Once deflation sets in, it can take decades for an economy to break out of its iron grip—Japan is still trying to climb out of a deflationary spiral dubbed the Lost Decades that began in 1990. But what can central banks do to fight the pernicious and devastating effects of deflation? In recent years, central banks around the world have pulled out all the stops, using extreme measures and innovative tools to combat deflation in their economies. Below, we will discuss how central banks fight deflation.

Effects of Deflation

Deflation is defined as a sustained and broad decline in price levels in an economy over a period of time. Deflation is the opposite of inflation and is also different from disinflation, which represents a period when the inflation rate is positive but falling.

Brief periods of lower prices, as in a disinflationary environment, are not bad for the economy. After all, who's going to complain if one has to pay less for clothing, computers, cars, or childcare? Paying less for goods and services leaves consumers with more money left over for discretionary expenditures, which should boost the economy. In a period of declining inflation, the central bank is not likely to be especially "hawkish" (in other words, poised to aggressively raise interest rates) on monetary policy, which again would stimulate the economy.

But deflation is another story altogether. The biggest problem created by deflation is that it leads consumers to defer consumption, not with regard to the daily necessities of life like groceries, but for big-ticket items like appliances, cars, and houses. After all, the possibility that prices may go up is a huge motivator for buying big-ticket items (which is why sales and other temporary discounts are so effective).

In the United States, consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the American economy and economists regard it as one of the most reliable engines of the global economy. Imagine the negative impact on the economy if these consumers begin to defer spending because they think goods may be cheaper next year.

Once consumer spending begins to decelerate, it has a ripple effect on the corporate sector, which begins deferring or slashing capital expenditures—spending on property, building, equipment, new projects, and investments. Corporations may also begin downsizing the workforce in order to maintain profitability. This creates a vicious circle, with corporate layoffs imperiling consumer spending, which in turn leads to more layoffs and rising unemployment. Such contraction in consumer and corporate spending can trigger a recession, and in the worst-case scenario, a full-blown depression.

Another hugely negative effect of deflation is its impact on debt burdens. While inflation chips away at the real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) value of debt, deflation has the opposite effect. It adds to the real debt burden. An increase in the debt burden at a time of recessionary conditions leads to increased debt defaults and bankruptcies by indebted households and companies.

Recent Deflation Concerns

Over the past quarter-century, concerns about deflation have spiked after big financial crises and/or the bursting of asset bubbles, such as the Asian crisis of 1997, the "tech wreck" of 2000-02, and the Great Recession of 2008-09. These concerns have assumed center stage in recent years because of Japan's experience after its asset bubble burst in the early 1990s.

In order to counter the Japanese yen's 50 percent rise in the 1980s and the resultant recession in 1986, Japan embarked on a program of monetary and fiscal stimulus. This had the effect of causing a massive asset bubble as Japanese stocks and urban land prices tripled in the second half of the 1980s. The bubble burst in 1990 as the Nikkei index lost a third of its value within a year, commencing a slide that lasted until October 2008 and took it down 80 percent from its December 1989 peak. As deflation became entrenched, the Japanese economy—which had been one of the fastest-growing in the world from the 1960s to the 1980s—slowed dramatically. Real GDP growth averaged only 1.1 percent annually from 1990 onward. In 2013, Japan's nominal GDP was about 6 percent below its level in the mid-1990s. (For more on the Japanese economy, see From Mrs. Watanabe to Abenomics - the Yen's wild ride).

The Great Recession of 2008-09 sparked fears of a similar period of prolonged deflation in the United States and elsewhere, because of the catastrophic collapse in prices of a wide range of assets—stocks, mortgage-backed securities, real estate, and commodities. The global financial system was also thrown into turmoil by the insolvency of a number of major banks and financial institutions in the United States and Europe, exemplified by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 (see Case Study – The Collapse of Lehman Brothers). There were widespread concerns that scores of banks and financial institutions that were on the verge of going under would do so in a domino effect, leading to a collapse of the financial system, a shattering of consumer confidence, and outright deflation.

How the Federal Reserve Fought Deflation

Fortunately, the Federal Reserve had the right man for the job in its Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bernanke has already acquired the moniker of "Helicopter Ben" after he made a passing reference in a 2002 speech to economist Milton Friedman's famous line that deflation could be countered by dropping money from a helicopter. Although Bernanke thankfully did not have to resort to the helicopter drop, the Federal Reserve used some of the same methods outlined in his 2002 speech from 2008 onwards to combat the worst recession since the 1930s.

In December 2008, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC, the Federal Reserve's monetary policy body) cut the target federal funds rate essentially to zero. The fed funds rate is the Federal Reserve's conventional instrument of monetary policy, but with that rate now at the "zero lower bound" – so called because nominal interest rates cannot go below zero – the Federal Reserve had to resort to unconventional monetary policies to ease credit conditions and stimulate the economy.

The Federal Reserve turned to two main types of unconventional monetary policy tools: (1) forward policy guidance and (2) large-scale asset purchases (better known as quantitative easing (QE)).

The Federal Reserve introduced explicit forward policy guidance in the August 2011 FOMC statement, in order to influence longer-term interest rates and financial market conditions. The Fed specifically said then that it expected economic conditions to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2103. This guidance led to a drop in Treasury yields, as investors grew comfortable that the Fed would hold off on raising rates for the next two years. The Fed subsequently extended its forward guidance twice in 2012, as a tepid recovery caused it to push out the horizon for keeping rates low.

But it's the other tool, quantitative easing, that has hogged the headlines and become synonymous with the Fed's easy-money policies. QE essentially involves a central bank creating new money and using it to buy securities from the nation's banks so as to pump liquidity into the economy and drive down long-term interest rates. This ripples through to other interest rates across the economy, and the broad decline in interest rates stimulates demand for loans from consumers and businesses. Banks are able to meet this higher demand for loans because of the funds they have received from the central bank in exchange for their security holdings.

The timeline of the Fed's QE programs was as follows:

  • Between December 2008 and August 2010, the Federal Reserve purchased $1.75 trillion in bonds, comprising $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities issued by government agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, $200 billion in agency debt, and $300 billion in longer-term Treasuries. This initiative subsequently became known as QE1.
  • In November 2010 the Fed announced QE2, wherein it would buy another $600 billion of longer-term Treasuries at a pace of $75 billion per month.
  •  In September 2012, the Fed launched QE3, initially buying mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $40 billion per month, and expanding the program in January 2013 by buying $45 billion of longer-term Treasuries per month, for a total monthly purchase commitment of $85 billion.
  • In December 2013, the Fed announced that it would taper off the pace of asset purchases in measured steps, and concluded the purchases in October 2014.

How Other Central Banks Fought Deflation

Other central banks have also resorted to unconventional monetary policies to stimulate their economies and stave off deflation.

In December 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched an ambitious policy framework to end deflation and revitalize the economy. Dubbed “Abenomics," the program has three main arrows or elements—(1) monetary easing, (2) flexible fiscal policy, and (3) structural reforms. In April 2013, the Bank of Japan announced a record QE program, saying it would buy Japanese government bonds and double the monetary base to 270 trillion yen by the end of 2014, with the objective of ending deflation and achieving inflation of 2 percent by 2015. The policy objective of slashing the fiscal deficit in half by 2015, from its 2010 level of 6.6 percent of GDP, and achieving a surplus by 2020, commenced with an increase in Japan's sales tax to 8 percent from April 2014, from 5 percent earlier. The structural reforms element may be the hardest to get going as it needs bold measures to offset the effects of an aging population, such as allowing foreign labor and employing women and older workers. 

In January 2015, the European Central Bank (ECB) embarked on its own version of QE, by pledging to buy at least 1.1 trillion euros of bonds, at a monthly pace of 60 billion euros, through to September 2016. The ECB launched its QE program six years after the Federal Reserve did so, in a bid to support the fragile recovery in Europe and ward off deflation, after its unprecedented move to cut  the benchmark lending rate below 0 percent in late-2014 met with only limited success.

While the ECB was the first major central bank to experiment with negative interest rates, a number of central banks in Europe, including those of Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, have pushed their benchmark interest rates below the zero bound. What will be the consequences of such unconventional measures?

Intended and Unintended Consequences

There is little doubt that the torrent of cash sloshing about in the global financial system as a result of QE programs and other unconventional measures have paid off in spades for the stock market. Global market capitalization exceeded $70 trillion for the first time in April 2015, representing an increase of 175 percent from the trough level of $25.5 trillion in March 2009. The S&P 500 has tripled over this period, while many equity indices in Europe and Asia are currently at all-time highs.  

But the impact on the real economy is less clear. In the United States, the economy is expected to grow at 3.1 percent in 2015 and 2016, up from a 2.4 percent growth pace in 2014, according to International Monetary Fund forecasts. But although unemployment is down to 5.5 percent, after nearing double-digits at the depths of the recession, and housing has staged a solid recovery, the economy still seems to sputter from time to time. In Japan, the April 2014 tax hike led to an unexpected 0.1 percent contraction in the economy.

Meanwhile, the concerted moves to fend deflation globally have had some strange consequences:  

  • Central bank balance sheets are bloating: Large-scale asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, and the ECB are swelling up their balance sheets to record levels. The Fed's balance sheet has grown from less than $1 trillion in August 2008 to $4.5 trillion in April 2015. Shrinking these central bank balance sheets may have negative consequences down the road.
  • QE could lead to a covert currency war: QE programs have led to major currencies plunging across the board against the U.S. dollar. With most nations having exhausted almost all their options to stimulate growth, currency depreciation may be the only tool remaining to boost economic growth, which could lead to a covert currency war (see "What is a currency war and how does it work?").
  • European bond yields have turned negative: More than a quarter of government debt issued by European governments, or an estimated $1.5 trillion, currently has negative yields. This may be a result of the ECB's bond-buying program, but it could also be signaling a sharp economic slowdown in future.

The Bottom Line

The measures taken by central banks seem to be winning the battle against deflation at the present time (May 2015), but it is too early to tell if they have won the war. An unspoken fear is that central banks may have expended most, if not of all of their ammunition, in beating back deflation. If this indeed proves to be the case in the years ahead, deflation could be an exceedingly difficult foe to vanquish.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.