5 reasons Fed chair may let inflation rise this year: Don Pittis

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen has the power to crush the life out of inflation. But as new figures show increases in the cost of living creeping above two per cent, there are reasons why the world's most powerful central banker may not slam on the brakes.

Keeping a lid on inflation is part of Janet Yellen's job but in 2016 she may let prices rise

U.S. Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen assured a press conference yesterday that she was not engineering an inflation "overshoot," but there are reasons it may happen anyway. (Reuters)

Despite an announcement this week that U.S. core inflation is charging above two per cent, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen isn't raising interest rates. In fact, yesterday's statement by the U.S. central bank predicts rates will only rise half a percentage point this year, much less than they've suggested in the past. 

Asked directly at yesterday's news conference whether the bank was willing to let inflation climb, Yellen said, "We are not trying to engineer an overshoot for inflation." Nonetheless there are some good reasons why Americans, and by extension Canadians, might expect prices to rise faster than they have recently.

1. Fed uses different stats
American shoppers could see prices rise more than they are used to as inflation begins to creep higher, and some of those price rises could cross the border to Canada. (Reuters)

While the U.S. consumer price index released this week showed core inflation at 2.3 per cent, that is not the measure the Fed uses to make its interest rate decisions. For complicated reasons the Fed uses something called personal consumption expenditures or PCE.

Besides being generally lower than CPI according to the Wall Street Journal, the Fed's measure includes prices hidden from normal consumers such as money paid from insurers to hospitals that never passes through the consumers' hands. That means the prices that consumers actually feel can climb much higher before the Fed steps in.

2. Rising oil
Falling fuel prices are cut out of the Fed's measure of inflation, but when they start to rise again, consumers feel the pinch long before the Fed reins them in. (Reuters)

While it doesn't use CPI, the Fed still uses the "core" version PCE which is around 1.7 per cent. Core refers to the price rises you actually experience — with a difference. Statisticians strip out energy and other goods considered volatile. While a handy statistical tool for the Fed, it creates some complications depending on whether oil prices are rising or falling.

While oil prices were falling, stripping them out of core inflation made consumers feel prices were falling faster than the measure used by the Fed to tell it to lower interest rates. As oil prices rise, consumers feel their expenses rising sharply. But because oil is stripped out of core PCE, this measure tells the Fed to wait longer before raising rates.

3. Fear of falling
If Yellen has to cut rates due to an external crisis such as a sudden slowdown in China her hands are tied, but it would be relatively easy to raise rates if the economy picks up. (Reuters)

In spite of her commitment not to let inflation overshoot, several other comments from the Fed chair were more equivocal even if they were buried in denser language. At one point she admitted to "caution in removing policy accommodation." (My translation: "reluctance to raise rates.")

The reason was that if trouble develops, brought on by difficulties in China or Europe for example, it is hard to cut rates from current lows, but relatively easy to raise them should inflation turn up. In Yellen's words, "Monetary policy has greater scope to respond to upside than to downside changes in the outlook."

4. Labour catch-up
Despite a tight job market and pressure for higher wages, Yellen says wages have not seen a sustained pickup. (Reuters)

While prices have been creeping up and unemployment has been falling, inequality is still growing, something Yellen noted. Usually inflation consists of both prices and wages, but as Yellen said, "Wage growth has yet to show a sustained pickup."

Those who favour higher inflation insist it is one way to help wages rise. While saying employment gains could be hurt by "some significant overshoot" in inflation if the Fed left rates too low, Yellen seemed to leave open the chance of an overshoot, so long as it was not "significant." 

The fact is, the Fed is not forced into an all-or-nothing stance to prepare itself to battle long-term inflation. Yellen can continue to raise rates but at a pace slow enough to hold price increases to just slightly above the current inflation target. However, that is something the Fed chair might not want to say too distinctly for fear of propelling inflation expectations higher. 

5. Election year
Yellen will feel little pressure from President Barack Obama since this is his last term, but she still may be reluctant to be seen interfering in the election campaign. (Reuters)

Asked about one member of the Federal Reserve who had donated to a presidential political campaign, Yellen strongly asserted the Fed's complete lack of political bias.

However, in his book Money, Banking and the Economy, Barry Siegel points to the many times central bankers have refrained from raising rates as much as they might have during an election year. "Not to berate monetary authorities for bending to political pressure," he writes, "merely to acknowledge that no government institution … can avoid them."

Such influence would be less likely during a lame-duck presidency. And there is a way to put a better complexion on such an occurrence should it happen. As an appointed official, if the Fed chair felt that raising or cutting rates at a critical moment in a campaign would lead to charges of playing politics, it would be just as wise to wait a month or two before taking policy action.

Inaction during a campaign is so much less politically charged than being seen to interfere.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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