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Can a temporary inflation hike help debt deleveraging?

Ken Rogoff at Harvard says it's a must:

 

In a conventional recession, the resumption of growth implies a reasonably brisk return to normalcy. The economy not only regains its lost ground, but, within a year, it typically catches up to its rising long-run trend.

 

The aftermath of a typical deep financial crisis is something completely different. …it typically takes an economy more than four years just to reach the same per capita income level that it had attained at its pre-crisis peak. So far, across a broad range of macroeconomic variables, including output, employment, debt, housing prices, and even equity, our quantitative benchmarks based on previous deep post-war financial crises have proved far more accurate than conventional recession logic…in a “Great Contraction,” problem number one is too much debt.

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Is there any alternative to years of political gyrations and indecision?

In my December 2008 column, I argued that the only practical way to shorten the coming period of painful deleveraging and slow growth would be a sustained burst of moderate inflation, say, 4-6% for several years. Of course, inflation is an unfair and arbitrary transfer of income from savers to debtors. But, at the end of the day, such a transfer is the most direct approach to faster recovery. Eventually, it will take place one way or another, anyway, as Europe is painfully learning.

Some observers regard any suggestion of even modestly elevated inflation as a form of heresy. But Great Contractions, as opposed to recessions, are very infrequent events, occurring perhaps once every 70 or 80 years. These are times when central banks need to spend some of the credibility that they accumulate in normal times.

The big rush to jump on the “Great Recession” bandwagon happened because most analysts and policymakers simply had the wrong framework in mind. Unfortunately, by now it is far too clear how wrong they were.

 

Rajan at U. of Chicago says it will do more harm than good in the long run, especially it will damage the Fed's hard-won reputation in fighting inflation:

Over-levered households cannot spend, over-levered banks cannot lend, and over-levered governments cannot stimulate. So, the prescription goes, why not generate higher inflation for a while? This will surprise fixed-income investors who agreed in the past to lend long term at low rates, bring down the real value of debt, and eliminate debt “overhang,” thereby re-starting growth.

It is an attractive solution at first glance, but a closer look suggests cause for serious concern. Start with the question of whether central banks that have spent decades establishing and maintaining anti-inflation credibility can generate faster price growth in an environment of low interest rates. Japan tried – and failed: banks were too willing to hold the reserves that the central bank released as it bought back bonds.

Perhaps if a central bank announced a higher inflation target, and implemented a financial-asset purchase program (financed with unremunerated reserves) until the target were achieved, it could have some effect. But it is more likely that the concept of a target would lose credibility once it became changeable. Market participants might conjecture that the program would be abandoned once it reached an alarming size – and well before the target was achieved.

Moreover, the central bank needs rapid, sizeable inflation to bring down real debt values quicklya slow increase in inflation (especially if well signaled by the central bank) would have limited effect, because maturing debt would demand not only higher nominal rates, but also an inflation-risk premium to roll over claims. Significant inflation might be hard to contain, however, especially if the central bank loses credibility: Would the public really believe that the central bank is willing to push interest rates sky high and kill growth in order to contain inflation, after it abandoned its earlier inflation target in order to foster growth?

Consider, next, whether the inflationary cure would work as advertised. Inflation would do little for entities with floating-rate liabilities (including the many households that borrowed towards the peak of the boom and are most underwater) or relatively short-term liabilities (banks). Even the US government, with debt duration of about four years, would be unlikely to benefit much from an inflation surprise, unless it were huge. Meanwhile, the bulk of its obligations are social security and health care, which cannot be inflated away.

Even for distressed households that have borrowed long term, the effects of higher inflation are uncertain. What would help is if their nominal disposable income rose relative to their (fixed) debt service. Yet, with high levels of unemployment likely to keep nominal wage growth relatively subdued, typical troubled households could be worse off – with higher food and fuel prices cutting into disposable income.

Of course, any windfall to borrowers has to come from someone else’s wealth. Inflation would clearly make creditors worse off. Who are they? Some are rich people, but they also include pensioners who moved into bonds as the stock market scared them away; banks that would have to be recapitalized; state pension funds that are already in the red; and insurance companies that would have to default on their claims.

In the best of all worlds, it would be foreigners with ample reserves who suffer the losses, but those investors might be needed to finance future deficits. So central banks would have to regain anti-inflation credibility very soon after subjecting investors to a punishing inflation. In such a world, investors would have to be far more trusting than they are in this one.

 


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