Amongst other things, inflation is a form of taxation. As prices rise the purchasing power of savings falls. As a consequence, savers are harmed while creditors gain by having to repay their debts with less valuable money than when they originally borrowed.
With this in mind it is troubling that so many within the central banking establishment are currently arguing that what the world needs is higher inflation.
Janet Yellen, President Obama’s nominee to become the new Chair at the Federal Reserve, has long argued that higher inflation is invaluable when the economy is weak. After all, as her reasoning goes, rising prices bring greater profits to businesses. Rising wages help borrowers repay their debts. And let’s not forget that inflation encourages people and businesses to borrow money to spend more than might otherwise be the case.
Harvard economist and co-author of the influential book This Time It’s Different, Kenneth Rogoff, wrote recently that inflation “should be embraced.” He goes on to explain that “moderate” inflation of 4-6% is helpful when “massively over-valued” assets, such as housing, are in danger of deflating. (I have reviewed Rogoff’s arguments in this book in the first issue of Mises Canada’s Journal of Prices and Markets.)
Such views are no longer in the minority. Indeed, a great number of commentators echo the sentiment that higher inflation is needed now more than ever to “save” the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In formulating his business cycle theory that earned him his Nobel Prize in economics, Friedrich Hayek called the effects of inflation “forced savings.” Inflation induces producers to take on investments through capital expenditures that would be inherently less stable than those brought about by voluntary savings. The unsustainable nature of these investments comes from two facts.
First is that as inflation increases nominal profits, businesses are fooled into thinking that their investments are more profitable than in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Indeed, cost-based accounting compounds this problem as depreciation allowances, for example, are based on the historical purchase price of an asset and not the higher replacement cost brought about by inflation. Consequently businesses take on investments that are less profitable on the margin than would be the case lacking inflation.
On the other hand, Hayek focused on the time structure of production. It is insufficient for a business to merely produce the amount of goods demanded by consumers. It must also structure its production processes so that its investment yields a profit at that time when consumers stop saving and start demanding goods. This is important as any production process relies on savings to sustain it until it reaches a point of payoff. This point is identified, in the terms of modern finance, as the moment that the net present value of a project turns from negative (e.g., during the initial investment stage) to positive (e.g., when the fruits of this process generate sales).
Inflation skews the structure of production and induces businesses to take on more time consuming, or roundabout, production techniques. This is so because the net present value of any investment project is interest-rate sensitive. As rates fall, as is the case in the short term in real terms as inflation rises, longer durations until payoff will be profitable compared to a lower interest rate environment.
The forced saving that Hayek focused on was the increased investment brought on by inflationary central bank policies. More to the point, his emphasis was on the fact that the investment would be of the incorrect type. Because it does not coincide with real saving preferences, longer-dated and less profitable investments will be made than would otherwise be the case.
These forced investments are not sustainable because they are inconsistent with underlying preferences. Resulting only from the illusion of profitability that low interest rates bring about, these investments will be liquidated when interest rates rise (as would be the case in the long run as higher inflation pushes up borrowing costs) or as their generally unprofitable nature is exposed.
The concerted effort to increase inflation is the same medicine that caused the current economic malaise. The world is rife with poor investments that were undertaken in the past because of inflation-induced forced saving. As central banks pursued inflationary monetary policies businesses were induced into making investments inconsistent with the sustainable needs of the economy.
Calls for further inflation are akin to demands for higher taxes. As inflation redistributes wealth of savers to investors it favours a spendthrift attitude. This has much in common with the idea that increased taxes to allow governments to continue spending will somehow miraculously cure the economy’s woes.
Unfortunately and similar to all redistribution schemes, the result is tenuous. Just as bloated public sectors are now increasingly seen as the causes of the current crisis in such basket-case countries as Greece, for example, so too should inflationary policies be seen in a similar light. By artificially altering savings preferences, inflationary policies breed the unsustainable situations that we call recessions. To the extent that they cause these problems, economists should not be advocating them as means to exit recessions as well.
David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics, and professor of economics at St. Louis University, at its Madrid Campus, Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada, and winner of the Mises Institute’s Douglas E. French Prize. Send him mail.