Inflation targeting – to target or not to target!

South Africa is one of many countries that adheres to inflation targeting. But there is a growing call for South Africa to abandon it because it can slow down growth in the economy.

Workers in Volkswagen SA know the effects. They are working short time because of the drop in vehicle sales. So too do workers at General Motors where 520 jobs are under threat.

Those that work for car dealers have also lost jobs or are threatened with retrenchment.

Cosatu says that instead of focusing on inflation targeting the country should be focusing on the "biggest economic challenge" – how to promote growth, create jobs and reduce poverty!

In this article, Joseph Stiglitz, calls strongly for countries to abandon inflation targeting. The article is interesting because of what it says but also because of who has written it! Stiglitz was Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank from 1997-2000.

He is now University Professor at Columbia University in New York and Chair of Columbia University's Committee on Global Thought.

What is inflation targeting?

When prices rise beyond a certain level, interest rates must be raised. The South African Reserve Bank has set a target band of 3% – 6% as its inflation target. As soon as inflation moves beyond the 6% target, it must raise interest rates.

The urgent need to abandon inflation targeting

THE world’s central bankers are a close-knit club, given to fads and fashions. In the early 1980s, they fell under the spell of monetarism, a simplistic economic theory promoted by Milton Friedman. After monetarism was discredited — at great cost to those countries that succumbed to it — the quest began for a new mantra.

The answer came in the form of “inflation targeting”. This says that whenever price growth exceeds a target level, interest rates should be raised.

This crude recipe is based on little economic theory or empirical evidence; there is no reason to expect that regardless of the source of inflation, the best response is to increase interest rates.

One hopes that most countries will have the good sense not to implement inflation targeting; my sympathies go to the unfortunate citizens of those that do. (Among the list of those who have officially adopted inflation targeting are: Israel, the Czech Republic, Poland, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, South Africa, Thailand, Korea, Mexico, Hungary, Peru, the Philippines, Slovakia, Indonesia, Romania, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Australia, Iceland and Norway.)

Today, inflation targeting is being put to the test — and it will almost certainly fail. Developing countries currently face higher rates of inflation, not because of poorer macro-management, but because oil and food prices are soaring and these items represent a much larger share of the average household budget than in rich countries.

In China, for example, inflation is approaching 8% or more. In Vietnam, it is expected to approach 18,2% this year, and in India it is 5,8% . By contrast, US inflation stands at 3%.

Does that mean that these developing countries should raise their interest rates far more than the US?

Inflation in these countries is, for the most part, imported. Raising interest rates won’t have much effect on the international price of grains or fuel.

Indeed, given the size of the US economy, a slowdown there might conceivably have a far bigger effect on global prices than a slowdown in any developing country, which suggests that, from a global perspective, US interest rates, and not those in developing countries, should be raised.

So long as developing countries remain integrated into the global economy — and do not take measures to restrain the impact of international prices on domestic prices — domestic prices of rice and other grains are bound to rise markedly when international prices do.

Raising interest rates can reduce aggregate demand, which can slow the economy and tame increases in prices of some goods and services, especially non-traded goods and services.

But, unless taken to an intolerable level, these measures by themselves cannot bring inflation down to the targeted levels.

For example, even if global energy and food prices increase at a more moderate rate than now — for example, 20% per year — and get reflected in domestic prices, bringing the overall inflation rate to, say, 3% would require markedly falling prices elsewhere.

That would almost surely entail a marked economic slowdown and high unemployment. The cure would be worse than the disease.

So, what should be done? First, politicians, or central bankers, should not be blamed for imported inflation, just as we should not give them credit for low inflation when the global environment is benign.

Second, we must recognise that high prices can cause enormous stress, especially for poorer people. Riots and protests in some developing countries are just the worst manifestation of this.

Advocates of trade liberalisation touted its advantages; but they were never fully honest about its risks, against which markets typically fail to provide adequate insurance.

When it comes to agriculture, developed countries, such as the US and European Union members, insulate both consumers and farmers from these risks.

But most developing countries do not have the institutional structures, or the resources, to do likewise.

Many are imposing emergency measures like export taxes or bans, which help their own citizens, but at the expense of those elsewhere.

If we are to avoid an even stronger backlash against globalisation, the west must respond quickly. Biofuel subsidies, which have encouraged the shift of land from producing food into energy, must be repealed.

Some of the billions spent to subsidise western farmers should now be spent to help poorer developing countries meet their basic food and energy needs.

Most importantly, both developing and developed countries need to abandon inflation targeting. The struggle to meet rising food and energy prices is hard enough.

The weaker economy and higher unemployment that inflation targeting brings won’t have much effect on inflation; it will only make the task of surviving in these conditions more difficult.

This article first appeared in Business Day 8 May 2008
© Project Syndicate, 2008.

Stiglitz is professor of economics at Columbia University. He was the recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics.


Numsa News No 20 2008