Fed Officials See Benefits in Letting Inflation Run Above Target

(Bloomberg) -- Federal Reserve policy makers are openly voicing their willingness to accept above-target inflation even as price pressures are beginning to build.

“Let me be clear: A small and transitory overshoot of 2 percent inflation would not be a problem,” William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in a Jan. 11 speech. “Were it to occur, it would demonstrate that our inflation target is symmetric, and it would help keep inflation expectations well-anchored around our longer-run objective.”

Such talk suggests that the central bank won’t respond willy-nilly to mounting price pressures with significantly stepped-up interest rate increases. “The Fed has been a best friend for investors for many years, and that is not about to change,” Robert Perli, a partner at Cornerstone Macro LLC in Washington, wrote in a Jan. 16 note to clients.

Fed Officials See Benefits in Letting Inflation Run Above Target

After what Fed Chair Janet Yellen has described as a mysterious fall last year, inflation is showing signs of inching back up, with the core measure the central bank favors rising to 1.5 percent in November from 1.3 percent in August. Inflation expectations in the Treasury bond market are also on the rise.

Dudley, who is vice chairman of the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee, is not the only Fed official to have evinced a tolerance for above-target inflation in recent days.

“It would actually be helpful if we were able to get inflation not just at 2 percent, but above it for a while,” Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker told reporters on Jan. 5.

Extended Period

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard even went so far as to suggest on Jan. 10 that policy makers should consider shooting for inflation above 2 percent for an extended period to make up for its below-target performance over the past five years.

Tepid price pressures have enabled the U.S. central bank to raise rates at a gradual pace, allowing Wall Street stock prices to continue pressing ahead to record highs without upsetting the bond market. After hiking rates three times last year, monetary policy makers have penciled in three more moves for 2018, according to the median projection of forecasts released in December.

Fed Officials See Benefits in Letting Inflation Run Above Target

Harker thinks two rate increases this year are likely to be more appropriate than three. While he does see inflation rising a bit above target in 2019, he said he’s not that confident that will occur.

“If soft inflation persists, it may pose a significant problem” by depressing price expectations and turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said.

Bullard, for his part, doesn’t foresee the Fed raising rates at all this year.

Dudley, in contrast, thinks that three interest rate increases this year is not “an unreasonable sort of starting point” for thinking about Fed action in 2018. He also worries about the risk of the economy overheating over the next few years and the Fed eventually having “to press harder on the brakes” to slow it down.

Inflation Chatter

The chatter about inflation breaching its target is taking place against the backdrop of a brewing debate among policy makers about the continued usefulness of the 2 percent objective. One idea that’s been mooted: Adopting a price level target instead.

Under such an approach, the central bank would commit to making sure that prices rise by an average 2 percent per year for an extended period. So if inflation runs below target for a while, policy makers would seek to make up for that by engineering commensurate price increases above 2 percent. And vice versa.

That differs from the current framework, where bygones are bygones and the past performance of inflation has no direct implications for policy going forward.

While it will take the Fed quite a while to make such a change, the ongoing discussion “is going to percolate in day-to-day decision-making” before that, making the central bank more willing to accept higher inflation in the interim, Perli, a former Fed official, said.

‘Near-Term Policy’

Bullard seemed to agree.

“Even if formal adoption of price level targeting is not realistic in the near term, the ideas behind it could nevertheless influence near-term policy,” he said in a Jan. 10 presentation to the CFA Society of St. Louis.

“This would suggest leaning toward inflation somewhat in excess of the stated inflation target to make up for past misses on the low side,” he added.

Former Fed Governor Laurence Meyer reckons that officials might tolerate inflation rising to around 2.5 percent.

Dudley’s stated willingness to accept an overshoot “has a lot of force” given his senior position in the Fed hierarchy, according to Meyer, head of Monetary Policy Analytics, an independent research advisory service based in Washington.

“I call it a poor man’s price level targeting,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.