Earlier this week, there was a piece in the Financial Times by Michael Heise, chief economist at Allianz SE, arguing that the recent dip in Eurozone inflation to near zero is not a sign of economic weakness, but a sign of recovery reflecting increased competitiveness in the Eurozone periphery. Scott Sumner identified a systematic confusion on Heise’s part between aggregate demand and aggregate supply, so that without any signs that rapidly falling Eurozone inflation has been accompanied by an acceleration of anemic growth in Eurozone real GDP, it is absurd to attribute falling inflation to a strengthening economy. There’s not really much more left to say about Heise’s piece after Scott’s demolition, but, nevertheless, sifting through the rubble, I still want to pick up on the distinction that Heise makes between good deflation and bad deflation.
Nonetheless, bank lending has been on the retreat, bankruptcies have soared and disposable incomes have fallen. This is the kind of demand shock that fosters bad deflation: a financial crisis causes aggregate demand to shrink faster than supply, resulting in falling prices.
However, looking through the lens of aggregate supply, the difficulties of the eurozone’s periphery bear only a superficial resemblance to those plaguing Japan. In this case, falling prices are the result of a supply shock, through improved productivity or real wage reduction.
Low inflation or even deflation is testament to the fact that (painful) adjustment through structural reforms is finally working.
In other words, deflation associated with a financial crisis, causing liquidation of assets and forced sales of inventories, thereby driving down prices and engendering expectations of continuing price declines, is bad. However, the subsequent response to that deflationary shock – the elimination of production inefficiencies and the reduction of wages — is not bad, but good. Both responses to the initial deflationary contraction in aggregate demand correspond to a rightward shift of the aggregate supply curve, thereby tending to raise aggregate output and employment even while tending to causes a further reduction in the price level or the inflation rate.
It is also interesting to take note of the peculiar euphemism for cutting money wages adopted by Heise: internal devaluation. As he puts it:
The eurozone periphery is regaining competitiveness via internal devaluation. This could even be called “good deflation.”
Now in ordinary usage, the term “devaluation” signifies a reduction in the pegged value of one currency in terms of another. When a country devalues its currency, it is usually because that country is running a trade deficit for which foreign lenders are unwilling to provide financing. The cause of the trade deficit is that the country’s tradable-goods sector is not profitable enough to expand to the point that the trade deficit is brought into balance, or close enough to balance to be willingly financed by foreigners. To make expansion of its tradable-goods sector profitable, the country may resort to currency devaluation, raising the prices of exports and imports in terms of the domestic currency. With unchanged money wages, the increase in the prices of exports and imports makes expansion of the country’s tradable-goods sector profitable, thereby reducing or eliminating the trade deficit. What Heise means by “internal devaluation” in contrast to normal devaluation is a reduction in money wages, export and import prices being held constant at the fixed exchange.
There is something strange, even bizarre, about Heise’s formulation, because what he is saying amounts to this: a deflation is good insofar as it reduces money wages. So Heise’s message, delivered in an obscure language, apparently of his own creation, is that the high and rising unemployment of the past five years in the Eurozone is finally causing money wages to fall. Therefore, don’t do anything — like shift to an easier monetary policy — that would stop those blessed reductions in money wages. Give this much to Herr Heise, unlike American critics of quantitative easing who pretend to blame it for causing real-wage reductions by way of the resulting inflation, he at least is honest enough to criticize monetary expansion for preventing money (and real) wages from falling, though he has contrived a language in which to say this without being easily understood.
Actually there is a historical precedent for the kind of good deflation Heise appears to favor. It was undertaken by Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor of the Weimar Republic from 1930 to 1932, when, desperate to demonstrate Germany’s financial rectitude (less than a decade after the hyperinflation of 1923) he imposed, by emergency decree, draconian wage reductions aimed at increasing Germany’s international competitiveness, while remaining on the gold standard. The evidence does not suggest that the good deflation and internal devaluation adopted by Bruning’s policy of money-wage cuts succeeded in ending the depression. And internal devaluation was certainly not successful enough to keep Bruning’s government in office, its principal effect being to increase support for Adolph Hitler, who became Chancellor within less than nine months after Bruning’s government fell.
This is not to say that nominal wages should never be reduced, but the idea that nominal wage cuts could serve as the means to reverse an economic contraction has little, if any, empirical evidence to support it. A famous economist who supported deflation in the early 1930s believing that it would facilitate labor market efficiencies and necessary cuts in real wages, subsequently retracted his policy advice, admitting that he had been wrong to think that deflation would be an effective instrument to overcome rigidities in labor markets. His name? F. A. Hayek.
So there is nothing good about the signs of deflation that Heise sees. They are simply predictable follow-on effects of the aggregate demand shock that hit the Eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis, subsequently reinforced by the monetary policy of the European Central Bank, reflecting the inflation-phobia of the current German political establishment. Those effects, delayed responses to the original demand shock, do not signal a recovery.
What, then, would distinguish good deflation from bad deflation? Simple. If observed deflation were accompanied by a significant increase in output, associated with significant growth in labor productivity and increasing employment (indicating increasing efficiency or technological progress), we could be confident that the deflation was benign, reflecting endogenous economic growth rather than macroeconomic dysfunction. Whenever output prices are falling without any obvious signs of real economic growth, falling prices are a clear sign of economic dysfunction. If prices are falling without output rising, something is wrong — very wrong — and it needs fixing.