A customer shops at at a grocery store on February 10, 2022 in Miami, Florida. The Labor Department announced that consumer prices jumped 7.5% last month compared with 12 months earlier, the steepest year-over-year increase since February 1982.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
The view that higher interest rates help stamp out inflation is essentially an article of faith, based on long-held economic gospel of supply and demand.
But how does it really work? And will it work this time around, when bloated prices seem at least partially beyond the reach of conventional monetary policy?
It is this dilemma that has Wall Street confused and markets volatile.
In normal times, the Federal Reserve is seen as the cavalry coming into quell soaring prices. But this time, the central bank is going to need some help.
“Can the Fed bring down inflation on their own? I think the answer is ‘no,'” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors. “They certainly can help rein in the demand side by higher interest rates. But it’s not going to unload container ships, it’s not going to reopen production capacity in China, it’s not going to hire the long-haul truckers we need to get things across the country.”
Still, policymakers are going to try to slow down the economy and subdue inflation.
The approach is two-pronged: The central bank will raise benchmark short-term interest rates while also reducing the more than $8 trillion in bonds it has accumulated over the years to help keep money flowing through the economy.
Under the Fed blueprint, the transmission from those actions into lower inflation goes something like this:
The higher rates make money costlier and borrowing less appealing. That, in turn, slows demand to catch up with supply, which has lagged badly throughout the pandemic. Less demand means merchants will be under pressure to cut prices to lure people to buy their products.
Potential effects include lower wages, a halt or even a drop in soaring home prices and, yes, a decline in valuations for a stock market that has thus far held up fairly well in the face of soaring inflation and the fallout from the war in Ukraine.
“The Fed has been reasonably successful in convincing markets that they have their eye on the ball, and long-term inflation expectations have been held in check,” Baird said. “As we look forward, that will continue to be the primary focus. It’s something that we’re watching very closely, to make sure that investors don’t lose faith in [the central bank’s] ability to keep a lid on long-term inflation.”
Consumer inflation rose at a 7.9% annual pace in February …….