DeLong: Is Inflation the Right Battle?

Brad DeLong asks whether we should be more concerned with inflation or with unemployment:

Is inflation the right battle?, by J. Bradford DeLong, Project Syndicate: The Federal Reserve and other central banks are coming under pressure from two directions these days: from the left, they are pressured to do something to expand demand and hold down global unemployment; from the right, they are pressured to contract demand to rein in inflation.

This is a situation ripe for trouble, because one of these two diagnoses must be wrong. If the world’s central banks raise interest rates while the major problem is insufficient global demand, they might cause a depression. If they do not raise interest rates while the major problem is inflation, they might cause … a stubborn wage-price spiral like that of the 1970’s that can be unwound only with a later, deeper depression.

I see the left as being correct  this time in the global economy’s post-industrial North Atlantic core. Headline inflation numbers are the only indication that rising inflation is a problem, or even a reality. The … indicators of developed-country nominal wage growth show no acceleration… And core inflation measures show no sign of accelerating inflation either.

The United States is experiencing a … financial meltdown… In normal times, the Fed’s response extremely monetary stimulus would be highly inflationary. But these are not normal times. Indeed, the Feds monetary policy has not been sufficient to stave off a US recession, albeit one that remains so mild that many doubt whether it qualifies as the real animal.

The European Central Bank’s response has been analogous to the Fed’s, but less forceful… And in Western Europe, too, GDP is now declining.

In brief, the major central banks on both sides of the Atlantic have responded to the financial crisis, but they have not overreacted. …

Yet headline inflation is soaring, and, not surprisingly, gets the headlines. This reflects three developments. First, the world has, for the moment at least, reached its resource limits, and we are seeing a big shift in relative prices… The result of this relative price shift is headline inflation.

Second, inside the US, the return of the dollar toward its equilibrium value is carrying with it import price inflation. Costs to US consumers are rising and making them feel poorer, not because they have become poorer, but because the previous pattern of global imbalances exaggerated their wealth. Global rebalancing is painful for American consumers, and shows itself as higher headline inflation. …

Finally, … China’s policy of export subsidies through currency manipulation was always bound to become unsustainable in the long run because it was bound to generate substantial domestic inflation. Now it is also generating substantial pain for other developing countries as China’s booming economy outbids them for resources. But it is politically impossible for the Chinese government to alter its exchange-rate policy under pressure without some concession from the US, and a tightening of US monetary policy could be sold as such a concession.

But this overlooks what ought to be at the center of the discussion: higher US unemployment right now … offers few benefits, if any, for stabilizing US prices. Nor is a US that cuts back on import purchases more rapidly in the interest of any export-oriented developing economy  including China.


Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "DeLong: Is Inflation the Right Battle?"

  1. villager   September 4, 2008 at 7:06 am

    Actually, the biggest concern is: ” … the world has, for the moment at least, reached its resource limits …”. This suggests to me that economic and political authorities need to revise their economic paradigm.