The end of "the end of inflation"

This spring's spurt of inflation clearly already means one thing: The end of "the end of inflation." 

For 25 years inflation has seemed stuck on a downward trend. Those of us who worry about it seemed like end-of-the-world sign-holders that couldn't leave the 1970s behind. It's hard to buck the trend. A famous economist advised me to give up studying inflation -- inflation is 2%, he said, that's all you need to know. Apparently a new constant of nature. 

Well, apparently not. Inflation can happen, and there is an economics of inflation. Right now it's pretty obvious -- supply constraints both natural and artificial, coupled with rampant demand. 

Nobody is really sure where it will go. See the IGM survey for a good indication of how wide sensible consensus is on the issue. Maybe these are just temporary shocks, supply bottlenecks, a one-time price level rise from stimulus. Maybe it is the beginning of the 1970s, when exactly the same excuses were offered. 

I'll summarize my bottom line in thinking about this issue. 

1) The dynamics of inflation are roughly     

    inflation = expected inflation + inflation pressure   (*)

If people expect higher inflation next year, then sellers will be quicker to raise prices, and buyers quicker to pay higher prices.  The right measure of inflation pressure is more contentious. The unemployment rate or GDP gap (you will recognize a Phillips curve here) has been a pretty terrible measure. Take your pick of too-low interest rates set by the Fed, too much money, or too much debt and deficit. Whichever it is, if expected inflation remains "anchored," inflation comes back quickly once the pressure is off. If not, we're  in trouble as we have to bottle the expected inflation genie. 

The Fed seems to think that "anchoring" expectations comes from soothing speeches about how anchored expectations are. At worst they may say they have "the tools" to contain inflation should it break out, but they seldom say just what those tools are. I believe that expectations come from expected actions, not speeches, and better from robust institutional rules and commitments that force necessary but unpleasant actions when needed. At least, people must believe that the Fed is willing to repeat 1980 if it comes to that.  And raising interest rates will be much harder now, with a) 100% debt / GDP not 25%, so higher interest rates immediately hurt the budget b) huge reserves so the Fed will be seen to pay a windfall to big banks not to lend out money c) the too-big-to-fail banks will all lose a bundle if interest rates rise d) the current emphasis on inequality, as a recession will hurt the most vulnerable the most. 

2) In today's economy, in the end, inflation comes when people do not believe the government will repay debt. Beyond interest rates, the Fed changes the composition of government debt -- reserves vs. treasurys -- but not the amount of debt. Whether we hold treasurys via the world's largest money market fund (that's what the Fed is) or directly really does not matter. 

Inflation does not come from debt alone, but from debt relative to a credible plan and expectation that debt will be repaid. Expected inflation is anchored by the belief that  if inflation gets out of control our government will promptly put its fiscal as well as monetary house in order. Moreover, since our government has tragically borrowed short term, inflation comes when people believe that other people will lose this faith. Putting the fiscal house in order is not hard as a matter of economics -- a straightforward pro-growth reform of the tax code and entitlements. But our government has kicked that can down the road for nearly 40 years, and absolutely nobody wants to do it. It may have to come after the crisis, which will be much harder. 

None of this is very useful as a short-term forecast, which I do not offer. Both fiscal and monetary policy expectations, in this "regime-switching" moment, are volatile, not well anchored by decades of experience with a "regime," in the rational expectations tradition. I can offer then a summary of the forces at work, but those forces only emphasize how hard forecasting will be. If anyone could tell you for sure we would have inflation next year, we would already have inflation today. The logic of (*) is like the logic of a bank run or a stock market crash. That nobody can predict inflation well is proof of the theory. 

This spurt may pass, and expected inflation, reflecting faith in the ultimate sanity of US fiscal and monetary policy, remain anchored. This spurt may lead to a quick undermining of that faith. 

But at least the question is alive again, and a matter of useful economic analysis and debate. This for sure: The end of "the end of inflation" is at hand. 

Update: There is a slightly condensed and cleaned up version of this post at the Chicago Booth Review

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