Friday's report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed U.S. inflation near zero for January. Stated as an annual rate using unrounded data, inflation was 0.36 percent, exactly the same as December. Increases in prices for apparel and transportation services helped to offset lower energy prices. Follow this link to view or download a classroom ready slideshow of the latest U.S. inflation data.
According to the textbook prescription, the ideal time to cut government spending and tighten monetary policy is when the economy begins to approach full employment and the first signs of excessive inflation appear. Economists call that kind of preemptive policy countercyclical because it helps to keep an impending boom from running out of control. On the other hand, premature tightening when a recovery is still incomplete is procyclical. A procyclical policy makes slumps deeper, recoveries slower, and booms hotter than they would be if the economy were left to its own devices.
This week's news from Washington suggests a turn from countercyclical to procyclical in macroeconomic policy, despite the fact that inflation is near zero, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and GDP is barely growing, if it is growing at all.
As far as fiscal policy is concerned, all eyes are focused on the package of across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester, which will come into effect on March first if nothing is done. Yes, another midnight deal might modify the sequester, but fiscal policy will be tightened in any event, for the simple reason that both parties want it to be. The only difference between them is that the Republicans want tightening via spending cuts alone, while the Democrats would like the throw some tax increases into the mix.
Over at the Fed, the indications of a change in monetary policy are more subtle. Don't expect a dramatic boost to interest rates any time soon. Still, the pendulum does seem to be swinging away from the strongly accommodative quantitative easing of the past few years.
Inflation, as measured by the CPI, is not the worry. According to the minutes of their January meeting, released this week, most members of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee expect inflation to run at or below the Fed's target of 2 percent for the foreseeable future. Only a few members see any upside risk to prices in the medium or even the long term. However, several participants in the January meeting expressed concern that the Fed's huge portfolio of securities could expose it to a risk of large capital losses in case of a future reversal of policy. A few others expressed concerns that the Fed's program of large-scale asset purchases could lead to the disruption of financial markets.
What lies behind least some of these concerns is a fear of asset bubbles. Asset bubbles are sharp increases in the prices of securities, real estate, or global commodities that can occur even when consumer price inflation remains low. Usually, they pose the greatest risk when the economy is running at or above its level of potential GDP, as during the dot.com bubble in the 1990s and the housing bubble in the early 2000s. Today, at least as measured by the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. economy is still well below potential GDP, but not everyone trusts those estimates. The FOMC minutes tell us that some members noted "uncertainties concerning both the level of, and the source of shifts in, potential output." It is worth noting that the concern over asset bubbles is shared by some private observers, including Nouriel Roubini.
The recently-released FOMC minutes summarize the concerns of its members in this key sentence:
A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs, and risks of asset purchases might well lead the Committee to taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred.
In the Fed's closely guarded language, "a number of participants" is more than "several" or "a few." Market participants took that to indicate that the Fed's determination to stick with aggressive accommodation until labor market conditions improve is weakening. In monetary policy these days, when actual changes in interest rates are unthinkable, subtle signals about what the Fed is likely to do in the future take on added importance. Monetary economists like Michael Woodford consider such "forward guidance" to be the main channel through which the Fed can affect the economy when interest rates are at or near zero, as they are now.
The bottom line: All of this week's news put together-flat inflation, the looming sequester, and the increasing caution of forward guidance from the Fed-point to a distinct procyclical turn in macroeconomic policy. That may or may not mean an actual return to recession, but even if not, gains in output and employment are likely to come even more slowly this year than last.