Wednesday, 2 March 2011

More on the New Inflation

In a recent article in New York Times, Christina Rohmer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisors to President Obama, describes a debate that limits Fed’s ability to act decisively to support economic growth. It is between “empiricists”, i.e. those who want to see solid evidence of inflationary pressures before they begin to rein in the monetary policy, and the “theorists”, who claim that one has to step on the brake in rational expectation of future inflationary pressures.

It is Rohmer’s claim that the schism between these two approaches effectively paralyses Fed at a point in time when it needed to do more to stimulate the US economy. She lays out the most important channels through which low interest rates stimulate the economy. Courteously, she remains silent on the theories that would be used to explain to explain the emergence of inflation when a large excess capacity is available.

Rohmer should know what she is talking about. A scholar renowned for her studies of the Great Depression in the 30’s, her contention is that by keeping the interest rates low, the interest sensitive sectors of the economy will eventually pick up. Manufacturing (cars!), construction etc. will all be strengthened as a result of lower interest rates. Just like it happened in the 30’es.

By making it clear that deflation will be fought at almost any cost, real interest rates are reduced. Since the difference between present nominal interest rates and expected inflation is reduced. That reduces the perceived financing cost and stimulates investment.

Given the recent data from the US housing market, there is no doubt that Christina Rohmer has a strong point. House prices are still falling, and sales of repossessed property are a significant part of the overall turnover in the market.

At the same time, there are no signs of inflationary pressures. And yet we see that across the world, central bankers are now beginning to worry about inflation creeping upwards. As I wrote in my blog earlier, it has to do with your definition of inflation. As long as one only considers “core inflation”, I share Christian Rohmer’s view.

But there is a little snag. In the 30’s the financial markets were not as developed and integrated as now. Financial institutions could not freely invest abroad. Commodities markets were largely reserved for those who needed the physical product. I need not describe how that has all changed. Just note that banks and other financial institutions are now major players in the commodities markets.

We know that the QE programs have given the banks access to tons of liquidity that they have not passed on the consumers. It seems fair to assume that the money instead has remained within the financial sector, invested in stocks, bonds, and commodities worldwide. Given that the commodities markets are the smallest by volume there is every reason to assume that the combination of monetary policies and the freeze in the normal credit markets has led to significant asset reflation. Even Ben Bernanke has stated this publicly. And of course it has also been a contributing factor that the Asian economies have recovered nicely from the downturn.

US monetary policy has contributed in a significant way to the headline inflation through the price increases in food and energy, the two “volatile elements” of inflation.

It has already given Rohmer’s “theorists” more reasons to be aggressive about reining in the monetary policy prematurely. Same situation in Europe where Axel Weber’s withdrawal from the race to become ECB’s next chairman has left the situation wide open. Prospective candidates are now jockeying for position by improving their hawkish profile, well knowing how tough talking on inflation could garner support from Germany.

So the situation is that the spill-over into the commodities markets from the US monetary policy is now leading central bankers everywhere to indicate that monetary tightening should be just around the corner. That would not be the right thing to do just yet.

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