The Fed Fighting Inflation

Prices at the gas pump and in the grocery store are climbing at the fastest pace since 1981.  As inflation spreads throughout the economy, it is proving painful for working families.

The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates three times so far this year and has signaled it plans to keep doing so in coming months.  The country is in the eye of the storm; the price spiral is nowhere close to over.

The Fed is passing off these interest rate increases, in bits and bobs as the British say, as a coherent strategy organized around a defining theme: to fight inflation and put the beast back in its cage without tipping the economy into a recession.

The American public has been told with monotony by various media outlets that the central bank has a laser-like focus on cooling the economy and limiting demand for goods and services, noting that the Fed has not hiked interest rates by 0.75 percentage points in one go since 1994.

The media was so transfixed with this figure that if you had a frequent flyer mile for every time it was mentioned you would have enough miles to circumvent the globe by now.

What is absent from this reporting is that the funds rate is now in the 1.5 to 1.75 percent range.  The Fed plans on the rate reaching a relatively modest 3.4 percent by year’s end.

Meanwhile, inflation hit 8.6 percent in May, the fastest rise in 40 years, with more pain to come.  Interest rates are still way below the rate of inflation.  It is crucial that the Fed take the cost of borrowing well above the inflation rate for price pressures to cool.

The reasons behind the current inflation are not hard to fathom, from the global pandemic to supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine.  The expansionary monetary and fiscal policies of 2020 and 2021 surely put a fire under the economy, driving up consumer demand and putting upward pressure on prices.

While it might not quite be true that, as Milton Friedman memorably put it, “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” it is still a large part of the explanation.  Skip over blaming Putin.  To believe that is to think in political cliché.  Inflation was high before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

By any normal reckoning, the Fed and others steering the economic ship remained conspicuously in the wrong for a long time when it came to dealing with the rise in prices.  By to-ing and fro-ing and insisting that inflation was transitory last year and hoping it just went away as though it didn’t exist, inflation got out of hand.

For the U.S. to defeat inflation, it will take real leadership.  To put it crassly, the Fed needs leadership like that provided by its former Chair Paul Volcker, the consummate public servant, a rarity on par with Halley’s comet.

As Volker understood it, inflation can be defeated, but it takes a willingness to make tough choices and the minerals to face down critics.  He did everything except kick extra points to deal with runaway inflation, explaining to the public the tough road ahead, the sacrifices to be made and the fact that there was no alternative.

For example, when inflation reached 15 percent in 1980, Volcker understood the need to go for inflation’s jugular and ratchet up interest rates above the rate of inflation.  He raised interest rates to over 20 percent to crush raging inflation.

That gives a foretaste of what the U.S. will experience in the coming years if the Fed does not move more aggressively and quickly to combat inflation.

While predicting the future is beyond difficult, if the Federal Reserve is to get inflation under control, it has a long way to go when it comes to raising interest rates.

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