When prices started to take off in multiple countries around the world about two years ago, the word most often associated with inflation was “transitory.” Today, the word is “persistence.”
That was uttered repeatedly at the 10th annual conference of the European Central Bank this week in Sintra, Portugal.
“It’s been surprising that inflation has been this persistent,” Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, said.
“We have to be as persistent as inflation is persistent,” Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, said.
The latest inflation data in Britain “showed clear signs of persistence,” Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, said.
Policymakers from around the world gathered alongside academics and analysts to discuss monetary policy as they try to force inflation down. Collectively, they sent a single message: Interest rates will be high for a while.
Even though inflation is slowing, domestic price pressures remain strong in the United States and Europe. On Friday, data showed the inflation in the eurozone slowed to 5.5 percent, but core inflation, a measure of domestic price increases, rose. The challenge for policymakers is how to meet their targets of 2 percent inflation, without overdoing it and pushing their economies into recessions.
It’s hard to judge when a turning point has been reached and policymakers have done enough, said Clare Lombardelli, the chief economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and former chief economic adviser in the British Treasury. “We don’t yet know. We’re still seeing core inflation rising.”
The tone of the conference was set on Monday night by Gita Gopinath, the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. In her speech, she said there was an “uncomfortable truth” that policymakers needed to hear. “Inflation is taking too long to get back to target.”
And so, she said, interest rates should be at levels that restrict the economy until core inflation is on a downward path. But Ms. Gopinath had another unsettling message to share: The world will probably face more shocks, more frequently.
“There is a substantial risk that the more volatile supply shocks of the pandemic era will persist,” she said. Countries cutting global supply chains to shift production home or to existing trade partners would raise production costs. And they would be more vulnerable to future shocks because their concentrated production would give them less flexibility.
The conversations in Sintra kept coming back to all the things economists don’t know, and the list was long: Inflation expectations are hard to decipher; energy markets are opaque; the speed that monetary policy affects the economy seems to be slowing; and there’s little guidance on how people and companies will react to large successive economic shocks.
There were also plenty of mea culpas about the inaccuracy of past inflation forecasts.
“Our understanding of inflation expectations is not a precise one,” Mr. Powell said. “The longer inflation remains high, the more risk there is that inflation will become entrenched in the economy. So the passage of time is not our friend here.”
Meanwhile, there are signs that the impact of high interest rates will take longer to be felt in the economy than they used to. In Britain, the vast majority of mortgages have rates that are fixed for short periods and so reset every two or five years. A decade ago, it was more common to have mortgages that fluctuated with interest rates, so homeowners felt the impact of higher interest rates instantly. Because of this change, “history isn’t going to be a great guide,” Mr. Bailey said.
Another poor guide has been prices in energy markets. The price of wholesale energy has been the driving force behind headline inflation rates, but rapid price changes have helped make inflation forecasts inaccurate. A panel session on energy markets reinforced economists’ concerns about how inadequately informed they are on something that is heavily influencing inflation, because of a lack of transparency in the industry. A chart on the mega-profits of commodity-trading houses last year left many in the room wide-eyed.
Economists have been writing new economic models, trying to respond quickly to the fact that central banks have consistently underestimated inflation. But to some extent the damage has already been done, and among some policymakers there is a growing lack of trust in the forecasts.
The fact that central bankers in the eurozone have agreed to be “data dependent” — making policy decisions based on the data available at each meeting, and not take predetermined actions — shows that “we don’t trust models enough now to base our decision, at least mostly, on the models,” said Pierre Wunsch, a member of the E.C.B.’s Governing Council and the head of Belgium’s central bank. “And that’s because we have been surprised for a year and a half.”
Given all that central bankers do not know, the dominant mood at the conference was the need for a tough stance on inflation, with higher interest rates for longer. But not everyone agreed.
Some argued that past rate increases would be enough to bring down inflation, and further increases would inflict unnecessary pain on businesses and households. But central bankers might feel compelled to act more aggressively to ward off attacks on their reputation and credibility, a vocal minority argued.
“The odds are that they have already done too much,” said Erik Nielsen, an economist at UniCredit, said of the European Central Bank. This is probably happening because of the diminishing faith in forecasts, he said, which is putting the focus on past inflation data.
“That’s like driving a car and somebody painted your front screen so you can’t look forward,” he said. “You can only look through the back window to see what inflation was last month. That probably ends with you in the ditch.”