.e., the root of the average squared forecast errors) over the 10-year period 2005–2015 for four measures: a constant 2.3%, which is close to the Fed’s inflation target, and forecasts from professional forecasters, consumers, and swap markets.2 The Fed targets the personal consumption expenditure price index (PCEPI), which over the last 15 years has tracked about 0.3% lower than the Consumer Price Index (CPI), also known as headline inflation. We focus on headline inflation forecasts in this article; hence, the selection of our constant, 2.3%.

Inflation Expectations

Between 2005 and 2015, consumer and market-based expectations were the least accurate predictors of subsequent year-over-year inflation. As documented by Bauer and McCarthy (2015), inflation swap contracts performed poorly compared to professional forecasters and to the constant. Consumer expectations constituted a particularly noisy signal versus other metrics. Indeed, over the last few years, consumers have systematically overestimated future inflation by about 1.2%. As suggested by Kumar et al. (2015), factors such as the price of gas at the pump and the prices paid in the shops have a great influence in shaping public perception—much greater than the messaging of the Fed.

Ultimately, the economic importance of consumer expectations depends on their underlying driving force. To better understand the factors influencing consumer inflation expectations in recent years, we contrast in Figure 4 the one-year inflation expectation, based on the University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, with the subsequent realized one-year headline inflation rate for two historical periods: 1979–1994 in Panel A and 1995–2015 in Panel B. The earlier period is characterized by core and headline inflation rates dramatically falling after Paul Volcker took the helm at the Fed. The latter period is characterized by the so-called Great Moderation and the financial crisis, years in which inflation has been roughly stationary.

Inflation Expectations

The positive relationship illustrated in Panel A over the 15 years from 1979 to 1994 suggests that during this period households inherently understood changes in trend inflation (i.e., their forecasts shifted downward in tandem with generalized inflation). In contrast, Panel B shows a negative correlation between

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