The European Union is facing the prospect of a serious bout of deflation (or at least, very low rates of inflation / disinflation) Deflation occurs when prices fall. But, very low rates of inflation are considered to raise problems associated with deflation.
In the Eurozone, the main index of inflation has fallen to 0.7% - This is well below the ECB’s inflation target of 2%. Some regions and countries in the Euro, such as Greece are already experiencing deflation. In Greece prices fell 1.8% last year and the consumer price index reached the lowest level for 51 years (FT Link). Spain and Italy in particular, are nervous about the prospects of experiencing deflation in the future.
Inflation ECB – Inflation has since fallen to 0.7%
Causes of deflation in Europe
1. Unemployment. Unemployment in Europe has increased significantly since 2008, with the unemployment rate now reaching 12.2%. High rates of unemployment put downward pressure on wages, as the unemployed are more likely to accept lower wages.
2. Internal devaluation. A striking feature of the Euro is that countries which became uncompetitive in the boom period, can not devalue their currency to regain competitiveness. Therefore, the only option is for them to pursue internal devaluation. This means reducing prices and costs in the economy – primarily cutting wages. By reducing costs, they can make their exports more competitive and regain competitiveness. But, with weak external demand, it is proving a difficult and slow process for southern Europe to restore competitiveness compared to northern Europe.
3. Weak demand. The fundamental cause of deflation is weak demand within the Eurozone. Firstly, several Eurozone economies are pursuing fiscal austerity to try and reduce budget deficits. These spending cuts and tax increases are causing a significant drop in demand. Because of the relatively tight monetary policy, and strong Euro, demand is not coming from other sectors of the economy.
4. Fear of inflation in Germany. With inflation falling to 0.7% and unemployment of 12%, you would expect economists to be unanimous in the desire to overcome the threat of deflation and promote growth in Europe. But, in Germany the prevailing economic orthodoxy is still to worry about inflationary pressures and a possible loss of ‘confidence’ – should the ECB promote monetary loosening. Recently The ECB cut interest rates by 25 basis points, after the fall in inflation rate from 1.1 to 0.7%, but several Germany economists dissented arguing that it is wrong to cut interest rates given the possibility of ‘inflationary’ pressures in Germany. In the past, Angela Merkel has argued that Germany would need an interest rate increase if the German economy was taken in isolation. (FT link) The underlying fear of inflation means there is tension within the ECB and a reluctance to loosen monetary policy to target deflation.