Now is a very interesting time to be a macro-economist. The shock arising from the covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its extent (barring world wars, maybe) and its economic effects. Government responses, with very loose monetary policy combined with generous fiscal measures, is similarly unprecedented. The latter is remarkable in that its generosity is far greater than that shown by governments following the Great Financial Crisis that started in 2007. Economic conservatives have been routed and are grasping for evidence that their once confident assertions about the public debt and deficits have a basis in fact. These generally turn on the question of inflation.
Inflation plays a critical role in macro-economics. In theory it is what happens when supply fails to meet demand across an economy. There a number of reasons that this can happen but the most important, to macroeconomic commentators, is when a when aggregate demand is boosted by a government spending too much or taxing too little. Or, putting the same idea in a slightly different way, when too much money is being put into circulation by government policy. It is one of the points of agreement between orthodox conservatives, whose narrative is that bad things happen when governments intervene, and advocates on the left for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), whose narrative is that governments can and should spend freely so long as inflation is kept at bay. Things get more complicated when you try to apply the theory to an open economy – one that trades substantially with others – that issues its own currency, but this is usually glossed over.
The theory of inflation had to be redeveloped after the 1970s, when inflation (excess demand) and high unemployment (inadequate demand) co-existed in so-called stagflation. The new theory, working its way through such ideas as monetarism, a craze of the 1980s, to the Neo-Keynesian consensus of the 1990s, built on the idea of inflation expectations. This suggested that inflation could happen simply as a function of the zeitgeist. The standard theory was that therefore it was essential that inflation expectations were “anchored”, and that it was the central bank’s job to do this. This theory has become so embedded that organs such as The Economist, who should know better, report it as fact.
In the first two decades of the 21st Century inflation in the developed world has been stable and quite low (around 2% per annum and often less). This has been hailed as a great success for central banks, who have firmly anchored those expectations. It has also been taken up by MMT enthusiasts as evidence that reticence over government spending and national debt, and especially the demon “austerity”, is vastly overdone.
And so here we are now. Many developed world governments, led by the United States, have thrown caution to the wind in response to the pandemic. This appears to have been remarkably successful in in that the economic impact of the calamity has been relatively limited. But now inflation seems to be breaking out everywhere. Optimists say that this is just the result of temporary supply bottlenecks, pessimists say that over generous economic policies are coming home to roost. Commentators pore over the available data and argue like mad.
If you find all this rather perplexing, you should. Macro-economists inevitably deal in simplified models that represent the actual world but imperfectly. The statistics they deal with, such as income and, indeed, inflation, are similarly imperfect representations of a complex reality. They all know this, but instead of taking on an air of humility, they find it easier to gloss over the difficulties and wallow in the vicarious power of dealing in the fate of millions. In the process most of them have become completely detached from reality.
Inflation is a case in point. What most economists seem to mean by the term is a devaluation of money: the price of everything going up without anything deeper going on. One of the 1980s economists suggested that “Inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon,” because it couldn’t happen in that favourite fiction of conservative economists, a barter economy. But a general rise in consumer prices may simply be part of a widespread balancing out of things across different markets. In the 19th Century, according to statisticians who estimate these things, there were many surges in prices, but compensated by falls at other times, so that there was no overall rise over the long term. Not coincidentally, money was closely linked to gold at the time, though that is incomplete as an explanation. A more recent example is the inflation that accompanied the economic boom in Ireland after it joined the Euro. This rise in prices was the only way an open economy could respond to a surge in productivity without a now-impossible currency revaluation. That didn’t stop the European Central Bank ticking the Irish government off. Another example came during the austerity years of the British Coalition government after 2010. There was persistent (though not especially high) consumer price inflation. But this wasn’t matched by wages, and it was simply the economy reflecting the reality of lower living standards. I remember one commentator suggesting that the inflation would make debt easier to pay off; nonsense because you pay debts out of income. Inflation then was not reflecting a devaluation of currency.
So what is happening now? Prices rises genuinely seem to reflect shortages in supply relative to demand, both in goods markets and labour markets. These may well reflect temporary bottlenecks. We can expect this to go on for some time as the pandemic has had far-reaching impacts on many supply chains and labour markets. Yesterday our local picture framer was complaining on behalf of his glass supplier that the cost of hiring a container from China had risen from £500 to £8,000 (or something like that), because all the containers are in the wrong places, not to mention the disruption to the Suez Canal. In Britain we have the added complication of Brexit disrupting both goods and labour markets; in that case when the dust settles most people are bound to end up a bit poorer. But the pessimists have a point too. The entrenched inflation of the 1970s started with similar temporary shocks, to the oil market in particular. If it really is all about expectations, this is how it starts. But there is so much noise in the statistics that it is really very hard to see what is going on.
Personally I am less concerned about inflation that many. I think the 1970s-style inflation was mainly a product of unionised labour markets and less flexible supply chains, which gave labour much more power. This certainly had a good side in ensuring a fairer distribution of wealth, but it prevented adjustment to economic realities. In today’s much more open world economy there are other ways than inflation for unsustainable excess demand to play out, in the most developed economies anyway. In the 1990s it may have been right to talk about inflation expectations being anchored by the central bank, but the world has moved a long way since then. Inflation is held in check by the forces of global trade. The stress is taken in the financial system through higher levels of debt and international capital flows. This is likely to end in financial busts rather than 1970s stagflation.
So if there’s trouble ahead we are looking in the wrong place. Is there trouble? Financial asset markets certainly look as if they are in a bubble, but the banking system looks a lot healthier than it was in 2007, when the last great financial crisis started to gather momentum. In Britain I think things are going to get much bumpier as the government tries to bring its budget deficit (currently an eye-watering 11.5% of GDP, though less than America’s 13.9%) back to a new normal. But there are so many uncertainties as to what a sustainable new normal will look like, that this very hard to predict. This is going to dominate politics from 2022 on as there is no coherence to the government’s message on this.
Interesting times indeed.