How well do we understand inflationary expectations?

In looking at the causes of inflation, textbooks will cover demand-pull and cost-push but not go into much detail about inflationary expectations. If the consumer believes that prices of goods are going to increase this will have an impact on future price levels and the wage demands – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Higher wages = Higher labour costs = Higher prices

Jerome Powell, US Fed Chairman, has made four 0.75 percentage point hikes in a row is an aggressive monetary policy to reduce inflation. Yesterday’s increase of 0.5% takes the bank’s benchmark lending rate to 4.25% – 4.5%, a range that is the highest since January 2008. He also alluded to inflationary 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.”

So how do you measure inflationary expectations? Policymakers use surveys at different times to monitor households’ and firms’ beliefs about prices. Furthermore, in order to try and shape consumer expectations central banks are very transparent as to their forecast of inflation and future interest rate changes.

How well do we understand households’ expectations? An article in the IMF Finance & Development (September 2022) looked at a deeper understanding of how consumers think about inflation. There seems to be a disagreement between consumers and policy makers with the former relying on the price change in a few products like coffee and petrol as an overall indicator of a country’s inflation rate. Past experiences —such as living through events such as the 1970’s oil crisis, the stagflation years of the late 1970’s, the Global Financial Crisis 2008, stock market crash of 1987 (Black Monday) etc, can influence peoples understanding of inflation for years to come. For instance if you lived through the stagflation years you are you more likely to be less optimistic about controlling inflation?

Andre et al (2022) recent research set out to see if economic policy (fiscal and monetary) and economic events result in the same expectations by laypeople and experts. They focused on unemployment and inflation and distributed surveys to 6,500 households and 1,500 experts. The survey asked respondents to consider four hypothetical shocks to the US economy:

  • a sharp increase in crude oil prices
  • a rise in income taxes,
  • a federal government spending increase,
  • a rise in the Federal Reserve’s target interest rate.

All respondents were given the current figures for inflation and unemployment and were asked to give their forecast of their movement over the following year after being given news about one of the four shocks. Interestingly laypeople believed that an increase in interest rates and income taxes would increase inflation which is contrary to what economics textbook models show – see Chart 1. The difference of opinion seems to stem from the interpretations of demand versus supply models see Chart 2. The experts used theoretical models and economic toolkits whilst the laypeople were more likely to rely on personal experiences, political views and a different interpretation – i.e. they look at supply-side issues:

higher interest rates = higher costs for firms = increase in prices to maintain profit margins = inflation↑

Experts take the view that it is a demand-side issue:

higher interest rates – higher cost of borrowing for consumers = less borrowing = inflation↓

Central Banks look to make communication more accessible

Central banks are now trying to, not only make communication accessible, but also much easier to understand. For example the European Central Bank (ECB) has built a presence around social media platforms using simpler language to explain the impact of interest rates on inflation.

Economic models depend on ‘rational expectations’ according to which households base their individual decisions—on how much to save, consume, and work—on expectations about the uncertain future state of the economy.

Source: Hall of Mirrors: How Consumers Think about Inflation by Carlo Pizzinelli
IMF F&D September 2022

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