What stagflation means and what Biden could do about it
Some are warning that the Federal Reserve's effort to slow inflation could potentially return the U.S. economy to the unusual condition it found itself in during the 1970s and early 1980s: Stagflation.
The big picture: Despite high inflation, the U.S. economy is humming along — with unemployment at 3.6% in April —near the low levels that last prevailed in the late 1960s.
What is stagflation?
Stagflation describes a highly unusual economic state of affairs when the economy is weak or stagnating — with high or rising unemployment — yet inflation is also elevated.
- This is the opposite of what usually happens.
- High inflation tends to break out when economic growth is really roaring.
- Periods of weak economic growth, and rising joblessness, are typically accompanied by slow price increases, or even falling prices.
Do we have stagflation right now?
While the annual pace of price increases have surged to 40-year highs in recent months, unemployment is incredibly low. This is an inflationary environment, not stagflation.
When's the last time we had stagflation?
The best-known stagflationary episodes hit the U.S. in the 1970s and early 1980s, when a series of oil shocks — especially the 1973 embargo that Arab members of OPEC placed on the United States in response for military support of Israel — sent fuel costs and inflation surging, as unemployment simultaneously shot higher.
The combination of energy shocks and stagflationary conditions lasted on and off into the early years of the Reagan administration. As late as 1982, unemployment was hovering around 10% and prices were rising as much as 6% annually.
So why are we talking about stagflation?
A number of economic policy bigwigs — former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, current Fed chair Jerome Powell and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen (who also led the Fed) — have recently either implicitly or explicitly suggested that as the Fed tries to bring down inflation, unemployment will likely rise.
That will likely mean we'll have an economy that is sort of stagflationary, at least for some period of time. In other words, growth will be weakening, but inflation will still be high.
What are they saying?
- Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Wednesday: "The economic outlook globally is challenging, and uncertain, and higher food and energy prices are having stagflationary effects, namely, depressing output and spending and raising inflation all around the world."
- Bernanke in a New York Times article published this week: ''Even under the benign scenario, we should have a slowing economy ... And inflation's still too high but coming down. So there should be a period in the next year or two where growth is low, unemployment is at least up a little bit and inflation is still high,'' he predicted. ''So you could call that stagflation."
- Powell told the Wall Street Journal this week: "I would say there could be some pain involved in restoring price stability."
What can Biden do about stagflation if it actually occurs?
Not much that wouldn't be politically unpalatable.
- Biden could propose a sharp reduction in federal deficit spending. That could help reduce inflation, but it would likely hurt growth and raise unemployment.
- He could attempt the kind of wage and price controls that President Nixon imposed in 1971, though that seems extremely unlikely and not particularly effective.
- He could basically let the Fed deal with it. That's essentially the path Jimmy Carter took in the late 1970s. The soaring Fed rate hikes and the deep recession that followed contributed mightily to his annihilation in the 1980 presidential election.
The bottom line: Like we said above, we don't yet have stagflation. It's possible that the Fed is able to thread the needle so perfectly that inflation comes down easily and unemployment raises ever so slightly and nobody notices.
- But stagflation is a possibility, and an unappealing one for practically everyone.