Living in the post-inflation era turns out to be no fun
It’s Christmas shopping time, when the bills mount up and your money never goes far enough. So how come people are saying the inflation rate should be higher? I thought inflation was meant to be a bad thing?
It’s a good question when one of those people is Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe. He keeps saying we need to get unemployment lower and inflation back up into the 2 to 3 per cent target range. (At last count the annual rate of increase in consumer prices was “only” 1.7 per cent. I can remember when, for a brief period in the 1970s, it was 17 per cent.)
The short answer is that Lowe doesn’t see higher prices as a good thing in themselves. Rather, he sees them as a means to an end. Or better, as a symptom or by-product of something that is a good thing.
Why do prices rise? Because the demand for goods and services – the desire to purchase them – is growing faster than the supply of them – our businesses’ ability to produce them. So the rate of price inflation is a symptom or sign of strong demand.
And strong demand for goods and services is a good thing because it means the economy is growing and so is employers’ need for workers to help produce more goods and services. Employment increases and unemployment falls.
So Lowe wants to see higher prices simply because they’re a means to the end of lower unemployment. What’s more, increased employer demand for labour relative to its supply makes labour – particularly skilled labour – scarcer and so puts upward pressure on its price, otherwise known as wages.
And, as he’s often said, Lowe would like to see employers paying higher wages than they are, because consumer spending – consumer demand – is so weak at present mainly because wages are hardly growing faster than consumer prices, and real wages are the main thing that drives consumer spending.
All that make sense? Good – because now I’ll give you the more complicated answer. Surely, although strong demand is good for the economy, it would be better if supply was just as strong, meaning we could have growth in jobs and living standards without any inflation?
That makes sense in principle, but not in practice. The managers of the macro economy believe we need some inflation, though not too much. For two reasons. First, though you’ll find this hard to credit, economists are sure our consumer price index (like other countries’ CPIs) overstates inflation.
That’s because the official statisticians are unable to pick up all the cases where prices rise not simply because the firm’s costs have risen, but because the quality of the product has been improved. If so, aiming for a measured inflation rate of zero would require you to crunch the economy hard enough to make actual inflation less than zero – that is, prices would be falling.
The managers of the macro economy believe we need some inflation, though not too much.
The second reason is that sometimes, when the economy is growing too strongly, wages rise too much, prompting firms to lay off workers. Trouble is, workers hate having their wages cut. But if you’ve got a bit of inflation in the system, you can cut wages in real terms simply by skipping an annual pay rise, which workers find less unpalatable.
When the Reserve Bank set its target for inflation in the early 1990s, it settled on 2 to 3 per cent a year (“on average over the medium term”). It thought such a range would overcome both problems and insisted such a target range constituted “practical price stability”.
But things in our economy and all the advanced economies have changed a lot since the 1990s. Demand has been chronically weak relative to supply since the global financial crisis and, in consequence, inflation rates have been below-target everywhere.
Some people have suggested we move to a lower, more realistic target range, but Lowe has resisted, arguing that to do so would lower firms’ and workers’ expectations about inflation, making our weak-demand problem even worse. He may be right.
But now try this thought. Inflation is 1.7 per a year, while wages are growing by 2.2 per cent and workers aren’t at all happy. I’ve had several top economists agree with my contention that, if we could wave a magic wand and raise both inflation and wages by, say, 2 percentage points, so that wages were growing by 4.2 per cent, workers would be a lot less discontented.
Why? Because of a phenomenon that economists used to talk about a lot in in the 1960s, but rarely mention today, called “money illusion”. People who aren’t economists keep forgetting to allow for inflation. If so, the era of very low inflation isn’t proving to be much fun.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Most Viewed in Business
Source: Thanks smh.com