Deflation and a Growing Economy?

Sep. 14, 2010 6:15 AM ET5 Comments
David Beckworth profile picture
David Beckworth
Everyone knows that deflation is a horrible thing: the price level declines, profits fall, employment drops, real debt burdens increase, households in turn spend less, prices fall again, and the cycle repeats. Folks like Paul Krugman, Greg Ip, and Barry Ritholtz have been reminding us of these dangers as there seems to be a greater chance that deflation could reemerge soon. David Leonhardt weighs in on this issue and notes that the sustained lack of inflation in the last two years is unprecedented in the postwar period, except for that "unusual" 1950s period:

Since the Labor Department started keeping records in 1947, there have been only six six-month periods when prices have fallen more than [the past six months]. All of them were in 1950, an unusual time when prices were falling even though the economy was growing.

Gasp. How can it be? Deflation and a growing economy? There must be some mistake because observers like Paul, Greg, and Barry have told us this is impossible. Surely, Leonhardt misread the data. So what the does the data actually show? Let's see, the Fred database shows....gasp. It's worse than Leonhardt reports. Looking at the year 1950--the first of these unusual six periods--one finds not only deflation but also solid growth in aggregate demand, corporate profits, employment, and financial intermediation. These developments are not suppose to happen with deflation! Oh my, how can this be? Maybe our high priest of central banking, Ben Bernanke, can shed some light on this mystery. He did, after all, make a famous speech in 2002 that touched on deflation. Now let's see, what did he said in that speech:

The sources of deflation are not a mystery. Deflation is in almost all cases a side effect of a collapse of aggregate demand--a drop in spending so severe that producers must cut prices on an ongoing basis in order to find buyers.(1) Likewise, the economic effects of a deflationary episode, for the most part, are similar to those of any other sharp decline in aggregate spending--namely, recession, rising unemployment, and financial stress.

Thanks Bernanke, but this analysis is not helpful. It is essentially the same thing said by Paul, Greg, and Barry and therefore does not shed any light on the 1950 deflation episode. But wait, Bernanke does have that footnote (1) above. Let's see what it says:

Conceivably, deflation could also be caused by a sudden, large expansion in aggregate supply arising, for example, from rapid gains in productivity and broadly declining costs. I don't know of any unambiguous example of a supply-side deflation, although China in recent years is a possible case. Note that a supply-side deflation would be associated with an economic boom rather than a recession.

Wow, now that is different. And wait, it is consistent with the 1950 deflation experience because there was a productivity boom then. Ok, now that the high priest has said it is possible to have deflation and robust economic growth, let's think through the implications of such a productivity-driven deflation. First, laborers should not get shafted even if there are sticky wages. Their real wage should increase through the drop in the price level - workers’ purchasing power will rise. Second, firms' profits should not be harmed either since the productivity gains are lowering their per unit costs of production which offsets the fall in the output price. Third, any unexpected increases in real debt burdens should be matched by unexpected increases in real incomes–no debt deflation problems. Fourth, financial intermediation should not suffer since the productivity boom increases expected future earnings and thus assets prices (i.e. collateral values) go up–no balance sheet problems. Finally, the productivity surge should push up the real interest rate and provide an offset to the deflation drag on the nominal interest rates. Thus, the zero bound is unlikely to be a problem. Aggregate supply (AS)-induced deflation, then, is a lot different than aggregate demand (AD)-induced deflation.
Clearly, the deflationary threat now facing the U.S. economy is of the AD-induced kind. I am concerned about it and have called on the Fed to be more responsive to this potential threat. With that said, this deflation distinction is more than some trivial academic argument. It helps shed light on why the Fed's decision to keep interest rates so low for so long were disastrous in the early-to-mid 2000s. The Fed saw sustained disinflation and assumed it was the result of faltering AD. The data is now very clear that the deflationary pressures were more the result of the 2002-2004 productivity boom. The productivity boom implied inflation should have been lower, the neutral interest rate higher, and the economic recovery was not in jeopardy. The Fed thought otherwise and, as a result, helped fuel one of the largest credit and housing booms in history. The irony in all of this is that the Fed's fear of deflation in 2002-2004 caused it to act in a manner that helped put in a motion a cumulative process that is likely to create the very thing it was trying to avoid in the first place: deflation. Know your deflations! (pdf)

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David Beckworth profile picture
David Beckworth is an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University. He is the author of Macro and Other Market Musings.
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