Will falling commodity prices cause deflation?

Some readers expressed concern about falling commodity prices, especially crude oil, and whether this will cause global deflation. This confuses the cause with the symptom.


Falling prices are largely benign except where caused by a contraction of the money supply. Commodity prices may fall when there is an excess of supply over demand, but this is soon absorbed by changes in consumer behavior. Discretionary spending will rise in response to the savings, so that aggregate demand is unaffected.

A contraction in the money supply, however, is far more serious. Slow growth in the monetary base (below growth of real GDP) results in less money chasing the same goods, driving down prices. Supply and demand in this case are unchanged, but prices fall because of a contraction in the money supply. Wages, however, are sticky and do not fall in line with prices, leading to falling profits, cuts in production and job layoffs. Falling income from lower profits and fewer jobs leads to a contraction in aggregate demand, causing further cuts to production and income.

Contraction of the money supply also places pressure on banks to reduce lending. This danger was highlighted by Irving Fisher in the 1930s. Contracting credit reduces not only new investment but forces existing borrowers to liquidate some of their assets, mainly stocks and property. The surge of selling, and limited availability of credit, drives down asset prices. A feedback loop results, with falling asset prices prompting banks to further contract lending — in turn causing more price falls. That is the central bankers’ equivalent of a perfect storm. The graph below shows how close we came in 2009 to a deflationary spiral.

Working Monetary Base

Slow growth in the monetary base caused a sharp contraction in bank lending (below zero) in 2009. Only prompt action by the Fed averted a 1930’s-style collapse of the financial system.

The Fed indicated in October that it will curtail QE and no longer expand its balance sheet to support money supply growth. Should we expect another contraction of the money supply as in 2008?

The answer is: NO. When we look at the graph of the Fed balance sheet below, we can see that total asset growth [red] is slowing. But bank deposits at the Fed — excess reserves that earn interest at 0.25% p.a. — are slowing at an even faster rate. That means that the actual amount of money flowing into the banking system is not contracting, but increasing.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

The following graph shows a net growth rate (of Total Assets minus Excess Reserves on Deposit) of more than 20 percent. Expect growth to slow over time, but the Fed can adjust the interest rate payable on excess reserves to ensure that it remains positive.

Fed Total Assets minus Excess Reserves

Deflation is a far bigger problem for the Euro. After a “whatever it takes” surge in 2012, the ECB attempted to contract its balance sheet far too soon — withdrawing treatment before the patient had fully recovered. They also do not have excess reserves on deposit, like the Fed, which could soften the impact.

ECB Total Assets

The result has been faltering economic growth and price levels falling dangerously close to deflation.

ECB Total Assets

The ECB appears to have recognized its error, indicating that it will expand its balance sheet if necessary to avert a monetary contraction. If they learn from their past mistakes, the ECB should be able to avoid any threat of deflation.

Resolving The Crisis And Restoring Healthy Growth: Why Deleveraging Matters? | David Lipton | IMF

David Lipton, IMF First Deputy Managing Director writes that when G20 leaders met at the height of the GFC they had two simple objectives: i) to resolve the crisis; and ii) to make sure it did not happen again……..

Progress has been hard in part because the measures called for under each agenda item to some extent undermine the other agenda item. The first objective, exiting the crisis requires strong enough demand to restore growth and jobs. At the same time, the second objective, ensuring sustainability and laying the foundation for a stronger global economy, requires deleveraging in many advanced economies, which will dampen demand, particularly if it happens simultaneously in many sectors in many countries.

Lipton points out that the actions of all major players impact on each other. He calls for deficit countries to continue fiscal consolidation and private sector deleveraging “in a sustainable way” and for “structural reforms to improve competitiveness”. Surplus countries also need to cut back on “reserve accumulation” and allow “more exchange rate flexibility”.

via Resolving The Crisis And Restoring Healthy Growth: Why Deleveraging Matters? by David Lipton, IMF First Deputy Managing Director.

Conversation with Bridgewater Associates' Ray Dalio | Credit Writedowns

The video below is an in-depth full hour-long segment and well worth watching. Notice that Dalio sees the credit accelerator as a key component adding to aggregate demand and the key component that creates instability in that demand. Unlike traditional econometric models that do not use the debt and credit stock as a consideration for a flow variable like spending, yet again we see that someone who anticipated the crisis does.

via Credit Writedowns

Keen to be heard | BRW

In 2008, private debt in the US grew $4.1 trillion but in 2010 shrunk $2.85 trillion as banks decreased their lending as a result of the housing crash. When subtracted from GDP, this fall in debt equated to a 38 per cent reduction in aggregate demand, leading directly to the “great recession” and unemployment hitting its highest level in almost 30 years. “This is what people find so confusing,” says Keen. “When you look at GDP numbers in the US, they’re not bad. At the beginning of 2008, US GDP was $14.25 trillion and today it has GDP of $14.75 trillion. That’s stagnant growth but doesn’t explain the enormous depths of the US downturn. It only begins to makes sense when you look at the fall in aggregate demand.”

via Keen to be heard.