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Consumers Expect Higher Inflation, Posing Potential Trouble for the Fed

Americans are penciling in higher inflation not just over the next year but over the next five years, according to a survey measure that Federal Reserve officials have a history of watching closely. That could spell trouble for the central bank, which relies on low and stable inflation expectations as an enabler of its low-interest-rate plans.

The University of Michigan’s consumer survey’s two inflation expectations indexes both surged in preliminary May data released Friday. The measure that gauges near-term inflation expectations popped to 4.6 percent from 3.4 percent. A closely followed index that traces expectations for the next five years rose less, but hit its highest level in a decade, jumping to 3.1 percent from 2.7 percent in April.

The numbers are subject to revision and mark just one data point, but they come at a time when market-based inflation expectations are surging and real-world price gains are picking up faster than expected. That matters for the Fed, which is tasked with keeping inflation low and stable while fostering full employment.

Inflation has been low for years — in fact, worryingly weak — and the Fed has pledged to keep interest rates low and monetary policy supportive of the economy until prices have risen above 2 percent and the pandemic-damaged job market has totally healed. But if expectations jump by too much, it could undermine the ability to stick with that plan.

That’s because economists think that the modern era of low inflation owes partly to economic fundamentals — globalization, an aging population and technology — and partly to contained inflation expectations. After the Fed stamped down runaway price gains in the 1970s and 1980s, consumers and businesses came to expect price gains to remain steady and slow. Because shoppers were unwilling to accept higher prices, leaving businesses unable to raise them, that belief helped to drive reality.

If inflation expectations rocket higher after years of slipping, it could make businesses feel more comfortable passing on labor or input cost increases to consumers — lifting real-world price gains. That’s the sort of thing that could turn today’s higher inflation – which is expected to be temporary because it is the product of data quirks, supply chain shortages and a demand surge tied to reopening from the pandemic – into a more long-lasting phenomenon.

Measures of inflation expectations are notoriously tricky to understand, and the forces that drive inflation itself remain a hot topic in economics. But the new reading, coming in a measure that Fed officials have often cited, is likely to add fuel to an ongoing debate over whether big government spending, supply and demand mismatches driven by the economy’s reopening, and the central bank’s new policy of added patience could push price gains into higher gear.

“These latest readings on inflation expectations are on the high end of the range of figures reported in recent decades,” Daniel Silver at J.P. Morgan wrote in a note following the release, while cautioning that they are “still much lower than the figures reported for the early-1980s.”

Ian Shepherdson, at Pantheon Macro, likewise cautioned in a note that the jump was “not necessarily as alarming as it sounds,” because the gauge is “heavily influenced” by food and gasoline prices, which tend to be volatile and have been up lately.

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