Monday, December 5, 2016

The Future is Uncertain, but So Is the Past

In a recently-released research note, Federal Reserve Board economists Alan Detmeister, David Lebow, and Ekaterina Peneva summarize new survey results on consumers' inflation perceptions. The well-known Michigan Survey of Consumers asks consumers about their expectations of future inflation (over the next year and 5- to 10- years), but does not ask them what they believe inflation has been in recent years.

In many macroeconomic models, inflation perceptions should be nearly perfect. After all, inflation statistics are publicly available, and anyone should be able to access them. The Federal Reserve commissioned the Michigan Survey of Consumers Research Center to survey consumers about their perceptions of inflation over the past year and over the past 5- to 10-years, using analogous wording to the questions about inflation expectations. As you might guess, consumers lack perfect knowledge of inflation in the recent past. If you're like most people (which, by dent of reading an economic blog, you are probably not), you probably haven't looked up inflation statistics or read the financial news recently.

But more surprisingly, consumers seem just as uncertain about past inflation, or even more so, as about future inflation. Take a look at these histograms of inflation perceptions and expectations from the February 2016 survey data:

Source: December 5 FEDS Note

Compare Panel A to Panel C. Panel A shows consumers' perceptions of inflation over the past 5- to 10-years, and Panel C shows their expectations for the next 5- to 10-years. Both panels show a great deal of dispersion, or variation across consumers. But also notice the response heaping at multiples of 5%. In both panels, over 10% of respondents choose 5%, and you also see more 10% responses than either 9% or 11% responses. In a working paper, I show that this response heaping is indicative of high uncertainty. Consumers choose a 5%, 10%, 15%, etc. response to indicate high imprecision in their estimates of future inflation. So it is quite surprising that even more consumers choose the 10, 15, 20, and 25% responses for perceptions of past inflation than for expectations of future inflation.

The response heaping at multiples of 5% is also quite substantial for short-term inflation perceptions (Panel B). Without access to the underlying data, I can't tell for sure whether it is more or less prevalent than for expectations of future short-term inflation, but it is certainly noticeable.

What does this tell us? People are just as unsure about inflation in the relatively recent past as they are about inflation in the near to medium-run future. And this says something important for monetary policymakers. A goal of the Federal Reserve is to anchor medium- to long-run inflation expectations at the 2% target. With strongly-anchored expectations, we should see most expectations near 2% with low uncertainty. If people are uncertain about longer-run inflation, it could either be that they are unaware of the Fed's inflation target, or aware but unconvinced that the Fed will actually achieve its target. It is difficult to say which is the case. The former would imply that we need more public informedness about economic concepts and the Fed, while the latter would imply that the Fed needs to improve its credibility among an already-informed public. Since perceptions are about as uncertain as expectations, this lends support to the idea that people are simply uninformed about inflation-- or that memory of economic statistics is relatively poor.


  1. This is very funny. Says a lot about theories incorporating not only inflation expectations but also rational expectations.

  2. When inflation is low, people do not pay much attention to inflation.

    1. And yet, these graphs show that, on average, people still tend to think inflation is a multiple of the reality. As likely as anything else, it's sociopolitical reasons that cause people to imagine inflation (and public debt) are much higher than they actually are.

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  4. Hi, I was just reading a recent piece at Roosevelt, and I would very much appreciate your perspective on a rule change to international banking, that will also significantly effect certainty.

    The rule, to require sovereign debt to be financed with Commons Shares (to call it a thing) that may be claimed by each adult human on the planet, for deposit in trust with their bank, as part of an actual social contract, would distribute to each a quantum unit of fiat, a right to loan (say a million USD equivalent) into existence to finance sovereign debt.

    I believe this will positively effect a number of shortcomings inherent in the existing economic system, chiefly in the provision of enfranchisement with ownership of a quantum of secure capital, essential for a vote in capitalism

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