Kashkari Acknowledges the Fed’s Inflation Miss. Will the Fed Catch Easing Financial Conditions?

At the beginning of the year, Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, wrote a revealing piece titled “Why We Missed On Inflation, and Implications for Monetary Policy Going Forward.” The article is a worthwhile (and bit-sized) piece since it may be the first and only time any member of the Fed has attempted to confront this topic head-on. Recall that it was June, 2021 when the Fed first acknowledged a surprising increase and persistence in inflation pressures. However, Chair Jerome Powell implied that the inflation problem would go away on its own accord. It was St. Louis Federal Reserve President and CEO who raised a truly hawkish alarm bell. His colleagues took a lot longer to get on board.

Kashkari’s Confessional

Kashkari sums up the Fed’s collective miss as coming from an over-reliance on traditional Phillips-curve models. These models failed the Fed for this economic cycle:

“In these workhorse models, it is very difficult to generate high inflation: Either we need to assume a very tight labor market combined with nonlinear effects, or we must assume an unanchoring of inflation expectations. That’s it. From what I can tell, our models seem ill-equipped to handle a fundamentally different source of inflation, specifically, in this case, surge pricing inflation.”

No wonder it is easy to maintain a deflationary mindset. The Philips-curve models are biased against inflationary pressures.

Refreshingly, Kashkari is not willing to accept economic shocks as an excuse for missing the seriousness of inflation in this economic cycle. Instead, he cautions that such dismissals impede learning. Moreover, he claims that even a crystal ball on inflation shocks would not have pushed the Philips-curve models to raise an inflation alarm. Since Kashkari makes this claim without evidence, I hope that someone in the Fed is working on a related white paper to advance learning on this topic.

Kashkari went on to observe that the Fed’s policy framework focuses on the labor market and inflation expectations: “If we can deepen our analytical capabilities surrounding other sources and channels of inflation, then we might be able to incorporate whatever lessons we learn into our policy framework going forward.” Yet, in April 2022, I summarized two Fed studies that identified housing as a key source of the inflation problem. At the time, I assume these studies helped guide the Fed’s determination to finally start hiking rates. I do not know how to reconcile these studies with Kashkari’s claim, but I hope he finds his way to this work at some point.

Kashkari concludes by standing firmly behind today’s monetary policy. Without a sense of irony, Kashkari defended the current monetary tightening by using wage pressures as his example.

“One may ask why tightening monetary policy is the right response to what I described as surge pricing inflation. Unfortunately, the initial surge in inflation is leading to broader inflationary pressures that the Federal Reserve must control. For example, nominal wage growth has grown to 5 percent or more, which is inconsistent with our 2 percent inflation target given recent trend productivity growth. Monetary policy is the appropriate tool to bring the labor market back into balance.”

Kashkari is also not interested in cutting rates anytime soon: “consider cutting rates only once we are convinced inflation is well on its way back down to 2 percent.” Seemingly like everyone else on the Fed, he fears the echoes from the 1970s warning that it is all too easy to declare a premature victory over inflation.

Easing Financial Conditions

If bond yields are any indication, the bond market stopped worrying about increasing inflation pressures back in October and November. For example, the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) not only bottomed but also it rallied 15.5% in just three months (TLT moves inversely to bond yields). Accordingly, I am eager to see whether the next announcement on monetary policy calls out the bond market for prematurely facilitating an easing in financial conditions.

The iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) achieved a higher low at the end of December. It is close to a breakout above tis 200-day moving average (DMA) (the blue line above) which would usher in a new phase of easing of financial conditions. Is the Fed ready for that to happen? (Source: TradingView.com)

The Chicago Federal Reserve’s Adjusted Financial Conditions Index has been consistently easing since a cycle high in October.

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: no positions