Top economist Mohamed El-Erian says the Fed has a small ‘window’ to reduce inflation after missing hard on other opportunities

January 30, 2023, 6:10 PM UTC
A picture of Mohamed El-Erian.
Mohamed El-Erian.
Hollie Adams—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Since last year, the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates seven times in an effort to quell rising prices. An additional hike may be on the horizon, as the bank is scheduled to meet this week.

But the current economic reality may have been different if the Fed had reacted earlier, according to Mohamed El-Erian, a leading economist and president of Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge. 

“They [The Fed] have a window,” said El-Erian on CNBC’s Squawk <em>Box</em> early Monday.

“The tragedy of this whole cycle has been that they have missed windows.”

The first chance that the Fed let slip was in 2021, he said, when Fed officials pinned inflation as transitory, or temporary, and another time was in 2022 when they started hiking interest rates too timidly.

In the first Fed meeting of 2023, El-Erian expects the bank to start easing the pace of hikes to 25 basis points compared to 50 or 75 basis points over much of 2022. 

El-Erian pointed out that U.S. economic data has been optimistic in recent months and financial conditions are now akin to the first few months of 2022, when the markets were performing relatively well despite downbeat data on the economy. In such a robust environment, he thinks, the economy can tolerate tighter interest rates.

“I’d rather they get the hikes out of the way now than wait for later on when the economy is weaker,” El-Erian said.

In recent weeks, the inflation has shown signs of moderating.

In December, the year-over-year inflation rate fell to 6.5%, a notable decline from a 40-year high in June of 9.1%. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has hoped for a “soft landing” for the economy, or an exit from high inflation without a recession, amid the interest rate increases.

But experts have differed widely on the impact of inflation and how it can be controlled.

Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, has remained bearish about the Fed’s actions and has predicted a recession. Rising wages and prices have persisted even though they cooled in December, Summers said earlier in January. 

Billy Simon, the former CEO of Walmart U.S., thinks a higher unemployment rate may be the cure-all for inflation. Mass layoffs that have recently uprooted jobs in the tech industry and others must continue to break the wage-price spiral, which occurs when prices go up concurrently with  wages.

El-Erian wrote in an op-ed this month that the inflation rate could get “sticky” at 4%, which is above the Fed’s target rate of 2%. Even if inflation rates do fall in the coming months, he says, the factors influencing it in the U.S. are shifting, causing an upward pressure on prices. 

The Fed is scheduled to meet on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Correction, Feb. 1, 2023: This article has been updated to specify that Billy Simon was the former of CEO of Walmart U.S.

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