Will inflation be a real problem in the coming years, or a short-term blip that settles down quickly into steady economic growth? That is the debate among economists and policymakers of all stripes, as recounted by Neil Irwin in this informative New York Times piece below. As investment managers, we at Rebalance watch these trends carefully. Members of our firm’s Investment Committee have lived and worked through decades of growth, recession, high inflation, and everything in-between. Accordingly, they take great pains to reduce the risk in our clients’ portfolios, whatever the eventual outcome in the broader economy.
If the Economy Overheats, How Will We Know?
by Neil Irwin
Some big-name economists argue that the economy will soon overheat because of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief and other spending measures.
They worry that the economy is being flooded with too much money, a fear only heightened by news that the administration will seek $3 trillion more to build infrastructure, cut carbon emissions and reduce inequality.
But in this debate, what overheating would mean — exactly how much inflation, with what kinds of side effects for the economy — has often been vague. So The New York Times asked some prominent participants in the Great Overheating Debate of 2021 to lay out in more detail what they are afraid of, and how we will know if their fears have been realized.
It turns out that the two sides — the overheating worriers and those who think those concerns are misplaced — agree on many points. They have common ground on what a bad outcome might look like, and agree that it will take some time to know whether a problematic form of inflation is really taking root. The differences are in how likely they consider it to happen.
The core dispute, one with big consequences for the future of the economy and for the Biden administration, is over the nature of the inflation that is to come.
As the economy reopens and Americans spend their stimulus checks and the money they saved during the pandemic, demand for certain goods and services will outstrip supply, driving up prices. That is now pretty much an inevitability.
The Biden administration and its allies are betting this will be a one-time event: that prices will recalibrate, industries will adjust and unemployment will fall. By next year they expect a booming economy with inflation back at low, stable levels.
The overheating worriers, who include prominent Clinton-era policymakers and many conservatives, believe there is a more substantial chance that one of two more pessimistic scenarios will come true. As vast federal spending keeps coursing through the economy, they fear that high inflation will come to be seen as the new normal and that behavior will adjust accordingly.
If people believe we are entering a more inflationary era — after more than a decade when inflation has been persistently low — they could alter their behavior in self-fulfilling ways. Businesses would be quicker to raise prices and workers to demand raises. The purchasing power of a dollar would fall, and the bond investors who lend to the government would demand higher interest rates, making financing the budget deficit trickier.
“I don’t think anyone will be too surprised to see massive airfare inflation” in the short term, for example, as the economy reopens, said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “Instead, I worry if we start to see signs that people, businesses and financial markets are responding to the level of overheating as if it were permanent.”
That situation would leave policymakers, especially at the Federal Reserve, faced with two bad choices: Allow inflation to take off in an upward spiral, or stop it by raising interest rates and quite possibly causing a recession.
“Ultimately we’re worried about an outcome in the real economy, which is rapid growth in 2021 followed by a significant reversal in 2022 or 2023 with anything like a recession, negative growth or a sizable increase in the unemployment rate,” said Jason Furman, a former Obama administration economic adviser. “Much of what we call ‘overheating’ is mostly a concern insofar as it triggers that outcome.”
Mr. Furman says annual inflation rates of 3.5 percent or higher in late 2021 or 2022 would “create a substantial risk of macroeconomic reactions that create genuine instability and problems in the economy,” and that even a notch lower than that, 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent, could create some problems.
Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives, by contrast, argues that it would take several years of inflation at 3 percent or higher — not just a bump in 2021 or 2022 — before she would worry that inflation expectations could become unmoored, leading to either an inflation-tamping recession or a 1970s-style vicious cycle of ever-higher prices.
“It is strange to me that for years economists pined for a better mix of monetary and fiscal policy, and now we have it and there is a narrative among some that it has to end in disaster,” Ms. Coronado said. “I am more optimistic about the macro outlook than I have been in a long time and am far more focused on how quickly the labor market returns to health than any threat from inflation.”
As economists view it, inflation — at least the kind worth worrying about — isn’t a one-time event so much as a process.
When demand for goods and services expands faster than the supply of them, consumers simply bid up the price of finite goods, and businesses bid up wages to try to keep up. This begins a cycle of higher wages fueling higher prices, which in turn fuels higher wages.
Such a process began in the mid-1960s and culminated in double-digit inflation in the 1970s. But there are important differences between then and now. For one thing, unions then were more powerful and demanded steep wage increases. For another, a series of one-off events made inflation worse, including the breakdown of the Bretton Woods international currency arrangements and oil embargoes that sent fuel prices soaring.
Those were also years when the Fed responded inadequately to rising inflation pressures — it was a series of errors the central bank made, not just one. That experience would suggest that the Fed, having learned the lessons of that era, could nip any new inflationary outburst in the bud.
Larry Summers, Treasury secretary to President Clinton and a top adviser to President Obama, kicked off the overheating debate with an op-ed in The Washington Post. He says an effort by the Fed to rein in overheating would be unlikely to be painless.
“We have an experience like most of the recessions prior to 1990, when expansions were murdered by the Fed with inflation control as the motive,” he said, adding: “In the past it has proven impossible to generate a soft landing. I can’t think of a time when we have experienced a big downshift without having a recession.”
He now assigns roughly equal odds to three possibilities: that everything goes according to plan, with inflation returning to normal after a one-time surge; that a cycle of ever-rising inflation develops; or that the Fed ultimately causes a steep downturn to prevent that inflationary cycle.
So given that the real risk is not so much inflation in 2021, but what happens beyond the immediate future, how would we know it?
Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economist who has warned of overheating, said there would be an “ongoing overheating problem” only if consumer prices were rising by more than 3 percent a year and bond prices were to shift in ways that suggested investors expected 3 percent or higher annual inflation for the next five years.
Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute also emphasized these inflation “break-evens,” which capture bond investors’ views of future inflation based on the gap between inflation-protected and regular securities. Like Mr. Mankiw, he said that break-evens suggesting 3 percent or higher annual inflation over the next five years would be worrying, as would 2.5 percent or higher inflation expected for the period five to 10 years from now.
Another place to look for evidence of overheating will be whether inflation merely rises or keeps accelerating.
If the overheating warnings are correct, “it should start accelerating,” said Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago who has been sharply critical of the overheating thesis. “It should be 3, then 4, then 5 percent and so on. Basically they are predicting a 1970s repeat, so just go look at how inflation accelerated in the 1970s.”
How will Americans interpret price rises during the post-pandemic boom? Might it jolt them out of the low-inflation psychology that has prevailed for nearly four decades, making businesses more confident about raising prices and workers faster to demand raises?
The answer will determine whether the years ahead represent a pleasant warming trend or a red-hot caldron that leaves everybody burned.
This article was originally published in The New York Times on March 27, 2021.