Wednesday, November 19, 2008

CPI Takes a Nosedive

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From Bloomberg:

The consumer price index plunged 1 percent last month, the most since records began in 1947, the Labor Department said in Washington. Commerce Department figures showed housing starts tumbled to an annual rate of 791,000, indicating the industry’s contraction may extend into a fourth year.

Today’s CPI report signals deflation, or a prolonged price slide, may become another hazard facing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and President-elect Barack Obama. Deflation could worsen the economic downturn by making debts harder to pay off and countering the impact of Fed interest-rate cuts.

“The economy’s really just in horrific shape,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York. Fed officials will “take rates as low as they have to” to avoid “a deflation-type scenario, which now all of a sudden is very possible.”

LaVorgna predicts the Fed will cut its main rate to 0.5 percent from its current 1 percent when it meets on Dec. 16.

Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn said today that while the risk of deflation is “still small,” policy makers must be “aggressive” in fighting the danger. The economy “is declining right now” and will record a couple of quarters of contraction, he said in answering questions after a speech in Washington.

Prices plunged the most since records began. That is one hell of a slump.

There is more and more talk of deflation right now. While an extended period of lower prices sounds good, here is the reason that has people concerned:

Because the price of goods is falling, consumers have an incentive to delay purchases and consumption until prices fall further, which in turn reduces overall economic activity - contributing to the deflationary spiral.

Since this idles capacity, investment also falls, leading to further reductions in aggregate demand. This is the deflationary spiral. The solution to falling aggregate demand is stimulus, either from the central bank, by expanding the money supply, or by the fiscal authority to increase demand, and borrow at interest rates which are below those available to private entities.