Your Inflation Worries Say a Lot About You (and May Affect Prices)

Who is worried about inflation? Older Americans, for sure; the young, not so much.

Low-income families are more concerned than richer ones.

People in the Midwest and the South foresee inflation’s impact hitting harder than residents of the West and the Northeast do.

And those without a college degree are more apprehensive than college graduates.

These idiosyncratic patterns could have an effect on how much inflation we get.

The Federal Reserve’s approach to controlling inflation depends on ordinary Americans’ expectations. If people expect inflation to remain low into the future, the Fed may do nothing even if prices spike momentarily, because of supply chain constraints or other factors. If inflation expectations rise, though, the Fed will probably bring down the hammer, worried that they will get baked into everyday decisions.

“If I were at the Fed right now, I would be concerned” about inflation readings above 6 percent, said Narayana Kocherlakota, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who is now a professor of economics at the University of Rochester. “What will this do to the inflationary zeitgeist?”

A tricky challenge for the Fed’s approach, though, is that people’s inflation expectations do not necessarily flow from an analytical reading of prices and wages. They are influenced by many things that often have little to do with the economy.

It is natural for the poor to be more preoccupied by rising prices, since prices tend to hit the poor harder. Low-income families spend most of their earnings on necessities. They are immediately hit by rising prices of gas, food, rent and the like. The Consumer Price Index for November showed an overall increase in prices of 6.8 percent from a year earlier, the fastest pace since 1982. Energy prices — which are historically volatile — rose at nearly five times that rate.

Moreover, the poor don’t have the financial tools that the rich can use to protect the value of their savings.

But people’s attitudes about inflation are also shaped by other influences. For instance, in a Gallup poll in November, 53 percent of Republicans reported that recent price increases were causing personal hardship, but only 37 percent of Democrats did.

That’s not because inflation necessarily hurts Republicans more than Democrats, or because the G.O.P. may have a stronger ideological aversion to rising prices. A recent study by economists in Germany and Switzerland found that when Barack Obama was in the White House, inflation expectations in Republican states ran almost half a percentage point higher than in Democratic states. But they dropped three-quarters of a point when Donald J. Trump became president.

That is, as with impressions of the overall state of the economy, perceptions of inflation may be shaped by who’s in power. This could be part of the reason that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds that inflation expectations in the South and the Midwest — where the overwhelming majority of Republican voters live — have jumped far more than in the West and the Northeast, home to most Democrats. But the inflation rates in the South and the Midwest have, in fact, been somewhat higher than elsewhere.

People’s expectations are also influenced by time.

Older people have particular reasons to be concerned about rising prices. They often rely on fixed incomes, which are eroded by inflation. They are out of the labor market, so care less about unemployment. Given their high voter participation and outsized political power, it is hardly surprising that governments in countries with older populations tend to follow more strict monetary policies and deliver lower inflation.

But time also has other, hard-to-measure influences on people’s attitudes. Many Americans have forgotten that inflation once got very high. Others might never have known this. People under 40 have no experience of the so-called Great Inflation from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. They may have a harder time believing it matters.

Research by Ulrike Malmendier from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stefan Nagel of the University of Chicago concluded that people’s beliefs about future inflation are shaped by their experience of it. This “explains the substantial disagreement between young and old individuals in periods of high inflation.”

People who experienced the Great Inflation are more likely to fear high inflation around the corner than the young, who have lived mostly in an era in which inflation has rarely exceeded 2 percent. The young’s experience of economic stagnation during their formative years, after the housing bubble burst in 2008, is more likely to convince them that inflation can be too low, as it was back then, stymieing efforts by the Fed to reinvigorate the economy.

Americans under 40 expect inflation to hit about 3.5 percent in three years, according to the most recent reading of the New York Fed’s survey. People over 60, by contrast, expect 4.7 percent. “Younger and older people tend to differ depending on the path inflation took in their past,” Mr. Nagel said.

Even the experts — the members of the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s policymaking group, who pore through sophisticated economic models fed with reams of data — are influenced by youthful memories. “Whether and at what age they experienced the Great Inflation or other inflation realizations affects their stated beliefs about future inflation, their monetary-policy decisions, and the tone of their speeches,” according to another paper by Ms. Malmendier, Mr. Nagel and Zhen Yan from Cornerstone Research in Boston.

The researchers do not have insight into the current view of committee members. Individual forecasts from the semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress, on which they based their analysis, are made available to the public only with a 10-year lag, starting in 1992. But their research helps explain a longstanding puzzle.

The puzzle came in a study by the economists David and Christina Romer of the University of California, Berkeley, in the middle of the last recession, in 2008. They found that over time, forecasts from the members of the Federal Open Market Committee were less accurate than the collective forecast of the staff economists at the Federal Reserve. The deviation, according to Ms. Malmendier, Mr. Nagel and Mr. Yan is “explained by reliance on personal inflation experiences.”

People not schooled in economics may have little clue about how inflation and monetary policy work. One study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Texas at Austin, and Brandeis University found that the Fed’s momentous switch announced in August of last year to a flexible inflation target, which would allow the Fed to let inflation rise above its long-term target of 2 percent, was greeted by a collective “huh?”

Corporate executives do little better. “Like households, U.S. managers are largely uninformed about recent aggregate inflation dynamics or monetary policy,” wrote another group of economists in a separate study. “Inattention to inflation and monetary policy is pervasive among U.S. firms as well.”

Fed officials acknowledge that their understanding of inflation psychology is, at best, imperfect. “We don’t know as a profession as much as we would like about how wage-price cycles get started,” Mr. Kocherlakota said. “How data on inflation translates into expectations is not well understood.”

Given that knowledge gap, it is fair to ask whether the inflation expectations of ordinary Americans should play such a large role in shaping monetary policy.

One study by economists at the International Monetary Fund, for instance, concluded that a tenet held dear by central bankers across the industrialized world since the 1980s — that moderating inflation expectations is central to taming inflation — was overstated. Rather, they suggested, inflation simply followed demography: Baby boomers contributed to inflation between 1955 and 1975, when they were young, consuming but not working. They reduced inflation between 1975 and 1990, when they joined the labor force. And they will drive it up again as they retire.

Jeremy B. Rudd, an economist at the Federal Reserve Board, also worries that the proposition that managing expectations is critical to managing inflation is hogwash, with no solid theoretical or empirical underpinning.

For instance, Mr. Rudd argues, the idea that workers who expect higher inflation in the future will try to stay ahead by negotiating higher wages with employers does not fit a country where only 6 percent of workers in the private sector are unionized and where there is little collective bargaining for wages.

It would be foolhardy, for sure, to ignore people’s views on rising prices. Whatever the overall economic cost of higher inflation — and this is a contested question — people don’t like it.

Lawrence H. Summers, who was an economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and to Mr. Obama, has been warning that a burst in inflation could help deliver the presidency to the Republican Party, as it did in 1968 and 1980.

Richard Curtin, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan who runs its survey of consumer expectations, notes that three presidents in the 1960s and ’70s thought they had recipes to bring inflation down: Lyndon B. Johnson imposed a surtax on income, Richard Nixon resorted to wage and price controls, and Jimmy Carter went on TV to ask Americans to consume less. “Governments always think it is in their ability to quickly stop inflation and they never can,” Mr. Curtin said.

Since then, central bankers became convinced that their job was first and foremost to anchor people’s expectations to the belief that inflation would remain low. They are unlikely to let go of the idea that they believe has served them so well for four decades.

Mr. Kocherlakota has little personal experience of high inflation. He was a toddler when prices started coming unstuck in the 1960s. But he remembers an assignment in his first semester in college: “This is what Paul Volcker did. Comment.” The takeaway was that the pain inflicted on the economy by the central banker who finally crushed runaway inflation by cranking up interest rates in the late 1970s and early 1980s is to be avoided at all costs.

“We let inflation expectations get unanchored,” Mr. Kocherlakota noted. As inflation hits 6 percent and people’s expectations of future inflation rise in tandem, he added, it would be foolhardy to let that happen again. “An honest way to play it now,” he said, “is that unanchoring is a risk we have to be cognizant of.”

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