While the market chatter in the run-up to Wednesday’s Federal Reserve interest rate decision has understandably focused on whether the increase will be 50 or 75 basis points, the critical issue in play is a broader one. For its sake and that of both the domestic and global economy, the central bank desperately needs to regain control of the inflation narrative.
The persistent failure to do so in the past 12 months is turning the perception of the Fed from the world’s most powerful central bank — long respected for its ability to anchor global financial stability — to an institution that too closely resembles an emerging-market bank that lacks credibility and inadvertently contributes to undue financial volatility. Regaining control of the inflation narrative is critical to the Fed’s policy effectiveness, its reputation and its political independence. The longer this takes, the greater the negative effects on economic well-being and social equity in the US, and the larger the negative spillovers for the rest of the world.
The evidence of the Fed’s loss of control has multiplied uncomfortably in recent weeks.
Once again, its forecasts for inflation, one of its dual mandates, have been off. Meanwhile, longer-term inflationary expectations have deviated further from the Fed’s 2% target, with the University of Michigan’s measure for the next five to 10 years reaching a multidecade high of 3.3%. With that, even the part of the market on which the Fed has the most influence, typified by the two-year Treasury note yield, has been subject to eye-popping large and disorderly moves up that are frightening for one of the most critical segments of global financial markets.
Just as worrisome is the Fed’s misplayed attempt at precision. Its signaling of two 50-basis-point increases a few weeks ago first led markets to contemplate a September pause in the rate cycle. That thinking was then firmly displaced by speculation about an immediate 75-basis-point increase on a journey to a terminal rate well above anything mentioned by the Fed.
That caused yet more undue volatility in markets; and with that comes greater distancing for the Fed from the “first best” policy response and a deepening of a lose-lose policy dilemma that is largely of its own creation — that is, slam on the policy brakes to fight inflation at the cost of a consequential risk of recession or tap the brakes more gently and risk persistently high inflation well into 2023.
The notion of a central bank consistently chasing inflationary developments, running out of good policy options and, in the process, intensifying economic and financial volatility would not be uncommon in a developing country lacking institutional credibility and maturity. It is highly unusual, and particularly distressing, for the central bank that is at the center of the international monetary system.
The result is an amplification of the adverse spillover effects for the rest of the world, putting at considerable risk financial stability in some of the countries at the periphery of the global system. At home, it undermines economic prosperity and adds to the considerable pressures already being faced by the most vulnerable segments of the population.
Fortunately, the urgency of regaining control clarifies the immediate steps that the Fed must take.
First, it needs to share its analysis of why it has repeatedly misread inflation for so long and how it has now improved its forecasting capabilities. Without this, the Fed will continue to find it difficult to convince markets that it has a handle on inflation, leading to a further de-anchoring of inflationary expectations.
Second, the Fed needs to show that it is serious about tackling inflation, not just in words but in actions. Having so mishandled the run-up to this week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting, it has no choice but to raise the target for the fed funds rate by 75 basis points, thereby undermining its own forward policy guidance of 50 basis points signaled just last month and doing something that Fed Chair Jerome Powell had ruled out.
Third, in raising 75 basis points, it must also credibly convey the notion that this is part of a journey, and it must avoid repeating the mistake of spurious precision — an unforced error that it has made a couple of times in the last few months.
Notwithstanding the fact that it operates in a more difficult context because of the weaker regional economy and the risk of “spread fragmentation,” the European Central Bank has recently taken some important steps in this regard. The longer the Fed delays in doing the same, the more markets will revise upward inflation expectations and the scale and speed of the rate-increase cycle. The result of that, should it materialize, will be the current US stagflation baseline giving way to recession; and, once again as economic insecurity increases because of both higher prices and more uncertain income prospects, the most vulnerable segments of the population will be hit hardest.
I warned a year ago that, in insisting that inflation was “transitory,” the Fed was risking one of its biggest policy mistakes whose consequences would be felt beyond the US economy. Since then, it has been like watching a bad dream play out in stages. I hope that the Fed will use this week’s FOMC meeting to break out of the problematic policy regime it has placed itself in, thereby avoiding yet more undue damage to economic well-being, prospects and social equity.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A former chief executive officer of Pimco, he is president of Queens’ College, Cambridge; chief economic adviser at Allianz SE; and chair of Gramercy Fund Management. He is author of “The Only Game in Town.”
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