Why economies get unstable

Why economies get unstable
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First Published: Wed, Aug 13 2008. 12 09 AM IST

Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Updated: Wed, Aug 13 2008. 12 09 AM IST
Despite recent adjustments, families and economies have been reeling from the ravages of high prices for oil and other commodities. The scourge of inflation seems to have gotten a solid foothold in countries around the world. In the US, inflation expectations hit a recent record high and helped push consumer confidence to a 16-year low in June. It was not meant to be this way.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Central bankers have been basking in praise for adopting inflation targeting that seemed to offer a mix of high economic growth with low rates of price increases. These inflation-targeting regimes used monetary policy to hit a publicly announced target for changes in price levels, usually by manipulating short-term interest rates. The Bank of England is generally credited with pioneering modern inflation targeting that succeeded in holding price level changes within a range. But with the spectre of inflation unleashed on the global economy, bouquets turned into brickbats.
Neither the source of pride nor the cause of the fall is new. Indeed, East Asia up to 1997 and Argentina until 1998 were seen as havens of “good” macroeconomic data before collapsing into deep economic and financial turmoil. Then, as now, loose monetary policies created localized or regional bubbles. In both cases, macroeconomic stability gave way to microeconomic collapse that saw currency values plummet and financial insolvencies soar.
As a prelude to the harsh reality of rising inflation, central bankers conjured up massive amounts of excess global liquidity that most recently spawned commodity bubbles. The inevitable response to out-of-control price increases is ending irresponsibly loose monetary policies to halt a bogus boom, possibly setting off a deep and widespread recession. What is now clear is that maintaining a “stable” rate of inflation was a veil behind masked microeconomic distortions that morphed into macroeconomic instability. This is especially ironic since support for inflation targets comes from a belief that when central banks stabilize price levels, market mechanisms operate better.
The logic is that a rising price level is acceptable if it is stable and predictable. Price stability does not require central banks to oversee low rates of price increases. For inflation targeting to “work”, it is important that rises or falls in the general price level be anticipated. Yet, inflation targeting has been consistent with substantial economic instability.
Besides setting conditions that led to the high inflation rates coursing around us, a predictable and stable rate of price increases creates various forms of deadweight losses.
First, consider that the logic of inflation targeting to insure price stabilization assumes money is “neutral” with respect to effect of the rate of money growth on the real economy. This means putting more money into the system will only change the price level while the relative prices of goods and services remain unaffected.
This is surely wrong. As it is, relative prices of goods and services within market economies are not independent of some form of money. Monetary prices of goods are determined by the demand and supply of these goods in simultaneous conjunction with the demand and supply of money. Therefore, the notion of monetary “neutrality” as far as relative prices of goods is absurd.
An increase in the money supply does not enter the economy with each person receiving the same amount of money at the same moment. The reality of an uneven inflow of new money changes relative demand for goods, so that relative prices will change.
And increasing the money supply causes real wealth to be redistributed away from those that receive the new money later than the others. But earlier recipients have increased real wealth that changes their demand for goods and services, which alters the relative prices of goods and services.
Another challenge to the assertion that stable and predictable price increases under inflation targeting are “neutral” with respect to the real economy concerns “bracket creep” in tax liability. As incomes rise to compensate for lost purchasing power from rising price levels, some individuals will move into higher marginal tax rates.
Similarly, “stable” prices that rise predictably and consistently can lead to “phantom” capital gains from rising prices rather than a change in real scarcity. This tends to inspire attempts to avoid higher tax liabilities that will reduce the availability of capital.
Most central bankers think of inflation in the narrow terms of rising consumer prices measured by an arbitrary indicator such as a consumer price index (CPI). But a rising CPI is just one of several possible results of rapid growth in the money supply. Asset bubbles, an increased trade deficit and a depreciating currency can all be caused by an inflated money supply even with a “stable” CPI. It must be counted as a failure that inflation-targeting did not address asset and commodity bubbles. For their part, inflation targets guide central bankers in deciding how to implement monetary policy to stabilize prices rather than to minimize the effect of price rises on the real economy. This approach tends to introduce extensive distortions into the real economy.
It is hard to resist the logic that inflation-targeting and interest manipulations caused most of the ongoing financial instability and various asset and commodity bubbles. When central banks realize their cheap credit policies drive asset bubbles, they may stop meddling with interest rates and put tighter controls on money supply growth and credit growth.
Christopher Lingle is research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Aug 13 2008. 12 09 AM IST