Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What is disastrous in the short run: Inflation or Deflation?

The consensus among economists is that deflation is disastrous in the short-run but the fear of inflation is legitimate in the long run. We need more (prudent) Keynesian dosage in the economy!

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.

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.

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.

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.