Managing Inflation Expectations: 21 May 2021

Long ago and far away, economists thought they understood the relationship between unemployment and inflation. The prevailing wisdom back in the day: higher (lower) inflation aligned with lower (higher) unemployment. Believing in this relationship appeared to be reasonable for the 1960s. But then something happened to shatter this conviction: the 1970s.

The Phillips curve, as the relationship was called, seemed to work just fine as the 1960s came to a close. In fact, the connection seemed almost too good to be true. As it turned out, it was.

Milton Friedman famously saw the writing on the wall in a 1968 speech that effectively warned that while monetary policy could be effective for some objectives, managing the relationship between inflation and unemployment isn’t one of them.

The rest, as they say, is history and economists long ago gave up the ghost for thinking that central banks can raise inflation as a tool to lower unemployment. That past several decades make this blatantly clear. On the eve of the pandemic in February 2020, for example, US unemployment fell to 3.5%, a 50-year low while inflation remain muted, at roughly 2%, more or less where it had been a decade earlier.

The Phillips curve has long been dead as a macroeconomic framework, but it’s still not obvious what’s replaced it. Yes, there are many would-be modeling heirs to the throne, but we live in a world of countless princes and no king. Instead, thinking about inflation has become a quasi-religion, where advocates of one sect or another cherry pick data and economic narratives to promote a particular macro cause celebre.

Where does that leave us in the current environment? In a precarious state. What to do? Watch the data. We may be cut loose from a robust inflation model, but the truth will out via the numbers. The drawback, unfortunately, is that the truth by way of empirical econometrics arrives one data point at a time.

Alas, beggars can’t be choosy and so launches this periodic review of where we stand on the US inflation front. For those who haven’t been watching this sport, one team insists that we are on the threshold of a long run of higher inflation spawned by the usual suspects: government spending via monetary and fiscal channels. Skeptics rightly point out that we’ve been here before. To which the inflationistas reply, yes, but it’s bigger this time.

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Disclosures: None.

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