The United States has experienced a considerable rise in inflation over the past year. In this post, we examine how consumers’ inflation expectations have responded to inflation during the pandemic period and to what extent this is different from the behavior of consumers’ expectations before the pandemic. We analyze two aspects of the response of consumers’ expectations to changing conditions. First, we examine by how much consumers revise their inflation expectations in response to inflation surprises. Second, we look at the pass-through of revisions in short-term inflation expectations to revisions in longer-term inflation expectations. We use data from the New York Fed’s Survey of Consumer Expectations (SCE) and from the Michigan Survey of Consumers to measure these responses. We find that over the past two years, consumers’ shorter-horizon expectations have been highly attuned to current inflation news: one-year-ahead inflation expectations are very responsive to inflation surprises, in a pattern similar to what we witnessed before the pandemic. In contrast, three-year-ahead inflation expectations are now far less responsive to inflation surprises than they were before the pandemic, indicating that consumers are taking less signal from the recent movements in inflation about inflation at longer horizons than they did before. We also find that the pass-through from revisions in one-year-ahead expectations to revisions in longer-term expectations has declined during the pandemic relative to the pre-pandemic period. Taken together, these findings show that consumers expect inflation to behave very differently than it did before the pandemic, with a smaller share of short-term movements in inflation expected to persist into the future.
The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers (the “Michigan Survey” hereafter) is the main source of information regarding consumers’ expectations of future inflation in the United States. The most recent release of the Michigan Survey on March 25 drew considerable attention because it showed a large spike in year-ahead expectations for inflation: as shown in the chart below, the median rose from 3.4 to 4.6 percent and the other quartiles of responses showed similar increases. What may have caused this rise in inflation expectations and what lessons should be taken from it? In this post, we draw upon the findings of an ongoing New York Fed research project to shed some light on the possible sources of the recent increase and to gauge its significance. While our research spans both short- and medium-term inflation expectations, this blog post discusses movements in short-term measures only and does not discuss medium-term expectations.