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Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 2: The Question You Ask Matters—A Lot
In our previous macroblog post, we discussed the inflation expectations of firms and observed that—while on average these expectations look similar to that of professional forecasters—they reveal considerably more variation of opinion. Further, the inflation expectations of firms look very different from what we see in the household survey of inflation expectations.
The usual focal point when trying to explain measurement differences among surveys of inflation expectations is the respondent, or who is taking the survey. In the previous macroblog post, we noted that some researchers have indicated that not all households are equally informed about inflation trends and that their expectations are somehow biased by this ignorance. For example, Christopher Carroll over at Johns Hopkins suggests that households update their inflation expectations through the news, and some may only infrequently read the press. Another example comes from a group of researchers at the New York Fed and Carnegie Mellon They've suggested that less financially literate households tend to persistently have the highest inflation expectations.
But what these and related research assume is that whom you ask the question of is of primary significance. Could it be that it's the question being asked that accounts for such disagreement among the surveys?
We know, for example, that professional forecasters are asked to predict a particular inflation statistic, while households are simply asked about the behavior of "prices in general" and prices "on the average." To an economist, these amount to pretty much the same thing. But are they the same thing in the minds of non-economists?You may be surprised, but the answer is no (as a recent Atlanta Fed working paper discussed). When we asked our panel of firms to predict by how much "prices will change overall in the economy"—essentially the same question the University of Michigan asks households—business leaders make the same prediction we see in the survey of households: Their predictions seem high relative to the trend in the inflation data, and the range of opinion among businesses on where prices "overall in the economy" are headed is really, really wide (see the table).
But what if we ask businesses to predict a particular inflation statistic, as the Philly Fed asks professional forecasters to do? We did that, too. And you know what? Not only did a majority of our panelists (about two-thirds) say they were "familiar" with the inflation statistic, but their predictions looked remarkably similar to that of professional forecasters (see the table).
So when we ask firms to answer the same question asked of professional forecasters, we got back something that was very comparable to responses given by professional forecasters. But when you ask firms the same question typically asked of households, we got back responses that looked very much like what households report.
Moreover, we dug through the office file cabinets, remembering a related table adapted from a joint project between the Cleveland Fed and the Ohio State University that was highlighted in a 2001 Cleveland Fed Economic Commentary. In August 2001, a group of Ohio households were asked to provide their perception of how much the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had increased over the last 12 months, and we compared it with how much they thought "prices" had risen over the past 12 months.The households reported that the CPI had risen 3 percent—nearly identical to what the CPI actually rose over the period (2.7 percent). However, in responding to the vaguely worded notion of "prices," the average response was nearly 7 percent (see the table). So again, it seems that the loosely defined concept of "prices" is eliciting a response that looks nothing like what economists would call inflation.
So it turns out that the question you ask matters—a lot—more so, evidently, than to whom you ask the question. What's the right question to ask? We think it's the question most relevant to the decisions facing the person you are asking. In the case of firms (and others, we suspect), what's most relevant are the costs they think they are likely to face in the coming year. What is unlikely to be top-of-mind for business decision makers is the future behavior of an official inflation statistic or their thoughts on some ambiguous concept of general prices.
In the next macroblog post, we'll dig even deeper into the data.
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