Prospects for Inflation outside America – Guest Post from Menzie Chinn

Menzie Chinn, Prof. of Economics at University of Wisconsin, is guest posting this week:

I want to thank Jeff Frankel for the opportunity to be a guest writer on his blog.

A lot of attention has been devoted to how oil price and food price shocks have affected the US economy, both along the output and price dimensions. A general presumption has been that as long as inflation expectations remain well anchored, then one need not worry about 1970’s style stagflation (recession is another matter).

However, there are many places in the world where inflation expectations are not well anchored. Or at least we can’t tell if they’re well anchored or not. Figure 1 presents data for several key groups (using the IMF classifications): Industrial countries, LDCs excluding oil exporters, oil exporters and developing Asia.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Inflation rates defined as 12 month changes in CPIs, in selected groupings: Industrial countries (blue), oil exporters (black), developing countries excluding oil exporters (red) and developing Asia (green). NBER defined recession shaded gray. Source: IMF, International Financial Statistics accessed June 20, 2008.

It’s clear that inflation is surging in the oil exporting countries. This is occurring as reserves balloon (see Brad Setser has diligently tabulated on a number of occasions; e.g., [1]), often under pegged-to-the-dollar exchange rate regimes, and the monetary authorities are unable to sterilize money base expansion. Here, I can’t resist writing the identity:

Money Base = Foreign Exchange Reserves + Net Domestic Assets

As foreign exchange reserves increase, money base must increase, unless the central bank can (and will) sterilize by making offsetting reductions in net domestic assets.

This is why Feldstein has called for de-pegging from the dollar for oil exporter currencies [2] (for contrasting recommendations, see Paulson’s comments [3]).

Of course, this mechanism does not apply in all instances, there are oil exporting countries not under fixed exchange rates, but reserve accumulation nonetheless is making its way into money base creation. As government revenues increase, spending is also pushing up prices.

So, no surprise that inflation is rising in this group. But what is surprising is how much inflation has risen in the non-oil-exporting LDCs, and in Developing Asia (this group excludes NICs like Korea).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Inflation rates defined as 12 month changes in CPIs, in selected East Asian countries: China (red), Malaysia (blue), Philippines (green), Thailand (black), Vietnam (teal). NBER defined recession shaded gray. Source: IMF, International Financial Statistics accessed June 20, 2008.

Inflation has risen as food and energy prices have risen. Vietnam is the most striking example. And China, of course, has been in the spotlight, largely because of its economic mass. But note how Thailand and the Phillipines inflation rates have accelerated.

Now one might say this is all obvious – - but in several of these countries (e.g., China), energy prices were heavily subsidized. Raising these subsidized prices will – - in a mechanical fashion – - raise the recorded CPI. If prices were perfectly flexible, higher energy and food prices only represent a higher relative price for these goods. I’ll let the reader determine for him or herself whether that’s a plausible assumption. In any case, the net effect over the longer term is uncertain. Raising the subsidized prices means higher prices on those specific goods (possibly feeding into wages). But the lower government outlays for subsidies means smaller deficits (holding all else constant) and hence lower money base creation.

Is there hope to be derived from the fact that there are more inflation targeters now than there were during the previous episode of inflationary pressures, three decades ago? In a paper written two and a half years ago, Andy Rose documented the fact that inflation targeting has proven to be a relatively durable form of monetary regime. That is, compared to the “fixed” exchange rates, an average duration of an inflation targeting regime is longer. One observation I would make is that most of those inflation targeting regimes were implemented in a relatively benign global economic environment – - at least benign from the inflationary standpoint. While oil prices have been rising since 2002, it appears that the surge in food prices, on top of oil and non-food commodity prices – - is what has changed matters (Figure 3 recaps a graph from this post).

Figure 3: Log indices. NBER defined recession shaded gray. Source:.
(Of course, these oil and food price shocks may end a lot of exchange rate reimges as well).

By the way, Thailand and Philippines are classified as inflation targeters by Rose. Korea, also classified as an inflation targeter, has also experienced accelerating, but nonetheless lower, inflation (at about 4 percent). So, the jury is still out on the question whether the commitment to inflation targeting during this episode will result in a substantive difference in how matters play out.

On a more speculative note, one idea that has struck me is that, as inflation rates rise, it may become more difficult for the East Asian countries to maintain their exchange rates against the dollar at their current levels. Recalling (in logs):

qj = s – pj + p US

In words, the real exchange rate for country j against the USD (defined as up is weaker) will strengthen as the domestic price level rises, holding all else constant. That may in turn a be a harbinger of the end of the tendency for the East Asian countries to export capital to the US (although the overall US current account balance will tend to remain driven largely by domestically driven by the saving/investment balance in the US, and we know where the current trajectory of the US budget deficit is going…[4]).

Figure 4: Trade weighted broad real currency values, in logs. NBER defined recession shaded gray. Dashed line is at June 2005, the month before the CNY revaluation. Source: BIS accessed June 23, 2008.

So far, this remains speculation. However, over the past couple months, China’s real currency value has appreciated in trade weighted terms, which is remarkable when one keeps in mind the dollar’s depreciation over this same period. It remains to be seen whether the other currencies follow suit. That may hinge upon how these countries respond to inflationary pressures.