Why not just lower the inflation target?
Some suggest that the RBA should just lower its inflation target. This reminds me of a similar argument back in 2007-08, when inflation had pushed above 4%, that the RBA should just raise its inflation target. Such arguments are nonsense. First, the whole point of having an inflation target is to anchor inflation expectations. If the target is just raised or lowered each time it’s breached for a while then those expectations – which workers use to form wage demands and companies use in setting wages and prices – will simply move up or down depending on which way inflation and the target moves. And so inflationary or deflationary shocks will turn into permanent shifts up or down in inflation. Inflation targeting would just lose all credibility.
Second, there are problems with allowing too-low inflation. Most central bank inflation targets are set at 2% or so because statistical measures of inflation tend to overstate actual inflation by 1-2% because statisticians have trouble actually adjusting for quality improvements and so some measured price rises often reflect quality improvements. In other words, 1.3% inflation as currently measured could mean we are actually in deflation. And there are problems with deflation.
What’s wrong with falling prices (deflation) anyway?
Deflation refers to persistent and generalised price falls. It occurred in the 1800s, 1930s and the last 20 years in Japan. Most people would see falling prices as good because they can buy more with their income. However, deflation can be good or bad. In the period 1870-1895 in the US, deflation occurred against a background of strong growth, reflecting rapid technological innovation. This can be called “good deflation”. However, falling prices are not good if they are associated with falling wages, rising unemployment, falling asset prices and rising real debt burdens. For example, in the 1930s and more recently in Japan. This is “bad deflation”. Given high debt levels, sustained deflation could cause big problems. Falling wages and prices would make it harder to service debts. Lower nominal growth will make high public debt levels harder to pay off. And when prices fall people put off decisions to spend and invest, which could threaten economic growth. This could risk a debt deflation spiral of falling asset prices and falling incomes leading to rising debt burdens, increasing defaults, spurring more falls in asset prices, etc.
The problem for RBA credibility?
The problem for the RBA is that inflation has been undershooting its forecasts and the target for several years now. The longer this persists the more the RBA will lose credibility, seeing low inflation expectations become entrenched making it harder to get inflation back to target and leaving Australia vulnerable to deflation in the next economic downturn.
Source: Global Financial Data, Bloomberg, AMP Capital