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.
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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.
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