Inflationary Expectations – Households v Economists

In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices.

At a recent press conference US Fed chair Jerome Powell expressed concern about expectations”
“We can’t allow a wage-price spiral to happen,” he said. “And we can’t allow inflation expectations to become unanchored. It’s just something that we can’t allow to happen.”

A recent IMF blog post by Carlo Pizzinelli looked at the inflationary expectations of consumers against those of policy makers. When monetary or fiscal policy are in the news how do consumer expectations for inflation change? Additionally how do economic events influence expectations? Can we say that consumers form the same expectations as those who deliver policy decisions? The researchers asked consumers to consider four speculative shocks and then make predictions about their impact on inflation and unemployment. The four were as follows:

  • a sharp increase in crude oil prices as a result of falling world supply,
  • a rise in income taxes,
  • an increase in government spending,
  • a rise in the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate.

It is an assumption that these shocks are generally understood by consumers. Researchers provided current figures for the rates of inflation and unemployment and asked them to give their forecasts for the two variables over the following year. They then provided news about one of the four speculative shocks and asked them to make new predictions for inflation and unemployment.

Results show that there are large differences in expectations from consumers and experts. Of note is consumers belief that an increase in income tax and interest rates would increase inflation which is contrary to what experts predict – see Chart 1.

In order to look into why there is a disagreement between two groups consumers were asked as to what they were thinking when they made their predictions – a focus was on demand side v supply side theory. Experts drew on their technical knowledge whilst consumers rely on personal experiences. Consumers believe that higher costs (interest rates up) for firms are then added to the price of the good or service. Experts predict a decline in prices as consumers spend less and save more – see Chart 2

It is important that central banks make their statements in a simple language so that there is clarity for the general public – e.g. when a central bank raises interest rates unexpectedly households are under the assumption that this action will lower inflation and their actions will ultimately lead to a reduction in inflation.

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