Deflation is still a danger
America’s inflation hawks have been circling. With bumper economic growth in the third quarter now being taken for granted, calls for monetary tightening are getting louder.
The producer prices data provide a salutary reminder of why this would be an awful idea. The risk of deflation may have abated but it has certainly not disappeared.
It is clear that companies are finding it increasingly difficult to raise prices. Core producer prices were up just 1.8 percent — the slowest increase in two years, and about a third of the rate seen in the autumn of 2008. The cost of finished consumer goods has sunk more than 6 percent, with home electronics down 7.7 percent.
Prices can lag far behind other economic indicators, and it may be some time before the deflationary threat passes. Japan started to see falling prices only some three years after the recession started in 1991. Wages didn’t start to fall until 1997.
The deeper a recession has been, the longer prices can remain under downward pressure long after an economy starts to recover. Given the severity of the current slump, it may be years before the United States is out of the woods. Even as growth picks up, capacity utilization remains at the lowest levels since government figures started in 1948.
Capital Economics, a consulting firm, believes that spare capacity is still around 6 percent of GDP, the largest shortfall since the 1930s. Closing this gap will take time. At a steady growth rate of 2.5 percent it will take until 2016 to bring America’s resources back into full use. Even at a frenetic 5 percent growth rate it would still be 2012 before the output gap is closed.
The jobs deficit is particularly imposing. With around 1.3 million new workers entering the labor market each year, America may not return to its pre-recession unemployment level until 2017. And this is only if America returns to the growth rates achieved in the 1990s.
With so many people competing for jobs, it would not be surprising to see hourly wages falling for several years — adding to deflationary pressures.
All of this suggests that tightening policy would be recklessly premature. Fed officials can afford to let the U.S. economy build up a good head of steam before following the lead of Australia in tightening policy. Strong growth alone is not a good reason to start removing stimulus and would risk strangling the recovery, as policy makers showed in 1937. As long as people and machines are idle, deflation — not inflation — should be the worry.