Senator Elizabeth Warren recently stated that rising prices were due to corporations increasing their profits. “This isn’t about inflation, this is about price gouging for these guys.” It is simply incorrect.
No, corporations have not doubled their profits, and rising prices are not due to the evildoings of businesses. If evil corporations are to blame for rising prices in 2021, as Elizabeth Warren says, I imagine that they were magnanimous and generous corporations when there was low or no inflation, right?
Inflation is the tax of the poor. It destroys the purchasing power of wages and engulfs the little savings that workers accumulate. The rich can protect themselves by investing in real assets, real estate and financial, the poor cannot.
Inflation is not a coincidence, it is a policy.
The middle class and the salaried workers not only do not see the advantages of inflation, but they also lose in real wages and also in their future prospects. Robert J. Barro’s study in more than one hundred countries shows that an average 10 percent increase in inflation during one year reduces growth by 0.2–0.3 percent and investment from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent in the next year. The problem is that the damage is entrenched. Even if the impact on gross domestic product is apparently small, the negative effect on both growth and investment remains for several years.
Despite the message from central banks, which repeat that inflation has temporary components and is fundamentally transitory, we cannot forget:
Inflation will not go down in 2022, according to central banks. Inflation will go up less in 2022 than in 2021. It is not the same.
When some agents speak of “transitory” inflation, they mean that it will rise less in 2022 than in 2021, not that prices will fall.
“Transitory inflation” is 6 percent in 2021, 3 percent in 2022, and 2.5 percent in 2023. That is, more than a 12 percent increase in three years. How many of you are going to see your wages and earnings rise 12 percent in three years?
The great beneficiary of inflation is the government, and Ms. Warren knows it. That is why she defends inflationary monetary and fiscal policies. On the one hand, receipts from the monetary taxes of captive economic agents increases (value-added tax, personal income tax, corporate taxes, indirect taxes), and on the other hand, the government’s accumulated debt is partially “devalued.” But public accounts do not improve because gross domestic product slows down; the structural deficit remains high and, therefore, absolute debt does not fall.
How many of you are going to raise your salary 12 percent in three years?
Deficit-spending governments see real expenditures go up and the structural deficit does not fall.
Wages and pensions do not rise with inflation. Almost no one will see a 12 percent rise in three years in their work compensation. Real median wages in the United States have plummeted due to inflation, according to St. Louis Fed data.
Inflation is not the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Inflation is the loss of purchasing power of the currency that leads to a persistent rise in most prices regardless of their sector, demand, supply, or nature, and is a direct consequence of the wrongly termed expansionary monetary policy. Inflation is a direct cause of currency debasement.
CPI is a basic basket calculated with estimated weights between goods and services. In it there are prices of nonreplicable basic products that rise much more than the average and that we consume every day (food, energy) and the basket is moderated with services and goods that we do not consume every day (technology, leisure).
Prices do not rise in tandem by 2–5 percent because of a coordinated decision from all businesses in all sectors. It is a monetary phenomenon.
The good thing for the most interventionist politician is that the government is the most benefited by the rise in prices but it can blame others and, on top of that, present itself as a solution by making payments in increasingly useless paper currency.
The history of monetary interventionism is always the same:
- Say that a nonexistent “risk of deflation” must be fought. Print.
- Say that there is no inflation even if risky assets, real estate, and the prices of nonreplicable goods rise more than the CPI. Print more.
- Say that inflation is due to the base effect. Print more.
- Say that inflation is transitory. Print more.
- Blame businesses and companies. Print more.
- Blame consumers for “hoarding.” Print more.
The monetary factor is key to understanding the continued rise in almost all prices at the same time. An enormous monetary stimulus destined in its entirety for massive current spending plans—infrastructure, construction and remodeling, energy-intensive sectors, and checks to families—financed with debt monetized by the central banks.
To this we must add the effect of the shutdown of a just-in-time economy during the pandemic, which generates some bottlenecks and is exacerbated by massive money supply growth.
Much of what they sell us as “supply chain disruption” or input cost effects is nothing more than more money directed at relatively scarce assets., more currency directed at the same number of goods.
Professor John B. Hearn explains it:
Stephanie Kelton, a prominent advocate of MMT [modern monetary theory], stated that “all inflations for the last 100 years are cost push inflations” Both MMT and Keynesians require an explanation of inflation, for their theories to progress, that can explain how inflation occurs when there is deficient aggregate demand in the economy. As much as we want to believe that oil prices, energy prices, wage rises and falling currency values can cause inflation it is just not logical. By definition all inflations are defined by more units of money used in the same number of transactions. All of the above can change relative prices, but none of them can increase the number of units of money in the economy. There is therefore only one cause of inflation and that is the action of a Central Bank who, in a modern economy, manage the stock and flow of money in that economy.
Indeed, a good or service can rise in price due to a temporary effect, but not the vast majority of prices in a generalized increase. When they try to convince us that inflation does not have a monetary cause, they make us look at a good or service that has risen, for example, by 50 percent temporarily, but they hide from us the fact that the median of essential goods and services rises more than the CPI every year. That is why Keynesian economists always talk about the annual CPI and not the accumulated one. Can you imagine if you read that inflation in the eurozone at a time when we were told that there is no inflation was 45 percent?
The cost-push argument views inflation as the result of continually rising costs of production—costs that rise unilaterally, independent of market forces. Such an hypothesis (1) confuses changes in relative prices with inflation, a continuously rising overall level of prices, and (2) neglects the role that the money supply plays in the determination of the overall price level. The idea that greedy businesses and/or labor unions can cause a continual rise in prices cannot be supported by either the conceptual development or the empirical evidence provided. Alternatively, the hypothesis that inflation is caused by excessive money growth is well supported.
Why was there no inflation a few years ago?
First, there was—massive inflation in risky assets, but also constant inflation in real estate prices and the costs of essential and nonreplicable goods and services. And a large number of countries in the world have been suffering from inflation due to the destruction of the purchasing power of their currency in that period when we were told there was “no inflation.”
Second, the increase in money supply in the eurozone or the United States was less than the demand for credit and currency in aggregate terms, since the euro and the dollar are global reserve currencies with global demand. Although the money supply increased a lot, it did not translate immediately into high prices domestically. An excess of money supply remained in the financial system, thanks to the inflationary brake mechanism that quantitative easing has, which is the real demand for credit.
Inflation has been unleashed now that the credit demand brake mechanism has been partially eliminated, directing new money supply to direct current spending by governments and subsidies to economic agents in the midst of a forced shutdown of the economy. Supply of money supply far exceeds demand for the first time in years.
According to Morgan Stanley, the biggest impact on companies is the collapse in margins of those who cannot pass the increase in costs to their prices and this especially affects small and medium enterprises while large companies can manage inflation better, but profits do not double … in fact, margins tend to fall.
There is a paradox whereby many businesses are seeing their sales rise but their margins and profits fall. That is why bankruptcies and foreclosures have skyrocketed.
The impact of inflation is especially negative on the most disadvantaged citizens, who have a basket in which energy and food weigh much more.
The UN Food Price Index has soared to a decade high and is up 47 percent since June 2020, while natural gas is up 300 percent and oil 60 percent. Industrial businesses are also suffering margin declines, with aluminum prices rising 36 percent and copper prices 20 percent in 2021.
The problem is that this situation can generate a significant problem for the vast majority of the population. That is why it is so urgent that central banks stop the monetary madness and normalize monetary policy. If the monetary excess is maintained with the excuse of “transitory inflation,” we will find ourselves with a problem that took many decades to control: persistent inflation and the risk of stagflation (inflation with economic stagnation).
Those of us who work in the financial sector cannot fall into the perverse incentive of defending inflationism just to scratch another rise in risky assets. Our obligation is to defend monetary sanity and economic progress, not to encourage bubbles. Let’s attack inflationism before it attacks us all.
Author: Daniel Lacalle, PhD, economist and fund manager, is the author of the bestselling books Freedom or Equality (2020),Escape from the Central Bank Trap (2017), The Energy World Is Flat (2015), and Life in the Financial Markets (2014). He is also a professor of global economy at IE Business School in Madrid.
Reprinted with permission of Mises Institute.