The yearly growth rate of the US consumer price index (CPI) fell to 0 percent in September 2015, from 0.2 percent in August and, 1.7 percent in September last year.
The yearly growth rate of the European Monetary Union CPI fell to minus 0.1 percent in September from 0.1 percent in the previous month and 0.3 percent in September last year.
Also, the growth momentum of the UK CPI fell into the negative in September with the yearly growth rate closing at minus 0.1 percent from 0 percent in August and 1.2 percent in September last year.
The growth momentum of China’s CPI eased in September with the yearly growth rate falling to 1.6 percent from 2 percent in August.
Deflation Fears Gain Steam
Consequently, many experts are expressing concern regarding the declining growth momentum of the CPI and are of the view that rather than tightening the monetary stance, central banks should loosen their stance further in order to counter the emergence of deflation, which is regarded as a major threat to economic well-being of individuals. For most experts, deflation is bad news since it generates expectations of a decline in prices. As a result, they believe, consumers are likely to postpone their buying of goods at present since they expect to buy these goods at lower prices in the future. This weakens the overall flow of spending and in turn weakens the economy. Hence, such commentators believe that policies that counter deflation will also counter the slump.
If deflation leads to an economic slump, then policies that reverse deflation should be good for the economy, so it is held.
Reversing deflation will simply involve introducing policies that support general increases in the prices of goods, i.e., price inflation. With this way of thinking inflation could actually be an agent of economic growth.
According to most experts, a little bit of inflation can actually be a good thing. Mainstream economists believe that inflation of 2 percent is not harmful to economic growth, but that inflation of 10 percent could be bad for the economy.
There’s good reason to believe, however, that at a rate of inflation of 10 percent, it is likely that consumers are going to form rising inflation expectations.
According to popular thinking, in response to a high rate of inflation, consumers will speed up their expenditures on goods at present, which should boost economic growth. So why then is a rate of inflation of 10 percent or higher regarded by experts as a bad thing?
Clearly there is a problem with the popular way of thinking.
Price Inflation vs. Money-Supply Inflation
Inflation is not about general increases in prices as such, but about the increase in the money supply. As a rule the increase in the money supply sets in motion general increases in prices. This, however, need not always be the case.
The price of a good is the amount of money asked per unit of it. For a constant amount of money and an expanding quantity of goods, prices will actually fall.
Prices will also fall when the rate of increase in the supply of goods exceeds the rate of increase in the money supply.
For instance, if the money supply increases by 5 percent and the quantity of goods increases by 10 percent, prices will fall by 5 percent.
A fall in prices cannot conceal the fact that we have inflation of 5 percent here on account of the increase in the money supply.
The Problem Is Really Wealth Formation, not Rising Prices
The reason why inflation is bad news is not because of increases in prices as such, but because of the damage inflation inflicts to the wealth-formation process. Here is why:
The chief role of money is the medium of exchange. Money enables us to exchange something we have for something we want.
Before an exchange can take place, an individual must have something useful that he can exchange for money. Once he secures the money, he can then exchange it for the good he wants.
But now consider a situation in which the money is created “out of thin air,” increasing the money supply.
This new money is no different from counterfeit money. The counterfeiter exchanges the printed money for goods without producing anything useful.
He in fact exchanges nothing for something. He takes from the pool of real goods without making any contribution to the pool.
The economic effect of money that was created out of thin air is exactly the same as that of counterfeit money — it impoverishes wealth generators.
The money created out of thin air diverts real wealth toward the holders of new money. This weakens the wealth generators’ ability to generate wealth and this in turn leads to a weakening in economic growth.
Note that as a result of the increase in the money supply what we have here is more money per unit of goods, and thus, higher prices.
What matters however is not that price rises, but the increase in the money supply that sets in motion the exchange of nothing for something, or “the counterfeit effect.”
The exchange of nothing for something, as we have seen, weakens the process of real wealth formation. Therefore, anything that promotes increases in the money supply can only make things much worse.
Why Falling Prices Are Good
Since changes in prices are just a symptom, as it were — and not the primary causative factor — obviously countering a falling growth momentum of the CPI by means of loose a monetary policy (i.e., by creating inflation) is bad news for the process of wealth generation, and hence for the economy.
In order to maintain their lives and well-being, individuals must buy goods and services in the present. So from this perspective a fall in prices cannot be bad for the economy.
Furthermore, if a fall in the growth momentum of prices emerges on the back of the collapse of bubble activities in response to a softer monetary growth then this should be seen as good news. The less non-productive bubble activities that are around the better it is for the wealth generators and hence for the overall pool of real wealth.
Likewise, if a fall in the growth momentum of the CPI emerges on account of the expansion in real wealth for a given stock of money, this is obviously great news since many more people could now benefit from the expanding pool of real wealth.
We can thus conclude that contrary to the popular view, a fall in the growth momentum of prices is always good news for the wealth generating process and hence for the economy.
Frank Shostak is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute. His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. He received his bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University, master’s degree from Witwatersrand University and PhD from Rands Afrikaanse University, and has taught at the University of Pretoria and the Graduate Business School at Witwatersrand University.
This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.