|Inflation appears to be book-ending my career. I started my work as an economist in the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. Inflation had been trending higher for years. Neither Arthur Burns nor G. William Miller, the Fed chairmen preceding Volcker, had the fortitude to raise interest rates sufficiently and keep them there long enough to reduce inflation to a low sustainable pace. Paul Volcker pulled it off–for which he was personally vilified at the time. But since then, Paul Volcker has become a legend, esteemed as the central banker whose brute-force campaign subdued inflation for decades.
You can see in the chart below that in late 1979, the Volcker Fed hiked the overnight policy rate to levels well above the inflation rate and kept real interest rates (nominal rate minus inflation rate) positive for an extended period.
The current Fed Chair, Jay Powell, has expressed deep admiration for Paul Volcker, calling him “the greatest economic public servant of the era.” Last month, Powell alluded to his predecessor’s record of persistence, saying that policymakers “will keep at it until the job is done” — invoking Volcker’s memoir, “Keeping at It.”
The Bank of Canada was no slouch on the inflation front as well. As the chart shows, the Bank hiked interest rates in lockstep with the Fed in the Volcker years and even more in the early 1990s when Ottawa was fighting Canadian budgetary red ink to the ground.
This time around, Tiff Macklem has been ahead of the Fed in hiking interest rates and, in a speech on Thursday, said that the economy is still “clearly” in excess demand, with businesses facing an extremely tight labour market, wage gains broadening and underlying inflation pressures showing no signs of letting up. Macklem said that the sources of inflation, which started with goods prices, are broadening to the service sector. “. Labour markets remain very tight. Job vacancies have eased a little in recent months but remain exceptionally high. Our business surveys report widespread labour shortages. And wage growth has risen and continues to broaden.”
“With demand running ahead of supply, competition is posing less of a restraint on price increases, and businesses are passing through higher input costs more quickly. As a result, higher energy and material costs are showing up in the prices of a growing list of goods and services. So even if there is some relief at the gas pumps, price pressures remain high and continue to broaden. In August, the prices of more than three-quarters of the goods and services that make up the CPI were rising faster than 3%.”
Macklem continued, “As we look for a more fundamental turning point in inflation, measures of core inflation are becoming increasingly relevant…after taking out volatile components in the CPI that don’t reflect generalized changes in prices, inflation is running about 5%. That’s too high. We can also see that our core measures have yet to decline meaningfully even though total CPI inflation has come down in the last couple of months. Going forward, we will be watching our measures of core inflation closely for clear evidence of a turning point in underlying inflation.” In conclusion, the governor said, “there is more to be done….We know we are still a long way from the 2% target. We know it will take some time to get there. We also know there could be setbacks along the way, and we can’t afford to let high inflation become entrenched.”