One of the papers presented was 'Inflation targeting does not anchor inflation expectations: Evidence from firms in New Zealand', a paper with four co-authors, one being AUT's Saten Kumar. You can read the abstract and media release, or the whole paper: even if you don't often read more academic papers, this one's worth it. It's pretty easy to follow - indeed, the authors have a rather non-academic flair for making their points crisply and colourfully.
The main focus of the paper is whether inflation expectations are 'anchored': roughly, do people clearly believe that inflation will stay reliably low? They look at five possible ways of assessing it: for example, do expectations vary very widely across the population rather than most people being in the same sort of place? Do expectations jump all over the place from one time period to the next? And so on.
On all five criteria, they find that the business managers they polled did not have settled inflationary expectations. As the abstract puts it
Managers of these firms display little anchoring of inflation expectations, despite twenty-five years of inflation targeting by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, a fact which we document along a number of dimensions. Managers are unaware of the identities of central bankers as well as central banks’ objectives, and are generally poorly informed about recent inflation dynamics. Their forecasts of future inflation reflect high levels of uncertainty and are extremely dispersed as well as volatile at both short and long-run horizons. Similar results can be found in the U.S. using currently available surveys.This leads into all sorts of serious cogitation about the efficacy of monetary policy, the need for central banks to communicate better, and how people form their inflation expectations, and if you're a monetary policy tragic you'll love it.
But it also says something pretty damning about the level of ignorance among New Zealand's business community. I'll pass quickly over the facts that only 31% of managers could identify the main objective of the Reserve Bank, and that only 30% could name its governor (even when, in both cases, they were given prompt sheets of the possible answers), and concentrate on this one. Here's a table (clipped from table 7 of the paper) of responses to the question, what inflation rate do you think the RBNZ is trying to achieve? Column 1 shows the possible answers, column 2 shows the percentage of managers who opted for each possible answer, and column 3 shows what they thought actual inflation would be over the following year.
As the authors summarised it, "Of the respondents, only 12% correctly responded 2%, although an additional 25% said either 1% or 3%, the bottom and top of the target range of the RBNZ. But 15% said the RBNZ’s target inflation rate was 5%, 36% said the target was more than 5%, with 5% of respondents saying that the RBNZ’s target inflation rate was 10% or more". Just over half (50.9%) thought that inflation was going to be at least 5%. It turned out to be 0.8% (year to December '14).
Now, I know that there will be a lot of managers doing a perfectly acceptable job of getting the widgets made and out the door, with or without knowing what the rate of inflation is or exactly what the Reserve Bank is trying to do. I'd suggest, particularly if they come anywhere near the strategic planning end of the business, that they're nowhere near as effective as they might be, but there's surely a valid role for heads down, bums up, and get the salads packed and despatched.
And I know that those of us who are into macroeconomics can sometimes forget that others aren't as familiar with the jargon and the details, and that you can actually have a life without delving into the national accounts or the CPI. People get caught up in their own preoccupations, but we don't all need to know the niceties of the LBW rule.
And I know that other countries can be just as bad: the paper documents a similar pattern in the US, though that's little comfort. Not many of us would like to be found on a par with what's happening in twilight Trump-or-Cruz America.
Apologetics apart, though, let's face it: this is a staggering level of ignorance. It makes you ask, among many other things, what on earth the secondary schools can have been teaching in their economics classes over the last twenty years. It leaves you thinking that one of the reasons for our well-documented issues with productivity might well be ill-equipped management. And it makes you wonder about the level of understanding voters have brought into the polling booths: as I've written before, every general election has brought proposals for changing our monetary policy regime, ranging from the potentially promising to total nonsense. How likely is it we'll get a good outcome when people have only the foggiest idea of the current arrangements?