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July 1, 2014

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Posted: 01 Jul 2014 12:06 AM PDT

FRBSF Economic Letter: Will Inflation Remain Low?

Posted: 30 Jun 2014 12:38 PM PDT

Yifan Cao and Adam Shapiro:

Will Inflation Remain Low?, by Yifan Cao and Adam Shapiro, FRBSF Economic Letter: Over the past two years, inflation has remained persistently low. As measured by the core personal consumption expenditures price index (core PCEPI), which excludes volatile energy and food prices, annual inflation has been below the Federal Reserve's 2% target since April 2012. Given the recent path of inflation, a natural question to consider is how likely it is to remain low in the future. Recent research using financial market forecasts (Bauer and Christensen 2014) shows that inflation will remain low going forward. In this Economic Letter, we examine the outlook for inflation using model-based forecasts. 
We rely on the well-known Phillips curve model and examine its implications for inflation over the next two years. In its most basic form, this model posits that inflation depends on past inflation and a measure of slack in the overall economy. We show that a basic Phillips curve implies that inflation is likely to remain low over the next two years. 
As with any forecasting model, the basic Phillips curve is sensitive to the assumptions inherent in its underlying structure. The basic model has very few components and leaves out several potentially important determinants of inflation. Indeed, over the years, numerous extensions to the basic Phillips curve framework have incorporated additional factors that are likely to affect the dynamics of inflation. In this Economic Letter, we focus on two simple extensions that are potentially important to the current inflation outlook. 
The first extension incorporates anchored inflation expectations with the constraint that long-run inflation eventually returns to the Fed's inflation target of 2% (see Williams 2006, Stock and Watson 2010, and Cogley, Primiceri, and Sargent 2010). The second extension uses an alternative measure of economic slack that excludes the long-term unemployed and focuses on the short-term unemployed (see Gordon 2013, Rudebusch and Williams 2014, and Watson 2014). A Phillips curve model that incorporates these two extensions predicts a path for inflation that is still low but is higher than implied by the basic model. 
The basic Phillips curve model
The Phillips curve framework is based on the premise that, during times of economic prosperity when overall demand rises higher than overall supply in the economy, there will be increasing pressure to push prices up. By contrast, during times of economic distress when demand falls relative to supply, there is a downward pressure on prices. The model therefore suggests that inflation depends on some indicator of unused productive capacity in the economy, or "slack." While there are numerous measures of slack, a popular choice among economists is a measure referred to as the unemployment gap. This gap is defined as the difference between the level of the current unemployment rate and what the unemployment rate should be if the economy were operating at its full capacity. This latter measure is referred to as NAIRU, or the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, and an estimate of it is produced by the Congressional Budget Office. The underlying intuition is that, when the economy is in distress, the unemployment rate will lie above NAIRU. 
The basic Phillips curve describes the behavior of current inflation as a function of the past unemployment gap and past inflation. We estimate this model using data going back to 1985. We then use the parameters from our estimates to project future inflation, assuming that the unemployment gap follows some specified future path. We assume that the unemployment rate for the second quarter of 2014 will be 6.3%, as measured in May 2014, and thereafter it will move at a steady pace toward 5.55% by the end of 2015, which is the average unemployment rate projection from the Fed's most recent Summary of Economic Projections (Board of Governors 2014). 

Figure 1
Projected PCEPI inflation: Basic Phillips curve model

Projected PCEPI inflation: Basic Phillips curve model

Sources: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and
Board of Governors, Summary of Economic Projections.

Figure 1 depicts actual inflation, measured by the annualized quarterly change in core PCEPI and the projection for inflation using the basic Phillips curve model. The basic model implies inflation is very persistent and projects core PCEPI inflation will remain below 2% through the end of 2015. 
Extensions to the basic model
The basic Phillips curve is a parsimonious model and therefore leaves out a myriad of different variables that may affect the path of inflation. Indeed, throughout the past few decades, economists have extended the basic Phillips curve in a host of different ways. Looking at these variations can help give some insights into how certain components can change the outlook for future inflation. For this Economic Letter, we consider two simple extensions of the model that are particularly relevant given the current situation. 
In our first exercise, we examine how much a credible Fed inflation target would affect the inflation forecast generated by the Phillips curve. Specifically, we impose a restriction that steady-state core PCEPI inflation lies at the Fed's perceived inflation target, currently 2%. This is equivalent to assuming that, on average, consumers and firms believe that future inflation is "well anchored" around the Fed's inflation target level (see Williams 2006). The assumption is reasonable if firms are forward-looking, setting prices based on expectations of future demand and cost, and incorporating the Fed's explicit inflation target. 

Figure 2
Projected inflation: Basic vs. anchored expectations

Projected inflation: Basic vs. anchored expectations

Sources: BEA and Board of Governors, Summary of Economic Projections.

Figure 2 depicts this Phillips curve model that imposes inflation expectations anchored at the Fed's target, alongside the basic model projection. The modified projection is slightly higher, but still lies below 2% by the end of 2015. This slow movement of inflation from its current level, even assuming anchored expectations at 2%, highlights the strong persistence of inflation implied by the data and the model. Generally, most models of inflation dynamics agree on this key trait, that is, inflation moves sluggishly over time. 

Figure 3
Breakdown of unemployment: Short-term vs. long-term

Breakdown of unemployment: Short-term vs. long-term

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In our second exercise, we alter the measure of slack used in the Phillips curve inflation forecast. The years since the most recent recession have been marked not just by higher overall unemployment, but also by different durations of unemployment taking divergent paths. As Figure 3 shows, the short-term unemployment rate, defined as the number of people out of work for less than 27 weeks divided by the labor force, has dropped precipitously since the most recent recession ended. In terms of the short-term unemployed, the economy is back to its historical average. By contrast, the long-term unemployment rate has remained elevated. As Robert Gordon (2013) and Mark Watson (2014) recently pointed out, these long-term unemployed may be exerting less upward pressure on wages and prices than the short-term unemployed. For instance, this may be the case if firms compete more for potential employees who have only recently become unemployed than for those whose skills may have eroded or who may otherwise be scarred by prolonged unemployment.
For this exercise, we alter our measure of economic slack to account for this dichotomy. Rather than using overall unemployment, we focus on the short-term unemployed. Specifically, we create a short-term unemployment gap measure by gauging how monthly rates over the 1985 to 2014 sample period deviate from the average short-term unemployment rate. 

Figure 4
Projected inflation: Short-term unemployment as slack

Projected inflation: Short-term unemployment as slack

Sources: BEA and Board of Governors, Summary of Economic Projections.

Figure 4 shows that the projections for inflation using the short-term unemployment gap exceed the projections of the basic model using the overall unemployment gap. If we also impose well-anchored inflation expectations, inflation rises at a relatively fast pace, surpassing 2% by the end of 2015. The reason for the higher inflation projection is that, in terms of the short-term unemployment rate, there is currently little economic slack. In fact, the short-term unemployment rate projects excess demand over the next two years, which implies strong upward pressure on prices. 
Inflation, as measured by the core PCEPI, currently stands below the Fed's 2% target. A simple empirical Phillips curve implies that inflation will remain relatively low in the near future. Estimating just how low depends a great deal on the assumptions in the model. We test two specific variations to the basic model, altering the measure of slack and the assumptions about inflation expectations. We find that these variations produce some higher projections for future inflation. However, it is difficult to prove that any one specification of the model is the true one. Instead, examining the effects of various specifications can be instructive in exploring how various factors affect forecasts of inflation.
Bauer, Michael D., and Jens H.E. Christensen. 2014. "Financial Market Outlook for Inflation." FRBSF Economic Letter 2014-14 (May 12).
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. 2014. "Economic Projections of Federal Reserve Board Members and Federal Reserve Bank Presidents, June 2014." Table 1, Summary of Economic Projections.  
Cogley, Timothy, Giorgio E. Primiceri, and Thomas J. Sargent. 2010. "Inflation-Gap Persistence in the U.S." American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 2(1), pp. 43–69.
Gordon, Robert. 2013. "The Phillips Curve Is Alive and Well: Inflation and the NAIRU during the Slow Recovery." NBER Working Paper 19390. 
Rudebusch, Glenn, and John Williams. 2014. "A Wedge in the Dual Mandate: Monetary Policy and Long-Term Unemployment." FRB San Francisco Working Paper 2014-14 (May).
Stock, James, and Mark Watson. 2010. "Modeling Inflation after the Crisis." NBER Working Paper 16488.
Watson, Mark. 2014. "Inflation Persistence, the NAIRU, and the Great Recession." American Economic Review 104(5, May), pp. 31–36. 
Williams, John. 2006. "Inflation Persistence in an Era of Well-Anchored Inflation Expectations." FRBSF Economic Letter 2006-27 (October 13).

Education and Inequality

Posted: 30 Jun 2014 11:51 AM PDT

At macroblog, Julie L. Hotchkiss, a research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed, and Fernando Rios-Avila, a research scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College look at the relationship betwen education and inequality:

... There is little debate about whether income inequality has been rising in the United States for some time, and more dramatically recently. The degree to which education has exacerbated inequality or has the potential to reduce inequality, however, offers a more robust debate. We intend this post to add to the evidence that growing educational attainment has contributed to rising inequality. This assertion is not meant to imply that education has been the only source of the rise in inequality or that educational attainment is undesirable. The message is that growth in educational attainment is clearly associated with growing inequality, and understanding that association will be central to the understanding the overall growth in inequality in the United States.

More here.

'How Securitization Really Works'

Posted: 30 Jun 2014 10:22 AM PDT

I didn't realize the share of the securitization market that is government-backed was so high. This is from Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

How securitization really works: ... The success of U.S. securitization – as an alternative to bank finance – is a key factor behind the current push of euro-area authorities to increase securitization. ... Because finance is predominantly bank based in Europe – and banks faced heightened capital requirements – governments and potential borrowers are anxious to shift at least some financing into capital markets (including bonds and equities). ...
Yet, emulating American securitization ... probably means providing government guarantees at a scale that people currently do not envision. ...
To see what we mean, we can look at a few numbers regarding U.S. securitization. According to the Federal Reserve's flow of funds statistics (the Z.1 release), total securitization stood at $9,360.4 billion as of end-March 2014... But government-backed securitizations – these are mortgages, student loans and the like – accounted for $7,721 billion of this total... That is, only 18% of U.S. securitization – primarily auto loans and credit card debt – are free from government guarantees! Even at the peak of private-sector securitization in mid-2007 ... the government-backed share exceeded 60%. ...
To put these numbers into perspective, we can look at another part of the U.S. financial system: insured bank deposits. You may be surprised to learn that ... only ... 61% of bank deposits are government backed ... versus 82% of securitizations. ...
We believe that U.S. government backing of securitizations can (and should) be scaled back... Nevertheless, it also seems difficult to jumpstart a large-scale securitization market in Europe without sizable public support. ...
The bottom line: If the euro area wishes to get securitization going in a big way, it will still need more of the mutual insurance among nations that has been so difficult to achieve. That doesn't seem to be in the cards for now.

'Moaning Moguls'

Posted: 30 Jun 2014 09:38 AM PDT

James Surowiecki explains why we have "Moaning Moguls":

Moaning Moguls, by James Surowiecki: The past few years have been very good to Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and C.E.O. of the Blackstone Group, the giant private-equity firm. ... Schwarzman is now worth more than ten billion dollars. You wouldn't think he'd have much to complain about. ... He recently grumbled that the U.S. middle class has taken to "blaming wealthy people" for its problems. Previously, he has said that it might be good to raise income taxes on the poor so they had "skin in the game," and that proposals to repeal the carried-interest tax loophole—from which he personally benefits—were akin to the German invasion of Poland.
Schwarzman isn't alone..., the basic sentiment is surprisingly common. ...[examples]... That's not how it's always been. ...
If today's corporate kvetchers are more concerned with the state of their egos than with the state of the nation, it's in part because their own fortunes aren't tied to those of the nation the way they once were. In the postwar years, American companies depended largely on American consumers. Globalization has changed that... The well-being of the American middle class just doesn't matter as much to companies' bottom lines. And there's another change. Early in the past century, there was a true socialist movement in the United States, and in the postwar years the Soviet Union seemed to offer the possibility of a meaningful alternative to capitalism. Small wonder that the tycoons of those days were so eager to channel populist agitation into reform. Today..., corporate chieftains have little to fear... Moguls complain about their feelings because that's all anyone can really threaten.

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