[Viewpoint] Inflationary angst

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[Viewpoint] Inflationary angst

Can central banks contain inflation? We once thought they could. Over the past 20 years, central banks around the world, including the United States Federal Reserve, pursued price stability with remarkable success. But now, in the wake of the financial crisis, a tide of distrust is sweeping the world - including a new and widespread fear that central banks are incapable of controlling inflation.

In the U.S., the Tea Party has made a return to the gold standard a part of its platform, and Utah is debating making gold and silver coins legal tender. German inflation worries have pushed the government into a much harsher stance on debt relief in Europe. In China, fear of inflation is unleashing large-scale discontent.

Inflation fear was already present before the new challenges of 2011 raised questions about long-term energy prices. As pro-democracy protests shake Arab authoritarian regimes, the prospect of sustained conflict threatens a global economy still dependent on oil, while the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and nuclear accident raises doubts about the security of nuclear energy.

The main anchor of central banks’ monetary policy over the past 20 years was an inflation-targeting framework that developed from academic interpretation of the problems involved in targeting monetary aggregates. After successful experiments in smaller economies, New Zealand in 1990 and then Canada in 1991, and later in Sweden and the United Kingdom, the conviction developed that the new approach represented a superior way of dealing with the problem of inflationary expectations.

But central banks in both Europe and the U.S. thought that a 2 percent annual inflation rate would be a desirable target (for the Europeans a desirable maximum).

There was always a problem in this approach, namely that the general price level is an abstraction. It is useful in a context of overall stability; but, especially during crises or in the aftermath of large shocks, there are sharp movements of relative prices.

At these moments, it is easiest to accommodate the movements by letting all prices rise, but to differing extents. Some econometric attempts have been made to identify long-term cycles in both inflation and monetary growth. Economist Luca Benati has identified such surges of underlying inflation in the last decades before World War I, the late 1930s, the late 1960s and the 1970s. He has also found evidence of a pick-up in long-term underlying inflation in the U.K. and the U.S. since the early 2000s.

The debate in the 1970s - the period of the last general inflationary surge - has become relevant again. At that time, it was often argued that price spikes for petroleum or other commodities were somehow “extraneous” to the system, and not a reflection of the real basis of monetary policy in the industrial countries. Consequently, analyses of inflation left out food and energy prices. Today, the debate is over “core inflation,” which excludes food and energy prices because they are too volatile.

But the oil-price shocks that came after 1973 were in part also a response to the major industrial countries’ monetary policy in the later 1960s and early 1970s. The real price of oil seemed to be lagging behind, and oil producers’ dramatic actions in 1973 were part of an effort to correct that. Other commodity prices had risen rapidly in the early 1970s, in direct response to monetary easing in the U.S. and elsewhere. Shortages of natural gas increased fertilizer prices, pushing up food prices. That led to protests in many poorer countries, and to a political determination to extract additional gains from other commodity exports.

As in the 1970’s, there are more links than may at first appear between the apparently new problems of 2010-2011. Food and energy prices are more likely to be affected by monetary policy. And they produce an economic basis for discontent - which played at least some part in triggering the protests in North Africa and the Middle East.

Given that food and energy prices respond to monetary developments, and thus are not exogenous, the concept of “core inflation” obviously becomes problematic, to say the least.

As a result, inflation is continually being redefined. In the U.K., the consumer price index is being recalculated to include new products, such as electronic dating services. It is easy to suspect that this is not just a concession to changing social mores, but that it also reflects a desire to include as many declining prices as possible.

This is less radical than the method adopted by Argentina, where high levels of inflation are both a historical nightmare and a current challenge. There, the government, whose statistical agency puts annual inflation at 10 percent, is punishing private-sector economists who release much higher estimates - typically around 25 percent - with heavy fines.

As the statistical manipulation that attends uncertainty increases, confidence is eroded. A better approach is to think of the longer-term story as being one of changes in relative prices, which are not well handled by a consumer price index.

That issue is especially acute in the wake of a generalized real-estate crisis. Until 2007, many people financed consumer purchases by borrowing against their houses, which were rapidly rising in value. Consumer goods therefore seemed to be getting cheaper.

Now, by contrast, food and gasoline prices are rising, owing to emerging markets’ ongoing boom, while house prices continue to plummet. It is when we worry about relative prices that we get most angry about monetary policy - and when central banks seem to offer no answer.

*Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
The writer is a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University.

By Harold James
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