Chapter 31: Inflation and Unemployment

Start Up: The Inflation/Unemployment Conundrum

As the twentieth century drew to a close, the United States could look back on a remarkable achievement. From 1992 through 2000, the unemployment rate fell every year. The inflation rate, measured as the annual percentage change in the implicit price deflator, was about 2% or less during this period. The dramatic reduction in the two rates provided welcome relief to a nation that had seen soaring unemployment early in the 1980s, soaring inflation in the late 1970s, and painful increases in both rates early in the 1970s.

Unemployment and inflation rates were also at fairly low levels during the early 2000s. Following a brief recession in 2001, in which unemployment reached nearly 6% (though this actually occurred after the recession officially ended), it fell back to 4.6% in 2006 and 2007. Through 2007, inflation never exceeded 3.3%. With the start of the recession in December 2007, the unemployment rate began to rise. At first, though, it appeared that inflation was becoming a bigger problem, as high gas and food prices until summer 2008 seemed to be driving up other prices and increasing inflationary expectations. Indeed, through much of 2008, a debate over the appropriate direction of monetary policy occurred over just this issue: should the Fed ease in an attempt to reduce unemployment or at least to keep it from rising as much as it would otherwise have, or should it stem rising inflation and inflationary expectations by holding the federal funds rate constant or even increasing it? While the Fed voted during most of its 2008 meetings for easing, the year is notable in that there were often dissenters at the Federal Open Market Committee meetings. For example, the minutes of the March 18, 2008, meeting note that two members, Richard W. Fisher of the Dallas Fed and Charles I. Plosser of the Philadelphia Fed voted against the 0.75% point drop approved at that meeting. Their rationale was that the inflation risks were simply too great. The minutes state,

“Incoming data suggested a weaker near-term outlook for economic growth, but the Committee’s earlier policy moves had already reduced the target federal funds rate by 225 basis points to address risks to growth, and the full effect of those rate cuts had yet to be felt. … Both Messrs. Fisher and Plosser were concerned that inflation expectations could potentially become unhinged should the Committee continue to lower the funds rate in the current environment. They pointed to measures of inflation and indicators of inflation expectations that had risen and Mr. Fisher stressed the international influences on U.S. inflation rates. Mr. Plosser noted that the Committee could not afford to wait until there was clear evidence that inflation expectations were no longer anchored, as by then it would be too late to prevent a further increase inflation pressures.”Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee March 18, 2008.

But as the depth of the recession increased toward the latter part of 2008, with the unemployment rate reaching 7.2% in December and prices of both oil and other commodities falling back substantially, the inflation threat had dissipated. Unanimity had returned to the FOMC: the Fed should use all of its powers to fight the recession.

This chapter examines the relationship between inflation and unemployment. We will find that there have been periods in which a clear trade-off between inflation and unemployment seemed to exist. During such periods, the economy achieved reductions in unemployment at the expense of increased inflation. But there have also been periods in which inflation and unemployment rose together and periods in which both variables fell together. We will examine some explanations for the sometimes perplexing relationship between the two variables.

We will see that the use of stabilization policy, coupled with the lags for monetary and for fiscal policy, have at times led to a cyclical relationship between inflation and unemployment. The explanation for the fact that Americans enjoyed such a long period of falling inflation and unemployment in the 1990s lies partly in improved policy, policy that takes those lags into account. We will see that a bit of macroeconomic luck in aggregate supply has also played a role.


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