We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?
In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.
As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.
The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.
The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.
This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.
Monetary policy response
Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?
One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.
If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.
Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.
Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.
Blogs on this site
Information and data
- How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
- If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
- In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
- With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
- If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
- Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?
The mandates of central banks around the world are typically focused on controlling inflation. In many cases, this is accompanied by operational independence from government, but with the government setting an inflation target. The central bank then chooses the appropriate monetary policy to achieve the inflation target. This is argued to provide the conditions that can deliver lower and less variable inflation rates – at least over the longer term.
However, some economists argue that this has the potential to create the conditions for greater economic volatility and financial instability. The events surrounding the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) – the largest since the global financial crisis – have helped to reignite these debates.
Inflation targeting central banks
The theoretical foundations for delegating monetary policy to central banks with mandates to meet an inflation rate target is often attributed to the paper of Fynn Kydland and Edward Prescott published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1977. It argues that if governments, rather than independent central banks, operate monetary policy, systemically-high inflation can become established if low-inflation announcements by governments lack credibility. Delegation of monetary to a central bank with an inflation rate target, however, can create the necessary conditions for credibility. This, in turn, gives the public confidence to maintain lower and more stable inflationary expectations than would otherwise be the case.
To mitigate the problem of a potential inflationary bias, it is argued that governments should delegate monetary policy to a conservative central banker: one that places less weight on output or employment stabilisation and more weight on inflation stabilisation than does society. However, as identified by Kenneth Rogoff in his paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1985, this raises the spectre of greater volatility in output and employment when economies are buffeted by supply shocks.
Inflation–output stabilisation trade-off
The inflation–output stabilisation trade-off identified by Rogoff has particular relevance to the macroeconomic environment experienced by many countries in recent times. As economies began to open up after the pandemic, demand–supply imbalances saw the emergence of inflationary pressures. These pressures were then exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which drove up commodity prices.
Rather than pursuing a less contractionary policy in the face of these supply shocks so as to avoid recession, central banks stuck to their inflation mandates and hence raised interest rates significantly so as to bring inflation back to target as soon as possible. But this hampered economic recovery.
Inflation–financial stability trade-off
Yet the recent financial turmoil suggests a further inflation–stability trade-off: an inflation–financial stability trade-off. By raising interest rates, different sectors of the economy are liable to greater financial distress. This distress has contributed to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and led to a significant injection of funds by large US banks into First Republic. The fear is of a contagion within the financial sector, which then spills into other sectors of the economy.
The debate about central bank mandates and the weight attached to inflation stability relative to other objectives is therefore centre stage of macroeconomic policy debates.
- Inflation targeting and the 2 per cent goal
Financial Times, Editorial Board (16/12/22)
- Breaking the shackles of inflation targets
The Business Standard, Daniel Moss, Bloomberg (16/3/23)
- Evaluating Monetary Policy with Inflation Bands and Horizons
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, letter, Troy Davig and Andrew Foerster (21/2/23)
- Need to rethink long-term inflation target: MPC member Ashima Goyal
The Economic Times (India) (15/3/23)
- Inflation Targeting Pros and Cons
Economicshelp, Tejvan Pettinger (16/11/17)
- Central banks walk tightrope in juggling mandates
Reuters, Mike Dolan (15/3/23)
- Silicon Valley Bank: why did it collapse and is this the start of a banking crisis?
The Guardian, Jonathan Barrett (13/3/23)
- Silicon Valley Bank: Regulators take over as failure raises fears
BBC News (11/3/23)
- HSBC swoops in to rescue UK arm of Silicon Valley Bank
BBC News, Michael Race (13/3/19)
- Silicon Valley Bank said it was too small to need regulation. Now it’s ‘too big to fail’
The Guardian, Rebecca Burns and Julia Rock (17/3/23)
- Multi-billion dollar rescue deal for First Republic Bank
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (16/3/19)
- Chancellor ‘welcomes’ decision to give Credit Suisse £44.5bn lifeline as shares bounce back
Sky News, Samuel Obsborne (16/3/23)
- Explain the argument that the delegation of monetary policy can help to keep the average rate of inflation lower.
- How might the monetary policy responses of central banks to an inflation shock create the possibility of an inflation–output stabilisation trade-off?
- What do you understand by a Taylor rule? Could this help to alleviate the inflation-output stabilisation trade-off?
- Some economists argue that there is less of a trade-off between inflation and output stability with demand-pull inflation because of a so-called ‘divine coincidence’ in monetary policy. Why might this be the case?
- What do you understand by the term ‘financial distress’? What metrics could be used to capture this for different sectors of the economy?
- Explain how financial contagion can spread both within and between different sectors of the economy.
The monetary policy mandates of central banks have an impact on all our lives. While the terminology might not be familiar to many outside economics, their impact is, however, undeniably important. This is because they set out the objectives for the operation of monetary policy. Adjustments to interest rates or the growth of the money supply, which affect us all, reflect the mandate given to the central bank.
Since 1977 the mandate given to the Federal Reserve (the US central bank) by Congress has been to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. This mandate has become known as the dual mandate because it emphasises both employment and stable prices. Since 2012, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee has issued an annual statemenent of its long-run goals. The latest was published in January 2019. Since this time, the Federal Reserve has explicitly set the ‘longer-run goal for inflation’ at 2 per cent. It has also emphasised that it would be ‘concerned’ if the inflation rate was persistently above or below this level.
In November 2018 the Federal Reserve began a review of its monetary policy strategy, its tools and how it communicates monetary policy. The review is being conducted within the guidelines that its statutory mandate gives and as well as the longer-term inflation goal of 2 per cent. However, one of the issues being addressed by the review is how the operation of monetary policy can avoid the rate of inflation frequently undershooting 2 per cent, as it has done since the financial crisis of the late 2000s and the introduction of the 2 per cent inflation rate target.
Chart 1 shows the annual rate of consumer price inflation in the US since 1998. It helps to illustrate the concern that low inflation rates can become entrenched. The chart shows that, while the average inflation rate from 1998 to 2008 was 2.7 per cent, from 2009 the average has been only 1.6 per cent. Interestingly, the average since 2012, when the explicit 2 per cent goal was introduced, to the present day is also 1.6 per cent. (Click here to download the PowerPoint chart.)
The concern going forward is that the natural or neutral rate of interest, which is the policy rate at which the rate of inflation is close to its target level and the level of output is close to its potential level, is now lower than in the recent past. Hence, when the next downturn occurs there is likely to be less room for cutting interest rates. Hence, the review is looking, in essence, to future-proof the conduct of monetary policy.
Chart 2 shows the Federal Fund rate since 1998. This is the rate at which commercial banks lend to each other the reserve balances they hold at the Federal Reserve in order to meet their reserve requirements. The Federal Reserve can affect this rate through buying or selling government securities. If it wants to drive up rates, it can sell holdings of government securities and reduce the money supply. If it wants to drive rates down, it can buy government securities and increase the money supply. The effects then ripple through to other interest rates and, in turn, aggregate demand and inflation. (Click here to download a copy of the PowerPoint chart.)
We can see from Chart 2 the dramatic cuts made by the Federal Reserve to interest rates as the financial crisis unfolded. The subsequent ‘normalisation’ of the Federal Funds rate in the 2010s saw the Federal Funds Rate rise to no higher than between 2.25 and 2.5 per cent. Then in 2019 the Federal Reserve began to cut rates again. This was despite historically-low unemployment rates. In November 2019 the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 per cent, its lowest since 1969. This has helped fuel the argument among some economists and financiers, which we saw earlier, that that the natural (or neutral) interest rate is now lower.
If the natural rate is lower, then this raises concerns about the effectiveness of monetary policy in future economic downturns. In this context, the review is considering ways in which the operation of monetary policy would be able to prevent the rate of inflation consistently undershooting its target. This includes a discussion of how the Fed can prevent inflationary expectations becoming anchored below 2 per cent. This is important because, should they do so, they help to anchor the actual rate of inflation below 2 per cent. One possibility being considered is an inflation make-up strategy. In other words, a period of below-target inflation rates would need to be matched by a period where inflation rates could exceed the 2 per cent target in order that the long-term average of 2 per cent is met.
An inflation make-up policy would work like forward guidance in that people and markets would know know that short-term interest rates would be kept lower for longer. This would then help to force longer-term interest rates lower as well as providing people and businesses with greater certainty that interest rates will be lower for longer. This could help to encourage spending, raise economic growth and prevent inflation from overshooting its target for any extensive period of time.
An inflation make-up strategy would, in part, help to cement the idea that the inflation target is effectively symmetrical and that 2 per cent is not an upper limit for the inflation rate. But, it would do more than that: it would allow the Fed to deliberately exceed the 2 per cent target.
An inflation make-up strategy does raise issues. For example, how would the Fed determine the magnitude of any inflation make-up and for how long would a looser monetary stance be allowed to operate? In other words, would an inflation make-up strategy be determined by a specific rule or formula? Or, would the principle be applied flexibly? Finally, could a simpler alternative be to raise the target rate itself, given the tendency to undershoot the 2 per cent target rate? If so, what should that the rate be?
We should know by the end of 2020 whether the Federal Reserve will adopt, when necessary, an inflation make-up monetary policy.
- What do you understand by the monetary policy mandate of a central bank?
- Explain the ways in which the monetary policy mandate of the central bank affects our everyday lives.
- Why are inflation-rate expectations important in determining actual inflation rates?
- Why is the Federal Reserve concerned about its ability to use monetary policy effectively during future economic downturns?
- Discuss the economic arguments for and against central banks operating strict inflation-rate targets.
- Does the case for adopting an inflation make-up monetary policy mandate show that the argument for inflation-rate targeting has been lost?
- What do you understand by the idea of a natural or neutral policy interest rate? Would the actual rate be expected to be above or below this if the rate of inflation was below its target level?