Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Keynes at the Zero Lower Bound

The developed economies of Japan, the United States, and the Eurozone are currently experiencing very low short-term rates, so low that they are considered to be at the “zero lower bound” of possibility. This effectively paralyzes conventional monetary policy. As a consequence, monetary authorities have turned to unconventional and controversial policies such as “Quantitative Easing,” “Maturity Extension,” and “Low for Long Forward Guidance.” John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory offered a rich analysis of the problems that appear at the zero lower bound and advocated the very same unconventional policies that are now being pursued. Keynes’s comments on these issues are rarely mentioned in the current discussions because the subsequent simplifications and the bowdlerization of his model obliterated this detail. It was only later that his characterization of a lower bound to interest rates would be dubbed a “Liquidity Trap.” This essay employs Keynes’s analysis to retell the economic history of the Great Depression in the United States. Keynes’s rationale for unconventional policies and his expectations of their effect remain surprisingly relevant today. I suggest that in both the Depression and the Great Recession the primary impact on interest rates was produced by lowering expectations about the future path of rates rather than by changing the risk premiums that attach to yields of different maturities. The long sustained period when short term rates were at the lower bound convinced investors that rates were likely to remain near zero for several more years. In both cases the treatment proved to be very slow to produce a significant response, requiring a sustained zero-rate policy for four years or longer.
Sutch notes that "the General Theory is a notoriously unreadable book, one that required others to interpret and popularize its message." Since Keynes did not use the phrase "liquidity trap"--it was coined by Dennis Robertson in 1940--interpreting Keynes' policy prescriptions in a liquidity trap is contentious. Sutch reinterprets the theory of the liquidity trap from the General Theory, then examines the impact of Federal Reserve and Treasury policies during the Great Depression in light of his interpretation.

Sutch outlines Keynes' three theoretical reasons why an effective floor to long-term interest rates might be encountered at the depth of a depression:
(1) Since the term structure of interest rates will rise with maturity when short-term rates are low, a point might be reached where continued open-market purchases of shortterm government debt would reduce the short-term rate to zero before producing a sufficient decline in the risk-free long-term rate [Keynes 1936: 201-204 and 233]. 
(2) It is, at least theoretically, possible that the demand for money (called “liquidity preference” by Keynes) could become “virtually absolute” at a sufficiently low longterm interest rate and, if so, then increases in the money supply would be absorbed completely by hoarding [Keynes 1936: 172 and 207-208]. 
(3) The default premiums included as a portion of the interest charged on business loans and on the return to corporate securities could become so great that it would prove impossible to bring down the long-term rate of interest relevant for business decisions even though the risk-free long-term rate was being reduced by monetary policy [Keynes 1936: 144-145].
The first two reasons, Sutch notes, are often conflated  because of a tendency in the post-Keynesian literature to drop short-term assets from the model. The third reason, called "lender's risk," is typically neglected in textbooks and empirical studies.

In Keynes' view, the Great Depression was triggered by a collapse in investment in 1929, prior to the Wall Street crash in the fall, as “experience was beginning to show that borrowers could not really hope to earn on new investment the rates which they had been paying” and “even if some new investment could earn these high rates, in the course of time all the best propositions had got taken up, and the cream was off the business.” Keynes maintained that a reduction in the long-term borrowing rate, to low levels would be required to stimulate investment after the collapse of the demand curve for investment. He suggested that the long-term borrowing rate has three components: (1) the pure expectations component, (2) the risk premium, and (3) the default premium.

Sutch goes on to interpret the zero lower bound episodes of 1932, April 1934-December 1936 and April 1938-December 1939 according to Keynes' theory. He concludes that the primary impact of unconventional monetary policy on interest rates was through lowering expectations about the future path of rates rather than by changing the risk premiums on yields of different maturities---but this impact was very slow. Sutch also concludes that a similar interpretation of recent unconventional monetary policy is appropriate. He notes four main similarities between the Great Depression and the Great Recession:
...the collapse of demand for new fixed investment, the role of the zero lower bound in hampering conventional monetary policy, the multi-year period of near-zero short term rates, and the protracted period of subnormal prosperity during the respective recoveries. A major difference between then and now is that in the current situation the monetary authorities are actively pursuing large-scale purchases of long-term government securities and mortgage-backed assets. This is the primary monetary policy that Keynes advocated for a depressed economy at the zero lower bound. This policy was not attempted during the Great Depression and it is unclear whether the backdoor QE engineered by the Treasury was an adequate substitute. 
While the current monetary activism is to be welcomed, Quantitative Easing then and now appears to be slow acting. In both regimes recovery came only after multiple painful years during which uncertainly damped optimism. Improvement came only after multiple years during which many lives were seriously marred by unemployment and many businesses experienced or were threatened with bankruptcy...Keynes opened his series of Chicago lectures in 1931 expressing the fear that, just possibly, "… when this crisis is looked back upon by the economic historian of the future it will be seen to mark one of the major turning-points. For it is a possibility that the duration of the slump may be much more prolonged than most people are expecting and that much will be changed, both in our ideas and in our methods, before we emerge. Not, of course, the duration of the acute phase of the slump, but that of the long, dragging conditions of semislump, or at least subnormal prosperity which may be expected to succeed the acute phase." [Keynes 1931: 344]
If you are interested in reading narrative evidence from Keynes' writing, the entire working paper is worth your time.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Guest Post: Estimating Monetary Policy Rules Around The Zero Lower Bound

I hope you enjoy this guest post contributed by Jon Hartley

As the Federal Reserve moves closer to normalizing monetary policy and moving toward a federal funds rate “lift-off” date, I’ve created, a new website that provides up-to-date interactive graphs of popular monetary policy rules.

Since the federal funds rate has hit the zero lower bound, Taylor rules have received a lot of criticism in large part because many Taylor rules have prescribed negative nominal interest rates during and after the global financial crisis. Chicago Fed President (and prominent monetary policy scholar) Charles Evans stated about the Taylor Rule that “The rule completely breaks down during the Great Recession and its aftermath”.

The discretionary versus rules-based monetary policy debate endures, most recently with the Federal Reserve Accountability and Transparency Act being introduced in Congress, followed by a series of dueling Wall Street Journal op-eds by John Taylor and Alan Blinder. Rather than thinking about Taylor rules as a prescription for monetary policy (in a normative economics sense), what has been left out of the discussion is how Taylor rules can accurately be a description of monetary policy regimes (in a positive economics sense) even if the central bank does not explicitly follow a stated rule.

Tim Duy has accurately pointed out in a recent post that using the GDP and inflation forecasts also provided by the FOMC for 2014 through 2017 (and beyond), no traditional monetary policy rule captures the median of the current fed fund rate forecasts (commonly known as the “dot plots” released by the Federal Reserve on a quarterly basis as part of their Delphic forward guidance) which are considerably lower than either the Taylor (1993), Taylor (1999), Mankiw (2001), or Rudebusch (2009) rules would estimate.

What’s also worth noting is that in the early to mid-2000’s the federal funds rate was considerably lower than what any of the above classic monetary policy rules would estimate. This in large part is because all of these rules were estimated using data from the “Great Moderation” of the 1990’s, which was then led by a very different Federal Reserve than we have today (note those rules fit the federal funds effective rate data very accurately during the 1990’s).
Source: Tim Duy
The real question is how can we estimate a monetary policy rule that describes the Bernanke-Yellen Fed, while also addressing the problem of the zero lower bound for nominal interest rates?

One interesting idea that has gained some popularity recently is the idea of measuring a “shadow federal funds rate” (originally hypothesized by Fisher Black in a 1995 paper, published just before his death, which uses fed funds futures rates and an affine term structure model to back out a negative spot rate). The idea nicely estimates the potential effects of quantitative easing on long-term rates  while the federal funds rate is at the zero lower bound (and for that reason I’ve included the Wu-Xia (2014) shadow fed funds rate on the site). With the shadow fed funds rate in hand, one can now estimate a monetary policy rule with a standard OLS regression. One issue with this methodology is how there is a lack of consensus around what to use as input data for a shadow rate which can give you very different results (Khan and Hakkio (2014) observed that the Wu-Xia (2014) shadow fed funds rate looks remarkably different from the rate calculated by Krippner (2014)).

Wu-Xia (2014) and Krippner (2014) Shadow Federal Funds Rates (in %)Source: Khan and Hakkio (2014), Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Krippner (2014), Wu-Xia (2014)

One other solution to the problem of estimating a monetary policy rule at the zero lower bound is an econometric one. Fortunately, we have Tobit regressions in our econometric toolbox (originally developed by James Tobin (1958)) which allow us to estimate Taylor rules while censoring data at the zero lower bound.

In my Taylor rule that is estimated with federal funds rate from the Bernanke-Yellen period, censoring data at the zero lower bound using a Tobit regression, I use both y/y core CPI inflation and unemployment. In another version, I use the Fed’s new Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) as a labor market indicator though both yield relatively similar results*. Importantly, these estimates indicate that the Bernanke-Yellen Fed puts a much higher weight on the output/unemployment gap than the Mankiw (2001) rule estimated with data from the Greenspan period.

Tobit Taylor Rule Using Unemployment Rate and Core CPI as Inputs:
Federal Funds Target Rate = max{0, -0.43 + 1.2*(Core CPI y/y %) – 2.6*(Unemployment Rate-5.6)}

Using unemployment and inflation forecast data from the latest Federal Reserve FOMC meeting’s Survey of Economic Projections, I input these data as inputs into the Tobit Rule and Mankiw (2001) Rule. Matching these federal funds rate targets implied by the rules with the median federal funds forecasts provided by both the Federal Reserve “dot plots” and the Survey of Primary Dealers (note: the expected Fed Funds rate path from Survey of Primary Dealers has significantly fallen below the Fed dot plot Fed Funds rate path as noted by Christensen (2014)). Unfortunately, we do not have precise data on which dots belong to which Fed officials (otherwise, we could try to construct a Taylor rule for each Fed president and board member). Compared to the Mankiw (2001) rule, the estimated Tobit rule much better matches the median forecasts provided by the dot plots and the Survey of Primary Dealers.

Federal Reserve Forward Guidance/Survey of Primary Dealers Fed Funds Rate Forecasts versus Tobit Rule and Mankiw (2001) Rule Using Fed Unemployment and CPI Forecasts

Janet Yellen has spoken fondly of the Taylor (1999) rule in the past as she has previously stated in a 2012 speech that “[John] Taylor himself continues to prefer his original rule, which I will refer to as the Taylor (1993) rule. In my view, however, the later variant--which I will refer to as the Taylor (1999) rule--is more consistent with following a balanced approach to promoting our dual mandate.”

It is no surprise that the Tobit rule estimated with more recent data comes much closer to accurately describing the Fed’s forward guidance than the Taylor (1993) rule. However, what is really interesting is that the Tobit Rule is also much closer to describing the Fed’s current forward guidance than the Taylor (1999) rule, which remains far off.

*An important issue which has been addressed recently with the introduction of the Fed’s new Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) is how do we measure improvement (or lack thereof) in the labor market? While the U.S. unemployment rate for September was 5.9% (the lowest level since July 2008), the figure fails to capture a number of fractures in the economy remain which are not reflected in the unemployment rate. One item included in the LMCI (but not reflected in the unemployment rate) is the high U-6 unemployment rate (which factors in individuals who are underemployed, working part-time for economic reasons and would rather have full-time jobs) currently at 11.8%. Another is subdued wage growth that is not commensurate with drops in the unemployment rate as history would suggest. The labor force participation rate is at historical lows of 62% (in large part due to the number of retirements (a secular demographic trend) and to some extent due to discouraged workers (a cyclical trend) according to a recent Philly Fed study).

A previous post on this blog astutely points out that correlation of 12-month changes in LMCI with 12-month changes in the unemployment rate is -0.96, suggesting that “the LMCI doesn’t tell you anything that the unemployment rate wouldn’t already tell you”. While the economists who developed the LMCI list on the Fed’s website the correlations of 12-month changes (which tell you the tendency of large 12-month figures moving together), I would argue that this is accurate of long-term labor market trends, while the correlations of monthly changes with the LMCI is a more accurate representation of the extent the measures move together in small short-term labor market movements. Doing so indicates that the monthly level of the LMCI has a -0.82 correlation with the unemployment rate, suggesting that the LMCI is not completely redundant in short-term labor market movements, incorporating some parts of the mixed economic narrative told by dampening wage growth, low labor force participation, and high amount of underemployed part-timers.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Soda Calories and the Ethics of Nudge

The “surprisingly simple way to get people to stop buying soda,” according to a new and highly-hyped study, is to tell them how long they will have to run in order to burn off the calories in the soda. Since so many of my friends are economists, runners, or both, articles about this study ended up plastered all over my Facebook and Twitter pages, followed by a lot of commentary and debate. Some of the issues that came up included paternalism, the identification of social goods and ills, the replicability of field experiments on a larger scale or longer time frame, and the ethics of nudge policies.

My friend and classmate David Berger has allowed me to share his take:
Alright, this keeps coming up: public health types saying stupidly pessimistic things about the number of hours you have to burn off x amount of calories. Friends, it's easy to deceive yourself about how many calories you actually burn doing cardio. And then there's a whole bunch of people--treadmill manufacturers, for example--who want to inflate the numbers. But this trend of public health know-it-alls using the most pessimistic calculations needs to stop. It's just wrong. These people convinced teenagers that it would take 50 minutes of running to burn off one soda. They must be targeting non-runners. 
Actually, who they are targeting is baffling. They base their calculations on the activity-energy equivalents for a 110 pound fifteen year old. Nowhere do they indicate pace, although when I use the calculator on runner's world to give a 110 pound a 15 min/mile pace (a pace walkers in comfortable clothing can manage), it gives me 277 calories for 50 minutes. 
Let's do a real calculation. If you are less worried about 110 pounders drinking soda, try a 200 pounder. Let's give the same walking pace of 15 min/mile, and keep it at 50 minutes. 504 calories. Alternately, that's 25 minutes to work off a soda. 
Or, suppose you expect someone to aspire to something, and someone reading this public service message to know the difference between walking and running, and to be able to determine whether they can maintain a running pace for 50 minutes. I won't even make them a good runner, just a 12:30 min/mile, which someone starting out can manage in most cases. The same 50 minutes goes up to 605 calories. Granted 50 minutes might be much for someone starting out, but then they only need 21 minutes to manage a 250 calorie soda. 
Now, calories/hour will be lower if you weigh less than 200 pounds. But then you will probably be able to run faster than 12:30. I understand this push society is making overall: there's too much false hope in the ability of exercise to compensate for constantly immoderate caloric choices, and there's too much acceptance of empty nutrition (like soda) as a source of calories. But if the next heavy-handed social tactic is outright lying, can we please just not?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Brazilian Election and Central Bank Independence

From my post at the Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) blog:
Brazilians will head to the polls on October 5 to vote in a tight presidential race. President Dilma Rousseff’s leading challenger is Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva. A key component of Silva’s economic platform is her support for a more independent central bank. Central bank independence, long a topic of interest to economists, is now capturing wide public attention — and for good reason...
You can read the rest at the CLAS blog. There is also a lot of interesting material there about the economics, culture, and politics of Latin America. For example, there's a video of a recent CLAS seminar by Professor João Saboia on "Macroeconomics, the Labor Market, and Income Distribution in Brazil." I wrote an article on his lecture that will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies. Since CLAS is a collaboration between professors and graduate students in many different departments at Berkeley, there is a great mix of material there on cinema, literature, the environment, policy, etc.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Targeting Two

In the Washington Post, Jared Bernstein asks why the Fed's inflation target is 2 percent. "The fact is that the target is 2 percent because the target is 2 percent," he writes. Bernstein refers to a paper by Laurence Ball suggesting that a 4% target could be preferable by reducing the likelihood of the economy running up against the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates.

Paul Krugman chimes in, adding that a 2 percent target:
"was low enough that the price stability types could be persuaded, or were willing to concede as a possibility, that true inflation — taking account of quality changes — was really zero. Meanwhile, as of the mid 1990s modeling efforts suggested that 2 percent was enough to make sustained periods at the zero lower bound unlikely and to lubricate the labor market sufficiently that downward wage stickiness would have minor effects. So 2 percent it was, and this rough guess acquired force as a focal point, a respectable place that wouldn’t get you in trouble. 
The problem is that we now know that both the zero lower bound and wage stickiness are much bigger issues than anyone realized in the 1990s."
Krugman calls the target "the terrible two," and laments that "Unfortunately, it’s now very hard to change the target; anything above 2 isn’t considered respectable."

Dean Baker also has a post in which he explains that Krugman's discussion of the 2 percent target "argues that it is a pretty much arbitrary compromise between the idea that the target should be zero (the dollar keeps its value constant forever) and the idea that we need some inflation to keep the economy operating smoothly and avoid the zero lower bound for interest rates. This is far too generous... Not only is there not much justification for 2.0 percent, there is not much justification for any target."

I'll add three papers, in reverse chronological order, that should be relevant to this discussion. Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Olivier Coibion, and Johannes Wieland have a 2010 paper called, "The Optimal Inflation Rate in New Keynesian Models: Should Central Banks Raise their Inflation Targets in Light of the ZLB?" They say the answer is probably no:
The optimal inflation rate implied by the model is 1.2% per year which is within, but near the bottom, of the range of implicit inflation targets used by central banks in industrialized countries of 1-3% per year. In addition, the welfare loss from higher inflation rates is non-trivial: raising the target rate from 1.2% to 4% per year is equivalent to permanently reducing consumption by nearly 2%. In short, using a calibrated model of the U.S. economy which balances the costs of inflation arising from infrequent adjustment of prices against the benefit of reducing the frequency of hitting the ZLB yields an optimal inflation target which is certainly no higher than what is currently in use by central banks.
Their model balances the costs of inflation that arise from infrequent price adjustment against the benefit of reducing the frequency of hitting the zero lower bound. In the model, at 0 percent inflation, the zero lower bound would be binding 15 percent of the time, while at 3.5 percent  inflation, the bound would bind 4 percent of the time, but the costs from price stickiness would be high. They compute that welfare would be maximized at 1.2 percent inflation.

Another paper, which I would guess influenced some people at the Fed, is by George Akerlof, William Dickens, and George Perry in 2000. They build a model in which some agents in the economy are "near rational" instead of fully rational in the way they think about inflation:
"when inflation is low it is not especially salient, and wage and price setting will respond less than proportionally to expected inflation. At sufficiently high rates of inflation, by contrast, anticipating inflation becomes important and wage and price setting responds fully to expected inflation."
As a result, there is some moderate positive level of inflation that is optimal for employment. They estimate that this optimal rate of inflation is between 1.6 and 3.2 percent.

The first few sections of the Akerlof et al. paper are interesting in that they discuss how psychologists and economists have different approaches to the way they think about people's decisionmaking. The model in the paper tries to take a more realistic, but still relatively simple, approach to how people make decisions based on their inflation expectations. I wouldn't be surprised if this paper influenced the adoption of the 2% target.

And then, of course, is John Taylor's 1993 paper, "Discretion versus Policy Rules in Practice." Just about everyone at the Fed must have read it at some point. Here's his original Taylor rule from page 202:

If GDP is at target, the rule suggests raising the federal funds rate if inflation is above 2 percent and lowering it if inflation is less than 2 percent. He calls 2 percent the Fed's implicit target. Later he writes that "Given measuring prices, the 2-percent per year implicit inflation target rate is probably very close to price stability or zero inflation" (p. 210). This is probably where Krugman gets his argument that 2 percent "was low enough that the price stability types could be persuaded, or were willing to concede as a possibility, that true inflation — taking account of quality changes — was really zero." More importantly, this paper probably helped propagate the idea that the Fed has had an implicit 2 percent inflation target since at least the early 1990s. So when deciding on an explicit target in 2012, 2 percent seemed a natural choice.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

(New) Economic Thinking

In "Can New Economic Thinking Solve the Next Crisis?," Mark Thoma writes:
There has been quite a bit of criticism directed at the tools and techniques that macroeconomists use, e.g. criticism of dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models, but that criticism is misplaced. The tools and techniques that macroeconomists use are developed to answer specific questions. If we ask the right questions, then we will find the tools and techniques needed to answer them.  
The problem with macroeconomics is not that it has become overly mathematical – it is not the tools and techniques we use to answer questions. The problem is the sociology within the economics profession that prevents some questions from being asked. Why, for example, were the very questions we needed to ask prior to the Great Recession ridiculed by important voices within the profession?
Since I didn't start studying economics until the Great Recession was in full swing, I don't have a full perspective on "new economic thinking" compared to old, or on what it was like to be in the economics profession prior to the Recession. I only gain second-hand perspective through reading and through studying economic history (which at Berkeley, coincidentally, is largely supported by the Institute for New Economic Thinking).  Thoma's article was prompted by the Rethinking Economics conference, but for me, I'm still learning how to think economics, much less rethink it.

One course that was particularly helpful in shaping my economic thinking was an elective on Empirical Macrofinance taught by Atif Mian. He made a point on one of the first days of class that really stood out. He told us not to see what questions we could answer with the data we have, but rather, to start with the question, and then think about what data we needed to answer it. More often than not, we'd need microdata. Not a problem! We are not in a data-scarce environment!

Mian's work with Amir Sufi on the role of household debt in the Great Recession is a great example of both his point and Thoma's point: start with the question, then choose your tools, techniques, and data. I realize this is easier said than done (trust me, I really do, after spending the last few years trying to implement it in my dissertation), but to me, that's just economic thinking.

Speaking of my dissertation, I'm preparing to go on the job market this year, which is why the blogging has been a bit less frequent! While the preparation is a lot of work, I am fortunate to be very enthusiastic about my research, because I did start with questions I care about, so working on it is a joy, even if it takes away blogging time. Eventually I will blog about my research, just not quite yet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Wage Inflation and Price Inflation

Real wage growth has been disappointingly flat since the Great Recession. Reuters reports that "Most economists do not expect the U.S. central bank to raise benchmark rates until around the middle of next year, given sluggish wage growth." If and when wage growth picks up, I anticipate many debates about the relationship between wage inflation and price inflation by Fed officials and Fed-watchers. The Wall Street Journal blog recently wrote about how Fed-watchers should pay attention to wage growth as an indicator of inflation pressures:
Wage growth is a sign of labor market health but also spills into the Fed’s other mandate: price stability. Labor costs are the driver of costs for most businesses overall. Bigger pay gains push businesses to mark up their own selling prices, leading to higher inflation overall.
But the transmission of wage growth to growth in prices is not straightforward or perfectly understood. It is not safe to assume that firms translate some fixed proportion of labor cost increases into price increases. A 1997 New York Fed study called "Do Rising Labor Costs Trigger Higher Inflation?" found that the answer to its title question is, "It depends." There are several major groups of industries for which labor cost increases and price increases are not directly linked. In industries with high import-penetration ratios, global competition limits firms' abilities to translate higher unit labor costs into higher prices. In some large industries such as utilities, public transportation, and medical care, the government plays a large role in setting prices, so there is not a direct transmission of increased labor costs into increased prices. Housing prices are little affected by rising labor costs because the short-run supply of housing is essentially fixed, so prices depend more on land values and material costs than on labor costs. And finally, some firms are able to respond to labor cost increases by taking steps to increase productivity to maintain profitability without raising prices. The study finds that only in the service sector are cost increases easily passed on to customers.

The relationship between wage inflation and price inflation may be even more tenuous in the context of the post-Great Recession labor market. A new Cleveland Fed study that just came out today, by Edward Knotek II and Saeed Zaman, readdresses the question of whether rising labor costs trigger higher inflation. They look at the cross-correlations of inflation and various wage measures. Their cross-correlation graphs below are meant to show how inflation is correlated with future or past wage growth, as an indication of whether price inflation predicts wage inflation or vice versa. Using data from 1960-present, there is moderate positive correlation at several leads and lags, suggesting that price inflation and wage inflation move together, without one clearly preceding the other. When they use data only from 1984-present, the correlations are still positive, but smaller, indicating a weaker relationship between wage inflation and price inflation in more recent decades.


While Knotek and Zaman only break the time sample into pre- and post-1984, there is reason to believe that the relationship between wage and price inflation may have changed since the Great Recession. For instance, the figure below, from Cleveland Fed researchers, shows that labor income as a share of total income is extremely low by historical standards. This means that firms facing rising labor costs may have a bit more flexibility than usual to absorb the cost increases rather than passing them on to customers.

Several Federal Reserve surveys attempt to gauge firms' perceptions and expectations of their cost increases and price changes. The New York Fed's Empire State Manufacturing Survey is a monthly survey sent to about 200 manufacturing executives in New York State. The executives are asked about current business conditions and their expectations of conditions in six months. Several of the questions ask about prices paid (for inputs) and prices received (for sales).

In the just-released August survey, 30% of firms say they are paying higher prices, but only 16% say they are receiving higher prices. And 47% expect to pay higher prices six months from now, but only 31% expect to receive higher prices. The discrepancy between changes in prices paid and changes in prices received suggests that these firms will not be fully passing on increased input costs to customers. A supplemental section of the Empire State Manufacturing Survey this month asked firms about their response to the Affordable Care Act, and 36% said they will increase or have increased the prices they charge to customers as a result of the Act.

The Atlanta Fed also surveys businesses about cost and price expectations.  This survey asks respondents how various factors will influence the prices they charge over the next 12 months. Just over half of firms expect labor costs to have a "moderate upward influence" on the prices they charge, and another third of firms expect labor costs to have little or no influence on the prices they charge. Meanwhile, 64% of firms expect non-labor costs to have moderate upward influence on the prices they charge and 24% expect non-labor costs to have little or no influence. A special question on the latest round of the Atlanta Fed survey asked about year-ahead compensation expectations. Firms expect an average 2.8% compensation growth (see figure below).

An important takeaway from Knotek and Zaman's study is that "given wages’ limited forecasting power, they are but one piece in a larger puzzle about where the economy and inflation are going."