Lab research shows inflation may be all in your mind: Don Pittis

Some economists worry that a glut of money in the world has set the stage for a long-term burst of inflation. But Canadian lab work backs the idea that it's all just in your head.

Consumers try to interpret or outguess central banks' interest rate predictions

Computers tracking a laboratory rat in China show its memories forming. Canadian lab work shows that for humans, inflation may be all in your head. (Reuters)

Inflation is all your head, and Luba Petersen has the lab work to prove it.

Canadian inflation has cooled to near one per cent and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz tells us to expect interest rates to stay low.

With a flood of money into the world economy, that wasn't supposed to happen, but a growing body of research shows the rate of inflation may be more mental than mechanistic.

When I heard about Petersen's laboratory work on inflation, my mind involuntarily strayed to rats in cages.

But of course the professor and researcher at Simon Fraser University is using human subjects to try to understand what causes prices and wages to rise.
Consumer prices are rising slowly, at least partly because that's what people have grown to expect. (CBC)

"The problem with looking at real-world data is that you don't know what's driving people's behaviour," says Petersen. "But in the lab I have a lot of control."

She says that high degree of control gives her the ability to experiment with new policies, because central banks can't toy with policy just for the sake of academic inquiry.

Petersen's research is part of the behavioural revolution in economics. Rather than theorizing how people should react to economic signals, economists experiment to find out how people actually respond.

The researcher can't talk about her experiments commissioned by the Bank of Canada, but other work shows some unexpected reactions to central bank attempts to push prices and wages higher.

Deflation's a drag

Not just Canada, but much of the developed world is suffering low inflation or even deflation, which, for reasons previously discussed, acts as a drag on investment and growth. 

Manipulative as it may seem, one way central bankers try to ignite inflation is to tell people they should expect it. But Petersen's research indicates that exactly how they try to do that really matters.

Essentially what she found is that if central bankers predict a higher inflation target and the economy fails to hit that target, people become cynical and lose confidence in the bank's predictions.
One theory says people think central bankers like Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz have inside knowledge about the future, so that when they hold rates down, ordinary folks assume the economic future will be weak. (Reuters)

However, Petersen's research shows that if they make far less explicit "qualitative" warnings about rising prices and wages, they are more likely to be believed.

The traditional theory — one that many still ascribe to — is that low interest rates make money cheap. Then people feel free to borrow, invest and spend, thus strengthening the economy. That drives inflation up.

Perverse effect

But a behavioural analysis suggested by Chicago Fed economist Leonardo Melosi presents a different view. If people think of the central bank as having privileged information about the economy and its future, the bank can mistakenly send the wrong message.

"When they set low interest rates, that suggests to the public that the Fed is pessimistic about the future state of the economy," says Petersen. Even if a central bank is not pessimistic, such a signal could inadvertently have the perverse effect of convincing people and businesses "to save more and spend less."

University of Alberta economist Constance Smith points out that the inflationary effect of the current money glut may still be slowly working its way through the system. "This can take years."

However, if inflation is created in our mind by our expectations, then last week's comments by Poloz that retirees should expect interest rates to be "lower for longer" will just make people, especially those saving for retirement, clutch their money more tightly.

"He's been saying that rates are going to stay low, so I assume he thinks inflation is going to stay low," says Smith. Once again, she says, that makes retirees want to save more and spend less. The fact that they think inflation will be low helps create low inflation.
In many places low interest rates have pushed asset prices higher, meaning homeowners are putting all their money into real estate instead of other consumer goods. (Don Pittis/CBC)

In a world where inflation is all in our heads, it is hard for people to break free of that kind of circular thinking. But that doesn't mean it's impossible, says Petersen.

Perception is everything. A sudden trigger, for example rising U.S. wages, could start an inflationary spiral.

Mental image

Maybe rising interest rates will make strapped homeowners demand higher pay.

But young people have never experienced massive inflation, Petersen says. It would take a lot to shake them out of that non-inflationary mental image of the world.

As McGill University's Tom Velk reminded me last week, a long period of low interest rates may have had another perverse effect on rising prices.

While what he calls "can-of-soup inflation" — normal price inflation measured by the consumer price index — remains weak, low interest rates have caused an explosion in asset inflation. House prices, for instance, have gone through the roof.

While young people assume can-of-soup inflation will stay flat, until recently their perception has been that interest rates will stay low and house-price inflation will stay high. 

"A lot of young consumers don't have the resources to go out spending or investing heavily," says Petersen. "Every young person I know is either saving for a house or paying off their house, so that really puts a downward pressure on their demand for other consumer goods."

Folllow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.