10%. That’s what February’s flash crash shaved off of the major US equity indexes. And now Gerome Powell, the Fed’s incoming chairman, is saying that he’s fine with inflation exceeding the target rate of 2%. Put another way, he’s promising that monetary policy will be as loose as necessary to keep asset prices elevated and the wealth affect generating lots of debt-driven consumer spending. And – illustrating the coordinated nature of the assault — other Fed heads and money managers jumped right in with ringing endorsements of higher inflation:
So say a number of veteran Fed watchers who argue that the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee would tolerate a moderate rise in inflation above its 2 percent goal after years of falling below that objective. Powell delivers his first testimony to Congress as Fed chief on Feb. 27 and March 1.
“I’ve had some hawks on the committee surprise me and say they wouldn’t be worried about a modest overshoot” as long as it’s below 2.5 percent, former Fed governor Laurence Meyer said, without identifying who those anti-inflation stalwarts were. Inflation currently is 1.7 percent.
That suggests investors’ fears that U.S. central bankers will react aggressively to signs of stirring price pressures are misplaced. Meyer, who now heads consultants Monetary Policy Analytics in Washington, does see the Fed raising interest rates four times this year — one more than policy makers projected in December — but said that’s likely the limit.
“Two and a quarter percent inflation isn’t going to scare anybody” at the Fed, said Roberto Perli, a partner at Cornerstone Macro LLC in Washington, who sees three rate hikes this year. “Two and a half percent is kind of the boundary,” the former Fed economist added.
Some Fed officials have already voiced a willingness to see inflation rise above their objective.
“Let me be clear: A small and transitory overshoot of 2 percent inflation would not be a problem,” William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in a Jan. 11 speech. “Were it to occur, it would demonstrate that our inflation target is symmetric, and it would help keep inflation expectations well-anchored around our longer-run objective.”
Speaking at Bloomberg Business event on Feb. 21, Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari suggested that the central bank should tolerate above-target price rises for a while.
“We’ve been around 1.5 percent inflation for the last five or six years,” he told Bloomberg Television’s Michael McKee after the event. “If we really are serious about a symmetric 2 percent target then we should be equally comfortable — or uncomfortable — with 2.5 percent inflation for the next five years.
“That’s how I interpret a symmetric inflation target,” he added. “But different people may interpret it differently.”
While it’s likely that others will see it differently — Kashkari is, after all, one of the Fed’s most dovish members — the central bank has signaled a willingness in the past to allow inflation to rise to 2.5 percent.
In December 2012, the FOMC pledged to keep interest rates pinned near zero as long as “inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal.”
Of course, the Fed’s tolerance for above-target inflation will depend on what else is going in the economy and financial markets.
A lot will also depend on what happens to inflation expectations, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc.
“They would be comfortable overshooting the 2 percent target just as long as inflation expectations remain anchored,” he said. “If they look like they’re becoming unanchored, that will be the Rubicon they just won’t cross.”
Investors currently expect average annual increases in the consumer-price index of 2.1 percent over the next 10 years, based on trading in the bond market. That’s up from last year’s low of 1.67 percent set in June.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard called the rise in inflation expectations a “welcome development” on Monday at a National Association for Business Economics conference in Washington.
It’s absolutely to be expected that the Fed responds to market instability with something. Starting in the mid-1990s that’s been the standing policy. When a developing country defaults the Fed cuts rates and guarantees bank loans. When a hedge fund implodes, the Fed cuts rates and engineers a bailout. When the housing bubble bursts the Fed cuts rates to zero and dumps $4+ trillion into the banking system.
So now we know that when the stock market “corrects,” that is, falls by 10%, the Fed will up its inflation target, offering easier-than-expected money to re-ignite the buy-the-dip animal spirits of speculators and individual margin buyers. If this doesn’t work, the pace of rate increases will be scaled back. If that doesn’t work QE will return on an even bigger scale, followed by the direct purchase of equities by the Fed, ECB and BoJ.
We also know that these guys, to use Jim Rickards’ turn of phrase, “think they’re working a thermostat when they really have a nuclear reactor.” The former can be adjusted up and down in a linear fashion while the latter will go critical if taken beyond a certain point. Which is how inflation expectations work. Once a society realizes that its government is aggressively devaluing the currency they give up on it, converting available cash to real things, which sends prices soaring and the currency plunging. The Fed, in its desperation to elevate asset prices, seems intent on discovering where that point is.