Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke spent six years pushing for an inflation goal. Now that he has it, some investors are betting he’ll breach the 2 percent target in the short run to lower unemployment.
The Fed chairman told lawmakers last week that an increase in energy costs will boost inflation “temporarily while reducing consumers’ purchasing power.” He also said the central bank will adopt a “balanced approach” as it pursues its twin goals of price stability and full employment, which it defines as a jobless rate of between 5.2 percent and 6 percent.
“The chairman seemed to suggest they will tolerate a misdemeanor on inflation as unemployment continues to fall toward their goal” over several years, said Mark Spindel, chief investment officer at Potomac River Capital, a hedge fund that manages $250 million in Washington.
Policy makers at a March 13 meeting probably won’t deviate from their commitment to hold the main interest rate close to zero at least through late 2014, even if their forecast shows a burst of energy-driven inflation, said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. They’ll probably be more concerned that rising prices will hold back real spending, impeding growth and improvement in the job market, he said.
“The chairman said, ‘We think it is transitory, we are sticking to our guns, we are going to focus on the drag on income,’” Crandall said. Bernanke explained in his testimony how under a strategy of flexible inflation targeting, “a temporary spike in the price indexes can be a reason for the central bank to be more generous rather than less,” Crandall said.
Crude oil prices have risen 32 percent since the end of the third quarter of 2011 and 6 percent this year. Energy prices could hold the Federal Open Market Committee’s inflation target benchmark, the personal consumption expenditures price index, above the Fed’s 2 percent inflation objective for much of 2012, Crandall said. The PCE rose 2.4 percent for the 12 months ending in January.
The FOMC will probably acknowledge the increase in energy costs in its March 13 statement, while noting that long-term inflation expectations are stable, as they did in March last year, said Antulio Bomfim, senior managing director at Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington and a former Fed staff economist.
Higher energy costs “put upward pressure on inflation, but it is also a tax on consumers,” Bomfim said. “It is not clear that inflation is going to be their main concern next week.”
Also, workers have weak leverage for increasing wages to compensate for higher costs. Real average weekly earnings have fallen for 10 consecutive months on a year-over-year basis. As energy costs eat up more of consumer expenditures, companies have difficulty raising prices on other goods and services.
“Higher prices have taken a toll on all customers,” W. Rodney McMullen, president and chief operating officer of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., the largest U.S. grocery chain, said on a March 1 investor call.
Labor’s weak bargaining power partly stems from an unemployment rate that probably didn’t budge last month from the 8.3 percent level of January, according to a Bloomberg News survey of economists. The Labor Department plans to release its monthly report on employment on March 9.
Bernanke in Feb. 29 testimony in Congress said the Fed’s emphasis on inflation or employment depends on the “magnitudes of the deviations” of each goal from the targeted rate and the time expected before the indicators align with the central bank’s objectives.
The FOMC estimated in January that inflation will be at or below its 2 percent goal for the next three years, according to the central tendency estimate. Even if energy prices stay at the current level and push up inflation in the near term, that may not cause the Fed to revise its forecast of 1.6 percent to 2 percent inflation in 2014, said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York.
At the same time, Coronado said, the drag on growth from costlier energy may slow the 3.1 to 2.3 percentage-point reduction in the unemployment rate that the Fed believes is necessary to return the U.S. to full employment, according to the central tendency estimates of policy makers.
Even if price gains stay above the Fed’s goal for a while, the central bank may not alter policy because unemployment is further from its objective, said Mihir Worah, a managing director at Pacific Investment Management Co. who oversees $105 billion in investments aimed at generating returns higher than inflation.
“To the extent that PCE inflation is somewhere around 3 percent while unemployment is still above 8 percent, I think there will still be no reaction from the Fed,” said Worah, who’s based in Newport Beach, California.
The expectation among investors that the Fed will allow for a temporary overshoot on the price goal has been “unambiguously bullish” for Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, Worah said.
TIPS have increased 4.2 percent since the end of the third quarter, compared with a 0.8 percent gain for Treasuries, according to indexes produced by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Bernanke has previously advocated holding policy steady as price shocks drove inflation higher.
In September 2007, capacity utilization rose to 81.3 percent, the highest since a recession that ended in November 2001. Unemployment averaged 4.5 percent in the first six months of the year. Inflation exceeded policy makers’ implicit target, with the PCE price index’s annual rates averaging 2.5 percent during the first six months.
Still, the FOMC left the benchmark lending rate at 5.25 percent until Sept. 18, when it cut the rate by half a point as the financial crisis began to unfold.
“Even with the likelihood of a pause next week, key members of the FOMC seem to want to take out another bit of growth insurance,” said Spindel of Potomac River Capital. “Now is not the time to be complacent.”
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