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What is stagflation?

We ought to fear the "Spectre of stagflation", says the <em>FT</em>.

Inflation. Photograph: Getty Images

The Financial Times' lead story today highlights the "spectre of stagflation", the economic phenomenon where inflation spikes even as growth stays flat.

David Keohane and Claire Jones write:

Inflation expectations, as measured by the difference between nominal and inflation-linked bond yields, ticked up to near 3.3 per cent on Tuesday, levels not seen since September 2008.

Investor fears that the UK could be simultaneously hit by stagnant growth and high inflation, as experienced in the 1970s, were exacerbated by poor economic data pointing to the probability of another economic contraction in the first quarter of this year.

Stagflation—a portmanteau of "stagnation" and "inflation", if that's not clear—is one of the major fears in orthodox economics, because the two phenomena are usually viewed as a trade-off. Central bankers put up with higher inflation expectations to boost low growth, and vice versa; if growth is low and inflation high, those policy levers lose their effectiveness. Ultimately, the fear is that stagflation will be locked in in the long term.

The last serious stretch of stagflation was in the 1970s, and is largely credited with leading to the current inflation-averse international monetary regime. In Britain and the US, inflation expectations had ticked steadily upwards, thanks, in part, to the over-effectiveness of centralised bargaining over pay. The common story told is that, as unions began to demand above-inflation pay rises, they were granted frequently enough that the demands themselves increased the rate of inflation. The annual rate of change in RPI peaked in August 1975 at an astonishing 26.9 per cent.

This time round, inflation expectations are being raised by the actions of the Bank of England—albeit to nowhere near the same extent. Nonetheless, the Bank, having expressed a belief that inflation oughtn't come down until after the economy picks up, is responsible for the fact that expectations have hit the pre-crisis peak.

The fears of stagflation are currently just that—fear hasn't turned into reality yet—but, as with so many economic phenomena, it has a nasty tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, the underlying pattern of growth will turn from stagnation eventually, before inflation expectations get calcified at 3+ per cent; but if it doesn't, and the Bank of England is forced to keep inflation high in the face of the continued corrugated economy, we could see the current situation become the new normal.