A recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, picked up by the Financial Times and the Washington Post, suggests that when it comes to communicating their inflation objective, central banks have a lot of work to do. This conclusion is based primarily on two pieces of evidence.
The first piece is that when businesses in New Zealand are asked about their expectations for changes in "overall prices"—which presumably corresponds with their inflation expectation—the responses, on average, appear to be much too high relative to observed inflation trends. And the responses vary widely from business to business. According to this survey, the average firm in New Zealand expects 4 to 5 percent inflation on a year-ahead basis, and 3.5 percent inflation over the next five to 10 years. Those expectations are for the average firm. Apparently, about one in four firms in New Zealand think inflation in the year ahead will be more than 5 percent, and about one in six firms believe inflation will top 5 percent during the next five to 10 years. Certainly, these aren't the responses one would expect from businesses operating in an economy (like New Zealand) where the central bank has been targeting 2 percent inflation for the past 13 years, over which time inflation has averaged only 2.2 percent (and a mere 0.9 percent during the past four years).
But count us skeptical of this evidence. In this paper from last year, we challenge the assumption that asking firms (or households, for that matter) about expected changes in "overall prices" corresponds to an inflation prediction.
The second piece of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of inflation targeting is more direct—the authors of this paper actually asked New Zealand businesses a few questions about the central bank and its policies, including this one:
What annual percentage rate of change in overall prices do you think the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is trying to achieve? (Answer: ______%)
The distribution of answers by New Zealand firms is shown in the chart below. According to the survey, the median New Zealand firm appears to think the central bank's inflation target is 5 percent. Indeed, more than a third of firms in New Zealand reported that they think the central bank is targeting an inflation rate greater than 5 percent. Only about 12 percent of the firms were able to correctly identify their central bank's actual inflation target of 2 percent (actually, the New Zealand inflation target is a range of between 1 and 3 percent, centered on 2 percent).
If this weren't embarrassing enough for central bankers, the study also reports that New Zealand households (like U.S. households) don't seem to know who the head of the central bank is. In fact, the authors show that there are more online searches for "puppies" than for information about macroeconomic variables.
OK, to be honest, we don't find that last result very surprising. Puppies are adorable. Central bankers? Not so much. But we were very surprised to see just how high and wide-ranging businesses in New Zealand perceived their central bank's inflation target to be. We're surprised because that bit of information doesn't fit with our understanding of U.S. firms.
In December 2011, the month before the Fed officially announced an explicit numerical target for inflation, we wanted to know whether firms had already formed an opinion about the Fed's inflation objective. So we asked a panel of Southeast businesses the following question:
What we learned was that 16 percent of the 151 firms who responded to our survey had no opinion regarding what rate of inflation the Federal Reserve was aiming for. But of the firms that had an opinion, 58 percent identified a 2 percent inflation target.
But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison to the recent survey of New Zealand businesses. In our 2011 survey, firms had only six options to choose from (including "no opinion"). It could be that our choice of options biased the responses away from high inflation values. So last week, we convened another panel of firms and asked the question in the same open-ended format given to New Zealanders:
What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run? (Answer: ______%)
The only material distinction between their question and ours is that we substituted the word "inflation" for the phrase "changes in overall prices." (For this special survey, we polled a national sample of firms that had never before answered one of our survey questions.) The chart below shows what we found relative to the results recently reported for New Zealand firms.
Our survey results look very similar to our results of four years ago. About one in five of the 102 firms that answered our survey was unsure about the Fed's inflation target. But almost 53 percent of the firms that responded answered 2 percent. (On average, U.S. firms judged the central bank's inflation target to be 2.2 percent, just a shade higher than our actual target.)
Furthermore, the distribution of responses to our survey was very tightly centered on 2 percent. The highest estimate of the Fed's inflation target (from only one firm) was 5 percent. So again, our results don't at all resemble what has been reported for the firms down under.
Why is there a glaring difference between what the survey of New Zealand firms found and what we're finding? Well, as noted earlier, we've got our suspicions, but we'll keep studying the issue. And in the meantime, have you seen this?
Editor's note: Learn more about inflation and the consumer price index in an ECONversations webcast featuring Atlanta Fed economist Brent Meyer.