Today’s announcement of the prelminary estimate of GDP for the fourth quarter of 2011 showed a modest improvement over the anemic growth rates earlier in the year, confirming the general impression that things have stopped getting worse. But we are barely at the long-run trend rate of growth, which means that there is still no recovery, in the sense of actually making up the ground lost relative to the long-run trend line since the Little Depression started.
The other striking result of the GDP report is that NGDP growth actually fell in the fourth quarter to a 3.2% annual rate, implying that inflation as measured by the GDP price deflator was only at a 0.4% annual rate, a sharp decline from the 2.6-2.7% rates of the previous three quarters. The decline reflects a possible tightening of monetary policy after QE2 was allowed to expire (though as long as the Fed is paying 0.25% interest on reserves, it is difficult to assess the stance of monetary policy) as well as the passing of the supply-side disturbances of last winter that fueled a rise in energy and commodity prices. So we now seem to be back at our new trend inflation rate, a rate clearly well under the 2% target that the FOMC has nominally adopted.
Despite the continuing cries about currency debasement and the danger of hyperinflation from all the usual suspects, current rates of inflation remain at historically low levels. The first of the two accompanying charts tracks the GDP price deflator since 1983. The deflator is clearly well below the rates that have prevailed since 1983 when the recovery to the 1981-82 recession started under the sainted Ronald Reagan of blessed memory. The divergence between inflation in the Reagan era and the Obama era is striking. Inflation under the radical Barack Obama is well below inflation under that quintessential conservative, Ronald Reagan. Go figure!
The companion chart tracks the Personal Consumption Price index over the same period. The PCE index is similar to the CPI, and shows a similar (but even sharper) decline in the fourth quarter compared to the higher rates earlier in the year, owing to the importance of food and energy prices in the PCE index. Again the contrast between inflation under Reagan and under Obama is clear.
In his press conference on Wednesday, Bernanke signaled, to the apparent dismay of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, that he will push for a monetary policy that adjusts as needed to keep the inflation rate from falling below 2% and might even tolerate some overshooting while unemployment remains unusually high. That signal apparently caused an immediate increase in inflation expectations as measured by the TIPS spread. The increase in inflation expecations was accompanied by a further decline in real interest rates, now -1% on 5-year TIPS and -0.16% on 10-year TIPS. With real interest rates that low, perhaps we will see a further increase in investment and a further increase in household purchases of consumer durables. Perhaps some small reason for optimism amid all the reasons to be depressed.