In just two years, inflation targeting (namely, the quest for 2 percent inflation) has gone from the lunatic fringe of economics to mainstream dogma.
Much of the allure springs from notions that a little inflation motivates people to speed up spending, thereby greatly increasing the efficacy of central bank stimulus. It is touted as a cure for sagging demand and a defense against the (overly) dreaded deflation.
Other benefits include melting away some of the massive government and private debts and improving people’s perception of progress as they see their nominal wages rise. Employers can lower real wages without unpopular dollar pay cuts. The Fed can allow price increases to signal the need for production responses, allow for minor supply shocks and for monopolistic industries to increase prices all without a monetary response that would hurt other elements of the economy.
For the politicians it provides a tax windfall in the form of capital gains taxes on inflated assets and income taxes on interest that simply reflects inflation. It also necessitates printing more money thereby earning seigniorage (profits from printing money) for the government. In addition, it provides cover for competitive currency devaluation and is a great excuse to kick the can down the road: “Let’s not tighten before we reach our highly desired inflation target.”
What’s Magical about 2 Percent Inflation?
Then there is the question of why 2 percent? Perhaps that was seen as a still comfortable rate during some past periods of strong growth. Conditions today are very different, which perhaps suggests they are trying to imitate past growth by copying symptoms instead of substance. Of course for politicians, permission to print money is a godsend, and with inflation all around the developed world below 2 percent, it was “all aboard!”
Clearly not all of the features above are desirable, but even some of the touted ones are underwhelming. While increased inflation expectations will speed up spending, it is far from being the reservoir of perpetual demand that some seem to believe. Essentially, a onetime increase in expectations of a new steady rate of inflation would speed up purchases for the period ahead, but with negligible net effects in subsequent periods — a onetime phase shift in demand.
The Danger of Raising Interest Rates
After almost eight years of stimulus, the Fed has taken its first timid steps toward normalizing monetary policy. That means we will soon have to contend with something entirely absent during the years of easy money — a bill for all of the goodies passed out and the distortions created. And what a bill! A 3 percent rise in average interest rates on just our present government debt over the next few years would ultimately amount to over $500 billion a year in additional interest expense, equal to roughly 1/7 of current Federal tax receipts. Those bills start arriving with a vengeance when rates go back up, and for the first time in years the market will see concrete evidence of whether the US and other governments are willing to pay the price of continuing to have viable currencies.
Prior to the appearance of inflation targeting, I was already dreading the impact of political interference with efforts to return to normal. But targeting makes every politician an economist, able to make simplistic, grandstanding statements with the authority of the Fed’s own model. This makes the problem far worse.
Two percent, which has (foolishly) been defined as desirable, will quickly be interpreted as an average. “So what’s the big deal,” critics will say, “about a pop to 3 percent or more, after all it has spent years ‘below target’, and if you excluded a handful of ‘temporary exceptions’, it would still be only 2 percent …?” Imagine the political storm if the Fed decided to quickly raise rates a couple of full percentage points in response to a surge in inflation to 3 percent.
There are a lot of people (especially politicians) whose short-term interests would be harmed by a sharp rise in interest rates. Lulled by today’s relative calm, many fail to appreciate how explosive the situation becomes when we transition from the concerned waiting of the long easy money period to the concrete tests of our credibility during renormalization. If we had to temporarily sacrifice half a percent from our already tepid growth rate to preserve the credibility of the dollar, that would pale next to the cost of worldwide panic and collapse. Unfortunately the sacrifice part is up front.
Americans think of inflation as a purely monetary phenomenon, which the mighty and independent Fed has handled in the past and will again if necessary. Actually once the inflation genie starts to escape from the bottle it becomes purely a political problem. Even the most determined central banker is helpless if the people refuse to accept the paper money, the politicians balk and take away the bank’s independence, or there is an opposition political party promising a credible-sounding and painless alternative plan. It comes down to what the market sees as the political will and ability to pay the short-term cost of reining in the inflation.
The Political Advantages of the 2 Percent Target
Political resistance to the cost of moving back to normal plus our willingness to decisively confront signs of panic will be watched carefully by owners of dollars and dollar instruments. This is a huge liquid pool which could stampede en masse into wealth storage and productive assets. Such a run would quickly become unstoppable and would mean a collapse of the world economy. Inflation targeting greatly facilitates the political opposition to decisive Fed action right at the first critical test points where there might still be hope of heading off an uncontrollable panic.
Deliberately seeking higher inflation amounts to intentionally damaging people’s faith in a fiat currency, one already in danger from massive debt, disquiet over novel monetary policy, and noises from Congress about reducing Fed independence. Targeting also provides a handy excuse to delay returning to normal, thereby worsening the mounting distortions. Finally, it invites wholesale political interference with the Fed’s efforts to manage an orderly return to normal financial conditions.