Inflation plays the role of the bad guy in economic theory but this may change now that we are faced with a greater threat to the economy
Inflation has been cast as a villain by economists but it could be a source of salvation. Rising prices are often seen as one of the main evils in an economy – they push up the cost of living and eat into savings. This may be the case in a normal economy but may not hold true considering that things are far from normal. Instead, it might be that the high levels of debt weighing down the economy prove to be a greater menace. In an ironic twist of fate, it is inflation that may prove to be our best weapon in our fight against high levels of debt.
I’ll be back (as the good guy)
Villains can turn into heroes with a twist in the storyline. Just think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the second Terminator movie. The havoc wrought by inflation in the past is almost on the same scale of a cyborg from the future but it has left economists with an innate fear of its return. Inflation has been tamed and no longer poses the same danger to the economy having been the focus of monetary policy for decades.
It was the global financial crisis that led to a new peril. Interest rates that were kept too low along with creativity in the banking sector set the scene for a surge in the amount of loans. The problem of excessive debt was made worse by policies designed to bring the economy back to life. Monetary policy has left interest rates at record lows while also resulting in a flood of liquidity in the financial markets through quantitative easing. This combined with government policy to revive the housing market has seen a dramatic rise in the volume of mortgages.
As we have seen with government spending, a large burden of debt can result in cutbacks which damage an economy. If consumers are also saddled with debt, the resulting limits on consumer spending have serious implications for economic growth. Debt is not only bad for borrowers but the resulting sluggish economy dims the prospects for everyone else as well.
More inflation now to save the future
While not a new technology sent from the future, something as simple as inflation could be one way of alleviating the burden of debt on both consumers and the government. Inflation helps by increasing the size of the economy relative to any debts. If wages increased along with inflation, households would also have more money for repayments of their loans and the greater tax revenue will be a boost for the government.
There are a range of measures (including one preferred by Your Neighbourhood Economist) which could be used to nudge inflation upwards in a controlled manner while also adding momentum to the economic recovery. Many economists would recoil from the idea of higher inflation almost as fast as they would run from a cyborg. But this has more to do with economists being stuck in the past than the destructive powers of inflation.
There are some negatives to factor in but the overall effect of increased inflation would be positive. Inflation will eat into our spending power through higher prices for many of the things that we buy. However, spending on everyday items takes up a smaller portion of the earnings of borrowers compared to paying off debt. Even though a policy of allowing more inflation would be biased towards those with debt, everyone would benefit from a more vibrant economy. As the Terminator movies have taught us, our current actions shape our future and a little more inflation would be a small price to pay to bid hasta la vista to our burden of debts.