Monday, 5 January 2015

Inflation – Hard to ignore again

Low inflation is a nuisance for central banks looking to increase interest rates but they would be wrong to dismiss it

Family get-togethers over Christmas often involve naughty children but it is inflation that is making trouble for central banks.  Inflation unexpectedly shot up in the aftermath of the global financial crisis but is now surprisingly falling despite a burgeoning economic recovery.  Central banks ignored the jump in inflation in 2011 and are now stuck figuring out how to deal with persistently low inflation.  The antics of inflation will be difficult to disregard a second time around considering that the causes for static prices are not all external.

Inflation acting up

The level of inflation is used as a measure to check whether all is well with the economy.  There should neither be too much inflation (suggesting an overheating economy) nor too little (which is a sign of weak overall demand).  With countries increasing sourcing goods from overseas, prices levels in any country can be influenced by prices of commodities on global markets.  This can push inflation in a different direction to the particular circumstances of any economy.

The best recent example of this was a plague of high inflation in 2011 when the economies of many countries were still in the doldrums.  The Chinese economy was still humming along despite financial turmoil elsewhere and China continued to buy up commodities on the global markets.  The result higher prices were most prominent in the UK where inflation topped five percent in 2011.  This bout of inflation was not just a brief spike with prices rising by more than four percent for over a year.  Despite inflation being well above its target of two percent, the Bank of England maintained its loose monetary policy to support the weak economy.  The argument behind this was that the inflation was temporary and not related to the underlying economy. 

Behaving badly again

Inflation is currently misbehaving in a different way and is causing concern due to being too low.  Prices are not rising by much due to lower commodity prices with the spurt of growth in emerging countries having run its course.  While this is a positive for consumers who benefit from a boost in spending power, low inflation is a source of anxiety for central banks.  The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England are getting set to increase interest rates to more normal levels.  Even the prospect of the economic recovery gaining further momentum would not provide central banks with enough of a reason for higher interest rates when inflation is around one percent. 

This irritation is not likely to go away anytime soon if the high inflation in 2011 is any guide.  Inflation is likely to slip even lower in 2015 as the effects of the plunging price for oil feeds through into the economy.  On top of this, swings in commodity prices tend to last for a few years so that inflation is unlikely to pick up for the next couple of years.  This would suggest that inflation will be below target for 2015 and 2016 which is the two-year time frame that central banks look at when deciding interest rates. 

Ignoring inflation would be naughty

Low inflation should imply low interest rates but central banks could choose to ignore this and raise interest rates away.  This is because the same argument as in 2011 could be applied – disregarding trends in inflation that are attributed to outside sources.  It is a convenient strategy for central banks worried about the economic recovery triggering a jump in inflation due to the potential for wages to rise as unemployment falls.  Such an outcome does seem optimistic considering that wages are not budging by much even as the economy picks up steam.

A further problem with turning a blind eye to inflation is that it is tough to gauge what the inflation level would be without the fall in commodity prices.  It is not as if consumers have money to spurge having been stuck with stagnating wages and considerable debts from the pre-financial crisis spend-up.  Sluggish prices are harder to dismiss considering that low inflation is also caused by weak domestic demand.  With inflation likely to continue to play up for a while yet, central banks will need to be patient and bide their time before raising interest rates or else it will be the central banks that may be the ones getting into trouble.

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