Inflation Is Still the Lesser Evil

CAMBRIDGE – The world’s major central banks continue to express concern about inflationary spillover from their recession-fighting efforts. That is a mistake. Weighed against the political, social, and economic risks of continued slow growth after a once-in-a-century financial crisis, a sustained burst of moderate inflation is not something to worry about. On the contrary, in most regions, it should be embraced.

Perhaps the case for moderate inflation (say, 4-6% annually) is not so compelling as it was at the outset of the crisis, when I first raised the issue. Back then, against a backdrop of government reluctance to force debt write-downs, along with massively over-valued real housing prices and excessive real wages in some sectors, moderate inflation would have been extremely helpful.

The consensus at the time, of course, was that a robust “V-shaped” recovery was around the corner, and it was foolish to embrace inflation heterodoxy. I thought otherwise, based on research underlying my 2009 book with Carmen M. Reinhart, This Time is Different. Examining previous deep financial crises, there was every reason to be concerned that the employment decline would be catastrophically deep and the recovery extraordinarily slow. A proper assessment of the medium-term risks would have helped to justify my conclusion in December 2008 that “It will take every tool in the box to fix today’s once-in-a-century financial crisis.”

Five years on, public, private, and external debt are at record levels in many countries. There is still a need for huge relative wage adjustments between Europe’s periphery and its core. But the world’s major central banks seem not to have noticed.