Central banks’ obsession with deflation is misplaced

Central banks’ obsession with deflation is misplaced
French President-designate of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde speaks during a meeting prior's to attend a European Parliament's Committee on Economic Affairs at the EU Parliament, in Brussels, on September 4, 2019. Picture: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

By Daniel Gros

Central banks aim for price stability, and prices today are stable across much of the developed world. Yet central bankers are not satisfied. Some policymakers, most notably at the European Central Bank, are preparing further stimulus measures to convince financial markets of their resolve to fight deflation.

But such policies overestimate the risk of falling prices. Prices are not falling now; they are just increasing more slowly than central bankers would like. In the eurozone, for example, core inflation (which excludes volatile energy and food prices) is running at about 1% per year, and markets expect it to remain at this level, on average, for the next decade.

The ECB regards such low inflation as unacceptable. It does not define ‘price stability’ as stable — that is, unchanging — prices, but as year-on-year eurozone inflation of “below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.”

Similarly, the United States Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have inflation targets of 2%.

Central banks are afraid of stable prices for two reasons. The first is that the real value of debt automatically increases when prices fall. But fears of debt deflation seem overblown: because nominal interest rates are themselves close to zero, the real burden of debt would not increase even if prices remained stable.

Moreover, the manageability of debt service depends on whether incomes increase faster than the outstanding debt, not on whether the inflation rate exceeds the interest rate. This is especially important for highly indebted governments (and households).

But on that score, the picture is currently even more positive: nominal GDP growth in the eurozone remains 3%, well above the interest rates on almost all member governments’ longer-term debt (the average refinancing cost across the eurozone is now close to zero).

As a result, eurozone governments are in a very comfortable position. Provided they run a primary budget balance of revenue and non-interest expenditure, their debt burden will slowly decline, relative to GDP. Households are also favourably placed: their incomes are growing by 3%, while mortgage rates are heading toward zero. They can just wait for their debt-service capacity to improve over time.

Central banks’ second reason for avoiding stable prices is that it might be difficult for prices to fall in absolute terms. In any economy, the relative prices of goods and services need to adjust in response to supply-and- demand shocks. So, for average prices to remain unchanged overall, some prices would still have to increase, and others would have to fall.

True, producers rarely face significant barriers to lowering the prices of most goods and services sold to consumers or other businesses. But firms find it much harder to reduce nominal wages to compensate for lower prices.

It is better, therefore, for average wages to increase, so that those wages that need to fall do so in relative, rather than absolute or nominal, terms.

Yet the downward stickiness of wages is unlikely to become a concern anytime soon. Nominal wages are increasing by 2.5% per year in the eurozone (and by more than 3% in the US). These rates are among the highest this decade, which has been a period of strong employment growth overall.

Some may argue that average eurozone wage growth of 2.5% is not enough and that the ECB’s expansionary monetary policy stance is thus justified. But the question remains: Should the ECB be preparing additional stimulus measures, when the risk of harmful deflation is falling?

Moreover, downward wage stickiness can disappear, as the experience of Japan shows. In 2018, Japanese wages increased by 2%, the highest rate in 20 years. But over the past 12 months, they have suddenly started to fall, even though labour-market conditions have not deteriorated. On the contrary: employment continues to increase and unemployment is still falling.

This is not the first time that wages have fallen in Japan, and previous episodes caused no noticeable problems. Some economists, in fact, have argued that downward wage flexibility does not seem to be a primary contributor to Japan’s prolonged deflation.

Central bankers today are thus facing a luxury problem: prices are increasing more gently than they would like. Although inflation is below target, unemployment keeps falling to record lows, and debtors are happy. The need for occasional reductions in nominal wages seems remote in Europe and the US, and does not seem to cause trouble in Japan.

Given all this, it is hard to understand why the ECB, in particular, should be so anxious to find new ways to make its stance even more expansionary. Yes, economic activity has weakened over recent quarters, and survey-based indicators suggest that the global economy is poised for a slowdown. But by itself, further monetary-policy easing will do little to stimulate demand and drive inflation (as former US secretary of the treasury, Lawrence H Summers, and Harvard economics PhD candidate Anna Stansbury have argued).

The ECB should tone down its rhetoric about the imminent risk of deflation and keep its course steady. Its hyper-vigilance about falling prices is misplaced, and its ability to increase the rate of inflation is dubious.

Daniel Gros is director of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

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