Will There be Zimbabwe-Type Hyperinflation in the USA?

The Republicans are convinced that hyperinflation is just around the corner, but don’t bet on it. The real enemy is deflation, which is why Fed chief Bernanke has taken such extraordinary steps to pump liquidity into the system. The economy is flat on its back and hemorrhaging a half a million jobs per month. The housing market is crashing, retail sales are in a funk, manufacturing is down, exports are falling, and consumers have started saving for the first time in decades. There’s excess capacity everywhere and aggregate demand has dropped off a cliff. If it weren’t for the Fed’s monetary stimulus and myriad lending facilities, the economy would be stretched out on a marble slab right now. So, where’s the inflation? Here’s Paul Krugman with part of the answer:

It’s important to realize that there’s no hint of inflationary pressures in the economy right now. Consumer prices are lower now than they were a year ago, and wage increases have stalled in the face of high unemployment. Deflation, not inflation, is the clear and present danger….

Is there a risk that we’ll have inflation after the economy recovers? That’s the claim of those who look at projections that federal debt may rise to more than 100 percent of G.D.P. and say that America will eventually have to inflate away that debt — that is, drive up prices so that the real value of the debt is reduced…. Such things have happened in the past…

Some economists have argued for moderate inflation as a deliberate policy, as a way to encourage lending and reduce private debt burdens (but)… there’s no sign it’s getting traction with U.S. policy makers now.”1

Krugman believes that conservatives have conjured up the inflation hobgoblin for political purposes to knock Obama’s recovery plan off-course. But even he’s mistaken, there’s little chance that inflation will flare up anytime soon because the economy is still contracting, albeit at a slower pace than before. A good chunk of the Fed’s liquidity is sitting idle in bank vaults instead of churning through the system as Bernanke it could do some good. According to Econbrowser, excess bank reserves have bolted from $96.5 billion in August 2008 to $949.6 billion by April 2009. Bernanke hoped the extra reserves would help jump-start the economy, but he was wrong. The people who need credit, can’t get it; while the people who qualify, don’t want it. It’s just more proof that the slowdown is spreading.

That doesn’t mean that the dollar won’t tumble in the next year or so when the trillion dollar deficits begin to pile up. It probably will. Foreign investors have already scaled back on their dollar-based investments, and central banks are limiting themselves to short-term notes, mostly 3 month Treasuries. If Bernanke steps up his quantitative easing (QE) and continues to monetize the debt, there’s a good chance that central bankers will jettison their T-Bills and head for the exits. That means that if keeps printing money like he has been, there’s going to be a run on the dollar.

Now that the stock market is showing signs of life again, investors are moving out of risk-free Treasuries and into equities. That’s pushing up yields on long-term notes which could potentially short-circuit Bernanke’s plans for reviving the economy. Mortgage rates are set off the 10-year Treasury, which shot up to 3.90% by markets’ close on Friday. The bottom line is that if rates keep rising, housing prices will plummet and the economy will tank. This week’s auctions will be a good test of how much interest there really is in US debt.

At some point in the next year, the dollar will lose ground and commodities will surge, causing uneven inflation. But for how long? That depends on the state of the economy. Dollar weakness and speculation can drive up the price of oil, (oil is up 100% in the last two and a half months, from $34. to $68.) but falling demand will eventually bring prices back to earth. Presently, there’s a bigger glut of oil sitting in tankers offshore than anytime in the last 15 years. Which brings us back to the original question; how bad is the economy?

The answer is, really bad! Here’s a short blurb from economist Dean Baker in an article in the UK Guardian:

The decline in house prices since the peak in 2006 has cost homeowners close to $6 trillion in lost housing equity. In 2009 alone, falling house prices have destroyed almost $2 trillion in equity. People were spending at an incredible rate in 2004-2007 based on the wealth they had in their homes. This wealth has now vanished.

Housing is weak and falling, consumption is weak and falling, new orders for capital goods in April, the main measure for investment demand, is down 35.6 percent from its year ago level. And, state and local governments across the country, led by California, are laying off workers and cutting back services.

If there is evidence of a recovery in this story it is very hard to find. The more obvious story is one of a downward spiral as more layoffs and further cuts in hours continue to reduce workers’ purchasing power. Furthermore, the weakness in the labor market is putting downward pressure on wages, reducing workers’ purchasing power through a second channel.2

Don’t be fooled by the cheery news in the media. The economy is hanging by a thread and recovery is still a long way off. The only way to dig out of this mess is to address the underlying problems head-on. That means removing the toxic assets from the banks, revamping the credit system, and rebuilding battered household balance sheets. If these issues aren’t resolved, the problems will drag on for years to come. And even if they are fixed, the economy is still facing a long period of deleveraging and retrenching followed by an anemic recovery. Obama’s fiscal stimulus might give GDP a jolt in the third quarter, but without help from the government checkbook, economic activity will stay in the doldrums.

Last month, personal savings increased to nearly 6 percent while consumer credit fell by $15.7 billion, the second largest decline in debt on record. According to Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations, “Total borrowing by households and firms fell from over 15% of GDP in late 2007 to a negative 1% of GDP in q4 2008.” How can these losses to GDP be made up when private borrowing has vanished without a trace? Consumers have shut their wallets, locked their purses and are refusing to take on any more debt. Despite government efforts to restart the credit markets by backing up loans for 0% financing on auto sales and $8,000 tax credit on the purchase of a new home, (which is tantamount to subprime lending) consumers are digging in their heels. All the hype about inflation hasn’t sent them racing back to the shopping malls or the auto showrooms. Consumers have reached their saturation point and they are not budging. It’s the end of an era.

The unemployment picture is getting bleaker and bleaker. Last week’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics concealed the real magnitude of the job losses by using the discredited “Birth-Death” model which exaggerates the number of people reentering the workforce. Here’s what former Merrill Lynch chief economist David Rosenberg had to say about Friday’s BLS report:

The headline nonfarm payroll figure came in above expectations at — 345,000 in May — the consensus was looking for something closer to -525,000. The markets are treating this as yet another in the line-up of ‘green shoots’ because the decline was less severe than it was in April (-504,000), March (-652,000), February (-681,000) and January (-741,000). However, let’s not forget that the fairy tale Birth-Death model from the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) added 220,000 to the headline — so adjusting for that, we would have actually seen a 565,000 headline job decline.

The BLS figures have been denounced by every econo-blogger on the Internet. The figures are another example of the government’s determination to airbrush any unpleasant news about the recession. Here’s a better summary of the unemployment numbers from Edward Harrison at Credit Writedowns:

The Business Birth-Death Model added 220,000 jobs to the headline seasonally-adjusted number. Without this number, we are looking at a loss of 565,000 jobs….The number of jobs lost in the last 12 months increased from 5.34 million in April to 5.51 million in May….Other indicators suggest that the shadow supply of discouraged workers not counted in the numbers will now return to the labor force, pushing up the unemployment number. For example, the U-6 unemployment number was a gargantuan 16.4 %, the highest ever.3

Unemployment now stands at 9.4% (16.4%?) and will continue to rise whether there’s an uptick in economic activity or not. Businesses are shedding jobs at record pace, and slashing hours at the same time. The average workweek slipped to 33.1 hours (down 2 hours from April) a new low. It goes without saying, that unemployment is highly deflationary because jobless people have to cut out all unnecessary spending. Beyond the 500,000 layoffs per month; wages and benefits are also under pressure, making a rebound in consumer spending even less probable. This is from Brian Pretti’s article “Place Your Wagers”:

The year over year change in the Employment Cost Index (ECI) is the lowest number in the history of the data… in the absence of household credit acceleration… aggregate demand (will fall)

The year over year change in wages has never been this low in the records of the data. .. Wages and salaries… are all in negative rate of change territory. They are ALL contracting year over year.

Absent household balance sheet reacceleration in leverage it sure seems a good bet forward corporate earnings are now as dependent on household wages, salaries and broader personal income as at any time in recent memory. And corporations to protect margins and nominal profits are pressuring wages and salaries downward.4

From a workers point of view, things have never been worse. Demand is falling, employers are slashing inventory and handing out pink slips, and entire industries are being boarded up and shut down or shipped overseas. Economists Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke make the case that, in many respects, conditions are deteriorating faster now than they did in the 1930s. Here’s what they found:

1–World industrial production continues to track closely the 1930s fall, with no clear signs of ‘green shoots’.

2–World stock markets have rebounded a bit since March, and world trade has stabilized, but these are still following paths far below the ones they followed in the Great Depression.

3–The North Americans (US & Canada) continue to see their industrial output fall approximately in line with what happened in the 1929 crisis, with no clear signs of a turn around.5 Their conclusion: “Today’s crisis is at least as bad as the Great Depression.”

Yeah, times are tough, but what happens when housing prices stabilize and the jobs market begins to pick up; won’t that put the Fed’s trillions of dollars into circulation and create Wiemar-type hyperinflation?

Many people think so, but Edward Harrison anticipates a completely different scenario. The author takes into account the psychological effects of a deep recession and shows how trauma can have a lasting effect on consumer habits, thus, minimizing the chance of inflation. It’s a persuasive thesis. Here’s what he says:

Richard Koo goes further in his book The Holy Grail of Macro Economics. Here, he argues that the unwind of great bubbles suffers from what he labels a ‘balance sheet recession.’ In essence, companies go from maximizing profits, as they had done in normal times, to a post-bubble concern of reducing debt. Regardless of how much priming of the pump monetary authorities do, the psychology of debt reduction will limit the effectiveness of monetary policy as a policy tool.

In my view, the catalyst for this change of psychology is the ‘debt revulsion’ that ushers in the panic phase of an asset bubble collapse. (Charles Kindleberger highlights the various stages of a bubble and its implosion in his seminal book Manias, Panics and Crashes. In this particular bubble, debt revulsion began post-Lehman Brothers. What we have seen, therefore, is a reduction in leverage and debt as the most leveraged players have gone to the wall. But, more than that, the household sector has gotten religion about debt reduction as the savings rate has increased dramatically since Lehman. In fact, I would argue that companies learned their lesson about debt from the aftermath of the tech bubble. It is the household sector in the U.S. (and the U.K.) which is heavily indebted. Therefore, if the psychology of a balance sheet recession does take form, it will be the household sector leading the charge.

In sum, the psychology after a major bubble is very different than the psychology before its collapse. The post-bubble emphasis becomes debt reduction and savings, making monetary policy ineffective, not because financial institutions are unwilling lenders but because companies and individuals are unwilling borrowers. These are forces to be reckoned with for some to come.6

Seductive interest rates, lax lending standards and nonstop public relations campaigns, persuaded millions of people that they could live beyond their means by simply filling out a credit app. or fudging a few numbers on a mortgage loan. These are the real victims of Wall Street’s speculative bubble-scam. For many of them, the agony of losing their home, or their job, or filing for personal bankruptcy will be felt for years to come. At the same time, the experience will keep many of them from getting in over their heads again. The same phenomenon occurred during the Great Depression. The pain of losing everything shapes behavior for a lifetime, which is why the savings rate has spiked so dramatically in the last few months. There’s been a tectonic shift in attitudes towards consumption and there’s no going back to the pre-bubble era.

If Harrison is right, our decades-long spending-spree is over and people will be looking for ways to live more modestly, pay-as-they-go and avoid red ink. This is good news for the economy’s long-term strength, but bad for short-term recovery. Deflation will persist even while savings grow and consumption comes more into line with personal income. The dollar will fall hard if Bernanke continues to load up on Treasuries, but with a few slight adjustments, he should be able to avoid a full-blown currency crisis. Thus, Zimbabwe-type hyperinflation is unlikely; the ongoing slowdown should keep inflation in check.

  1. The Big Inflation Scare,” Paul Krugman, New York Times. []
  2. Dean Baker “Cheerleading the Economy,” UK Guardian. []
  3. Edward Harrison credit writedowns. []
  4. Place Your Wagers,” Brian Pretti, Financial Sense Observations. []
  5. A Tale of Two Depressions,” Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke, VOX. []
  6. Edward Harrison, “Central banks will face a Scylla and Charybdis flation challenge for years” Credit Writedowns. []

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at: fergiewhitney@msn.com. Read other articles by Mike.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. David said on June 12th, 2009 at 9:40am #

    Mike wrote:

    “This is good news for the economy’s long-term strength, but bad for short-term recovery.”

    Nice! Unfortunately, there is no long-term economy.

  2. Michael Dawson said on June 12th, 2009 at 10:58am #

    Personally, I don’t buy the emphasis on “consumer” psychology. The personal savings rate is just another way of saying money the rich are stashing, rather than investing. And most people in the bottom 75 percent would spend wildly if they could. trouble is, they’ve been taking the shaft for 30 plus years.

    Our problem is economic polarization/capitalist success, not altered psychology.

    All those GD II survivors had no trouble going on a binge in the late 1940s-1970, did they?

  3. rg the lg said on June 12th, 2009 at 12:06pm #

    Oh Mikey … what is wrong with your thinking?

    Capitalism might collapse?

    Ah, break my friggin’ heart!

    Capitalism was predicted to f*** itself in the long run … and any critic of capitalism knows that there is a saturation point. Maybe the GOOD news is that you are right and our economy is on skid row … and that most of us would prefer to see the bums continue to sit there whining for all of the spare change.

    I am hoping that, maybe, people will begin to ween themselves from their addictions to ‘stuff’ and continue to keep the economy flat on its back … and perhaps, a kinder, gentler, less greedy economy will emerge. Not likely, but it is certainly better than your hand wringing about the failure of the capitalist class to keep their foots on our throats!

    RG the LG

  4. brian said on June 12th, 2009 at 9:36pm #

    ‘Will There be Zimbabwe-Type Hyperinflation in the USA?’

    not unless the US comes under brutal sanctions…aka an economic blockade!