Friday, August 18, 2017

The Low Misery Dilemma

The other day, Tim Duy tweeted:

It took me a moment--and I'd guess I'm not alone--to even recognize how remarkable this is. The New York Times ran an article with the headline "Fed Officials Confront New Reality: Low Inflation and Low Unemployment." Confront, not embrace, not celebrate.

The misery index is the sum of unemployment and inflation. Arthur Okun proposed it in the 1960s as a crude gauge of the economy, based on the fact that high inflation and high unemployment are both miserable (so high values of the index are bad). The misery index was pretty low in the 60s, in the 6% to 8% range, similar to where it has been since around 2014. Now it is around 6%. Great, right?

The NYT article notes that we are in an opposite situation to the stagflation of the 1970s and early 80s, when both high inflation and high unemployment were concerns. The misery index reached a high of 21% in 1980. (The unemployment data is only available since 1948).

Very high inflation and high unemployment are each individually troubling for the social welfare costs they impose (which are more obvious for unemployment). But observed together, they also troubled economists for seeming to run contrary to the Phillips curve-based models of the time. The tradeoff between inflation and unemployment wasn't what economists and policymakers had believed, and their misunderstanding probably contributed to the misery.

Though economic theory has evolved, the basic Phillips curve tradeoff idea is still an important part of central bankers' models. By models, I mean both the formal quantitative models used by their staffs and the way they think about how the world works. General idea: if the economy is above full employment, that should put upward pressure on wages, which should put upward pressure on prices.

So low unemployment combined with low inflation seem like a nice problem to have, but if they are indeed a new reality-- that is, something that will last--then there is something amiss in that chain of logic. Maybe we are not at full employment, because the natural rate of unemployment is a lot lower than we thought, or we are looking at the wrong labor market indicators. Maybe full employment does not put upward pressure on wages, for some reason, or maybe we are looking at the wrong wage measures. For example, San Francisco Fed researchers argue that wage growth measures should be adjusted in light of retiring Baby Boomers. Or maybe the link between wage and price inflation has weakened.

Until policymakers feel confident that they understand why we are experiencing both low inflation and low unemployment, they can't simply embrace the low misery. It is natural that they will worry that they are missing something, and that the consequences of whatever that is could be disastrous. The question is what to do in the meanwhile.

There are two camps for Fed policy. One camp favors a wait-and-see approach: hold rates steady until we actually observe inflation rising above 2%. Maybe even let it stay above 2% for awhile, to make up for the lengthy period of below-2% inflation. The other camp favors raising rates preemptively, just in case we are missing some sign that inflation is about to spiral out of control. This latter possibility strikes me as unlikely, but I'm admittedly oversimplifying the concerns, and also haven't personally experienced high inflation.

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