Downside of low inflation: A weaker global economy

With prices remaining low, consumer spending is down as people wait to purchase items
Associated Press
Feb 19, 2014

Since the Great Recession ended 4½ years ago, Americans have struggled with high unemployment, static pay and a slow economy. Yet they've had one thing in their favor: low inflation.

Well, hold the applause.

It might be unfathomable to people who still bear scars from the double-digit inflation of the 1970s, but what the global economy could use right now is a dose of higher prices.

Overall prices are barely budging because the economy is still weak. And the reverse may be true, too: Super-low inflation has likely slowed growth from the United States to Japan to Europe. It's why the world's central banks would like prices to rise.

Most people aren't likely to work up much anxiety about low inflation. After all, the benefits can be great. Cellphone service has gotten cheaper. Breakfast cereal prices have dropped the past two years. So has the cost of bedroom furniture. TV prices have plummeted 29 percent since 2012.

And low inflation is surely preferable to runaway inflation. Back in 1980, U.S. inflation reached 13.5 percent.

Last year, overall U.S. prices inched up just 1.1 percent, according to the Federal Reserve's preferred gauge.Inflation has stayed below the Fed's 2 percent target for two years. On Wednesday, the government said its producer price index, which tracks prices before they reach consumers, had risen just 1.2 percent over the past 12 months.

Yet Ben Bernanke, the just-departed Fed chairman, has said policymakers worry as much when inflation is too low as when it's too high.

What's wrong with very low inflation?

Lots. When prices barely move, many people postpone purchases. Why rush, if the same price — or lower — will be available in six months? Collectively, these delays slow consumer spending, the economy's main fuel.

Ultra-low inflation also makes the inflation-adjusted cost of a loan more expensive.

And too-low inflation raises the prospect of something worse: deflation — a broad decline in prices, pay and the value of stocks, homes or other assets. Deflation can further restrain spending and even tip an economy into recession.

Just ask the Japanese.

Japan has been stuck in a deflationary trap for most of two decades. Its economy has barely grown. Fears have spiked that Europe might be next.

For now, prices in Europe are ticking up — barely. Inflation in the 18 nations that use the euro currency rose 0.7 percent in January from a year earlier. In Japan, consumer prices rose 0.4 percent for 2013. That counts for good news: It was Japan's first overall price increase in five years. Its central bank is trying to lift inflationto 2 percent.

So why is inflation so low across the developed world?

Blame a persistently subpar economy and a tough job market. When good jobs are scarce, businesses can hold down pay and prices. Companies can cheaply produce enough to meet demand.

"Prices have only gone down because nobody has any money to buy stuff," says Antonio Duarte, a retired postal worker in Lisbon, Portugal, who favors discount stores. "It's all about supply and demand."

Other trends have contributed. Most clothing and furniture in the United States comes from lower-cost manufacturers overseas. Technological innovation has improved the quality of TVs and smartphones while cutting their costs.

A more fundamental factor is at work, too: People believe inflation will stay low. And inflation expectations can be self-fulfilling. Suppose a company expects to pay 3 percent more for salary and materials next year. It will then raise its own prices 3 percent. The company's expectations would help produce 3 percent inflation.

Ask people if they're enjoying low inflation, and you may encounter puzzlement. Many of us don't feel it. One reason: Apart from the government's broad inflation gauges, many items have gotten much costlier over the past five or 10 years.

Though gasoline prices, for example, have risen just 1 percent in two years — a big reason overall inflation is low — gas is still nearly 14 percent costlier than before the recession. Drivers face that reality every day.

Consider Allison Casey, 63, of Essex, Conn. She was relieved to find a job in August after 18 months of unemployment. But Casey now drives 25 miles each way to work at a specialty food store. She used to drive just a mile to her job as a chef at a country club.

Recently, she paid $3.56 a gallon. Six years ago, "I was probably paying $1.65 or $2 for a gallon of gas."

Other services have grown more expensive. Health care costs have long risen faster than overall inflation. And college tuition has soared 76 percent in 10 years. Yet stable or falling prices for many other items have offset those trends.

Low inflation does help when pay increases are weak. Consumers can stretch their dollars, yen and euros. In hard-hit European economies, such as Greece and Portugal, prices have actually fallen in the past year.

Ace Hardware CEO John Venhuizen says his company paid less to manufacturers for products it sells in 2013 than in 2012. That's helped offset other rising costs, such as health care.

"We are delighted," Venhuizen says. "There's far less price pressure than I would have anticipated five years ago."

Yet low prices pose a downside for some businesses. Big chains such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Bed, Bath & Beyond fought a brutal price war during the past holiday shopping season. The discounts got Americans to spend more. But 33 retail chains cut their profit estimates for the final months of 2013, according to RetailMetrics LLC.

By contrast, if retailers could raise prices, say, 3 percent or 4 percent, the extra revenue would allow them to pay employees more. And they wouldn't have to rely strictly on cost cuts to deliver profits.

Other businesses might also spend more. U.S. companies are sitting on nearly $2 trillion in cash, according to the Fed. Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that low inflationleads many businesses to hoard cash. Higher inflation, by contrast, would erode the cash's value. So businesses would be more inclined to spend — to hire or buy equipment.

Higher inflation would also make it easier for Americans to manage their debts. Laurence Ball, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins, notes that many car buyers have loans with rates of 2 percent or less. If inflationwere 3 percent or more, pay would likely rise. The car loans would become cheaper to pay off.

In Europe, higher inflation could help resolve that region's economic crisis. Greece and other poorer members of the eurozone let wages and prices rise too high, and their goods became comparatively expensive. Now, they must reduce wages and prices, especially compared with stronger economies like Germany. If inflationwere higher in the richer countries, it would help ease prices and pay in the poorer countries and encourage hiring.

In the United States, many economists have long feared that the Fed's efforts to stimulate growth would ignite inflation. Since 2008, the Fed has bought more than $3 trillion in bonds to try to keep loan rates low to encourage spending.

Yet to the surprise of many, all the money the Fed has pumped out hasn't caused prices to jump.

"It's a bit of a riddle," says Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Other economists note that most of the money the Fed has created is being held by large commercial banks as reserves. And consumers and businesses aren't clamoring for loans. Banks have tightened their lending standards. So the new money created by the Fed hasn't circulated through the economy, where it might have accelerated inflation.

Most economists foresee inflation remaining low for at least two more years. Fed policymakers have forecast that inflation will be just 1.7 percent to 2 percent in 2016.

They'd be happy to be wrong. An uptick in inflation "is a sign that growth is happening," says Alberto Cavallo, an economics professor at MIT.

Comments

Truth2u

Only an idiot would agree with this story!
If the majority believe this then its understandable why we have the current administration..

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Think about this: which public schools have mandatory financial literacy classes and life-preparedness classes that you must take to graduate? When people don't know how these things operate but still feel the need to survive (something that I enjoy doing myself so it's an understandable habit) they will vote for whoever can pat their heads and say "shhh just let me take care of it for you". That's not just a jab at economic liberals, either. A lot of that well-intentioned-but-abused-interface occurs within the establishment of the Republicans too.

The individual needs to be educated and empowered to overcome collectivism and ignorance. Yet, have any of the current crop ever offered ideas on addressing this or just more ways to whisper "it's ok" while petting you to sleep.

The New World Czar

...yes, and the "Associated (DE)Press" isn't biased.

coasterfan

Uh, guys? The events mentioned in the article aren't a matter of opinion. They are observable. They already happened. Pretending they didn't happen doesn't make them any less true.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Presume the individual facts are true, such as "TV prices have plummeted 29 percent since 2012."

That's fine, but is the PRESENTATION of them true? Is the fact that TV prices fell that much directly because of inflation concerns as the article suggests? Or, is it because that since HDTVs have been standardized now for many years the technology has gotten less expensive with even more competition for the dollar because so many other technologies have accelerated the research put into them?

If I have a problem it isn't necessarily with what is being said but HOW it is said. I believe our President when he says he wants to help people. But HOW he decides to help them I find disconcerting. The two are very different and have to be taken as a whole.

From the Grave

The same price drop happened with VHS players and then DVD players. I always thought that was the basis of supply and demand~but I'm finding out that it's really about price gouging, like when we start to run out of road salt, and we get raped on the price in the middle of a winter like we've had.

Contango

Inflation as artificially manufactured by the world's central banks gives people a false sense of increasing wealth and obscures the true market value of products and services.

The Federal Reserve was originally created (1913) in order to provide a temporary liquidity backstop during periods of falling asset prices.

(JP Morgan provided the backstop in the Panic of 1907.)

Instead, since the 1930s, they have practiced monetary manipulation in order to artificially create the illusion of continuing economic growth & prosperity.

H*ll, Pres. Truman even had a Fed. Res. Chairman FIRED because he wouldn't 'play ball.'

The world's central banks are beginning to run on fumes.

pntbutterandjelly

If any of this article is correct...then here are a few ideas to combat the manipulation of our monetary (read: Democracy/Freedoms) systems by the additional suppression (read reduction)of the incomes of the masses; (A) Do NOT raise the Minimum wage, (B)In lieu of raising the minimum wage they should REDUCE it (Ultimately it should be ABOLISHED altogether), (C) Raise taxes on middle and low income-earners world-wide by 50% and reduce any benefits their taxes have paid for, (D) REDUCE (or eliminate) taxes on upper-income earners AND allow them to be more influential in policy making, (E) Make it harder to vote if not eliminate a "one-person/one-vote" representation, (F) Make "Citizens United" a world-wide position,(G) Scrap ideas (A),(B),(C),(D),(E)and(F) and implement the opposite regulations.

Ps: Mike Rowe said, "Hey...7% is better than nothing." (He further states, "I am not a spokesman for Walmart.")(Is he kidding?)(His is a "dirty job" but somebody has to do it...for pay.)

pntbutterandjelly

"Downside of low inflation: A weaker global economy"

That headline is the obvious. What is not so obvious (to many) is the full ramifications and more importantly the intent behind "a weaker global economy". With record profits being made by corporations in general...there is a further centralization of money and that money begets further control.

Contango

Re: "With record profits being made by corporations in general..."

Who owns public corps.?

OMG.LOL.WT_

Who owns public corps.? SOME of the public. People like you.

Dr. Information

Most of the people complaining about big corps have money invested in them. They are just to DUMB to know it.

Contango

Re: "SOME of the public."

You have no 401(k), IRA, annuity, bank account, cd or life insurance policy?

You have NO savings of any kind?

Billions of individuals and thousands of corps. world-wide own shares in publicly traded and private cos.

The list of owners is too long to mention here.

The Big Dog's back

I'm not sure why you keep bringing up the small investors. No one on here has a controlling source of ownership of a large Corporation. You act like somehow small investors are complicit in what the big boys do. The big boys didn't lose any money in the Great Recession, but the small investors did. So stop trying to group the small frys with the big frys.

grumpy

Re: " The big boys didn't lose any money in the Great Recession, but the small investors did. So stop trying to group the small frys with the big frys."

Well since the stock market dropped 50%, and according to you the big frys own most of the stock, their net value went down 50%. If you want to lie and claim the big frys sold before the drop, who but big frys could buy the stock? Since your so-called Great Recession the stock market has come back to what it was. The gov't has just told you that inflation is almost zero so where did you lose? Your gov't claims you haven't. You believe your gov't don't you?

grumpy

Almost all retirement funds are invested in corporations be they 401K, IRA, teachers pensions, union pensions, 406B, pension fund, whatever are in stocks and bonds. That means invested in corporations, many folks just don't want to admit it. Widows and orphans funds are invested in the dreaded corporations, especially banks, oil, and "big pharma". since those make a fairly stable percent of profit year after year. No big ups, but no down years. Those are the so called "blue chip" companies.

If you think inflation is imminent, precious metals, quality real estate,hard assets might be something you want to consider. If you think the world will crash.... gold, gas, and guns. If you think little will change, stocks.

Contango

Re: "If you think the world will crash...."

Remember the 'grub.' It'll be good for barter.