Why can't we create inflation anymore? Maybe it's because money isn't what it used to be.
Money used to be like a car; the market expected it to depreciate every day. When we buy a new car we accept a falling resale value because a car provides a recurring flow of services over time; each day it gets us from point a to point b and back. And since these conveniences are large, the market prices cars such that they yield a steady string of capital losses.
Money, like cars, used to provide a significant flow of services over time. It was the liquidity instrument par excellence. If a problem popped up, we knew that money was the one item we could rapidly exchange to get whatever goods and services were necessary to cope. Given these characteristics, the market set a price for money such that it lost 2-3% every year. We accepted a sure capital loss because we enjoyed a compensating degree of comfort and relief from having some of the stuff in our wallets.
These flows of services are called a convenience yield. Assets that throw off a convenience yield, like cars and money, typically have negative expected price paths. Let's call them Type 1 assets.
Type 2 assets, things like stocks and bonds, don't boast a convenience yield. Without a convenience flow, people only buy them because they promise a real capital return. One way a Type 2 asset provides a capital return is via a positive expected price path. We only hold Google shares because we expect them to rise by around 5-10% a year. Same with treasury bills. The government issues a bill at, say, $97, and they mature a year later at $100.
Another way for a Type 2 asset to provide a capital return is via periodic payments. A bond or an MBS doesn't rise over time. Rather, it provides its return in the form of regular coupon payments.
Could it be that money has steadily lost its convenience yield? If so, it's shifted from being a Type 1 asset with a negative expected price path towards being a Type 2 asset. That would explain our new deflationary era. In the same way that Type 2 assets like Google and t-bills have to offer a positive expected price path if they are to be held, the purchasing power of money needs to improve over time. And since everything in the world is priced in terms of money, that means that the price level can no longer inflate, it has to deflate.
Where has money's once considerable convenience yield gone? The costs of creating liquidity have been steadily diminishing. Wall Street has been able to make a wide variety of assets like stocks and bonds much more liquid at less cost. So whereas money was once the liquidity instrument par excellence, people now have a multitude of liquid instruments that they can choose from. At the same time, central banks, via quantitative easing, have create massive amounts of central bank liabilities. With a sea of liquid assets, maybe liquidity just isn't a valuable commodity anymore.
Welcome to deflation, folks. Into the vacuum left by money's retreating convenience yield, a promise of capital returns has sprung up.
Even if money has become a Type 2 asset, central bankers can still get the inflation rate back to 3%. To do so, they'd have to change the nature of the capital return that it offers. Like Google shares, money now seems to promise a rising expected price path (i.e. deflation). Central bankers need to switch that out with a bond-style promise of juicier periodic payments. This would involve a central banker ratcheting up the interest rate on money balances, or reserves, to an above-market level. Only with an unusually high interest rate on reserves would people once again accept a declining expected price path for money (i.e. inflation).
For an analogy, imagine that tomorrow the U.S. Treasury were to issue a new 10-year bond with an outlandishly high 10% coupon. With the market-clearing yield on existing 10-year bonds sitting at just 2%, the new bond would start trading at a large premium to its $1000 face value and slowly fall over time. Likewise, money that sports an outlandishly high interest rate would steadily lose purchasing power.
Ratcheting up rates in order to get us back to a 3% inflation path could be a ghastly experience. Before it can start rolling down the hill again, money's purchasing power would have to rise sharply in value. But money is the unit in which everything else is priced, which means the price level would need to rapidly deflate. If prices are sticky, this could result in a glut of unsold labour and goods; a recession.
Alternatively, might a central bank rekindle inflation by forcing interest rates below their market level? In the short term we'd get a quick one-time dose of inflation. But after the adjustments had been made the price level would only continue its previous deflationary descent. A central banker would have to consistently ratchet down interest rates to generate a perpetual series of one-time inflationary pops in order to keep hitting its 2-3% inflation target. This strategy would run into problems. Go much below -1% and a central bank will hit the lower bound. Unless it wants to risk mass cash storage, it won't be able to go further. Even if a central bank devises ways to get below -1%, it'll have to perpetually ratchet rates down in order to spur the next one-time pop in inflation. Once it hits -20%, or -30%, one wonders whether the market won't simply adopt an alternative currency.
Given that these two options don't seem too comforting, maybe we should just get used to a bit of deflation.
Tony Yates responds here and here.