The global economy is apparently facing a significant problem. Inflation’s gone missing! Central bankers can’t seem to stoke it no matter how deftly they act. Neither lowering interest rates to zero (and less) nor endless amounts of Quantitative Easing (QE) appear to make any difference. This, we’re told, is a problem that is equally as serious as it is perplexing. However, this position puzzles me. What if it’s not inflation that’s lacking, but rather our understanding of it? More importantly, might this disconnect have significant ramifications for investment portfolios?
In my opinion, there are two ways in which inflation is misunderstood. The first stems from misapplying a commodity-based monetary standard practice to a fiat convention. The second potential error is placing too much importance on unit prices as an economic signal. It’s possible, I think, that both had a hand in producing the 40-year secular decline in interest rates.
Inflation Is A Currency Phenomenon
Milton Friedman famously said that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines inflation as “a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services.” Here, we can see that inflation is a relative term. It compares the value of goods and services to money.
While these definitions are commonplace today, they are in fact modern redefinitions. Inflation was first used to describe the value of (paper) currency compared to a monetary standard, not to goods and services. Emperors clipping coins didn’t devalue money per se. The standard, which was typically defined as some unit weight of commodity metal, remained constant. Rather, they merely lessened the monetary value of each coin in circulation. Hence, it took more currency to purchase the same goods and services. The same held true for paper currencies convertible into gold. Lowering exchange rates reduced their purchasing power. This was inflation. To clarify Dr. Friedman’s definition, inflation is not a monetary phenomenon, it’s a currency phenomenon!