Biflation: Definition, Causes, and Example

What Is Biflation?

Biflation is the simultaneous occurrence of inflation and deflation in an economy. Biflation, is essentially a misnomer, since the concepts of inflation and deflation both refer to a general rise or decline in all prices, respectively, rather than to a relative change in prices among different economic goods or asset classes.

Biflation is a neologism for a type of Cantillon effect (an uneven response in the economy to changes in monetary policy) which occurs when expansionary monetary policy is applied to alleviate a recession.

Key Takeaways

  • Biflation is the apparent simultaneous occurrence of inflation and deflation in an economy.
  • It is an uneven response in the economy when a monetary stimulus is applied.
  • Biflation involves a decline in prices for debt-based assets such as home mortgages and related securities.
  • At the same time, you see rising prices in commodity-linked assets like oil and building materials.

Understanding Biflation

Biflation, a relatively new term coined in 2003 by Dr. F. Osborne Brown, a senior financial analyst for the Phoenix Investment Group, generally kicks in when central banks open up the monetary spigots in a bid to stimulate a stagnated economy.

Because the terms inflation and deflation refer to general, economy-wide changes in price, the name of the term biflation is somewhat misleading because it does not necessarily involve any increase or decrease in the general price level, but refers to change in relative prices driven by changes in the supply of money and credit in different markets. It describes a kind of Cantillon effect that happens when expansionary monetary policy during a recession results in rampant demand for commodity assets, leading their prices to rise at the same time that debt-based assets are falling in value.

The Cantillon Effect

A Cantillon effect is an uneven change in relative prices resulting from a change in money supply, which was first described by 18th-century economist Richard Cantillon (who inspired political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo).

Creating an abundance of cheap money via banks does not automatically mean that demand for everything will rise simultaneously. Instead, history shows that certain assets take favor over others, leading to rising in some areas of the economy and falling prices in others. 

Because money added to the economy (through lending and asset purchases by the central bank) or removed from the economy (through debt write-downs and liquidations) happen at specific points in the economy rather than in all markets simultaneously, both inflation and deflation tend to occur as processes over time with differential and sequential changes in prices in different markets. The resulting relative price changes that occur may confuse observers over whether the economy is undergoing overall inflation or deflation. 

Biflation is thus a specific type of Cantillon effect. It happens when during a period of debt deflation (and resulting recession) the central bank pumps money into the economy in an attempt to reinflate asset prices. However, despite the central bank’s efforts, the recipients of the newly created money use it to purchase commodities and related assets rather than to try and fight the ongoing deflationary trend in debt markets.

The central bank’s effort to stimulate the economy can not only fail but instead, can result in a rise in the cost of living as prices of raw materials and consumer staples may rise, while employment also falls, similar to the effects of stagflation.

Causes of Biflation

In a depressed economy, demand for raw materials used to make things such as energy, clothing, and food will likely remain relatively high because they are deemed essential purchases by consumers. People will often continue to buy them regardless of prices rises, leaving consumers with less money for discretionary expenses.

Leveraged assets like real estate are susceptible to experiencing price decreases in such an environment. When economic growth is stagnant and unemployment increases, people cannot always justify buying a home or anything else that is expensive and deemed to be non-essential, even if low-interest rates, a key function of increasing the money supply, make it cheaper to borrow.

The upshot of a strong appetite for certain assets and weak demand for others is biflation. Suddenly prices are rising in one part of the economy and falling in another, giving the appearance of a mixture of inflation and deflation.

Example of Biflation

Unprecedented market events caused biflation to occur in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007–2009. Against a backdrop of high unemployment and a moribund housing sector, the Federal Reserve unleashed trillions of dollars in monetary stimulus to jump-start the economy, while pledging to keep interest rates low.

To be sure, those measures aided parts of the economy, albeit not immediately across the board. Rather than targeting the funding toward renewed lending to distressed businesses, for instance, banks and Wall Street institutions who received the new money first held much of the funding as cash or directed it into speculative asset classes. Housing prices eventually recovered, but not nearly as quickly as liquid assets, such as stocks, which attracted investors due to a recovery in corporate earnings fueled by low-interest rates.

The economy saw an ongoing decline in sectors such as housing prices, which fell in many regions until early 2012. Conversely, prices for gasoline rose from 2009 through 2012. The price of gold rose dramatically between 2009 and 2011, with growth slowing in 2012. Similarly, many other commodities markets saw rising prices over roughly the same period.

Special Considerations

Biflation has, in many ways, been exacerbated by globalization and the financialization of the world economy. In fact, following the great recession, many of the assets that experienced strong demand and inflation were those that are traded globally.

For example, a rampant appetite for energy and metals from rapidly industrializing countries, such as India and China, was largely responsible for boosting prices for many commodities in the years immediately following the Great Recession. This made essential raw materials more expensive in a period when many consumers in the Western world found themselves in dire straits financially, contributing to a dearth of demand for things bought on credit back home, such as homes and automobiles.

What Is Meant by Skewflation?

Skewflation is a type of biflation where the cost of living increases while asset prices and home prices fall.

What Is Built-In Inflation in Economics?

Built-in inflation occurs when workers demand higher wages to keep up with rising living costs. This, in turn, leads businesses to raise their prices in order to offset their rising wage burden, leading to a self-reinforcing loop of wage and price increases. Because of this, built-in inflation is sometimes referred to as a wage-price spiral.

What Is a Decrease in Inflation Called?

If the rate of inflation is positive, but decreasing, it is known as disinflation. If inflation turns negative and prices begin to generally fall, it is known as deflation.

The Bottom Line

Inflation is when prices in an economy generally rise; deflation when they generally fall. Biflation is the phenomenon where prices are rising in some parts of the economy but falling in others. In particular, biflation tends to see a simultaneous rise and fall in financial assets vs. hard assets or commodities. As an uneven response to monetary policy changes, biflation can be thought of as an example of the Cantillon effect.

Article Sources
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  1. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. "Fact #915: March 7, 2016 Average Historical Annual Gasoline Pump Price, 1929-2015."

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Beyond the Numbers. "Gold Prices During and After the Great Recession."

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