Focused on the demand side, even most pessimists — me included — missed a pressing problem. Supply-chain bottlenecks have led to shortages of many goods, a crisis that has been exacerbated by the reluctance of Americans to return to work. The worker shortage has also hurt the service sector. Many restaurants, for example, remain closed because they can’t find workers. Both also spark higher prices.
Now, between the government payments and underspending during the pandemic, American consumers are sitting on an estimated $2.3 trillion more in their bank accounts than projected by the prepandemic trend. As they emerge from seclusion, Americans are eager to spend on everything from postponed vacations to clothing. But the supply chain breakdown has turned the simple act of spending money into a challenge.
For the Democrats, recent disappointing election results and the current legislative logjam offer a dose of cold reality. The administration wanted to claim a big policy win ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. But inflation worries are top of voters’ minds.
So the administration should come clean with voters about the impact of its spending plans on inflation. Build Back Better can be deemed “paid for” only if one embraces budget gimmicks, like assuming that some of the most important initiatives will be allowed to expire in just a few years. The result: a package that front-loads spending while tax revenues arrive only over a decade. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that the plan would likely add $800 billion or more to the deficit over the next five years, exacerbating inflationary pressures.
Mr. Biden also insists that the much-lauded infrastructure bill he just signed is fully paid for — but it isn’t. Indeed, the infrastructure figures show $550 billion in new spending and just $173 billion of additional offsets.
Of course, some responsibility for overstimulating lies with the Federal Reserve, which responded correctly to the onset of the pandemic by cutting interest rates and shoveling money into the financial system. More recently, the Fed has been too slow to curtail its program of buying debt, sending still more money to chase those few goods. And until recently, Fed officials were echoing the White House line about “transitory” inflation.
For the Fed, addressing inflation will mean raising interest rates, perhaps sooner than it thinks necessary. The Fed targets average annual inflation of 2 percent. So if or when the pace of price increases gets stuck far above that level, the central bank will need to raise interest rates to address the problem. While the Fed thinks this won’t happen until late next year, the bond market believes rates will be hiked by midyear.
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