US economy

How the Fed lost the plot


Remember Goldilocks? We are unlikely to be hearing much about that fairy tale character in the near future. For Jay Powell, the US Federal Reserve chair, the odds are that the American economy will either run too hot or too cold, or go from one to the other. Unlike in the 1990s, or indeed for most of the last generation, it would be rash to bet on a soft landing for the US economy. The era of easy money was also one of relatively easy central banking. That job is getting much tougher. Goldilocks has left the building.

Some of the Fed’s woes are self-created. Its chief sin has been wishful thinking — a trait that was also shared by the markets. The Fed has not yet explained why it got inflation so wrong in the last year. For most of 2021, the Fed insisted higher inflation was “transitory” even as evidence accumulated that it was not. Then in November the Fed switched to admitting the problem was stickier than it thought. But it did not act as though it meant it. It took another four months to end its monthly injection of $40bn into a housing market that was already booming.

Even after proclaiming a turn in the interest rate cycle, the Fed signalled the shift would be modest. Its first interest rate increase of 25 basis points came in March — months after inflation began to overshoot its 2 per cent target. Real monetary conditions have in fact got easier since then. Inflation has risen by more than the Fed funds rate, which makes America’s real interest rate even more negative than it was before. It is as though Powell, reappointed Fed chair, cannot bring himself to let go of Goldilocks’ hand.

It is hard to blame him. For decades, the markets have thrived on the one-way bet that when conditions got rough the Fed would prop up asset prices with steep rate cuts and quantitative easing. It thus always made sense for investors to “buy on the dip”. Even when the Fed complained that it was the only game in town — in frustration with the fiscal gridlock that disabled Washington for most of the years after the financial crisis — it carried on playing. Not to have done so would have been far worse for everybody. But the super-rich have been the overwhelming beneficiaries, which has not been healthy for democracy.

On the one occasion the Fed did try to alter the rules, it was quickly whipped into line. Ben Bernanke’s attempt to end quantitative easing in 2013 was shut down by the market’s “taper tantrum”.

The pandemic returned the Fed to the 2008 mindset of “whatever it takes” — only this time with the fortunes of the non-rich explicitly in mind. A few months after Covid-19 struck, the Fed replaced its strict 2 per cent inflation target with far more fungible language. Almost everybody, not just the Fed, converted to the view that the US economy could be run far hotter than theory dictated for the sake of full employment.

That stance has now sadly been discredited. Inflation, it turns out, is still a death eater of income gains. In addition to fast wage growth, China’s addiction to “zero Covid” lockdowns and the war in Ukraine are likely to sustain inflation across a broad range of products for months. Though the Fed can do nothing to ease global supply chain problems, the risk is that it will have to overcompensate for its failure to tackle inflation sooner. On Wednesday, Powell is likely to announce the first 50 basis-point increase in years. That is already priced in. But with headline inflation at 8.6 per cent, a doubling of the Fed funds rate to 1 per cent is hardly disinflationary.

This underlines two growing threats to the Fed. The first is that it might be forced to induce a US recession with far higher interest rate increases than it now anticipates. The Fed’s last dot plot predicts a 1.9 per cent rate by the end of this year. Last week Deutsche Bank predicted the Fed would have to lift that rate to 5 or 6 per cent to tame inflation. For similar reasons, Morgan Stanley warned that the US was entering a bear market. Both views are a minority. But consensus forecasts, including the Fed’s, have been so badly off that it would be unwise to take the majority literally. The middle class wage renaissance may turn out to be fleeting.

The second worry is about the harm to the Fed’s credibility. Powell did not acknowledge that inflation was non-transitory until after President Joe Biden reappointed him. Doubtless this was a coincidence. Either way, the institution that was until recently seen as Washington’s most effective may be forced to relearn the lessons of the 1970s and early 1980s — even if today’s woes are not as great. Credibility is bought at great expense over a period of years. Alas, it can also be risked with remarkable ease.

edward.luce@ft.com



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