Mass Inflation, Yes; Hyperinflation, No
The United States is not going to get hyperinflation unless Congress nationalizes the Federal Reserve System.
It will get mass inflation at some point: anywhere from 15% per annum to 30%. But it is not going to get 50% or 100% or more.
1. The temporary nature of the payoff
2. The fear of getting blamed
3. The boom-bust cycle
4. The employees’ vested pension fund
1. THE TEMPORARY PAYOFF
Hyperinflation lasts only a few years. People in the hard-money camp ought to know this, but they tend to forget.
Those economic forecasters who keep telling us the dollar will fall to zero forget the obvious: big banks are creditors. Bankers lose when a currency falls to zero. Never forget this. If you believe, as I do, that the Federal Reserve is the enforcement arm of the largest commercial banks, then stop worrying about hyperinflation. But don’t stop worrying about Congress.
Ever since All the President’s Men — the movie, not the book — we have been told to follow the money. So, let us follow the money.
The four big U.S. banks — maybe three, with Bank of America on the skids — make their money by lending money. As with all fractional reserve banks, they borrow short (low rates) and lend long (higher rates).
Under hyperinflation, long-term interest rates skyrocket. This forces down the discounted present market value of bonds and mortgages. Nobody wants to lend long. Who gets killed? Banks and insurance companies that have lent long.
What saves them from bankruptcy is fake accounting. They are allowed to keep their bonds on the books at face value. But, sooner or later, bankers get paid off in fiat money. Their portfolios are locked into bad investments. They can’t sell them without reporting losses. So, they hang on. Month by month, the value of these assets falls.
Hyperinflation is bad for the super-rich. Why? Because they own their assets outright. The super-rich own land and homes. These go up in nominal value, but rich people don’t pay off their debts by selling a gold coin or two. They have no debts to pay off. They are the creditors. They own bonds and fixed-income investments.
When we read of the great hyperinflations, we find that urban people got ruined. Farmers did very well. They paid off their mortgages by selling a few dozen eggs. Wealth moved from cities to rural areas.
Bankers were in big trouble. Farmers were in hog heaven.
Has it ever occurred to you that there have been no hyperinflation periods in Great Britain? The Brits have gone through wars of their own making. Their elite ran an empire from 1700 until 1946. Yet for all the crises, they never had price inflation above 30%. You know why? Because the Bank of England would not allow it. The BoE was privately owned from its creation in 1694 until the government nationalized it 1946. Even after 1946, the bank would not allow hyperinflation.
The Bank of England inflated often. This created the boom-bust cycle on numerous occasions, but never got seriously blamed for any of the busts. This is because not enough people understood the Austrian theory of the business cycle, which was discovered in 1912 by Ludwig von Mises. Even today, hardly anyone knows about it, and of those economists who do, almost none believes it.
Which are the famous hyperinflations? In Western Europe, Germany, Austria, and Hungary after World War I. They had lost the war. There was Hungary in 1946 — the worst inflation ever. It was a Communist nation.
There was China in 1947-48. The nationalist government fell; Mao took over. No more hyperinflation.
There are Latin American examples over and over. These are not major industrial economies. If we count Brazil as industrial, it had a long, severe hyperinflation, 1981-95: That was the longest hyperinflation on record.
I know of only one major hyperinflation in the industrial West: the State of Israel, 1980-86. I went there in 1985 to study it. Life went on. Tourism brought in Western currencies. So did agricultural exports. The experience did not last long. This was the longest hyperinflation in modern times. Wikipedia describes it.
“Inflation accelerated in the 1970s, rising steadily from 13% in 1971 to 111% in 1979. From 133% in 1980, it leaped to 191% in 1983 and then to 445% in 1984, threatening to become a four-digit figure within a year or two. In 1985 Israel froze most prices by law and enacted other measures as part of an economic stabilization plan. That same year, inflation more than halved, to 185%. Within a few months, the authorities began to lift the price freeze on some items; in other cases it took almost a year. By 1986, inflation was down to 19%.”
This is the central fact: hyperinflations do not last long. The currency is ruined fast. Then there is a currency reform. The central bank starts over: boom-bust, boom-bust.
If you time things perfectly, and sell assets to pay off debt, you win. But hardly anyone does. They buy inflation hedges, thinking it will go on for years and years. It ends a lot sooner than the late-comers think.
Then there is a recession. The inflation hedges fall in price. In that period, cash is king. If you have money to lend, you are in fat city. You buy up assets at a discount. In short, you get out in time.
There are few winners in hyperinflation, and they do not win for long. Then the recession hits, and things go back to normal.
2. THE FEAR OF GETTING BLAMED
Ben Bernanke is under fire as no FED chairman ever has been. The critics are in the millions. This is historically unprecedented. There is a cause: Ron Paul. Ron Paul has focused millions of voters’ attention on the FED and Bernanke. Bernanke cannot escape scrutiny any longer.
If there is hyperinflation, millions of voters will know who did it: Bald Ben the Beard and his crew of yes-men on the Board of Governors. Investors know more about the FED today than they did in 2007. This knowledge will increase.
Then there is the Internet. The mainstream media cannot control the flow of information any longer. Word gets out, and you may have noticed, not much of it is favorable to the FED.
The FED is desperate to avoid an annual audit by the Government Accountability Office. This is good. It means that people other than Ron Paul are calling for such an audit.
Rick Perry used the word “treasonous.” Michelle Bachmann has called for a FED audit. Ron Paul is still running. The FED is today the target of Republican Presidential candidates’ sound bites. This has never happened before. This is terrific. They are trying to steal Ron Paul’s favorite issue. I say more power to them. Come one, come all! Pile on!
Milton Friedman made this line famous: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” He was correct. This insight has been resisted by Keynesian economists from day one, but the Keynesians find that the phrase has gotten into the thinking of millions of voters. Keynesians today are calling for larger deficits and Federal Reserve accommodation, but that is because consumer prices are rising very slowly. If prices were rising at 20% per annum, the Keynesians would find it difficult to conceal the source of the problem: the Federal Open Market Committee. The FOMC could not hide.
This is the central political fact facing the FED today: “It can run, but it can’t hide.”
Bureaucrats want to avoid blame. This is their #1 concern. Second is to increase the number of subordinates, in quest of a promotion. Third is to increase the bureaucracy’s funding. But the #1 concern is to avoid blame.
Bernanke will not be able to avoid blame for hyperinflation. He will therefore not adopt policies that produce it.
The FED could be nationalized. Congress could take over. Then all bets are off. But if we are talking about the existing Federal Reserve, with government-appointed academic economists visibly in charge and the privately owned and operated FOMC making the decisions — which will favor large banks — there will be no hyperinflation.
3. THE BOOM-BUST CYCLE
In Western industrial nations, including Japan, the central banks have always ceased inflating whenever consumer prices climbed close to 20% per annum. It has only happened once in U.S. peacetime history: 1977-80. Consumer prices rose in 1979 and 1980 by about 11% per annum. Jimmy Carter took the heat. He pressured the utterly incompetent G. William Miller to quit after only 18 months in office, and Paul Volcker replaced him in late 1979.
Volcker slowed the rate of monetary base growth. T-bill rates soared to 22%. The result was a recession. Carter lost the 1980 election as a result. Then Reagan took a hit: the 1981-82 recession. But prices started slowing, and interest rates began an 18-year decline.
Volcker wound up as a hero. He is still around. He is still beyond reproach. I can think of no person in power in the Carter-Reagan era who has a more distinguished reputation. Yet he oversaw two recessions.
He talked tough. He smoked cigars. Congress did not lay a finger on him.
This lesson is not lost on Bernanke. Bernanke does not talk tough. He does not smoke. But he knows this much: G. William Miller oversaw mass inflation, and never recovered. He is forgotten. He is forgotten because he left the office and made a hasty retreat to become Treasury Secretary — a no-power office. Then he disappeared. Had he held on, he would have become the fall guy: a pariah.
Here is the lesson learned by every Western, industrial central banker: the post-inflation bust will reduce price inflation. The bust can be justified as the necessary requirement to save the economy, save the currency, and save the social order.
Then the dog-and-pony show starts over.
Remember this: the FED will save the largest banks, That is its #1 unofficial task. Central banks all save the largest banks. The rest of the market can drop by 50% or more. The largest banks then re-finance on the new terms, meaning post-mass inflation terms.
As long as the largest banks are saved, the FED can put on the brakes and let the economy move into a recession.
This is the story of all central banks in large Western industrial nations ever since 1900, with only the exceptions of defeated Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The reason why Americans should not take seriously the scenarios of Germany-Austria in 1921-24 is because we are not defeated. There is no way, short of some sort of biological warfare-induced plague, that we will suffer what Germany suffered in 1921-24. In any case, during a plague, there would not be hyperinflation. There would be martial law, price controls, and rationing.
The Patriot Act offers this single advantage: it will make hyperinflation unnecessary.
Boom-bust, boom-bust, boom-bust: this is the pattern. Do not plan your future as if it will be broken.
What follows every hyperinflation? A recession. But, during hyperinflation, bankers are impoverished. So, if the result is the same at the end of the hyperinflation — a bust — why not call it to a halt early, in the mass inflation stage?
4. THE EMPLOYEES’ VESTED PENSION FUND
The Federal Reserve System offers its employees a retirement plan. It is not as good as Congress’s, but it is better than yours. It is detailed in a 79-page document.
I regard this plan as the best payoff money in America. It is the equivalent of the Mob’s protection money. If you pay it, you receive protection… from the Mob.
We pay this money by letting the FED keep some of the money from interest payments on bonds that the FED bought with digital money created out of nothing. It can cover its operating expenses. Part of these expenses is the pension system.
This pension fund money is our protection money. The FED is not going to create hyperinflation, which would wipe out the value of its pension fund.
How big is this fund? Large and growing fast.
Contributions to the System Plan are actuarially determined and funded by participating employers. In 2010, the System made $580 million in contributions to the System Plan; the contributions may be adjusted upon completion of the 2011 actuarial valuation.
What is the fund invested in? I have provided an extract from the so-called independent audit for 2009. It was 53% in U.S. stocks, 13% in foreign stocks, and 34% in bonds — not non-marketable Social Security Treasury bonds.
Hyperinflation will play havoc with 34% of this portfolio: bonds. Stocks will not keep pace with consumer prices: 53% at risk. Only the foreign equities portion of the portfolio would not be devastated. Maybe.
This is why I do not think we are facing hyperinflation… at least not until Congress nationalizes the FED.
Whenever you hear that hyperinflation is inevitable, keep your hand upon your wallet and your back against the wall.
Hyperinflation is a policy option. It has been adopted only once by a Western, industrial nation’s central bank in peacetime since 1946: Israel’s. That is a small nation. Its leaders have not made that policy error since 1985.
If we get hyperinflation, it will not last long: a few years at the most. It will be a great disruption in the lives of most Americans, but if the government does not impose price controls, there will not be devastation. There will be losses. People will have to scramble. They will adjust. They will get poorer. They will consume capital. But they will survive.
If the government imposes price controls, as it probably will, there will be serious shortages for several years. There will be a large increase in the number of bankruptcies. Unemployment will rise. Families will be squeezed badly. But it will not last. The voters will not tolerate it. Without a war, voters will demand a reform. There are too many economists, even Keynesians, who know that price ceilings create shortages.
Hyperinflation is what Ludwig von Mises called the crack-up boom. It cannot last long because the currency system is rapidly destroyed. It no longer serves as a tool of economic calculation. People switch to gold coins, silver coins, and barter. Output falls. Capital is consumed rapidly. But then it must end. When the government cannot buy votes with worthless money, it stops inflating.
Ron Paul has performed a great public service in alerting the voters to the danger of the Federal Reserve System. He has exposed the source of mass inflation and hyperinflation. He has exposed the source of the boom-bust cycle.
The FED cannot escape. Its policies must lead to booms and busts. This is inherent in all central banking. The FED will choose a repetition of the boom-bust cycle rather than impose hyperinflation, for which it can no longer escape blame. Too many people have heard Ron Paul’s warning.
Gary North is the author of Mises on Money.