Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why Inflation Is and Will Be a Problem

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.

In December 2008, I predicted at the New York Investing meetup that inflation would reappear in the U.S. by the end of this year. The just released PPI report for November had wholesale prices up 1.8% (a 21.6% rate annualized). Year over year PPI was up 2.4%, the first positive reading in a number of months. The CPI report for November had prices up 0.4%. Year over year was up 1.8%. I made last year's prediction that inflation would be turning just about now based on another prediction that oil prices would be much higher today than they were in late 2008. Both government reports cited higher energy prices as the main driver of the uptick in inflation.

As would be expected, many mainstream economists (who as group significantly underestimated the PPI number) and Fed Chair Bernanke quickly told the public not to worry. They argue that this has to be just a temporary blip because inflation can't have a sustained rise unless the economy is expanding strongly. They point out that the most recent U.S. capacity utilization rate is 71.3% and claim that inflation can only become a problem if this number is over 80%. The capacity utilization argument might have some validity if the U.S. was a self-sustained economy that didn't engage in trade (something I refer to as a non real-world condition). The U.S. not only engages in trade though, but imports much more than it exports. The country has run a trade deficit with the rest of the world continually since the 1970s. One thing that we import a lot of is oil. Like almost all commodities (natural gas is the exception), the price of oil is set globally. The U.S. capacity utilization rate has only an indirect and minor impact on oil and other commodity prices. The error that many mainstream economists have made in their thinking is that the U.S. inflation rate is controlled by conditions that exist solely within the U.S. In actuality, markets outside the U.S. are the key determinant of the how much inflation American consumers experience.

The capacity utilization argument can also be debunked through historical analysis. Not only have there been cases of major inflation in countries with low capacity utilization, but this condition invariably accompanies hyperinflation. The most extreme example of this took place in the last few years in Zimbabwe. The unemployment rate there rose to 94%. With almost the entire nation not working, presumably capacity utilization was as low as it possibly could get under any circumstance. According to many mainstream economists and the U.S. Fed, Zimbabwe couldn't possibly have had inflation. Instead, it had sextillion percent inflation, the second highest rate ever recorded.

While capacity utilization is a red herring when analyzing inflation, currency policy is not.Commodity prices are affected by the strength of the U.S. dollar since all commodities are priced in dollars. A weaker dollar means higher commodity prices and higher inflation in the U.S. This is merely a specific example of a declining currency being the actual correct definition of inflation. Central bank easy money policy with excessive government borrowing backed up by money-printing is what causes a currency to decline.

Many economists refuse to accept that the declining value of a currency is the root cause of inflation though. When not using the capacity utilization argument, inflation-denying economists and other Fed apologists resort to defining inflation as a rise in credit and deflation as a drop in credit. Like capacity utilization, this viewpoint doesn't stand up to real world analysis either. For this to be true, there would have to be ever increasing amounts of credit in real terms in hyperinflationary environments. Not only does this not happen, but credit availability tends to implode during hyperinflation - the exact opposite of what would be predicted. The one thing that all hyperinflations do have in common though is excess money-printing.

Inflation is not a new phenomenon. There have been hundreds of inflationary episodes over time. The one thing they all have in common is that there is too much money (currency actually) for the size of the economy. Central banks in most major economies are currently engaging in excess money creation with abandon. At the same time, they are telling the public not to worry because things will be different this time. They also said that last time and the time before by the way.

Disclosure: Long gold.

NEXT: U.S. Plays Shell Game with Bailout Money

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:


Inflation is always a problem.