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“The Great Demographic Reversal”

I don’t often write book reviews and, strictly speaking, this isn’t one. I am not going to go into great detail about The Great Demographic Reversal, by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan. And yet, if you are reading about inflation – and in particular, you’ve read what I’ve written about inflation – then I think this is a book that you should read. It is important.

One of the dilemmas that people who model inflation have is that any given model of inflation in the United States tends to have a state shift around 1992 or so. Any model that you design works at best on the pre-1992 period or the post-1992 period. I mention this a lot, because while modern-day economists and policymakers are very content with their models because they’ve worked well for nearly 30 years (until 2021-2022, when the Fed has been so befuddled that Chairman Powell last week admitted that “We’ve lived in that world where inflation was not a problem.  I think we understand better how little we understand about inflation”), in my view they don’t really understand the underlying dynamics of big inflation shifts unless they can explain the state shift in or around 1992.

The most popular explanation is that inflation expectations abruptly became anchored at that point, causing inflation to suddenly become mean-reverting in a way it never did before. There have been plenty of takedowns of this idea, most notably by the Fed’s own Jeremy Rudd. My theory for some time has been that the sudden globalization and expansion of Free Trade following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet sphere of influence in the late 1980s, most-aptly summed up in this chart from Deutsche Bank, gave us a better tradeoff of growth and inflation for a given amount of money supply growth, but that that game was coming to an end at about the time Donald Trump was elected.

Goodhart and Pradhan, in the book I’ve referenced above, provide some additional support for that view but also go much farther and highlight the massive demographic wave that was cresting over the last quarter-century. It isn’t just the Baby Boom generation in the United States, but also (and critically) the opening up of China and the movement of rural Chinese to the cities that caused a massive outward shift of the labor supply curve. Since the title of the book gives away the ending I don’t mind sharing the point they make that the China demographic is shifting into reverse (as a foreseeable consequence of the one-child policy) and many other demographics-related trends are also. One of their big conclusions is that “for the past few decades, central banks have given too much credit to their own inflation targeting regimes and too little to demography in accounting for the disinflation we have seen.” (p.189-190)

The authors discuss the changing demographic landscape, and how this leads to a resurgence of inflation. They address a number of counterarguments, including (thank heavens) the “Why Didn’t It Happen in Japan” argument, and examine whether there is likely to be sufficient contrary forces coming from (for example) automation and the continued growth of India and Africa. They tinker with various policy proposals. I should say that I disagree with many of their policy proposals, which are redolent of some of the redistributional schemes common on the left.

But while I don’t like their solutions, I agree that they’ve identified the right problems and supported those views with plenty of charts and data. The book was published in late 2020, before the current inflation spike makes them look prescient. It was written prior to the COVID crisis, and there is an addendum chapter where the authors discuss whether and how Coronavirus changes their views. However, I think the authors would admit that they weren’t writing about the inflation spike of 2021-202x. They are really looking farther out. In their view – which I share – the basic forces which made the disinflation of the last 40 years possible (and possibly even inevitable) are moving into reverse, and we will struggle for many years with the difficult choices an underlying inflationary dynamic forces upon us.

I highly recommend this book.

  1. Brian Gidley
    July 6, 2022 at 9:02 am

    May I suggest a companion read…

    The Return of High Inflation
    Risks, Myths and Opportunities

    Wolfgang H. Hammes, Ph.D.

  2. Joél van Beelen
    July 6, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    Economists & demograpics…

    In this discussion the authors explain the book and handle some of the major objections:

    The Great Demographic Reversal: Ageing societies, waning inequality and an inflation revival – CSFI

  3. Margo
    July 7, 2022 at 4:53 am

    I have ordered the book.  Thanks for the heads-up.  Margo

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