HAVING a little bit of inflation is like being a little bit pregnant. Is that old adage worth bearing in mind as consumer prices across the globe accelerate? Marquette Turner takes a look at what's going on.
According to an index produced by Goldman Sachs, global inflation was 4.8% in the year to November, two percentage points up from the previous year. Prices accelerated in 80% of the countries that Goldman tracks.
By historical standards, this is all small fry. An inflation rate of 5% hardly marks a return to the double-digit price increases that haunted rich countries in the 1970s and emerging economies for far longer. (For much of the 1990s, the average inflation rate in poor countries was 50%.)
Nonetheless, the upswing is broad enough to pose awkward questions. With ever more signals, from weak retail sales to rising joblessness, pointing to an American recession, is the world headed for a bout of stagflation-lite? And will stubborn price pressures constrain the marked easing of monetary policy that America's central bankers now promise?
As The Economist reports, the answers depend on what has been driving inflation up and whether those pressures persist even as economies slow. Ultimately, inflation is a monetary phenomenon, so responsibility lies with central bankers.
Pessimists point out that monetary conditions have been loose in recent years, with real interest rates low and credit growth rapid, particularly in emerging economies.
Others worry that the task of central bankers has become harder as globalisation has shifted from being a disinflationary phenomenon to an inflationary one. The downward price pressure from cheap Chinese goods may be abating while the developing world's rampant demand for resources may continually drive commodity prices higher.
There is some truth to these arguments, but none offers a complete explanation of recent price trends. In some emerging economies monetary laxness is clearly fuelling inflation—in the Gulf states, for instance, as the direct consequence of their dollar pegs.
But elsewhere the picture is less clear. Take China, where fears of social unrest have made inflation one of the government's top concerns and have led it to impose various price controls over the past week. The accumulation of vast foreign-exchange reserves has fuelled domestic money growth and the inflation rate has tripled in the past year. But that rise is almost entirely due to a jump in food prices, particularly of pork. Core inflation (excluding food, but including oil) is running at only 1.4%. Pig disease deserves more blame for China's recent inflation than loose policy. What's more, China's monetary conditions are tightening fast.
More important, China's productivity is growing faster, by 20% a year, according to America's Conference Board, a research organisation. That means overall unit costs are still falling.
It is true that the prices of imports from China are rising after several years of decline. But that has more to do with the weakness of the dollar than with increasing Chinese production costs. And even if the prices of Chinese goods rise, they could still dampen inflation in richer economies, because they are much cheaper than domestically produced equivalents and are gaining market share. As China produces higher value items, it will push down prices of domestically produced goods in ever more industries.
A more direct link between developing countries such as China and inflationary pressure comes through commodity prices. The prices of many raw materials have surged in the past 12 months. The food index is up by almost 50%. The price of oil has risen almost 80%. These jumps are the main cause of higher inflation across the globe. They are also related, at least in part, to structural changes in the global economy.
The world economy is increasingly powered by countries, such as China and India, whose growth is far more energy- and commodity-intensive than that of rich countries. Since 2001, China has accounted for about half of the increase in the world's demand for metals and almost two-fifths of the increase in oil demand.
This shift means that the usual relationship between America's business cycle and commodity prices may change. Past American recessions have sent the prices of oil and other resources down. That may no longer be so. Economists at HSBC say that the correlations between industrial output and commodity prices began to fall apart a few years ago.
But that does not mean commodity prices will continue to surge. Emerging economies may be more resilient to an American recession than hitherto, but they are unlikely to grow faster. At the margin, therefore, the demand for commodities will slow. And in the longer term, higher commodity prices will eventually lead to greater supply. Much of the surge in raw-material prices in recent years reflects the fact that few foresaw the pace of emerging-market growth. All of which suggests that, even if commodity prices don't fall, their rate of increase will ease, and the biggest driver of recent global price pressure will weaken.
Given the American backdrop, the Fed's recent decision to step up the pace of interest-rate cuts is understandable. The weak economy poses a bigger danger than inflation. But there are risks. Even if commodity-price inflation wanes, the falling dollar means America faces other inflationary threats. And if overall price pressure remains stubbornly elevated, inflation expectations may yet rise. If that happens, the Fed will face the unenviable task of curtailing its easing or even raising rates while the economy is weak.
Simon Turner email@example.com