1000% Inflation?

UBS’s Larry Hatheway — who once issued some fairly sane advice when he recommended the purchase of tinned goods and small calibre firearms in the case of a Euro collapse — thinks 1000% inflation could be beneficial:

When 1000% inflation can be desirable

In fact, the costs associated with inflation (price change) are less than commonly supposed. There is the famous “sticker price cost” – the cost of constantly changing price labels – but in a world of electronic displays and web based ordering this is not a serious economic cost (in fact, it never was). To take an extreme position, one can make the economic argument that there are only limited costs in having inflation running at 1000% per year, with one caveat. 1000% inflation is perfectly acceptable, as long as the 1000% inflation rate is stable at 1000%, and it is anticipated. Of course, one can argue that high inflation tends to be associated with high inflation volatility and uncertainty (and that is true empirically), but economically it is the volatility and uncertainty that does most of the damage.

The maximum damage from inflation comes if it is unexpected or if it is unpredictable.Unexpected inflation causes damage, because the investor who holds bonds yielding 1% for a decade is going to feel cheated if inflation turns out to be 1000%. Of course, no one would voluntarily buy 1% yielding bonds if 1000% inflation was expected. Thaler’s Law comes into operation here; people dislike losing money more than they like making money. As a result episodes of unexpected inflation will lead to a significant adverse reaction on the part of consumers.

Unpredictable inflation is damaging because it causes uncertainty over an investment time horizon – and that uncertainty is a risk that will demand a compensating premium. What the inflation uncertainty risk does is raise the real cost of capital. If I think inflation will be 3% but I am not sure whether it will be 3%, 0%, or 6%, I am likely to demand compensation for the 3% inflation risk but then additional compensation for the possibility that the inflation risk is as high as 6%. The additional compensation is an addition to the real cost of capital.

Nope.

This is a fairly typical mistake for an economist. In an imaginary economic model, it is possible to assume that inflation is stable, and that it is predictable, and to draw conclusions based on those (absurd) assumptions. In the real world, inflation and the effects of inflation are never predictable, because human behaviour — the micro-level phenomena on which macro-level phenomena like “inflation” are founded — is never fully predictable or stable. This means that future rates of inflation will always be uncertain, and renders Hatheway’s point meaningless.

As Hatheway readily admits, high inflation is associated in the real world with inflation volatility and uncertainty. It is not relevant to say that the real issue is not the high rate of inflation, because there has not been a single case in history where such a high rate of inflation has resulted in stability or predictability. Getting to a 1000% inflation rate is an inherently volatile path, historically one which has resulted in panics, crashes and breakdowns.

And beyond that, such a path would completely undermine the currency and instruments denominated in the currency as a store of value. There are no empirical examples of such high rates of inflation being tolerated, because at every stage in history such effects have been intolerable; when such rates of inflation set in, nations just end up ditching the currency, as happened most recently in Zimbabwe.

That is why 1000% (or 100%, or 50%, or probably even 10%) inflation will never be “perfectly acceptable”.

About these ads