Deflating the Post's Deflation Fears

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Friday, 01 July 2011 05:39

It's always fun to read the Post's editorials on economic issues, since you never know what you might find. For example, it recently told readers that reducing the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries by 0.3 percentage points annually (i.e. 3 percent after 10 years, 6 percent after 20 years, and 9 percent after 30 years) "won't hurt."

Today we get the Post's assessment of the Fed's QE2 policy. It praises the policy for preventing deflation, which it says was a risk at the time the Fed started the program. Actually, it is hard to see how deflation was a serious risk in the fall of 2010 or much impact of QE2. The core inflation rate has been pretty constant over this period, running in the range of 1.0 to 1.5 percent, with nominal wage growth running close to 1.6 percent.

The Post also makes a common mistake in viewing deflation as some sort of grave economic threat. There are good reasons for wanting a higher inflation rate (e.g. 3-4 percent) as economists across the political spectrum have argued. Most importantly it would reduce the real interest rate at a point where the nominal interest is already stuck at its zero lower bound.

In this context, a lower inflation rate is worse than a higher one, but crossing zero holds no special magic. In other words, it is bad news if the rate of inflation falls from 0.5 percent to -0.5 percent, but there is no reason to believe that this decline in the inflation rate is any worse than the drop from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.

The Post may be thinking about the sort of rapid deflation that was seen at the start of the Great Depression, when prices were dropping at near double-digit rates. That kind of deflation makes any sort of economic planning almost impossible, but there was little risk that economy would see rates of deflation go that high.

The other oddity in the Post's piece is that it blames QE2 for the run-up in commodity prices:

"But the negative consequences of QE2 — all of them also foreseeable — have canceled out some of the positives. Perhaps the most important of these was a commodity price boom, caused by the fact that many investors used the Fed’s freshly printed money to speculate on grain or oil. The winnings accrued to a wealthy few, while the U.S. middle class coped with higher prices for groceries and gasoline."

There are two big problems with this story. First, much of the recent run-up in commodity prices is likely to be enduring, driven by rapid growth in China and elsewhere in the developing world. I don't know anyone betting on a return to $40 a barrel of oil.

However the other part is even more bizarre. Speculators did not need QE2 to speculate. The Post's editorial writers are probably too young to remember, but back in 2008, before the collapse of Lehman, most commodity prices were even higher than their recent peaks. The Fed was in a tightening phase at that point. Given that we saw a much larger speculative bubble just three years ago, when the Fed still had relatively tight monetary policy, why would anyone think that the current bubble was primarily due to the Fed's actions?

Oh well, that's why it is always fun to read the Post's editorials on economic issues.