The Fed's Target Is Workers

By announcing forthcoming interest-rate hikes at a time when total US employment is still below its 2019 level, the Federal Reserve war on "inflation" is really a war on American workers.

US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has now committed to putting US monetary policy on a course of rising interest rates, which could boost the short-term rate (on federal funds and treasury bills) by at least 200 basis points by the end of 2024. Thus, Powell yielded to pressure from economists and financiers, resurrecting a playbook that the Fed has followed for 50 years – and that should have remained in its vault.

The stated reason for tightening monetary policy is to “fight inflation.” But interest-rate hikes will do nothing to counteract inflation in the short run and will work against price increases in the long run only by bringing on yet another economic crash. Behind the policy is a mysterious theory linking interest rates to the money supply, and the money supply to the price level. This “monetarist” theory goes unstated these days for good reason: it was largely abandoned 40 years ago after it contributed to a financial debacle.

Of course, this time is different in one respect. For the first time in more than 40 years, prices are rising. This new phase was kicked off a year ago by a surge in world oil prices, followed by rising used-car prices as the semiconductor supply chain snarled automobile production. Now, we are also seeing rising land prices (among other things), which feeds into (somewhat artificial) estimates of housing costs.

Inflation rates are reported on a 12-month basis, so once any shock hits, it is guaranteed to generate headlines about “inflation” for 11 more months – a boon for the inflation hawks. But since oil prices in December were about the same as they were in July, the initial shock will be out of the data in a few months and the inflation reports will change. . The economy always adjusts through an increase in average prices, and this process must continue until the adjustment is finished.

By reacting now, the Fed is saying that it would like (if it could) to force down some prices in order to offset rising energy and supply-chain costs, thereby pushing the average inflation rate back down to its 2% target as quickly as possible. Assuming the Fed understands that this is what it is doing, what prices does it have in mind? Wages, of course. What else is there?

Powell himself declared that the United States has a “tremendously strong labor market.” Citing the ratio of job openings against “quits,” he thinks there are too few workers chasing too many jobs. But why would that be? Considering that the US economy is still several million jobs below the actual employment levels of late 2019, it seems that many workers are refusing to go back to crummy jobs at lousy pay. As long as they have some reserves and can hold out for better terms, they will.

As wages rise to bring back workers, and because most jobs nowadays are in services, higher-income people (who buy more services) will have to pay more to lower-income people (who provide them). This is the essence of “inflation” in a services economy. Energy and most goods prices are set worldwide, so service wages are the only part of the price structure that the Fed’s new policy can affect directly. And the only way the policy can work – eventually – is by making working Americans desperate. Obviously, logically, inevitably, and despite all the crocodile tears about inflation harming ordinary Americans, the Fed is determined to stop rising wages.

The takeaway for American workers: The Fed is not your friend. Nor is any politician who declares – as US President Joe Biden did this month – that “inflation is the Fed’s job.” And I write that as a Democrat.

(This is an excerpt from the published article on Prroject Syndicate, 3 February2022

James K. Galbraith