Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Maybe economists should only have one hand

We have all heard many jokes about economists and how difficult it is to get them to agree on anything. Most economists always answer a question starting with the words "it depends" and then follow with the expression "on one hand...". I am not here to defend (or criticize) my profession but to point out how difficult it is these days to get a consensus among some basic macroeconomic issues.

As an example, the debate about whether inflation or deflation is more likely, and about whether the aggressive response of central banks is appropriate today is at the heart of some of the most basic issues in macroeconomics. The disagreement could potentially be the outcome of a more uncertain world but seeing how strong are the beliefs of those who express a view on this subject, it seems that we do not have that much uncertainty at the individual level (those who believe that there will be inflation seem quite sure about, same for those who are concerned about deflation) but rather a polarization of views.

One example that I always find interesting is the debate that one finds in the minutes of the monetary policy meetings at the Bank of Japan. When discussing the inflation outlook in Japan in recent yeras, you can always find views on both sides, those who are concerned with deflation and those who are concerned with inflation picking up. Here is a paragraph from the meeting back in April 2010.

"Regarding risks to prices, some members said that attention should continue to be paid to a possible decline in medium- to long-term inflation expectations. One member expressed the view that attention should also be paid to the upside risk that a surge in commodity prices due to an overheating of emerging and commodity-exporting economies could lead to a higher-than-expected rate of change in Japan's CPI."

Of course, given the last 10 years of data in Japan, it seems awkward that some are concerned with the upside risk to inflation. While one cannot completely rule out this possibility maybe erring on the other side, making the mistake of letting inflation be "too high", for a few years would be good for the Japanese economy.

Clearly the US or Europe are not in the same situation as Japan but given some of the recent commentary about inflation I wonder whether we are getting close to a debate with too many hands and too many scenarios that leads to a lack of strong actions in the right direction. One can make mistakes in both directions (too much or too little inflation) and only time will tell in which direction our mistakes go, but given what we know about inflation, inflation expectations and long-term interest rates (all of them are low, stable or falling), it seems that we are worrying too much about the potential mistake of being too aggressive when it comes to monetary policy.

Antonio Fatás
on November 10, 2010 |   Edit