Saturday, July 18, 2009

So What's the Big Whoop about Deflation?

So Canada has registered it first “technical deflation” in 15 years in June 2009. More than a few people are having a very quiet freakout about this. A few, like Ken Rogoff (former research director at the IMF, now Harvard economics professor), John Makin (economist with the American Enterprise Institute, a hard-right conservative outfit) and Paul McCulley (portfolio manager at Pimco—who run the world's largest bond mutual fund) suggesting that this might be the time to bring back inflation—perhaps as high as 6% for a couple of years.
The spark behind this is the release of the consumer price index for the last couple of months, showing that in May and June, prices for consumers fell for the first time in years. While you and I might think this is good news, economists and businesses think differently about this. If the CPI is dropping, it begins to make sense, as a consumer, to put off spending money on anything. Why buy now, if in a month the price will have dropped? Does it make sense to spend 20K on a car if, by waiting a year, you can save $1100 (assuming an annual 6% deflation rate)? Of course not, particularly when not buying accelerates the deflation rate.
Again, as a consumer, this sounds great. Prices falling, money worth more instead of less (inflation eats away at the value of the dollar, making it worth less. Deflation reverses that), it sounds like good times for all. But with everyone sitting on their money, businesses find no reason to stay in business, or if they do, they certainly don't need to be as big. So as consumer spending falls, unemployment rises and the economy contracts. And if nothing kicks this pattern apart, it stabilizes into a long-term nation-crippling problem. Just ask the Japanese, who have been grappling with a structural deflation problem for over a decade now, since the collapse of the commercial real estate bubble.
We're not necessarily in that position here in Canada, as the major reason for our fall in the CPI is primarily the result of a 19% fall in gasoline prices. Although, nationally, prices increased at the pump 6.8% from May to June, prices have dropped 24.3% since this time last year. It should be noted that natural gas, car, and house carrying costs have all fallen over the last year as well, helping drive the CPI into negative territory. Phillip Verleger, a U of C professor and energy economist, is now forecasting a drop in the price of oil to $20/barrel (as predicted by peak oil theory, which forecasts a series of spikes and slumps in oil prices), which will hammer Oilberta—not so much in resource revenues, but in cancelled oil sands projects, unemployment, and concurrent collapse in consumer spending which will ripple out through the economy—and will continue to push the CPI into negative numbers. But, if you strip out the effect of oil/energy pricing from the current numbers, inflation is still tripping along at 2.1%, which is why this period is referred to as “technical deflation.”
So this is why our governments are all Keynesian now. The possibility of structural deflation is scaring the hell out of all of them and the corporate community. The system we live under is predicated on continual growth, and stabilizing that growth (removing the bubbles and crashes, inflationary and deflationary cycles) has been made job one for governments. Both corporations and the public dislike uncertainty, so uncertainty must go.
From an environmental point of view, a sustained period of deflation might be just the thing we need. But a deflating economy will have more trouble making the shift to a green(er) future than one that is growing. An expectation of profit is essential for businesses in order to get them to make changes in their business models.

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