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What Is Deflation and Why Does It Matter?

By Ashley Kilroy · May 17, 2021 · 4 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is Deflation and Why Does It Matter?

Deflation is essentially the opposite of inflation. It occurs when the prices consumers pay for goods and services goes down. That means that consumers can purchase more with the same amount of money.

There are many factors that cause deflation, which happens when the supply of goods and services is higher than the demand for them. While deflation can have some benefits to consumers, it’s often a sign of trouble for the overall economy.

What Happens During Deflation?

In addition to knowing the definition of inflation, it’s important to understand how it impacts the economy. In a deflationary economy, prices gradually drop and consumers can purchase more with their money. In other words, the value of a dollar rises when deflation happens.

It’s important not to confuse deflation with disinflation. Disinflation is simply inflation decelerating. For example, the annual inflation rate may change from 5% to 3%. This variation still means that inflation is present, just at a lower rate. By contrast, deflation lowers prices. So, instead of prices increasing 3%, they may drop in value by 2%.

Although it may seem advantageous for consumer purchasing power to increase, it can accompany a recession. When prices drop, consumers may delay purchases on the assumption that they can buy something later for a lower price. However, when consumers put less money into the economy, it results in less money for the service or product creators.

The combination of these two factors can yield higher unemployment and interest rates. Historically, after the financial crises of 1890, 1893, 1907, and the early-1930s, the United States saw deflationary periods follow right behind.

How Is Deflation Measured?

Economists measure deflation the same way they measure inflation, by first gathering price data on goods and services. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) record and monitor this type of data in the United States. They collect pricing information that they then put into buckets reflecting the types of goods and services consumers generally use. While these buckets do not include every product and service; they offer a sample of items and services consumed. In the United States, economists incorporate these prices into an indicator known as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) .

Then, economists can compare the CPI to previous years to determine whether the economy is experiencing inflation or deflation. For example, if the prices decrease in a period compared to the year before, the economy is experiencing deflation. On the other hand, if prices increase compared to the previous year, the economy is experiencing inflation.

What Causes Deflation?

Deflation comes from a swing in supply and demand. Typically, when demand dwindles and supply increases, prices drop.

Factors that may contribute to this shift include:

Rising Interest rates

When the economy is expanding, the Federal Reserve may increase interest rates. When rates go up, consumers are less likely to spend their money and may keep more savings to capitalize on the increase in rates.

Also, the cost of borrowing increases with the rise of interest rates, further discouraging consumers from spending on large items.

Decline in Consumer Confidence

When the country is experiencing economic turbulence, like a recession, consumers spend less money. Because consumers tend to worry about the direction of the economy, they may want to keep more of their money in savings to protect their financial well-being.

Innovations in Technology

Technological innovation and process efficiency ultimately help lower prices while increasing supply. Some companies’ increase in productivity may have a small impact on the economy. While other industries, such as oil, can have a drastic impact on the economy as a whole.

Lower Production Costs

When the cost to produce certain items, such as oil, decreases, manufacturers may increase production. If demand for the product stagnates or decreases, they may then end up with excess supply. To sell the product, companies may drop prices to encourage consumer purchases.

Why Does Deflation Matter?

Although falling prices may seem advantageous when you need to purchase something, it’s always not a good sign for the economy. Many economists prefer slow and unwavering inflation. When prices continue to rise, consumers have an incentive to make purchases sooner, which further boosts the economy.

One of the most significant impacts of deflation is that it can take a toll on business revenues. When prices fall, businesses can’t make as much money.

The drop in business profits makes it challenging for companies to support their employees, leading to layoffs or pay cuts. When incomes go down, consumers spend less money. So deflation can create a domino effect impacting the economy at many different levels, including lower wages, increased unemployment, and falling demand.

Deflation During The Great Depression

The Great Depression is a significant example of the potential economic impact of a deflationary period. While the 1929 stock market crash and recession set this economic disaster off, deflation heavily contributed to it. The rapid decrease in demand along with cautious money hoarding led to falling prices for goods and services. Many companies couldn’t recover and shut down. This caused record-high unemployment in the United States, peaking at 25%, and in several other countries as well.

During this time, the economy continued to experience the negative feedback loop associated with deflation: cash shortages, falling prices, economic stagnation, and business shutdowns. While the United States has seen small episodes of deflationary periods since the Great Depression, it hasn’t seen anything as substantial as this event.

How to Manage Deflation

So, what can the government do to help regulate inflation? For starters, the Federal Reserve can lower interest rates to stimulate financial institutions to lend money. The Fed may also purchase Treasury securities back to increase liquidity that may help financial institutions loan funds. Those initiatives can increase the circulation of the money in the economy and boost spending.

Another way to manage deflation is with changes in fiscal policy, such as lowering taxes or providing stimulus funds. Putting more money in consumers’ pockets encourages an increase in spending. This, in turn, creates a chain effect that may increase demand, increase prices, and move the economy out of a deflationary period.

The Takeaway

When the economy is experiencing some turbulence, some investors may choose to keep their money in savings. On the other hand, other investors may see falling prices as an opportunity to purchase securities at a discount, either to hold or to sell when the economy recovers. Like any other investment strategy, investors must base their investment decisions on their personal preferences since there are no guaranteed results.

If you’re interested in beginning to invest, a SoFi Invest® online brokerage account is a great place to start. With no commission fees or minimum investment required and, you can build the portfolio to fit your ambitions.

Photo credit: iStock/eclipse_images


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