Is Inflation a Clear and Present Danger? No Way

by: Mark J. Perry

Brian Wesbury writes in yesterday's WSJ article, "Inflation Is a Clear and Present Danger":

The most painful and frustrating economic policy blunder of the past 50 years was the Great Inflation of the 1970s. Painful, because it was the catalyst for three damaging recessions (1973-75, 1980, 1981-82), all the while eroding living standards and seriously undermining confidence in America.

It was also deeply frustrating. Despite the teaching of Milton Friedman -- which clearly explained that inflation was caused by too much money chasing too few goods -- a combination of bad economic models, denial and political expediency allowed it to happen.

Unfortunately, the lessons seem to be fading. Today, the U.S. (and through it the world) faces its greatest threat from inflation in 30 years. And as in the past, this threat is being met with denial and political expediency.

Brian invokes Milton Friedman's monetarism to explain the inflationary 1970s, but then fails to apply it accurately to today's monetary aggregates (M2 and the monetary base, shown in the above charts), in my opinion.

Exhibit A: During the inflationary 1970s and early 1980s, M2 was growing at double-digit annual rates for much of the time, especially in the three periods circled in red in the top chart above during that period. There was a brief spike of 10% annual M2 growth during the 2001 recession and around 9-11, but M2 has been growing fairly moderately recently, in the 4-7% range for the last 5 years, suggesting that money growth is nowwhere near the double-digit levels required to replicate 1970s-era inflation.

Exhibit B: The monetary base, the "raw ingredient" of money supply and the one monetary aggregate that the Fed can control directly through its open market operations, has been on a contractionary trend since early 2002, almost 7 years ago. From 10% annual growth in early 2002, the growth of monetary base money has declined steadily, and has been around 2% since early 2007. In contrast, the monetary base was growing at around 10-12% annually in the inflationary 1970s.

Bottom Line: Invoking Friedman's monetarist theory (summarized as "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon," and "inflation is caused by too much money chasing too few goods") clearly suggests to me that there just hasn't been large enough, recent enough increases in either: a) M2 or b) the monetary base, to fuel a return to the levels of inflation in the 1970s.

In other words, if inflation is a monetary phenomenon, where's the recent money growth that will cause it? It's just not there.