Tuesday, June 25, 2019

To Increase Inflation, Increase Incomes

The Federal Reserve Board is desperate to increase inflation to 2% per year.  It believes that a 2% level of inflation will promote economic growth by giving businesses greater pricing power and the ability to repay debt with less valuable dollars.  Right now, inflation as measured in the way the Fed prefers, runs about 1.6% per year, and remains stubbornly below 2%.

There's no economic research that definitively shows anything magical about 2% inflation being the key to the Goldilocks economy (i.e., not too hot and not too cold).  The figure is just a guess.  But if we were to accept that 2% has miraculous powers, then why has inflation persisted in staying lower?  With unemployment levels running at historic lows of about 3.6%, one would expect inflation to be moving up briskly.

Economists believe consumer expectations have a large role in determining the rate of inflation.  If people expect inflation, then there will be inflation.  If people don't expect inflation, they will resist price increases and inflation will be hard to come by.  Right now, inflation expectation are low.

Why would people today have such low expectations for price increases?  Perhaps the most obvious reason would be because they don't have the money to pay increased prices.  Wages, adjusted for the mild inflation we've had, have stagnated for decades.  The middle class, who are key consumers in the national economy, just aren't bringing in any more.  So they not surprisingly feel that they can't pay more and would resist price increases.  If the Fed wants to pump up inflation, it should hope that people get paid more.

With unemployment reaching an astonishingly low 3.6% level, one might think employers would pay more to get new hires and keep existing employees.  But that's not happening much.  Here and there, pay is jumping up.  But on the whole, incomes are mostly in a rut.  There pretty much is nothing the Fed can do to increase worker pay.  But it shouldn't hold its breath waiting for inflation to boost the economy.