• The Star Staff

With economic gauges going nuts, Powell takes a longer view

By Neil Irwin

The economy is changing so fast that just making sense of it is no easy task. Within a few months, the United States has gone from no jobs and depressed prices to widespread labor shortages and uncomfortably high inflation.

In this most unusual recovery, the signals that economic policymakers use to inform their decisions are going haywire. What is one to make, for example, of the combination of strong growth in jobs and wages paired with millions of working-age people who seem to have no interest in returning to the workforce?

It’s easy to imagine Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, as a pilot in unfamiliar territory with malfunctioning gauges. He’s doing what you’d want a pilot to do in those circumstances: looking to the horizon.

A recurring theme Wednesday, as he spoke to the news media after a Fed policy meeting, was his focus on the things that haven’t changed about the economy, the lessons learned in the expansion of the 2010s. He is resisting the urge to conclude that the pandemic fundamentally changed the most important dynamics.

To Powell’s mind, these are those lessons: American workers are capable of great things. The labor market can run hotter for longer than a lot of economists once assumed, with widely beneficial results. There are many powerful structural forces that will keep inflation in check.

And for those reasons, the Fed should move cautiously in raising interest rates, rather than risk choking off a full economic recovery too soon.

His is a profoundly optimistic view of the coming years. He does not see the labor shortages of 2021 as evidence of lasting scars to the potential of American workers, but rather as a reflection of the difficulty of reopening large sectors of the economy and reallocating labor after a pandemic.

“You look through the current time frame and look one and two years out — we’re going to be looking at a very, very strong labor market,” Powell said, describing an environment of low unemployment, high rates of participation and “rising wages for people across the spectrum.”

And he was dismissive of the possibility that spikes in both wages and prices would turn into a lasting 1970s-style spiral.

“Is there a risk that inflation will be higher than we think? Yes,” Powell said. “We don’t have any certainty about the timing or the extent of these effects from reopening.”

But he added: “We think it’s unlikely they would materially affect the underlying inflation dynamics that the economy has had for a quarter of a century. The underlying forces that have created those dynamics are intact.”

These include globalization and an aging world population.

If you squint, you can even see the application of lessons from three big missteps in Powell’s career as a central banker.

In 2013, as a Fed governor, he helped push chair Ben Bernanke toward “tapering” the pace of bond-buying in the Fed’s quantitative easing program, which created global financial tremors and led the central bank to reverse course. (In one sign of how deep the scars of that experience are, Powell carefully said Wednesday that at this meeting, they merely talked about talking about tapering their current QE purchases, which was itself a subtle shift from his previous guidance that it was not yet time to talk about talking about tapering.)

In 2015, Powell supported a decision to begin raising interest rates to prevent inflation from taking off. This also caused global economic problems — and an under-the-radar economic slowdown in the United States — even though with hindsight the U.S. job market had lots of remaining potential to improve.

And in 2018, under his leadership, the Fed raised interest rates four times despite an absence of inflationary pressure. The last of these, especially, came to look like a mistake within days, and Powell soon reversed course.

At each of those junctures, the people who argued that the U.S. labor market was already at or near its potential — a fundamentally pessimistic view about the number of people who could be coaxed to work by the right mix of compensation and job opportunities — looked with hindsight to be wrong. So were the people who routinely predicted that an outburst of problematic inflation was right around the corner.

The risk with this approach is that Powell is, in effect, fighting the last battle — applying the lessons of those episodes to a different economic environment.

Ultimately, the question of whether the Fed is on a wise course will depend on whether the pandemic fundamentally changed things, or just created a miserable year for the economy, after which things return to normal.

One trait that Powell has shown, including in the 2013, 2015 and 2018 episodes, is a willingness to pivot when evidence emerges that his judgment is wrong. The best hope for the economy of the 2020s is that his pilot’s view of the horizon is correct. The second best is that if it turns out to be wrong, he adjusts quickly.

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