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The Fed Pivots to Fight Inflation

Jan 13, 2022 9:48:59 AM
written by The Retirement Group

On December 15, 2021, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve System made a significant shift in monetary policy in response to rising inflation. The Committee accelerated the reduction of its bond-buying program in order to tighten the money supply and projected three increases in the benchmark federal funds rate in 2022, followed by three more increases in 2023. Both steps were more aggressive than previous FOMC actions or projections.1

To understand how these steps might affect the U.S. economy, investors, and consumers in your area, it may be helpful to take a closer look at the FOMC's tools and strategy.

Jobs vs. Prices
As the nation's central bank, the Federal Reserve operates under a dual mandate to promote price stability and maximum sustainable employment. This is a balancing act, because an economy without inflation is typically stagnant with a weak employment climate, while a booming economy with plenty of jobs is susceptible to high inflation.

The FOMC, which is responsible for setting monetary policy in line with the Fed's mandate, has established a 2% annual inflation target based on the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The PCE index represents a broad range of spending on goods and services, and tends to run below the more widely publicized consumer price index (CPI). The Committee's policy is to allow PCE inflation to run moderately above 2% for some time in order to balance the periods when it runs below 2%.

PCE inflation was generally well below the Fed's 2% target from May 2012 to February 2021. But it has risen quickly since then, reaching 5.7% for the 12 months ending in November 2021 — the highest level since 1982. (By comparison, CPI inflation was 6.8%.)2-3

Fed officials, along with many other economists and policy makers, originally believed that inflation was "transitory" due to supply-chain issues related to opening the economy. But the persistence and level of inflation over the last few months led them to take corrective action. They still believe inflation will drop significantly in 2022 as supply-chain problems are resolved, and project a PCE inflation rate of 2.6% by the end of the year.4

The Fed's Toolbox
The FOMC uses two primary tools in its efforts to achieve the appropriate balance between employment and prices. The first is its power to set the federal funds rate, the interest rate that large banks use to lend each other money overnight in order to maintain required deposits with the Federal Reserve. This rate serves as a benchmark for many other rates, including the prime rate that commercial banks charge their best customers. The prime rate usually runs about 3% above the federal funds rate (see chart) and acts as a benchmark for rates on consumer loans such as credit cards and auto loans. The FOMC lowers the funds rate to stimulate the economy to create jobs and raises it to slow the economy to fight inflation.

The Fed's second tool is purchasing Treasury bonds to increase the money supply or allowing bonds to mature without repurchasing in order to decrease the supply. The FOMC purchases Treasuries through banks within the Federal Reserve System. Rather than using funds it holds on deposit, the Fed simply adds the appropriate amount to the bank's balance, essentially creating money out of air. This provides the bank with more money to lend to consumers, businesses, or the government (through purchasing more Treasuries).


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