As dozens of countries slip deeper into financial distress, a new threat may be gathering force within the American economy — the prospect that goods will pile up waiting for buyers and prices will fall, suffocating fresh investment and worsening joblessness for months or even years.
By Peter S. Goodman
The New York Times
The word for this is deflation, or declining prices, a term that gives economists chills.
Deflation accompanied the Depression of the 1930s. Persistently falling prices also were at the heart of Japan’s so-called lost decade after the catastrophic collapse of its real estate bubble at the end of the 1980s — a period in which some experts now find parallels to the American predicament.
The Mansfield Manufacturing plant in Dongguan, China. The global economic crisis is threatening the country’s factory jobs. Photo: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“That certainly is the snapshot of the risk I see,” said Robert J. Barbera, chief economist at the research and trading firm ITG. “It is the crisis we face.”
With economies around the globe weakening, demand for oil, copper, grains and other commodities has diminished, bringing down prices of these raw materials. But prices have yet to decline noticeably for most goods and services, with one conspicuous exception — houses. Still, reduced demand is beginning to soften prices for a few products, like furniture and bedding, which are down slightly since the beginning of 2007, according to government data. Prices are also falling for some appliances, tools and hardware.
Only a few months ago, American policy makers were worried about the reverse problem — rising prices, or inflation — as then-soaring costs for oil and food filtered through the economy. In July, average prices were 5.6 percent higher than a year earlier — the fastest pace of inflation since 1991. But by the end of September, annual inflation had dipped to 4.9 percent and was widely expected to go lower.
The new worry is that in the worst case, the end of inflation may be the beginning of something malevolent: a long, slow retrenchment in which consumers and businesses worldwide lose the wherewithal to buy, sending prices down for many goods. Though still considered unlikely, that would prompt businesses to slow production and accelerate layoffs, taking more paychecks out of the economy and further weakening demand.