Understanding deflation and why it is so scary

Understanding deflation and why it is so scary

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By Rick Newman via Yahoo Finance

If the price of a car or an iPhone drops, that’s usually good news for consumers. So it might be puzzling that investors and economists suddenly seem freaked out about the possibility of deflation, or a sustained drop in the level of all prices, on average.

Deflation was a concern back in 2010 and it’s a fresh worry now as oil prices plunge, the stock market wavers and consumers put spending plans on hold.

The paradox of deflation is that falling prices on a few items can generally be good for consumers, leaving more money in their pockets for other things. But falling prices on too many things can have ruinous effects on the economy that are hard to reverse. Japan suffered nearly two decades of deflation starting in the early 1990s, and deflation helped prolong the Great Depression in the 1930s.

When all prices fall, consumers have a strong incentive to put off purchases — after all, everything will probably be cheaper tomorrow. Some purchases are hard to delay—food, medical care, gasoline to get to work. But a lot of the things we buy can wait, which is why sales of cars, clothing, and appliances drop sharply when times get tough.

In an economy like ours — in which consumer spending accounts for about 70% of total GDP — a powerful incentive to postpone purchases can be disastrous. When spending drops, so does corporate revenue, raising pressure to cut costs, which leads to layoffs and other personnel cutbacks. Companies are likely to freeze salaries or even cut pay for those workers remaining. Dwindling income makes consumers even more leery about spending money, worsening the whole cycle.

More expensive debt

The other mechanism for deflationary ruin is debt. One big reason lending helps the economy grow is inflation—most loans become easier to pay back over time, because the principal doesn’t grow but income used to pay it down does. We typically think of inflation as a rise in prices, but it’s usually accompanied by an increase in workers’ wages as well, and as long as wage increases exceed price hikes, ordinary people get ahead. Home buyers, for instance, often “grow into” a mortgage that might seem onerous at first, because their income climbs as they progress through their careers. The mortgage payments on a fixed-rate loan, by contrast, remain constant. So in a typical economic environment, you gradually earn more income to make the same payment every month.

Deflation creates the opposite phenomenon: Debt gets more expensive over time, because consumer spending power declines. When prices and corporate revenue fall for a sustained period of time, wages inevitably go down, too. That makes fixed-rate debt more expensive, because you have less money instead of more to make the same regular payments. The mismatch affects companies and even governments the same way it does consumers, causing cash-flow shortages, liquidity problems and bankruptcy. Each of these ugly outcomes reinforces the others, making a deflationary spiral very hard to pull out of.

On top of that, deflation makes people wary of taking out debt in the first place. Too much debt is a problem in itself, but prudent lending is an essential element of capitalism. Without it, investment shrivels and wealth is more likely to disappear than accrue.

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