May 16, 2021
by Steve Stofka
Eight-year-old Gwen shot out the back door, soccer ball in hand. “Dad!” she yelled. He released the safety handle on the mower as she ran across the yard to him. “Mom said she’ll take me to the game but you need to help me warm up.” When her dad bounced the ball to her, Gwen made a series of estimates of the ball’s trajectory, then corrected her estimates with the actual path of the ball as it bounced along the ground to her. As the ball neared her, she made a final OLS estimate of the ball’s destination, planted her feet and swung one foot at the ball. The side of her toe grazed the surface as it skittered past her and rolled toward the backyard fence. “Darn!” she said.
The Federal Reserve has had a lot of experience at estimating the trajectory of inflation. Just as everyone gets better with practice, so has the Fed. Gwen’s use of statistical methods is instinctive and unconscious; the Fed’s approach is quite deliberate and focused on the medium term. Unlike the Fed, the stock market acts with a short-term focus. Trading algorithms trained to react in milliseconds to key words in a data release make buy and sell orders. Human traders follow their lead, not wanting to be caught out in the open. If a trader makes a wrong turn but is among a crowd of traders that have made the same turn, they are less likely to come under scrutiny. While the market jogs along the beach, the Fed cruises offshore, watching for larger trends.
Because of the shutdown last April, economists estimated a strong uptick in prices as many states and localities began lifting sanctions and people spend money. Survey estimates of April’s inflation was high, about 3.6%, but the actual report showed an increase of 4.15%. By comparing the index this year to the index in April 2019, the rise over the two years was 4.3%, an average of 2.1% per year, exactly the average inflation since the year 2000. The rise was entirely due to “base effects,” a comparison of a data point with a previous data point that was abnormally low. On a vacation trip we slow down from 60 MPH to 30 MPH as we go through a town. When we speed up again on the other side of town, we have doubled our recent speed, but have returned to our average speed.
Our inflation expectations have stabilized over the past twenty years because we have been going the same 2.1% speed averaged over each quarter. For twenty years beginning in 1980, inflation began to decline .1% per quarter. It was like riding a bike on an almost level street with a barely noticeable decline. The pedaling lessens just a bit. Since 2000, the average quarterly change in inflation is a big fat zero. Any change becomes alarming.
Inflation has increased 3% over the past three months. A similar uptick occurred in the 4th quarter of 2009 as the economy emerged from a deep recession. The Fed computes a probability of inflation being greater than 2.5% and it rose to 60% this month, an increase from 20% last month (Series STLPPM). A similar jump occurred in April 2000 and April 2005.
A mainstream economic model depends on the assumption that workers estimate price changes and respond to their estimates with higher wage demands. Karl Marx, the 19th century economist, regarded this assumption as a fanciful notion. We pay attention to prices just as Gwen pays attention to the soccer ball, but the precision of our estimates degrade over longer periods of time. Every spring we remark on the increase in gas prices. Gas prices go up in the spring every year when refineries switch over to summer gas, which is more expensive to make. Really, we ask? Funny, I don’t remember that. Next year we will forget again. We lead busy lives and don’t have the mental storage to keep track of seasonal changes. It’s why we need multiple reminders about the tax filing deadline every year.
The Fed has a lot of data and a long memory. The Fed has adopted a wait and see approach to assess whether upward price pressures are due to base effects, supply bottlenecks and price surges typical in the initial recovery. Is this a jig and a jag of the coastline or a true bend in the land? Alan Greenspan, the second longest serving Fed chairman, reacted quickly – too quickly and too strongly – to inflationary pressures in 2004-2005 after the long slump of 2001-2003. He did not want to relive the slow recovery of a decade earlier after the 1990 recession. Those policy choices helped create the financial environment that led to the financial crisis. The Fed has more effective tools and data than it did then. Experience is a good teacher.