Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Some Background on US Inflation

My good friend Phil Melnik provided me with this insightful link from John Mauldin's blog FrontLineThoughts

"Inflation, to be properly understood, should be defined as a persistent expansion of money and credit that substantially exceeds the growth requirements of the economy. As a consequence of excessive monetary expansion, prices rise. Which prices go up and at what rate depends on a number of factors. Sometimes it is the prices of goods and services that are the most visible symptom of inflationary pressures. That was the case in the 1970s when the Consumer Price Index (CPI) hit a peak rate of 14% per annum. Sometimes it is the prices of assets such as homes, office buildings, stocks, or bonds that reflect the inflationary pressure, as we have seen in more recent years.

When inflation becomes pervasive, and other conditions are supportive, it can engulf a whole industry. We saw this in the financial sector in the period leading up to the crash. The supporting conditions or "displacements," to use the terminology of Professor Kindleberger, were financial innovation, deregulation, and obscene profits and salaries. These drew millions of bees to the honey. All great manias are accompanied by malfeasance, in this case the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and many other lesser ones. It is relatively easy to steal when prices are rising and greed is pervasive. Overspending and a general lack of prudence always become widespread when a mania infects the general public. Rational people can do incredibly stupid things collectively when there is mass hysteria.

The origins of post-war inflation go back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, though some would take it back much further. In the 1960s, the US dollar started to come under pressure as a result of US inflationary policy and foreign central banks' ebbing confidence in their large and growing dollar reserve holdings. The US responded with controls and government intervention in a number of areas: gold convertibility, the US Treasury bond market, the Interest Equalization Tax, and, ultimately, intervention on wages and prices. These moves clearly flagged to the world that external discipline would be subjugated to domestic employment and growth concerns. The policy was formalized when the US terminated the link between gold and the dollar in August 1971, essentially floating the dollar and setting the US on a course of sustained inflation. Of course, the dollar floated down, which, among other things, triggered the massive rise in general prices in the 1970s.

The next episode of credit inflation began in the 1980s, paradoxically triggered by the success of Paul Volcker's move to break the spiral of rising general price inflation through very tight money. He succeeded famously, and the CPI headed sharply lower along with interest rates, setting the stage for the massive US debt binge and the series of asset bubbles that followed. It was easy for the Federal Reserve to pursue expansionary credit policies while inflation and interest rates were falling."

John Mauldin

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