What Is Disinflation?

Disinflation is a temporary slowing of the pace of price inflation and is used to describe instances when the inflation rate has reduced marginally over the short term.

Key Takeaways

  • Disinflation is a temporary slowing of the pace of price inflation and is used to describe instances when the inflation rate has reduced marginally over the short term.
  • Unlike inflation and deflation, which refer to the direction of prices, disinflation refers to the rate of change in the rate of inflation.
  • A healthy amount of disinflation is necessary, since it prevents the economy from overheating.
  • The danger that disinflation presents is when the rate of inflation falls near to zero, as it did in 2015, raising the specter of deflation.

Understanding Disinflation

Disinflation is commonly used by the Federal Reserve (Fed) to describe a period of slowing inflation and should not be confused with deflation, which can be harmful to the economy. Unlike inflation and deflation, which refer to the direction of prices, disinflation refers to the rate of change in the rate of inflation.

Disinflation is not considered problematic because prices do not actually drop, and disinflation does not usually signal the onset of a slowing economy. Deflation is represented as a negative growth rate, such as -1%, while disinflation is shown as a change in the inflation rate, say, from 3% one year to 2% the next. Disinflation is considered the opposite of reflation, which occurs when a government stimulates an economy by increasing the money supply.

A healthy amount of disinflation is necessary, since it represents economic contraction and prevents the economy from overheating. As such, instances of disinflation are not uncommon and are viewed as normal during healthy economic times. Disinflation benefits certain segments of a population, such as people who are inclined to save their earnings.

Disinflation Triggers

There are several things that can cause an economy to experience disinflation. If a central bank decides to impose a tighter monetary policy and the government starts to sell off some of its securities, it could reduce the supply of money in the economy, causing a disinflationary effect.

Similarly, a contraction in the business cycle or a recession can also trigger disinflation. For example, businesses may choose not to increase prices to gain greater market share, leading to disinflation.

Disinflation Since 1980

The U.S. economy experienced one of its longest periods of disinflation from 1980 through 2015.

During the 1970s, the rapid rise of inflation came to be known as the "Great Inflation," with prices increasing more than 110% during the decade. The annual rate of inflation topped out at 14.76% in early 1980. Following the implementation of aggressive monetary policies by the Fed to reduce inflation, the increase in prices slowed in the 1980s, rising just 59% for the period. In the decade of the 1990s, prices rose 32%, followed by a 27% increase between 2000 and 2009, and a 9% increase between 2010 and 2015.

During this period of disinflation, stocks performed well, averaging 8.65% in real returns between 1982 and 2015. Disinflation also allowed the Fed to lower interest rates in the 2000s, which led to bonds generating above-average returns.

The danger that disinflation presents is when the rate of inflation falls near to zero, as it did in 2015, it raises the specter of deflation. Although the rate of inflation was near zero in 2015, concerns over deflation were dismissed because it was largely attributed to falling energy prices. As energy prices recovered in the period from 2016 to 2020, the rate of inflation picked up somewhat, averaging 1.8% during that period—moderated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.