Federal Reserve officials are growing concerned the U.S. inflation rate won't budge from low levels, the latest sign of angst among central bankers about weakness in the global economy.
The Fed began 2014 hopeful that a strengthening U.S. economy would push very low inflation from 1% toward the 2% level that officials associate with healthy business activity. Three months into a year marked by unusually harsh winter weather, which appears to have damped economic growth, there is little evidence of such movement.
Fed officials expressed worry about the persistence of low inflation at a policy meeting last month, according to minutes of the meeting released by the central bank Wednesday. They discussed at the March 18-19 meeting whether to make a more explicit commitment to keeping short-term interest rates pinned near zero until they saw inflation move up, but chose instead to take a wait-and-see approach.
Low inflation is high on the agenda of global central bankers and finance ministers gathering in Washington this week for semiannual meetings of the International Monetary Fund. Bank of Japan officials are trying to overcome more than a decade of on-again-off-again deflation, and inflation in Europe is running close to zero.
"We think there is also a risk of deflation, negative inflation. And we think that if this were to happen, this would make the adjustment both at the euro level, and even more so for the countries in the periphery, very difficult," IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard said of Europe on Tuesday, after the IMF released updated economic projections.
"We think that everything should be done to try to avoid it."
On its face, flat consumer prices sound like a blessing that holds down household costs. But when tepid inflation is associated with small wage gains, excess business capacity and soft global demand, as now, economists see it as a sign of broader economic malaise that restrains investment and hiring. Exceptionally slow wage and profit gains also make it harder for household and business borrowers to pay off debt. Fed officials believe the U.S. economy was soft in the early months of the year in part because of the weather, and they are now expecting a pickup.
But if that doesn't happen, they could wait longer to start raising interest rates. Many central-bank officials and market participants don't expect rate increases until well into 2015.