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Clive Crook

Central Bankers Are Handcuffed by Old Narratives

Sudden shifts in views on inflation are a reminder of the danger of narratives that encompass too much and tie down policy makers.

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Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America

In the space of a few short months, the prevailing narrative on U.S. inflation has veered from “It’s transitory” to “We have a problem.” This week, the Federal Reserve took another step toward acknowledging this, raising its policy rate by 50 basis points and leading investors to expect a faster pace of tightening from now on. That’s fine, you might say, the facts have changed – and to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, you change your story. What’s interesting is that the story has changed more abruptly than the facts.

Economic policy seems especially susceptible to a certain dynamic. Ideas get fixed too firmly and for too long, so when they’re forced to change, the shift is violent. Narratives drive decisions, and stories shape events, rather than the other way round. The new account of inflation is an arresting example.