rent

Will the rent be too damn high for Bernanke?

May 3, 2012: 10:03 AM ET

Rents are soaring, and that's bad news for inflation -- and for Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke's plans to keep it low. 

FORTUNE – Most of us don't want to pay higher prices, but there's a growing debate over whether we should allow inflation to edge a little higher to help the U.S. economy grow.

Earlier this week, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Engle joined fellow prize winner Paul Krugman in building the case for rapidly rising prices. They say it could help reduce joblessness, with Krugman suggesting that the Federal Reserve tolerate inflation of up to 4% to boost the economy. That's about double what Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has been targeting. Anything higher than that, Bernanke has said, would be "very reckless" and could potentially derail the economic recovery.

He might be right, but economists urging higher prices also have a point worth considering.

Increased rates for rental homes and apartments could put upward pressure on inflation. After all, rents make up a relatively significant share (31%) of the consumer price index. And when it comes to core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy items, rents make up an even larger share of about 41%.

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Nationwide, the price for rentals has risen rapidly as fewer people own homes. During the first three months this year, the median asking price for rentals was $721 per month -- up 5.6% from a year earlier -- the U.S. Commerce Department reported earlier this week. Meanwhile, even as it's one of the cheapest times to buy, homeownership has fallen to 65.5% from its 2005 peak of 69.2%.

Indeed, the rental market could soon push inflation higher. Nobody wants to pay their landlords more if they can avoid it. But higher rents could actually be a good thing for both the housing market and the broader economy. As some economists see it, the price of rentals would rise to the point where it becomes cheaper to buy. And if that happens, that could help reverse the housing market's malaise.

But that has already happened across many U.S. cities, according to Trulia's latest rent vs. buy index. And the housing market, while indeed healing, is still far from revived, as home prices continue to fall and banks tighten their lending standards.

Of course, the case for more inflation goes beyond the real estate market. If prices rise by just a little, the value of those assets would theoretically rise too. And so could wages, which could leave consumers feeling a little richer. And such a pay bump could make it a little easier for households to pay down their debts. What's more, as businesses and households expect prices to rise, a little inflation could get them to spend and invest sooner rather than later. And so on.

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But the economy doesn't work this neatly. Given the litany of factors working against the market, it's easy to see how such theories are based on some very bold assumptions. For instance, as Fortune's Stephen Gandel highlighted earlier this week, lending by the big banks dropped during the first three months of 2012 after rising for most of last year.

All this makes Bernanke's job terribly complicated (as if that wasn't already obvious). Even as the economy appears to be on firmer footing, the central banker has held his course toward keeping short-term interest rates ultra low until at least the end of 2014. Of course, this might be harder to do if higher prices for rentals start pushing up inflation beyond his 2% target.

At that point, the Fed will probably need to ask how much unemployment might fall if they allowed prices to rise. And, perhaps more importantly, what are the risks of such a move?

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