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Right now, we’re focused on getting inflation back under control and on the pain it’s causing. But it’s started slowing, with luck we’ll avoid a recession, and before long the cost of living won’t be such a worry. All will be back to normal. Is that what you think? Don’t be so sure.
There are reasons to expect that various factors will be disrupting the economy and causing prices to jump, making it hard for the Reserve Bank to keep inflation steady in its 2 per cent to 3 per cent target range.
Departing RBA governor Dr Philip Lowe warned about this late last year, and the Nobel Laureate Michael Spence, of Stanford University, has given a similar warning.
A big part of the recent surge in prices came from disruptions caused by the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. Such disruptions to the supply (production) side of the economy are unusual.
But Lowe and Spence warn that they’re likely to become much more common.
For about the past three decades, it was relatively easy for the Reserve and other rich-country central banks to keep the rate of inflation low and reasonably stable.
You could assume that the supply side of the economy was just sitting in the background, producing a few percentage points more goods and services each year, in line with the growth in the working population, business investment and productivity improvement.
So it was just a matter of using interest rates to manage the demand for goods and services through the undulations of the business cycle.
When households’ demand grew a bit faster than the growth in supply, you raised interest rates to discourage spending. When households’ demand was weaker than supply, you cut interest rates to encourage spending.
RBA governor Philip Lowe’s term in the role ends in September.Credit: Bloomberg
It was all so easy that central banks congratulated themselves for the mastery with which they’d been able to keep things on an even keel.
In truth, they were getting more help than they knew from a structural change – the growing globalisation of the world’s economies as reduced barriers to trade and foreign investment increased the trade and money flows between the developed and developing economies.
The steady growth in trade in raw materials, components and manufactured goods added to the production capacity available to the rich economies. Oversimplifying, China (and, in truth, the many emerging economies it traded with) became the global centre of manufacturing.
This huge increase in the world’s production capacity – supply – kept downward pressure on the prices of goods around the world, thus making it easy to keep inflation low.
Over time, however – and rightly so – the spare capacity was reduced as the workers in developing countries became better paid and able to consume a bigger share of world production.
Then came the pandemic and its almost instantaneous spread around the world – itself a product of globalisation. But no sooner did the threat from the virus recede than we – and the other rich countries – were hit by the worst bout of inflation in 30 years or so.
Why? Ostensibly, because of the pandemic and the consequences of our efforts to limit the spread of the virus by locking down the economy.
People all over the world, locked in their homes, spent like mad on goods they could buy online. Pretty soon there was a shortage of many goods, and a shortage of ships and shipping containers to move those goods from where they were made to where the customers were.
Then there were the price rises caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine and by the rich economies’ trade sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas. So, unusually, disruptions to supply – temporary, we hope – are a big part of the recent inflation surge.
The process of globalisation, which did so much to keep inflation low, is now reversing.
But, the central bankers insist, the excessive zeal with which we used government spending and interest-rate cuts to protect the economy and employment during the lockdowns has left us also with excess demand for goods and services.
Not to worry. The budget surplus and dramatic reversal of interest rates will soon fix that. Whatever damage we end up doing to households, workers and businesses, demand will be back in its box and not pushing up prices.
Which brings us to the point. It’s clear to Lowe, Spence and others that disruptions to the supply side of the economy won’t be going away.
For a start, the process of globalisation, which did so much to keep inflation low, is now reversing. The disruption to supply chains during the pandemic is prompting countries to move to arrangements that are more flexible, but more costly.
The United States’ rivalry with China, and the increasing imposition of trade sanctions on countries of whose behaviour we disapprove, may move us in the direction of trading with countries we like, not those offering the best deal. If so, the costs of supply increase.
Next, the ageing of the population, which is continuing in the rich countries and spreading to China and elsewhere. This reduction in the share of the population of working age reduces the supply of people able to produce goods and services while the demand for goods and services keeps growing. Result: another source of upward pressure on prices.
And not forgetting climate change. One source of higher prices will be hiccups in the transition to renewable energy. No new coal and gas-fired power stations are being built, but the existing generators may wear out before we’ve got enough renewable energy, battery storage and expanded grid to take their place.
More directly, the greater frequency of extreme weather events is already regularly disrupting the production of fruit and vegetables, sending prices shooting up.
Drought prompts graziers to send more animals to market, causing meat prices to fall, but when the drought breaks, and they start rebuilding their herds, prices shoot up.
Put this together and it suggests we’ll have the supply side exerting steady underlying – “structural” – pressure on prices, as well as frequent adverse shocks to supply. Keeping inflation in the target range is likely to be a continuing struggle.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.
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