(Mis)understanding Inflation

 

The recurrent hikes in fuel prices over the last one year are a cause of concern. For, fuel is a basic commodity and it enters as an input directly or indirectly into the production of all commodities – agriculture, manufacturing and services. About a year back, an “expert” committee headed by Kirit S Parikh recommended a partial deregulation/liberalization of fuel prices. This has eased the financial burden of the government. In addition, economists have posited that deregulation will enable markets to become efficient (subsidies and taxes distort efficiency). In any case, the role of the government has been changing rapidly too – from that of a provider to that of an enabler (to quote our Chief Economic Advisor, Kaushik Basu).

A couple of days back, our esteemed Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia told the media that the recent hikes in fuel prices was a strategic move. According to him, the hike in prices of petroleum products would help ease inflation in the long run as it would suck money from the system. This post examines this statement by trying to understand the mechanism of inflation.

INFLATION

Inflation, as we know, refers to a continuous increase in the price level over a period. To make sense of this seemingly simple statement, we must have a clear understanding of the two concepts based on which we understand inflation. It is on the basis of this understanding that policy decisions are made both by the RBI as well as the Central Government to control inflation. The two concepts are:

(1)   Time: the price rise has to be continuous over a certain period.

(2)   Index number: inflation is studied by making use of these special averages

Time

How much time must elapse before we can characterise the price increase in an economy as inflationary? In theory, economists solve this problem of having to fix the time period by introducing the distinction between short-run and long-run. However, this distinction does not solve the problem, but only adds to the complexity. What do we understand by short-run? Does it refer to one week, one month, 6 months or one year? Interestingly, there is no fixed answer to this. The distinction between short-run and long-run shows how creative economists are, although its utility is questionable. Short-run refers to the time during which the variables under consideration do not have adequate time to adjust or settle (at their equilibrium positions). Whereas, long-run refers to a period (point?) when all the adjustments are over and all the variables have settled. How convenient! The long-run will remain a mirage.

Given these unsettled issues, how does our Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commissions confidently maintain that fuel price hikes will ease inflationary pressures? This statement is meaningless because the long-run is a fictitious concept. Such statements indicate the misplaced confidence economists possess as well as the poverty of economic theory.

Index numbers

Price level is what we examine in theory when trying to understand inflation. In applied work, we trace changes in indices such as WPI and CPI (which is a proxy for the general price level in an economy) in computing inflation. The construction of a good index number is a difficult task. Selection of relevant variables, choice of base year, the kind of index number to use – Paasche, Laspeyre or Fisher – are some of the issues which have to be tackled. A detailed discussion of index number will feature as a blog post in the future.

Ahluwalia, one of our economic planners, maintains that fuel price hikes will ease inflation in the long run. The explanation he provides for this occurring is both logically and factually incorrect. He said that fuel price hikes “suck excess money out of the system.” Firstly, this statement is based on a particular view or understanding of inflation, namely the neoclassical one. Inflation is seen by this group as a result of excess money in the economy. In the words of economics textbooks, which do an excellent job at indoctrination, inflation occurs when too much money chases too few goods. It is this factually incorrect view which dominates academia as well as the policy arena. In fact, it is this view which is widely communicated in the media as well. Several economists have questioned this notion but with limited success. For, if inflation is not a monetary phenomenon, how will the central banks survive? In any case, this view is not a correct representation of reality because manufactured products and services are not priced on the basis of demand (unlike agricultural prices which are largely demand-determined). [See Who prices the Products? and On Prices/Values] If the prices increase from non-monetary factors, such as production conditions, expensive labour, from a higher profit margin, corruption or rise in fuel prices, how will removal of money reduce inflation? In fact, how does one arrive at a benchmark for computing ‘excess” money? Fuel price hikes, on the other hand, will threaten the livelihood of both the poor consumers and poor producers.

What does our planner mean when he talks of the “system”? A closed economy? An open one? Will the money not still be circulating in the economy even after the fuel price rise? Without clarifying the above mentioned issues, the statement made by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission holds no ground, however scientific it might sound! Such statements only reinforce the arrogance of economists and the poverty of economics!