August 16, 2022

How Will Interest Rate Increases Impact Inflation?

America’s central bank has for decades been what Paul Volcker, its chair in the 1980s, called “the only game in town” when it comes to fighting inflation. While there are things that elected leaders can do to combat rising prices — raising taxes to curb consumption, spending more on education and infrastructure to improve productivity, helping flailing industries — those targeted policies tend to take time. The things that elected policymakers can do quickly generally help mainly around the edges.

But time is of the essence when it comes to controlling inflation. If price increases run fast for months or years on end, people begin to adjust their lives accordingly. Workers might ask for higher wages, pushing up labor costs and prompting businesses to charge more. Companies might begin to believe that consumers will accept price increases, making them less vigilant about avoiding them.

By making money more expensive to borrow, the Fed’s rate moves work relatively quickly to temper demand. As buying a house or a car or expanding a business becomes pricier, people pull back from doing those things. With fewer consumers and companies competing for the available supply of goods and services, price gains are able to moderate.

Unfortunately, that process could come at a hefty cost at a moment like this one. Bringing the economy into balance when supply is constrained — cars are hard to find because of semiconductor shortages, furniture is on back order, and jobs are more plentiful than laborers — could require a big decline in demand. Slowing the economy down that meaningfully could tip off a recession, leaving workers unemployed and families with lower incomes.

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