Alternative Measures of Inflation (Part 3): The Challenge of Communicating Price Stability

July 10th, 2014
in econ_news

by Mike Bryan - Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Let me close this blog series with a few observations on the criticism that measures of core inflation, and specifically the CPI excluding food and energy, disconnect the Federal Reserve from households and businesses "who know price changes when they see them." After all, don't the members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) eat food and use gas in their cars? Of course they do, and if it is the cost of living the central bank intends to control, the prices of these goods should necessarily be part of the conversation, notwithstanding their observed volatility.

Follow up:

In fact, in the popularly reported all-items CPI, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has already removed about 40 percent of the monthly volatility in the cost-of-living measure through its seasonal adjustment procedures. I think communicating in terms of a seasonally adjusted price index makes a lot of sense, even if nobody actually buys things at seasonally adjusted prices.

Referencing alternative measures of inflation presents some communications challenges for the central bank to be sure. It certainly would be easier if progress toward either of the Federal Reserve's mandates could be described in terms of a single, easily understood statistic. But I don't think this is feasible for price stability, or for full employment.

And with regard to our price stability mandate, I suspect the problem of public communication runs deeper than the particular statistics we cite. In 1996, Robert Shiller polled people—real people, not economists—about their perceptions of inflation. What he found was a stark difference between how economists think about the word "inflation" and how folks outside a relatively small band of academics and policymakers define inflation. Consider this question:


And here is how people responded:


Seventy-seven percent of the households in Shiller's poll picked number 2—"Inflation hurts my real buying power"—as their biggest gripe about inflation. This is a cost-of-living description. It isn't the same concept that most economists are thinking about when they consider inflation. Only 12 percent of the economists Shiller polled indicated that inflation hurt real buying power.

I wonder if, in the minds of most people, the Federal Reserve's price-stability mandate is heard as a promise to prevent things from becoming more expensive, and especially the staples of life like, well, food and gasoline. This is not what the central bank is promising to do.

What is the Federal Reserve promising to do? To the best of my knowledge, the first "workable" definition of price stability by the Federal Reserve was Paul Volcker's 1983 description that it was a condition where "decision-making should be able to proceed on the basis that 'real' and 'nominal' values are substantially the same over the planning horizon—and that planning horizons should be suitably long."

Thirty years later, the Fed gave price stability a more explicit definition when it laid down a numerical target. The FOMC describes that target thusly:

The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee reaffirms its judgment that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate.

Whether one goes back to the qualitative description of Volcker or the quantitative description in the FOMC's recent statement of principles, the thrust of the price-stability objective is broadly the same. The central bank is intent on managing the persistent, nominal trend in the price level that is determined by monetary policy. It is not intent on managing the short-run, real fluctuations that reflect changes in the cost of living.

Effectively achieving price stability in the sense of the FOMC's declaration requires that the central bank hears what it needs to from the public, and that the public in turn hears what they need to know from the central bank. And this isn't likely unless the central bank and the public engage in a dialog in a language that both can understand.

Prices are volatile, and the cost of living the public experiences ought to reflect that. But what the central bank can control over time—inflation—is obscured within these fluctuations. What my colleagues and I have attempted to do is to rearrange the price data at our disposal, and so reveal a richer perspective on the inflation experience.

We are trying to take the torture out of the inflation discussion by accurately measuring the things that the Fed needs to worry about and by seeking greater clarity in our communications about what those things mean and where we are headed. Hard conversations indeed, but necessary ones.

About the Author

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department


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