Back to the future? Assessing the deflation record

BIS Working Papers No 152
March 2004

The rhetoric of deflation has become more prevalent in policy circles and in the press despite the fact that deflation has been a rare phenomenon in modern fiat currency economies. To better understand the nature of deflation, this paper looks back to a period when deflation was a regular feature of the economic environment, across both time and a wide set of countries. One feature of the deflation record stands clear. During the 19th century and early 20th century, deflation was not generally associated with persistent and deep economic malaise. Most periods of deflation also appear to have been largely unanticipated, with interest rates rarely approaching their zero lower bound. One notable exception to this typical pattern was the Great Depression of the early 1930s, the event that nowadays colours current general perceptions of what deflationary episodes might look like. At the risk of oversimplification, one way to think about this broad sweep of history is that deflations come in three basic types: the good, the bad and the ugly. The paper then jumps forward in time, seeking to draw lessons from the past about the possibility of future episodes of deflation and their characteristics. In doing so, it pays particular attention to the similarities and differences in the monetary and financial regimes prevailing now and in the past. While great care should be taken in any such exercise, the paper concludes that certain features of the past can help to shed some light on the policy challenges that policymakers might face in the future.