Why Is US Inflation So Low?

CAMBRIDGE – Why has quantitative easing coexisted with price stability in the United States? Or, as I often hear, “Why has the Federal Reserve’s printing of so much money not caused higher inflation?”

Inflation has certainly been very low. During the past five years, the consumer price index has increased at an annual rate of just 1.5%. The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – the price index for personal consumption expenditures, excluding food and energy – also rose at a rate of just 1.5%.

By contrast, the Fed’s purchases of long-term bonds during this period has been unprecedentedly large. The Fed bought more than $2 trillion of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, nearly ten times the annual rate of bond purchases during the previous decade. In the last year alone, the stock of bonds on the Fed’s balance sheet has risen more than 20%.

The historical record shows that rapid monetary growth does fuel high inflation. That was very clear during Germany’s hyperinflation in the 1920’s and Latin America’s in the 1980’s. But even more moderate shifts in America’s monetary growth rate have translated into corresponding shifts in the rate of inflation. In the 1970’s, US money supply grew at an average annual rate of 9.6%, the highest rate in the previous half-century; inflation averaged 7.4%, also a half-century high. In the 1990’s, annual monetary growth averaged only 3.9%, and the average inflation rate was just 2.9%.