In economics, deflation is a decrease in the general price level of goods and services.[1] Deflation occurs when the inflation rate falls below 0% (a negative inflation rate). Inflation reduces the value of currency over time, but deflation increases it. This allows one to buy more goods and services than before with the same amount of currency. Deflation is distinct from disinflation, a slow-down in the inflation rate, i.e. when inflation declines to a lower rate but is still positive.[2]

Economists generally believe that deflation is a problem in a modern economy because it increases the real value of debt, especially if the deflation is unexpected. Deflation may also aggravate recessions and lead to a deflationary spiral.[3][4][5][6][7][8][9]

Deflation usually happens when supply is high (when excess production occurs), when demand is low (when consumption decreases), or when the money supply decreases (sometimes in response to a contraction created from careless investment or a credit crunch). It can also happen as a result of too much competition and too little market concentration.

Causes and corresponding types

In the IS–LM model (investment and saving equilibrium – liquidity preference and money supply equilibrium model), deflation is caused by a shift in the supply and demand curve for goods and services. This in turn can be caused by an increase in supply, a fall in demand, or both.

When prices are falling, consumers have an incentive to delay purchases and consumption until prices fall further, which in turn reduces overall economic activity. When purchases are delayed, productive capacity is idled and investment falls, leading to further reductions in aggregate demand. This is the deflationary spiral. The way to reverse this quickly would be to introduce an economic stimulus. The government could increase productive spending on things like infrastructure, it could increase upper class taxes, or the central bank could start expanding the money supply.

Deflation is also related to risk aversion, where investors and buyers will start hoarding money because its value is now increasing over time.[10] This can produce a liquidity trap or it may lead to shortages that entice investments yielding more jobs and commodity production. A central bank cannot, normally, charge negative interest for money, and even charging zero interest often produces less stimulative effect than slightly higher rates of interest. In a closed economy, this is because charging zero interest also means having zero return on government securities, or even negative return on short maturities. In an open economy it creates a carry trade, and devalues the currency. A devalued currency produces higher prices for imports without necessarily stimulating exports to a like degree.

Deflation is the natural condition of economies when the supply of money is fixed, or does not grow as quickly as population and the economy. When this happens, the available amount of hard currency per person falls, in effect making money more scarce, and consequently, the purchasing power of each unit of currency increases. Deflation also occurs when improvements in production efficiency lower the overall price of goods. Competition in the marketplace often prompts those producers to apply at least some portion of these cost savings into reducing the asking price for their goods. When this happens, consumers pay less for those goods, and consequently deflation has occurred, since purchasing power has increased.

Rising productivity and reduced transportation cost created structural deflation during the accelerated productivity era from 1870–1900, but there was mild inflation for about a decade before the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.[11] There was inflation during World War I, but deflation returned again after the war and during the 1930s depression. Most nations abandoned the gold standard in the 1930s so that there is less reason to expect deflation, aside from the collapse of speculative asset classes, under a fiat monetary system with low productivity growth.

In mainstream economics, deflation may be caused by a combination of the supply and demand for goods and the supply and demand for money, specifically the supply of money going down and the supply of goods going up. Historic episodes of deflation have often been associated with the supply of goods going up (due to increased productivity) without an increase in the supply of money, or (as with the Great Depression and possibly Japan in the early 1990s) the demand for goods going down combined with a decrease in the money supply. Studies of the Great Depression by Ben Bernanke have indicated that, in response to decreased demand, the Federal Reserve of the time decreased the money supply, hence contributing to deflation.

Demand-side causes are:

  • Growth deflation: an enduring decrease in the real cost of goods and services as the result of technological progress, accompanied by competitive price cuts, resulting in an increase in aggregate demand.[12]
A structural deflation existed from the 1870s until the cycle upswing that started in 1895. The deflation was caused by the decrease in the production and distribution costs of goods. It resulted in competitive price cuts when markets were oversupplied. The mild inflation after 1895 was attributed to the increase in gold supply that had been occurring for decades.[13] There was a sharp rise in prices during World War I, but deflation returned at the war's end. By contrast, under a fiat monetary system, there was high productivity growth from the end of World War II until the 1960s, but no deflation.[14]
Historically not all episodes of deflation correspond with periods of poor economic growth.[15]
Productivity and deflation are discussed in a 1940 study by the Brookings Institution that gives productivity by major US industries from 1919 to 1939, along with real and nominal wages. Persistent deflation was clearly understood as being the result of the enormous gains in productivity of the period.[16] By the late 1920s, most goods were over supplied, which contributed to high unemployment during the Great Depression.[17]
  • Cash building (hoarding) deflation: attempts to save more cash by a reduction in consumption leading to a decrease in velocity of money.[citation needed]

Supply-side causes are:

  • Bank credit deflation: a decrease in the bank credit supply due to bank failures or increased perceived risk of defaults by private entities or a contraction of the money supply by the central bank.[citation needed]

Debt deflation

Debt deflation is a complicated phenomenon associated with the end of long-term credit cycles. It was proposed as a theory by Irving Fisher (1933) to explain the deflation of the Great Depression.[18]

Money supply side deflation

From a monetarist perspective, deflation is caused primarily by a reduction in the velocity of money and/or the amount of money supply per person.

A historical analysis of money velocity and monetary base shows an inverse correlation: for a given percentage decrease in the monetary base the result is nearly equal percentage increase in money velocity.[10] This is to be expected because monetary base (MB), velocity of base money (VB), price level (P) and real output (Y) are related by definition: MBVB = PY.[19] However, it is important to note that the monetary base is a much narrower definition of money than M2 money supply. Additionally, the velocity of the monetary base is interest rate sensitive, the highest velocity being at the highest interest rates.[10]

In the early history of the United States there was no national currency and an insufficient supply of coinage.[20] Banknotes were the majority of the money in circulation. During financial crises many banks failed and their notes became worthless. Also, banknotes were discounted relative to gold and silver, the discount depending on the financial strength of the bank.[21]

In recent years changes in the money supply have historically taken a long time to show up in the price level, with a rule of thumb lag of at least 18 months. More recently Alan Greenspan cited the time lag as taking between 12 and 13 quarters.[22] Bonds, equities and commodities have been suggested as reservoirs for buffering changes in money supply.[23]

Credit deflation

In modern credit-based economies, deflation may be caused by the central bank initiating higher interest rates (i.e., to 'control' inflation), thereby possibly popping an asset bubble. In a credit-based economy, a slow-down or fall in lending leads to less money in circulation, with a further sharp fall in money supply as confidence reduces and velocity weakens, with a consequent sharp fall-off in demand for employment or goods. The fall in demand causes a fall in prices as a supply glut develops. This becomes a deflationary spiral when prices fall below the costs of financing production, or repaying debt levels incurred at the prior price level. Businesses, unable to make enough profit no matter how low they set prices, are then liquidated. Banks get assets which have fallen dramatically in value since their mortgage loan was made, and if they sell those assets, they further glut supply, which only exacerbates the situation. To slow or halt the deflationary spiral, banks will often withhold collecting on non-performing loans (as in Japan, and most recently America and Spain). This is often no more than a stop-gap measure, because they must then restrict credit, since they do not have money to lend, which further reduces demand, and so on.

Historical examples of credit deflation

In the early economic history of the United States, cycles of inflation and deflation correlated with capital flows between regions, with money being loaned from the financial center in the Northeast to the commodity producing regions of the [mid]-West and South. In a procyclical manner, prices of commodities rose when capital was flowing in, that is, when banks were willing to lend, and fell in the depression years of 1818 and 1839 when banks called in loans.[24] Also, there was no national paper currency at the time and there was a scarcity of coins. Most money circulated as banknotes, which typically sold at a discount according to distance from the issuing bank and the bank's perceived financial strength.

When banks failed their notes were redeemed for bank reserves, which often did not result in payment at par value, and sometimes the notes became worthless. Notes of weak surviving banks traded at steep discounts.[20][21] During the Great Depression, people who owed money to a bank whose deposits had been frozen would sometimes buy bank books (deposits of other people at the bank) at a discount and use them to pay off their debt at par value.[25]

Deflation occurred periodically in the U.S. during the 19th century (the most important exception was during the Civil War). This deflation was at times caused by technological progress that created significant economic growth, but at other times it was triggered by financial crises — notably the Panic of 1837 which caused deflation through 1844, and the Panic of 1873 which triggered the Long Depression that lasted until 1879.[11][21][24] These deflationary periods preceded the establishment of the U.S. Federal Reserve System and its active management of monetary matters. Episodes of deflation have been rare and brief since the Federal Reserve was created (a notable exception being the Great Depression) while U.S. economic progress has been unprecedented.

A financial crisis in England in 1818 caused banks to call in loans and curtail new lending, draining specie out of the U.S. The Bank of the United States also reduced its lending. Prices for cotton and tobacco fell. The price of agricultural commodities also were pressured by a return of normal harvests following 1816, the year without a summer, that caused large scale famine and high agricultural prices.[26]

There were several causes of the deflation of the severe depression of 1839-43, which included an oversupply of agricultural commodities (importantly cotton) as new cropland came into production following large federal land sales a few years earlier, banks requiring payment in gold or silver, the failure of several banks, default by several states on their bonds and British banks cutting back on specie flow to the U.S.[24][27]

This cycle has been traced out on the broad scale during the Great Depression. Partly because of overcapacity and market saturation and partly as a result of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, international trade contracted sharply, severely reducing demand for goods, thereby idling a great deal of capacity, and setting off a string of bank failures.[17] A similar situation in Japan, beginning with the stock and real estate market collapse in the early 1990s, was arrested by the Japanese government preventing the collapse of most banks and taking over direct control of several in the worst condition.

Scarcity of official money

The United States had no national paper money until 1862 (greenbacks used to fund the Civil War), but these notes were discounted to gold until 1877. There was also a shortage of U.S. minted coins. Foreign coins, such as Mexican silver, were commonly used.[20] At times banknotes were as much as 80% of currency in circulation before the Civil War. In the financial crises of 1818–19 and 1837–41, many banks failed, leaving their money to be redeemed below par value from reserves. Sometimes the notes became worthless, and the notes of weak surviving banks were heavily discounted.[21] The Jackson administration opened branch mints, which over time increased the supply of coins. Following the 1848 finding of gold in the Sierra Nevada, enough gold came to market to devalue gold relative to silver. To equalize the value of the two metals in coinage, the US mint slightly reduced the silver content of new coinage in 1853.[20]

When structural deflation appeared in the years following 1870, a common explanation given by various government inquiry committees was a scarcity of gold and silver, although they usually mentioned the changes in industry and trade we now call productivity. However, David A. Wells (1890) notes that the U. S. money supply during the period 1879-1889 actually rose 60%, the increase being in gold and silver, which rose against the percentage of national bank and legal tender notes. Furthermore, Wells argued that the deflation only lowered the cost of goods that benefited from recent improved methods of manufacturing and transportation. Goods produced by craftsmen did not decrease in price, nor did many services, and the cost of labor actually increased. Also, deflation did not occur in countries that did not have modern manufacturing, transportation and communications.[11]

By the end of the 19th century, deflation ended and turned to mild inflation. William Stanley Jevons predicted rising gold supply would cause inflation decades before it actually did. Irving Fisher blamed the worldwide inflation of the pre-WWI years on rising gold supply.[28]

In economies with an unstable currency, barter and other alternate currency arrangements such as dollarization are common, and therefore when the 'official' money becomes scarce (or unusually unreliable), commerce can still continue (e.g., most recently in Zimbabwe). Since in such economies the central government is often unable, even if it were willing, to adequately control the internal economy, there is no pressing need for individuals to acquire official currency except to pay for imported goods. In effect, barter acts as a protective tariff in such economies, encouraging local consumption of local production.[citation needed] It also acts as a spur to mining and exploration, because one easy way to make money in such an economy is to dig it out of the ground.

Other Languages
العربية: انكماش مالي
asturianu: Deflación
azərbaycanca: Deflyasiya
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Дэфляцыя
bosanski: Deflacija
català: Deflació
čeština: Deflace
dansk: Deflation
Deutsch: Deflation
español: Deflación
Esperanto: Deflacio
euskara: Deflazio
فارسی: تورم منفی
français: Déflation
Gaeilge: Díbhoilsciú
galego: Deflación
한국어: 디플레이션
հայերեն: Դեֆլյացիա
हिन्दी: अपस्फीति
hrvatski: Deflacija
Bahasa Indonesia: Deflasi
עברית: דפלציה
Basa Jawa: Deflasi
ქართული: დეფლაცია
latviešu: Deflācija
Lëtzebuergesch: Deflatioun
lietuvių: Defliacija
македонски: Дефлација
मराठी: चलनघट
Bahasa Melayu: Deflasi
မြန်မာဘာသာ: ငွေကျုံ့ခြင်း
norsk: Deflasjon
norsk nynorsk: Deflasjon
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Deflyasiya (iqtisodiyot)
português: Deflação
română: Deflație
Scots: Deflation
shqip: Deflacioni
Simple English: Deflation
سنڌي: تفريط زر
slovenščina: Deflacija
српски / srpski: Дефлација
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Deflacija
suomi: Deflaatio
svenska: Deflation
Türkçe: Deflasyon
Tiếng Việt: Giảm phát
粵語: 通貨緊縮
中文: 通货紧缩