Inflation: A Primer

by Greg Jericho

Over the past year, inflation has accelerated both in Australia and in most advanced economies, to rates much faster than have been observed for many years. Not unsurprisingly, this has caused much concern among people whose cost of living has risen abruptly. It has also created great challenges for policy makers: the risks of tackling higher inflation are high, given that the conventional response is to reduce aggregate demand, economic activity, and employment in order to “cool off” spending and thus reduce price pressures. This can mean that the “cure” can be worse than the “disease” – especially if, as occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, a recession follows efforts to constrain inflation.

The Inflation Primer report investigates the history of Australian inflation and policy choices and provides a counter to the view that low inflation and the current inflation target is an unalloyed good. The period of inflation targeting has coincided with a strong shift of national income away from workers to company profits. It has also seen a tendency of the Reserve Bank to act decisively when inflation grows above the target and be much less active when, as we saw in the years prior to the pandemic, inflation slowed below the target range. The report also reveals that workers’ wages did not cause the current level of inflation  and yet workers are being urged to accept historic falls in real wages in order bring inflation back within the Reserve Bank target.

Our review of the causes of current inflation points to some clear policy conclusions, that should be kept in mind by the government, the Reserve Bank, and other stakeholders as Australia continues to adjust to these new inflationary challenges:

  1. Inflation targeting in Australia since 1993 has not been “neutral”. Inflation missed the target from below, far more often than from above. Moreover, that period of inflation targeting (especially the sustained periods when inflation fell below the target) was associated with a massive transfer of income and economic power from workers to businesses. As the Commonwealth government undertakes its review of the RBA’s mandate and operations, these broad political-economic dimensions of monetary policy must be considered carefully. Monetary policy has not been a technocratic exercise, intended to maximise public welfare in a general sense. It clearly reflects and continues to reflect, value judgments and priorities placed on how the costs and benefits of inflation management are distributed across society.
  2. There is no evidence at all that a tight labour market, rising wages, or labour costs more generally have anything to do with the surge in inflation since the COVID pandemic. To the contrary, the evidence is clear that wages have had a dampening impact on inflation in this period. Recent inflation is clearly associated with a further expansion of business profits in Australia, to their highest share ever. Attacking inflation by aiming deliberately to increase unemployment and restrain wage growth even further, is a “blame-the-victim” policy that will only make workers pay even more for a problem they clearly did not create.
  3. The current surge of inflation reflects a “perfect storm” of unique factors (mostly global in nature) sparked by the COVID pandemic: which has been, after all, the most dramatic and painful event in the world economy since WWII. It should hardly be surprising that after-shocks from those events will be felt for some time, and the surge in global inflation is clearly one of them. Responding to this unique and unprecedented challenge by simply reciting a monetary playbook formulated in a fundamentally different era (the inflation of the 1970s) is not just inappropriate. It will, if pursued, lead to a painful and unnecessary global recession that will almost certainly engulf Australia, too.

For all these reasons, the Reserve Bank and the Commonwealth government need to take a more careful, balanced look at the nature, causes, and consequences of the upsurge in inflation since the pandemic, before leaping to conclusions that are unjustified – and imposing policy responses that do more harm than good.

Full report