Recent studies have shown prices in some sectors—such as housing—do indeed rise faster when growth is in full swing, unemployment low and markets frothy. But a large chunk of the economy, from health care to durable goods, appears insensitive to rising or falling demand.
A paper published last month by economists James Stock of Harvard University and Mark Watson of Princeton University found prices accounting for nearly half of the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the personal-consumption-expenditures price index, don’t respond to changes in economic activity. In 2017 economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found such “acyclical” goods and services made up a whopping 58% of that index.
The cyclically sensitive components of core inflation, which excludes food and energy, have accelerated to 2.33% in the 12 months through May from 0.41% in mid-2010, according to the San Francisco Fed, just as falling unemployment would predict. But that has been offset by falling inflation in acyclical categories—such as health care, financial services and most goods—which has slowed to 1.04% from 2.26% in the same period.
Of course, this also casts doubt on the whole meaning of a single “real” interest rate. And it seems to imply that monopoly power in the American economy is not so universal.