Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Real Life Effects of Deflation

Deflation is defined as the decrease in the level of prices:
As economic theory dictates, the causes are a fall in the money supply, in addition to (in the short-run) a fall in wages and salaries.
Compensation of Employees (aggregate) Source: ECB
Just like any other economic happening, there are those who claim that any type of deflation is disastrous and should be avoided at all cost while others believe that it is wonderful (since it lowers prices) and we should embrace it. As usual though, they are both wrong. The answer, simply put, is that it depends on the severity, duration and the overall state of the economy at the time when deflation is manifested. What follows are three points on the effects of the current rates of deflation on the real economy of the Eurozone.

1. As long as deflation is not severe and not persistent then the effects on consumption are small.
There is no person who would be willing to forgo a month's consumption of food just because it would get cheaper next month. Parents do not tell their children "you will not attend university now because it will be 2% cheaper next year". We have some basic needs which we will continue to satisfy as long as the deflation rate is not so severe so that an apple will be worth 50% less tomorrow than it does today. Prices fluctuate every day and a deviation of 1-2% per annum for a short period of time (e.g. 1-2 years until an economy gets back on track) does not really change our incentives for non-durable consumption.

Nevertheless, there is an effect on what we call durable goods (e.g. houses, automobiles, etc) but these are just a fraction of what we purchase (approximately 1/3 of our purchases are of durable goods). Even though 1/3 may appear to be large, remember that the reduction in price is more severe in some sectors than in others; automobile prices have not dropped by much (if any) while real estate prices have sunk compared to 2006. In addition, when a person has lower income than before, the first thing he stops purchasing is durable goods, not everything else. Thus, the drop in durable goods consumption can be seen as a natural reaction to the overall drop in confidence, investment and subsequently wages. Still, if deflation persists and becomes even higher in 2014-2015, a large drop in the consumption of durable goods might signify a reduction in investment, resulting in more wage losses and thus creating a vicious cycle.

2. Deflation has a stronger effect when households and non-financial corporations are heavily indebted.
The reason is simple: given that aggregate wages have dropped, prices also drop, triggering another round of wage drop and so on. Although this is an issue for durable consumption as discussed above, it is also a problem when it comes to debt as it takes more money in real terms to repay the amount owed. Thus, if in a country most of its citizens are over-indebted (see all periphery countries) deflation is bad because it makes repaying that debt even harder. Not only that, but it also creates a "death spiral": the more people try to repay their loans, the less they consume and thus prices and wages fall even further making the real amount they owe even higher. This is exactly what happened with austerity policies: less spending means less consumption thus less income for the state, leading to higher deficits and debt and forcing new austerity measures once again.

3. Deflation equals lower prices but it does not mean it's good for us.
This is one of the most common fallacies ever: if prices fall then it is great. It is most of the times but it always depends on the reason prices fall. If they do because raw material are cheaper or because of a productivity rise then great. But if they happen because people have less money than before then your purchasing power is most likely hurt in the short run (prices usually do not respond fast to shifts in consumption, even if those are permanent). In addition, if we shift from inflation expectations to deflation expectations then what we will see is less and less consumption, leading to lower wages and then lower production. This is the time when deflation gets serious as, with higher rates, we can actually see the economy reach a halt.

What should be noted is that the severity of deflation has a direct effect on the magnitude of the above. If deflation is at a very moderate rate of 1% per annum for a year or so, then most likely its effects on consumption and loan repayment will be very small; more or less of the same extent of what happens in the economy during every other recession. Only if deflation persists, becomes larger and is embedded in expectations will we need to seriously start about the future of the economy.

In order not to come to the worrying part though, policy (here's looking at you ECB) should be re-addressed so that confidence in the region is re-instated. Otherwise, we will soon see if markets can adjust fast enough not to cause any major casualties.

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