Is the era of high inflation gone forever?

In a world of slow growth, high debt, and tremendous distributional pressures, whether inflation is dead or merely dormant is an important question. Yes, massive institutional improvements concerning central banks have created formidable barriers to high inflation. But a significant part of a central bank’s credibility ultimately derives from the broader macroeconomic environment in which it operates.

In the first half of the 1990s, annual inflation [PDF] averaged 40% in Africa, 230% in Latin America, and 360% in the transition economies of eastern Europe. And, in the early 1980s, advanced-economy inflation averaged nearly 10%. Today, high inflation seems so remote that many analysts treat it as little more than a theoretical curiosity.

They are wrong to do so. No matter how much central banks may wish to present the level of inflation as a mere technocratic decision, it is ultimately a social choice. And some of the very pressures that helped to contain inflation for the past two decades have been retreating.

In the years preceding the financial crisis, increasing globalisation and technological advances made it much easier for central banks to deliver both solid growth and low inflation. This was not the case in the 1970s, when stagnating productivity and rising commodity prices turned central bankers into scapegoats, not heroes.

True, back then, monetary authorities were working with old-fashioned Keynesian macroeconomic models, which encouraged the delusion that monetary policy could indefinitely boost the economy with low inflation and low interest rates. Central bankers today are no longer so naive, and the public is better informed. But a country’s long-term inflation rate is still the outcome of political choices not technocratic decisions. As the choices become more difficult, the risk to price stability grows.

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