Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Price/Asset Deflation Spiral?

In the 1970s inflation in the U.S. reached dizzying levels amidst a falling Dollar, an easy Fed, Soaring Oil Prices, and the infamous "Wage/Price Spiral". Many commentators see the U.S. headed for another inflation catastrophe.

Paul McCulley says this isn't the 70s and that isn't necessarily good news.

But, you retort, if the Fed surrenders to negative real interest rates, it will set off an inflationary spiral, as second and third round effects on prices and wages take hold: capital and labor will extrapolate what should be viewed as a transitorily higher inflation into permanently higher inflation. In a world of perfectly indexed prices and wages, this could well be the case. The 1970s resembled such a world, and nasty oil price shocks that should have been one-off adjustments in the price level via temporarily higher inflation morphed into a price-wage-price inflationary spiral.

In monetary policy terminology, inflation expectations in the 1970s were not firmly anchored at the pre-oil price shock level. This is true, I think, but more elementally, the highly unionized, closed-economy structure of the American economy price and wage setting process was inherently geared to transforming a one-off inflationary shock into an enduring inflationary shock.

We no longer live in such a world. Most importantly, wage inflation is now only loosely connected to price inflation, in the wake of a more globally competitive, less unionized labor force. As Vice Chairman Kohn hinted, the combination of somewhat higher inflation and higher unemployment is a prescription for diminished pricing power by labor, leading to lower real wages (than would be dictated by labor’s productivity growth). Thus, unlike the 1970s, there is little wage fuel to generate over-heating aggregate demand and, thus, a sustained price-wage-price inflationary spiral.

This is good news indeed. Fed officials would make this argument through the lens of well-anchored inflationary expectations, and I have no quarrel with that interpretation, though I think it is but a veil over a more global, more competitive, less oligopolistic price and wage setting structure in the United States. Indeed, I believe the more nasty is the negative terms of trade shock, the fatter is the fat tail of asset price deflation rather than the fat tail of accelerating goods and services inflation.

Deflating asset prices in a highly levered economy are a much more nefarious outcome than temporary increases in inflation in goods and services. This is particularly the case from a starting point of low inflation in goods and services (excluding those involved in the negative terms of trade shock). How so? Simple: a negative terms of trade shock and asset price deflation are a prescription for not just a recession, but a nasty one. More to the point, from a starting point of low goods and services inflation, the Fed is never far from the zero lower limit on nominal short-term interest rates, commonly known as a liquidity trap.

Therefore, the more flexible are wages in the face of a negative terms of trade shock, particularly if it coincides with asset price deflation, the greater is the risk of policy makers losing control of the economy on the downside. In turn, this reality argues for the Fed to tolerate higher headline inflation in the wake of a negative terms of trade shock.

In the 1970s many more of the U.S.'s workers were unionized, and unions were negotiating pay increases, not pay cuts.

Today, workers are much less likely to be unionized and lack the pricing power to get wage increases that keep up with increasing food and energy costs. Indeed, workers have been losing ground on real* wages for years. (*real=adjusted for inflation, nominal=the numerical amount, for example a salary of $300/week is the same nominally in 1930 and 2000, but much less in real terms). Workers are going to have to consume less. This is going to limit inflation in food and energy as demand falls for both. That's the good news. The bad news is that this is also going to lower demand for houses, which are already losing value, as well as increase foreclosures. Many people in the "bubble markets" on the coast and in the worst off parts of the rust belt already owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. This time rising food and energy prices may not show up in rising wages, but rather in falling home prices.

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