The Federal Reserve Needs to Get a Lot More Hawkish
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I have news for those who think the U.S. Federal Reserve has turned more hawkish on inflation: It has only just begun.
True, the minutes from the Fed’s December policy-making meeting display growing concern. Officials are acknowledging that the labor market is already very tight, and that factors such as wage growth probably won’t be entirely transitory. They seem to be losing hope that more people will come off the sidelines to satisfy demand for workers. They’re looking increasingly likely to raise interest rates immediately after the Fed’s asset-purchase program ends in March — though there’s still the wildcard of how a resurgent pandemic will affect the economy.
Yet Fed officials remain incongruously dovish over the longer term. Consider their latest set of projections, released following the December meeting: In an economy with above-trend growth pushing unemployment below the level consistent with stable prices, the median forecast has inflation melting away, falling to 2.6% in 2022, 2.3% in 2023 and 2.1% in 2024. This could be justified if they expected to tighten monetary policy sharply, but they don’t. Their median projection for the federal funds rate at the end of 2024 is just 2.1%, well below the level they deem to be neutral.
This is a remarkable, even surreal forecast: Inflation won’t be a problem, even if the Fed does little to rein it in.
I see only a couple ways for this Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy to come true. First, today’s inflation could prove transitory, allowing the Fed to keep interest rates low — but this is inconsistent with the Fed’s own near-term analysis and hardly plausible when the ratio of unfilled jobs to unemployed persons is at an all-time high and wage growth is picking up markedly. Second, the neutral federal funds rate could be much lower than officials’ 2.5% median estimate, making the 2.1% rate projected for the end of 2024 much tighter – but there’s no evidence to support such a hypothesis, and indeed no Fed officials changed their estimate of the long-term neutral rate in December.
More likely, the Fed will have to leave the enchanted forest. This means becoming a lot more hawkish, both in the near term and over the next few years. As the economic recovery pushes unemployment unsustainably low — something that may already have happened — wage growth will spill into consumer price inflation. The Fed will have to respond by taking interest rates above neutral well before the end of 2024.
How high might rates go? If inflation is running above the Fed’s 2% target, they must adjust both to compensate for higher inflation and to achieve tight monetary policy. So if inflation subsides to 2.5% to 3% as supply chain issues dissipate, then a federal funds rate peak in the 3%-to-4% range seems reasonable.
This is a much steeper path and higher peak than financial markets currently anticipate — roughly double what Eurodollar futures imply. Markets are starting to catch on, but only very slowly. At some point, the reckoning is likely to become disruptive, triggering a sharp rise in interest rates and a large drop in bond prices. The “taper tantrum” may have been merely delayed, not avoided.
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Bill Dudley, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and senior adviser to Bloomberg Economics, is senior adviser to the Griswold Center for Economic Policy Studies at Princeton University. He served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2009 to 2018, and as vice chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee. He was previously chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs.
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