The NYT persists in pushing the bizarre notion that something horrible happens to economies when the inflation rate crosses zero and turns negative. Today it gave us an article with the headline of an article, "Euro Zone Edges Closer to Dreaded Deflation."
The story is that inflation in the year ending in May was just 0.5 percent, as compared to 0.7 percent for the year ending in April. It tells readers:
"Many economists say that inflation is already well below the danger zone for tipping into deflation, and some analysts have taken to calling the condition 'lowflation.'
Come on folks, this makes zero sense. Borrowers face higher real interest rates any time the inflation rate falls. If borrowers had negotiated mortgages anticipating a 2.0 percent inflation rate, then the drop to 1.0 percent means that the real burden of the mortgage is larger than expected. If the inflation rate falls to zero then the real burden of the mortgage is even larger. If it becomes negative so that prices are falling at the rate of 1.0 percent a year the situation is even worse. But the drop from zero to -1.0 percent is not different from the drop from 1.0 percent to 0.0 percent, or 2.0 percent to 1.0 percent. Each increases the burden on debtors.
A basic understanding of the inflation rate should make this point clear. It is an aggregate of millions of different price changes. When the aggregate rate is near zero the prices of many items are already falling. Crossing zero would just mean that the percentage of items with falling prices has increased. How could that possibly be of great consequence for the economy?
The prices in the index are also quality adjusted price. This often lead to situations in which the quality adjusted price shows declines even if the actual price of the product increased. There have been several months in the last few years in which the quality adjusted price of cars showed a decline. I doubt there were any months in which new car prices actually fell. Are we supposed to believe that something awful happens in the economy if the statistical agency finds that products are improving at a more rapid rate and therefore quality adjusted prices are now falling?
Even the idea that the year over year measure provides some vital statistic is silly on its face. Suppose prices fell at 0.6 percent rate in both June and July of 2013 and have risen at a 0.1 percent rate in the subsequent 10 months. (We'll assume that they rose by 0.5 percent in May of 2013 so the year over year inflation rate had not previously been negative.) Does something bad now happen that we have a 12 month period in which the change in prices was negative?
This really is not hard. The problem is lower than desired inflation, end of story. Whether or not the inflation rate actually turns negative and becomes deflation means zero.
Note: Dates corrected, thanks folks.