The price of gold, oil, energy and other hard commodities has risen steadily for more than a decade, and that can only mean one thing: global currencies are weakening and inflation has settled in. The real question, though, is when we’re going to see the serious inflation that economists have been predicting?
To answer that, we’ve got to do some data mining. First: what’s the current inflation rate? According to the U.S. government, it’s a paltry 1.7 percent. Ask anyone who goes grocery shopping or pays household energy bills and they’ll probably shake their heads at that number.
In fact, if we calculate inflation the way the government did in 1989, we’d see inflation’s actually hovering at an annualized rate of 5 percent (per ShadowStats). If we calculated inflation the way our own government did in 1980, we’d see it’s even worse at somewhere north of 8 percent (again per ShadowStats).
Those are scary numbers. And they’re indicative of just how fragile our so-called recovery has been. And yet, most investors – and particularly the media – are happy to get spoon-fed the more palatable modified inflation numbers that get announced every month. It’s just a matter of time before that changes.
When will inflation get worse?
Inflation’s already bad, but it’s probably just a glimmer of how bad it will ultimately get in the U.S. Unfortunately, we don’t have a roadmap that spells out exactly when the bottom will drop out, but we can take educated guesses.
Right now, the U.S. dollar is artificially propped up thanks to the fact that it’s in better shape than some of its neighbors. The EU is worse off than the US, China’s yuan is pegged to the dollar, India’s got official inflation numbers north of 7 percent and inflation’s ravaging South America. Since the U.S. is printing money at will, that gives central banks around the world little incentive not to do the same. In fact, other economies get penalized if their currency stays strong relative to the dollar and Euro because their exports effectively cost more.
That’s created a race among central banks, with each of them trying to devalue their currencies faster than their neighbors.
The U.S. is doing particularly well at devaluing the dollar. Yes, the government can say that unemployment is under 8 percent, and that our budget will be balanced in a decade, but the facts just don’t support those claims. We think we’re insulated from riots, draconian budget cuts and hyperinflation, but I would argue we’re just a black swan away from a bout of hyperinflation in the U.S.
And that black swan would be a sudden rise in interest rates that the government is forced to pay on bonds. At the moment, interest rates on bonds are unnaturally low. That’s thanks to investor uncertainty and the Federal Reserve’s bond buying spree (known as quantitative easing). Yields on bonds are so low they’ve crumpled 50 percent over the past decade and more than 70 percent over the past 20 years.
We truly are at a pivot point. The U.S. debt load threatens to collapse the economy, and if investors lose faith in the U.S. government’s ability to pay back it’s bonds, the U.S. national debt could transform itself from a heavy burden into a crippling death blow. That’s no exaggeration, either. The same thing, in fact, happened in Ireland, Greece and Spain. How? Investors stopped buying bonds and the rates those governments had to pay to borrow cash skyrocketed.
It can’t happen here
Surely Greece is in worse shape than the U.S., right? In fact, the U.S. has surpassed Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio (per GlobalFinance), and Italy’s debt-to-GDP is only about 16 percent higher than the U.S. government’s. Should investors stop buying bonds, the U.S. would have to sell them at ever higher interest rates with each tick up in rates further burdening the ability for our economy to “grow it’s way out” of debt.
Since most of Europe shares a currency in the Euro, countries in the EU don’t have the luxury of cranking up the printing presses at will. The U.S. on the other hand, does, and when investors stop dumping money into U.S. treasuries (which they eventually will), the U.S. will be forced to print money even faster than they are right now.
When that comes, we’ll finally see the rampant inflation that everyone’s afraid.
Will it happen in 2013?
The short answer is, I’m not sure. The long answer is, it’ll probably happen when conditions start improving in Europe. The Euro is in bad shape right now, but the fact that it’s tied together a diverse group of countries means the EU can exert pressure on troubled countries, forcing them to cut their budgets and get on a more sustainable fiscal path.
We can’t say the same thing about the dollar, and that means our government’s going to be reluctant to make the hard cuts it has to make. Without those cuts, the only choice the Fed will have is to print even more than the $85 billion a month that it’s already printing. Once that happens, we’ll really understand what it’s like to live in an economy rampant with inflation – no matter what numbers the government throws at us.
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