Inflation Risk Outlook: The Good News And The Bad

by: Mark Thoma

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Survey of Business Inflation Expectations released yesterday showed a continuation of rather modest expectations for unit cost pressures over the coming 12 months. In February, our panel of firms reported a 1.9 percent average expected rise in unit costs over the coming year, still within the very narrow 1.8 percent to 2 percent range the group has been reporting over the past five months.

Expected change in unit costs over next 12 months

That's the good news. Now for some (potentially) bad news. In a special question this month, we asked the panel to weigh in on their expectations for annual unit cost increases over the longer term—specifically, the next 5 to 10 years. The group's expectation was a percentage point higher, at 2.9 percent.

The reason for the higher expectation for unit costs over the longer term can be seen in the following chart, which compares how the group assigns probabilities to unit cost changes over the next 12 months to how they judge these probabilities over the longer term.

Distribution of respondent expectations for unit costs over next 12 months and next 5 to 10 years

In both instances, the Atlanta Fed's Business Inflation Expectations panel of firms puts the greatest likelihood that unit costs will rise in the 1 percent to 3 percent range—in a range that matches the Federal Open Market Committee's longer-term inflation objective.

But how does the group assess the risks around that increase? Over the short term, the panel sees a higher likelihood that unit costs may fall short of the 1 percent to 3 percent range. Specifically, the group sees a 36 percent chance that unit costs will rise less than 1 percent compared against only a 26 percent chance that they will rise above 3 percent. Yet when sizing up the next 5 to 10 years, the group sees only a 15 percent chance that unit costs will rise less than 1 percent per year compared with a 46 percent chance that costs will rise by more than 3 percent.

What our panel of firms appears to be telling us is that the risks to the inflation outlook—in both the near term and longer term—aren't particularly balanced. In the near term, they weigh the inflation risks more heavily to the downside. But looking over the next 5 to 10 years, the panel sees the inflation risks leaning decidedly to the upside.

What we can't tell from these data is whether the panel's assessment of the inflation risks is different today than it was before. After all, this is the first time we've asked the question, but you can bet it won't be the last.

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