The Federal Reserve’s summary of Economic Projections in September doesn’t anticipate a recession in the next three years. And Chair Jerome Powell still seems to think that a soft landing for the economy is possible. In my view, however, a US recession is highly likely in the next 12 to 18 months. Why don’t I share the Fed’s optimism?
The projections by the Fed governors will always paint a rosy picture. They’re instructed to condition their view on an optimal monetary policy, which obviously makes better outcomes achievable. In the real world, as has been demonstrated over the past year, policy is often far from that ideal, so actual results will usually be worse than implied by the projections.
In the same vein, the Fed model that underpins its staff forecast contains assumptions that contribute to more pleasant forecasts. They include that the Fed will pursue the optimal monetary policy path in the future (regardless of past errors) and that households and businesses know this.
These assumptions rule out persistent monetary policy errors or the loss of confidence by households and businesses in the Fed’s commitment and ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives.
The Fed also operates in a world where there’s an important political economy constraint. Admitting that a recession would be required to get inflation in check might undercut public support for a tighter monetary policy. It also could subject the Fed to criticism that might ultimately undermine its independence or cause Congress to limit its authority in the future. Sugarcoating the cost of what the Fed needs to do may be viewed as a necessary evil so it can carry out its mission successfully. But it also runs the risk of undercutting the Fed’s credibility.
Why do I believe a recession is unavoidable? To start, the Fed is committed to bringing inflation down to its 2% annual rate target. Powell made it clear in his remarks at the Jackson Hole conference in August that this goal was “unconditional” and reiterated his commitment at his September news conference. Failure is an unattractive option because inflation expectations would rise, necessitating a harsher monetary policy and worse outcomes later.
To bring inflation to 2%, the Federal Open Market Committee will have to push up the unemployment rate substantially. The labor market is much too tight to be consistent with a stable or declining underlying inflation rate.
Judging from the relationship between unfilled job openings and the number of people who are unemployed, known as the Beveridge curve, the unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation has risen considerably and could be as high as 5%, well above the current rate of 3.7%. Even if the Beveridge curve were to shift back down because labor market frictions abated, the unemployment rate would still need to rise to at least 4.5%.
During the postwar period, every time the unemployment rate has risen by 0.5 percentage point or more, the US economy has fallen into recession. This empirical regularity is memorialized as the Sahm rule. The difficulty of engineering a soft landing is underscored by the fact that there are no examples of an unemployment rate rising between 0.5 and 2 percentage points from trough to peak at all. Once the unemployment rate has moved up modestly, it’s hard to stop. Thus, the Fed’s Summary of Economic Projections in September in which unemployment rises to 4.4% from its recent trough of 3.5% would be unprecedented.
The episodes Powell has cited of successful soft landings—in 1965-66, 1984-85, and 1993-95—don’t apply to the current set of circumstances. In those cases, the Fed tightened and that slowed the pace of economic growth and the decline in the unemployment rate, but in none of those episodes did the Fed tighten sufficiently to push the unemployment rate up. In Fed parlance, these soft landings were achieved from above, by slowing the economy to a sustainable growth rate, rather than from below, by slowing the economy sufficiently to push the unemployment rate up.
Fed risk management will also increase the likelihood of recession. Powell has made it clear that the consequences of failing to bring inflation back down to 2% on a sustainable basis are unacceptable. The lesson of the 1970s is that failure would lead to unanchored inflation expectations, making the job of restoring price stability that much more difficult.
In addition, the Fed’s task will be made difficult by uncertainty about whether it has done enough. How high do short-term interest rates need to go to push the unemployment rate above the rate consistent with stable inflation? How long does such an unemployment rate need to be elevated to bring inflation back down to 2%? Because, at the margin, the negative consequences of doing too little exceed the negative consequences of doing too much, this means that monetary policy will likely ultimately be kept too tight for too long. The long and variable lags between changes in the stance of monetary policy and its effect on economic activity reinforce this.
Some argue—including Fed officials—that a soft landing is still possible:
• As supply chain disruptions dissipate and the allocation of demand between goods and services normalizes, headline inflation will fall sharply.
• Labor supply will increase as labor force participation rises.
• Fed tightening can reduce the excess demand for labor without generating a large rise in unemployment.
Although one can’t dismiss these points out of hand, I’m afraid they’re likely to prove insufficient to avoid a hard landing.
First, even if declining goods prices cause headline inflation to fall sharply in the year ahead, that doesn’t deal with the fact that the inflation problem has broadened out, into services prices and wages.
The breadth of inflationary pressures is visible in the median consumer price index calculated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the trimmed mean personal consumption expenditures deflator—an alternative inflation measure calculated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas—with increases of 7% and 4.7%, respectively, over the past year. Those numbers capture what’s happening for those goods and services in the middle of the inflation distribution.
Similarly, the trend of wage inflation is well above a rate consistent with 2% inflation. For example, the employment cost index for the wages and salaries of private industry workers has gone up 5.2% over the past year, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s wage tracker index is rising at a 6.4% annual rate. Given the trend of labor productivity, wage inflation needs to be in a 3%-to-4% range to be consistent with the Fed’s 2% inflation objective.
Second, on the labor supply front, the Fed is unlikely to be bailed out by a large increase in labor force participation. As labor economist Stephanie Aaronson noted in her remarks at this year’s Fed Jackson Hole conference: “The unemployment rate is the best gauge of the state of the business cycle.” Although a tight labor market can be expected to provoke a rise in labor force participation, she said, the process is a slow-moving one, playing out over several years, too slow a process to rescue the Fed.
Third, the notion that the Fed’s monetary policy stringency can be oriented toward reducing the excess demand for labor without driving up unemployment materially is wishful thinking. Monetary policy can’t be targeted in such a way to reduce the demand for labor in industries where demand is excessive relative to industries where labor supply and demand is in better balance. It’s a blunt tool that affects the economy broadly through its impact on financial conditions.
Although a soft landing would obviously be preferable, that ship has sailed. Today, a recession is virtually inevitable.