Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Economists and Governments Pave the Way for Global Inflation

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 a just given speech at the London School of Economics, famed economist Joseph Stiglitz stated that the U.S. and UK should keep on spending and printing money to prop up their economies. Stiglitz apparently did not mention that recent hyperinflation basket case Zimbabwe followed this same approach. Meanwhile, plans for either an EU or German bailout of Greece continue to swirl about, taking the EU down the road of Moral Hazard and truly huge future bailouts for its member states. Government spending, bailouts, and money printing all go hand in hand.

The Stiglitz speech will be seen as a historically significant event. Stiglitz is not some minor, unknown economist, but is an insider's insider. Stiglitz is a winner of a Nobel Prize in Economics, former Chief Economist at the World Bank, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and has held economic professorships at a number of top universities. In his speech, he essentially stated that it is impossible for the US and UK to default on their debt because they have unlimited ability to print money. While this is certainly true, it is also simplistic, self-destructive, and immoral.

Money printing erodes the value of a currency and governments that engage in it are acting dishonestly since it is essentially legalized counterfeiting. Yes, they will give their lenders back the same nominal amount of money as was originally given to them, but lenders won't be able to buy as much with it as they could have previously. Lenders usually catch on to this scam pretty quickly and demand increasingly higher interest rates to compensate for the loss in value of the government bonds they are buying. Needing to pay more interest, the government then prints more money. An inflationary spiral results and the government can't stop the printing because doing so risks an economic collapse.

Stiglitz's approach is hardly original. This is the strategy that every country in history has followed that has experienced hyperinflation. Zimbabwe is only the most recent example; there are dozens of others in the last hundred years, with Greece being one of them. In all cases, the only thing that stopped the inflation was when the money printing stopped. This was most blatantly demonstrated in Zaire in 1997 when the government couldn't pay the outside printer of its currency. It received no new paper money and its hyperinflation ended abruptly. The Weimar Republic in 1920s Germany managed to stop its money printing by creating a new currency (a common solution) and backing it with hard assets. Top German economists during the Weimar Republic backed the government's money printing plans, just as Stiglitz is doing today for the U.S and the UK. 

While the U.S. and UK are well along on their money printing agendas, the EU has lagged behind. The impending bailout of Greece will help them catch up. Greece, in and of itself, is not that big. It is only 2% of the euro zone economy. The implications of a bailout for the future are enormous however. There are a number of other countries in the euro zone that will need their own bailouts. While Ireland, Portugal and Spain are on the list, the most serious problem by far is Italy. Italy is perhaps one year behind Greece in the deterioration of its financial condition. Its economy is approximately the same size as the UK's. How is it possible to bail out an economy that large?  How much money would have to be printed to accomplish this? It would take quite a lot obviously and the euro would be damaged considerably.

We are living in times when almost every government is engaging in policies that will devalue their paper currencies. Hard assets unquestionably become more valuable under such circumstances. How much the U.S. dollar, the British pound, the euro and the yen devalue in relationship to each other remains to be seen. The Japanese have the worst debt to GDP ratio of any major economy in the world and are approaching levels last seen in Zimbabwe. The UK and the US have been the biggest money printers so far, but the euro zone might catch up and surpass them. The best approach for investors would be to avoid keeping any significant amount of liquid assets in any of these currencies.

Disclosure: No positions.

NEXT: World Economic Leaders Need IQ Bailout

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.

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