- White House and Treasury officials spent months testing inflation scenarios, the NYT reports.
- No scenario showed inflation rising so quickly that the Fed would lose control of price growth.
- The findings open the door for Biden to spend trillions more on infrastructure and social care.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The Biden administration spent much of its first days in office testing how further stimulus might drive inflation higher. No modeled scenario saw price growth surge out of control, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
Still, the report said repeatedly that White House and Treasury officials are “worried” about the issue.
The inflation debate has loomed large over the White House since before President Joe Biden was even inaugurated. The president unveiled a $1.9 trillion relief proposal in January, pitching the plan as an additional boost for the US economic recovery. Largely Democrat-affiliated economists have fiercely debated the inflation risks of such large deficit-financed spending, led by former Obama- and Clinton-administration official Larry Summers.
Democrats largely backed the measure, saying the risks of retracting government support were greater than the risks of spending too much. But Republicans – and even some moderate Democrats – balked at the hefty price tag and cited fears that another set of stimulus checks could spark a dangerous surge in inflation.
“This is the least responsible fiscal macroeconomic policy we’ve had for the last 40 years,” Summers said in a March interview with Bloomberg TV, adding the measures are a product of “intransigence” among Democrats and “irresponsible behavior” among Republicans.
Democrats went ahead without any Republican votes, passing the bill via reconciliation, and Biden signed it into law on March 11. Still, the stimulus push wasn’t without some trepidation. A handful of officials in the Treasury Department spent several months modeling how Americans would deploy new fiscal support, and whether any outcome could lead to stifling inflation, according to The Times. Treasury Secretary and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen even helped create the models.
Their observations were encouraging and lend new support to Biden’s latest spending proposal. The team tested a range of potentialities for how quickly Americans would spend stimulus, where they would deploy cash, and how the labor market’s recovery would affect inflation. Yet no outcome saw inflation charge out of the Fed’s control and risk a new recession, the Times reported.
The findings have been hinted at in statements from the White House and the Treasury in recent weeks. Long-term scarring in the labor market poses a greater risk than inflation, Yellen told ABC’s “This Week” in March. Economic reopening is expected to drive a jump in prices, but the effects will likely be temporary and fail to drive sustained inflation, she added.
The administration’s Council of Economic Advisors mirrored Yellen in a Monday blog post. A temporary rise in inflation is consistent with trends seen after other major events like wars or past labor-market rebounds, economists Ernie Tedeschi and Jared Bernstein said. The White House will continue to monitor consumer prices, but it expects inflation to fade as actual price growth “runs more in line with longer-run expectations,” they added.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly backed up such an outlook. The central bank chief said last month that the Fed will “be patient” in monitoring inflation and eventually lifting interest rates. The most likely scenario during the recovery is that prices move higher but fail to stay elevated as the country enters a new sense of normalcy, Powell said in early March.
Although the Fed operates independently from the executive branch and doesn’t play a role in fiscal spending, officials testing inflation scenarios told the Times that the Biden administration trusts the Fed to intervene and stave off price growth should it accelerate faster than expected.
The latest data signals the country is far from any sort of inflation scare. The Consumer Price Index – a popular gauge of overall inflation – rose 0.6% in March as stimulus, reopening, and vaccination fueled stronger economic activity. Economists expected a 0.5% gain.
Consumer prices rose 2.6% year-over-year, also exceeding estimates. The measure is skewed somewhat by year-ago data, since prices initially dropped when the pandemic first slammed the US economy. Those readings present a lower bar for year-over-year inflation. Though the data points to stronger inflation, price growth still has a ways to go before it trends at the Fed’s above-2% level and warrants serious concern.
That opening paves the way for additional spending. Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal late last month that includes funds for nationwide broadband, improved roads and bridges, and affordable housing. The package is expected to be spent over eight years, compared to the weeks-long rollout seen with much of Biden’s stimulus plan. Such long-term deployment would present little inflationary risk, and Biden has portrayed the plan as an investment in American industry, jobs, and research as opposed to an emergency relief measure.
The March uptick in inflation, however, does signal that price growth is trending higher. Future CPI readings are set to be closely watched releases as the administration balances its spending goals with a red-hot economy. Economists and officials are anticipating stronger inflation. How price growth trends from there will determine whether the Biden administration was successful or created new risks.