Paul Krugman: The Big Inflation Scare
Money sitting in banks doing nothing but providing insurance is not inflationary, and worries that rising government debt will force policymakers to generate inflation are unfounded:
The Big Inflation Scare, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Suddenly it seems as if everyone is talking about inflation. Stern opinion pieces warn that hyperinflation is just around the corner. And markets may be heeding these warnings: Interest rates on long-term government bonds are up, with fear of future inflation one possible reason...
But does the big inflation scare make any sense? Basically, no — with one caveat I’ll get to later. And I suspect that the scare is at least partly about politics...
First.... It’s important to realize that there’s no hint of inflationary pressures in the economy right now. ... Deflation ... is the ... present danger.
So if prices aren’t rising, why the inflation worries? Some claim that the Federal Reserve is printing lots of money, which must be inflationary, while others claim that budget deficits will eventually force the U.S. government to inflate away its debt.
The first story is just wrong. The second could be right, but isn’t.
Now, it’s true that the Fed has ... been buying lots of debt both from the government and from the private sector, and paying for these purchases by crediting banks with extra reserves. And in ordinary times, this would be highly inflationary: banks, flush with reserves, would increase loans, which would drive up demand, which would push up prices.
But these aren’t ordinary times. Banks aren’t lending out their extra reserves. They’re just sitting on them — in effect, they’re sending the money right back to the Fed. So the Fed isn’t really printing money after all.
Still, don’t such actions have to be inflationary sooner or later? No. The Bank of Japan ... purchased debt on a huge scale between 1997 and 2003. What happened to consumer prices? They fell. ...
Is there a risk that we’ll have inflation after the economy recovers? That’s the claim of those who look at projections that federal debt may rise to more than 100 percent of G.D.P. and say that America will eventually have to inflate away that debt...
Such things have happened in the past. ... But ... modern examples are lacking. Over the past two decades, Belgium, Canada and ... Japan have all gone through episodes when debt exceeded 100 percent of G.D.P. And the United States itself emerged from World War II with debt exceeding 120 percent of G.D.P. In none of these cases did governments resort to inflation to resolve their problems.
So is there any reason to think that inflation is coming? Some economists have argued for moderate inflation as a deliberate policy, as a way to encourage lending and reduce private debt burdens. I... made a similar case for Japan in the 1990s. But the case for inflation never made headway ... then, and there’s no sign it’s getting traction with U.S. policy makers now.
All of this raises the question: If inflation isn’t a real risk, why all the claims that it is?
Well,... it’s hard to escape the sense that the current inflation fear-mongering is partly political, coming largely from economists who had no problem with deficits caused by tax cuts but suddenly became fiscal scolds when the government started spending money to rescue the economy. And their goal seems to be to bully the Obama administration into abandoning those rescue efforts.
Needless to say, the president should not let himself be bullied. The economy is still in deep trouble and needs continuing help.
Yes, we have a long-run budget problem, and we need to start laying the groundwork for a long-run solution. But when it comes to inflation, the only thing we have to fear is inflation fear itself.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, May 29, 2009 at 01:52 AM in Economics, Inflation, Monetary Policy, Politics |
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