Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Deflation Is More Likely Than Inflation

While many fear the possibility of inflation, Alan S. Blinder, Princeton professor and former economic adviser to President Clinton, explains why he is not worried about inflation. He argues that deflation is currently a greater danger. To learn why see the following from Economist's View.

Alan Blinder isn't worried about inflation:
Why Inflation Isn’t the Danger, by Alan S. Blinder, Economic View, NY Times: Some people with hypersensitive sniffers say the whiff of future inflation is in the air. ... Concluding that the Fed is leading us into inflation assumes a degree of incompetence that I simply don’t buy. Let me explain.

First, the clear and present danger, both now and for the next year or two, is not inflation but deflation. ... Core inflation near zero, or even negative, is a live possibility for 2010 or 2011.

Ben S. Bernanke ... and his colleagues have been working overtime to dodge the deflation bullet. To this end, they cut the Fed funds rate to virtually zero last December and have since relied on a variety of extraordinary policies known as quantitative easing to restore the flow of credit. ... But quantitative easing is universally agreed to be weak medicine compared with cutting interest rates. So the Fed is administering a large dose — which is where all those reserves come from.

The mountain of reserves on banks’ balance sheets has, in turn, filled the inflation hawks with apprehension. ... Will the Fed really withdraw all those reserves fast enough as the financial storm abates? If not, we could indeed experience inflation. Although the Fed is not infallible, I’d make three important points:

  • The possibilities for error are two-sided. Yes, the Fed might err by withdrawing bank reserves too slowly, thereby leading to higher inflation. But it also might err by withdrawing reserves too quickly, thereby stunting the recovery and leading to deflation. I fail to see why advocates of price stability should worry about one sort of error but not the other.
  • The Fed is well aware of the exit problem. It is planning for it... It might miss and produce, say, inflation of 3 percent or 4 percent at the end of the crisis — but not 8 or 10 percent.
  • The Fed will start the exit process when the economy is still below full employment and inflation is below target. So some modest rise in inflation will be welcome. The Fed won’t have to clamp down hard.

...But if the inflation outlook is so benign, why have Treasury borrowing rates skyrocketed in the last few months? Is it because markets fear that the Fed will lose control of inflation? I think not. Rising Treasury rates are mainly a return to normalcy.

In January, the markets were expecting about zero inflation over the coming five years, and only about 0.6 percent average inflation over the next decade. The difference between then and now is that markets were in a panicky state in January, braced for financial Armageddon; they have since calmed down.

My conclusion? The markets’ extraordinarily low expected inflation in January was both aberrant and worrisome — not today’s. As long as expected inflation doesn’t rise much further, you should find something else to worry about. Unfortunately, choices abound.
This post can also be read at Economist's View.

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