Sunday, March 13, 2011

Higher oil prices, inflation and what matters

David Beckworth quotes Caroline Baum and Mark Thoma about oil price increases, its impact on inflation and whether Fed should respond. 

Caroline points out some mistakes when we interpret the metaphors too seriously. Few weeks ago I would have thought that Caroline is unnecessarily critical, that people understand these are metaphors (oil prices are a tax) used for better understanding the impact. However, people are definitely taking these metaphors very seriously. There is a danger of policy response (QE??) being blinded because of such blindness. So in a way we must thank Caroline for the article. 

The fundamental explanation on this topic comes from Mark Thoma. He details a very elaborate explanation. According to him, if central bank is responsible for price rises then it should respond. If the price rise, however, is based on changing fundamentals then central banks have no reason to respond. Such price rise is relative rather than absolute, prices of some goods increase higher than others. 

Hmm!
While I agree with overall analysis, I must put some pointers out. 

Firstly, Oil is different commodity. Oil is embedded within our economic system. This is a result of substantial capital investments over nearly a century. Hence any improvement in alternate technology requires far longer gestation than commonly assumed. Further, the quantum of investments required is also higher. In the intermediate time, oil can fuel general price rise (not just a relative price rise) through cost pressures. If the ability to pass on higher prices is limited, it results in shutting down of unprofitable production facilities leading to job losses. thus, in this sense, oil is inflationary and crimps consumer demand. 

But David is right to mention that such change is a spike and does not indicate a trend change. However, from a layman's perspective, price level is more important in relation to income level than rate of inflation itself. Let us assume prices rise to level of 3X and stay there thereafter. In such case there is immense pain for the lay person in the first year and thereafter as the incomes adjust, things get easier. But what if incomes do not adjust? Then the pain stays on for longer and ruthlessly drags household after household into poverty.

In such a scenario, it is policy response may be warranted. But it is not simply a monetary policy response that will do the trick. Monetary policy action will create a window of opportunity during which investments must be made in alternate technology and improve it. However, after monetary policy action when we see lower oil prices we forget the "improve the alternate technology" part. Meanwhile oil companies continue to invest more into status quo shifting the goal post further.

As an aside, I do believe we are improving technology to reduce oil dependence. However, it is more incidental than deliberate. The development of source independent power grids, energy efficiency norms etc are a step in the right direction.