Is inflation a friend or foe?

October 15, 2020

Is inflation a friend or foe?

On August 21 2020, following an extensive review, Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell announced that the central bank would shift to a new policy framework – flexible average inflation targeting. This will see the Fed continue to target inflation at 2%, but over longer periods. In future, if inflation persistently fails to meet the 2% target, it will be allowed to run moderately above target such that inflation averages 2% over time. By making this change, the Federal Open Markets Committee hopes to anchor longer-term inflation expectations.

Since the 2% US inflation target was introduced in 2012 by Ben Bernanke (former chair of the US Federal Reserve), inflation as measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index has persistently failed to meet that target over time. A considerable gap has grown between the recorded level of prices and the level had inflation met the 2% target.

This has led to criticism that pre-emptive tightening of monetary policy to dampen perceived inflationary pressures (that have then failed to materialize in actual price rises) has simply damaged economic growth unnecessarily.

The clear message from this change in policy framework is that investors should expect monetary policy to remain at highly simulative levels for an extended period. Even if inflation were to accelerate from current levels, the Fed would not just tolerate inflation above target, but in our view it is actively seeking it.

Given the extent of the undershoot in recent years and the level of unemployment, it could be argued that the Fed would now accept quite an extended period of above-target inflation if it materialized. The Fed’s assessment of the Phillips Curve has also now radically changed, and it has noted that the maximum level of employment is a “broad-based and inclusive goal”.

The benefits of high employment to income inequality now appear to outweigh any concerns that low levels of unemployment will generate wage inflation. In our view, in the short-term there seems little reason to fear inflation, with abundant levels of excess capacity following the coronavirus crisis. But many of the disinflationary forces that have held inflation at bay in recent years now appear to be drawing to a close. A future period of above-trend growth may have a very different inflationary outcome and be met by a central bank reluctant to take measures to deal with it.

David Hooker, portfolio manager, Insight Investment

1 Federal Reserve: Why does the Federal Reserve aim for inflation of 2 percent over the longer run? Accessed 10/8/2020.

2 A.W. Phillips created an economic theory known as the Phillips Curve, which stated that inflation and unemployment have a stable and inverse relationship. If unemployment declines, then the theory suggests that inflation should rise.

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