Sunday, September 11, 2011

Inflation is NOT the Answer

A couple weeks ago I argued against the numerous economists calling for the Fed to establish higher inflation targets as a remedy for excessive debt. My concerns were centered around the notion that inflation does not create wealth, but rather transfers it from creditors to debtors. Since that post, several FOMC members, including Chairman Bernanke, have spoken about the current state of the economy and potential stimulative actions the Fed could take at its next meeting. Much of the commentary has been typical Fed speak, which involves saying very little in a manner that is difficult to decipher. However, parsing through words and actions has led a majority to expect some form of new quantitative easing to be announced on September 21st.

Recently, on Project Syndicate, Raghuram Rajan (finance professor at the Univ. of Chicago) penned an article titled, Is Inflation the Answer?. Rajan is effectively arguing against the same calls for much higher, short-term, inflation. Although the piece makes a brief note about the distribution effects of such a policy, the focus is on the effectiveness of creating higher inflation.

One critical factor that could hinder effectiveness is the Fed’s credibility. Having maintained a specific target for a long time, the unintended consequences of suddenly changing policy are unknown. If the target can be changed once, why not again, and again? A moving inflation target would also be difficult to explain within the realm of price stability. Were the Fed to raise the target temporarily, given its prior track record, why should the market expect inflation to remain under control? Within this realm of possibility, its fairly easy to foresee an outcome where inflation rises well beyond new targets and ultimately needs to be reigned in Volcker-style. For anyone who lived through that experience, recollections of the early 1980’s recession and double-digit unemployment are probably not pleasant.  

The other significant deterrent Rajan notes relates to the maturity length of current debt. A policy of high inflation is primarily beneficial if nominal income growth outpaces interest on debt. However, if debt needs to be rolled over in the near future (due to maturity), the new debt will require much higher interest rate payments. In that scenario, higher inflation’s impact on reducing debt burdens is minimal. As Rajan notes, this largely reduces the positive influence on government debt, bank liabilities and households with floating rate mortgages.

While I agree with nearly all of Rajan’s points in this article, one point I must argue against is the notion that “[foreign] investors might be needed to finance future deficits.” As I’ve shown numerous times before through MMT, the US government never needs to finance deficits. Aside from that opposition, I think Rajan makes a wonderful case against higher inflation. In conclusion, he adds suggestions for outright debt relief through write-downs. I remain convinced that this method of reducing debt burdens should be the primary focus of current federal policy.

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