Hyperinflation Gurus Are Just Plain Wrong

06/24/2010 3:30 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Howard Gold

Founder & President, GoldenEgg Investing

Howard Gold is on vacation, so we’re reprinting a slightly updated version of a column that originally ran last December.

Gold is hitting all-time highs, and although the US economy is still struggling with 9%+ unemployment, deeply indebted consumers, and millions of homeowners under water on their mortgages, many investors are worried about the return of that old bugaboo from the 1970s, inflation.

But some well-known investment gurus go further still: They say the US is on the brink of hyperinflation, out-of-control price increases of astonishing magnitude.

Why? To solve the financial crisis, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has driven interest rates to zero and spent trillions of dollars to buy mortgages and other debt. That, and the growing US deficit, will force the Fed to run the printing presses all out, leading prices to spiral out of control. Just like in Weimar Germany. Or Zimbabwe.

The proponents of this view include Peter Schiff of EuroPacific Capital (and a candidate for the US Senate in Connecticut) and Marc Faber, editor of the Gloom Boom & Doom Report.

They have been dead right about some things—the rise of emerging markets, the US housing and debt bubble, and the commodities boom.

But about this, they are just about as wrong as can be.

Not that there won’t be inflation—I think that’s coming, although not until we see more signs of life in the economy.

But hyperinflation? Here’s what Dr. Faber told me in a video interview last October at The World MoneyShow London, where he was a keynote speaker:

“When the economy goes into recession, you have larger government spending and larger deficits,…and that gets bigger and bigger, and combined with expansionary monetary policy,…it’s usually a recipe in the long run for inflation.”

“Eventually,” he continued, “the problems will be larger and larger and the stimulus won’t work. Germany post-First World War didn’t have any inflation in 1918, in 1919 a little, and by 1923 it had hyperinflation. It happens very quickly.”

Yes, it does—but very rarely. Professor Steve H. Hanke of Johns Hopkins University has studied hyperinflation throughout modern history, starting with the French Revolution, and he documents only 30 instances of it worldwide since then.

What constitutes hyperinflation? An inflation rate of 50%. A month.

The very worst hyperinflations in world history saw inflation of 207% a day in post-World War II Hungary (the monthly figure almost can’t be measured), 79.6 billion percent in Zimbabwe last year, and 313 million percent in Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. The US came close during the Revolutionary and Civil War, but never hit the magic 50% number.

“Hyperinflation is such a rare event, it’s really a hyped kind of thing,” Prof. Hanke told me. “The idea is kind of fantastic and a headline grabber.”

Hanke, who believes we’re entering a period of stagflation similar to the 1970s, points out that the consumer price index rose by more than 10% only three times that decade.

Getting from there to hyperinflation takes a lot more—war, civil strife, weak institutions, and evil or incompetent leaders. It’s not just the volume of money printed but who controls the press.

Next: Weimar Germany, Zimbabwe, and Us

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Post-World War I Germany was a fragile republic that replaced the deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II. 

Fear and hatred ruled the day,” writes University of Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans in his book The Coming of the Third Reich. “Gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres, and civil unrest denied Germans the stability in which a new democratic order could flourish.”

Most importantly, German was forced to pay out onerous reparations to the victorious Allies, along with surrendering chunks of territory. Increased payment demands started the quick descent into hyperinflation, as the government fired up the printing presses to pay out far more than it had.

“In Germany, prices had reached a billion times their prewar level…,” writes Evans. “The descent into chaos—economic, social, political, moral—seemed to be total.”

Only a US-brokered 1923 deal to cut reparations and the introduction of a new currency brought the hyperinflation to an end.

Chaos was the watchword in Zimbabwe, too, a country run by dictator Robert Mugabe. He had expropriated land from white farmers and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a war in Congo, while inflation rose and his people’s standard of living deteriorated.

As prices soared, Zimbabweans abandoned their own currencies for the US dollar and South African rand. The government eventually allowed people to use those currencies, as well as a revalued Zimbabwean dollar, among other measures.

So, really, how can anyone compare the US with these sorry countries? Actually Dr. Faber did. Zimbabwe was “run by a money printer, Mr. Mugabe, a mentor of Mr. Bernanke,” he told a conference in Asia in October.

The Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and other government departments and agencies have indeed set aside up to $9.7 trillion to end the financial crisis and stimulate the economy, Bloomberg News reported earlier this year.

Nearly two-thirds of that money has come in the form of loans and guarantees, however. Many banks that got money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program have paid it back.

Meanwhile, the Fed has stopped buying mortgages—it owns more than $1 trillion worth. Assets held by the Fed total $2 trillion, double what they were before the crisis hit.

The monetary base—total cash and bank reserves in the economy—is nearly $2 trillion. But growth of the broader M2 has plunged to its lowest level since 2003. Late last year it stood at only 4.2x the monetary base, according to Professor Hanke—from nine times before the crisis, he says.

That’s critical, because the velocity of money, not its sheer amount, matters most. “It’s the bang you get for your buck,” says Prof. Hanke. You can have all the dead leaves in the world piled up on your lawn, but you can’t start a fire until you light a match.

As long as lending remains dormant, fears of inflation will remain just that: fears.

As I said, I do expect some inflation down the road. Although I think Ben Bernanke will surprise a lot of people by how quickly he and the Fed raise rates at the first hint of a real recovery, there’s too much money sloshing around to fend off inflation entirely. And future US deficits are a huge wild card.

But hyperinflation? Weimar Germany? Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia? Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? Come on, people, please—get a grip.

Howard R. Gold is executive editor of MoneyShow.com. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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