April 16, 2012
Taking a deeper dive into the definition of inflation
Sometimes our familiarity with a topic gets in the way of our understanding of it. I often think that about inflation. It's widely known that inflation is a condition of rising prices, or what my favorite macroeconomics text defines more precisely in this way: "Inflation is an increase in the overall level of prices in the economy." And while this idea is serviceable for some purposes, it's pretty inadequate if you try to think about how a central bank goes about the business of controlling inflation.
Here's an example. Friday's retail price report for March revealed that prices rose 3.5 percent from February and averaged 3.7 percent (annualized) over the first three months of the year. I think it's pretty clear we have seen an "increase in the overall level of prices in the economy" this year. But how should the Federal Reserve respond to this rise?
I'm not going to offer an answer that question. I'm a policy adviser, not a policy maker. But we need to dig a little deeper into the textbook to get a better understanding of the inflationary process and how a central bank contributes to that process before we offer up an opinion on the matter.
The inadequacy of the textbook definition of inflation is a topic that's been bugging me for a long time. It's silent about the cause of the rise in prices and therefore does not make any distinction about whether the price increase is a corollary of the policies of the central bank or from another source that a central bank can only nominally influence. This distinction is an important one. (For what it's worth, this 1997 article I wrote explains how I think the term "inflation" has come to be synonymous with "price increase." And here's why I think a deeper appreciation of what constitutes "an increase in the overall level of prices" affects how one thinks about the inflationary experience in real time.)
Here's how economist Irving Fisher put it in his 1913 article "The Monetary Side of The Cost of Living Problem":
"If it can be shown, for instance, that today the good things of this world are becoming scarce on the one hand while money and its substitutes are not becoming plentiful it would be reasonable to conclude that the fault lies with goods and not with money. If, on the contrary, it can be shown that money and its substitutes are becoming plentiful and that goods are not becoming scarce, it is reasonable to conclude that the fault lies chiefly on the monetary side."
Are all price increases inflation? Should central banks use their tools to fight against any rise in costs? The answers to these questions have important implications for how we measure inflation in the short run versus the long run, the horizon over which a central bank ought to be held accountable for achieving price stability, and how monetary policies should be calibrated in the face of rising prices.
In that spirit, the Atlanta Fed has developed an animated video that provides additional perspective on the issue of inflation—specifically, what sorts of price increases are part of the inflationary process that is under the control of the central bank, and which are not. This video is the first in a new series that covers economic issues and the work of the Fed. The video is part of the Atlanta Fed's new feature called "The Fed Explained," which includes a range of new and existing content. We hope these videos stimulate conversation on a range of topics important to the Federal Reserve. The format is targeted to the general public as well as to students and teachers, and we hope it provides an engaging supplement to the study of the Federal Reserve.
Let us know.
Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist at the Atlanta Fed
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July 26, 2007
Why Central Bankers Worry About Fiscal Policy
Today I again hand the keys to Mike Bryan -- now a fellow adjunct faculty member in the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business -- who provides us with a contemporary example of why it behooves central bankers to speak out when a nation's fiscal situtation gets out of whack:
The reports from Zimbabweover the past year and a half are the stuff that makes for good Money and Banking lectures. It seems that inflation in that country, as officially reported, topped 1,300 percent last year and may now exceed 3,700 percent, with some unofficial reports putting the country’s inflation rate even higher. Let’s put this inflation in perspective. If the last reported inflation number can be believed (the country’s Central Statistical Office recently stopped reporting the inflation numbers as it reviews its methodology), prices in Zimbabwe are doubling every month. Inflation of this magnitude renders the government-issued money virtually worthless, wrecking trade and financial institutions in the process.
While the rate of inflation in the African nation isn’t known for certain, there is little doubt it is extraordinarily high. Also not in doubt is its cause. All inflations originate from the same phenomenon—too much money chasing too few goods. In this case the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is rapidly printing Zimbabwe dollars in order to “pay” for a large fiscal shortfall.
In a recent IMF paper on the Zimbabwe situation the author argues that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s (RBZ) inflation problems stem not from the usual monetary or fiscal laxness that has triggered other “hyperinflations,” but rather “quasi-fiscal” losses incurred by the central bank itself. Still, the report concludes that these losses, which stem from some combination of credit subsidies, realized and unrealized exchange losses, and losses from open market operations, were nevertheless incurred to support government policies, and the failure to address these losses has interfered with the monetary management, independence, and credibility of the RBZ.
The immediate “solution” to the Zimbabwe inflation has been the imposition of price controls, an approach that has been attempted by governments ancient and modern, including our own. I can think of no better source on this topic than economist Hugh Rockoff of Rutgers. Zimbabwe’s controls are actually retroactive, in the sense that merchants have been asked to reduce prices to earlier levels. Predictably, the problem seems to have gotten worse—now there are even fewer goods for the Zimbabwe dollar to chase. When and where will the Zimbabweinflation end? I certainly don’t know. But I’ve got a pretty good idea how it will end, by a sharp curtailment of their currency expansion. And that’s the Money and Banking lesson. If a central bank wants to end inflation, either they better start producing goods, or stop producing money.
And that, I would add, will be a hard row to hoe unless the fiscal house is put in order.
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