Lingering Price Stagnation

What the Fed Fears: People Who Can’t Remember Rising Prices – Megumi Fujikawa 1/13/20

Figuring out the public’s expectations of future inflation—and trying to influence them—is core to any central banker’s work. Yet Japan shows how hard that becomes when many people barely grasp the concept of steadily rising prices.

“Those who were born in the 1980s and 1990s almost have no experience of inflation. So even if they were told inflation was coming, they didn’t believe it,” said Tsutomu Watanabe, a Tokyo University professor and former central banker.

A 20-year-old in Japan today has experienced average inflation of 0.1% over his or her lifetime. No wonder Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda’s repeated vows to reach 2% inflation haven’t worked out.

The Federal Reserve, like the Bank of Japan, seeks 2% inflation because it sees that level as consistent with a healthy economy. U.S. inflation has held close to but below the target for years, and Fed officials are reviewing their inflation targeting framework to avoid succumbing to the low-inflation trap that has bedeviled Japan. Among the options under consideration are approaches that would more explicitly allow or even encourage inflation above 2% in hopes of lifting inflation expectations.

The problem, central bankers believe, is that low-inflation expectations can be self-fulfilling if they cause consumers to balk at higher prices and businesses to refrain from raising prices and wages.

“Inflation that runs persistently below our objective can lead to an unhealthy dynamic in which longer-term inflation expectations drift down, pulling actual inflation even lower,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at a Dec. 11 news conference.

In recent years, Mr. Kuroda has pointed to research suggesting inflation expectations are adaptive: People predict future prices based on what they have seen in recent years. In practice, that means Japanese consumers have accustomed themselves to seeing everyday goods at low prices and punish any retailer that tries to raise them.

Even consumers old enough to remember inflation might not share a central banker’s 21st century perspective on it. To Messrs. Powell and Kuroda, achieving modest, steady inflation of around 2% keeps a nation away from a negative spiral of falling prices, declining wages and weak demand. But to the average person, rising prices sound like a bad deal.

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