This week’s print version of Der Spiegel has a cover depicting a slowly melting €1 coin captioned Vorsicht, Inflation! Die schleichende Enteignung der Deutschen, or roughly, “Caution, inflation! The creeping expropriation of Germans.” Inflation erodes the value of (German) wealth. An English translation of an article summarizing this cover theme can be found here.
Andrew Bosworth, chief portfolio manager for PIMCO in Germany (PIMCO is a global investment management firm of serious proportion), describes the underlying problem:
The industrialized world is stuck in a severe debt and growth crisis. The central banks are fighting the disease with monetary infusions of previously unknown proportions[.]
Then he notes the problem this “cure” is generating:
[T]he side effect is a slow but dangerous devaluation of money.
Gradual inflation has a numbing effect. It impoverishes the lower and middle class, but they don’t notice[.]
Indeed, paraphrases Spiegel Online,
For the past five years, governments from Berlin to London and from Brussels to Washington have been in crisis mode. They rescued the banks in 2007 and 2008, then they stimulated the economy and, since 2010, have threatened to drown in their own debts. The burdens are being pushed up the line, from private investors to central banks and government bailout funds. But this doesn’t make the debts any smaller.
Despite this, though,
[T]he central banks of the United States, the euro zone, Great Britain and Japan jointly announced their intention to pump even more cheap money into the financial markets…. [The banks and the populations, both] recognize that governments seem to be willing to accept higher inflation if it facilitates debt reduction.
Especially since inflation, devaluing the relevant currencies, devalues the debts measured in those currencies.
What has a German portfolio manager to do with our situation in the US? The inflation threat from throwing money at the problems of an economic dislocation is a basic principle of economics; it’s not unique to Germany. Banks aren’t lending, or borrowers aren’t borrowing: throw money at the banks. Folks aren’t spending because…pick a reason: throw money at the banks. There’s too little economic activity, generally, because…pick a reason: throw (“stimulus”) money at the economy. Whatever the mechanism, the response (I do not say “answer”) has been to increase the money supply.
But the outcome, whatever the path, is an enormous increase in the amount of money chasing a supply of goods and services that is not increasing at all in a stagnant economy, or one that’s growing more slowly than the population. Or, at present, isn’t chasing at all because the recipients of all that money are sitting on it in some way: banks are chary of lending because, for instance, they’ll get hammered by our government for making bad loans, even as they’re currently yelled at by our government for not lending. Citizens aren’t spending, preferring instead to pay down current debt or to save, husbanding their small wealth against a too uncertain future. This is the textbook condition for enormous inflation when the dam breaks.
What are the Fed and the Obama administration doing in the US? Throwing money at the banks (the Fed’s artificially suppressed—to essentially zero—interest rates and QE1, QE2, QE3,…,QE∞(?)) and the administration’s throwing money at our economy (stimulus “investing” nearly annually since winter 2009, sweetheart loans, and loan guarantees).
We have an increasingly vast supply of money chasing a supply of goods and services that is not expanding.
As I mentioned at the top, when inflation does strike, it will hit the poor and middle-income folks much harder than the wealthy: the former already spend the vast majority of their wealth on the necessities of life: food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. Yes, more personal financial discipline would help—and folks should be exercising this discipline as a matter of course. They are, too: the trend in savings rates, especially relative to income rates, has been to increase savings since the Panic of 2008 struck. But the coming inflation explosion can easily overwhelm those efforts.