Turn on the news, scroll through Facebook, or listen to a White House briefing these days and there’s a good chance you’ll catch the Federal Reserve’s least-favorite word: Inflation. If that bubbling popular concern about prices gets too ingrained in America’s psyche, it could spell trouble for the nation’s central bank.
Interest in inflation has jumped this year for both political and practical reasons. Republicans, and even some Democrats, have been warning that the government’s hefty pandemic spending could push inflation higher. And as the economy gains steam, demand is coming back faster than supply. It’s a recipe for bigger price tags for everything from airline tickets to used cars, at least temporarily.
The Fed, which Congress has put in charge of controlling inflation, thinks the jump in prices this year will fade as data quirks, supply bottlenecks and a reopening-induced pop in demand work their way through the system. For now, officials see no reason to tap the brakes by slowing down large-scale bond purchases or raising interest rates, policy changes that would slacken demand as an antidote to accelerating inflation.
And the Fed has big reasons to avoid overreacting: The problem in the wake of the 2007 to 2009 recession was tepid price gains that risked an economically damaging downward spiral, not fast ones. Inflation far above the central bank’s comfort level hasn’t been a feature of the economic landscape since the 1980s.
data from the Gdelt Project. On Fox News Channel, mentions of inflation have surged to six times the normal rate.
Google searches for “inflation” have taken off, Twitter inflation hashtags have increased, and monthly price data reports have newly become front-page headlines.
The surge in attention comes amid stories of computer chip shortages, gas lines, and surging lumber prices, and also as overall measures of real-world price gains are speeding up.
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Consumer Price Inflation surprised economists by rocketing higher in April, data released last week showed, rising by 4.2 percent. While prices were expected to climb for technical reasons, supply bottlenecks and resurgent demand combined to push the data point much higher than the 3.6 percent analysts had penciled in. Fed officials use a different but related index to define their inflation goal.
Eye-popping gains are widely expected to cool down as supply catches up with demand and reopening quirks clear, but as they catch consumer attention, inflation expectations are shooting higher across a range of measures. And that poses a risk.
highest level since 2006 last week. A consumer survey collected by the University of Michigan — and closely watched by top Fed officials — jumped in preliminary May data, rising to 4.6 percent for the next year and 3.1 percent for the next five, the highest level in a decade.
The gap between short- and long-term expectations is echoed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Survey of Consumer Expectations. Americans’ year-ahead inflation expectations rose to the highest level since 2013 in April, but the outlook for inflation over the next three years has been much more stable.
Fed policymakers have taken heart in the fact that households seem to be preparing more for a short-term pop — something central bankers have said they are willing to look past without lifting rates — than for years of superfast price gains.
But they have been clear that there are limits to tolerable increases, without precisely defining what those would be.
If expectations started to rise “month after month after month,” that would be concerning, Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said during an interview on May 10, before the latest Michigan data were released. She declined to put a number on what would worry her.
Inflation expectations data are notoriously hard to parse, and the consumer trackers tend to be heavily influenced by gas prices. The Fed has recently been using a quarterly measure that has moved up by less. But the speed of recent adjustments has called into question how much acceleration would be a problem, signaling that people have come to accept inflation in a way that will keep actual prices rising.