Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Common Roots of Hyperinflation

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

Rating agency S&P lowered its outlook for Spanish government debt on December 9th. Fitch lowered its long-term debt rating for Greece to BBB+ from A- the day before. In the eurozone, there are concerns about Portugal also being in trouble, although Portugal's debt to GDP ratio is no worse than the United States and a case can be made that the U.S. is actually in much worse shape - the U.S. has a large money printing press however and Portugal does not. No country can compare to Japan however with its debt to GDP ratio currently over 200%. An examination of the CIA Factbook figures for 2008 estimated that only Zimbabwe had a worse debt to GDP ratio than Japan's. Zimbabwe also had the second largest hyperinflation in world history.

The roots of all hyperinflations are governments not being able to fund their operations. Government's first borrow money to do so and this can go on for years or even many decades (the more powerful the government, the longer it can live off of borrowed money). At some point, the credit either starts to run out or the expenditures get so high that the amount that can be borrowed is no longer enough. It is then that governments resort to printing money (not literally done in advanced economies where money is simply created by pressing the enter button on a computer) and this devalues the currency. The devaluation is the result of simple arithmetic. Currency increasing at a faster rate than the size of the economy means each unit of currency is worth less and it takes more money to buy any given good or service than it would have otherwise. The price rises that result are consumer inflation. Many economists do not use this obvious definition of inflation, which is one reason why their inflation predictions are frequently highly inaccurate. Central banks particularly don't like it because it would prevent them from engaging in politically popular, but potentially disastrous monetary policy.

The Credit Crisis has led to a lot of money printing (frequently referred to as quantitative easing) globally and this is taking place after decades of increased borrowing in most countries. While money printing will lead to inflation, it only leads to hyperinflation when it spirals out of control. The preconditions for this are that borrowing power has been maxed out (which is now the case for many countries, but was not true in the 1970s and this is why it was possible to tame inflation back then) and it no longer becomes politically possible to match government expenditures with revenues. In the modern era, this is always a problem during wars since no state is capable of raising enough money through taxes to pay for any major or prolonged military effort (the U.S. accounts for over 40% of global military expenditures by the way). Contemporary democracies also get caught between the need for large outlays for social expenditures and the resistance of rich individuals and corporations to paying the taxes necessary for funding them, so they compromise and give both sides what they want. This problem is by no means brand new. It is essentially what lead to the hyperinflation in Germany in the early 1920s.

Once the preconditions for hyperinflation exist, a major economic shock can then become the precipitating incident. Governments will always assume that the problem is temporary and the economy can be righted quickly through a little money printing. In deep economic shocks like that depression in the 1930s and the Japanese banking crisis in the 1990s, and the Credit Crisis today, this is not the case. The problem will take at least a decade and possibly multiple decades to solve. The possibility for long-term money printing then exists (the U.S. did not engage in this in the 1930s). Zero or close to zero interest rates will mask the damage that is being created. This is what has allowed Japan's government finances to spiral out of control (combined with a huge pool of personal savings of the Japanese people that it could tap into) and is now enabling the U.S. and UK to do the same. At some point though interest rates have to rise and when they do, interest payments on the national debt can equal or exceed the government's tax receipts. The game is up long before that occurs however with a hyperinflationary spiral becoming inevitable. For this reason, it is now no longer possible to solve a future inflationary problem by raising interest rates to high levels as was done in the U.S. at the end of the 1970s. This approach now would be disastrous.

The U.S national debt increased by a $1 trillion in 2008 and $1.9 trillion in 2009. The damaged economy and the after effects of the Credit Crisis are likely to keep the increase elevated for many more years. After that, increased outlays from Social Security and Medicare caused by the Baby Boomers retiring will kick in, so there will be no respite. At some point the whole scheme will fall apart. When interest rates rise well off the zero level, this will be the tipping point that means that an inflationary spiral has started.

Disclosure: Not applicable.

NEXT: Short Bonds When Retail Sales Improve

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

1 comment:


A total breakdown of the economy and financial system will lead to hyperinflation