Archive for the 'Inflation' Category

Sep 23 2010

Is bicycle transportation an “inferior good”?

This article was originally published on May 12, 2008. It is being re-published since it relates to our current units in AP and IB Economics.

The Associated Press: Gas prices knock bicycle sales, repairs into higher gear

Greg Mankiw has an ongoing series of posts linking to articles illustrating the impact that rising gas prices have had on demand in markets other than that of the automobile.

One of the determinants of demand for goods and services is the price of related goods and services. As gas prices rise, drivers tend to switch from automobiles to alternative forms of transportation. A few days ago I blogged about the switch from tractors to camels in India, one illustration of the relationship between the price of one good and demand for its substitutes. Mankiw has so far linked to articles about the impact of high gas prices on demand for bicycles, small cars and mass transit.

These three “goods” are all substitutes for the most common form of transport among Americans, the private automobile (often times a gas-guzzler in “the bigger the better” America). When the price of a good like personal vehicular transport increases (in this case due to the price of an input required in private cars, gasoline), the demand for a substitute good will increase.

In the case of bicycles, evidence indicates that just such a change in demand is already underway in America today:

Bicycle shops across the country are reporting strong sales so far this year, and more people are bringing in bikes that have been idled for years, he said.

“People are riding bicycles a lot more often, and it’s due to a mixture of things but escalating gas prices is one of them,” said Bill Nesper, spokesman for the Washington. D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists.

“We’re seeing a spike in the number of calls we’re getting from people wanting tips on bicycle commuting,” he said.

Interestingly, the increase in demand for bicycle travel in response to high gas prices might be even more pronounced due to America’s sluggish growth, 4% inflation and rising unemployment. Real wages have seen little gain in the last couple of years as growth has fallen close to zero while prices have continued to rise. It may be possible that a fall in real incomes in America has spurred new demand for bicycle transportation, which could be considered an inferior good, meaning that as household incomes fall, consumers demand more bicycles for transportation.

Since bicycles represent such a drastically cheaper method of transportation, high gas and food prices, a weak dollar, and falling real wages accompanying the economic slowdown have had a negative income effect on American consumers, leading to increases in demand for inferior goods such as bicycle transportation

That said, having worked in a bike shop myself for two years in college, I can say that most consumers looking at new bicycles are not doing so because of falling incomes. Quite the opposite, in fact, indicating that new bicycles are normal goods (those for which as income rises, demand rises). However, the article states that in addition to increases in new sales, “more people are bringing in bikes that have been idled for years”.

It may be that while new bicycles themselves are normal goods, bicycle transportation as a whole is an inferior good. The increase in demand for new bicycles could be explained by the substitution effect (as the price of motor vehicle transportation rises, its substitute, bicycle transport, becomes more attractive to consumers) and at the same time explained by the income effect too (as real incomes have fallen, demand for the bicycle transport has risen).

This phenomenon is an excellent illustration of how the income and substitution effects work in conjunction to explain the inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded for automobiles (the law of demand), as well as the concept of cross-price elasticity of demand between two substitute goods.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Both the price of substitute goods and income affect demand for a particular product. How have both the prices of substitutes for bikes and the income of bike consumers influenced the demand for bicycles in different ways?
  2. What is the definition of an “inferior good” in economics?Do you believe bicycle transportation is an “inferior good”?
  3. Are all bikes the same? Do you think demand for some bicycles responds differently to changes in income than demand for other bicycles?

97 responses so far

Aug 28 2010

“Why can’t the government just print more money?” – NOT such a silly question!

I received the following email today, which gave me a great excuse to write a blog post about monetary policy! My reply to the teacher is below.

Jason,

I hate to bug you, but I have a question. I am a first year AP Econ teacher and I know something is going to come up right away and I want to explain it in the simplest way. “Why can’t the govt. just print more money?” I know the inflation part of it, but when I am reading to look for quality ways of explaining it, I see plenty of information about it, but I can’t grasp it. Principle 9 in Mankiw text states “Prices rise when the govt. prints too much money.” I feel like a dumb kid and I am supposed to teach this!!!!

If you can help, great, if not, I will figure it out.

Thanks,
Teacher

Dear Teacher,

I love your question! It is definitely one of those issues that gets glossed over in most economics textbooks. Or it is assumed that the money supply diagram makes it obvious why excessive monetary growth leads to inflation. But I agree, this is one of those things that for the first couple of years I taught economics, I probably didn’t really understand all that well either! So let me try to break it down in plain English for you. This will be good for me too, cause I always understand things more clearly myself after writing them (which is why writing a textbook is about the best PD I’ve every undertaken!)

So, here it goes:

Printing money and its effect on inflation is a bit more complicated than it sounds. In fact, it is the US treasury that prints money, but it is the Federal Reserve that determines how much money is actually in circulation in the economy. Money printed by the Treasury is distributed to the twelve Federal Reserve banks around the country. The treasury and the government of which it is a part does not have any say on how much money actually gets injected into the economy, as monetary policy decisions are left up to the Federal Reserve.

Traditionally, the Fed has one tool for injecting new money into the economy, a tool known as “open market operations”. (I say traditionally, because in the last three years the Fed has devised numerous new ways to “inject liquidity” into the economy, which I will not get into now). To increase the nation’s money supply, the Fed buys US government bonds on the open market from commercial banks. Commercial banks invest some of American households’ savings into government bonds just like they invest some of our money into individuals and businesses by making loans and charging interest on those loans. Commercial banks will want to buy government bonds if the interest on them rises and will want to sell those bonds when the interest rate falls.

If the Fed want to increase the money supply to stimulate spending in the economy, it will announce an open market purchase of bonds. When the Fed buys bonds, the demand for bonds increases, raising their prices and lowering their effective interest rate. As the interest on government bonds falls as a result of the Fed’s open market operations, banks find them less desirable to hold onto as investments and therefore sell them to the Fed in exchange for, you guessed it, liquid money, fresh off the printing presses!

Remember, the money printed at the Treasury and held at the Fed was NOT part of the money supply, since it is out of reach of private borrowers. But as soon as the Fed buys bonds with that money, it is deposited into commercial banks’ excess reserves and is therefore now in the commercial banking system and therefore part of the money supply. So, “printing money” does not immediately increase the money supply since newly printed money only ends up in the Fed; only once the Fed has undertaken an expansionary monetary policy (an open market bond purchase) does the newly printed money enter the money supply.

Now, commercial banks have just sold their illiquid assets (government bonds) to the Fed in exchange for liquid money. Picture the money market diagram and you will see the money supply increasing.

So the next question is, why does this lead to inflation?

Banks now hold more excess reserves, most of which are kept on reserve at their regional Federal Reserve bank. Reserves held at the Fed do NOT earn interest for the banks, and therefore actually lose value over time as inflation erodes the purchasing power of these idle reserves. Banks, of course, want to invest these reserves to earn interest beyond the rate of inflation and thereby create earn them revenue. In order to attract new borrowers, commercial banks, whose reserves have increased following the Fed’s bond purchase, must offer borrowers a lower interest rate. The increase in the supply of money leads to a decrease in the “price” of money, i.e. the interest rates banks charge borrowers.

So here we see why an increase in the money supply leads to lower interest rates. With greater excess reserves, banks must lower the rate they charge each other (the federal funds rate) and thus the prime rate they charge their most credit-worthy borrowers and all other interest rates in the economy, in order to attract new borrowers and get their idle reserves out there earning interest for the bank.

Lower interest rates create an incentive for firms to invest in new capital since now more investment projects have an expected rate of return equal to or greater than the new lower interest rate. Additionally, the lower rates on savings discourages savings by households and thereby increases the level of household consumption. Households find it cheaper to borrow money to purchase durable goods like cars and it also becomes cheaper to buy new homes or undertake costly home improvements. So we begin to see investment and consumption rise across the economy as the increase in the money supply reduces borrowing costs and decreases the incentive to save. Aggregate demand has started to rise.

Additionally, the lower rate on US government bonds resulting from the Fed’s open market purchase reduces the incentive for foreign investors to save their money in US bonds and in US banks, which are now offering lower interest rates. Falling foreign demand for the dollar causes it to depreciate. A weaker dollar makes US exports more attractive to foreign consumers, so in addition to increased consumption and investment in the US, net exports begin to rise as well, further increasing aggregate demand.

Increasing the money supply (not so much by printing money rather because of the “easy money” policy of the Fed), leads to increased consumption, investment, and net exports, and therefore aggregate demand in the economy. The rising demand among domestic consumers, foreign consumers, and domestic producers for the nation’s output puts upward pressure on prices as the nation’s producers find it hard to keep up with the rising demand. Once consumers start to see prices rising, inflationary expectations will further increase the incentive to buy more now and save less, leading to even more household consumption. Firms see price rises in the future and increase their investment now to meet the expected rises in demand tomorrow.

It does not take much for inflation to accelerate in such an environment. If the the government and the Fed do not slow down the increase in the money supply (STOP THE PRINTING PRESSES!) then soon enough workers will begin demanding higher wages and resource costs will start to increase in all sectors of the economy, causing the nation’s aggregate supply to decline as firms find it harder to cover their rising costs. Now we have both demand-pull AND cost push inflation! The weaker currency also makes imported raw materials more costly to firms, further adding to the inflationary environment. An inflationary spiral is now underway!

Milton Friedman said that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”. Controlling the rate of growth in the money supply, say the monetarists, will assure that the fluctuations in the business cycle will be mild and periods of dramatic inflation and deflation can be avoided. Stable money growth should lead to stable economic growth. But as soon as we start running the printing presses inflation will not be far behind. On the flip-side, contractionary monetary policies should in theory lead to the exact opposite of what I describe above and cause a deflation. If a central bank were to tighten the money supply too much, interest rates would rise, investment, consumption and net exports would fall, and falling prices would force firms to lay off workers, leading to high unemployment and an economic contraction.

I’ll leave you with one question to ponder (the answer to which would require a much longer article than this one!). If Friedman was right, and increasing the money supply will always and everywhere lead to inflation, then how is it that the monetary base in the United States increased by 142% between 2008 and 2009, yet inflation declined over the same period and fell to as low as -2% in mid-2009? That’s right, the money supply more than doubled, yet the economy went into deflation. Was Friedman missing something in his calculation that monetary growth always leads to price level increases? In other words, is an open market purchase of bonds by the Fed all that is needed to stimulate demand during a recession? Perhaps Friedman, who died in 2006 right before the US entered the Great Recession, would have to re-consider his famous quote if he could see the effect (or lack of effect) of America’s unprecedented monetary growth over the last three years!

57 responses so far

May 05 2010

Facts and the Phillips Curve: new evidence of the short-run trade-off between unemployment and inflation

Introduction: The following is a selection of a chapter from my new Economics textbook project, the Pearson Baccalaureate Economics text, which will be available to IB Economics teacher for the 2011-2013 school year.

It should be noted that the original Phillips Curve theory did not distinguish between the short-run and the long-run. In fact, the original Phillips Curve itself was a long-run model demonstrating a trade-off between unemployment and changes in the wage rate over a span of 52 years in the United Kingdom.

Up until the early 1970s, the Phillips Curve was treated as a generally accurate demonstration of the relationship between two important macroeconomic indicators. Throughout the 60’s data for the United States showed in most cases that increases in unemployment corresponded with lower inflation rates, and vis versa.

Year 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
UR 5.5 6.7 5.5 5.7 5.3 4.5 3.8 3.6 3.5 3.7
IR 1.46 1.07 1.2 1.24 1.28 1.59 3.01 2.78 4.27 5.46

As can be seen above, between almost every year of the decade a fall in the inflation rate corresponded with a rise in unemployment. The only exceptions were between 1962 and 1963, when both unemployment and inflation increased slightly, and between 1968 and 1969, when again both variables increased. Phillips’ theory of the trade-off between unemployment and inflation was generally supported throughout most of the decade, as the downward slope of the line in the graph above demonstrates.

Beginning in 1970, however, data for the US began to point to a flaw in the Phillips curve theory. Throughout the decade, both unemployment and inflation rose in the US, as oil exporters in the Middle Ease, united under the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel, placed embargoes on oil exports to the US in retaliation for America’s support of Israel in a war against its Arab neighbors. The resulting supply shock in the US led to energy and petrol shortages and rising costs for US firms, forcing businesses to reduce costs by laying off workers, while simultaneously raising output prices. Several other macroeconomic variables contributed to rising unemployment and inflation in the late 1970s, including the return of tens of thousands of troops from the Vietnam War who entered the labor market and found themselves unemployed as firms reduced output in the face of rising energy costs. The Phillips Curve for the 1970s told a somewhat different story about inflation and unemployment than that of the 1960s.

Year 1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979
UR 4.9 5.9 5.6 4.9 5.6 8.5 7.7 7.1 6.1 5.8
IR 5.84 4.3 3.27 6.16 11.03 9.2 5.75 6.5 7.62 11.22

Between 1973 and 1974, both the unemployment rate and the inflation rate increased significantly, and even as unemployment increased by almost 3% between 1974 and 1975, the inflation rate fell by less than 2% but still remained at nearly 10%. Unlike the 1960s, the 1970s was a decade of both high unemployment AND high inflation. By the end of the decade, unemployment was at approximately the same level as it was in 1963 (5.8%) but inflation was nearly 10 times higher (11.22% in 1979 versus just 1.24% in 1963). The Phillips Curve theory was apparently busted, as the seemingly random scattering of data in the graph above points to no discernible trade-off between unemployment and inflation throughout the 1970s.

Several prominent economists in the 1970s, including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, revived the classical view of the macroeconomy which held that policies aimed at managing aggregate demand would ultimately be unsuccessful at decreasing unemployment in the long-run, since a nation’s output and employment would always return to the full-employment level regardless of the level of demand in the economy. Friedman, whose theory of the macroeconomy would come to be known as monetarism, believed that changes in the money supply would lead to inflation or deflation, but no change in unemployment in the long-run. Monetary policy and its effects on aggregate demand and aggregate supply will be explored in more depth in a later chapter in this book. The basic premise of the monetarists, however, was that in order to maintain stable prices and low unemployment, the nation’s money supply should be allowed to grow at a steady rate, corresponding with the desired level of economic growth. Any increase in the money supply aimed at stimulating spending and aggregate demand would result in an increase in inflationary expectations, an increase in nominal wages, and a leftward shift of aggregate supply, resulting only in higher inflation and no change in real output and employment. Therefore, monetary rules were needed to assure that policymakers would not manipulate the supply of money to try and stimulate or contract the level of aggregate demand in the economy.

By the late 1970s, our current interpretation of the Phillips’ theory as including both a short-run and a long-run model became widely adopted. The short-run Phillips Curve may accurately illustrate the trade-off between unemployment and inflation observed in the period of time over which wages and prices are relatively inflexible in a nation’s economy. For instance, during the twelve month period between July 2008 and June 2009, the level of consumption and investment in the US fell as the economy slipped into recession. Unemployment rose and inflation decreased and eventually became negative in the final three months of the period. The graph below shows the relationship between unemployment and inflation during the onset of the recession in 2008 and 2009.

A clear trade-off appears to have existed in the twelve month period above. At the time of writing, it is yet to be seen whether the unemployment rate will return to its pre-recession level in the United States. Although in the short-run it seems likely that the downward sloping Phillips Curve holds some truth, a look at a longer period of time for the same country tells a different story. The graph below shows the unemployment / inflation relationship during the twelve years leading up to the onset of recession in 2008.

Looking at data for a longer period of time shows that even as inflation fluctuated between 0.5% and 4%, US unemployment remained in a relatively narrow range of between 4% and 6%. Year on year unemployment and inflation often increased together, while at other times demonstrated an inverse relationship as Phillips’ theory predicts it should. The narrow range of unemployment portrayed in the data above is evidence that the Long-run Phillips curve for the US between 1997 and 1998 was more like a vertical line than a downward sloping one. It appears that during the period above the natural rate of unemployment for the United States was around 5%; meaning that even as AD increased and decreased in the short-run, the level unemployment remained relatively steady around the natural rate of 5% in the long-run.

The 1970’s represented a turning point in the mainstream economic analysis of the relationship between inflation and unemployment. Demand-management policies by governments may be effective at fine-tuning an economy’s employment level and price level in the short-run, but as data from the 1970’s and early 2000s shows, in the long-run a nation’s level of unemployment tends to be independent of the inflation rate, and is likely to remain around the natural rate of unemployment once wages and prices have adjusted to fluctuations in aggregate demand. In response to supply shocks such as the oil shortages of the 1970’s, both inflation and unemployment may increase at the same time, calling into question the validity of the original Phillips Curve relationship. Despite the breakdown in the relationship between unemployment and inflation in the long-run, the evidence from the recession of 2008 and 2009 seems to support the theory that an economy in which aggregate demand is falling will experience a short-run trade-off between the rate of inflation and the rate of unemployment.

40 responses so far

Feb 05 2010

Economics in plain English: Understanding Argentina’s budget woes

Argentina’s reserves and its debts: Central Bank robbery | The Economist

I received the following email from an Econ teacher who wonders if I had any insight on a question posed by one of his students:

The email reads: “I have alittle query i was hoping you could help clear up for me..a year 13 student has asked a question relating to Argentina’s prime minister, Cristina Fernandezde De Kirchner’s, decision to sell the central bank’s dollar reserves to fund part of the country’s decifit against the advice of the director of the central bank who resigned.”

The student’s question is on the following passage from the Economist article above:

Fernández (Argentina’s president”) justified her raid on the reserves by saying that the Central Bank had more than it needed, because they exceeded the size of the monetary base. Economists disagree about what is an appropriate target for the reserves, but Mr Redrado’s view is that a highly dollarised emerging economy like Argentina’s needs an abundance of Treasury bonds (the form in which most reserves are held) as insurance. Even if Ms Fernández might find support from some economists for her argument, her plan to swap the dollar reserves for a non-transferable government bond would not.

The student’s question is: “I do not know what a monetary base is, nor why Argetina needs treasury bonds.”

This article really caught me off guard at first as well. One thing I love about the Economist newspaper is its use of economic jargon that requires a real understanding of the subject to be able to interpret. The first time I read the article, I will be honest I was completely confused as to what the Argentinean president was up to. But after some reflection and rough sketches of graphs on scrap paper, I think I have “translated” the article’s jargon into plain English.

Below is my reply to the teacher and his student:

Hello,

The president of Argentina wants to sell the country’s US dollar reserves, which are held in the form of US treasury bonds, and then use the US dollars she receives to buy Argentinean government bonds in order to finance her own government’s budget deficit. In essence she wants to swap Argentina’s central bank reserves of US debt (considered a very stable and safe asset due to America’s low inflation rate and relative solvency of the US government) for Argentinean government debt (less stable and safe, especially in the wake of the country’s 2002 default on its debt). Argentina’s central bank would then hold fewer transferable, stable US bonds and more “non-transferable”, Argentinean government bonds. And since the bonds represent Argentina’s government debt, the country as a whole reduces its assets and increases its liabilities.

It is important for a developing country like Argentina to keep large reserves of US dollar-denominated assets (i.e. US treasury bonds) in reserve in order to assure foreign investors that the country would be able to stabilize its currency’s value in the face of a currency crisis such as that which Argentina experienced in 2001-2002. If the value of the peso began to decline on foreign exchange markets (due, for instance, to a decline in international investor confidence in the government’s ability to pay the interest on its foreign debt or inflation fears caused by excessive monetary growth or government spending) then the central bank could use its large dollar reserves to intervene in the forex market and stabilize the value of the peso, reestablishing investor confidence and maintaining the government’s ability to attract foreign creditors in the Argentinean bond market. A collapse of the peso would have ripple effects throughout Argentina, driving up imported products and raw materials and causing spiraling inflation, forcing the government to print more money to finance its budget in the face of falling demand for its debt in domestic and international bond markets.

Argentina must be sure to keep its balance sheet (i.e. its liability to asset ratio) in check. Its assets are US government bonds, its liabilities are the Argentinean bonds it issues to finance its budget deficits. If this ratio become too heavy on the liability side, foreign investors and speculators will lose confidence in the both peso and the Argentinean government’s solvency and dump their holdings of Argentinean currency, assets, and bonds, driving interest rates through the roof and the exchange rate through the floor, grinding the economy to a halt.

The article says,

Argentina’s economy is on course to rebound this year and grow at 3-5%. But the government is spending money so fast that this growth will not finance current spending on its own, says Daniel Marx, a former finance minister. Ordinarily, a government faced with a shortfall would turn to domestic and international bond markets. But this has been difficult since Argentina defaulted in 2002.

The country cannot count on private creditors to make up its budget shortfall, so the president is planning to finance her country’s deficit by buying Argentinean bonds with the country’s own US dollar reserves. Such behavior concerns economists because it could send a message to international investors that the country is on the path towards another unsustainable build-up of debt that could culminate in another default and economic collapse. The article is a word of caution to the president that all leaders should heed: balanced budgets are a good idea, and debt is dangerous!

3 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

China’s “visible hand” clamps down on rising prices

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2007

FT.com / Asia-Pacific / China – China freezes government-set prices

Here’s a great article for both AP and IB students to pay attention to. The Chinese government is responding to rising prices at home by resorting to some good old fashioned “iron fist” measures, namely price controls on a wide range of products. For the rest of this year, prices on certain goods and services will not be permitted to rise, OR ELSE! (what? we don’t want to know!)

China has begun to enforce a freeze on all government-controlled prices in a sign of the central government’s alarm about rising popular anger over inflation, now at the highest rate in over a decade.The order freezes a vast array of prices still under the control of governments in China, ranging from oil, electricity and water, to the cost of parking and park entrance fees.

I find the following statement interesting:

“Any unauthorised price rises are strictly forbidden…and in principle, there will be no new price-raising measures this year,” the ministries’ announcement said. (italics added)

How strange is it that the government’s announcement pointed out that the freeze on prices is only in principle? Could this be the government’s attempt to placate a public that’s grown angry at their weakening purchasing power? Does this mean that if prices actually do go up, the government can just say, “Hey, at least we tried!” Looks like the old communist mentality has softened a bit in the era of market reforms!

So what’s the source of all these rising prices? Well, food plays a big role, thanks to a couple of factors:

The sharp spike in inflation is largely due to higher food prices, because of a shortage of pigs after a disease killed millions late last year and earlier in 2007, and the rising cost of feed, a global
phenomenon.

The China of today is very different from that of 20 or 30 years ago, when the government played a much larger role in the economy. Unleashing the beast of the free market in the early 80’s may have meant the government would have to loosen its grip in situations such as today’s inflation, and let the free market adjust on its own.

Economists said the price freeze is the kind of administrative measure redolent of China’s former planned economy, but it may be less effective in China today.

“They will not be able to control the price of everything,” said Chen Xingdong, of BNP Parisbas in Beijing.

Perhaps that’s for the better.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the government’s price controls actually make the matter worse for the average Chinese?
  2. If the government were to take a “laissez faire” approach to the problems faced by China, how might the free market resolve them on its own? Any ideas?

18 responses so far

« Prev - Next »