Debt and deflation

Depressing times

Are rich economies heading merely for a bout of falling prices, or for a 1930s-style deflationary spiral?

IN JUST a few brutal months, the prospects for the world economy have deteriorated with remarkable speed. Rich countries had seemed set for a shallow, muddle-through recession; now a much deeper slump is on the cards. In a sign of growing concern about American consumers, the Treasury and Federal Reserve on November 12th focused their rescue efforts on loans for cars and college and on credit cards. Central banks, recently so fearful of inflation, are now slashing interest rates to stop it falling too far. It will not be easy: deflation—annual falls in consumer prices—is increasingly likely next year. But recalling the 1930s, policymakers will be anxious to ensure that it does not take hold and turn crisis into catastrophe.

To consider the possibility of falling prices may seem odd when inflation is still uncomfortably high. In America, it reached 5.6% in July, the highest rate since 1991. In the same month inflation in the euro area surged to 4%. Britain’s consumer-price inflation hit 5.2% in September, well above the government’s target of 2%. This high inflation was mostly the result of the surge in commodity prices in the first half of the year. “Core” inflation, excluding food and energy costs, was far more stable.

But since the summer the commodity boom has turned to bust, changing the inflation outlook dramatically. The price of a barrel of crude oil has tumbled from a peak of $147 in July to below $60 in recent days. The Economist’s index of non-oil commodity prices has fallen by 40% since July. If raw-material prices remain at these lower levels, the year-on-year change in the retail prices of food and fuel will turn sharply negative in 2009.

That will add to other downward pressure on inflation. As economies fall deeper into recession and spending shrinks, firms will have to compete harder for sales by pricing their wares keenly. A glut of supply is evident in America’s jobs market: the unemployment rate rose to 6.5% in October. A year earlier it was just 4.8%.

Falling food prices have quickly had an effect on inflation in China, which fell to 4% in October from a peak of 8.7% in February. In the rich world, a period of deflation seems more likely in America than in Europe. Crude-oil costs are a bigger slice of the prices American consumers pay for petrol: lower sales taxes and fuel duties mean swings in oil markets have a bigger effect on pump prices. Motor fuel also accounts for a larger share of Americans’ spending, so falling prices will depress inflation by more. Prices tend to be less “sticky”: they respond more readily to economic conditions because markets are more flexible than in Europe. A stronger dollar will add to deflationary pressures in America while easing them elsewhere.

The year-on-year fall in oil prices is likely to be steepest in the third quarter next year, when the base will be this summer’s peak. Economists at Goldman Sachs reckon that America’s inflation rate will briefly turn negative at that point. Inflation in the euro area seems set to reach a low then too, even if prices do not actually fall. Speaking after the European Central Bank’s (ECB) half-point cut in interest rates on November 6th, Jean-Claude Trichet, the bank’s chief, allowed that inflation could fall well below the ECB’s target ceiling of 2% next year. But such a drop would be “short-lived and therefore not relevant” to interest-rate decisions. The Bank of England sees deflation as more than just a remote risk. Its Inflation Report, published on November 12th, puts the spread of likely inflation rates at between -1% and 3% in two years’ time. It is the first time the bank’s fan chart, which projects where inflation is likely to lie nine times out of ten, has encompassed deflation.

A commodity-led fall in inflation ought to be good news for rich economies. It boosts consumers’ real incomes and fattens firms’ profit margins. Yet there is something pernicious about inflation falling too far, too fast. Because falling prices make debt more expensive, indebted households would be more anxious to pay off loans, even as other consumers were benefiting from a boost to their purchasing power. If deflation took hold, the gap in demand left by those fleeing debt would not be filled by cash-rich consumers, who tend to be less free-spending.

A deadly mix of falling prices and high leverage could foment a “debt-deflation” of the type first described by Irving Fisher, an American economist, in 1933. In this schema, debt-laden firms and consumers rush to repay loans as credit dries up. That hurts demand and leads to price cuts. The deflation in turn increases the real cost of debt. It also means that real interest rates can’t be negative, and so are undesirably high. That spurs yet more repayment so that, in Fisher’s words, the “liquidation defeats itself.”

Fisher’s theory is of more than just academic interest. Recent lending surveys by the Federal Reserve and the ECB showed a larger share of banks tightened their lending criteria in October than in July. Such is the concern in America that on November 12th regulators said they would scrutinise the dividend policies of banks that did not increase lending.

The surveys also revealed a reluctance to borrow, which tallies with signs of a collapse in spending. Foreign orders for German capital goods slumped by 14% in September, suggesting firms worldwide are cutting investment. Car sales in America and Europe are plummeting. American retailers, such as Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney and Gap, reported double-digit falls in sales in the year to October. The retail data in Britain are grim too, which is a big worry for firms which have been through the private-equity mill and are loaded with debt. If sales do not respond soon to interest-rate cuts, some retailers may resort to deep discounts as Christmas approaches.

Bond markets expect consumer prices in America to fall by as much as 2½% over the next year, according to Mark Capleton, of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Inflation in the euro area is expected to be close to zero. When prices were climbing rapidly, central banks fretted that consumers’ inflation expectations would rise in response. They will now be as keen to keep them from falling too far. That means interest rates in rich countries may soon fall to zero; some are already close (see article).

Deflation is not the only fear, however. Investors seem keen to hedge against all outcomes. “The options market tells us that inflation uncertainty has rocketed,” says Mr Capleton. That reflects fears that policymakers, in their efforts to tackle deflation, will go too far the other way.

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