According to the BLS, the CPI fell in April and May (the "core" CPI, which excludes food and energy prices was flat in March and April and slightly positive in May). Moreover, the Atlanta Fed's Macroblog reminds us that the CPI tends to overstate inflation:
[I]n an article (available to all in its working paper version) appearing in the latest issue of the American Economic Review, Christian Broda and David Weinstein say the earlier estimates of the new goods/quality bias may be a bit understated. The authors examine prices from the AC Nielsen Homescan database and conclude that between 1996 and 2003, new and improved goods biased the CPI, on average, by about 0.8 percentage points per year. If this estimate is accurate, consumer price increases since last October would actually be around zero, or even slightly negative, once we account for the mismeasurement of the CPI caused by new and improved goods.
But (oh, you just knew there was going to be a "but" in here, right?) the authors also point out that, because new goods are introduced procyclically, this bias tends to be larger during expansions and smaller during recessions. In other words, given the severity of the recession and the modest pace of the recovery, there may not be a whole lot of innovation going on right now in consumer goods. This is a bad thing for consumers, of course, but it would be a good thing for the accuracy of the CPI.
Why is deflation a problem? One eminent scholar of monetary theory and history explained it thus:
Although deflation and the zero bound on nominal interest rates create a significant problem for those seeking to borrow, they impose an even greater burden on households and firms that had accumulated substantial debt before the onset of the deflation. This burden arises because, even if debtors are able to refinance their existing obligations at low nominal interest rates, with prices falling they must still repay the principal in dollars of increasing (perhaps rapidly increasing) real value. When William Jennings Bryan made his famous "cross of gold" speech in his 1896 presidential campaign, he was speaking on behalf of heavily mortgaged farmers whose debt burdens were growing ever larger in real terms, the result of a sustained deflation that followed America's post-Civil-War return to the gold standard. The financial distress of debtors can, in turn, increase the fragility of the nation's financial system--for example, by leading to a rapid increase in the share of bank loans that are delinquent or in default. Japan in recent years has certainly faced the problem of "debt-deflation"--the deflation-induced, ever-increasing real value of debts. Closer to home, massive financial problems, including defaults, bankruptcies, and bank failures, were endemic in America's worst encounter with deflation, in the years 1930-33--a period in which (as I mentioned) the U.S. price level fell about 10 percent per year.That's Ben Bernanke, in a speech titled "Deflation: Making Sure 'It' Doesn't Happen Here" given during our last deflation scare, in 2002. This one is far more serious because we have indeed reached the zero lower bound and are
Bernanke went on to explain that he believed monetary policy was far from powerless, even even after nominal interest rates had been driven down to zero:
U.S. dollars have value only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply. But the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.Two Questions:
1. Do we have a "determined government"?
Its hard to tell, sometimes, but this Washington Post report was moderately encouraging:
Federal Reserve officials, increasingly concerned over signs the economic recovery is faltering, are considering new steps to bolster growth.
With Congress tied in political knots over whether to take further action to boost the economy, Fed leaders are weighing modest steps that could offer more support for economic activity at a time when their target for short-term interest rates is already near zero. They are still resistant to calls to pull out their big guns -- massive infusions of cash, such as those undertaken during the depths of the financial crisis -- but would reconsider if conditions worsen.
Top Fed officials still say that the economic recovery is likely to continue into next year and that the policy moves being discussed are not imminent. But weak economic reports, the debt crisis in Europe and faltering financial markets have led them to conclude that the risks of the recovery losing steam have increased. After months of focusing on how to exit from extreme efforts to support the economy, they are looking at tools that might strengthen growth.
"If the economic situation changes, policy should react," James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said in an interview Wednesday. "You shouldn't sit on your hands. . . . I think there's plenty more we could do if we had to."
2. Would more aggressive Fed action really work?
Perhaps, but the worry is that, while the Fed can create money, it can't force people to spend it. Mark Thoma says "Don't Expect Miracles from Monetary Policy" and Bruce Bartlett reminds us that any increase in money supply can be offset by a decline in money velocity.
Update (7/11): From Paul Krugman, evidence on a trend toward deflation; see also his Times column.