Expectations that inflation has eased fueled recent stock market gains, but results from two major price-tracking indexes came in higher than expected, dousing that optimism with cold water. The statistics from these reports have economists predicting that the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates to get inflation under control.
“The latest figures underscore the risks of persistently high inflation. Much of the easing that was celebrated at the end of last year has been erased,” said David Bieri, an economics professor for Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. He answered a few questions about the persistence of inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to reverse it.
Q: What is the difference between the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index (PCE)?
“The CPI is a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a basket of goods and services. This basket includes commonly purchased items such as food, housing, clothing, transportation, and medical care. The rate of inflation (or deflation) is then inferred by comparing the price of this basket to a base period. The PCE is the one used by the Federal Reserve. Unlike the CPI, the PCE measures not just goods and services for urban consumers, but the prices of all goods and services purchased by households. While the CPI uses a fixed basket of goods and services, the PCE uses a changing basket of goods and services that reflects consumers’ evolving spending patterns. Also, the PCE incorporates data on the quality of goods and services.”
Q: What can be deduced about inflation and the economy from these new statistics?
“Different components of the indexes react to different influences of the economic process, and they also do so at different speeds, or as economists like to say, with different lags. For example, fuel and gas prices react with very little delay and if the price of crude oil goes up, it does not take long for these effects to show up. But this is not the case for other important components. Quite a bit of the recent uptick in inflation has to do with the fact that it has taken so long for the post-COVID related upswing in housing to show up in the data. As for the most recent PCE numbers, these were unexpected and point in the direction of more entrenched inflation. In other words, inflation is not done yet.”
Q: What do these results indicate about the Federal Reserve’s efforts to curb inflation?
“The Fed has to be patient. If we take the image of interest rates working like a brake pedal, the Fed is driving a car on a windy road with a blacked-out windscreen and when it brakes, it can only guess how soon the car — that is, the economy — will slow down, let alone by how much and when the next bend will be. However, the Fed has one key trick up its sleeve: unlike the hapless driver of our car, the Fed can influence how many bends in the road might show up in the future. It does this by something that we call ‘forward guidance,’ which is a wonky term for how the Fed’s attempts influence consumer and market expectations of consumers and market participants. Essentially the Fed is saying that if we stop believing there will be inflation in the future, there actually won’t be any.”
David Bieri is an associate professor of urban affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs and an associate professor of economics. He also holds an appointment in the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience. His teaching interests are at the intersection of public finance, monetary theory, and history of economic thought. He has held various senior positions at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland. Prior to his work in central banking, he worked in investment banking in London and Zurich. View Bieri’s full bio.