Tag Archives: purchasing power

The Fed’s Mandate To Pick Your Pocket – The Real Price Of Inflation

Inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon.” – Milton Friedman

This oft-cited quote from the renowned American economist Milton Friedman suggests something important about inflation. What he implies is that inflation is a function of money, but what exactly does that mean?

To better appreciate this thought, let’s use a simple example of three people stranded on a deserted island. One person has two bottles of water, and she is willing to sell one of the bottles to the highest bidder. Of the two desperate bidders, one finds a lonely one-dollar bill in his pocket and is the highest bidder. But just before the transaction is completed, the other person finds a twenty-dollar bill buried in his backpack. Suddenly, the bottle of water that was about to sell for one-dollar now sells for twenty dollars. Nothing about the bottle of water changed. What changed was the money available among the people on the island.

As we discussed in What Turkey Can Teach Us About Gold, most people think inflation is caused by rising prices, but rising prices are only a symptom of inflation. As the deserted island example illustrates, inflation is caused by too much money sloshing around the economy in relation to goods and services. What we experience is goods and services going up in price, but inflation is actually the value of our money going down.

Historical Price Levels

The chart below is a graph of price levels in the United States since 1774. In anticipation of a reader questioning the comparison of the prices and types of goods and services available in 1774 with 2018, the data behind this chart compares the basics of life. People ate food, needed housing, and required transportation in 1774 just as they do today. While not perfect, this chart offers a reasonable comparison of the relative cost of living from one period to the next.

Chart Courtesy: Oregon State LINK

Three characteristics about this chart leap off the page.

  1. Prices were relatively stable from 1774 to 1933
  2. Before 1933, disruptions in the price level coincided with major wars
  3. The parabolic move higher in price levels after 1933

Pre-1933

As is evident in the graph, prior to 1933 major wars caused inflation, but these episodes were short lived. After the wars ended, price levels returned to pre-war levels. The reason for the temporary bouts of inflation is the surge in deficit spending required to fund war efforts. This type of spending, while critical and necessary, has no productive value. Money is spent on making highly specialized technical weaponry which are put to use or destroyed. Meanwhile, the money supply expands from the deficit spending.

To the contrary, if deficit spending is incurred for the purposes of productive infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, dams and schools, the beneficial aspects of that spending boosts productivity. Such spending lays the groundwork for the creation of new goods and services that will eventually offset inflationary effects.

Post 1933

After 1933, price levels begin to rise, regardless of peace or war, and at an increasing rate. This happened for two reasons:

First, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) took the United States off the gold standard in June 1933, setting the stage for the government to increase the money supply and run perpetual deficits. FDR, through executive order 6102, forbade “the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion and gold certificates within the continental Unites States.” Further, this action ordered confiscation of all gold holdings by the public in exchange for $20.67 per ounce. Remarkably, one year later in a deliberately inflationary act, the government, via the Gold Reserve Act, increased the price of gold to $35 per ounce and effectively devalued the U.S. dollar. This move also had the effect of increasing the value of gold on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet by 69% and allowed a further increase in the money supply while meeting the required gold backing.

That series of events was followed 38 years later by President Nixon formally closing the “gold window”, which was enabled by the actions of FDR decades earlier. This act prevented foreign countries from exchanging U.S. dollars for gold and essentially eliminated the gold standard. Nixon’s action eradicated any remaining monetary restrictions on U.S. budget discipline. There would no longer be direct consequences for debauching the currency through expanded money supply. For more information on Nixon’s actions, please read our article The Fifteenth of August.

The second reason prices escalated rapidly is that, following World War II, the U.S. government elected not to dismantle or meaningfully reduce the war apparatus as had been done following all prior wars. With the military industrial complex as a permanent feature of the U.S. economy and no discipline on the budget process, the most inflationary form of government spending was set to rapidly expand. Excluding World War I, defense spending during the first 40 years of the 1900’s ran at approximately 1% of GDP. Since World War II it has averaged around 5% of GDP.

Returning to Milton Friedman’s quote, it should be easier to see exactly what he meant. Re-phrasing the quote gives us an effective derivation of it.  Inflation is a deliberate act of policy.

Fed Mandate

The Fed’s dual mandate, which guides their policy actions, is a commitment to foster maximum employment and price stability. Referring back to the price level graph above, the question we ask is which part of that graph best represents a picture of price stability? Pre-1933 or post-1933? If someone earned $1,000 in 1774 and buried it in their back yard, their great, great, great grandchildren could have dug it up 150 years later and purchased an equal number of goods as when it was buried. Money, over this long time period, did not lose any of its purchasing power. On the other hand, $1,000 buried in 1933 has since lost 95% of its purchasing power.

What does it mean to live in the post-1933, Federal Reserve world of so-called “price stability”? It means we are required to work harder to keep our wages and wealth rising quicker than inflation. It means two incomes are required where one used to suffice. Both parents work, leaving children at home alone, and investments must be more risky in an effort to retain our wealth and stay ahead of the rate of inflation. Somehow, the intellectual elite in charge of implementing these policies have convinced us that this is proper and good. The reality is that imposing steadily rising price levels on all Americans has severe consequences and is a highly destructive policy.

Cantillon Effect

The graph below uses the same data as the price level graph above but depicts yearly changes in prices.

Chart Courtesy: Oregon State LINK

What is clear is that, prior to 1933, there were just as many years of falling prices as rising prices and the cumulative price level on the first chart remains relatively stable as a result. After 1933, however, Friedman’s “monetary phenomenon” takes hold. The money supply continually expands and periods of falling prices that offset periods of rising prices disappear altogether. Prices just continue rising.

There is an important distinction to be made here, and it helps explain why sustained inflation is so important to the Fed and the government. It is why inflation has been undertaken as a deliberate act of policy. As mentioned, periods of falling prices are not necessarily periods of deflation. Falling prices may be the result of technological advancements and rising productivity. Alternatively, falling prices may result from an accumulation of unproductive debt and the eventual inability to service that debt. That is the proper definition of deflation. This occurs as a symptom of excessive debt build-ups and speculative booms which lead to a glut of unfinanceable inventories. This is followed by an excess of goods and services in the market and falling prices result.

Furthermore, there are periods of hidden inflation. This occurs when observed price levels rise but only because of policies that intentionally expanded the money supply. In other words, healthy improvements in technology and productivity that should have brought about a healthy and desirable drop in prices or the cost of living are negated by easy monetary policy acting against those natural price moves. By keeping their foot on the monetary gas pedal and myopically using low inflation readings as the justification, the Fed enables a sinister and criminal transfer of wealth.

This transfer of wealth euthanizes the economy like deadly fumes which cannot be smelled, seen or felt. It works via the Cantillon Effect, which describes the point at which different parts of the population are impacted by rising prices. Under our Fed controlled monetary system, new money enters the economy through the banking and financial system. The first of those with access to the new money – the government, large corporations and wealthy households – are able to invest it before the uneven effects of inflation have filtered through the economic system. The transfer of wealth occurs quietly between the late receivers of new money (losers) and the early receivers of it (winners). Although a proponent of inflationary policies as a means of combating the depression, John Maynard Keynes correctly observed that “by continuing a process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

Conclusion – Investment Considerations

In the same way that only a very small percentage of recent MBA grads could, with any coherence, tell you what inflation truly is, the investing public has been effectively brainwashed into thinking that they should benchmark their investment performance against the movements of the stock market. Unfortunately, wealth is only accumulated when it grows faster than inflation. In our modern society of continually comparing ourselves with those around us on social media, we obsess about what the S&P 500 or Dow Jones are doing day by day but fail to understand that wealth should be measured on a real basis – net of inflation.  For more on this concept, please read our article: A Shot of Absolute – Fortifying a Traditional Investment Portfolio.

Mainstream economists, either unable to decipher this process of confiscation or intentionally complicit in its rationalization, have convinced an intellectually lazy populace that some degree of rising prices is “optimal” and normal. Individuals that buy this jargon are being duped out of their wealth.

Holding elected and unelected officials accountable for a clear and proper measurement of inflation is the only way to uncover the truth of the effects of inflation. In his small but powerful book, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt reminded us that policies should be judged based on their effect over the longer term and for society as a whole. On that simple and clear basis, we should dismiss the empty counterfactuals used as the central argument behind inflation targeting and most other monetary and fiscal policy platitudes. The policy and process of inflation is both toxic and malignant.

We The People

We want capitalism and market forces to be the slave of democracy rather than the opposite.” – Thomas Piketty

The essential underlying elements of supply, demand, scarcity, and prosperity described in our first article in this series, The Forgotten Path to Prosperity, are keys to gaining a better understanding of what constitutes a well-functioning economy. In this article, we further consider those dynamics and within that context begin to evaluate why current economic growth is stagnating. Our view necessarily advocates for a focus on supply-side economics. In other words, the talent, skills, and work that people do to acquire resources and how the resulting productivity growth from those endeavors most effectively relieves scarcity and poverty.

In his best-selling book Capitalism in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty advocates for a mandated redistribution of wealth through a progressive global tax. His perspective of economics centers on the allocation of resources and making sure that it is fair and just. What is made very clear in Piketty’s arguments is that he and a few other intellectual elites, so-called “Davos-men,” ultimately know better than the collective decision-making of the citizens of a nation about how resources should be allocated and what should be mandated as “fair and just.” Piketty and many other economists elect to ignore the fact that the world runs most fairly and efficiently when individuals are free to pursue their separate interests. Said differently, free-market capitalism, although imperfect, remains the single best means of relieving people from the ubiquity of scarcity. As we have repeatedly seen throughout history, nations that relinquish their liberties to oligarchs crumble from the inside-out.

Importantly, Piketty’s idea runs perfectly counter to the central precepts laid out in the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, and scores of other important documents that foster the basic tenets of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this country.  The challenges capitalism and free markets face are not due to a lack of government imposition of laws and regulation to ensure fairness and justice, they are due to the failure of the United States government to do the primary thing incumbent upon it – defend the rights of liberty as laid out in the founding documents of our country. What Piketty suggests implies a massive expansion of government power in ways that would at a minimum erode and at worst destroy the vitality and dynamism of a capitalistic and free market society. What is most worrisome is that these concepts are not just the ruminations of the latest economic “rock star,” they are fully in play in every developed nation and go a long way toward explaining the accumulation of sovereign debt and the deterioration of economic growth in those countries.

Data Courtesy: Bank of International Settlements (BIS)

Unwanted Intrusions

Economic inequality is and always has been a feature of human existence. The degree of inequality ebbs and flows across time and geography but will never be eradicated because scarcity is also a permanent feature of human existence. Yet, for a variety of complex reasons, western civilization enjoyed an economic system that delivered unmatched prosperity and economic equality over the last 500 years and nowhere was it more pronounced than in the United States of America.

Capitalism does not solve the perpetual and age-old problem of poverty, but it offers an advantage to those societies who trust in it and depend on the government to protect against unwanted intrusions, especially those emanating from the government itself. Societies are most prosperous where individuals are incentivized to be productive because their individual liberties and private property are protected. Those societies imposed upon by over-bearing governments issuing mandates about how earnings and property will be re-directed are less prosperous and eventually bankrupt themselves.

Free Markets and the Freedom to Choose

As described in The Forgotten Path to Prosperity, everyone has a set of ideas about how markets function.  These ideas are established on the basis of our everyday experiences about how we will use our resources.  Our decision-making is prioritized by attending to those things we need first and then, provided the budget allows, moving on to those things we want – needs and desires. Whether at the grocery store or in the executive suite of a multi-national corporation, economic choices are framed in the context of economic reasoning.

Resources are limited so individuals must make decisions – choices – about how to best use the resources he or she has.  At the same time, we accumulate resources by engaging in productive activities, through the use of the factors of production – land, labor and capital – and productive activities are enabled and enhanced by the freely collaborative efforts among and between people.

With Liberty and Justice for All

So how does one go about being “freely collaborative”? What is it about a culture or society that is constrained from being so? We take such benefits for granted in the United States but even here many of those foundational freedoms are eroding.  What is really being described here is liberty which means “I rule myself.” It is a “negative right” that restrains other people or governments by limiting their actions toward the right holder.  By contrast, a “positive right” provides someone with a claim against another person or the state for some good or service (i.e., housing, healthcare, education). Liberty represents an individual’s freedom from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior or political views. In other words, liberty (and freedom) can best be defined as a condition in which a man’s will regarding his own person and property is unopposed by any other will. The limits to liberty, according to Thomas Jefferson, are “drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

The 17th-century philosopher (and indirect contributor to the Declaration of Independence), John Locke framed it this way:

“All men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Paraphrasing Jefferson and Locke, we should be allowed to do whatever we want, so long as we do not impose upon or hurt others in doing it.

Reflecting for a moment on those important closing words in the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all,” we may now have a grasp on liberty but what does this have to do with justice or Thomas Piketty, for that matter?

Thomas Piketty envisions a world, quite literally a global government authority, which actively redistributes wealth, resources and property as that authority sees fit and fair without regard for the liberties of individuals. Social justice does not and cannot reconcile with the form of justice that is referenced in The Pledge of Allegiance precisely because it is adjoined to liberty. Social justice requires an imposition on some members of society in order for others to receive positive rights assigned to them. It means someone else rules over the choices and resources taken from me. The only justice that can be “for all” involves defending negative rights – prohibitions laid out against others, especially the government, to prevent unwanted impositions and intrusions.

Summary

An increasingly interventionist government, either through un-elected and unaccountable authorities like those at the Federal Reserve or those elected by constituents who demand more positive rights, will continually stray from its delegated authority. The erosion of negative rights in the name of “fairness” and “justice” achieves neither. Free markets are not allowed to function fluidly as Fed officials step in to bailout hedge funds and bankers in the name of “the greater good.” Economic growth deteriorates as capital is used to buy back stock to boost executive compensation instead of being invested in long-term growth and innovation. Entire industries wither kept alive only by artificially low-interest rates leeching resources from others who might use them more productively. Standards of living deteriorate as the cost of housing, healthcare, and education skyrocket while worker pay remains stagnant. All of these examples and many others can be found in today’s post-crisis economy and serve as markers for poor growth, weak productivity, and broad public dissatisfaction. They point to misguided policies that subordinate the inalienable, negative rights of liberty to the selfish demands of a society that risk losing her most precious asset – the talents and contributions of an inspired and motivated population.

If, as Piketty advocates in the opening quote, capitalism and market forces are to be the slave of democracy, then democracy will most assuredly be the slave to corruption. Piketty’s wish is to subordinate the cumulative independent decisions and property rights of billions of human beings – basic liberties – to a few pious intellectual elites claiming to know what is best for the global population. Without these liberties, capitalism and market forces will be neither subject to honest men elected to represent a constituency nor capable of carrying out the duties of sponsoring free collaboration. The Davos Men will rule and they will direct markets and capital as they wish (and to their benefit) picking their winners until the façade collapses under the weight of the bulging obligations of socialism. The problem with socialism, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.

To restate Milton Friedman yet again:

There is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.”

What Turkey Can Teach Us About Gold

If you were contemplating an investment at the beginning of 2014, which of the two assets graphed below would you prefer to own?

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

In the traditional and logical way of thinking about investing, the asset that appreciates more is usually the preferred choice.

However, the chart above depicts the same asset expressed in two different currencies. The orange line is gold priced in U.S. dollars and the teal line is gold priced in Turkish lira. The y-axis is the price of gold divided by 100.

Had you owned gold priced in U.S. dollar terms, your investment return since 2014 has been relatively flat.  Conversely, had you bought gold using Turkish Lira in 2014, your investment has risen from 2,805 to 7,226 or 2.58x. The gain occurred as the value of the Turkish lira deteriorated from 2.33 to 6.04 relative to the U.S. dollar.

 

Although the optics suggest that the value of gold in Turkish Lira has risen sharply, the value of the Turkish Lira relative to the U.S. dollar has fallen by an equal amount. A position in gold acquired using lira yielded no more than an investment in gold using U.S. dollars.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

This real-world example is elusive but important. It helps quantify the effects of the recent economic chaos in Turkey. Turkey’s economic future remains uncertain, but the reality is that their currency has devalued as a result of large fiscal deficits and heavy borrowing used to make up the revenue shortfall. Inflation is not the cause of the problem; it is a symptom. The cause is the dramatic increase in the supply of lira designed to solve the poor fiscal condition.

A Turkish citizen who held savings in lira is much worse off today than even two months ago as the lira has fallen in value. She still has the same amount of savings, but the savings will buy far less today than only a few weeks ago. Her neighbor, who held gold instead of lira, has retained spending power and therefore wealth. This illustration highlights the ability of gold to convey clear comparisons of various countries’ circumstances. It also illustrates the damage that imprudent monetary policy can inflict and the importance of gold as insurance against those policies.

Penalty

Using Turkey as an example also helps illustrate why we say that inflationary regimes impose a penalty on savers. Inflation encourages and even forces people to spend, invest or speculate to offset the effects of inflation. Investing and speculating entail risk, however, so in an inflationary regime one must assume risk or accept a decline in purchasing power.

Most people think of inflation as rising prices. Although that is the way most economists represent inflation, the truth is that inflation is actually your money losing value. Inflation is not caused by rising prices; rising prices are a symptom of inflation. The value of money declines as a result of increasing money supply provided by the stewards of monetary discipline, the Federal Reserve or some other global central bank.

This is difficult to conceptualize, so let’s bring it home in a simple example. If you live in a country where the annual inflation rate is a steady 2%, the value of the currency will decline every year by 2% on a compounded basis. At this rate, the purchasing power of the currency will be cut in half in less than 35 years.

Now consider a country, like Turkey, that has been running chronic deficits, printing money rapidly to make up a revenue shortfall, and begins to experience accelerating inflation. The annual inflation rate in Turkey is now estimated to be over 100% or 8.30% per month, a difficult number to comprehend. The value of their currency is currently falling at an accelerating pace so that what might have been purchased with 500 lira 9 months ago now requires 1,000 lira.

Put another way, for the prudent retiree who had 10,000 lira in cash stashed away nine months ago, the inflation-adjusted value of that money has now fallen to less than 5,000 lira. If inflation persists at that rate, the 10,000 will become less than 1,000 in 29 months.

Believe it or not, Turkey is, so far, a relatively mild example compared to hyperinflationary episodes previously seen in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. These instances devastated the currencies and the wealth of the affected citizens. Fiscal imprudence is a real phenomenon and one that eventually destroys the financial infrastructure of a country. For more on the insidious role that even low levels of inflation have on purchasing power, please read our article: The Fed’s Definition of Price Stability is Likely Different than Yours.

Summary

There are over 3,800 historical examples of paper currencies that no longer exist. Although some of these currencies, like the French franc or the Greek drachma disappeared as a result of being replaced by an alternative (euro), many disappeared as a result of government imprudence, debauching the currency and hyperinflation. In all of those cases, persistent budget deficits and printed money were common factors. This should sound worryingly familiar.

Modern day central banks function by employing a steady dose of propaganda arguing against the risks of deflation and in favor of the benefits of a “modest” level of inflation. The Fed’s Congressional mandate is to “foster economic conditions that promote stable prices and maximum sustainable employment” but promoting stable prices evolved into a 2% inflation target. The math is not complex but it is difficult to grasp. Any number, no matter how small, compounded over a long enough time frame eventually takes on a parabolic, hockey stick, shape. The purpose of the inflation target is clearly intended to encourage borrowing, spending and speculating as the value of the currency gradually erodes but at an ever-accelerating pace. Those not participating in such acts will get left behind.

In the same way that rising prices are a symptom of inflation attributable to too much printed money in the system, deflation is falling prices due to unfinanceable inventories and merchandise pushed on to the market caused by too much debt. Contrary to popular economic opinion, deflation is not falling prices caused by a technology-enhanced decline in the costs of production – that is more properly labeled as “progress.” The Fed is either knowingly or unknowingly conflating these two separate and very different issues under the deflation label as support for their “inflation target”. In doing so, they are creating the conditions for deflation as debt burdens mount.

Gold, for all its imperfections, offers a time-tested, stable base against which to measure the value of fiat currencies. Accountability cannot be denied.  Despite the unwillingness of most central bankers to acknowledge gold’s relevance, the currencies of nations will remain beholden to the “barbarous relic”, especially as governments continue to prove feckless in their application of fiscal and monetary discipline.