Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

Economics focus: A winding path to inflation

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Even if governments could create inflation, they may not want to

Jun 3rd 2010

 [Greg Ip] IN THE short run inflation is an economic phenomenon. In the long run it is a political one. This week The Economist asked a group of leading economists whether they reckoned inflation or deflation was the greater threat; this was our inaugural question in “Economics by invitation”, an online forum of more than 50 eminent economists. The rough consensus was that in the near term, as Western economies struggle to recover, the bigger worry there is deflation. But as the time horizon lengthened, more experts cited inflation, because it seems the most plausible exit strategy for governments trying to deal with crushing debts. “Deflation is not a lasting threat,” wrote Arminio Fraga, a former president of Brazil’s central bank. “The more interesting question is whether they can manage to keep inflation down over time under the regime of fiscal irresponsibility now prevailing almost everywhere.”


Creating more inflation is harder than it sounds—even if rich-world governments were tempted to try, as a solution to their fiscal problems. It requires aggregate demand to return to, and exceed, potential output. Measuring the output gap (the shortfall of actual demand compared with potential GDP) is notoriously tricky. The OECD reckons for its members it will be about 4% this year, down from about 5% last year. It has revised that estimate down since November in recognition of better-than-expected growth, especially in America. Still, the revised gap is larger than at any time since at least 1970. America’s gap was larger in 1982, but inflation today is much lower. Indeed, the OECD estimates that in each of the G7 countries, inflation will be less than 2% through to the end of next year. The process could be hurried up if inflation expectations rise. But with underlying inflation below central banks’ targets in many countries, and dropping, expectations could move down instead.

Using monetary policy to generate the growth necessary to push inflation much above 2% would be difficult, since short-term interest rates are already below 1%. Fiscal policy is turning contractionary as America’s stimulus expires and much of Europe implements austerity measures.

Monetarists downplay the output gap and focus instead on the vast amount of money that has been created as central banks buy bonds or extend loans to banks. They worry that this money, which today is largely being hoarded by the financial industry, will eventually be loaned out into the real economy, prompting prices to rise. Yet this concern is probably overblown. After all, central banks can still raise interest rates, no matter how big the monetary base is, and they also have ways of withdrawing the exceptional liquidity measures put in place during the crisis. The European Central Bank successfully “sterilised” its recent purchase of government bonds by enticing banks to deposit an offsetting amount of money with the central bank. The Federal Reserve will start testing a similar system on June 14th.

If anything, the record of quantitative easing in Japan should heighten worries of deflation. As Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute for International Economics notes in our forum, it “did not have a predictable or even large short-term result…We need more humility about what we are capable of doing with monetary policy once deflation begins.”

Even if inflation could be created, would it reduce the real government debt, the presumed purpose of such a policy? Not easily. First, for most countries the greatest long-term fiscal threat comes from unfunded retiree benefits, which by their nature are indexed to inflation. Second, the maturity profile of most countries’ marketable government debt is relatively short: over half of America’s and more than 40% of that of Germany, France and Italy matures within three years. Britain, at 20%, is the exception. This means that unless investors are repeatedly surprised, inflation will lead to higher nominal interest rates as debt is refinanced, and in turn to an unchanged real debt. If governments set out to create inflation, investors are likely to notice and react.

Even so, politicians could conceivably try to hold interest rates down, either by forcing banks and others to own government debt or by ordering the central bank to keep rates low or to buy the debt outright. This, however, would require overcoming the highest hurdle of all: the political and economic consensus for low inflation.

Long live price stability

The inflation of the 1970s had its origins in the 1960s, with economists who believed that a bit more inflation could buy lasting lower unemployment. The natural-rate-of-unemployment hypothesis of Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps, the rational-expectations revolution and the dismal experience of the 1970s all put paid to that idea. Politicians, aware that high inflation often brought regime change, accepted the idea that central banks should be left to concentrate on inflation. The latest crisis has demonstrated that price stability is no guarantee of financial and economic stability—indeed, a narrow obsession with prices may have led central bankers to neglect asset bubbles and the condition of the banks. Yet in practice price stability has not been dislodged from the centre of central banks’ attention. If anything, some seem anxious to unwind their quantitative easing and normalise interest rates despite the prevalent deflationary pressure.

More striking is the lack of political pressure to do otherwise. Central bankers’ reputations have been battered, but few have paid with their jobs. Senators who opposed a second term for Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman were more likely to cite regulatory failures than high unemployment. With the exception of Japan, there have been few instances of governments pressing central banks for more expansionary policies. To be sure, there’s not much more they could do. But perhaps politicians, like central bankers, are not yet ready to discard orthodoxy.

The original article is linked here.


Written by gregip

June 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm

One Response

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  1. As a private investor it seems to me we deal with inflation much better than deflation. We are used to inflation (buy short maturities, real estate, large cap stocks, floating rates).Deflation is more daunting.Why buy anything when prices will likely go lower? Both inflation and deflation are politically motivated. Better to stick with the devil you know.

    sandra lewis

    July 9, 2010 at 12:46 am

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