Today’s fattened central-bank balance-sheets evoke fears of inflation. Deflation is the bigger worry
Back in 2002 Ben Bernanke, then still a Federal Reserve governor, declared that “under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.” That does not mean it is easy.
On March 18th America’s inflation rate was reported at 0.2%, year on year, in February. The same day the Fed said “inflation could persist for a time” at uncomfortably low levels. Yet some economists and investors insist high inflation, even hyperinflation, is lurking in the wings. They have two sources of concern. The first is motive: the world is deleveraging, ie, trying to reduce the ratio of its debts to income. Policymakers might secretly prefer to do that through higher inflation, which lifts nominal incomes, than through the painful processes of cutting spending and retiring debt, or default. The second is captured by the Fed’s announcement that it plans to purchase $300 billion in Treasury bonds and an additional $850 billion of mortgage-related debt, bringing such purchases to $1.75 trillion in total, all paid for by printing money. It is not alone: around the world, central-bank balance-sheets have ballooned (see chart).
This is scary stuff to those who swear by Milton Friedman’s dictum that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” But the role of the money supply in creating inflation is less obvious than monetarism suggests.
The quantity theory of money holds that the money supply, multiplied by the rate at which it circulates (called velocity), equals nominal income. Nominal income in turn is the product of real output and prices. But does money supply directly boost nominal income, or does nominal income affect velocity and the demand for money? The mechanism is murky.
Central banks control the narrowest measure of the money supply, called the monetary base—typically, currency plus the reserves that commercial banks hold with the central bank. But the relationships between the monetary base, broader monetary aggregates and nominal income is highly unstable.
Central banks have mostly given up trying to target inflation via the money supply. Instead, they study the “output gap” between total demand and the economy’s potential to supply goods and services, determined by such things as the labour force and capital stock, as well as inflation expectations. When demand exceeds supply, inflation rises. When it falls short, inflation falls, and in the extreme becomes deflation. To influence demand, the central banks move a short-term interest rate up or down by adjusting the supply of bank reserves. Changes in the policy rate ripple out to all interest rates paid by borrowers.
The financial crisis has bunged up that transmission mechanism. Risk aversion, fear of default and depleted bank capital have caused private borrowing rates to deviate sharply from policy rates. Central banks have responded by expanding loans to financial institutions, purchasing private securities and buying government debt. They have financed this growth in their assets through increased liabilities such as commercial-bank reserves, swaps with central banks and other ways of printing money.
Is this monetarism? It depends on whom you ask. The Fed calls its policy “credit easing” to emphasise that, though its policy rate is almost zero, it is using different channels to ease credit and boost spending. Even its Treasury purchases are to “improve conditions in private credit markets”. That these actions expand the money supply is secondary. Similarly, the Bank of Japan is buying stocks and may make subordinated loans to banks to boost their capital and lending capacity; the money supply is not a consideration. The Bank of England, on the other hand, calls its purchases of government and private debt “quantitative easing” and explains it in monetarist terms. It expands investors’ holdings of money, encouraging them to shift to other assets, boosting wealth and investment. It acknowledges this may not work. Indeed, merely the news that it would purchase government debt drove down long-term interest rates, just as the Fed’s announcement did, an entirely conventional stimulus to demand. The rhetoric may be different but the policies are largely the same.
If the unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus works, output gaps will eventually close. Then central banks will have to reverse their unconventional policies and raise interest rates. They may hesitate in the face of political pressure or an explicit decision to err on the side of inflation rather than deflation. In that case, inflation will rise.Go forth and multiply
But for the moment deflation is a bigger threat. If the Fed’s current policies fail, fiscal policy can be employed to boost demand. There, too, the Fed has a role: it could buy the bonds needed to finance tax cuts or government spending, thereby limiting the impact on long-term rates. Such debt monetisation evokes fears of hyperinflation. But inflation would result only if monetisation boosted aggregate demand enough to exceed aggregate supply. Laurence Meyer of Macroeconomic Advisers, a consultancy, reckons America’s output gap will reach 9% of GDP by next year. To eliminate that he says the Fed would have to monetise more than $1 trillion of additional stimulus over two years, assuming standard multiplier effects.
The obstacles are primarily political, not economic. Finance ministers are averse to debt and central banks even more so to monetising it for fear of becoming a tool of the government. That aversion is usually healthy but not when deflation looms. The option should be on the table, as long as there are safeguards for the Fed’s independence. Frederic Mishkin, a former Fed governor now at Columbia University, says the important thing is that the Fed, not the Treasury, be the initiator of such purchases, and only after stating that it is consistent with price stability.
On March 15th Mr Bernanke said that the biggest risk facing the economy now is that “we don’t have the political will, we don’t have the commitment to solve this problem.” At least for the moment, it is not the Fed chief’s gumption that is lacking.
The real danger will be the lack of will, both political and financial to unwind the stimulus, both fiscal and monetary. Then we really will have inflation, possibly hyper inflation.
But that is next years, and perhaps even 2011's big story - KT