What's causing the low inflation?
By Scott Sumner
This article caught my eye:
When online retail giant Amazon.com Inc. announced last Friday that it would purchase Whole Foods Market Inc., a plunge in retail and grocery stocks reinforced the disinflationary tone set by three straight months of disappointing data on consumer prices. It’s an example of the technological forces that are increasing competition and further limiting companies’ ability to pass on higher wage costs to customers.
“That normally indicates that somebody thinks that they are not going to be earning as much as they were,” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans said of the market reaction to the deal while speaking with reporters Monday evening after a speech in New York.
“For me, it just seems like technology keeps moving, it’s disruptive, and it’s showing up in places where — probably nobody thought too much three years ago about Amazon merging with Whole Foods,” he said.
Evans, a voter on the Federal Open Market Committee this year who supported its decision to raise interest rates last week, says he is less confident than most of his colleagues that inflation will soon rise to their 2 percent target.
A big reason for his ambivalence: Deflationary competitive pressures could have become more important for the overall trend in prices than the so-called Phillips Curve relationship, which links inflation to the state of the labor market. That model, coined almost 60 years ago, is the basis for the Fed’s outlook for continued gradual rate increases.
I’m a bit confused by this. I certainly agree that there are good reasons to question the Phillips Curve model, for standard “never reason from a price change” reasons. The Phillips Curve only works if changes in inflation are driven by AD shocks, not aggregate supply shocks. In that sense I agree with Evans.
But what is the nature of these mysterious AS shocks? Evans points to technology and competition, but these are forces that would cause the long run AS curve to shift to the right more rapidly. In other words, these are factors that would lead to a higher trend rate of growth in real GDP. The most noteworthy aspect of our modern economy, however, is slowing trend RGDP growth. Instead, it seems that wage moderation has shifted the SRAS curve to the right, producing a steady decline in the unemployment rate. The economy is not growing very fast at all, and what growth is occurring (roughly 2%) appears to be well above the long run trend rate, as the unemployment rate can’t keep falling forever.
I’m not saying that he is wrong about Amazon, or even retailing as a whole. But when you look at the data it’s clear that technology is not having much impact on overall real GDP growth.
And even if you argue that we aren’t measuring growth properly, and the actual RGDP is higher because we miss all the goodies provided for free on the internet, it still doesn’t solve the puzzle. The puzzle is the low rate of reported inflation. If real growth is higher than the official figures suggest, then inflation is even lower.
And this leads us to the point where macroeconomic discussions ought to start—with NGDP growth. The real issue for monetary policymakers is not inflation and/or RGDP growth, it’s NGDP growth. The only way to have low inflation despite low RGDP growth is if the Fed has such a tight monetary policy that NGDP growth remains slow. And that’s exactly what they’ve done since 2009. If you produce 4% NGDP growth year after year after year, then why be surprised that inflation remains low? Why look for explanations having to do with “technology” or “competition” if the answer is right there in front of your eyes—NGDP.
If the Fed starts delivering 11% NGDP growth, as in the 1970s, and we still have sub-2% inflation, then we can start worrying that technology is holding down inflation. But in that case we’d have no reason to worry about the low inflation “problem”, as RGDP growth would be 9%. Which is just another stating a point I repeatedly emphasize; inflation doesn’t matter, it’s NGDP growth that matters.
HT: John Hall