The Dangers of Low Volatility

On Monday, I discussed March retail sales and that its strength might be a positive sign economic growth. Today, there is more good news for the U.S. economy. According to the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. industrial production rose in March, moving beyond a lackluster winter and showing potential to gain strength in coming months”. Industrial production gauges the output of U.S. mines, manufacturers, electric and gas utilities. The manufacturing sector is only a fraction of domestic economic activity since the U.S. has transitioned to a service oriented economy. Nonetheless, many economists consider it to be an indicator of future demand.

In fact, economic activity across the United States is picking up steam. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Overall, the latest beige book, which describes economic conditions across the central bank’s 12 districts, pointed to an economy that was getting back on track after growth slowed earlier in the year”. This report, which is two weeks before the Fed’s April policy meeting, will likely have an impact on monetary policy. As the Fed continues to reduce asset purchases, the prospect of rising interest rates becomes more of a reality.

However, the Fed must watch the level of inflation when making its decision about interest rates. Even though economic activity is picking up, inflation is remaining stubbornly low and is a source of concern for the Fed. According to the Wall Street Journal,

Price gains could provide some comfort to Fed policy makers as they debate whether to keep pulling back on their easy-money policies meant to spur growth. Consumer inflation has run below the Fed’s 2% annual target for nearly two years, but price gains have accelerated a bit recently. Some central-bank officials have been concerned that low inflation—which discourages businesses and consumers from spending—could persist and weigh on growth.

Low levels of inflation are being experienced around the world. For example, the Bank of Japan is conducting asset purchases with the sole purpose of creating inflation. For this reason, the Fed can continue tapering at a slow pace as this should help push up inflation.

The problem with low inflation is it might be a symptom of something larger. We are starting to see the United States as well as other countries enter a stable path of growth. In addition, volatility is at very low levels. The last time we had a similar situation was during the Great Moderation. Starting in the mid-1980s, major economic variables such as gross domestic product (GDP) growth began to decline in volatility. In economics, the  “Great Moderation” refers to how stable the business cycle was at that time. We are again seeing that stable path of growth and global inflation, which is coinciding with an approaching of all-time lows again on volatility. However, this situation is easily disturbed. The first time around it masked a bubble in the housing market and that ended in a financial crisis. I am not sure what it is masking this time.

3 thoughts on “The Dangers of Low Volatility

  1. lippmanb

    understand what you are trying to say. Low volatility prevents inflation from getting to the level at which it would be safe. With higher volatility, it would be easier to raise inflation to a healthier level. Good post!

  2. psseo

    Nice analysis of new economic situation of low economic fluctuation. As you pointed out, policy makers should be cautious of possible accumulation of bubbles in the economy. We experienced catastrophic result of the Great Moderation during the the Great Recession. We should not forget those lessons.

  3. bdinger

    Good post, it seems to be a cultural phenomenon with some of these countries, especially in Japan, where no matter what prices do there is decades of “prices will be lower tomorrow” type thought there.

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