The Winds of Deflation

shoppingThree economic reports Friday that should sound warning bells about deflation.

  • The Labor Department reports that consumer prices are essentially flat. Compared to August 2009, prices are up 1.1%. That’s only slightly lower than the 1.2% year-on-year rise in July. Excluding volatile food and energy, however, consumer prices in August were 0.9% higher than a year earlier. That’s below the Fed’s informal inflation target of between 1.5% and 2.0%.
  • In a separate report, the Labor Department said real average weekly earnings were unchanged in August from July, as both the average work week and hourly earnings were flat.
  • The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan September reading of consumer confidence shows consumers more pessimistic in September than in August. In fact, consumer sentiment is the lowest since August 2009.

Put the three together and you have what could be a recipe for deflation: Flat consumer prices, weekly earnings, and hours, coupled with increased pessimism about where the economy is heading.

Robert ReichConsumers aren’t buying. They’re acting rationally. Their debt load is still huge, they’re worried about keeping their jobs, they know they have to tighten belts, and they’re justifiably worried about the future.

But for the nation as a whole, it spells even more trouble. If consumers hold back even more, prices will start dropping. When and if they do, consumers will hold back even more in anticipation of still lower prices. That means more layoffs and less hiring.

It’s a vicious cycle. And once deflation sets in, it’s hard to reverse. Just ask Japan.

Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission

Published by the LA Progressive on September 20, 2010
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About Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.

Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.