Yet supply-chain problems aren’t the whole story. Even aside from bottlenecks, the economy’s productive capacity has been limited by the Great Resignation, the apparent unwillingness of many Americans idled by the pandemic to return to work. There are still four million fewer Americans working than there were on the eve of the pandemic, but labor markets look very tight, with record numbers of workers quitting their jobs (a sign that they believe new jobs are easy to find) and understaffed employers bidding wages up at the fastest rate in decades. So spending does appear to be exceeding productive capacity, not so much because spending is all that high but because capacity is unexpectedly low.
Inflation caused by supply-chain disruptions will probably fall within a few months, but it’s not at all clear whether Americans who have dropped out of the labor force will return. And even if inflation does come down it might stay uncomfortably high for a while. Remember, the first postwar bout of inflation, which in hindsight looks obviously transitory, lasted for two years.
So how should policy respond?
To squeeze or not to squeeze, that is the question
I’m a card-carrying member of Team Transitory. But I would reconsider my allegiance if I saw evidence that expectations of future inflation are starting to drive prices — that is, if there were widespread stories of producers raising prices, even though costs and demand for their products aren’t exceptionally high, because they expect rising costs and/or rising prices on the part of competitors over the next year or two. That’s what kept inflation high even through recessions in the 1970s.
So far I don’t see signs that this is happening — although the truth is that we don’t have good ways to track the relevant expectations. I’ve been looking at stories in the business press and surveys like the Fed’s Beige Book, which asks many businesses about economic conditions; I haven’t (yet?) seen reports of expectations-driven inflation. Bond markets are essentially predicting a temporary burst of inflation that will subside over time. Consumers say that this is a bad time to buy many durable goods, which they wouldn’t say if they expected prices to rise even more in the future.
For what it’s worth, the Federal Reserve, while it has stopped using the term “transitory,” still appears to believe that we’re mostly looking at a fairly short-term problem, declaring in its most recent statement, “Supply and demand imbalances related to the pandemic and the reopening of the economy have continued to contribute to elevated levels of inflation.”
Still, an unmooring of inflation expectations is possible. Given that, what should policymakers be doing right now? And by “policymakers” I basically mean the Fed; political posturing aside, since, given congressional deadlock, nothing that will make a material difference to inflation is likely to happen on the fiscal side, inflation policy mainly means monetary policy.
I recently participated in a meeting that included a number of the most prominent figures in the inflation debate — a meeting in which, to be honest, those of us still on Team Transitory were definitely in the minority. The meeting was off the record, but I asked Larry Summers and Jason Furman, a top economist in the Obama administration, to share by email summaries of their positions.