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Why Low Inflation Is No Surprise

The persistence of low inflation in developed countries in recent years has confounded central bankers and economic policymakers, because they believe that declining unemployment should drive up aggregate demand, and thus prices. But what if many of the assumptions underlying the conventional wisdom about inflation no longer apply?

BERKELEY – The fact that inflation has remained stubbornly low across the global North has come as a surprise to many economic observers. In September, the always sharp and thoughtful Nouriel Roubini of New York University attributed this trend to positive shocks to aggregate supply – meaning the supply of certain goods has increased, driving down prices.

As a result, Roubini observed, “core inflation has fallen” even though the “recent growth acceleration in the advanced economies would be expected to bring with it a pickup in inflation.” Meanwhile, the US Federal Reserve “has justified its decision to start normalizing rates, despite below-target core inflation, by arguing that the inflation-weakening supply-side shocks are temporary.” Roubini concludes that, “even though central banks aren’t willing to give up on their formal 2% inflation target, they are willing to prolong the timeline for achieving it.”

In my view, interpreting today’s low inflation as a symptom of temporary supply-side shocks will most likely prove to be a mistake. This diagnosis seems to misread the historical evidence from the period between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, and is thus based on a fundamentally flawed assumption about the primary driver of inflation in the global North since World War II.

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