Inflating the debt away?

We already argued on May 24 that the biggest risk in our view is rising interest rates, not hyperinflation. We also argued some mild inflation will actually be good. Here is why, but also the risks explained by an opponent…

We cannot inflate our way out of this crisis
By Wolfgang Münchau

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

Ernest Hemingway, “Notes on the Next War: A Serious Topical Letter” , 1935

What I hear more and more, both from bankers and from economists, is that the only way to end our financial crisis is through inflation. Their argument is that high inflation would reduce the real level of debt, allowing indebted households and banks to deleverage faster and with less pain.

To achieve the desired increase in inflation, the US Federal Reserve should either announce an inflation target or simply keep interest rates at zero when the recovery begins. That way, real interest rates would become strongly negative. The advocates of such a strategy are not marginal and cranky academics. They include some of the most influential US economists.

Four immediate questions arise from these considerations. Can it be done? Can it be undone? Can it be done at a reasonable economic cost? Last, should it be done?

Of course, it can be done, but only for as long as the commitment to higher inflation is credible. Inflation is not some lightbulb that a central bank can switch on and off. It works through expectations. If the Fed were to impose a long-term inflation target of, say, 6 per cent, then I am sure it would achieve that target eventually. People and markets might not find the new target credible at first but if the central bank were consistent, expectations would eventually adjust. In the end, workers would demand wage increases of at least 6 per cent each year and companies would strive to raise their prices by that amount.

If, however, a central bank were to pre-announce that it was targeting 6 per cent inflation in 2010 and 2011, and 2 per cent thereafter, the plan would probably not succeed. We know that monetary policy affects inflation with long and variable lags. Such a degree of fine-tuning does not work in practice. My own guess is that one would have to make a much longer-term commitment to a higher rate of inflation for such a policy shift to be credible. I suspect that the greater the distance between the new rate and the current rate, the longer the commitment would have to be.

Could it be reversed, once it had been achieved? Again, the answer is yes; again, the commitment would have to be credible. But herein lies precisely the problem. If the central bank were honest from the start and pre-announced that it would eventually reverse its policy, it might never reach its goal of higher inflation in the first place. If the central bank were dishonest, it might achieve the goal. But it would lose credibility the moment it decided to reverse. So any new credibility would have to be earned through new policy action. This might imply nominal interest rates significantly above 6 per cent for an uncomfortably long period.

What would happen then? I can think of two scenarios. The best outcome would be a simple double-dip recession. A two-year period of moderately high inflation might reduce the real value of debt by some 10 per cent. But there is also a downside. The benefit would be reduced, or possibly eliminated, by higher interest rates payable on loans, higher default rates and a further increase in bad debts. I would be very surprised if the balance of those factors were positive.

In any case, this is not the most likely scenario. A policy to raise inflation could, if successful, trigger serious problems in the bond markets. Inflation is a transfer of wealth from creditors to debtors – essentially from China to the US. A rise in US inflation could easily lead to a pull-out of global investors from US bond markets. This would almost certainly trigger a crash in the dollar’s real effective exchange rate, which in turn would add further inflationary pressure.

Under such a scenario, it might not be easy to keep inflation close to a hypothetical 6 per cent target. The result could be a vicious circle in which an overshooting inflation rate puts further pressure on the bond markets and the exchange rate. The outcome would be even worse than in the previous example. The central bank would eventually have to raise nominal rates aggressively to bring back stability. It would end up with the very opposite of what the advocates of a high inflation policy hope for. Real interest rates would not be significantly negative, but extremely positive.

Should this be done? A credible inflation target of 2 or 3 per cent, maintained over a credibly long period of time, is useful. But I doubt that a 6 per cent inflation target could be simultaneously credible and sustainable. Tempting as it may be, it is a beggar-thy-neighbour policy unless replicated elsewhere and would come to be regarded as such by many countries in the world. It would produce a whole new group of losers, both inside and outside the US, with all its undesirable political, social, economic and financial implications. It would also fuel the already rampant discussions about the inevitable death of fiat money.

Stimulating inflation is another dirty, quick-fix strategy, like so many of the bank rescue packages currently in operation. As Hemingway said, it would feel good for a time. But it would solve no problems and create new ones.

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