Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Next Inflation: When, Why and So What?

Copyright, The New York Times Company

More inflation is on the horizon. However, this inflation will have significant benefits and, in any case, cannot be blamed on the Obama administration’s deficit spending.

Many economists and bond market commentators complain that inflation is on the horizon. One of the culprits, they say, is the large amount spent by the Obama administration on the fiscal stimulus, and potentially to be spent on health care reform. They claim that federal spending increases demand and thereby increases prices.

Even if it were true that stimulating demand would create inflation, this blame is misplaced because the fiscal stimulus has not, and health care reform will not, significantly stimulate demand. Even before the “stimulus” spending started, it was clear to me that the larger effect of the fiscal stimulus would be to reduce private demand and raise public demand, without much effect on total demand.

The recent evidence has already begun to confirm the minimal aggregate impact of the fiscal stimulus: The unemployment rate in May was nowhere near as low as what the Obama administration had claimed it would be as a result of a passing a stimulus bill.

Despite some notable exceptions — such as interwar Germany — there is little or no correlation between government spending and inflation rates. Thus, even if the stimulus law and forthcoming health care laws increased total demand, there is still no guarantee that inflation would result.

The second purported culprit is the dramatic increase in the quantity of money.

The red line in the chart below illustrates this perspective — it measures the monetary base (that is, the value of currency, coin and Federal Reserve deposits) in each month through July 1930, normalized so that October 1929 is 100 (for example, the value of [98] in April 1930 means that the monetary base was 98 percent of what it was in October 1929). The blue line measures the monetary base for 2008-9. Unlike 1929, the monetary base surged in October, November and December, for a cumulative increase of about 50 percent.

Source: St. Louis Fed; Casey B. Mulligan

With a couple of caveats, such a large expansion of the monetary base should increase prices in the economy — that is, create inflation.

One caveat is that, although the monetary base surged more than six months ago, the inflation has not happened yet. Part of the reason for the weak short-run link between inflation and the monetary base is that, these days, banks seem willing to hold excess reserves at the Fed. Second, it is conceivable that the Federal Reserve could contract the monetary base before inflation resulted.

But that begs the question: Will the Federal Reserve contract the monetary base enough — and with the right timing — to prevent inflation?

Some argue that the Federal Reserve does not have the political fortitude to endure the high interest rates that would supposedly result from such a contraction. I doubt that much endurance would be required, though, because the low interest rates that were created by the base expansion were so short-lived — such would be the length of time that a monetary base contraction would raise interest rates.

“inflation will likely be a deliberate choice to reduce the housing market’s drag on the wider economy.”

More importantly, the Federal Reserve, and bankers more generally, recognize that some inflation would alleviate, although not fully erase, some of the damage done by the housing market to the wider economy.

Specifically, inflation would raise the prices of a great many commodities, goods and services, among which would be the price of housing. Higher housing prices would pull a number of mortgages out from under water — the case when more is owed on a mortgage that the market value of the house that collateralizes it — and thereby reduce the number of foreclosures.

The positive effects of inflation are why it is unlikely that there will be enough support at the Fed for reducing the monetary base in a way that would be consistent with low inflation. The inflation we will likely see in the coming months and years will not be an accidental by-product of big government spending, or an inability of the Federal Reserve to appreciate that money growth creates inflation.

Rather, inflation will be a deliberate choice to reduce the housing market’s drag on the wider economy.

No comments: