Baum on Money: In La-La land with consumer inflation forecasts

Posted1/19/2014 7:06 AM

Here are some stories I'm reading on the U.S. economy.

Once a stigma, always a stigma.


Until the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the Fed made it clear to banks that borrowing from the discount window was a privilege. Banks listened and avoided the window like the plague, afraid that revelations of heavy discount-window borrowing in a certain Fed district -- revealed as part of the Fed's Thursday data dump -- would prompt rumors that Bank ABC was in trouble, with adverse effects. During the financial crisis, the Fed practically begged banks to borrow at the window. Yet according to the New York Fed's Liberty Street blog, banks ignored those pleas, choosing to pay higher interest rates instead. Some stigmas are hard to erase.

Concept recognition isn't the same as precision forecasting.

The New York Fed released its new survey of consumer expectations yesterday: specifically, expectations about the labor market, credit conditions and inflation. I'm not sure it's worth the effort. Take a look at expectations for the rate of inflation one and three years ahead: 3.1 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively. The Fed's explicit target is 2 percent, and inflation is currently running below 1 percent. Sorry, class. Guess again. Did the Fed expect to get different results than the University of Michigan and Conference Board, whose surveys put one-year inflation expectations at 3 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively? And that's with constant blathering, I mean, forward guidance. All is not lost, however. "We have found that the vast majority of respondents have a basic understanding of the concept of inflation and are able to express their views of inflation in quantitative terms." No guarantee the number they pick will have any relationship to reality.

Stanley Fischer, the economist's economist. A nice background piece on Stanley Fischer, nominated to become vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, from The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews. By now we are well acquainted with his CV (Bank of Israel, IMF, World Bank, M.I.T.), his doctoral students (Ben Bernanke, Mario Draghi, Greg Mankiw), and his school of economic thought (New Keynesian). We may know less about his effort to find economic solutions to the Israeli-Palestinean conflict. And we have yet to learn about his views on financial regulation. I'll be interested to see if he can tone down the Fed's obsession with forward guidance. Fischer has said the Fed can't spell out what it's going to do for the simple reason that it doesn't know. A man after my own heart.

Fed should assess costs and benefits of forward guidance.

Ben Steil at the Council on Foreign Relations wonders if the Fed isn't sowing confusion with its foreign guidance. At its December 2012 meeting, policy members abandoned date-based guidance in favor of data-based guidance, including an unemployment threshold -- a threshold is not a target! -- of 6.5 percent. Steil's diagram of dealer expectations for the funds rate versus the Fed's guidance is telling, as is his advice. "Before the Fed moves on to the next generation of guidance markers, it ought to think twice about the risks of worsening, rather than improving, the signal-to-noise ratio in its communications," he writes. Let's hope Stan Fischer can enlighten the Fed about the dangers of guiding others when you can't see.

Young invincibles are slow to sign up.

The Obama administration released the first figures showing the age breakdown of those who enrolled for health care on the exchanges since Oct. 1. Only 24 percent were in the 18-34 year- old bracket, the group of young, healthy adults needed to subsidize the sick and elderly. Previously the administration said it needed that figure to be 40 percent in order for the math to work. The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff reminds us that 24 percent is a lot better than the early figures from Massachusetts Health Care, the model for Obamacare. The hope is that young folks, who have no urgent need for health care, will sign up as the March 31 enrollment deadline approaches. If not, it's on to Plan B.

• Caroline Baum is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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