Rethinking Inflation

I either didn’t exist, or was way to young to remember it, but the ‘7os were tough economic times.  The reason: inflation.  Prices were quickly going up, and when this happens faster than the economy grows, your standard of living drops.  Here are some quick charts from the Berkeley Econ dep’t:

It took Paul Volcker raising interest rates to absurdly high levels in the early 1980’s – and thereby bringing the economy to a standstill – to tame inflation.  This had a profound effect on society: the Fed send a clear signal that they would not tolerate a rapid increase in the prices of goods and services.  If such a rise occurs, then they raise interest rates, even if it risks putting the economy into recession.

This has held true to today and as a result, we haven’t had any serious (excluding gasoline) increases in the prices of goods and services since 1981 or so. As a result, this type of inflation hasn’t caused this recession or any since the early 1980’s-and that’s a great thing.

However, notice that I’m being very specific in my choice of words: I’m defining inflation as the increase in the price of goods and services. Recently we’ve had all sorts of recessions caused by other types of inflation: the Tech Bubble of ’99/00, the Oil Shock of ’07/08 and the Housing Bubble.  In fact, some folks believe that we’re seeing a bunch of other bubbles right now: Chinese property market, U.S. equities, and on and on and on.

So here’s the hypothesis: since the Fed is so tightly monitoring the prices of goods and services – because that’s how they define inflation – they’ve pushed ‘inflation’ into other markets.  If you were to look at other prices and define ‘inflation’ as occurring when they rise too rapidly, you’d think to yourself “holy crap, we’ve got an inflation problem.”

There are some hints that people are starting to think this way.  A recent New Yorker article on Larry Summers contained the following:

In 2007, Summers started looking at the looming economic crisis.  Back in 2003, he had attended a Federal Reserve conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in which economists were celebrating the fact that central bankers seemed to have mastered the use of monetary policy to tame inflation without causing the economy to slip into a recession, as had happened in the past.  Summers warned that perhaps the victory over inflation meant only that the next recession would be caused by some new phenomenon.

And in a recent investment email, David Einhorn talked about asset price inflation:

Further, the Federal Open Market Committee members may not recognize inflation when they see it, as looking at inflation solely through the prices of goods and services, while ignoring asset inflation, can lead to a repeat of the last policy error of holding rates too low for too long.

This is a really tricky problem to solve. Taming inflation is straightforward: you just tell the public that you want inflation to be between 0.5-2% and then raise interest rates any time it looks like it might be higher.  The public pretty quickly learns that you mean business and don’t misbehave.

But trying to prevent bubbles is a crazy hard problem.  You can’t say something like “asset prices can’t increase more than 10% a year” because nobody is going to agree to that.  There are legitimate times when a category of asset prices could increase way faster than that and it would require unprecedented (and unacceptable) government intervention to avoid it.

Instead, the challenge to the Fed has to abstract the problem and understand how to create a set of incentives to get people to behave properly.  This is a really hard problem as first, everyone has to agree on what causes the problem (almost impossible as people who are making quick money have an incentive to disagree) and then Congress, etc. have to be convinced to actually implement regulation.

It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Fed and the Obama administration rise to the occasion and try to solve this problem.  As the Chinese apocryphally said: “may you live in interesting times.”