There’s still no reason to be afraid of the inflation monster

(Brit Austin/Flickr)
(Brit Austin/Flickr)

The hunt for the inflation monster continues.

First, it was the national debt and the Fed's bond-buying that were supposed to bring us back to 1970s America, if not 1920s Germany. Then, when that turned out to be wrong, it was only supposed to be a matter of time until it was right — if it wasn't already, and government bureaucrats were just hiding it! But now, with PCE inflation at 1.1 percent, even the most diehard inflation hawks realize they need a new story. So, worrying about rising prices is out. Instead, worrying about rising wages is in.

We saw this Monday in a Wall Street Journal article trumpeting that "Wage Pressure Begins to Build." The article quotes a few CEOs saying that they're going to have to raise wages soon, while acknowledging that those comments "are at odds with broader economic data ... and economists aren't finding much evidence of a strong uptick in wages." In other words, this isn't a news story, even though it appears in the news section. It's a mathematical banality. Some companies are increasing wages more than average, and some are increasing them less. That's how averages work. But there's no reason to think that the average itself, which is what we care about, is increasing.

So, why was this even a story? Well, there's always demand for pieces about why we need to raise rates — mostly from 60-year-olds who think it's always 1979 — and wage inflation is supposed to be that reason today. But the data don't tell the story they want it to, so they have to turn to anecdotes instead.

A better headline would have been something like: "Wages Are Flat Despite Lower Unemployment." That would normally be surprising. Alan Krueger, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, has pointed out that the short-term unemployed are all that seem to matter when it comes to inflation -- that companies would rather pay more to hire away people who already have jobs than take a chance on people who haven't had one in six months.

But that's not what the data are telling us now, even though short-term unemployment is basically back to normal. It's more what David Blanchflower and Adam Posen, both of whom served on Britain's Monetary Policy Committee, have observed about discouraged and long-term unemployed people still exerting downward pressure on wages. That's also what the Federal Reserve has found, and the implication is that it should keep rates low as long as it takes to get the labor participation rate higher— and not just the unemployment rate lower.

Now, that's admittedly not a scary story about the inflation monster rushing out from under your bed to steal all your cash and bonds. But it is a true one, and that should count for something.

Matt O'Brien is a reporter for Wonkblog covering economic affairs. He was previously a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.
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