Comment: Why longer-lasting inflation might be a good thing

As long as wages keep pace, modest inflation can create conditions for a more stable U.S. economy.

By Karl W. Smith / Bloomberg Opinion

The administration of President Biden has repeatedly assured Americans that the sharp uptick in inflation they are experiencing is temporary; in the language of economists, transitory. Surveys suggest that public is less than convinced, but consumer expectations of inflation are notoriously fickle.

All of this has economists and central bankers dutifully poring over data for signs of when or whether inflation, currently just under 4 percent, will drift back toward the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent. Instead, they should be considering a more fundamental question: Whether the Fed should strive to make 4 percent inflation permanent.

To be clear, there is no doubt that the recent rise in price growth has been an unpleasant shock. That’s partly because it is so uneven. Prices on commodities such as gasoline and lumber, along with a few select goods such as used cars, have risen by double-digit rates.

A sharp increase in the price of even a small set of products creates far more pain than a rise in the overall rate of inflation, which is averaged across thousands of products. But narrow inflation is also the type of inflation that’s most likely to reverse itself, since it reflects supply-chain disruptions that will eventually be relieved.

Analysts are concerned that the rise in inflation may be persistent because they see hints of a broader, gentler rise in prices across a range of goods; and, crucially, in the wages of the workers who produce those products.

This increase in both wages and prices can lead to the dreaded wage-price spiral. Yet because it is shared by both households and businesses, the pain is muted. Indeed, a higher rate of inflation, and correspondingly higher wage growth, could be a net positive for the economy.

There are two main reasons. The first is debt dynamics. Higher rates of inflation make debt more expensive, but easier to manage.

A permanent increase in inflation from 2 percent (its average over the last decade) to 4 percent would cause interest rates to rise by roughly 2 percent as well, as lenders sought to protect themselves from rising prices. Economists describe this as a rise in nominal rates, because the net return from lending — the real interest rate after accounting for inflation — remains the same.

One way to see how this would play out is to consider the mortgage market. Higher nominal interest rates would mean a higher monthly payment for any given loan. That might seem to make houses even less affordable. But what’s been clear over the last two decades — and what economic theory predicts — is that housing prices in the most desirable urban areas are determined by the maximum mortgage an affluent urban family can afford.

Buyers in those markets bid against each other for a relatively fixed stock of housing. Over the last decade, as nominal interest rates fell, families could afford to take out larger mortgages, and so maximum bids rose. Overall, buyers ended up with roughly the same monthly payment.

Yet wage growth was also slow over the last decade. So those same families haven’t seen their mortgage payments decline as a fraction of their income at the same rates as previous generations did. They have less room to manage unforeseen expenses, making their financial future more uncertain.

Modest increases in inflation and wages would reverse this whole process; that is, they would decrease mortgage sizes and maximum bids, thereby slowing the rise in home prices. Meanwhile rising wages would make those mortgages more affordable over time.

The second reason to support higher inflation, and the resulting higher nominal interest rates, has less to do with homeowners than with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. Higher interest rates would give the Fed more room to cut interest rates in case of a downturn. When covid struck, the nominal interest rate the Fed controls was only 2 percent. That gave it very little room to stimulate the economy. Fortunately, in part because of the unusual nature of the recession, Congress did.

The next recession, hopefully, will not be the result of a global pandemic. That means Congress is unlikely to provide the same level of support, and the Fed will have to do more to stimulate the economy. To do that, it needs higher nominal interest rates.

Inflation — particularly when caused by sharp increases in a few products — is politically unpopular. A modest sustained increase in prices and wages, however, would create a more stable U.S. economy by improving debt dynamics and giving the Fed more flexibility. In an uncertain world, those two advantages make higher inflation more than worth it.

Karl W. Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. He is also co-founder of the economics blog Modeled Behavior.

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