Friday, January 28, 2011


More and more people are getting on the inflation and hyperinflation bandwagons lately. There may be reason to worry about inflation, several, in fact. But, for the most part, the reasons that are being offered for today’s bandwagon do not justify the conclusions that people are making.

My position is this: Real inflation is a major cause of economic disturbance and the destruction of economic value. Inflation needs to be eradicated from our lives and our political system. To remove inflation from our economy would require that we understand it at it’s root and have an accurate history of its influence. Instead, what these people tend to offer is just pointing at some prices that have risen that are special to us or in the news. Even when they mouth reference to the money supply, they do nothing to relate the money supply to the price increases they are seeing. They are just adding confusion. So, I am offering another post about inflation with a slightly different focus.

First, of course, rising prices is not inflation. Rising consumer prices may be a consequence of inflation, one of them, but it is only a consequence, not a cause, and it is the cause that we want to understand clearly. It is the cause that is the actual problem. It is the cause we need to eradicate from the economy.

The Austrians (and as further explained and expanded by Ayn Rand) are the ones who identified inflation accurately. Inflation is government manipulation, read expansion, of the money supply. When more money is pushed into the economy, prices, at least some prices, will rise. There are two important points.

First, prices cannot rise without there being more, new, made-up money. Without more money, some higher prices would just mean that fewer of those products could be sold. People would still have only so many dollars to spend. Higher prices for some goods means that the standard decisions people make as to what to buy and not buy must now account for a different price structure than before. Prices are always changing. All prices could not be rising at the same time without there being more money in circulation. Stuff would be left sitting on the shelves. Consequently, if some prices rise, other prices would have to drop, or production would have to be reduced. There are only so many dollars.

Some people try to avoid the basic physics of the issue by talking about the velocity of money, suggesting that if a unit of currency changes hands faster there is the opportunity for prices to rise without more money actually being created. No attempted explanation of inflation using the velocity of money that I have seen actually lays out how that is suppose to work. I can’t figure it out. Try it. The vast majority of people get paid on a regular rotation, i.e., weekly, biweekly, or semi-monthly. How do you fit a higher velocity into that arrangement? You can’t. Higher velocity is out.

Second, the Austrians determined that the entry point for new money makes a difference, meaning that new money does not effect the entire economy the same way, but ripples out from the point of entry. Over the past twenty plus years, the entry points for new money have been limited to just a few parts of the economy. It is easy to identify those connected directly to the Federal Budget because the prices of related items have been going up rapidly and consistently for all of those years. The list connected to Federal Government spending includes medical services and related products and higher education. Recently, Federal employee salaries can be added to that list.

Besides the budget, the other main entry point of new money is by way of the activities of the Federal Reserve System. I have gone into detail how that happens in this blog, so I am not going to restate it. The consequences of the Fed expansion of the money supply normally hit asset prices first. Stock prices and housing prices are pushed by the expansion of the money supply by the Fed – sound familiar? (Constant deficits in our Balance of Payments can also only be explained by the expansion of credit.)

Okay, so that is inflation, i.e., increases in the money supply. Well, take a look. Is the money supply expanding? Ahhhh, no. It isn’t. So where is this inflation?

What the people who are declaring that inflation is upon us are pointing to are certain, specific prices. Right now the major ones are oil, food, and commodities. Certainly, these prices are going up. But, is it inflation?

I would add another sector to the list of higher prices, the U.S. stock market, which has gone up a bunch in the last couple of years. Why has it gone up? The facts about the U.S. economy don’t support that kind of optimism. The actions of the U.S. government continue to make things worse. The market is being pulled along by a ton of money sitting around. It is the same thing that happened in the late-1990’s and mid-2000’s.

So what about the prices of oil, food, and commodities. Okay. Fact one. In any economy (where individuals can make decisions at least to some extent), in any situation, for all kinds of reasons, prices will be on the move. Some prices will go up, some will go down. We do see prices going down all of the time in our world. That is especially true of high tech stuff. Prices change because people’s preferences change. Demand changes. The supply changes because of new technology, new business structure, new sources, governmental action. There are a host of different reasons. You have to look at specific industries to understand the price movements. More than that, if it is inflation that is causing consumer prices to rise, the general trend would affect the entire economy, in a ripple effect. When the price rises are confined to specific sectors of the economy, it is necessary to look closely to determine what is happening. In is not proper to just declare that it is inflation. Looking closely at medical services, oil, and commodities results in very different conclusions for each sector. That is especially true when the best data available on the money supply (admittedly government data, but not sufficiently corrupt) show that the money supply is not expanding to speak of and credit has contracted.

I have already discussed the constant rise in the prices of medical services, which is a direct consequence of government spending. Let’s try oil. The price of oil is an international price. For its price rises to be a consequence of inflation, it would be necessary for there to be inflation of significant amounts in many countries. But, there are more obvious and immediate explanations as to why the price of oil has gone up, and may continue to rise. Two explanations, actually. First, as a result of the anti-industrial movement (which includes the ecology movement), the production of oil has been forcefully reduced nearly worldwide. In a few countries, the production is kept lower than those countries are capable of for the reason of attempting to influence the price (OPEC, of course). We all know that the supply of oil is less than a free market is capable of providing. Second, we have a couple large countries, very large countries, that have finally begun to open their economies up sufficiently that they have produced a modicum of wealth. These countries are now also buying oil in larger quantities than they have in the past. Just a little increase from these very large countries has a significant impact on the price of oil. So, we have a supply that is less than possible and a significant increase in demand, and, surprise, oil prices rise. Standard stuff. Inflation is not necessary to explain the price of oil. To the extent that there is inflation, the increase in the price of oil will be worse. If a specific country has inflation, its currency will tend to buy less internationally over time, and the price of oil in that country will rise faster.

The second half of the analysis of the oil price applies to commodities, including food. There is more international demand. Higher demand means higher prices for basic, auction-derived prices such as commodities. China and India are buying more than they did a few years ago. If there is the possibility of greater production, the higher prices will attract more supply and the price may go down, but that does not happen overnight.

Food prices, especially within a large country like the U.S., is more dependent on local factors. I have not seen sufficient reports to make a well-founded conclusion as to why prices have begun to move upward. International grain prices have moved upward, but really have only a minor impact on the prices of consumer goods in the U.S. The cost of wheat in a loaf of bread in the U.S. is only a small fraction of the price at the store. Transportation, i.e., oil prices might be more important. Weather is important. The important point is that the factors causing our food prices to rise are not an increase in the money supply and are somewhat different that the reasons why oil and other prices are rising.

Then there is the issue of inflation here vs. inflation there, in the present day case: inflation the US vs. inflation in China. China is experiencing inflation, both asset and consumer price inflation. It is also experiencing sufficient growth that allows people and businesses to buy basic materials on the world market that they couldn’t before. Both of these factors make up the fact that China is a major reason why international prices are increasing. To fully understand what the impact of China’s rise (as well as India’s) means, it is necessary, as always, to gain perspective. Don’t just focus on selected markets that fit with a particular expectation or world-view. Look at the big picture.

What is my suggested perspective maker? French wine! The prices of good French wine have gone through the roof, up maybe as much as 3 or 4 times what they were a couple years ago. The reason is that a very small percentage of China’s 2,000,000,000 people have discovered the good stuff and have the money to start buying. They have bid up the prices. The Chinese are bidding up the prices of many things right now. The world has been rolling along with a few industrial countries and a lot of undeveloped ones as the status quo. Imagine the situation if many countries were to open up their economies to individual efforts and wealth. The demand for basic commodities would skyrocket! The old, restricted level of production would not be able to respond, shortages would ensue, and prices would rise. That scenario is pretty much what we are seeing. Newly freed countries would mean periods of economic adjustment as changes in distribution patterns developed. Ultimately, either we would see greater production, and thus higher standards of living all around, or we would see massive shortages and breakdowns in the world economy. In this respect, the emergence of China and India as economic powers will be good for all of us. Countries that refuse to deregulate, like the Europeans are blindly doing, will be faced with falling standards of living and fiscal nightmares, as is happening. For those who have tied their thinking to the dominance of the U.S. in the world economy, there will be confusion. In a world that is free and prosperous, the U.S. would be a great competitor, but not the richest nation. It is not the biggest country. But it would be incomparably richer than it is now. Higher productivity and creativity worldwide would mean greater wealth for all, and we would benefit.

But, back to the point of this post, greater demand for commodities, or anything, and subsequent rises in prices is not inflation. Only increases in the money supply by government action is inflation. Keep your causes straight.