Inflation: Theory vs Reality

The shift of focus from employment generation to inflation targeting seem to have taken place during the period India was being liberalised. Inflation, however, is a concern to the populace of any nation where wages are not indexed to inflation. In India, inflation poses problems as a rise in prices reduces the real wages and hence their purchasing power. Life, itself, can become difficult.

This post briefly tries to clarify how inflation is conceptualised in economics (neoclassical). Initially, it needs to be pointed out that neoclassical economics analyses equilibrium positions and differences between them – commonly termed as comparative statics. Another significant issue is that, in neoclassical demand and supply, the analysis is entirely carried out in logical time. Now, let us take a look at how prices are formed in equilibrium. In equilibrium, it is required that total demand of a commodity equals its total supply. And, if demand is more than the supply, prices are caused to rise, in order to restore equilibrium. Surprisingly, it is this insight that forms the basis of the current theory of inflation, which is mentioned in the media and talked about by economists.

Thinking through this ‘insight’, a few points come to my mind. First, an economy is never in a state of equilibrium. And neoclassical theory does not have the necessary tools to understand disequilibrium. Though, neoclassical theory can point out the characteristics of disequilibrium positions vis-a-vis equilibrium position. I doubt whether this is adequate. Secondly, prices in an economy does not rise, just because demand increases. Such a behaviour is commonly seen in markets for vegetables, fruits, meat, etc. It seems absurd to posit that prices of manufactured commodities will move according to changes in demand.

This much said, let us examine the impact of money supply on prices in an economy. Is there a relation between money supply and prices’ The first question which needs to be answered is how are prices formed. According to neoclassical economics, when demand rises, it implies that money supply in the economy has risen compared to the equilibrium state of affairs. The quantity theory of money seems to corroborate the hypothesis that money supply and prices are directly related. But what if they are not’ Wouldn’t the policies fail’

It is dangerous to build flimsy theories; for, policies draw arguments from these theories. For instance, the central bank tries to reduce money supply during inflationary conditions by raising the interest rates (indirectly) or through open market operations. How far are they effective’ Or, is inflation just a temporary phenomenon’ It needs to be mentioned that cases of hyperinflation is significantly different as they are strongly correlated with the breakdown of institutions.

This post ends by asking whether an increased rate of interest leads to decreased money supply’ Or whether an increased rate of interest causes prices to rise because the cost of borrowing increases’ Also, high interest rates attract capital from abroad. Very often, causes of inflation are not properly identified, which makes policy construction very difficult.