May 16, 2019
By Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider
SANTA BARBARA, Calif./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Worried that current low inflation expectations will sap the U.S. central bank’s ability to combat a future downturn, two Federal Reserve officials on Thursday made an unusual pitch: if inflation rises unexpectedly, the Fed should lay out the welcome mat.
“It might take some surprise, that maybe wage growth all of a sudden does pick up, and then that leads to high inflation,” Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari told reporters after a talk at an economic symposium put on by the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And then, importantly, we shouldn’t respond very much.”
Speaking in Washington, Fed Governor Lael Brainard floated a similar approach, telling members of the National Tax Association that if prices rise, because of higher import costs, for example, the Fed could take advantage of the situation by encouraging an “opportunistic reflation,” and “communicate that a mild overshooting of inflation is consistent with our goal.”
Fighting inflation has long been a bedrock principle of global central banking. Under standard economic thinking, unemployment below a certain level helps boost income and wages, leading to higher inflation.
But with inflation running stubbornly below the Fed’s 2% target despite unemployment at a 50-year low of 3.6%, Fed officials are beginning to rethink the view that a stronger labor market inevitably pushes inflation uncomfortably higher.
The remarks on Thursday from Brainard and Kashkari signal an appetite for the Fed to remain unmoved, possibly for years, in the face of upward price increases.
Fed officials are undertaking a year-long effort to see if they can find better strategies for meeting their inflation target and addressing the weakened relationship between low unemployment and price increases.
Notably, neither Brainard nor Kashkari called for cutting interest rates to try to boost inflation, as U.S. President Donald Trump has urged and traders of short-term interest rates are betting the Fed will need to do before the end of the year.
Inflation by the Fed’s preferred gauge is running at 1.6%, well below its 2% target.
But both floated the idea that if inflation does surge unexpectedly, the Fed should make the most of it.
While Kashkari leaned on the possibility that pay rises could generate an unexpected and welcome surge in inflation, Brainard pointed to the possibility of higher import costs.
Many economists have said that newly increased U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, imposed by Trump as part of a bid to force trade concessions from the world’s second-largest economy, could lead to higher prices for U.S. consumers.
Walmart Inc warned of exactly that on Thursday.
The central bank in December wrapped up three years of rate hikes with a ninth quarter-of-a-percentage-point increase that brought the Fed’s target range for short-term rates to 2.25%-2.5%, and policymakers have since signaled they will keep rates there for the rest of the year.
(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)