Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Bernanke on Energy and Inflation: 1970s vs. Today

by Bill McBride on 6/04/2008 03:50:00 PM

From Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: Remarks on Class Day 2008

The oil price shock of the 1970s began in October 1973 when, in response to the Yom Kippur War, Arab oil producers imposed an embargo on exports. Before the embargo, in 1972, the price of imported oil was about $3.20 per barrel; by 1975, the average price was nearly $14 per barrel, more than four times greater. President Nixon had imposed economy-wide controls on wages and prices in 1971, including prices of petroleum products; in November 1973, in the wake of the embargo, the President placed additional controls on petroleum prices.

As basic economics predicts, when a scarce resource cannot be allocated by market-determined prices, it will be allocated some other way--in this case, in what was to become an iconic symbol of the times, by long lines at gasoline stations. In 1974, in an attempt to overcome the unintended consequences of price controls, drivers in many places were permitted to buy gasoline only on odd or even days of the month, depending on the last digit of their license plate number. Moreover, with the controlled price of U.S. crude oil well below world prices, growth in domestic exploration slowed and production was curtailed--which, of course, only made things worse.
It was a crazy time. I wasted both gas and time driving around looking for open gas stations, and then waiting in long lines.
In addition to creating long lines at gasoline stations, the oil price shock exacerbated what was already an intensifying buildup of inflation and inflation expectations. In another echo of today, the inflationary situation was further worsened by rapidly rising prices of agricultural products and other commodities.

Economists generally agree that monetary policy performed poorly during this period. In part, this was because policymakers, in choosing what they believed to be the appropriate setting for monetary policy, overestimated the productive capacity of the economy. I'll have more to say about this shortly. Federal Reserve policymakers also underestimated both their own contributions to the inflationary problems of the time and their ability to curb that inflation. For example, on occasion they blamed inflation on so-called cost-push factors such as union wage pressures and price increases by large, market-dominating firms; however, the abilities of unions and firms to push through inflationary wage and price increases were symptoms of the problem, not the underlying cause. Several years passed before the Federal Reserve gained a new leadership that better understood the central bank's role in the inflation process and that sustained anti-inflationary monetary policies would actually work. Beginning in 1979, such policies were implemented successfully--although not without significant cost in terms of lost output and employment--under Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. For the Federal Reserve, two crucial lessons from this experience were, first, that high inflation can seriously destabilize the economy and, second, that the central bank must take responsibility for achieving price stability over the medium term.
emphasis added

Fast-forward now to 2003. In that year, crude oil cost a little more than $30 per barrel. Since then, crude oil prices have increased more than fourfold, proportionally about as much as in the 1970s. Now, as in 1975, adjusting to such high prices for crude oil has been painful. Gas prices around $4 a gallon are a huge burden for many households, as well as for truckers, manufacturers, farmers, and others. But, in many other ways, the economic consequences have been quite different from those of the 1970s. One obvious difference is what you don't see: drivers lining up on odd or even days to buy gasoline because of price controls or signs at gas stations that say "No gas." And until the recent slowdown--which is more the result of conditions in the residential housing market and in financial markets than of higher oil prices--economic growth was solid and unemployment remained low, unlike what we saw following oil price increases in the '70s.

For a central banker, a particularly critical difference between then and now is what has happened to inflation and inflation expectations. The overall inflation rate has averaged about 3-1/2 percent over the past four quarters, significantly higher than we would like but much less than the double-digit rates that inflation reached in the mid-1970s and then again in 1980. Moreover, the increase in inflation has been milder this time--on the order of 1 percentage point over the past year as compared with the 6 percentage point jump that followed the 1973 oil price shock. From the perspective of monetary policy, just as important as the behavior of actual inflation is what households and businesses expect to happen to inflation in the future, particularly over the longer term. If people expect an increase in inflation to be temporary and do not build it into their longer-term plans for setting wages and prices, then the inflation created by a shock to oil prices will tend to fade relatively quickly. Some indicators of longer-term inflation expectations have risen in recent months, which is a significant concern for the Federal Reserve. We will need to monitor that situation closely. However, changes in long-term inflation expectations have been measured in tenths of a percentage point this time around rather than in whole percentage points, as appeared to be the case in the mid-1970s. Importantly, we see little indication today of the beginnings of a 1970s-style wage-price spiral, in which wages and prices chased each other ever upward.

A good deal of economic research has looked at the question of why the inflation response to the oil shock has been relatively muted in the current instance. One factor, which illustrates my point about the adaptability and flexibility of the U.S. economy, is the pronounced decline in the energy intensity of the economy since the 1970s. Since 1975, the energy required to produce a given amount of output in the United States has fallen by about half. This great improvement in energy efficiency was less the result of government programs than of steps taken by households and businesses in response to higher energy prices, including substantial investments in more energy-efficient equipment and means of transportation. This improvement in energy efficiency is one of the reasons why a given increase in crude oil prices does less damage to the U.S. economy today than it did in the 1970s.

Another reason is the performance of monetary policy. The Federal Reserve and other central banks have learned the lessons of the 1970s. Because monetary policy works with a lag, the short-term inflationary effects of a sharp increase in oil prices can generally not be fully offset. However, since Paul Volcker's time, the Federal Reserve has been firmly committed to maintaining a low and stable rate of inflation over the longer term. And we recognize that keeping longer-term inflation expectations well anchored is essential to achieving the goal of low and stable inflation. Maintaining confidence in the Fed's commitment to price stability remains a top priority as the central bank navigates the current complex situation.

Although our economy has thus far dealt with the current oil price shock comparatively well, the United States and the rest of the world still face significant challenges in dealing with the rising global demand for energy, especially if continued demand growth and constrained supplies maintain intense pressure on prices. The silver lining of high energy prices is that they provide a powerful incentive for action--for conservation, including investment in energy-saving technologies; for the investment needed to bring new oil supplies to market; and for the development of alternative conventional and nonconventional energy sources. The government, in addition to the market, can usefully address energy concerns, for example, by supporting basic research and adopting well-designed regulatory policies to promote important social objectives such as protecting the environment. As we saw after the oil price shock of the 1970s, given some time, the economy can become much more energy-efficient even as it continues to grow and living standards improve.
It is worth reading Bernanke's views because that is the general consensus of the Fed. His comments on the Fed fighting inflation in the "medium term" further suggests the rate cuts are over for now - even if the economy weakens further. Inflation, and inflation expectations are just too high.

Bernanke also spoke about productivity.