-The views expressed are the author’s own-
A warning by an International Energy Agency (IEA) analyst this week that quantitative easing (QE) risked inflating nominal commodity prices and derailing the recovery drew a withering response from Nobel Economics Laureate Paul Krugman, who labelled the unfortunate analyst the “worst economist in the world”.
According to New York Times columnist Krugman “Higher commodity prices will hurt the recovery only if they rise in real terms. And they’ll only rise in terms if QE succeeds in raising real demand. And this will happen only if, yes, QE2 is successful in helping economic recovery”.
Krugman’s criticism is unfair. There are clear links between QE and investor appetite for commodity derivatives and physical stocks (via the Federal Reserve’s “portfolio balance” effect), and from investors’ holdings of derivatives and physical inventories to cash prices (given the relatively inelastic supply and demand for raw materials in the short term).
In other words, there are financial as well as real economy links between QE and commodity prices. Commodities have some of the characteristics of financial assets as well as physical consumption materials. Via portfolio effects, QE could boost the relative (real) price of commodities even if it did not boost employment and output in the United States by very much.
It is a more open question whether commodity-driven inflation would hinder or promote a recovery in output and employment in the advanced industrial economies. It would reduce the real burden of inherited debts from the boom years. But it would harm savers, and it might harm manufacturers and households, depending on whether increased commodity prices were matched by rising non-commodity consumer prices and wages.