Signs of deflation I have seen before start showing up in my neighbourhood but falling prices have been with us for a long time
Your Neighbourhood Economist has been getting a sense of déjà vu recently – to do with deflation. My past experiences of falling prices come from years spent living in Japan and I am seeing the same things again in my neighbourhood in London. Japan and deflation make for a scary combination considering that Japan is a byword for prolonged economic stagnation and poor policy choices. But deflation may have already been lurking around unnoticed for a while.
The symptoms of déjà vu started with the fast food chains such as McDonald’s and KFC offering cheaper menu options. This first started in London a few years back but it was a sign that consumers did not have much cash to spend. It is a sorry state of affairs when even the least expensive places to eat out need to provide food with even lower prices to attract customers. But it is the same tact that similar companies had adopted in Japan around a decade ago in the face of increasing price conscious consumers.
The other memory of deflation in Japan was from buying groceries at the supermarket. The most notable place was shopping at my local 100 yen store (which is like a pound shop or a dollar shop). While the prices of the products on the shelves did not change (obviously), there was a noticeable increase in the range of goods that could be brought for 100 yen. The same trend is becoming more obvious in the UK in the success of discount supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi. To keep up, the mainstream supermarkets have been slashing prices but shoppers are still switching to their cheaper rivals.
The only areas in the economy where prices are still rising are sectors where the pressures of price competition are less fierce. UK companies such as energy providers or train operators function in imperfect markets where consumers have less choice and few other options. Spending on energy or transport often cannot be avoided so companies do not have to try hard to sell their products. As such, it is large energy bills and higher transport costs that are increasingly responsible for inflation. With nowhere else to go, consumers have increasingly turned to the government to prove an answer despite there being little that politicians can do.
We live in deflationary times
Yet, for good or bad, this may be the new world that we live in now rather than just a temporary blip amid a slow economic recovery. In a new global era, firms and consumers can scourge the world for the cheapest places to buy whatever they want. This impacts what we buy off the shelves at our local store as well as what we can purchase off the internet. Technology further aids this trend by providing information on what is on offer outside of our neighbourhoods and for what price. And we are increasingly consuming services through the internet at cheaper rates than ever before.
This is great for us as consumers but the flipside is that companies in our local economies face growing pressures and will not be able to provide the same level of employment opportunities or pay the same wages as before. This is a problem for governments who want their national economies to prosper. Jobs are seen as the primary gauge of the health of the economy but boosting employment is tricky when competing on a global scale.
Here today and here tomorrow
Deflation is often seen as a problem in itself. The standard economic theory goes that, if prices are falling, consumers will wait to spend as goods will be cheaper tomorrow. Yet, globalization and technology are not something new and we have had downward pressure on prices for a long time. Inflation has been low for the past few decades suggesting that deflation may have not been that far away. It is perhaps only the voracious appetite for raw materials in China and elsewhere that pushed up global commodity prices and stopped deflation setting in sooner.
If it has been around for so long, deflation by itself may not be so bad after all. Yet, an overreaction by policy makers might be. The European Central Bank seems set to ramp up its measures to fight off threats of deflation (and a morbid economy in Europe). The central bank in Japan has launched a renewed onslaught against falling prices but to little avail. Yet, the forces of globalization and technology cannot be reversed using just monetary policy. Falling prices are something that may be with us for a while so it is better to get used to living with the potential for deflation and focus our efforts on other economic evils.