The price level in the UK was the same in 1815 and 1914. This did not mean that prices were stable throughout that 100 year period: they fluctuated in long waves, with periods of inflation followed by deflation. More recently, there was a decade of deflation at the time of the Great Depression, and in Japan prices fell by an average of 0.5% p.a. from 1999-2005.
Deflation may again affect the US and UK, and perhaps spread further through the world economy. Consumer prices slipped by 2.1% in the year to July in the US, and 0.7% in the EU. In the UK the CPI is expected to be 1.8%, despite the Bank of England and Government desperately trying to keep it at above 2% by cutting interest rates to their lowest level in 300 years and pouring ₤150 billion into financial markets, a sum more than 12% of GDP.
The UK’s CPI does not contain housing costs, the Retail Price Index is more inclusive and it indicates that the UK had a -1.6% fall in prices for the July year: its first fall since 1960. I believe deflation is already strong in the UK as goods have declines in price since about 1995, but services have lifted the CPI.
There is widespread fear that the massive pump-priming by Governments globally will be over-inflationary, but I question that because it will result in higher interest rates, higher government spending on debt service and lower spending on welfare, increased taxes and higher costs to business for credit. Japan has tried for 19 years to create inflation but has failed. Moreover, there is a huge ‘output gap” putting pressure on all producers.
I do not intend, however, to gaze into the crystal ball so much as to discuss deflation and explain some its properties.
What is it?
Deflation is simply a fall in prices, and is regarded negatively because it is associated with depressions and with very low interest rates. The UK has not had a full year of deflation since the 1930’s. Indeed, inflation has been the norm, averaging 7%, since 1945.
Conventionally, deflation has virtues: consumers enjoy falling prices creating increases in real wages (the Great Depression was good for people in work). Moreover, it causes low interest rates, yet it is good for savings as their real value increases annually.
Deflation is not so good, therefore, for people in debt. The value of real debt increases each year, which affects people on mortgages as their house or farm may also decrease in value each year. It also discourages spending because the prices will be cheaper next year. Wages fall creating a downward spiral. It damages banks because they end up with a lot of surrendered property. The BNZ was the biggest landowner in New Zealand in the early 1890’s.
A recent Bank of England study by Groth and Westaway [Groth} discusses deflation’s costs in detail. Price adjustments for firms are costly, both for reprinting price lists but more in setting optimal prices in an environment of changing prices. Zero inflation is preferable. Deflation has an effect on taxation. In most cases, tax systems are not inflation indexed, so taxes rise with inflation.
The argument that consumers will defer consumption in periods of deflation is challenged by Groth and Westaway. They argue that in most cases low interest rates weaken the case for postponement.
Groth also discusses the difficulty of business in reducing money wages when this is justified by economic conditions such as the distressed situation of a firm or when all prices are falling. Workers may have a “money illusion”: they might focus on nominal wages rather than real wages. It they have a money illusion; they will resist a wage cut because they think they can buy fewer goods.
Many workers may resist pay cuts, not because they have a money illusion, but because they want to be rewarded for increasing productivity. British workers have raised productivity by about 2% a year over the last 30 years, so even if prices fall, there would not generally be a necessity (in the short-term) to cut in nominal wages. But in some industries, especially those particularly hard-hit, there would be a stronger case for wage cuts. If these are resisted, it can increase unemployment.
What evidence is there for downward rigidity in wages? Certainly there are more raises than cuts. But I believe many employees are prepared to accept cuts when there is a strong case. Most economists believe there is strong resistance, but this is exaggerated by the actions of a few trade unions. Employers find ways of cutting labour costs, moreover, by slashing non-wage benefits and bonuses, avoid customary raises for merit or seniority, or employing new workers at lower wages than those paid to existing workers.
In the UK there are a growing number of wage freezes, while wage cuts are relatively few. But British Chambers of commerce data indicates that about 10% of companies plan nominal cuts in 2009. Workers may be more flexible than they have been in the previous inflationary periods because they perceive growing unemployment: a lower-paid job is better than the dole.
Deflation increases the debt burden and recessions are deeper for countries carrying the most debt. The key element is a transfer of wealth from debtors to creditors caused by an unexpected fall in inflation. Many mortgage holders expected benevolent inflation. About 40% of Britons entered fixed-rate contracts and are now suffering from a real rise in interest rates. This effect is magnified by falling employment and a fall in asset values. Defaults will rise and impact on financial institutions.
The authors say many writers have demonized deflation but it is important not to confuse the effects of the credit- crunch shock with the effects of deflation itself. Goth says British workers are flexible about wages. She believes that with a massive monetary policy response, the deflationary episode should be short-lived. My knowledge of the Japanese economy makes me skeptical of that conclusion.
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