The Bank of Japan said on Tuesday that it would try to push up inflation as part of a new strategy to stimulate the economy. Such an attempt would have been met with gasps of disbelief a few years ago, when low inflation was the central quest of monetary policy. A higher inflation target is now becoming an important part of the ongoing policy debate, at least in the developed countries that are still struggling to recover from the economic effects of the financial crisis.

What has just happened in Japan is another victory for a group of economists called market monetarists, who have argued over several years that policymakers should target the nominal gross domestic product (NGDP), which is a combination of real output and inflation. Targeting nominal GDP can be contrasted with what the two main schools of macroeconomics suggest: the traditional monetarists look at money supply and the new Keynesians look at interest rates.

The market monetarists once tried to be heard from the sidelines. They have since gained popularity and are now an important voice in the corridors of power. The US Fed has not yet embraced nominal GDP targeting, but there are signs that market monetarism is getting heard in that institution. Chicago Federal Reserve president Charles Evans is one important convert. The new Bank of England governor Mark Carney is known to be sympathetic to the market monetarist cause. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been talking about pushing up Japanese nominal GDP, and his influence in evident in the new Bank of Japan policy statement. All implicitly believe that a higher inflation target will goad rational consumers to spend before prices go up, thus boosting economic activity.

The situation in India is very different. It is unwise to use higher inflation as an important part of any strategy for economic recovery, though there has been loose talk of allowing the Reserve Bank of India to let its unofficial inflation target rise. India already suffers from structurally high inflation. Inflation expectations seem to have drifted up in recent years. These will damage the economy in the long run.

Yet the Indian government has been following a perverse variant of nominal GDP targeting. High inflation has led to robust nominal GDP growth despite the slowdown in real output, which in turn has ensured that the burden of public debt in India has not expanded despite large fiscal deficits. Look at the numbers. Nominal growth in fiscal 2011 was 17.5%, the highest in 20 years. Nominal GDP growth has been growing faster in the four years after the global financial crisis than in the four years that preceded it. In other words, the Indian government has been inflating away its old debts, most of which are held by Indian households through the banking system.

Market monetarism and nominal GDP targeting may make sense in economies that have persistent negative output gaps and interest rates at the lower bound. India is in a different situation. It needs lower inflation to get its economy back on track.

Close