Has the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent inflation goal become, for all intents and purposes, unattainable?
That may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Eliminate food and fuel, and the price index tied to consumer spending has met or exceeded such a target just 26 percent of the time in the past two decades. During that span, the world’s largest economy has experienced booms in technology and housing, indicating periods of strong growth haven’t stoked sustained cost pressures.
Technological advances such as hydraulic fracturing in oil fields, online commerce and mobile phone applications have created a stubbornly low price environment, even with policy makers juicing economic growth through near-zero interest rates. That’s why Fed officials should consider lowering their inflation target or risk spurring financial instability by keeping monetary policy loose for too long, according to Allen Sinai, chief global economist and strategist at Decision Economics Inc. in New York.
“Technological change has changed inflation dynamics,” said Sinai, who’s been tracking the U.S. and world economies for more than four decades. “Two percent I don’t think can be right, given the reduction of costs almost everywhere.”
Sinai admits he’s in the minority among his peers. To him, an inflation target around 1.5 percent makes more sense. Though he’s not optimistic the central bank will contemplate a shift, there should be some debate, he said.
The Fed has had an explicit 2 percent inflation goal since 2012.
Fracking has been around for decades, but only in the past 10 years has the technology become cheap enough to be applied on a large scale, first with gas, and later with oil, said John Auers, executive vice president at the Dallas-based energy consulting firm Turner, Mason & Co.
And this may be just the beginning, according to Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York. Innovation in America’s shale oil fields has advanced rapidly, he wrote in a report this year. The next improvements may bring the break-even cost of U.S. oil down to $5 to $20 per barrel, about the same as in Saudi Arabia, he said.
With industries from transportation to manufacturing dependent on oil as an input, cheaper energy will result in lower costs across the board. That gives companies the ability to hold prices in check.
Uber Technologies Inc., founded in 2009, puts price- limiting power in consumers’ pockets. People can pull out their mobile phones and request car service to get them from point A to point B, often less expensively than a taxi.
Expense-management company Certify Inc. found that more business travelers are choosing Uber over cabs, with the average cost coming in at $30.03 for the ride-sharing company versus $34.48 for a taxi.
Meanwhile, Amazon.com Inc., which marketed itself as the world’s largest bookseller when it was founded in the 1990s, has become the place to purchase anything from toothpaste to televisions for less.
While the price leader in the retail marketplace is still Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Amazon has changed “shoppers’ value perception,” said Anne Zybowski, vice president of retail insights at Kantar Retail LLC in Boston. “Because Amazon covers Earth’s biggest selection and the millions of items that they carry, it definitely drives price visibility and dynamics.”
Laurence Ball, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is among those who disagree with the premise that inflation is permanently lower. The reason prices have failed to accelerate is that the economy remains weak and too many people are underemployed, he said.
Ball said the Fed should aim for 4 percent inflation and encourage faster growth through monetary policy that’s looser for longer. Concern that such action would cause asset bubbles is unfounded, he said.
“The possible costs of overheating the economy a little bit are just trivial compared to the gains,” Ball said. “The times we see bubbles are when the economy is really overheated and people get irrationally exuberant, and it’s just not the problem in the current environment.”
U.S. central bankers are meeting Wednesday and Thursday to decide whether a rate hike would be appropriate, weighing improving labor-market data against financial-market volatility and concerns that growth abroad is slowing.
Officials also need to be “reasonably confident” inflation will return toward their target in the medium term.
The question remains whether fracking, Uber and Amazon are among the things shaking that confidence.
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