MONEY Economy

Is Inflation Really Dead?

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Joe Pugliese

We put the question to Pimco Chief Economist Paul McCulley, who explains why you don't have to worry about rising prices—and why Forrest Gump was a great economist.

Paul McCulley, 57, retired from Pimco in 2010 but returned as chief economist in May. Pimco runs almost $2 trillion, including Pimco Total Return, the world’s largest bond mutual fund. McCulley coined the term “shadow banks” in 2007 to explain how Wall Street could trigger a financial panic.

MONEY assistant managing editor Pat Regnier spoke to McCulley in late July; this edited interview appeared in the September 2014 issue of the magazine.

Q: Is inflation really dead?

A: Inflation, which is below 2% per year, may very well move above 2%. In fact, that is very much the Federal Reserve’s objective. So it will move up, but only from below 2% to just above 2%. But in terms of whether we will have an inflationary problem, I don’t think we have much to worry about. Back in my youth, in the days of Paul Volcker at the Fed in the early 1980s, inflation was considered the No. 1 problem. Now I’m not even sure it’s on the top 10 list, but it for darned sure ain’t No. 1.

Q: What’s holding inflation down?

A: First, we’ve had very low inflation for a long time, and there’s inertia to inflation. The best indicator of where inflation will be next year is to start from where it is this year. We won the war against inflation. It’s that simple.

Second, we still have slack in our economy, in both labor markets as well as in product markets. Companies have very little pricing power—as an aside, the Internet is a reinforcing factor because consumers can find the price of everything. And we have too many people unemployed or underemployed for workers to be running around demanding raises.

Finally, the Fed has credibility, so expectations of inflation are low. Unmoored expectations could foster higher inflation, as companies try to anticipate higher costs. Fed credibility is a bulwark against that. Unlike 30 years ago, the Fed has had demonstrable success in keeping prices stable by showing it is willing to raise short-term rates to slow growth and inflation.

Q: What about quantitative easing, in which the Fed buys bonds with money it creates? Doesn’t that create inflationary pressure?

A: I’ve been hearing that song for the last five years. And inflation has yet to show up on the dance floor. People say, “The Fed’s been printing money. It’s got to someday show up in higher inflation.” My answer, borrowing from the famous economist Forrest Gump, is that money is as money does. And it ain’t doin’ much.

Q: You mean money isn’t getting out of banks into the broader economy to drive up prices?

A: Yeah. I mean the Fed has created a lot of money, but it’s done so when the private sector is in deleveraging mode, meaning people are trying to get out of debt. There has been low demand for credit, so the inflationary effect of money creation has been very feeble.

Q: You’ve said that a low-inflation world also means low yields and low fixed-income returns. Why?

A: People my age—I’m 57—remember the days of double-digit interest rates and double-digit inflation. But as the Fed’s fought and won its multidecade war against inflation, interest rates have come down. And it has been a glorious ride for bond investors from a total-return perspective because when interest rates fall, bond prices go up, so you earn more than the stated interest rate.

But now inflation is actually below where the Fed says it should be. So there’s nowhere lower that we want to go on inflation to pull interest rates down further. Now what you see is what you get, which is low stated nominal yields. In fact, rates will drift up in the years ahead, which is actually negative for the prices of bonds.

Q: What does this mean for how I should be positioning myself as a bond investor?

A: First and foremost is to set realistic expectations that low single digits is all you’re going to get from your bond allocation.

New normal

Q: Is there anything I can do to get better yields?

A: For bond investors, what makes sense right now is to be in what Pimco Total Return Fund manager Bill Gross calls “safe spread” investments. These are shorter-duration bonds—meaning they are less sensitive to interest rate changes—that also pay out higher yields than Treasuries do. These could be corporate bonds or mortgage-related debt. They can also be global bonds.

Q: Pimco says investors should also hold some TIPS, or Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. Why would I own an inflation-protected bond in a low-inflation world?

A: It’s a diversification bet in some respects. But also, the Fed’s objective is 2% inflation, higher than it is now. What’s more likely? That the Fed misses the mark by letting inflation fall to 1%, or by letting inflation hit 3%? I think 3% to 4% is more likely. TIPS protect you against the risk of 3% to 4% inflation. The Fed has made clear that if it’s going to make a mistake, it wants to tilt to the high side, not the low.

Q: Why wouldn’t the Fed just aim for the lowest possible inflation rate?

A: When the next recession hits, do you want a starting point of inflation in the 1% zone? No. A recession pulls down inflation, and then you are in the zero-inflation or deflation zone.

Q: And deflation is bad because … ?

A: Because then people with debt face a higher real burden of paying it off.

Q: How much time does Pimco spend guessing what the Fed will decide? Pimco Total Return lagged in 2013 when the Fed signaled an earlier-than-expected end to quantitative easing.

A: You’ve asked me a difficult question because I wasn’t here. But I was here for the entire first decade of the 2000s, and I know a lot about the firm. I can tell you the firm spends a huge amount of time and, more important, intellectual energy in macroeconomic analysis, including trying to reverse-engineer what the Fed’s game plan is. Fed anticipation is a key to what Pimco does. You don’t always get it right, but not for a lack of effort.

Q: You argued the 2008 crisis was the result of good times making investors complacent. With Fed chair Janet Yellen talking about high prices for things like biotech stocks, is complacency a danger again?

A: I don’t worry too much about irrational exuberance in things like biotech. It doesn’t involve the irrational creation of credit, as the property bubble did. Think of the Internet and tech bubble back in 1999. It created a nasty spell, but it didn’t lead to five years in purgatory for the economy either.

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