Inflation—Joining the Dots

Shifting Priorities Open the Door to Higher Inflation

July 26, 2021
2 min read

What You Need to Know

As the world starts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a range of factors are converging to create a new inflationary era. Crucially, the policy regime is changing, driven by the need to respond to emerging social and environmental challenges and help manage record peacetime debt levels. These developments reinforce longer-term structural changes that are ending the long period of disinflation that the developed world enjoyed from 1980 to 2020. Such secular trends include the reversal of positive demographics and the start of deglobalization. How did we get to this juncture? What can we learn from previous inflationary episodes? And what are the chances of a different outcome this time?

The average rate of UK Inflation
since 1700 under the gold standard
The average rate of UK Inflation
since 1700 under fiat, or paper, money regimes
14 cents
The real value of a US Dollar in 100 years’ time
if inflation averages 2.0% a year, defined by some central banks as price stability

Inflation is back. The most obvious example is US core inflation, which is rising at its fastest pace since 1992—close to when the inflation-targeting era began. Much of the upward pressure on prices reflects demand distortions and supply dislocations associated with COVID-19 and will probably fade with time. Even so, there are signs that inflation may be waking from its long slumber and beginning to shift to a new, higher regime. Markets are currently focusing on supply chains and pent-up household savings. These factors will help shape the near-term outlook and the extent to which upward pressure on prices is transitory. But they won’t tell us much about the longer-term outlook for inflation. Nor will the Phillips curve—the economics profession’s favorite tool for thinking about inflation—for reasons we discuss below. Where, then, should we look to join together the dots of information to get a picture of inflation in the years ahead? Structural factors—like demographics, technological progress and populism— should not be ignored when thinking about the longer-term outlook for prices. But our analysis suggests that the policy regime itself is decisive for inflation over longer horizons. And there are more and more signs that this is changing, driven by the response to rising populism, record debt levels and an ever-expanding list of policy priorities. To twist Milton Friedman’s famous dictum: inflation is always and everywhere a political choice.


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