Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How Today's "Deflation" Can Turn Into Tomorrow's 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.

Since the 2008 Credit Crisis, deflation has been the primary worry of mainstream economists and monetary and fiscal policies that utilize various forms of “money printing” have been implemented throughout the world to try to stop it. Unfortunately, money printing combined with deflation can potentially lead to hyperinflation.

Hyperinflation is a little understood and little studied phenomenon. Even inflation itself is only partially understood and traditional university economic programs devote minimal attention to it (just ask someone with an economics degree what courses they took in inflation). Almost no one seems to have made the connection between deflation and hyperinflation, which are intimately related. Hyperinflation in fact could actually be defined as a self-feeding cycle of severe deflation combined with escalating money printing.

Historical analysis shows that hyperinflation is a creature of damaged and dysfunctional economies. It does not come from overheated economies that continue to grow out of control resulting in ever higher inflation rates.  This mythical view may have been created because government stimulus measures the employ money printing in its various guises to deal with   deflation can briefly make the economy fervent because of a declining currency. This creates high export demand since foreigners can buy the country’s goods cheaply and high internal demand because the population becomes desperate to get rid of any currency it holds. This phase does not last however and it takes place just prior to the final hyperinflationary spike. It was seen in Weimar Germany in 1922 because Germany had a developed manufacturing economy and most of the rest of the world wasn’t experiencing currency devaluation.

In many cases in the past, war preceded hyperinflation. This happened in Germany and Eastern Europe after World War I and in Eastern Europe and Japan and East Asia after World War II.  It also occurred in the United States after the Revolutionary War (arguably the first case of hyperinflation in history) and in the South at the end of the Civil War. Demand can collapse after a war and this will cause prices to drop (the U.S. had sharp deflation after World War I for instance). Governments, who were already printing money to support the war effort, then frequently print more to stimulate the economy.  If the economy isn’t brought back to real functionality however, a country’s currency loses its value and an ever-increasing amount of money has to be printed to create the same amount of stimulus.  

Even if there is no war, hyperinflation can exist just because an economy is dysfunctional. This would describe the cases of hyperinflation in South America, post-colonial Africa, and in Eastern Europe during the collapse of communism.  When an economy just can’t create enough demand on its own, the authorities stimulate demand by printing money. This leads to the same cycle of currency devaluation and ever-increasing money printing in an attempt to keep up with the loss of value taking place. In reality, the economy is continually shrinking, even though prices start heading toward the heavens.

While this has happened in a number of countries over time, mainstream economists continually make the claim that inflation can’t exist if there is slack in the economy. Hyperinflationary economies actually have maximum slack, with Zimbabwe in the 2000s being the extreme example. Unemployment reached 94% there, while the inflation rate was climbing to the sextillion percent level (a number so huge it might as well be infinity). Despite this real world example that took place right before their eyes, a number of economists had no trouble looking right into the TV camera and telling the public that inflation can’t exist if there is excess capacity in the economy. If they had been testifying in court, they would have been arrested for perjury.

Since hyperinflation has only occurred in certain countries at certain times, it is important to ask what it the key factor or factors that lead to it. The short answer would be: deflation created by demand destruction, followed by money printing that is taking place because the ability to borrow doesn’t exist or has been exhausted. Since developed countries have better credit and can borrow more, hyperinflation is less likely to occur in them than in more marginal economies – at least until their lending sources dry up.   

Deflation in and of itself does not lead to hyperinflation. It depends on what the root cause of the deflation is. There were deflations in the late 1800s and in the 1920s in the U.S. due to technological innovations and not demand destruction as commonly takes place after wars. Lack of demand was not the cause of falling prices, rising supply was. The exact opposite situation takes place after a destructive war or in an economy in a post-bubble era (as is the case currently in the U.S., the UK, Europe and Japan).  In the latter case, demand needs to be stimulated, in the former it doesn’t.

Countries also don’t print money if they can borrow it. Less developed countries have limited and sometimes no borrowing ability and this means they turn to money printing early on and this makes them more prone to hyperinflation.  Since developed countries can borrow money, they do so for as long they possibly can. This has allowed Japan to get its debt to GDP ratio to an astounding 229%. The U.S. is already over 100% (based on official numbers, the ratio using more realistic numbers is much worse) and rising rapidly.  Despite its twenty years of economic malaise, Japan has managed to support demand by running huge and continuing budget deficits funded by the massive savings of its people (money printing has been relatively minor).  It is not likely any other developed country will be able to accomplish what Japan has done.  Japan also seems to have reached the end of the borrowing road and will have to start revving up the printing presses in the near future.

In contrast to the Japanese, Americans save little and haven’t been able to fund their budget deficits internally for decades —the U.S. relies on foreign sources for this money. When the Credit Crisis arose, foreign lending became inadequate and money printing began in earnest. The Federal Reserve increasing its balance sheet by over $2 trillion is only one example of this. While foreign lending might have continued to fund $400 billion dollar annual budget deficits, it was not adequate to support the $1.42 trillion, $1.29 trillion and$1.30 trillion deficits that occurred in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Trillion dollar deficits are going to with the U.S. for many years into the future and the only way they can be completely funded is by printing more and more money.  The EU isn’t in much better shape either and has been unable to fund its peripheral country debt by borrowing. Its current solution is to print money through massive credit expansion.

Claims that money printing won’t be harmful in the 2010s because inflationary policies were utilized during the 1930s Great Depression and they worked well back then are moreover completely misleading. The debt level of the U.S. government, businesses and consumers were minimal at that time compared to what exists today. Huge amounts of untapped borrowing capacity existed then, but this is no longer true. Consumer credit expanded so much in the intervening years that during one month of the Credit Crisis it dropped more than the entire amount outstanding at the end of World War II. An apt analogy might be one drink of alcohol won’t be harmful. If you haven’t had anything to drink yet it isn’t likely it will be. If you have already had twenty glasses, it might cause fatal alcohol poisoning. The global financial system now risks being poisoned by money printing.
The monetary authorities worry about deflation and attempts to handle it with money printing are nothing new. The current actions are disturbingly similar to what took place in Weimar Germany in the early 1920s. They handled their deflation problem with money printing as well. As prices rose, instead of facing reality, the economics establishment acted in concert to deny the obvious. Deflation was cited as the biggest danger to the economy until it became laughable. When inflation exploded, the usual scapegoats — foreigners, speculators and minorities — were blamed by the government. Unless human behavior has changed in the last 100 years, the same scenario is likely to play itself out again in the 2010s.

Disclosure: None

Daryl Montgomery
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

1 comment:


Inflation should be the concern not deflation.