Pity the poor members of the Federal Open Market Committee! These Federal Reserve Board Governors and Federal Reserve Bank Presidents all know in their hearts, for sure, each one, that they do not and cannot know the financial and economic future—that they do not and cannot know, among other things, how bad the current hot inflation is going to get, or how long it will last.
Yet they are forced to make forecasts and statements published all over the world about things they cannot know. Their statements move markets and influence behavior, so they have to guess and worry about not only about what will happen, but about what others will do based on what they say. They cannot know for sure what the results of their own actions will be, or what actions others will take, no matter how sincerely they try to make their best guesses. And of course, they have to worry about what the politicians will say or demand.
How seriously should we take the Fed’s forecasts? Last December, they projected inflation for 2021 at 1.8%. Half way through the year, this looks to have been wildly wrong. The rapid inflation of 2021, with the Consumer Price Index increasing year to date at well over 6% annualized, clearly surprised them. I am speaking of the inflation as experienced only in 2021, with no comparison to the crisis time of 2020 or “base effect.” You might say this was a blind side hit on the FOMC quarterbacks.
On June 16, FOMC members upped their guess for this year’s inflation to 3.4%–an 89% increase in their expected inflation rate, best thought of as the rate of depreciation in the dollar’s purchasing power, of your wages and of your savings. This revised expectation came with an essential hedge: “Inflation could turn out to be higher and more persistent than we expect”– a sensible and true statement by Fed Chairman Powell.
Powell also made this sound observation: “We have to be humble about our ability to understand the data.” Just like the rest of us! But the rest of us are not assigned a part in the public drama of the FMOC. “All the world’s a stage,” but the FMOC is an especially challenging stage. The Fed is no better at economic and financial forecasting than anybody else, but the show must go on.
The FMOC continues to characterize the current high inflation as mostly “transitory.” Well, paraphrasing J.M. Keynes, we may observe that in the long run, everything is transitory. In the process of transitioning, a lot can happen. FMOC members are now hoping and making estimates for inflation to fall back to around 2% by the end of 2022—a long forecasting way away. There is a self-referential problem here: what inflation does depends on what the FOMC does. So the poor FOMC members must forecast their own behavior under future, unknown circumstances.
In particular, future inflation depends on whether the Fed keeps up its historic, giant monetization of government debt and mortgages, and on how big it bloats its own balance sheet, already over $8 trillion as of this week. At its June meeting, the FMOC gave instructions to keep up the big buying, including buying more mortgages at the rate of $480 billion a year.
Consider that the housing market is in the midst of a runaway price inflation. By March, using the Case-Shiller Index, house prices were up by 13% year over year. The most current data indicates, according to the AEI Housing Center, house price inflation now running at over 15%. Yet the Fed continues to stimulate and subsidize a market which is already red hot. One is hard pressed to imagine any remotely plausible excuse for that.
We have to wonder what the poor FOMC members must feel in their own hearts about this issue. Do they really believe in some rationale? Is it a case of “We easily believe that which we wish to believe,” as Julius Caesar said? Or in their private hearts, are the FOMC members only voting “yes” for monetizing more billions of mortgages with serious mental reservations and doubts? I have to believe the latter is the case, but suppose we won’t know until their memoirs are published.
Meanwhile, the members of the FOMC are like the airmen in the old World War II song, “Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer!” They have no alternative to that, so we must all wish them good luck.