ECONOMISTS LOVE to disagree, but almost all of them will tell you that inflation is dead. The premise of low inflation is baked into economic policies and financial markets. It is why central banks can cut interest rates to around zero and buy up mountains of government bonds. It explains how governments have been able to go on an epic spending and borrowing binge in order to save the economy from the ravages of the pandemic—and why rich-world public debt of 125% of GDP barely raises an eyebrow. The search for yield has propelled the S&P 500 index of shares to new highs even as the number of Americans in hospital with covid-19 has surpassed 100,000. The only way to justify such a blistering-hot stockmarket is if you expect a strong but inflationless economic rebound in 2021 and beyond.
Yet as we explain this week (see article), an increasingly vocal band of dissenters thinks that the world could emerge from the pandemic into an era of higher inflation. Their arguments are hardly overwhelming, but neither are they empty. Even a small probability of having to deal with a surge in inflation is worrying, because the stock of debt is so large and central-bank balance-sheets are swollen. Rather than ignore the risk, governments should take action now to insure themselves against it.
In the decades since Margaret Thatcher warned of a vicious cycle of prices and wages that threatened to “destroy” society, the rich world has come to take low inflation for granted. Before the pandemic even an ultra-tight jobs market could not jolt prices upwards, and now armies of people are unemployed. Many economists think the West, and especially the euro zone, is heading the way of Japan, which fell into deflation in the 1990s and has since struggled to lift price rises far above zero.
Predicting the end of this trend is a kind of apostasy. After the financial crisis some hawks warned that bond buying by central banks (known as quantitative easing, or QE) would reignite inflation. They ended up looking silly.
Today the inflationistas’ arguments are stronger. One risk is of a temporary burst of inflation next year. In contrast to the period after the financial crisis, broad measures of the rich-world money supply have shot up in 2020, because banks have been lending freely. Stuck at home, people have been unable to spend all their money and their bank-balances have swelled. But once they are vaccinated and liberated from the tyranny of Zoom, exuberant consumers may go on a spending spree that outpaces the ability of firms to restore and expand their capacity, causing prices to rise. The global economy already shows signs of suffering from bottlenecks. The price of copper, for example, is 25% higher than at the start of 2020.
The world should be able to manage such a temporary burst of inflation. But the second inflationista argument is that more persistent price pressures will also emerge, as structural disinflationary forces go into…
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