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Sunday, October 13, 2002


An extremely comprehensive and well argued piece in this weeks economist - entitled interestingly enough of debt, deflation and denial - draws attention to the growing unease at a possible global drift towards deflation. In particular it points out the highly preoccupying situation of the German economy and the danger that, lacking any domestic policy instruments of her own - thanks to her Euro membership, she may fall defenceless.

The article also draws attention to the ongoing difference of opinion between the ECB and the Federal Reserve. Greenspan obviously takes the threat more seriously than Duisenberg. Time will show who is right

The world is still awash with excess capacity, in industries from telecoms and cars to airlines and banking. Until this is eliminated, downward pressure on inflation will persist. A good measure is the output gap, the level of actual minus potential GDP. Historically there has been a close relationship in most countries between the size of the output gap and changes in the inflation rate (see chart). When the output gap is negative (ie, actual output is below potential), inflation usually declines. The OECD estimates that America's GDP is about 1% below its potential. If growth remains at or below its trend rate of around 3% over the next two years, the negative output gap will persist into 2004, pushing inflation even lower. It would not take much to tip into deflation.

The Fed is at least aware of the risks. However, not all central banks may be either willing or able to learn from Japan's mistakes. Germany probably faces a higher risk of deflation than America. The ECB's interest rate of 3.25% is broadly appropriate for the euro area as a whole, given its inflation rate (2.2%), the size of the output gap, and the bank's chosen inflation target of “less than 2%”. But the ECB seems unlikely to cut interest rates until inflation dips below 2%. And its inflation target is arguably too low.

Even then, however, rates would still be too high for Germany. Since it is the highest-cost producer within the euro area, a fixed exchange rate tends to cause price convergence by forcing inflation to be lower in Germany than in the rest of the euro area. Germany's core rate of inflation (excluding food and energy) has averaged 0.6 percentage points below the euro-area average over the past three years; it is now a full point lower, at 1.1%.

Since interest rates are the same across the whole of the euro area, this implies that real rates will be higher in Germany and growth consequently slower. Germany's output gap, at an estimated 2.5% of GDP, is the second biggest after Japan among the G7 countries, and it is likely to widen. Deutsche Bank recently cut its growth forecast for Germany to only 0.1% for this year and 0.6% in 2003.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that, if the old Bundesbank were setting interest rates to suit Germany alone, they would now be below 2%. Worse still, not only is Germany unable to cut interest rates, but the EU's stability and growth pact also obstructs any fiscal easing. Nor can it devalue its currency. Stripped of all its macroeconomic policy weapons, Germany now runs a serious risk of following Japan into deflation.
Source: The Economist

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