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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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April 19, 2017

The Fed’s Inflation Goal: What Does the Public Know?

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent since January 25, 2012. In its statement announcing the target, the FOMC said, "Communicating this inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee's ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances."

If communicating this goal to the public enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy, one natural question is whether the public is aware of this 2 percent target. We've posed this question a few times to our Business Inflation Expectations Panel, which is a set of roughly 450 private, nonfarm firms in the Southeast. These firms range in size from large corporations to owner operators.

Last week, we asked them again. Specifically, the question is:

What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run?

Unsurprisingly, to us at least—and maybe to you if you're a regular macroblog reader—the typical respondent answered 2 percent (the same answer our panel gave us in 2015 and back in 2011). At a minimum, southeastern firms appear to have gotten and retained the message.

So, why the blog post? Careful Fed watchers noticed the inclusion of a modifier to describe the 2 percent objective in the March 2017 FOMC statement (emphasis added): "The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal." And especially eagle-eyed Fed watchers will remember that the Committee amended  its statement of longer-run goals in January 2016, clarifying that its inflation objective is indeed symmetric.

The idea behind a symmetric inflation target is that the central bank views both overshooting and falling short of the 2 percent target as equally bad. As then Minneapolis Fed President Kocherlakota stated in 2014, "Without symmetry, inflation might spend considerably more time below 2 percent than above 2 percent. Inflation persistently below the 2 percent target could create doubts in households and businesses about whether the FOMC is truly aiming for 2 percent inflation, or some lower number."

Do such doubts actually exist? In a follow-up to our question about the numerical target, in the latest survey we asked our panel whether they thought the Fed was more, less, or equally likely to tolerate inflation below or above its targe. The following chart depicts the responses.

One in five respondents believes the Federal Reserve is more likely to accept inflation above its target, while nearly 40 percent believe it is more likely to accept inflation below its target. Twenty-five percent of firms believe the Federal Reserve is equally likely to accept inflation above or below its target. The remainder of respondents were unsure. This pattern was similar across firm sizes and industries.

In other words, more firms see the inflation target as a threshold (or ceiling) that the Fed is averse to crossing than see it as a symmetric target.

Lately, various Committee members (here, here, and in Chair Yellen's latest press conference at the 42-minute mark) have discussed the symmetry about the Committee's inflation target. Our evidence suggests that the message may not have quite sunk in yet.



January 15, 2016

Are Long-Term Inflation Expectations Declining? Not So Fast, Says Atlanta Fed

"Convincing evidence that longer-term inflation expectations have moved lower would be a concern because declines in consumer and business expectations about inflation could put downward pressure on actual inflation, making the attainment of our 2 percent inflation goal more difficult."
—Fed Chair Janet Yellen, in a December 2, 2015, speech to the Economic Club of Washington

To be sure, Chair Yellen's claim is not controversial. Modern macroeconomics gives inflation expectations a central role in the evolution of actual inflation, and the stability of those expectations is crucial to the Fed's ability to achieve its price stability mandate.

The real question on everyone's mind is, of course, what might constitute "convincing evidence" of changes in inflation expectations. Recently, several economists, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, have weighed in on this issue. Yesterday, President Bullard cited downward movements in the five-year/five-year forward breakeven rates from the five- and 10-year nominal and inflation-protected Treasury bond yields. In November, Summers appealed to measures based on inflation swap contracts. The view that inflation expectations are declining has also been echoed by the New York Fed President William Dudley and former Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota.

Broadly speaking, there seems to be a growing view that market-based long-run inflation expectations are declining and drifting significantly away from the Fed's 2 percent target and that this decline is troublingly correlated with oil prices.

A problem with this line of argument is that the breakeven and swap rates are not necessarily clean measures of inflation expectations. They are really better referred to as measures of inflation compensation because, in addition to inflation expectations, these measures also include factors related to liquidity conditions in the markets for these securities, technical features of the inflation protection in each security, and inflation risk premia. Here at the Atlanta Fed, we've built a model to separate these different components and isolate a better measure of true inflation expectations (IE).

In technical terms, we estimate an affine term structure model—similar to that of D'Amico, Kim and Wei (2014)—that incorporates information from the markets for U.S. Treasuries, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), inflation swaps, and inflation options (caps and floors). Details are provided in "Forecasts of Inflation and Interest Rates in No-Arbitrage Affine Models," a forthcoming Atlanta Fed working paper by Nikolay Gospodinov and Bin Wei. (You can also see Gospodinov and Wei (2015) for further analysis.) Essentially, we ask: what level of inflation expectations is consistent with this entire set of financial market data? And we then follow this measure over time.

As chart 1 illustrates, we draw a very different conclusion about the behavior of long-term inflation expectations. The chart plots the five-year/five-year forward TIPS breakeven inflation (BEI) and the model-implied inflation expectations (IE) for the period January 1999–November 2015 at a weekly frequency. Unlike the raw BEI, our measure is quite smooth, suggesting that long-term inflation expectations have been, and still are, well anchored.

160115a

After making an adjustment for the inflation risk premium, we term the difference between BEI and IEs a "liquidity premium," but it really includes a variety of other factors. Our more careful look at the liquidity premium reveals that it is partly made up of factors specific to the structure of inflation-indexed TIPS bonds. For example, since TIPS are based on the non-seasonally adjusted consumer price index (CPI) of all items, TIPS yields incorporate a large positive seasonal carry yield in the first half of the year and a large negative seasonal carry yield in the second half. Chart 2 illustrates this point by plotting CPI seasonality (computed as the accumulated difference between non-seasonally adjusted and seasonally adjusted CPI) and the five-year breakeven inflation.

160115b

Redemptions, reallocations, and hedging in the TIPS market after oil price drops and global financial market turbulence can further exacerbate this seasonal pattern. Taken together, these factors are the source of correlation between the BEI measures and oil prices. To confirm this, chart 3 plots (the negative of) our liquidity premium estimate and the log oil price (proxied by the nearest futures price).

160115c

Our measure of long-term inflation expectations is also consistent with long-term measures from surveys. Chart 4 presents the median along with the 10th and 90th percentiles of the five-year/five-year forward CPI inflation expectations from the Philadelphia Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF) at quarterly frequency. This measure can be compared directly with our IE measure. Both the level and the dynamics of the median SPF inflation expectation are remarkably close to that for our market-based IE. It is also interesting to observe that the level of inflation "disagreement" (measured as the difference between the 10th and 90th percentiles) is at a level similar to the level seen before the financial crisis.

160115d

Finally, we note that TIPS and SPF are based on CPI rather than the Fed's preferred personal consumption expenditure (PCE) measure. CPI inflation has historically run above PCE inflation by about 30 basis points. Accounting for this difference brings our measure of the level of long-term inflation expectations close to the Fed's 2 percent target.

To summarize, our analysis suggests that (1) long-run inflation expectations remain stable and anchored, (2) the seemingly large correlation of market-implied inflation compensation with oil prices arises mainly from the dynamics of the TIPS liquidity premium, and (3) long-run market- and survey-based inflation expectations are remarkably close in terms of level and dynamics over time. Of course, further softness in the global economy and commodity markets may eventually drag down long-term expectations. We will continue to monitor the pure measure of inflation expectations for such developments.

By Nikolay Gospodinov, financial economist and policy adviser; Paula Tkac, vice president and senior economist; and Bin Wei, financial economist and associate policy adviser, all of the Atlanta Fed's research department


September 21, 2015

What Do U.S. Businesses Know that New Zealand Businesses Don't? A Lot (Apparently).

A recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, picked up by the Financial Times and the Washington Post, suggests that when it comes to communicating their inflation objective, central banks have a lot of work to do. This conclusion is based primarily on two pieces of evidence.

The first piece is that when businesses in New Zealand are asked about their expectations for changes in "overall prices"—which presumably corresponds with their inflation expectation—the responses, on average, appear to be much too high relative to observed inflation trends. And the responses vary widely from business to business. According to this survey, the average firm in New Zealand expects 4 to 5 percent inflation on a year-ahead basis, and 3.5 percent inflation over the next five to 10 years. Those expectations are for the average firm. Apparently, about one in four firms in New Zealand think inflation in the year ahead will be more than 5 percent, and about one in six firms believe inflation will top 5 percent during the next five to 10 years. Certainly, these aren't the responses one would expect from businesses operating in an economy (like New Zealand) where the central bank has been targeting 2 percent inflation for the past 13 years, over which time inflation has averaged only 2.2 percent (and a mere 0.9 percent during the past four years).

But count us skeptical of this evidence. In this paper from last year, we challenge the assumption that asking firms (or households, for that matter) about expected changes in "overall prices" corresponds to an inflation prediction.

The second piece of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of inflation targeting is more direct—the authors of this paper actually asked New Zealand businesses a few questions about the central bank and its policies, including this one:

What annual percentage rate of change in overall prices do you think the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is trying to achieve? (Answer: ______%)

The distribution of answers by New Zealand firms is shown in the chart below. According to the survey, the median New Zealand firm appears to think the central bank's inflation target is 5 percent. Indeed, more than a third of firms in New Zealand reported that they think the central bank is targeting an inflation rate greater than 5 percent. Only about 12 percent of the firms were able to correctly identify their central bank's actual inflation target of 2 percent (actually, the New Zealand inflation target is a range of between 1 and 3 percent, centered on 2 percent).


If this weren't embarrassing enough for central bankers, the study also reports that New Zealand households (like U.S. households) don't seem to know who the head of the central bank is. In fact, the authors show that there are more online searches for "puppies" than for information about macroeconomic variables.

OK, to be honest, we don't find that last result very surprising. Puppies are adorable. Central bankers? Not so much. But we were very surprised to see just how high and wide-ranging businesses in New Zealand perceived their central bank's inflation target to be. We're surprised because that bit of information doesn't fit with our understanding of U.S. firms.

In December 2011, the month before the Fed officially announced an explicit numerical target for inflation, we wanted to know whether firms had already formed an opinion about the Fed's inflation objective. So we asked a panel of Southeast businesses the following question:

150921-table

What we learned was that 16 percent of the 151 firms who responded to our survey had no opinion regarding what rate of inflation the Federal Reserve was aiming for. But of the firms that had an opinion, 58 percent identified a 2 percent inflation target.

But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison to the recent survey of New Zealand businesses. In our 2011 survey, firms had only six options to choose from (including "no opinion"). It could be that our choice of options biased the responses away from high inflation values. So last week, we convened another panel of firms and asked the question in the same open-ended format given to New Zealanders:

What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run? (Answer: ______%)

The only material distinction between their question and ours is that we substituted the word "inflation" for the phrase "changes in overall prices." (For this special survey, we polled a national sample of firms that had never before answered one of our survey questions.) The chart below shows what we found relative to the results recently reported for New Zealand firms.


Our survey results look very similar to our results of four years ago. About one in five of the 102 firms that answered our survey was unsure about the Fed's inflation target. But almost 53 percent of the firms that responded answered 2 percent. (On average, U.S. firms judged the central bank's inflation target to be 2.2 percent, just a shade higher than our actual target.)

Furthermore, the distribution of responses to our survey was very tightly centered on 2 percent. The highest estimate of the Fed's inflation target (from only one firm) was 5 percent. So again, our results don't at all resemble what has been reported for the firms down under.

Why is there a glaring difference between what the survey of New Zealand firms found and what we're finding? Well, as noted earlier, we've got our suspicions, but we'll keep studying the issue. And in the meantime, have you seen this?

Photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, assistant policy adviser and economist, and
Photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

Editor's note: Learn more about inflation and the consumer price index in an ECONversations webcast featuring Atlanta Fed economist Brent Meyer.

September 4, 2015

5-Year Deflation Probability Moves Off Zero

Since 2010, our Bank has regularly posted 5-year deflation probabilities derived from prices of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) on our Deflation Probabilities web page. Each deflation probability, which measures the likelihood of a decline in the Consumer Price Index over a fixed five-year window, is estimated by comparing the price of a recently issued 5-year TIPS with a 10-year TIPS issued about five years earlier. Because the 5-year TIPS has more "deflation protection" than the 10-year TIPS, the implied deflation probability rises when the 5-year TIPS becomes more valuable relative to the 10-year TIPS. (See this macroblog post for a more detailed explanation, or this appendix with the mathematical details.)

From early September 2013 to the first week of August 2015, the five-year deflation probability estimated with the most recently issued 5-year TIPS was identically 0 as the chart shows.


Of course, we should not interpret this long period of zero probability of deflation too literally. It could easily be the case that the "true" deflation probability was slightly above zero but that confounding factors—such as differences in the coupon rates, maturity dates, or liquidity of the TIPS issues—prevented the model from detecting it.

Since August 11, however, the deflation probability has had its own "liftoff" of sorts, fluctuating between 0.0 and 1.3 percent over the 16-day period ending August 26 before rising steadily to 4.1 percent on September 2. Of course, this rise off zero could be temporary, as it proved to be in the summer of 2013.

How seriously should we take this recent liftoff? We can look at options prices on Consumer Price Index inflation (inflation caps and floors) to get a full probability distribution for future inflation; see this published article by economists Yuriy Kitsul and Jonathan Wright or a nontechnical summary in this New York Times article. An alternative is simply to ask professional forecasters for their subjective probabilities of inflation falling within various ranges like "1.0 to 1.4 percent," "1.5 to 1.9 percent," and so forth. The Philly Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters does just this, with the chart below showing probabilities of low inflation for the Consumer Price Index excluding food and energy (core CPI) from each of the August surveys since 2007.


Although the price index, and the horizon for the inflation outcome, differs from the TIPS-based deflation probability, we see that the shape of the curves is broadly similar to the one shown in the first chart. In the most recent survey, the probability that next year's core CPI inflation rate will be low was small and not particularly elevated relative to recent history. However, the deadline date for this survey was August 11, before liftoff in either the TIPS-based deflation probability or the recent volatility in global financial markets. So stay tuned.

Photo of Pat Higgins
By Pat Higgins, senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department