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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Inflation or Deflation: The Policy Debate

I don't want to get caught up in the economic policy debate but the FT carried a provocative article if nothing else it illustrates that when it comes to economic policy and forecasting the economic future the answers are seldom clear. Economics and physics suffers from "physics envy" but when human behavior is involved the same mix of variables dont always produce the same outcome.

End this ‘inflation fundamentalism’

By Uri Dadush and Moisés Naím

it reads in part:

Since abandoning the euro looks, at least for now, unthinkable, these countries risk years of wage and budget cuts with anaemic growth, high unemployment and deflation.
There are ways to mitigate the pain. For example, Germany and other countries could adopt more expansionary fiscal policies for a while. Or, more powerfully, the wider euro area could adopt more expansionary monetary policies for several years. Today, this second option is anathema as the “inflation fundamentalists” will have none of it. This elite of central bankers, top economic officials, politicians, academics and journalists maintains the risks of allowing inflation to climb above 2 per cent are unacceptable.
Their view is informed by the disastrous experience with hyperinflation in Germany in the 1930s and stagflation in industrial countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Undoubtedly, moderate inflation can creep up to become high inflation. But, like many good ideas that take on the mantle of a cult, inflation fundamentalism can hurt. There is little if any empirical evidence that moderate inflation that stays moderate hurts growth. In most countries, cutting actual wages is politically difficult if not altogether impossible. But, to regain competitiveness and balance the books, real wage adjustments are sometimes inevitable. A slightly higher level of inflation allows for this painful adjustment with a lower level of political conflict.
Ultra-low inflation, on the other hand, can easily become deflation in a recession. Falling prices encourage people to defer spending, which makes things worse and erodes tax payments, impairing a government’s ability to service debt, which in turn increases the debt’s size and costs.
The harms of inflation fundamentalism do not stop there. A single-minded focus on inflation makes it easy for policymakers to lose sight of the broader picture – asset prices, growth and employment. Policy can become too tight or too loose – as in the run-up to the crisis in the US when low inflation was seen as a comforting sign that things were in order.
Very low inflation also reduces the effectiveness of monetary policy when growth slows since interest rates cannot go below zero. In the current crisis, governments were forced to rely too much on fiscal stimulus, and central banks to buy securities directly, taking on more risk themselves, and distorting financial markets.
The crisis in the euro area underscores the need for a more open-minded discussion of the merits and costs of ultra-low inflation, and Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s chief economist, has just called for consideration of a more moderate (4 per cent) inflation target. This took courage. Coming from what was once the temple of inflation fundamentalism, it is akin to the chief rabbi calling for reconsideration of kosher laws.
The reaction of members of the European Central Bank council to Mr Blanchard’s proposal? “Playing with fire”, “extremely unhelpful” and even “a satanic error”. The euro crisis and the dismissive reaction to a proposal from a respected source are sure signs that the time for serious scrutiny of inflation fundamentalism has come

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