Did Alan Blinder Suggest the Fed Should Have Done Nothing About Inflation?

The Claim

Former Fed Governor and current Princeton Economics professor, Alan S. Blinder wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that essentially implied the Federal Reserve need not have raised rates to battle inflation. In a piece with the click-worthy title “What if Inflation Suddenly Dropped and No One Noticed?“, Blinder makes the following claim:

“Was the rest of the stunning drop in inflation in 2022 due to the Fed’s interest-rate policy? Driving inflation down was certainly the central bank’s intent. But it defies credulity to think that interest-rate hikes that started only in March could have cut inflation appreciably by July. There is an argument that monetary policy works faster now than it used to—but not that fast.”

Blinder goes on to explain that relief from supply and energy shocks were the biggest drivers of plunging inflation. Going forward, he thinks that the current five month decline in inflation is “…still too short a time to declare victory,” but he gives no explanation as to why going forward further Fed rate hikes will matter for getting inflation down this last mile of the way. I would have expected Blinder to argue that the Fed has already over-corrected for inflation.

Chasing the Trend In Inflation

It is pretty well accepted that inflation peaked several months ago. However, when Blinder worries that “no one will notice” the drop in inflation, he is worried about the finer technical details of trends. He breaks out the difference between earlier and current inflation to show how the year-over-year rate blurs the story.

“…the CPI inflation rate over the past 12 months has been an alarming 7.1%. But the U.S. economy got there by averaging an appalling 10.6% annualized inflation rate over the first seven months and a mere 2.5% over the last five. The PCE price index tells a similar story, though a somewhat less dramatic one. The 5.5% inflation rate over the past 12 months came from a 7.8% rate over the first seven months followed by a 2.4% rate over the last five.”

Blinder acknowledges that using this more refined (I will call it less lagged) approach would have also warned the Fed much earlier about inflation in 2021. In fact, it was recent trends that made loud skeptics of the Fed’s reassurances about “transitory” inflation.

Regardless, there is little magic or revelation in this breakdown. Blinder is simply providing a more technical description of what happens when a metric that quantifies changes over time peaks: the earlier components of that measure are, on average, higher than the more current ones. The graph below of the PCE (personal consumption expenditures) excluding food and energy juxtaposes the monthly change (grey line and vertical axis on the left) in the PCE with the annual change (black line and vertical axis on the right) in the PCE.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal Consumption Expenditures Excluding Food and Energy (Chain-Type Price Index) [PCEPILFE], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, January 19, 2023.

Note how the pre-pandemic stability in the monthly change supported stability in the annual change of the PCE. The annual change started to rise once the monthly changes started to rise to higher levels post-pandemic. The annual change reached a new, higher stability after the monthly changes stopped rising. Now, the monthly changes are finally producing a higher frequency of much lower numbers. Thus, the annual change looks like it has finally peaked. Stare hard enough, and you can even see the early makings of a declining trend.

Blinder worries that no one may notice the sudden drop in inflation. However, I suspect plenty of people have noticed the decline. There is a healthy collection of Fed critics and related folks who think the Fed over-reached after its first rate hike last March or May who are twisting the numbers every possible way to make the case that the inflation problem died a few months ago and/or the Fed has taken interest rates far too high, too fast. Again, because inflation has apparently peaked, it is easy to fathom that more recent inflation pressures are milder than earlier inflation pressures.

Where Is the Policy Implication?

Blinder’s WSJ piece avoided giving direct advice on monetary policy. However, he gave more clues in an interview with Marketplace. At the very end of the discussion, Blinder essentially said that the Fed should stop now, but they cannot do so because market’s will prematurely ease:

“The Fed is in a very ticklish position. They can’t be as frank as I just was with you. I could say anything, and I don’t move markets. If Jay Powell sneezes, he moves markets. It is too early to declare victory over inflation, it’s only six months. And that’s what Jay Powell or any of the Fed people would say if you had them on the radio. But I say it’s six months. Six months is not a week, six months is not two months. This is not a trivial length of time. I think it might take a year of this or, say, another six months to convince the Fed to declare victory. They’re not about to declare victory yet.”

Note how his advice here directly contradicts his caution in the WSJ piece that the timeframe for the inflation decline is too short to support victory laps. No wonder monetary policy can be so confusing.

Moreover, the Fed has been very clear about the metric it uses for the 2% inflation target: a year-over-year change that is demonstrably sustainable. The Fed cannot declare victory because the target as previously defined still sits out in the future. To suddenly change the timeframe to inflation over the last X months would undermine Fed credibility even more than the retreat from the “transitory” episode.

Ironically, with the Fed already effectively programming itself to end rate hikes in March, Blinder’s technical examination could be nearly moot…at least without specific policy prescriptions.

Be careful out there!

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