Thursday, May 11, 2017

"New rule #1: a 3 percent inflation target"

That's Thomas Palley's rule, a higher inflation target. Palley says

First and foremost, the Fed should raise its inflation target to 3 percent, or even as high as 5 percent. The current 2 percent target is a cap that inevitably keeps the economy in Wall Street’s bliss zone, and prevents the party from reaching Main Street.

I like Palley's "bliss zone" graph. But I don't see inflation as a solution to economic problems. When I took Econ 101 in the 1970s, the goal of policy was economic growth with price stability. If price stability is a goal, you don't get there by increasing the inflation target. And if the 2% target does not allow decent economic growth, then the proper response is not simply to raise the target. The proper response is to figure out why decent growth now requires higher inflation. In other words, the proper response is to figure out what the problem really is. Raising the target does nothing to discover that problem, and nothing to solve it.

Palley says raise the target. I want to look at that to see what the effect might be. And I want to look at inflation in relation to debt and GDP, for a few reasons:

1. Inflation changes GDP, but doesn't change debt.
2. Debt (private debt) is too high and must be reduced.
3. I want to see how Palley's plan affects debt and GDP.

I'll look at credit market debt relative to GDP (annual data) with inflation based on the GDP Deflator.

Palley says the inflation target should be 3% or maybe 5% instead of 2%. So, 1% higher than the target, or 3% higher than the target. But instead of imagining the future, I want to reimagine the past. I want to figure 1% higher (and 3% higher) inflation than we actually had in past years. I'll show higher inflation beginning in 1987, the year Alan Greenspan became Chairman of the Federal Reserve. I'll figure actual inflation, actual+1%, and actual+3%, and show all three together on a graph.

For debt I'm using FRED's TCMDO, which ends with 2015. So I'll be showing actual versus Palley-plan inflation for a period of almost 30 years. Maybe I should say: Palley proposes a higher inflation target for the future, not for the past. I'm just looking at the past because the data is available, to get a feel for how the Palley-plan future would turn out.

First off, GDP.  The blue line shows actual GDP (which is often called "nominal" GDP). The red line shows that same GDP and, since 1987, 1% per year more inflation than we actually had. That's the Palley 3% plan, where 3% equals target plus 1%. The green line shows GDP with 3% more inflation since 1987, the Palley 5% plan.

Graph #1
 The orange line shows GDP with all inflation removed. (This is often called "real" GDP.)  Usually, this line crosses the blue line in 2009, at around the 15000 level. I scaled it down to make it cross the blue in 1947. That makes 1947 the "base year".  You can see that very little of the economic growth we've had has been real growth, and that most of it has just been prices going up. Inflation.

You can also see that, compared to the actual (blue) numbers, Palley's 5% inflation target (green) more than doubles GDP, from less than $20,000 billion to more than $40,000 billion by the end of the 1987-2015 period.

Next, debt. I started with the year-to-year change in debt, because I'm figuring higher inflation for each year. I have to inflate each year's increase in debt separately. Maybe you plan to buy $10 of stuff on credit, but because of inflation it costs $10.50. I have to make an adjustment like that for every year from 1987 to 2015, to create my Palley-plan numbers.

Graph #2
Same colors as before: Blue is actual. Red shows 1% more than actual inflation each year from 1987 to 2015. And green shows an extra 3% inflation on top of actual. The orange line shows no inflation at all, as on Graph #1.

Next, debt again. Now that I have Palley-plan numbers for each year's change in debt, I can take those numbers and add them up to get total debt with the extra inflation already in it.

Graph #3
Now we have GDP and total debt, both adjusted for Thomas Palley's higher inflation targets. All that's left to do is match them up by color and divide debt by GDP. I come up with three different debt-to-GDP curves:

Graph #4
Blue is actual. It is the same as you would get using FRED data. Red shows the ratio when both debt and GDP are figured at an inflation rate one percentage point higher than actual. This is comparable to Palley's 3% inflation target -- one point higher than the existing 2% target -- except I am using actual data from the past rather than a target for the future.

Green shows the ratio when debt and GDP are figured at an inflation rate three points higher than actual. The green is the lowest of the three. One can generalize and say that some inflation brings the ratio down some, and more inflation brings it down more. Of course, this assumes that inflation affects wages and prices equally, and that nobody decides to use any additional credit. But you can see that inflation does have some effect on the debt-to-GDP ratio.

What I see is that the actual ratio peaked with debt at something over 3.5 times the size of GDP, that with 1% higher inflation for the 1987-2015 period, the ratio peaks at something under 3.5 times GDP, and that with 3% higher inflation for the same period, the ratio peaks at something under 3 times the size of GDP.

Is it worth it? Today, instead of having a little over 60 trillion dollars in debt, we would have a little over 70 trillion with the one Palley plan, and almost 100 trillion with the other. That's a lot of debt.

And GDP, instead of being about 18 trillion dollars in 2015, with the higher Palley plan would have been about 42 trillion. But since it is inflation that changed, not real output, it means that under the Palley plan the dollar today would be worth something less than half its present value.

I don't see inflation as a solution to economic problems.

The Excel file. Feel free to check my work.

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