“All this money printing, massive debt, and reckless deficit spending – and we have 2% inflation? I'm beginning to believe that either the deflationists are right, or the Fed's interventions are working.”– Anonymous reader
The CPI, in our view, does not accurately measure inflation, which accounts for some of the discrepancy our reader is pointing out. However, the proper definition of inflation is “an increase in the quantity of money,” which we've had in spades. We've not experienced the concomitant increase in prices, which is what we're addressing in this article.
It's logical to assume that when you create more of something, you dilute the value of what's already in existence. That's exactly what has happened to the US dollar since the 2008 financial crisis hit. Economics 101 says this should lead to higher inflation – yet official Consumer Price Index (CPI) levels remain benign.
It's this unexpected development that led a reader to pen the above quote. Is the inflation argument dead? If so, does that mean gold's big run is over? It's a timely question since the current selloff in gold is largely attributed to low inflation expectations.
This is the first installment in our in-depth series of examining the next big catalysts for the gold price. This month we're looking at inflation. While a low CPI may be puzzling in the midst of massive, global currency abuse, there are three realities about inflation that convince us it's not only coming, but will catch an unsuspecting citizenry off guard.
Let's take a look at why we're convinced inflation will be one of the next big catalysts for the gold price…
Reality #1: History shows that high levels of debt and deficit spending eventually lead to inflation.
This statement makes sense on the face of it, but seminal research has been done that confirms it. A country simply cannot escape high inflation when carrying oversized debt levels and/or running massive deficits. Sooner or later, these sins catch up to you, regardless of what the current thinking may be.
Debt. The first of these historical studies is detailed in the book, This Time Is Different by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who've extensively researched the impact of high debt on inflation and gross domestic product (GDP).
Based on a comprehensive study of global incidences, Reinhart and Rogoff gave the following conclusion:
- Debt levels over 90% of GDP are linked to significantly elevated levels of inflation.
When specifically studying US history, they again observed that:
- Debt levels over 90% of GDP are linked to significantly elevated inflation.
When US debt levels met or exceeded 90% of GDP, inflation rose to around 6% – roughly triple current levels – vs. the 0.5% to 2.5% range when the ratio was below 90%.
However, with regard to timing, they state:
- There is no apparent pattern of simultaneousrising inflation and debt.
In other words, inflation is a clear and definite result of high debt levels, but it's not a day-to-day link. This likely explains the current lag between high debt and a low CPI reading.
So are we nearing that 90% mark? Bud Conrad, chief economist of Casey Research, estimates we're currently at approximately 110%. Further, he projected from his research in December that…
- Using my assumptions, gross debt to GDP crosses 120% in 2014. That is well past the danger point of 90% that Reinhart and Rogoff cite. What's scary is that my assumptions are not even close to a worst-case scenario, so the situation could be much worse.
Bud does not expect to see much more deflation. One reason is because…
- In essence, much of the deflationary pressures have been cleared out. Going forward, there should be fewer outright losses from bad loans, and thus less deflationary pressure. For that reason (and many others), I expect higher inflation sooner rather than later.
Deficit Spending. Peter Bernholz is widely considered the leading expert on the link between deficit spending and hyperinflation. He conclusively states from his research that…
- Hyperinflation is caused by government budget deficits.
The US budget deficit totaled $5.1 trillion during Obama's first term in office. The longer deficits last and the bigger they are, the closer a country moves toward very high inflation levels.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reported, however, that the 2013 deficit will drop to $845 billion. Good news, right? Not exactly, because the reduction is largely a result of higher taxes. The CBO was therefore forced to admit…
- The fiscal tightening from higher taxes and lower spending will slow economic growth to an anemic 1.4 percent by the end of 2013, causing the unemployment rate to edge back higher.
It turns into a vicious cycle, because if unemployment grows, money printing will continue and even increase. The CBO further admitted…
- Deficits are projected to increase later in the coming decade, however, because of the pressures of an aging population, rising health care costs, an expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance, and growing interest payments on federal debt.
If deficits grow – or even just remain elevated – we inch closer and closer to the hyperinflation Bernholz warns about. Breaking this cycle will be very difficult, if not impossible… at least not without serious consequences.
These studies present clear and direct evidence that spending more than is brought in and continually adding to the national credit card leads to higher inflation. Sooner or later, this type of reckless behavior catches up to an economy. The sobering reality is that avoiding moderate to high levels of inflation in our current fiscal state would be an historical first.
Unfortunately, that's not the only inflationary fear we have to contend with.
Reality #2: History shows that inflation can occur suddenly and grow rapidly.
Not only is higher inflation a near certainty, history tells us that once it grabs hold, it can quickly spiral out of control. Given our crumbling fiscal state, we must consider the possibility that price inflation could kick in abruptly and rise rapidly.
Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow of economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and a best-selling author, provides some examples from the past century of US inflation that was at first subdued but then abruptly rocketed to alarming levels. Look how quickly inflation rose in just two years from “benign” levels.
According to Shlaes, US inflation was 1% in 1915 (based on an earlier version of the CPI-U). Within just two years, it soared to 17%. As she states, it happened because the Treasury “spent like crazy on the war, creating money to pay for it…”
In 1945, the official inflation rate was 2%; it accelerated to 14% in 24 months. Inflation registered 3.2% in 1972 and hit 11% by 1974.
It's clear that the arrival of inflation can be sudden, and that prices can quickly spiral out of control. Given the profligate amount of money being printed by many countries around the globe, we could easily become victim to rapidly rising inflation. If we matched the increases in the chart, our CPI would register 11%, 15%, and 19% respectively, by February 2014.
Regardless of the timing, though, this is a clear warning from history: expecting the CPI to remain low indefinitely is a dangerous assumption.
Reality #3: Most developed-world governments need inflation.
It is a fact that high inflation reduces the real cost of servicing debt. Our debt levels have grown so high that the only politically acceptable way to deal with them is to inflate the currency. Politicians and central bankers have no incentive to stop, and thus will continue until disastrous price inflation emerges. Just because it hasn't occurred yet doesn't mean it won't.
Other political solutions simply aren't realistic. There is no amount of politically acceptable increase in tax revenue or austerity measures that can meet existing and future obligations. Printing money is the only viable solution. Once you internalize this, an understanding of the most likely consequences becomes clear.
Even if deflation in select asset classes persists or we get another deflationary event like 2008, we can rely on central bankers to concoct more rescue schemes financed with freshly created money. Perhaps just as likely is that the economy does improve and all the money that's been held back enters the system and sparks inflation.
Based on these realities, we can draw some well-grounded conclusions about the coming rise in inflation.
- The onset of higher inflation isn't certain, but the outcome is. These realities make clear that higher inflation is virtually ensured at some point. It's thus imperative we prepare for it.
- What we use for money will experience a significant – perhaps catastrophic – loss of purchasing power. As shown, this is not speculation, but a process of cause and effect observed repeatedly throughout history. As a result, you will likely use some of your gold and silver to protect your standard of living – that is, after all, one of its purposes. The point here is to make sure you own enough ounces to offset a significant decline in purchasing power.
- When inflation begins rising, precious metals will respond and move to higher levels. We don't know if this is the next catalyst for gold, but we're confident it will be a major driver of future prices.
- Keep in mind that gold tends to moves in anticipation of inflation – think of it as inflation insurance. By the time inflation is “high,” the big moves in gold and silver will have most likely already occurred.
Stay vigilant, my friends, because higher inflation is coming – and as a result, higher gold and silver prices.
Jeff Clark is editor of BIG GOLD, and a regular contributor to the Hard Assets Alliance.