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Average Inflation or Price-Level Targeting: Where Are We Now?

One of the reasons the Federal Reserve has been slower than usual to respond to the upswing in inflation, in addition to claiming that it believes any acceleration to be ‘transitory,’ is that the FOMC cleverly changed its modus operandi a couple of years ago to focus on “average inflation targeting,” or AIT. This adjustment in policy had been debated for many years, as the Committee grew concerned that the Fed could lose credibility (ha ha) in the downward direction if it did not commit to its 2% target symmetrically. They were afraid that, if investors believed they would respond aggressively to inflation but not to disinflation, they would start to incorporate this asymmetry into their investment decisions and push the economy uncomfortably close to price stability.

Parenthetical editorial comment – the idea that the Fed needed to fight against the notion that it might be too hawkish is a head-scratcher. It is unclear how the Federal Reserve could be less dovish than it has been in practice for the last dozen years.

In any event, AIT is similar to price-level targeting, although it is more flexible in terms of the period over which the average is intended to be taken. The Fed meant to signal that it would allow a period of above-target inflation to persist, until at least the period of below-target inflation had been compensated. But again, AIT is vague about what all of this means. However, it happens to have been timely as the Fed now can evince patience with higher inflation, since there had been an extended period during which prices were “too stable.”

How are they doing?

In my recent article “CPI Forwards Show Inflation Concerns Aren’t Ebbing,” I discussed how inflation forwards could be estimated, and give a steady reading on particular points in the future. Here is what that would look like today. If we measure 2.25% target CPI growth (which is roughly 2% on PCE, given the historical spread), then from the announcement of AIT the chart below shows the actual inflation index, and what is implied about the future.

This chart would suggest that the Fed chose an inauspicious time to begin focusing on AIT, since already the undershoot from 2019 has been fully retraced and then some. Moreover, the market seems to believe that the Fed is going to have to focus on a new level, as prices will never get back down to a level implied by 2.25% from the inception of AIT.

As I said, though, the great thing about AIT (from the standpoint of a political economist) is its vagueness. If we instead take as the starting point of the average the period just after the global financial crisis, when rents were recovering at last, then you get a much more agreeable picture. Looked at this way, the market is generously giving credit to the Fed for making a perfect landing, very gradually, over the next 5-10 years.

That seems a bit too generous by half in my opinion, but the takeaway is this: even choosing an extremely long averaging period, the Fed has already used up as much slack as it had saved up. If the next year’s worth of inflation outturns deliver what I think they will deliver, then either the inflation curve is going to become increasingly inverted or the Fed will have to recognize that investors are not buying the AIT framework.

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