Inflation, from Jim Sogi

November 6, 2015 |

 I'm in Ushuaia Terra del Fuego Argentina en route to Antarctica. Argentina is experiencing severe inflation. Some years ago (say mid 2001) the Peso was on par with the dollar. In 2013 it was 8:1. Now it's 12 Peso to the dollar. A hamburger is 85, a beer is 50, a crab dinner is 170. Classic economics defines inflation as higher price goods. However I see 3 different causes of inflation that seem to be different mechanisms and have different results

First is classic. Inflation where demand grows or supply shrinks and price goes up. Second is the situation in Argentina where the Peso devalued due to government default on its international loans The third is the Fed increasing the money supply and causing the oversupply of dollars to (in theory) raise prices. But it doesn't work. The latter two do not seem to either increase demand or relate to supply change. To me they seem to be different mechanisms at work. The problem with increasing money supply is that it doesn't increase demand. Instead the money flows to a bubble. The classical definition of inflation does not accurately describe the latter two mechanisms. Isn't there a better way to describe them?

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

There is no way to separate the causes of an increase in the nominal current selling price of a good or service - let's call it Item X. Is it the result of a decrease in the supply of Item X? Is that decrease the result of sellers actually running short of Item X or are the sellers holding back inventory from the market in anticipation of a future price rise? Or have the suppliers all gotten together somewhere and agreed to form a cartel that will restrict the supply of Item X? Or are the sellers all agreed that the unit of account that prices Item X is now in greater supply? And is the unit of account that prices Item X in greater supply because lenders are offering less restrictive terms for borrowers? Or is it because the government has issued more checks or made more electronic transfers from its central bank account exchangeable on demand for the currency that the Sellers and Buyers of Item X accept as the unit of account?

These are just some of the supply questions that affect pricing; there is an even larger list that can be written about the variability of demand.

The Peso's devaluation relative to the U.S. dollar can be explained quite simply; people holding dollars do not want or need as many pesos as they once did and their counter-parties, the people holding pesos, are now far more eager to swap Argentina's currency for ours. When one then asks why, we are back in the land of multiple explanations: Argentina is not seen as a profitable place for holders of dollars to buy businesses or property, the risks of regulation, currency controls, legislated devaluation and other forms of legal confiscation have increased, etc. etc.

"Inflation" only has a a theological definition; it is part of the modern economists' vocabulary for describing how many monetary angels should be standing on the tope of a GDP pinhead. And like those other now obsolete serious academic questions, it has a very useful purpose; for its presumed answer one must look to the diviners of expectation.

What Samuel Butler wrote as a satire in Erewhon is now how the world worships; we no longer spend much time in the Musical Banks because we all know that the important messages now come from those who sit on the thrones that are Reserved.


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