The dangerous inflation fizzle: Frederic Neumann

The dangerous inflation fizzle: Frederic Neumann
The dangerous inflation fizzle: Frederic Neumann

EXPERT OBSERVER

More and more evidence. Inflation across Asia keeps sliding. India's dipped further in January to a touch above 2% y-o-y. In China, the PPI barely held in positive territory last month, and consumer inflation cooled again. It's easy to shrug it all off as a temporary drag from lower oil prices and well-behaved food cost. But that's not the full story: underlying price pressures are remarkably soft as well and broadly falling. As a result, real interest rates continue to climb and the region's already substantial debt load becomes harder to service. The case for further monetary easing may thus become more pressing, even if in itself this may not be enough to push up growth materially.

You will have seen the headlines. Over the past week alone, both India and China reported remarkably subdued inflation. In India, the headline CPI is running at close to half the central bank's mid-point target. True, core prices are well above this (around 5.4%), but that was down from a 6% handle. In China, PPI inflation, a good proxy for industrial profits, has essentially stalled and the headline CPI hit 1.7% (though core nudged up to 1.9%).

Elsewhere, the trend is much the same: from Indonesia to Thailand to Korea, including Japan and Australia, and everywhere in between, inflation is running short. Even in the Philippines, which saw a sharp spike last year, it's rapidly coming off the boil.

It's tempting to attribute much of this to falling oil prices. And as these are now ticking up, that drag is bound to reverse. Plus, food inflation has been remarkably subdued across the region of late (keep an eye though on the return of El Nino this year).

However, core inflation is running at a fairly tepid pace in most places, or at least showing signs of slowing substantially. From a broader perspective, in fact, it is remarkable that the synchronized global upswing in 2016-2017, followed by last year's exchange rate stumbles and, temporarily at least, soaring oil prices, didn't deliver a bigger inflation kick (see also We got an inflation problem, 10 December, 2018).

That means that the "jumping off point" for inflation as growth continues to slow is dangerously low, risking, if not outright deflation, a prolonged period of extremely subdued price pressures.

That poses two big challenges for Asia.

First, it pushes up real interest rates as low (or even lower) inflation increasingly pushes down inflation expectations. And with nominal rates already near record lows in many places, there's little that a loosening in monetary policy alone can do to correct this.

Second, and related, the debt service burden increases as inflation falls short. Even if inflation expectations, which determine the real interest rate, don't fall further, lower realized inflation makes it harder to service debt already taken out. And since the region has splurged on the stuff in recent years, falling price pressures can thus act as a powerful drag on growth.

What, then, are the policy options?

Monetary easing is the obvious one. But, as mentioned, this has started to run into "diminishing returns": with interest rates already low, further cuts will provide only a limited boost. Ideally, this should be complemented by fiscal easing. And in a few places, notably China, that's exactly what's occurring. But, more broadly across Asia, the policy room for a significant fiscal kick is limited (see How much policy room?28 January, 2019).

Further out, Asian central bankers will also need to think about more unorthodox policies. If rate cuts alone don't do the trick, and fiscal support isn't readily available, at least in sufficient size, the entire tool box of policies tried out in advanced economies over the past decade should be on the table: from targeted lending schemes to aggressive base money expansion.

Granted, these didn't work necessarily all too well in all instances. And emerging Asia isn't quite yet so demand deprived that it's about to fall into a deflationary trap.

Yet, given the growing risks of such a stumble, it's probably best to act pre-emptively.

Cuts anyone?

Frederic Neumann is Co-head of Asian Economics Research at HSBC.

 

Tags: 
Inflation Asia

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