Reassuring the World

Inflation isn't today's global economic problem. The sell-off of stocks in the United States on Monday more than hinted this.

If anything, the threat is deflation - falling prices - and recession.

Stock prices have been tumbling in most exchanges around the world for days. In the US, a bearish stock market has sometimes, but not always, predicted a recession. That doesn't have to happen. The Federal Reserve can take steps to prevent a slump.

What caught our eye as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged was a report, "On the edge of deflation?" by Deutsche Bank Securities, an investment bank in New York. The numbers in it are astounding.

The average inflation rate for the 29 members of the industrial nations' club, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, comes to below 4 percent for the first time since the 1960s. If Turkey with its 85 percent inflation rate is excluded, it is below 2 percent.

Consumer prices in the European Community are climbing at a modest 2 percent on average. In the United States, consumer prices are rising at a 1.7 percent rate.

In Canada, the rate is 1 percent - yet the Bank of Canada felt last week it had to raise interest rates to defend the plummeting Canadian dollar. The action didn't work.

Inflation in France, Australia, and Austria is below 1 percent. In France, it is close to a 40-year low. Italy's inflation rate is near a 29-year low of 1.6 percent. Inflation in Britain fell to 3.5 percent in July. Germany's rate is 0.7 percent, lowest in 11 years. There's no inflation in Switzerland. Prices in Japan are about to fall. Sweden's inflation rate slipped below zero in July.

The average inflation rate for the Group of Seven major industrialized nations is 1.4 percent. It was above 5.5 percent at the start of the 1990s.

This price phenomena isn't confined to the rich nations.

There's deflation in China and Singapore. Brazil's inflation rate of 3 percent is a 49-year low. The rate was 700 percent at the beginning of the decade.

Mexico's rate is flattening out around 15 percent.

Even some countries in Asia which suffered severe currency devaluations last year aren't doing as badly as one might have expected.

South Korea's inflation rate fell to 7.3 percent in July from 9.5 percent last February. In Thailand, the yearly rate is 10 percent, but prices were up only 0.1 percent in July.

Price stability is a good thing. So the record above is encouraging.

At this point, however, with financial turmoil in so many emerging nations, the thinking of central bankers and other economic policymakers must focus on avoiding a global recession - not on fighting inflation. It is time for the finance ministers of the Group of Seven industrial powers to get together.

Regularly, but in an ad hoc manner, they attempt to manage the world's economic problems. Now they should reassure the world that the fear shown in stock markets is exaggerated. A decisive easing of monetary policy - lower interest rates - would shrink concerns in a hurry.

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