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Fed officials still hope inflation will ease largely on its own, even as they prepare to shift policy in ways that would allow sooner and faster interest rate increases next year than had been anticipated. (File pic - THE US Fed building in Washington)

THE US Federal Reserve’s (Fed) experiment with running a “hot” economy has edged into historically uncharted territory, with an unemployment rate never reached without associated central bank rate increases and now levels of inflation that in the past also prompted a policy response.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for November posted the biggest annual increase in 39 years, data on Friday showed, amid signs that price pressures are broadening and likely leading policymakers at their meeting this week to significantly raise inflation projections that have been running behind actual outcomes.

That may prompt a policy shift, with officials accelerating plans to end their bondbuying and, many analysts expect, signalling that rate increases may begin sooner than anticipated.

The unemployment rate is also flashing red, at least by past Fed standards.

The 4.2% rate reached in November has only been hit or exceeded about 20% of the time since the late 1940s, covering four periods of low joblessness, including the late 2010s, with the Fed raising rates during each.

The central bank in 2020 concluded that inflation was now less of a risk and pledged to try to milk more jobs and a lower unemployment rate out of an economy it felt had changed in fundamental ways since the high inflation scares of the 1980s – a conclusion that’s now being tested in real time.

“They are behind the curve and I have thought so for some time,” said Glenn Hubbard, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George Bush and now a Columbia University economics professor.

The Fed’s new approach hoped to drive an array of labour market indicators like the participation rate back to pre-pandemic levels, but Hubbard said “running the economy hot...is a risky bet” if it aims to offset structural economic forces like demographics that aren’t responsive, at least not quickly, to central bank policy.

Declining real wages

Fed officials still hope inflation will ease largely on its own, even as they prepare to shift policy in ways that would allow sooner and faster interest rate increases next year than had been anticipated.

In the meantime, while Fed chairman Jerome Powell and other policymakers rebut comparisons between this era and the years in the 1980s when high inflation cut into living standards, recent price increases have posed a similar sort of political dilemma.

On the surface, wages are rising as employers struggle to fill open jobs in a pandemic era where the unemployed are reluctant to rejoin jobs for health or other reasons, and those who are in jobs have gained leverage to job-hop for higher pay.

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