A fed official just said abandoning the 2% inflation target would be a ‘disaster’ that would send the world back to the ’70s despite banking crisis

James Bullard, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, gestures while speaking at the 2019 Monetary and Financial Policy Conference at Bloomberg's European headquarters in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.
Luke MacGregor—Bloomberg/Getty Images

For over a year now, the Federal Reserve has been attempting to reduce inflation to its 2% target. Officials have raised interest rates faster than any of their predecessors to do this, and even after the second- and third-largest bank failures in U.S. history this month—which were caused at least in part by the aggressive rate hikes—officials plan to continue targeting that magical 2% figure.

“We do have a mandate legislated by Congress and the President to maintain stable prices for the U.S. economy. That’s in the law,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis president James Bullard told Bloomberg Friday. “We’ve defined stable prices as 2% inflation. That’s an international standard that was developed in the 1990s. I think it would be a disaster to abandon that standard.”

Bullard argued that if he and other Fed officials gave up their inflation fight, it would lead countries worldwide to the same, “and we would be back to the 1970s.” The roots of the so-called “Great Inflation” of the ‘70s are still debated today, but it’s widely accepted that a combination of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aggressive spending on the Vietnam War and “Great Society” social programs meant to alleviate poverty in the late 60s, along with spiking energy prices, loose monetary policies, and the end of the gold standard, combined to create a nightmare scenario for price stability. The runaway inflation was only curtailed after Fed Chair Paul Volcker came to power in 1979 and jacked up interest rates, sparking a double-dip recession.

Bullard admitted, however, that the Fed has made progress in stabilizing consumer prices this time around, and said he expects that to continue throughout the year. Year-over-year inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, dropped from its four decade high of 9.1% last June to just 6% in February. And the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) index—the Fed’s favorite inflation gauge, which needs to drop to around 2% for officials to be happy—fell to 5.4% in January. February’s data will be released March 31. 

But Bullard went on to say that he was concerned some of the recent decline in inflation came from falling energy prices, and those can be volatile, “so you don’t want to live and die on international commodity markets.”

Still, fading inflation coupled with the banks’ recent instability has some experts wondering why the Fed believes they need to keep raising rates. And why their 2% inflation target is so special.

Starwood Capital’s CEO Barry Sternlicht, for example, equated the Fed’s inflation-fighting rate hikes to “using a steamroller to get the price of milk down two cents, to kill a small fly,” in a Thursday interview with CNBC

The billionaire has been making this argument for a while. Back in October, well before the collapse of SVB, Sternlicht told Fortune that the Fed’s aggressive interest rate hikes were apt to send the economy into a recession or create financial accidents. And he argued officials should consider rethinking their 2% inflation target altogether, too.

“I think the number 2% is kind of arbitrary,” he said. “And could it be 3% or 4%? That would be fine.”

And economist Mohamed El-Erian warned that the Fed won’t be able to get inflation down to 2% without “crushing the economy” in an interview with Bloomberg Television last month. “That’s because 2% is not the right target,” he added. 

But the Fed raised rates by 25 basis points this week despite its critics, reaffirming officials’ commitment to achieving the 2% inflation target, even if it means some “pain” for the economy—as Powell famously said at the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium last August. And St. Louis Fed president Bullard’s comments Friday only reinforced that move.

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