Some Federal Reserve officials have begun to acknowledge that they were too slow to respond to rapid inflation last year, a delay that is forcing them to constrain the economy more abruptly now — and one that could hold lessons for the policy path ahead.
Inflation began to accelerate last spring, but Fed policymakers and most private-sector forecasters initially thought price gains would quickly fade. It became clear in early fall that fast inflation was proving to be more lasting — but the Fed pivoted toward rapidly removing policy support only in late November and did not raise rates until March.
Several current and former Fed officials have suggested in recent days that, in hindsight, the central bank should have reacted more quickly and forcefully last fall, but that both profound uncertainty about the future and the Fed’s approach to setting policy slowed it down.
Officials had spent years dealing with tepid inflation, which made some hesitant to believe that rapidly rising prices would last. Even as they became more concerned, it took the Fed’s large group of policymakers time to come to an agreement on how to respond. Another complicating factor was that the Fed had made clear promises to markets about how it would remove support for the economy, which made adjusting quickly more difficult.
8.5 percent from a year earlier, the fastest rate since 1981. Consumer price increases are expected to remain rapid when fresh data are released Wednesday.
Understand Inflation and How It Impacts You
And as high prices have lingered, inflation expectations have been creeping up, threatening to change household and business behavior in ways that perpetuate the problem.
Because inflation is eating away at paychecks and making it more difficult for families to afford groceries and cars, it has emerged as a major political issue for President Biden, whose approval ratings have fallen over concerns about his handling of the economy. During remarks at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Biden called inflation his “top domestic priority” and said his administration was taking steps to contain it. He also sought to push back on Republicans, who have spent months blaming him for stoking inflation, saying their policy ideas were “extreme” and would hurt working families.
biggest increase since 2000, while broadcasting that two more large adjustments could be coming. They are also going to start shrinking their $9 trillion balance sheet of bond holdings next month.
If the Fed continues to rapidly adjust policy this year as it tries to catch up, policymakers risk slamming the brakes on a speeding economy. Such hard stops can hurt, pushing up unemployment and possibly tipping off a recession. Officials typically prefer to apply their policy brakes gradually, increasing the chances that the economy can slow down painlessly.
Still, several Fed officials pointed out that it was easier to say what the Fed should have done in 2021 after the fact — that in the moment, it was difficult to know price increases would last. Inflation initially came mainly from a few big products that were in short supply amid supply chain snarls, like semiconductors and cars. Only later in the year did it become obvious that price pressures were broadening to food, rent and other areas.
“I try to give some grace, and say: In a very uncertain time, with an unprecedented setting, with no real models to guide us, people are going to do the best they can,” Raphael Bostic, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said in an interview Monday. Mr. Bostic was an early voice suggesting that the Fed should stop buying bonds and think about raising interest rates.
Officials have said it was the acceleration in inflation data in September, followed by rising employment costs, that convinced them that price gains might last and that the central bank needed to act decisively. The Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, pivoted on policy in late November as those data points added up.
a complicating factor: Mr. Powell was waiting to see if he would be reappointed by the Biden administration, which did not announce its decision to renominate him until mid-November.
“Banking With Interest” podcast episode last week, said reacting to the data was “hard to do until there was clarity as to what the leadership going forward of the Fed was going to be.”
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What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.
What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.
Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.
Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.
Plus, the Fed had promised to withdraw policy in a certain way, which prevented a rapid reorientation once officials began to fret that inflation might last. Policymakers had pledged to keep interest rates at rock bottom and continue to buy huge sums of bonds until the job market had healed substantially. They had also clearly laid out how they would remove support when the time came: Bond purchases would slow first, then stop, and only then would rates rise.
The point was to convince investors that the Fed would not stop helping the economy too early and to avoid roiling markets, but that so-called forward guidance meant that pulling back support was a drawn-out process.
“Forward guidance, like everything in economics, has benefits and costs,” Richard H. Clarida, who was vice chair of the Fed in 2021 and recently left the central bank, said at a conference last week. “If there’s guidance that the committee feels bound to honor,” he added, it can be complicated for the Fed to move through a sequence of policy moves.
Christopher Waller, a governor at the Fed, noted the central bank wasn’t just sitting still. Markets began to adjust as the Fed sped up its plans to remove policy support throughout the fall, which is making money more expensive to borrow and starting to slow down economic conditions. Mortgage rates, one window into how Fed policy is playing out into the economy, began to move up notably in January 2021 and are now at the highest level since the 2008 housing crisis.
Mr. Waller also pointed out that it was hard to get the Fed’s large policy-setting committee into agreement rapidly.
“Policy is set by a large committee of up to 12 voting members and a total of 19 participants in our discussions,” he said during a speech last week. “This process may lead to more gradual changes in policy as members have to compromise in order to reach a consensus.”
Loretta Mester, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said in an interview on Tuesday that different people on the committee “looked at the same data with different lenses, and that’s just the nature of the beast.”
But the Fed seems to be learning lessons from its 2021 experience.
Policymakers are avoiding giving clear guidance about what will come next for policy: Officials have said they want to quickly get rates up to the point that they start to weigh on the economy, then go from there. While Mr. Powell said the Fed was thinking about half-point increases at its next two meetings, he gave no clear guidance about what would follow.
“It’s a very difficult environment to try to give forward guidance, 60, 90 days in advance — there are just so many things that can happen in the economy and around the world,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference last week. “So we’re leaving ourselves room to look at the data and make a decision as we get there.”
The war in Ukraine is the latest surprise that is changing the outlook for the economy and inflation in ways that are hard to predict, Mr. Bostic from Atlanta said.
“I have been humbled, chastened — whatever — to think that I know the range of possible things that can happen in the future,” he said. “I’ve really tried to back off of leaning into one kind of story or path.”
That’s because Fed officials were actively rescuing a broad swath of markets in 2020: In March and April, they slashed rates to zero, bought mortgage-tied and government bonds in mass quantities, and rolled out rescue programs for corporate and municipal debt. Continuing to trade in affected securities for their own portfolios throughout the year could have given them room to profit from their privileged knowledge. At a minimum, it created an appearance problem, one that Mr. Powell himself has acknowledged.
Mr. Kaplan resigned in September, citing the scandal; Mr. Rosengren resigned simultaneously, citing health issues. Mr. Clarida’s term ends at the close of this month, which it was scheduled to do before news of the scandal broke.
Mr. Clarida’s trades, which Bloomberg reported earlier, also raised eyebrows among lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has demanded a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Fed officials’ 2020 trading. But many ethics experts had seen the transaction as more benign, if poorly timed, because it happened in a broad-based index and the Fed had said it was part of a planned and longer-term investment strategy.
The new disclosure casts doubt on that explanation, given that Mr. Clarida sold out of stocks just days before moving back into them.
“It’s peculiar,” said Norman Eisen, an ethics official in the Obama White House who said he probably would not have approved such a trade. “It’s fair to ask — in what respect does this constitute a rebalancing?”
It is unclear whether Mr. Clarida benefited financially from the trade, but it was most likely a lucrative move. By selling the stock fund as its value began to plummet and buying it back days later when the price per share was lower, Mr. Clarida would have ended up holding more shares, assuming he reinvested all of the money that he had withdrawn. The financial disclosures put both transactions in a range of $1 million to $5 million.
The sale-and-purchase move would have made money within a few days, as stock markets and the fund in question increased in value after Mr. Powell’s announcement. The investment would have then lost money as stocks sank again amid the deepening pandemic crisis.
Washington’s robust spending in response to the coronavirus crisis is helping to pull the United States out of its sharpest economic slump in decades, funneling trillions of dollars to Americans’ checking accounts and to businesses.
Now, the rest of the world is expected to benefit, too.
Global forecasters are predicting that the United States and its record-setting stimulus spending could help to haul a weakened Europe and struggling developing countries out of their own economic morass, especially when paired with a rapid vaccine rollout that has poised the U.S. economy for a faster recovery.
As Americans buy more, they should spur trade and investment and invigorate demand for German cars, Australian wine, Mexican auto parts and French fashions.
The anticipated economic rebound in the United States is expected to join China’s recovery, adding impetus to world output. China’s economy is forecast to expand rapidly this year, with the International Monetary Fund predicting 8.1 percent growth. That is good news for countries like Germany, which depends on Chinese demand for cars and machinery.
just begun to push infections higher in the United States — and a large policy response, including more than $5 trillion in debt-fueled pandemic relief spending passed into law over the past 12 months. Those trends, paired with the accelerating spread of effective vaccinations, seem likely to leave the American economy in a stronger position.
“When the U.S. economy is strong, that strength tends to support global activity as well,” Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, said at a recent news conference.
A year ago, it was not at all certain that the United States would gain the strength to help lift the global economy.
International Monetary Fund forecast in April 2020 that the U.S. economy might expand by 4.7 percent this year, roughly in line with forecasts for Europe’s growth, following an expected slump of 5.9 percent in 2020. But the actual contraction in the United States was smaller, and in January, the I.M.F. upgraded the outlook for U.S. growth to 5.1 percent this year, while the euro area’s expected growth was marked down to 4.2 percent.
I.M.F. has signaled that the estimates for the country’s growth will be marked up further when it releases fresh forecasts on April 6.
The recent relief package continues a trend: America has been willing to spend to combat the pandemic’s economic fallout from the start.
America’s initial pandemic response spending, amounting to a little less than $3 trillion, was 50 percent larger, as a share of G.D.P., than what the United Kingdom rolled out, and roughly three times as much as in France, Italy or Spain, based on an analysis by Christina D. Romer at the University of California, Berkeley.
Among a set of advanced economies, only New Zealand has borrowed and spent as big a share of its G.D.P. as the United States has, the analysis found.
In Europe, where workers in many countries were shielded from job losses and plunging income by government furlough programs, the slow pace of the European Union’s vaccination campaign will probably hurt the economy, said Ludovic Subran, the chief economist of German insurance giant Allianz.
On Wednesday, France announced its third national lockdown as infected patients fill its hospitals.
Mr. Subran also questioned whether the European Union can distribute stimulus financing fast enough. The money from a 750 billion euro, or $880 billion, relief program agreed to by European governments last July has been slow to reach the businesses and people who need it because of political squabbling, creaky public administration and a court challenge in Germany.
administered only about 1 vaccine dose per 1,000 people, if that, based on New York Times data. In the United States, the rate is more than 400 doses per 1,000 people.
Still, a booming American economy poses some hazard to other nations — and especially emerging markets — as economic fates diverge.
Market-based interest rates in the United States are already climbing, as investors, sensing faster growth and quicker inflation around the corner, decide to sell bonds. That could make financing more expensive around the globe: If investors can earn higher rates on U.S. bonds, they are less likely to invest in foreign debt that offers either lower rates or higher risk.
If the United States lures capital away from the rest of the world, “the rose-colored view that we are helping everyone is very much in doubt,” said Robin Brooks, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance.
trade tensions with Europe, which the Trump administration treated like an adversary. President Biden met online with European leaders last week.
The U.S. stimulus packages “will be part of the water that lifts all boats,” Selina Jackson, senior vice president for global government relations and public policy at consumer products company Procter & Gamble, said during a recent panel discussion organized by the American Chamber of Commerce to the European Union. “We are hoping for a calm slide out of this economic situation.”
Federal Reserve officials pushed back on Thursday against concerns raised by two prominent economists — Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary, and Olivier J. Blanchard, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund — that big government spending could overheat the economy and send inflation rocketing higher.
Those warnings have grabbed headlines and spurred debate over the past two months as details of the federal government’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill came together. Mr. Summers in particular has kept them up since the legislation passed, saying it was too much on the heels of large spending packages last year. He recently called the approach the “least responsible” fiscal policy in 40 years while predicting that it had a one-in-three chance of precipitating higher inflation and maybe stagflation, or a one-in-three chance of causing the Fed to raise rates and pushing the economy toward recession.
But two leaders at the Fed, which is tasked with using monetary policies to keep inflation steady and contained, gave little credence to those fears on Thursday. Richard H. Clarida, the central bank’s vice chairman, and Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, both responded to questions specifically about Mr. Summers’s and Mr. Blanchard’s warnings.
“They have both correctly pointed out that the U.S. has a lot of fiscal support this year,” Mr. Clarida said on an Institute of International Finance webcast. “Where I would disagree is whether or not that is primarily going to represent a long-term, persistent upward risk to inflation, and I don’t think so.”
9.5 million jobs that were lost during the pandemic are still gone — and that the effect of the government’s relief spending would diminish over time. He also said that while spenders had pent-up demand, there was also pent-up supply because the service sector had been shut for a year.
“At the Fed, we get paid to be attentive and attuned to inflation risks, and we will be,” Mr. Clarida said. But he noted that forecasters didn’t see “undesirable upward pressure” on inflation over time.
Mr. Evans told reporters on a call that he wasn’t sure what “overheating” — the danger that top economists have warned about — actually meant.
“First off, there’s a conversation of is this the best way to spend money,” he summarized, adding that he didn’t have anything to say about that. “But then there’s sort of like, ‘Oh, this is so much that it is going to overshoot potential output, and there’s a risk that we’re going to get overheating, and then inflation.’”
He continued: “What is the definition of overheating? It’s a great word, it evokes all kinds of images, but it’s kind of like potential output is always a strange concept anyway. Can output be too high?”
a decade when inflation spiraled up and out of control in America, Mr. Evans said. “This isn’t the ’70s. We’ve had trouble getting inflation up.”
Inflation has been weak in the United States, and in advanced economies broadly, the past two decades. To try to keep that from turning into a bigger problem, the Fed has been working to “re-anchor” consumer and market expectations to prevent inflation slipping lower. The central bank announced last year that it would begin to aim for 2 percent annual price gains on average over time, allowing for periods of greater increases.
Still, no Fed policymaker wants inflation to suddenly spike, eroding consumer purchasing power. If that happened, the Fed might have to lift interest rates rapidly to slow down the economy, throwing people out of work and possibly causing a recession. That’s what Mr. Summers and Mr. Blanchard are warning about.
Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
The $1.9 trillion measure that the Biden administration ushered through Congress added to a $900 billion relief package enacted in December and a $2 trillion package last March.
Mr. Blanchard, in a March 5 post on Twitter, compared the fresh government spending to a snake swallowing an elephant: “The snake was too ambitious. The elephant will pass, but maybe with some damage.”
He more recently said that he had “no clue as to what happens to inflation and rates” but that there is a lot of uncertainty and that things “could go wrong.”
Feb. 4 Washington Post column that, while it was hugely uncertain, “there is a chance that macroeconomic stimulus on a scale closer to World War II levels than normal recession levels will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation.”
He said in a Bloomberg Television interview last week that “we are running enormous risks.”
But Fed officials don’t think big government outlays will be enough to rewrite the world’s low-inflation story. And if it does stoke a slightly faster pickup, that might be a welcome development.
Mr. Clarida acknowledged that price gains were likely to speed up over the next few months, but said he expected most of that “to be transitory” and for inflation to return to “or perhaps run somewhat above” 2 percent in 2022 and 2023.
“This outcome would be entirely consistent with the new framework we adopted in August 2020,” he said.