Missing deflation – unique to America?

By Paul Hubert, Mathilde Le Moigne

Was the way inflation unfolded after the 2007-2009 crisis atypical? According to Paul Krugman: “If inflation [note: in the United States] had responded to the Great Recession and aftermath in the same way it did in previous big slumps, we would be deep in deflation by now; we aren’t.” Indeed, after 2009, inflation in the United States remained surprisingly stable given actual economic developments. Has this phenomenon, which has been described as “missing deflation”, been observed in the euro zone?

Despite the deepest recession since the 1929 crisis, the inflation rate remained stable at around 1.5% on average between 2008 and 2011 in the United States, and 1% in the euro zone. Does this mean that the Phillips curve, which links inflation to real activity, has lost its empirical validity? In a note in 2016, Olivier Blanchard recalls on the contrary that the Phillips curve, in its simplest original version, remains a valid instrument for understanding the links between inflation and unemployment, despite this “missing disinflation”. Blanchard notes, however, that the link between the two variables has weakened because inflation is increasingly dependent on expectations of inflation, which are themselves anchored in the US Federal Reserve’s inflation target. In their 2015 article, Coibion ​​and Gorodnichenko explain the missing deflation in the United States by the fact that inflation expectations tend to be influenced by the most visible price changes, such as changes in the price of a barrel of oil. Since 2015, we have seen a drop in inflation expectations concomitant with the decline in oil prices.

The difficulty in accounting for recent changes in inflation by using the Phillips curve led us in a recent article to evaluate its potential determinants and to consider whether the euro zone has also experienced a phenomenon of “missing deflation”. Based on a standard Phillips curve, we did not find the conclusions of Coibion and Gorodnichenko when we consider the euro zone as a whole. In other words, real activity and inflation expectations give a good description of the way inflation is behaving.

This result seems to come, however, from a bias in aggregation between national inflation behaviours in the euro zone. In particular, we find a notable divergence between the countries of northern Europe (Germany, France), which show a general tendency towards missing inflation, and the more peripheral countries (Spain, Italy, Greece), which are exhibiting periods of missing deflation. This divergence nevertheless shows up from the beginning of our sample, that is to say, in the first years when the euro zone was created, and seems to be absorbed from 2006, without undergoing any notable change during the 2008-2009 crisis.

In contrast to what happened in the United States, it seems that the euro zone did not experience missing deflation as a result of the 2008-2009 economic and financial crisis. On the contrary, it seems that divergences in inflation in Europe predate the crisis and tended to be absorbed by the crisis.