Earlier this week the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly inflation report. The numbers came in at 1.7 percent a year for all items. Excluding the ever-volatile food and energy, it was 1.9 percent.
That’s about as low as inflation has been in the last 50 years. Only 1986 (1.1 percent), 1998 and 2001 (1.6 percent), 2008 (0.1 percent) and 2010 (1.5 percent) have come in lower, and a few years in the mid-2000s registered the same.
The disappearance of inflation over the past 20 years, however, has barely dented the pervasive belief that inflation remains one of the greatest threats to economic stability. These convictions persist in spite of all evidence to the contrary: Inflation is nowhere visible. For many, that is just proof that we are living in a lull — a phony war soon to be disrupted when that age-old enemy reappears and wreaks havoc.
At the Federal Reserve – legally mandated guardian of price stability and responsible for monitoring and containing inflation – the president of the Richmond Fed, Jeffrey Lacker, has been warning that the current policy of very low interest rates and expansion of the balance sheet is almost certain to spark inflation in the near future.
In Europe, those views are even more deeply held. The German Bundesbank – still seared by memories of hyperinflation in the 1920s and the collapse of political order that gave rise to the Nazis – remains ever vigilant. Its president, Jens Weidman, is strongly opposed to many of the recent sovereign bailouts to preserve the euro on the grounds that good money chasing bad will spark inflation.