Feb 25, 2019

It's the inflation, stupid

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The absence of inflation is forcing a wide-ranging rethink of long-held economic assumptions.

Driving the news: In his annual letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett admits that though he regularly preached "doom because of government budget deficits" he is no longer in that camp. And former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard argued in a speech that for countries like the U.S., high public debt isn't necessarily a problem.

The state of play: As the New York Times' Neil Irwin points out, politicians also are quickly joining the deficits-don't-matter club.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) recently indicated openness to "modern monetary theory," the idea that deficits don't matter for countries that can print their own money.
  • President Trump did not once mention the debt or budget deficits in this year's State of the Union address, nor did he mention it last year, despite expected annual shortfalls over $1 trillion.

What's happening: The debt has not mattered largely because inflation has been absent from the economic equation.

  • It's inflation that raises capital and labor costs for businesses, reduces available capital for investment and clogs government balance sheets, forcing other expenditures to be capped or scrapped. But over the past decade or so, inflation has been a non-factor, even after back-to-back years of above trend growth and government spending binges.
  • Economists have argued about the reasons, pointing at everything from the internet to the lack of unions to globalization to the way companies have invested their profits. But the end result remains the same.

What they're saying: "We've got inflation well under control here, and we don't need to be pre-emptive trying to control inflation going forward," St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said Friday.

  • In an interview the same day, Bullard elaborated, saying there has been a breakdown in the "Phillips curve," or the relationship between unemployment and inflation. "That's got people backing off the idea that there’s such a lockstep relationship between the real economy and inflation," Bullard said.
  • Further, officials at the Federal Reserve now are reconsidering the 2% inflation target that has been in effect since 2012.
  • Other central banks also are moving away from raising rates or slowing down stimulus as inflation has globally gone missing in developed markets like the Japan and Europe as well.

But, but, but: The ongoing crisis in Venezuela has shown that too much money chasing too few goods can still create problems. President Nicolás Maduro's money printing has led to an expected 10,000,000% inflation this year, undermining any attempts to stabilize the country's currency or its economy.

Go deeper: Warren Buffett argues government budget deficits don't matter

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America's rundown roads add to farmers' struggles

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

American farmers are struggling to safely use the roads that cut through their fields; decades of neglect and lack of funding have made the routes dangerous.

The big picture: President Trump has long promised to invest billions in rural infrastructure, and his latest proposal would allocate $1 trillion for such projects. Rural America, where many of Trump's supporters live, would see a large chunk of that money.

South Korea and Italy see spikes in coronavirus cases

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The novel coronavirus continues to spread to more nations, and the U.S. reports a doubling of its confirmed cases to 34 — while noting those are mostly due to repatriated citizens, emphasizing there's no "community spread" yet in the U.S. South Korea's confirmed cases jumped from 204 on Friday to 433 on Saturday, while Italy's case count rose from 3 to 62 as of Saturday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 2,362 people and infected more than 77,000 others, mostly in mainland China. New countries to announce infections recently include Israel, Lebanon and Iran.

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Centrist Democrats beseech 2020 candidates: "Stand up to Bernie" or Trump wins

Bernie Sanders rallies in Las Vegas, Nevada on Feb. 21. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Center-left think tank Third Way urgently called on the Democratic front-runners of the 2020 presidential election to challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders on the South Carolina debate stage on Feb. 25, in a memo provided to Axios' Mike Allen on Saturday.

What they're saying: "At the Las Vegas debate ... you declined to really challenge Senator Sanders. If you repeat this strategy at the South Carolina debate this week, you could hand the nomination to Sanders, likely dooming the Democratic Party — and the nation — to Trump and sweeping down-ballot Republican victories in November."