Friday, November 21, 2008
What's So Bad About Deflation?
Economists are starting to freak out about the possibility of price deflation. The October CPI showed a 1% drop in price level from the previous month. This, in itself, is no big deal and might give consumers a little confidence to spend a bit more, but it can become problematic if it persists and starts seeping into expectations. What we are worried about now is exactly this - expected deflation. But why is this a problem?
When businesses expect prices to be lower in the future, they pull back on investment and output and this leads to lowering employment and (where possible) wages. This will, of course, decrease demand which will put further downward pressure on prices. This becomes a downward spiral and the very scary part is that it is not clear how to make it stop. Generally, to manage inflation the Fed changes its target federal funds rate and if it wants to spark inflation they lower the federal funds rate. But right now the Fed is not really able to do this. Though the target rate is at 1% the demand for treasuries is so high that the effective rate on T-bills is already close to zero. In essence, what the Fed wants is for people to take dollars and use them and is offering a very low price of borrowing, but right now people are so freaked out that they don't want to borrow at any price, in fact they are close to PAYING the US government to keep their dollars safe. Yikes.
There is another aspect of deflation that fuels the spiral: loans (like mortgages) are generally in nominal terms so deflation actually increases the real interest rates on outstanding debt. In other words you give up more consumption of everything else. This leads to lower consumption as well.
So what level of inflation is good? Well, most central bankers like the 1 to 2 percent range.