An economic recovery with little sign of inflation acceleration: A transitory phenomenon or evidence of a structural change?

15-02-2018

This paper investigates the possibility that there has been a structural shift in inflation (upward) in the euro area since the recovery in 2014 or 2015. From the perspective of policy, it is important to be sure that any such shifts are significant statistically, sustained or likely to be sustained (durable) over the near future, and are evenly distributed over the member economies so that no one of them is damaged by anti-inflation measures taken to help the others. We approach the problem in two steps: we first examine the circumstantial and informal evidence, and then conduct formal statistical tests for structural changes in euro area inflation in 2015 or 2016. We find no evidence of a structural change under the four criteria mentioned. The even distribution of inflation criterion is the closest to being satisfied, but the other three are far from satisfied in any formal sense. There was a brief acceleration in inflation in mid-2016 towards 2%, but it flattened out in 2017 and has been constant at 1.5% ever since. Core inflation was constant at 0.9% throughout. The question is why has there been no inflation in the recovery and how long is that likely to last? In a third step, we explain how low growth in real wages and self-reinforcing low productivity growth produces slow output growth and low inflation. This model fits the data pretty well, down to the lack of labour and total factor productivity and to substituting cheaper labour for excess capital stock. It implies a fall in investment spending (also seen in the data) which in turn extends the period for which low productivity-low inflation outcomes apply.

This paper investigates the possibility that there has been a structural shift in inflation (upward) in the euro area since the recovery in 2014 or 2015. From the perspective of policy, it is important to be sure that any such shifts are significant statistically, sustained or likely to be sustained (durable) over the near future, and are evenly distributed over the member economies so that no one of them is damaged by anti-inflation measures taken to help the others. We approach the problem in two steps: we first examine the circumstantial and informal evidence, and then conduct formal statistical tests for structural changes in euro area inflation in 2015 or 2016. We find no evidence of a structural change under the four criteria mentioned. The even distribution of inflation criterion is the closest to being satisfied, but the other three are far from satisfied in any formal sense. There was a brief acceleration in inflation in mid-2016 towards 2%, but it flattened out in 2017 and has been constant at 1.5% ever since. Core inflation was constant at 0.9% throughout. The question is why has there been no inflation in the recovery and how long is that likely to last? In a third step, we explain how low growth in real wages and self-reinforcing low productivity growth produces slow output growth and low inflation. This model fits the data pretty well, down to the lack of labour and total factor productivity and to substituting cheaper labour for excess capital stock. It implies a fall in investment spending (also seen in the data) which in turn extends the period for which low productivity-low inflation outcomes apply.