Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.
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August 31, 2022
Lessons from the Past: Can the 1970s Help Inform the Future Path of Monetary Policy?
People in monetary policy circles sometimes use the phrase "long and variable lags" to describe the delayed impact of the Fed's main policy tool on demand and inflation. The popularization of that phrase can be traced to a speech by Milton Friedman during the 1971 American Economic Association meetings, and since then people usually use it to describe the impact of Fed policy on economic output and inflation. Yet, during that speech, when summing up his work on the subject, he noted that "...monetary changes take much longer to affect prices than to affect output," adding that the maximum impact on prices is not apparent for about one and a half to two years.
Since Milton Friedman, many economists have studied these "long and variable lags" (including former Fed chair Ben Bernanke). And, while the length of the lag has proven "variable" as first suggested, the main result still rings true. Changes in the stance of monetary policy have the largest impact on output first and then, much later, on inflation. A large literature bears out this assertion. Bernanke et al. (1999) and Christiano, Eichenbaum, and Evans (2005) point to a two-year lag between monetary policy actions and their main effect on inflation. Gerlach and Svensson (2001) report an approximately 18-month lag in the euro area, while Batini and Nelson (2001) estimate that changes in the money supply have their peak impact on inflation in the UK after a year.
That context is especially useful for monetary policymakers to keep in mind as they navigate the economic challenges of the pandemic. In a span of just two and a half years, the US economy has suffered its sharpest post-WWII decline in economic output, a subsequent rapid resurgence in demand, a dramatic disconnect between labor supply and labor demand, widespread supply and shipping constraints, and an inflation rate that has surged from roughly 1.5 percent to 9 percent in the past 17 months. And, despite current strong job growth and the highest inflation this country has seen in 40 years, worries over a potential recession mount (as evidenced by the number of questions Chair Powell was asked about the "r word" in his press conference following the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee). These beliefs partly reflect the rapid shift in the fiscal and monetary policy stance over the past year. In response to the pandemic, Congress approved a stimulus package of $5 trillion, while the Fed expanded its balance sheet by roughly the same amount. But now, the federal deficit has fallen more than 81 percent in first 10 months of 2022 fiscal year compared to 2021. In turn, the Fed has embarked on policy normalization, raising interest rates well into the range of neutral and drawing down its balance sheet (actions known as quantitative tightening).
Although "this time is different," we might be able to gain insights into the appropriate path of monetary policy by revisiting the past. At the time of Milton Friedman's 1971 speech, the economy was coming out of what many economists saw as a policy-driven recession , which followed a period of fiscal tightening to make up for large government outlays for the Vietnam War and a sizeable slowing in money growth as the Fed attempted to quell rising inflation. Today, the main policy tool is the federal funds rate, but prior to the early 1980s, changes in the money supply were the primary instrument. (Monetary aggregates—that is, growth in the money supply—formally replaced bank credit as the primary intermediate target of monetary policy in 1970. At the time, the fed funds rate played only a secondary role and was used as guideline in day-to-day open market operations, aimed at smoothing short run volatility.) In the run-up to the 1969–70 recession, the Fed tightened policy, slowing the growth in the money supply from 8 percent on a year-over-year basis to just 2 percent (the associated increase in the fed funds rate was roughly 4.5 percentage points, to 9 percent). Yet, as quickly as the Federal Open Market Committee tightened policy in the late 1960s, it more than reversed course in response to a sizeable increase in the unemployment rate during the recession. By late 1971, the money supply was surging again, up 13 percent on a year-over-year basis.
The Fed's quick and stark policy reversal became a recurring theme in the 1970s. During the decade, the Fed quickly pivoted between battling high unemployment and high inflation, what many economists refer to as "stop-and-go" policies. Charts 1 and 2 clearly show these shifting stances as they occurred again in the run-up to and aftermath of the 1974–75 recession. Chart 1 plots the year-over-year growth rate in the money supply (M2) and the unemployment rate, and chart 2 plots the growth in the money supply against the year-over-year growth rate in consumer price index inflation.
These charts depict three points that remain salient today. First, the "stop-and-go" policies of the 1970s clearly highlight the "long and variable lags" that changes in monetary policy have on inflation. Money growth plateaus at high levels three times during the late 1960s through the 1970s: in 1968, 1972, and in the mid-1970s. Each of those periods is followed by a subsequent surge in inflation, prompting a sustained tightening of monetary conditions. But as soon as inflation began falling, the Fed quickly reversed course with a bold expansion in the money supply that overshadowed the one originating the previous cycle, citing spikes in unemployment along with a lagged decline in inflation as justifications for these reversals.
If we smooth through some of the cyclical dynamics, there was a sustained upward drift in both the unemployment rate and inflation. In the mid-1960s, both inflation and the unemployment rate were around 2 percent. And 1980 inflation was over 10 percent and the unemployment rate had drifted up to 6 percent.
This period's upward drift in unemployment and inflation ran counter to the era's prevailing wisdom, which held that higher inflation was simply the sacrifice needed to lower the unemployment rate, and vice versa, An insightful essay by former Atlanta Fed economist Mike Bryan covers this period in depth. He writes, "The stable trade-off between inflation and unemployment proved unstable. The ability of policymakers to control any ‘real' variable was ephemeral. This truth included the rate of unemployment, which oscillated around its ‘natural' rate. The trade-off that policymakers hoped to exploit did not exist."
Why didn't this stable tradeoff exist? Part of the answer is that the unemployment rate fluctuates around an unobserved natural rate. (Fed chair Jerome Powell's 2018 speech offers an accessible discussion of these unobservables.) But the other part of the answer that is particularly salient at the moment is that by the mid- to late 1970s, after enduring a sustained period of rising unemployment and inflation, people began to expect higher inflation rates.
Chart 3 plots one-year-ahead inflation expectations alongside inflation and money growth using data from the Livingston Survey, a twice-annual survey of a small group of professional economists that the Philadelphia Fed has conducted since the end of WWII. And here the upward drift in inflation expectations is striking. By 1980, inflation expectations had risen 10 percent. Our interpretation of these data is that the rapid reversals of policy that characterized Fed actions during the 1970s never allowed inflation to fall back to the 1 to 3 percent range that was the norm after the end of the Korean War. As a consequence, the expectation that inflation would not recede into the background eventually became embedded into the psyche of Americans. People who lived through this experience simply anticipated higher future inflation rates, with that expectation embedded into their price-setting and wage-bargaining decisions.
Now, history here is messy. A number of caveats and confounding factors contributed to the unfavorable economic outcomes of the 1970s. Fed historians such as Allan Meltzer argue that the prevailing Fed chair at the time, Arthur Burns, did not consider monetary policy as ultimately responsible for such high inflation. Instead, the chair pointed to unions' wage-bargaining power first and, in particular, "cost-push" shocks (that is, energy and food shortages) later as the responsible party. (And indeed, this "cost-push" theory of inflation, so prevalent at the time, merits further exploration since assuming that spikes in energy prices might have contributed to the unanchoring of inflation expectations makes sense.)
Yet, in the case of oil price shocks, there is a counterpoint. The breakdown of the Bretton Woods accords ultimately drove the sustained increase in oil prices, and their breakdown can be seen in the era's robust money growth at the time. The breakdown of these accords created a run on the dollar amid fears of inflation. The price of gold took off as many investors were scrambling for an inflation hedge. Interestingly, the increase in the price of oil actually followed the spike in the price of gold and other commodities.
The historical evidence suggests that by 1970, the attempt to defend the dollar at a fixed peg of $35 per ounce, established by the Bretton Woods agreements, had become increasingly untenable, and gold outflows from the United States accelerated amid sustained inflation and trade/fiscal deficits. The run on the dollar forced President Nixon to effectively "close the gold window," making the dollar inconvertible to gold in August 1971. One month later, OPEC communicated its intention to price oil in terms of a fixed amount of gold. Hence, the increase in the money supply, spurred by the run-up in gold prices, exacerbated the increase in the dollar price of oil and led to the high inflation that followed. OPEC was slow to readjust prices to reflect this depreciation. However, the substantial price increases of 1973–74 and 1979 largely returned oil prices to the corresponding gold parity (see chart 4), which, again, was then seen as an inflation hedge.
In this context, it's worth noting that the OPEC oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War lasted just a few months, but the price increase was permanent. Similarly, the drop in oil production following the Iranian Revolution was negligible, as Saudi Arabia increased production to offset most of the decline. Contrast these episodes to the Gulf War in 1990. Oil prices doubled during the conflict (July–October) but went back to previous levels once the war ended.
In sum, Arthur Burns leaned heavily into the notion that these cost-push shocks—and not Fed action—were ultimately responsible for inflation, effectively ignored the "long and variable" lags of monetary policy, misread the monetary dynamics, and reacted expediently to the real-side damage that high energy prices wreaked on the economy.
So let's fast-forward to today. The fiscal response to the onset of the pandemic was quite forceful—$5 trillion by most counts—and at least on par with significant wartime spending. As these transfers and disbursements hit households' wallets and businesses' ledgers, money growth surged higher than 25 percent—peaking well above, though not as sustained as, the high money-growth periods during the 1970s (see chart 5). And we've seen a sharp surge in inflation that has gone well beyond pandemic-related supply constraints and shipping bottlenecks that affected certain production inputs such as computer chips. As of July 2022, roughly three-quarters of consumers' market basket rose at rates in excess of 3 percent (and two-thirds of the market basket increased at rates north of 5 percent). These levels are on par with those we saw during the Great Inflation of the 1970s.
The Committee has begun an aggressive campaign to squelch this inflation threat, hiking rates in each of the last four meetings by a cumulative 2 percentage points along with implementing plans to reduce the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet. It has also indicated that more policy tightening is to come. If history is any guide, at least in broad strokes, it will take some time before recent policy actions begin to affect inflation.
And here, it appears that the FOMC is very attuned to the lessons from the Great Inflation period. In a recent speech at Jackson Hole, Chair Powell noted, "Our monetary policy deliberations and decisions build on what we have learned about inflation dynamics both from the high and volatile inflation of the 1970s and 1980s, and from the low and stable inflation of the past quarter-century." Perhaps more importantly, he emphasized, "Restoring price stability will likely require maintaining a restrictive policy stance for some time. The historical record cautions strongly against prematurely loosening policy."
August 2, 2022
Firms' Inflation Expectations: Not Unanchored, but Perhaps Unsettled?
Last week, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) again decided to raise the federal funds rate target by 75 basis points in an effort to help curb inflation. While Chair Powell, in his press conference following the July FOMC meeting, noted the lag in monetary policy's influence on inflationary pressures, he also pointed out that "if you have a sustained period of supply shocks, those can actually start to undermine or to work on de-anchoring inflation expectations" (see the 16-minute mark of the video from the press conference).
We, too, share this worry. In fact, it's been something we've been concerned about here at the Atlanta Fed since last fall. In a speech at Peterson Institute speech in October 2021, Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic said: "I continue to believe currently elevated inflation is episodic, driven by pandemic conditions such as disruptions in supply chains and labor markets. A major caveat, though, is that the severe and pervasive supply chain issues will probably last longer than most of us initially expected. Up to now, indicators do not suggest that long-run inflation expectations are dangerously untethered. But the episodic pressures could grind on long enough to unanchor expectations."
After monitoring the evolution of our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey data for the better part of a year, we're still concerned. While the BIE has only been around since 2011, and the current period of high inflation is the only shock we've picked up in our data, the speed and sharpness of the increase in our survey-based measure of inflation expectations have left us wondering: How unsettled are longer-run inflation expectations?
For those not familiar with the BIE survey and its unique perspective on firms' inflation expectations, it's a monthly regional survey that the Atlanta Fed conducts to measure firms' inflation expectations in the Sixth District. Rather than elicit firms' aggregate inflation expectations, we ask them about their own-firm unit cost expectations—an input that is directly related to their own-firm price formation strategies (see Meyer et al. 2021). Moreover, the expectations we elicit are probabilistic, meaning we can gauge not only an individual firm's average expectations but also the level of certainty with which firms are holding those views. What does the BIE tell us about how firms are reacting to the highest bout of inflation the United States has experienced in 40 years?
By now, the current inflationary environment should be apparent to just about everyone. It's affecting all areas of the consumer market basket and has become a recurring headline in the news. It's even become a popular search term on Google. In fact, inflationary pressures have risen to heights that we haven't seen since the early 1980s, during the period known as the Great Inflation. As the chart below shows, roughly three-quarters of prices in the consumers' market basket (by expenditure weight in the consumer price index, or CPI) have risen at rates equal to or exceeding 5 percent (see chart 1). In June, more than 90 percent of prices in the market basket outpaced the 3 percent mark.
This high-inflation environment is not lost on businesses. In fact, firms' perceptions (unit-cost realizations) have been highly correlated with the evolution of overall inflation over the course of the pandemic. Chart 2 plots firms' realized unit-cost growth over the past year and compares it to the year-over-year growth rate in overall inflation as measured by the GDP price index, which is the broadest measure of inflationary pressures as it goes beyond just consumer prices to gauge price pressures in the entire economy.
In the world of survey-based measures of inflation expectations, our BIE survey has one clear advantage: not only can it track the evolution of expectations but it can also provide clear insight into firms' perceptions of the current environment, which is very useful in gauging the external validity of those expectations. To us, this insight compellingly shows that firms in our BIE panel are clearly seeing the facts when it comes to inflation.When general prices increase, businesses' input costs also increase, and as higher costs squeeze margins, many firms will pass some or all of those costs on to their customers in the form of (you guessed it) higher prices. Survey evidence suggests a correlation between supply chain disruptions and higher year-ahead inflation expectations. We've previously noted that although supply chain disruption isn't the only factor influencing expectations, firms with the largest levels of disruption tend to hold higher expectations for inflation in the year ahead (see chart 3). So what are firms telling us about their expectations for the evolution of inflation over the year ahead and beyond?
Perhaps the easiest way to see how much both short-run and five-year-ahead (long-run) inflation expectations have moved over the past two years is to index them to their prepandemic growth rates. In chart 3, we depict these expectations, indexing each series to 100 in the fourth quarter of 2019. What we can see is that both short-run and longer-run expectations have increased dramatically.
While initially short-run expectations dipped at the start of the pandemic (amid widespread lockdowns and a substantial decline in economic activity), starting early in 2021, firms' short-run inflation expectations began to increase sharply. Later in 2021, firms' long-run expectations also started to show a meaningful pickup. Firms' short-run inflation expectations have roughly doubled relative to the prepandemic period. And firms' longer-run expectations are about 25 percent higher than the expectations we saw in late 2019.We can dig a bit deeper into firms' longer-run expectations by examining the average probability weights that firms assign to the potential outcomes for longer-run unit costs at different periods, as chart 4 shows. In this case, we look at the fourth quarter of 2019 and the second quarters of 2020, 2021, and 2022.
These histograms illustrate the degree to which firms' inflation expectations have shifted over the course of the pandemic. Here, two aspects of this shift stand out to us. First, through the middle of 2021, even as inflation metrics were beginning to heat up, the distribution of firms' longer-run expectations hadn't moved much. Second, during the past year, the average probability distribution shifted starkly. The typical firm in our panel is now assigning nearly a 60 percent probability to longer-run unit cost increases of at least 3 percent per year. Moreover, their modal expectation is for longer-run unit costs to increase by 5 percent or more annually—which means that more firms anticipate the need to adjust their unit costs by more than 5 percent per year in the long run. To put this bluntly, we haven't witnessed anything like this in the decade-long existence of this survey.
A couple of caveats are worth mentioning here. First, although this is the first sizable "inflation shock" we've been able to examine in the BIE survey, we do not have a long enough time series to compare the current era to the aforementioned Great Inflation. At best, we can suggest that—given the high correlation between firms' unit-cost expectations and professional forecasters' expectations—our measures would have performed similarly in the '70s and '80s. Also, as the extensive literature on consumer expectations documents, the possibility exists for business executives to base their projections for future unit costs solely on current conditions (a phenomenon economists call adaptive expectations). Still, that last point cuts two ways. First, it's possible that, should inflation ebb meaningfully in the coming months, these longer-term expectations might follow suit. Conversely, persistently high inflation could further cement such expectations for the longer run, making it more challenging for policymakers to bring inflation back to their price-stability goals.
Said another way, the current bout of high inflation is unusual in many different ways, and how it will play out remains fraught with uncertainty. Firms' short- and long-run expectations have risen sharply, and longer-run expectations show a clear rise in the average firm's probability distribution, to the extent that nearly one-third of the weight is being assigned to anticipated cost increases greater than 5 percent. So as we continue to delve further into these expectations and monitor upcoming developments, we're left pondering the question: is this how "unanchoring" begins?
April 7, 2021
CFOs Growing More Optimistic, See Only Modest Boost from Stimulus Plan
During the past few months, alongside an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations and amid a fresh round of fiscal support, optimism about the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has grown. Although reasons for concern over the potential unevenness of the recovery still exist, many economists, policymakers , and market participants have ratcheted up their growth expectations for 2021.
This growing optimism extends to decision makers who participate in The CFO Survey—a collaborative effort among the Atlanta Fed, Duke University's Fuqua School, and the Richmond Fed. CFOs and other financial decision makers in our survey grew more optimistic about the U.S. economy and their own firms' financial prospects, according to the first quarter's data released on April 7. Moreover, these firms see stronger prospects for sales revenue and employment growth in 2021 (similar to results from other business surveys, including the Atlanta Fed's Survey of Business Uncertainty).
Many people think the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is behind these brighter expectations. However, the results of our CFO Survey suggest that many firms anticipate that the fiscal stimulus will have only a modest impact on their own future business activity.
In the first-quarter CFO Survey (fielded March 15–26, 2021), we posed a question asking respondents about the impact that ARPA might have their own firm's revenue growth, number of employees, representative price (the price of the product, product line, or service that accounts for the majority of their revenue), and total wage and salary costs (see chart 1). Firms had five response options, ranging from "decrease significantly" to "increase significantly." A majority of firms expect the recent fiscal measure to have "little to no impact" across all areas of their business activity. The results are perhaps most striking for employment, as nearly 80 percent of firms anticipate ARPA to bring little to no change in that area.
Considering the tepid impact of the stimulus on employment expectations, the survey results for total wage and salary costs are also interesting. Here, nearly 30 percent of the panel anticipates modest to moderate upward pressure on wage and salary costs, with another 5 percent or so expecting "significant" impact on their wage bill. The reasons for the expected effect on firms' total wage and salary costs are unclear, but we should note that labor quality and availability remain very high on CFOs' list of most pressing concerns.
Expectations around ARPA's impact on revenue growth appear a bit more diffuse. Though the survey's typical (or median) firm still anticipates that the bill will bring little to no change in sales revenue growth, nearly 40 percent of respondents expect the legislation to have a positive impact on sales, and a very small share of firms anticipate a negative impact on revenue.
Given the nature of these responses, we were curious whether CFOs who anticipated a positive impact from ARPA also held higher quantitative expectations for firm-level growth than firms who saw little-to-no impact. t. The CFO Survey elicits firms' quantitative expectations for sales revenue, employment, price, and wage growth early in the questionnaire, providing a useful way to check for consistency. Table 1 reports these results.
Apart from firms' anticipated growth in wage and salary costs, it does appear that firms that foresee a boost from the fiscal stimulus also hold higher growth expectations. The increase in expectations is particularly stark for employment growth and prices.
If we dig a little deeper into the small share of firms anticipating increased employment due to the stimulus—45 total—we find that 40 of them are in service-providing industries and employ fewer than 500 workers. We know from academic research, government statistics, and anecdotal reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit smaller, service-providing firms particularly hard, so it's perhaps not surprising to see these types of firms expecting the stimulus to aid in a rebound. These firms are also anticipating a stimulus-induced boost to the prices they can charge. The price growth for services has slowed markedly since the onset of the pandemic. As the economy begins to open up more fully, these firms might believe that measures to bolster household income (among other aspects of ARPA) will lead to a bit more pricing power.
Overall, however, our results suggest that the majority of firms anticipate ARPA to have little to no impact on their sales revenue, employment, prices, and wages. The smaller share of firms that do anticipate increased activity resulting from the stimulus largely expect the increase to be modest to moderate.
Importantly, these results do not rule out a surge in growth as the pandemic recedes and the vaccination rollout continues. As we've noted, most CFOs expect growth to occur regardless of ARPA's role in that growth. But the survey shows that firms, in general, do not pin any surge in demand on the legislation.
March 22, 2021
Inflation Expectations Reflect Concerns over Supply Disruptions, Crimped Capacity
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, we've seen evidence of changes in how it, and attendant policy measures designed to support the economy, are affecting firms. Early in the pandemic, firms generally appeared more concerned with flagging demand and falling revenue than issues of having sufficient supplies (notwithstanding obvious acute issues at grocery stores). Rather, at least through August 2020, firms saw the COVID-19 pandemic as disproportionately a concern of demand rather than supply —so much so, in fact, that firms scaled back on wages, expected to lower near-term selling prices, and lowered their one-year-ahead inflation expectations to a series low (going back to 2011). These findings, based on our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey, are consistent with other academic research based on quarterly earnings calls of public firms and research out of the Harvard Business School.
However, as the pandemic continued to unfold and as relief and support continued to flow into the economy via ongoing monetary and fiscal policy efforts, many firms have begun to indicate a shift in concerns—from flagging demand toward concerns about fulfilling demand. Although the recovery remains decidedly uneven across industries, strong shifts in consumer activity (toward durable goods purchases) amid crimped production due to COVID-19 restrictions appear to have disrupted supply chains, to the extent that shipping containers sit mired in ports amid "floating traffic jams." Along with these difficulties, firms continue to indicate issues with employee availability, which hampers their operating capacity.
To investigate the breadth and intensity of these disruptions in supply chains and business operating capacity, we posed a few questions to our BIE panel during the first week of March. Specifically, we asked whether they'd recently experienced some form of supply chain disruption (anything from supplier delays to delays in shipping to their customers) as well as their experiences with crimped operating capacity (due to a variety of issues, ranging from employee availability to physical distancing issues). While we borrowed those two questions more or less directly from the U.S. Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey, we also extended them by asking firms to gauge the intensity of these disruptions (on a scale ranging from "little to none" to "severe"). In addition, we posed these questions to medium-sized and larger firms in addition to those with fewer than 500 employees.
Chart 1 below shows the results. Regarding supply chain difficulties, we found that more than half of the firms in our panel felt some form of supplier delay, and the level of disruption is "moderate to severe" for 40 percent of them—a striking finding for a few reasons. First, our panel, like the nation, is disproportionately weighted toward service-providing firms (roughly 70 percent service firms to 30 percent goods producers). Second, just a few months ago (December 2020), firms ranked "supply chain concerns" as eighth out of their top 10 concerns for 2021. These results align with well-known diffusion indexes—the Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing and Business Services surveys—that have shown that a greater share of firms are experiencing slower deliveries and lower inventories in recent months.
In addition to issues receiving raw materials and intermediate goods from suppliers, a little more than one in three firms in the BIE panel also indicated that they themselves experienced delays in fulfillment, and the responses to the question on disruptions to operating capacity allow us some insight into the potential causes of these delays.
Here, a third of firms indicated that they were having difficulties with their employees' availability for work. Presumably, these issues stem from employees' concerns over contracting the virus, outbreaks causing production delays, or employees' inability to work due to familial issues such as childcare or the care of other dependents. One out of five respondents indicated that the intensity of disruption to operating capacity stemming from employee availability was moderate to severe. The same share of panel respondents—a fifth—indicated that a lack of adequate supplies and inputs on hand (likely due to supplier delays) caused a shortfall in production relative to capacity.
Comparing these responses to the Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey, we find that the relative rankings of sources of disruption are quite similar—supplier delays far outweigh other supply chain disruptions, and the availability of employees for work are the most frequently cited sources of disrupted operations. Yet we find a greater incidence of disruption (even if we restrict our sample only to small firms). For example, 40 percent of firms surveyed by the Census Bureau indicated supplier delays, which slightly more than half of firms indicated to us. Such a discrepancy is unlike previous comparisons to other Census Bureau work (which match quite closely) and could be the result of a number of survey-specific factors. For instance, the types of respondents differ markedly—whereas the BIE elicits responses mainly from those in the C-suite and business owners, the census typically aims for someone in the accounting department. The number of response options also differs, and census respondents have seen these questions on disruption to supply chains and operating capacity numerous times over the pandemic.
Although disrupted supply chains and crimped operating capacity are significant enough to warrant attention on their own merits, another aspect of these issues deserves attention. Concurrent with widespread supply chain disruption and hobbled operating capacity, firms have ratcheted up both their perceptions of current inflation and their expectations for unit costs going forward (see chart 2).
When we survey firms' expectations around inflation, we prefer to gauge their views on the nominal aspects of the economy through the lens of their own-firm unit costs, as other Atlanta Fed research shows. After falling to the lowest levels on record during the depths of the pandemic, firms' perceptions of unit cost growth over the past year have risen sharply. Interestingly, these perceptions correlate tightly with movements in official aggregate price indexes, such as the gross domestic product price index (also called the GDP deflator) and the personal consumption expenditures price index.
Firms also appear to anticipate higher unit-cost growth in the year ahead. Since hitting a low in April 2020, firms' unit-cost (basically, inflation) expectations for the year ahead have surged to all all-time high just 11 months later. Not only does that kind of volatility speak to the dramatic and disparate impact COVID-19 has had on business activity, but it also suggests that the underlying drivers of these expectations have shifted markedly. (Incidentally, chart 2 shows that this measure of firms' inflation expectations moves in lockstep with professional forecasters' views.)
Indeed, in sharp contrast to their views early in the crisis, firms' one-year inflation expectations appear to have risen sharply alongside their views on supply chain and operating capacity disruption. Chart 3 shows a simple scatterplot between firms' one-year-ahead inflation expectations and a summary measure of the intensity of their disruption. To create this measure, we first assigned a score from 0 to 4 to each special question response based on whether they responded "None," "Little to none," "Mild," "Moderate," or "Severe." We then add their scores to obtain their disruption index. The mean disruption index value for firms in goods-producing industries is 9.3 and 6.6 for service-providing firms. And consistent with anecdotes and news stories, the disruption is highest in manufacturing industries (9.75) and trade and transportation industries (9.1).
Chart 3 visualizes the relationship between inflation expectations and the index of supply chain disruption. Although supply chain disruption isn't the only factor influencing year-ahead unit cost expectations, we can see that firms with the largest levels of disruption tend to be those that hold higher expectations for inflation in the year ahead.
For another perspective, chart 4 shows that the relationship between inflation expectations and disruption depends on whether the responding firm belongs in the goods-producing sector or the service-providing one. While both have strong positive relationships, it's interesting to note that the relationship is even stronger among firms in the goods-producing sector. While perhaps an unsurprising result, it is a reassuring one given that the most-cited reason for supply chain disruptions—supplier delays—is more likely to affect goods-producing firms.
Overall, when one contrasts the early portion of the pandemic with the more recent period, significantly more firms indicate that they are experiencing disruptions in their supply chain and operating capacity. More than 50 percent of our survey panelists indicated delayed deliveries from suppliers (and for most of those respondents, the disruption is moderate to severe). Combined with crimped operating capacity due largely to uncertain employee availability and lack of inputs, firms are beginning to view these disruptions as factors that are driving up their unit costs and leading to higher inflation expectations. We can connect the dots from firms' year-ahead inflation expectations to the intensity of these supply and production disruptions. Firms experiencing the most intense disruption tend to be those with the highest expectation of future inflation. This explanation tamps down the speculation that the potential inflationary impact of recent fiscal stimulus on demand is behind heightened year-ahead inflation expectations.
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