Is the Deflation Cycle Over?

CAMBRIDGE – Until the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, deflation had all but disappeared as a concern for policymakers and investors in the advanced economies, apart from Japan, which has been subject to persistent downward pressure on prices for nearly a generation. And now deflationary fears are on the wane again.

By the mid-1960s, the advanced economies began an era of rising inflationary pressures, ignited largely by expansionary fiscal and monetary policies in the United States, and acutely compounded by the oil price hikes of the 1970s. Stagflation, the combination of low economic growth and high inflation, became a buzzword by the end of that decade. Most contemporary market forecasts extrapolated those trends, predicting an uninterrupted upward march in oil and commodity prices. Inflation came to be seen as chronic, and politicians looked toward price controls and income policies. Real (inflation-adjusted) short-term interest rates were consistently negative in most of the advanced economies.

Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s monumental tightening of US monetary policy in October 1979 ended that long cycle. Stagflation gave way to a new buzzword: disinflation, which accurately characterized many advanced economies, as inflation rates fell from double digits.

But disinflation is not the same as deflation. As shown in the figure, between 1962 and 1986, not a single advanced economy recorded an annual decline in prices. In many emerging markets, inflation rates soared into triple digits, with several cases of hyperinflation. As late as 1991, Greece had an inflation rate of about 20%. Even in historically price-stable Switzerland at that time, inflation was running above 5%.