Inflation has surged worldwide as countries have come out of their COVID-19 lockdowns. The increases in prices combined with supply-chain problems has raised questions of what will happen to future prices and whether it will feed further inflation cycles.
Inflation is a key contributor to instability in an economy. It measures the rate of increases in prices over a given period of time and indicates what will happen to the cost of living for households. Because of its importance, many central banks aim to keep inflation low and steady by setting a target. The Bank of England, the Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank all aim to keep inflation low at a target rate of 2 per cent.
Inflation-rate targeting has been successfully practised in a growing number of countries over the past few decades. However, measures to combat rising inflation typically contract the economy through reducing real aggregate demand (or at least its rate of growth). This is a concern when the economy is not experiencing a strong economic performance.
Globally, rising inflation is causing concern as a surge in demand has been confronted by supply bottlenecks and rising prices of energy and raw materials. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 lockdowns, global financial markets have been affected in recent months by concerns around inflation. They have also been affected by the prospect of major central banks around the world being forced into the early removal of pandemic support measures, such as quantitative easing, before the economic recovery from the coronavirus is complete.
The Chief Economist at the Bank of England has warned that UK inflation is likely to rise ‘close to or even slightly above 5 per cent’ early next year, as he said the central bank would have a ‘live’ decision on whether to raise interest rates at its November meeting. Although consumer price inflation dipped to 3.1 per cent in September, the Bank of England has forecast it to exceed 4 per cent by the end of the year, 2 percentage points higher than its target. UK banks and building societies have already started to increase mortgage rates in response to rising inflation, signalling an end to the era of ultra-low borrowing costs and piling further pressure on household finances.
In the USA, shortages throughout the supply chains on which corporate America depends are also causing concern. These issues are translating into widespread inflationary pressure, disrupting operations and forcing companies to raise prices for customers. Pressure on every link in the supply chain, from factory closures triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks to trouble finding enough staff to unload trucks, is rippling across sectors, intensifying questions about the threat that inflation poses to robust consumer spending and rebounding corporate earnings. Reflecting concern over weaker levels of global economic growth despite rising inflationary pressures, US figures published at the end of October showed the world’s largest economy added just 194 000 jobs in September, far fewer than expected.
There are also fears raised over high levels of corporate debt, including in China at the embattled property developer Evergrande, where worries over its ability to keep up with debt payments have rippled through global markets. There are major concerns that Evergrande could pose risks to the wider property sector, with potential spill-overs internationally. However, it is argued that the British banking system has been shown in stress tests to be resilient to a severe economic downturn in China and Hong Kong.
Central bank responses
The sharpest consumer-price increases in years have evoked different responses from central banks. Many have raised interest rates, but two that haven’t are the most prominent in the global economy: the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. These differences in responses reflect differing opinions as to whether current price increases will feed further inflation cycles or simply peter out. For those large central banks, they are somewhat relying on households keeping faith in their track record of keeping inflation low. There is also an expectation that there are enough underutilised workers to ensure that wage inflation is kept low.
However, other monetary authorities worry that they have not yet earned the record of keeping inflation low and are concerned about the risk of wage inflation. In addition, in poorer countries there is a larger share of spending that goes on essentials such as food and energy. These have seen some of the highest price increases, so policy makers are going to be keen to stamp down on the inflation.
The Federal Reserve is expected to announce that it will start phasing out its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme (quantitative easing) as it confronts more pronounced price pressures and predictions that interest rates will be lifted next year. However, no adjustments are expected to be made to the Fed’s main policy rate, which is tethered near zero. Whilst financial markets are betting on an rise in Bank Rate by the Bank of England as early as next month, spurred by comments from Governor Andrew Bailey in mid-October that the central bank would ‘have to act’ to keep a lid on inflation.
Outlook for the UK
The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Huw Pill, has warned that high rates of inflation could last longer than expected, due to severe supply shortages and rising household energy bills. He said inflationary pressures were still likely to prove temporary and would fall back over time as the economy adjusted after disruption caused by COVID and Brexit. However, he warned there were growing risks that elevated levels of inflation could persist next year.
The looming rise in borrowing costs for homeowners will add further pressure to family finances already stretched by higher energy bills and surging inflation. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is expected that households will face years of stagnating living standards, with predictions showing that households would on average be paying £3000 more each year in taxes by 2024/25, with the biggest impact felt by higher earners.
Investors are also reacting to concerns and have pulled $9.4bn out of UK-focused equity funds this year after hopes that a COVID-19 vaccination drive will fuel a vigorous economic recovery were overshadowed by questions about slow growth and high inflation. It is suggested that there is a general sense of caution about the UK when it comes to investing globally, driven by monetary, fiscal and trade uncertainties.
Given all the elements contributing to this outlook, The IMF has forecast that the UK will recover more slowly from the shocks of coronavirus than other G7 nations, with economic output in 2024 still 3 per cent below its pre-pandemic levels. Financial markets are predicting the Bank of England will lift interest rates as soon as the next MPC meeting. And while supply-chain bottlenecks and rising commodity prices are a global trend, the Bank’s hawkish stance has increased the possibility of a sharper slowdown in Britain than other developed markets, some analysts have said.
Some of the major central banks are poised to take centre stage when announcing their next monetary action, as it will reveal if they share the alarm about surging inflation that has gripped investors. Markets are betting that the Bank of England will begin raising interest rates, with Bank Rate expected to rise to around 1.25 per cent by the end of next year (from the current 0.1 per cent).
It is thought that the Fed will not raise interest rates just yet but will do so in the near future. Markets, businesses, and households globally will be waiting on the monetary decisions of all countries, as these decisions will shape the trajectory of the global economy over the next few years.
- Three Days Will Reveal Global Alert Level on Inflation: Eco Week
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- Inflation watch: Global food prices hit 10-year high
Al Jazeera (4/11/21)
- Fed sings the ‘transitory’ inflation refrain, unveils bond-buying ‘taper’
ReutersHoward Schneider and Ann Saphir (3/11/21)
- BoE chief economist warns UK inflation likely to hit 5%
Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/10/21)
- Inflation pressure now ‘brutal’ because of supply squeeze, US companies say
Financial Times, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Matthew Rocco, Obey Manayiti and Claire Bushey (23/10/21)
- Rising inflation could trigger global sell-off that would harm UK, says Bank
The Guardian, Richard Partington (8/10/21)
- Bank of England chief economist warns high inflation rates may persist in 2022
The Guardian, Richard Partington (7/10/21)
- Bank of England surprises markets by holding rates at record lows
CNBC, Elliot Smith (4/11/21)
- Bank of England resists pressure to raise interest rates as inflation spike looms
Sky News, Ed Conway (4/11/21)
Forecasts and commentary
- What is the definition of inflation?
- How is inflation measured?
- Using a diagram to aid your answers, discuss the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
- What are the demand-side and cost-side causes of the current rising inflation?
- Explain the impact an increase in interest rates has on the economy.
In the current environment of low inflation and rising unemployment, the Federal Reserve Bank, the USA’s central bank, has amended its monetary targets. The new measures were announced by the Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech for the annual Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium (this year conducted online on August 27 and 28). The symposium was an opportunity for central bankers to reflect on their responses to the coronavirus pandemic and to consider what changes might need to be made to their monetary policy targets and instruments.
The Fed’s previous targets
Previously, like most other central banks, the Fed had a long-run inflation target of 2%. It did, however, also seek to ‘maximise employment’. In practice, this meant seeking to achieve a ‘normal’ rate of unemployment, which the Fed regards as ranging from 3.5 to 4.7% with a median value of 4.1%. The description of its objectives stated that:
In setting monetary policy, the Committee seeks to mitigate deviations of inflation from its longer-run goal and deviations of employment from the Committee’s assessments of its maximum level. These objectives are generally complementary. However, under circumstances in which the Committee judges that the objectives are not complementary, it follows a balanced approach in promoting them, taking into account the magnitude of the deviations and the potentially different time horizons over which employment and inflation are projected to return to levels judged consistent with its mandate.
The new targets
Under the new system, the Fed has softened its inflation target. It will still be 2% over the longer term, but it will be regarded as an average, rather than a firm target. The Fed will be willing to see inflation above 2% for longer than previously before raising interest rates if this is felt necessary for the economy to recover and to achieve its long-run potential economic growth rate. Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech on 27 August said:
Following periods when inflation has been running below 2%, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 per cent for some time.
Additionally, the Fed has increased its emphasis on employment. Instead of focusing on deviations from normal employment, the Fed will now focus on the shortfall of employment from its normal level and not be concerned if employment temporarily exceeds its normal level. As Powell said:
Going forward, employment can run at or above real-time estimates of its maximum level without causing concern, unless accompanied by signs of unwanted increases in inflation or the emergence of other risks that could impede the attainment of our goals
The Fed will also take account of the distribution of employment and pay more attention to achieving a strong labour market in low-income and disadvantaged communities. However, apart from the benefits to such communities from a generally strong labour market, it is not clear how the Fed could focus on disadvantaged communities through the instruments it has at its disposal – interest rate changes and quantitative easing.
Modern monetary theorists (see blog MMT – a Magic Money Tree or Modern Monetary Theory?) will welcome the changes, arguing that they will allow more aggressive expansion and higher government borrowing at ultra-low interest rates.
The problem for the Fed is that it is attempting to achieve more aggressive goals without having any more than the two monetary instruments it currently has – lowering interest rates and increasing money supply through asset purchases (quantitative easing). Interest rates are already near rock bottom and further quantitative easing may continue to inflate asset prices (such as share and property prices) without sufficiently stimulating aggregate demand. Changing targets without changing the means of achieving them is likely to be unsuccessful.
It remains to be seen whether the Fed will move to funding government borrowing directly, which could allow for a huge stimulus through infrastructure spending, or whether it will merely stick to using asset purchases as a way for introducing new money into the system.
- In landmark shift, Fed rewrites approach to inflation, labor market
Reuters, Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider (27/8/20)
- 5 Key Takeaways From Powell’s Jackson Hole Fed Speech
Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (28/8/20)
- Fed adopts new strategy to allow higher inflation and welcome strong labor markets
Market Watch, Greg Robb (27/8/20)
- Fed to tolerate higher inflation in policy shift
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (27/8/20)
- Fed inflation shift raises questions about past rate rises
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Dollar slides as bond market signals rising inflation angst
Financial Times, Adam Samson and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Wall Street shares rise after Fed announces soft approach to inflation
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/8/20)
- How the Fed Is Bringing an Inflation Debate to a Boil
Bloomberg, Ben Holland, Enda Curran, Vivien Lou Chen and Kyoungwha Kim (27/8/20)
- The live now, pay later economy comes at a heavy cost for us all
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/8/20)
- The world’s central banks are starting to experiment. But what comes next?
The Guardian, Adam Tooze (9/9/20)
- Find out how much asset purchases by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB have increased in the current rounds of quantitative easing.
- How do asset purchases affect narrow money, broad money and aggregate demand? Is there a fixed money multiplier effect between the narrow money increases and aggregate demand? Explain.
- Why did the dollar exchange rate fall following the announcement of the new measures by Jay Powell?
- The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also gave a speech at the Jackson Hole symposium. How does the approach to money policy outlined by Bailey differ from that outlined by Jay Powell?
- What practical steps, if any, could a central bank take to improve the relative employment prospects of disadvantaged groups?
- Outline the arguments for and against central banks directly funding government expenditure through money creation.
- What longer-term problems are likely to arise from central banks pursuing ultra-low interest rates for an extended period of time?
With the prospects of weaker global economic growth and continuing worries about trade wars, central banks have been loosening monetary policy. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, lowered its target Federal Funds rate in both July and September. Each time it reduced the rate by a quarter of a percentage point, so that it now stands at between 1.75% and 2%.
The ECB has also cut rates. In September it reduced the overnight deposit rate for banks from –0.4% to –0.5%, leaving the main rate at 0%. It also introduced a further round of quantitative easing, with asset purchases of €20 billion per month from 1 November and lasting until the ECB starts raising interest rates.
The Australian Reserve Bank has cut its ‘cash rate‘ three times this year and it now stands at an historically low level of 0.75%. Analysts are predicting that it may be forced to introduce quantitative easing if lower interest rates fail to stimulate growth.
Japan continues with its programme of quantitative easing (QE) and other central banks are considering lowering interest rates and/or (further) QE.
But there are two key issues with looser monetary policy.
The first is whether it will be sufficient to provide the desired stimulus. With interest rates already at or near historic lows (although slightly above in the case of the USA), there is little scope for further reductions. QE may help, but without a rise in confidence, the main effect of the extra money may simply be a rise in the price of assets, such as property and shares. It may result in very little extra spending on consumption and investment – in other words, very little extra aggregate demand.
The second is the effect on inequality. By inflating asset prices, QE rewards asset owners. The wealthier people are, the more they will gain.
Many economists and commentators are thus calling for the looser monetary policy to be backed up by expansionary fiscal policy. The boost to aggregate demand, they argue, should come from higher public spending, with governments able to borrow at very low interest rates because of the loose monetary policy. Targeted spending on infrastructure would have a supply-side benefit as well as a demand-side one.
- European Central Bank cuts its deposit rate, launches new bond-buying program
CNBC, Elliot Smith (12/9/19)
- Can monetary policies help prevent a global recession?
Investment Week, Martin Gilbert (7/10/19)
- Draghi’s Utmost Is Still Not Enough
Bloomberg, John Authers (13/9/19)
- Draghi puts heat on politicians to boost fiscal stimulus with his ECB swan song
MarketWatch, William Watts (12/9/19)
- To infinity and beyond: ECB’s quantitative easing
EJ Insight, Raphael Olszyna-Marzys (2/10/19)
- The dangers of negative interest rates
Money Week, Merryn Somerset Webb (7/10/19)
- Schwarzman: Europe could enter Japan-style stagnation if governments don’t start spending
CNBC, Elliot Smith (7/10/19)
- US Fed cuts interest rates for second time since 2008
BBC News, Andrew Walker (18/9/19)
- Current Federal Reserve Interest Rates and Why They Change
The Balance, Kimberly Amadeo (19/9/19)
- Federal Reserve Interest Rate Cuts Alone Can’t Prevent a Recession
Barron’s, Al Root (4/10/19)
- Why is the Fed pumping money into the banking system?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (19/9/19)
- Top of Lagarde’s ECB to-do list: stop QE and democratise monetary policy
Social Europe, Jens van’t Klooster (25/9/19)
- Economists warn Reserve Bank could be forced to print money if rate cuts fail to deliver
The Guardian, Martin Farrer (2/10/19)
- A very large gamble: evidence on Quantitative Easing in the US and UK
Institute for Policy Research. Policy Brief, Chris Martin and Costas Milas
- The verdict on 10 years of quantitative easing
The Guardian, Richard Partington (8/3/19)
ECB Press Conference
- Explain what is meant by quantitative easing.
- What determines the effectiveness of quantitative easing?
- Why is President Trump keen for the Federal Reserve to pursue more aggressive interest rate cuts?
- What is the Bank of England’s current attitude towards changing interest rates and/or further quantitative easing?
- What are the current advantages and disadvantages of governments pursuing a more expansionary fiscal policy?
- Compare the relative merits of quantitative easing through asset purchases and the use of ‘helicopter money’.
Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:
China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!
But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.
It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).
The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.
In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).
Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.
This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.
The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.
Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.
For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.
But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.
- What are the arguments for central bank independence?
- Are there any arguments against central bank independence?
- Explain what is meant by an ‘output gap’? Why is it important to be clear on what is meant by ‘potential output’?
- Would there be any supply-side effects of a strong monetary stimulus to the US economy at the current time? If so, what are they?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘political business’ cycle? Are governments in the UK, USA or the eurozone using macroeconomic policy to take advantage of the electoral cycle?
- The Fed seems to be ending its programme of quantitative tightening (QT). Why might that be so and is it a good idea?
- If inflation is caused by cost-push pressures, should central banks stick rigidly to inflation targets? Explain.
- How are expectations likely to affect the success of a monetary stimulus?
The US Federal Reserve, like many other central banks, engaged in massive quantitative easing in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/8. Over three rounds, QE1, QE2 and QE3, it accumulated $4.5 trillion of assets – mainly government bonds and mortgage-backed securities (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). But, unlike its counterparts in the UK, the eurozone and Japan, it has long ceased its programme of asset purchases.. In October 2014, it announced that QE was at an end. All that would be done in future would be to replace existing holdings of assets as they matured, keeping total holdings roughly constant.
But now this policy is set to change. The Fed is about to embark on a programme of ‘quantitative tightening’, already being dubbed ‘QT’. This involves the Fed reducing its holdings of assets, mainly government bonds and government-backed mortgage-related securities.
This, however, for the time being will not include selling its holding of bonds or mortgage-backed securities. Rather, it will simply mean not buying new assets to replace ones when they mature, or only replacing part of the them. This was discussed by the 75 participants at the joint meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and Board of Governors on 14–15 March.
As the minutes put it: “Many participants emphasized that reducing the size of the balance sheet should be conducted in a passive and predictable manner.”
A more active form of QT would involve selling assets before maturity and thus reducing the size of the Fed’s balance sheet more rapidly. But either way, reducing assets would put downward pressure on the money supply and support the higher interest rates planned by the FOMC.
The question is whether there is enough liquidity elsewhere in the system and enough demand for credit, and willingness of the banking system to supply credit, to allow a sufficient growth in broad money – sufficient, that is, to support continued growth in the economy. The answer to that question depends on confidence. The Fed, not surprisingly, is keen not to damage confidence and hence prefers a gradualist approach to reducing its holdings of assets bought during the various rounds of quantitative easing.
Fed’s asset shift to pose new test of economy’s recovery, resilience Reuters, Howard Schneider and Richard Leong (6/4/17)
Federal Reserve likely to begin cutting back $4.5 trillion balance sheet this year Washington Post, Ana Swanson (5/4/17)
Why the Fed’s debate about shrinking its balance sheet really, really matters Money Observer, Russ Mould (7/4/17)
The Fed and ECB keep a cautious eye on the exit Financial Times (7/4/17)
Get ready for the Fed’s next scary policy change CBS Money Watch, Anthony Mirhaydari (5/4/17)
The Fed wants to start shrinking its $4.5 trillion balance sheet later this year Business Insider, Akin Oyedele (5/4/17)
Inside the Fed’s March Meeting: The Annotated Minutes Bloomberg, Luke Kawa, Matthew Boesler and Alex Harris (5/4/17)
QE was great for asset prices – will ‘QT’ smash them? The Financial Review (Australia), Patrick Commins (7/4/17)
Shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet Brookings, Ben Bernanke (26/1/17)
Selected data Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
- Distinguish between active and passive QT.
- If QE is a form of expansionary monetary policy, is QT a form of contractionary monetary policy?
- Could QT take place alongside an expansion of broad money?
- What dangers lie in the Fed scaling back its holdings of government (Treasury) bonds and mortgage-backed securities?
- Why is it unlikely that the Fed will reduce its holdings of securities to pre-crisis levels?
- Why are the Bank of England, the ECB and the Bank of Japan still pursuing a policy of QE?
- What are the implications for exchange rates of QT in the USA and QE elsewhere?
- Find out data for the monetary base, for narrow money (M1) and broader money (M2) in the USA. Are narrow and/or broad money correlated with Federal Reserve asset holdings?