The deflation bogeyman
The world’s major central banks are currently obsessed with the goal of raising their national inflation rates to their common target of about 2% per year. This is true for the United States, where the annual inflation rate was -0.1% over the past 12 months; for the United Kingdom, where the most recent data show 0.3% price growth; and for the eurozone, where consumer prices fell 0.6%. But is this a real problem?
The sharp decline in energy prices is the primary reason for the recent drop in the inflation rate. In the US, the core inflation rate (which strips out changes in volatile energy and food prices) was 1.6% over the last 12 months. Moreover, the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank understand that even if energy prices do not rise in the coming year, a stable price level for oil and other forms of energy will cause the inflation rate to rise.
In the US, the inflation rate has also been depressed by the rise in the value of the dollar relative to the euro and other currencies, which has caused import prices to decline. This, too, is a “level effect,” implying that the inflation rate will rise once the dollar’s exchange rate stops appreciating.
But, despite this understanding, the major central banks continue to maintain extremely low interest rates as a way to increase demand and, with it, the rate of inflation. They are doing this by promising to keep short-term rates low; maintaining large portfolios of private and government bonds; and, in Europe and Japan, continuing to engage in large-scale asset purchases.
The central bankers justify their concern about low inflation by arguing that a negative demand shock could shift their economies into a period of prolonged deflation, in which the overall price level declines year after year. That would have two adverse effects on aggregate demand and employment. First, the falling price level would raise the real value of the debts that households and firms owe, making them poorer and reducing their willingness to spend. Second, negative inflation means that real interest rates rise, because central banks cannot lower the nominal interest rate below zero. Higher real interest rates, in turn, depress business investment and residential construction.
In theory, by depressing aggregate demand, the combination of increased real debt and higher real interest rates could lead to further price declines, leading to even larger negative inflation rates. As a result, the real interest rate would rise further, pushing the economy deeper into a downward spiral of falling prices and declining demand.
Fortunately, we have relatively little experience with deflation to test the downward-spiral theory. The most widely cited example of a deflationary economy is Japan. But Japan has experienced a low rate of inflation and some sustained short periods of deflation without ever producing a downward price spiral. Japan’s inflation rate fell from nearly 8% in 1980 to zero in 1987. It then stayed above zero until 1995, after which it remained low but above zero until 1999, and then varied between zero and -1.7% until 2012.
Moreover, low inflation and periods of deflation did not prevent real incomes from rising in Japan. From 1999 to 2013, real per capita GDP rose at an annual rate of about 1% (which reflected a more modest rise of real GDP and an actual decline in population).
Why, then, are so many central bankers so worried about low inflation rates?
One possible explanation is that they are concerned about the loss of credibility implied by setting an inflation target of 2% and then failing to come close to it year after year. Another possibility is that the world’s major central banks are actually more concerned about real growth and employment, and are using low inflation rates as an excuse to maintain exceptionally generous monetary conditions. And yet a third explanation is that central bankers want to keep interest rates low in order to reduce the budget cost of large government debts.
None of this might matter were it not for the fact that extremely low interest rates have fueled increased risk-taking by borrowers and yield-hungry lenders. The result has been a massive mispricing of financial assets. And that has created a growing risk of serious adverse effects on the real economy when monetary policy normalises and asset prices correct.