The major reason has been falling gas prices. Energy fell 3.5 percent in December as gasoline prices dropped for a second straight month, down 7.5 percent. Transportation costs in general slipped as airfares continued their decline, down 1.5 percent on the month following a 2.4 percent drop in November, according to Econoday.
It’s also why we have abnormally low interest rates at this late stage of the recovery, which actually mirror the amount of excess savings. No matter how much individuals and businesses have borrowed since the Great Recession, interest rates have stayed low. It’s as if there’s a bottomless supply of liquidity that holders of said currencies—including most of the world’s central banks—are eager to put to work in some way.
This could also be a worrisome indicator of what economists call slack demand. Consumers and businesses are spending less and saving more, in spite of the U.S. economy being fully employed with a 3.9 percent unemployment rate. The overall demand for goods and services has fallen from historical levels since the Great Recession as consumers and businesses have become more cautious than in other recoveries, when consumer economic activity now determines some 70 percent of economic growth.
This is while household incomes have barely kept up with inflation for decades from the progressive weakening of employee bargaining rights since the 1980s, and may only now be increasing with the fully-employment economy.
Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has entered the discussion with her prediction that the U.S. is stuck in a low-inflationary environment. “All evidence suggests we’re going to be in an environment of low interest rates for a long time,” she said at a recent tech conference.
Such slack overall demand could also be a problem because the Trump trade wars are pushing up the cost of materials. This is hurting U.S. sales overseas, because U.S. export firms have had to raise their prices due to the rising costs of imported materials, such as aluminum and steel that have 10 and 25 percent tariffs, respectively.
Low inflation is therefore a two-edged sword in many ways. Lower inflation means products are more affordable to larger segments of the population, but it is also a sign that without rising prices producers cannot boost profits, hindering their growth prospects.
All-in-all, such stubbornly low inflation can also mean lower prospects for future job and income growth, hence lower overall economic growth, as well.
Harlan Green © 2019
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