The Incentives for Inflation Going Forward

In my last blog post, Lessons from the Masters of Deflation, I alluded to an upcoming article on why I expect heavy pressure towards inflation in the United States in the coming years.  I don’t think I’m at all unique in this projection – there are currently a huge number of economics and financial analysts that expect significant inflation in the coming years in the United States.  The rationale is almost universally the unprecedented expansion of the money supply by the Federal Reserve.  With over $2 Trillion on the balance sheet, and the acquisition of debt of questionable value, it’s easy to look at the incredible growth in M2 (a measure of money supply) and project out inflation once the economy recovers.

My rationale for significant inflation in the future is not actually based on these facts, although I don’t dispute them per say.  The rapid deleveraging of our economy argues for short term deflation.  The massive and hastily executed fiscal stimulus and monetary expansion argues for long term inflation.

I’m going to argue instead that you should just follow the incentives.  It is fairly obvious that a vast majority of Americans will benefit in the short term from a significant devaluation of the dollar.  If you believe that this country’s politics (and economics) tend to follow the majority opinion, then it seems like just a matter of time before we talk ourselves into policies that lead to inflation.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we could conjure up an instant 25% devaluation of the dollar. In this world, everything that costs $1 now will cost $1.25 tomorrow. Let’s look at some of the large groups of Americans that will benefit from this type of massive devaluation:

  • Homeowners.  A dominant majority of American households are homeowners, and almost all of them carry weighty mortgages.  More importantly, by some counts, almost 20% of those mortgages are underwater.  Inflation to the rescue!  In this world, every $400,000 house is now worth $500,000.  But of course, the mortgages themselves don’t grow, since they were written in the past.  Debtors love inflation, because they get to pay off old debts.
  • Federal Government. This is a two-fer.  First, most of our taxes aren’t indexed to inflation.  Want to keep that promise to tax only people making over $250K?  Devalue the dollar, and now more people will cross that threshold.  Capital Gains taxes?  Booyah, those aren’t indexed to inflation.  Now everyone whose stock just keeps pace with the devalution will owe taxes to boot!  Besides increasing revenue, the devaluation makes it easy to pay off bond holders of those trillions of dollars of debt, since they are all denominated in dollars.  With benefits like these, why stop at a 25% devaluation?  Let’s go for 100%!
  • Consumers in Debt. The average American has thousands of dollars in debt.  Assuming that wage inflation approximates price inflation, consumers can benefit from seeing increased nominal wages, and then paying off debts that were made before the devaluation.

Sense a common theme here?  Debtors.  The United States is a nation of debtors.  Individual households are in debt.  State governments are in debt.  Homeowners are in debt.  The Federal Government is in debt.  Debtors, in the short term, love devaluation because it means they get to pay off old borrowing with inflated currency.  On average, we are in debt, which means, on average, we’re incented to devalue the dollar.

In fact, you could argue that Japan, a nation of savers, has been stuck in a deflationary spiral precisely because, as a nation of savers, they benefit on average from seeing their saved Yen go farther at the market.  Of course, the younger Japanese don’t see those benefits, but thanks to aging demographics, they are outnumbered by older generations who saved massive amounts of wealth.

Yes, I know I am grotesquely oversimplifying the ramifications for all parties involved once an inflationary spiral takes hold.  And believe, me, I do not believe that this is a good outcome for the country (or the world economy).

Of course, I am a saver, so I would be biased against inflation…

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