US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: 1970s

I am continuing my mini-series on US monetary history through the lens of my decomposition of supply inflation and demand inflation based on what I inspired by David Eagle have termed a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In this post I take a closer look at the 1970s.

The economic history of the 1970s is mostly associated with two major oil price shocks – OPEC’s oil embargo of 1973 and the 1979-oil crisis in the wake of the Iranian revolution. The sharp rise in oil prices in the 1970s is often mentioned as the main culprit for the sharp increase in US inflation in that period. However, below I will demonstrate that rising oil prices actually played a relatively minor role in the increase in US inflation in that period.

The graph below shows the decomposition of US inflation in 1970s. As I describe in my previous post demand inflation had already started to inch up in the second half of 1960s and was at the start of the 1970s already running at around 5%.

After a drop in demand inflation around the relatively mild 1969-70 recession demand inflation once again started to pick up from 1971 and reached nearly 10% at the beginning of 1973. This was well before oil prices had picked up. In fact if anything supply inflation helped curb headline inflation in 1970-71.

The reason for the drop in supply inflation might be partly explained by the Nixon administration’s use of price and wage controls to curb inflationary pressures. These draconian measures can hardly be said to have been successful and to the extent it helped curb inflation in the short-term it provided Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns with an excuse to allow the monetary driven demand inflation to continue to accelerate. It is well known that Burns – wrongly – was convinced that inflation primarily was a cost-push phenomenon and that he in the early 1970 clearly was reluctant to tighten monetary policy because he had the somewhat odd idea that if he tightened monetary policy it would signal that inflation was out control and that would undermine the wage controls. Robert Hetzel has a very useful discussion of this in his “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve”.

As a result of Burn’s mistaken reluctance to tighten monetary policy demand inflation kept inching up and when then the oil crisis hit in 1974 headline inflation was pushed above 10%. However, at that point almost half of the inflation still could be attributed to demand inflation and hence to overly loose monetary policies.

Headline inflation initially peaked in 1974 and as oil prices stopped rising headline inflation gradually started to decline. However, from 1976 demand inflation again started inching and that pushed up headline inflation once again.

In 1979 Paul Volcker became Federal Reserve chairman and initiated the famous Volcker disinflation. Scott Sumner has argued that Volcker didn’t really tighten monetary policy before 1981. I agree with Scott that that is the conclusion that if you look at market data such as bond yields and the US stock market. Both peaked in 1981 rather than 1979 indicating that Volcker didn’t really initiate monetary tightening before Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. However, my measure for demand inflation tells a slightly different story.

Hence, demand inflation actually peaked already in the first quarter of 1979 and dropped more than 5%-point over the next 12 month. However, as demand inflation started to decline the second oil crisis of the decade hit and that towards 1980 pushed headline US inflation up towards 13%.

So there is no doubt that rising oil prices indeed did contribute to inflation in the US in the 1970s, however, my decomposition of the inflation data clearly shows that the primary reason for the high and increase through the decade was the Federal Reserve’s overly loose monetary policy.

Finally it should be noted that the 1970s-data show some strength and weaknesses in my decomposition method. It is clearly a strength that the measure shows the impact of the oil price shocks, but it is also notable that these shocks takes 3-4 years to play out. So while oil prices spiked fast in for example 1974 and then settle at a higher level the supply shock to inflation seems to be more long lasting. This indicates some stickiness in prices that my decomposition method does not fully into account. As one of my commentators “Integral” has noted in an earlier comment it is a weakness with this decomposition method that it does not take into account the upward-sloping short-run AS curve, but rather it is assumed that all supply shocks shifts the vertical long-run AS curve left and right. I hope I will be able to address this issue in future posts.

In my next post I will have a closer look at how Paul Volcker beat the “Great Inflation”.


US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: 1960s

In my previous post I showed how US inflation can be decomposed between demand inflation and supply inflation by using what I term an Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In the coming posts I will have a look at use US monetary history through the lens of QRPI. We start with the 1960s.

In monetary terms the 1960s in some sense was a relatively “boring” decade in the sense that inflation remained low and relatively stable and growth – real and nominal – was high and relatively stable. However, the monetary policies in the US during this period laid the “foundation” for the high inflation of the 1970s.

In the first half of the 1960s inflation remained quite subdued at not much more than 1%, however, towards the end of the decade inflation started to take off.

What is remarkable about the 1960s is the quite strong growth in productivity that kept inflation in check. The high growth in productivity “allowed” for easier monetary policy than would otherwise have been the case an demand inflation accelerated all through the 1960s and towards the end of the decade demand inflation was running at 5-6% and as productivity growth eased off in 1966-67 headline inflation started to inch up.

In fact demand inflation was nearly as high in the later part of the 1960s in the US as was the case in the otherwise inflationary 1970s. In that sense it can said that the “Great Inflation” really started in 1960 rather than in the 1970s.

My favourite source on US monetary history after the second War World is Allan Meltzer’s excellent book(s) “A History of the Federal Reserve”. However, Robert Hetzel’s – somewhat shorter – book “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve: A History” also is very good.

Both Meltzer and Hetzel note a number of key elements that were decisive for the conduct of monetary policy in the US in the 1960s. A striking feature during the 1960s was to what extent the Federal Reserve was very direct political pressure by especially the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on the Fed to ease monetary policy. Another feature was the most Federal Reserve officials did not share Milton Friedman’s dictum that inflation is a monetary phenomenon rather the Fed thinking was strongly Keynesian and so was the thinking of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. As a consequence the Federal Reserve seemed to have ignored the rising inflationary pressures due to demand inflation and as such is fully to blame for the high headline inflation in the 1970. I will address that in my next post on US monetary history from an QRPI perspective.

A method to decompose supply and demand inflation

It is a key Market Monetarist position that there is good and bad deflation and therefore also good and bad inflation. (For a discussion of this see Scott Sumner’s and David Beckworth’s posts here and here). Basically one can say that bad inflation/deflation is a result of demand shocks, while good inflation/deflation is a result of supply shocks. Demand inflation is determined by monetary policy, while supply inflation is independent of whatever happens to monetary policy.

The problem is that the only thing that normally can be observed is “headline” inflation, which of course mostly is a result of both supply shocks and changes in monetary policy. However, inspired by David Eagle’s work on Quasi-Real Indexing (QRI) I will here suggest a method to decompose monetary policy induced changes in consumer prices from supply shock driven changes in consumer prices. I use US data since 1960 to illustrate the method.

Eagle’s simple equation of exchange

David Eagle in a number of his papers QRI starts out with the equation of exchange:

(1) M*V=P*Y

Eagle rewrites this to what he calls a simple equation of exchange:

(2) N=P*Y where N=M*V

This can be rewritten to

(3) P=N/Y

(3) Shows that consumer prices (P) are determined by the relationship between nominal GDP (N), which is determined by monetary policy (M*V) and by supply factors (Y, real GDP).

We can rewrite as growth rates:

(4) p=n-y

Where p is US headline inflation, n is nominal GDP growth and y is real GDP growth.

Introducing supply shocks

If we assume that we can separate underlining trend growth in y from supply shocks then we can rewrite (4):

(5) p=n-(yp+yt)

Where yp is the permanent growth in productivity and yt is transitory (shocks) changes in productivity.

Defining demand and supply inflation

We can then use (5) to define demand inflation pd:

(6) pd=n- yp

And supply inflation, ps, can then be defined as

(7) ps=p-pd (so p= ps+pd)

Below is shown the decomposition of US inflation since 1960. In the calculation of demand inflation I have assumed a constant growth rate in yp around 3% y/y (or 0.7% q/q). More advanced methods could of course be used to estimate yp (which is unlikely to be constant over time), but it seems like the long-term growth rate of GDP has been pretty stable around 3% of the last couple of decade. Furthermore, slightly higher or lower trend growth in RGDP does not really change the overall results.

We can of course go back from growth rates to the level and define a price index for demand prices as a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This is the price index that the monetary authorities can control.

The graph illustrates the development in demand inflation and supply inflation. There graph reveals a lot of insights to US monetary policy – for example that the increase in inflation in the 1970s was driven by demand inflation and hence caused by the Federal Reserve rather than by an increase in oil prices. Second and most interesting from today’s perspective demand inflation already started to ease in 2006 and in 2008 we saw a historically sharp drop in the Quasi-Real Price Index. Hence, it is very clear from our measure of the Quasi-Real Price Index that US monetary policy turning strongly deflationary already in early 2008 – and before (!) the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lets target a 2% growth path for QRPI

It is clear that many people (including many economists) have a hard time comprehending NGDP level targeting. However, I am pretty certain that most people would agree that the central bank should target something it can actually directly influence. The Quasi-Real Price Index is just another modified price index (in the same way as for example core inflation) so why should the Federal Reserve not want to target a path level for QRPI with a growth path of 2%? (the clever reader will of course realise that will be exactly the same as a NGDP path level target of 5% – under an assumption of long term growth of RGDP of 3%).

In the coming days I will have a look at the QRPI and US monetary history since the 1960s through the lens of the decomposition of inflation between supply inflation and demand inflation.

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