Inflation target during deflation

Readers Question: How does inflation targeting operate when there is a deflation? and what are the problems associated with this?

It’s a good question to ask at the moment, especially with regard to the ECB and Eurozone.

Firstly, the EU inflation target is – below but close to 2%. If inflation falls below 2%, the Central Bank should pursue a loosening of monetary policy – lower interest rates (if possible), quantitative easing and allowing the exchange rate to fall.

The ECB state

By referring to “an increase in the HICP of below 2%” the definition makes clear that not only inflation above 2% but also deflation (i.e. price level declines) is inconsistent with price stability.

Basically, the ECB target is 2%

The UK has an inflation target of CPI 2% +/-1 (i.e an inflation rate of 1-3%)

If inflation falls below the target then this is a problem and Central Banks should be committed to solving it.

How to increase the inflation rate?

If inflation is falling below 1% – or even forecast to be falling below 1% a Central Bank should intervene. There are several things it can try and do.

1. Reduce interest rates. Lower interest rates make borrowing cheaper and should help to stimulate demand. However, for the UK and the EU, interest rates are already at zero. Therefore, interest rates are not an effective tool for fighting deflation.

The ECB themselves mention a problem of deflation

“Having such a safety margin against deflation is important because nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero. In a deflationary environment monetary policy may thus not be able to sufficiently stimulate aggregate demand by using its interest rate instrument. This makes it more difficult for monetary policy to fight deflation than to fight inflation.” (ECB Price stability)

2. Quantitative easing. – Money creation. In the UK and US, the Central Banks have electronically created money to purchase bonds and gilts. This has increased the monetary base and in theory increased the money supply in the economy. The effect of Q.E. is hard to quantify but it does seem that the economic recovery in UK and US has been stronger – with a higher inflation rate than Europe – Europe is reluctant to pursue Quantitative easing and as a result is seeing its inflation rate fall close to 0%.

The problem Europe has is that many (especially in Germany) have an almost irrational fear of creating money. Any policy of Q.E. could see itself challenged in European courts. It is also more difficult when you have a common currency area of many countries, whose bonds do you buy?

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Causes of Europe’s deflation problem

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.

EU inflation

Inflation ECB – Inflation has since fallen to 0.7%

Causes of deflation in Europe

Eurozone-unemployment

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.

eu-inflation-krugman1-blog480

Source: Eurostat: via Krugman

Read moreCauses of Europe’s deflation problem

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