Friday, February 12, 2010

Inflation is Just Not Understood!

Funny time to be talking about inflation, but the top economist at the International Monetary Fund brought it up.

Oliver Blanchard, now serving at the IMF while on leave from MIT, has co-authored a new paper and has publically presented the results which have been reported in the Wall Street Journal: Mr. Blanchard is now saying that central banks that were shooting for a 2% rate of inflation in their deliberations concerning monetary policy should shoot for something more in the neighborhood of 4% “in normal times.”

Economists of Mr. Blanchard’s philosophical bent just don’t seem to understand!

Inflation IS NOT the solution!!!

But, Inflation could very well be the problem!!!

As I keep saying, the post-World War II policy favoring an inflationary economic policy gained power on January 20, 1961. The basic format for such a program was followed, almost religiously, by Republicans as well as Democrats, into the 2000s. As a consequence, a United States dollar that could purchase one dollar worth of goods on January 20, 1961 could only purchase about seventeen cents world of goods in the summer of 2008.

Furthermore, inflation could not keep unemployment, or even more important, underemployment, down, as was originally believed and it could not keep industry working near capacity throughout the last 47 years or so. In fact, if anything, inflation forced manufacturing to focus on rising prices rather than productivity and this contributed to rising underemployment and declining capacity utilization. For more on this see my post, “The US Economy: Not Back to Business as Usual,” of January 8, 2010:

Inflation did create a “boom-time” for finance. Finance loves inflation because inflation that runs ahead of inflationary expectations reduces the burden of any debt outstanding. And what did we see between 1961 and 2008? We saw the greatest blooming of financial innovation in the history of the world and a rapid expansion of the finance industry relative to the rest of the economy that was even condemned by the people most responsible for the creation of the inflationary environment.

I have labeled this type of environment one of credit inflation (as opposed to debt deflation). It is referred to as credit inflation because it can incorporate price inflation, as in the case of the consumer price index) and asset inflation, as in the case of housing prices, boom, stock market boom, and so forth. Credit inflation relates to any time credit in the economy or in subsectors of the economy increases at a faster rate than the normal growth rate of that particular economy or that part of the economy.

And, this was a perfect time for financial innovation. I have just reviewed the new book titled “The Quants” by Scott Patterson, and he mentions many times in the book that the period from the 1960s into the 2000s, the period of the Quant-boom, as a period of “money ease”. In essence, monetary ease “lubricated” the Quant revolution helping to underwrite the massive growth in the financial industry and the development of the “shadow banking system.”

Of course, as Patterson describes, there were some consequences to pay for this expansion. But, I will let you read his book, or, at least, my review of his book, to gather his “take” on the subsequent financial collapse.

This gets me to the main point of this post. Blanchard, and other economists who think along similar lines, work with macroeconomic models that do not really include debt or the changing burden of debt in their models. Thus, the inflation in their models cannot provide an incentive for economic units to increase their use of debt and the subsequent buildup of debt can have no negative implications for the future performance of the economy. Inflation that causes an increased use of leverage and additional risk-taking cannot be explained in their models.

Thus, inflation remains the best solution to this brand of economist for the achievement of economic growth and lower rates of employment. The earlier debates about the Phillips curve seem to be irrelevant to them, let alone earlier discussions about debt deflation.

We are currently in a very precarious situation. Even with unemployment remaining so high and the economy staying so sluggish, more and more people are expressing concern about credit bubbles in the economy. China, who has recovered from the world economic collapse as fast as anyone, is showing tremendous concern about the possibility that bubbles may be forming in its economy and has taken measures with respect to its banking system to prevent such bubbles from occurring.

Still, our banking system contains $1.1 trillion in excess reserves and the Federal Reserve is faced with the problem of “undoing” this injection of reserves into the financial system. See my “Tightening at the Fed”:

Some economists still believe that re-flation is the only real solution to the current situation of a stagnant economy and massive federal deficits.

To me, Oliver Blanchard and these other economists that think like him just don’t get it! Yet they stick with the models that they have used over and over again and claim, if anything, that the reason why their solutions to the problem have not worked is because they either have not been tried or that they have not been implemented in a large enough size.

To my mind, their models and the solutions they have presented, have been tried and they have been found wanting. To me, to come up with a call for accepting higher rates of inflation in the future is, at a minimum, absurd. In fact, it scares me!

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