Monday, February 16, 2009

Preparing for Hyperinflation

Reading the economic commentary, it is clear that the idea of a debt deflation is now reaching general consciousness. But few people have begun thinking about the next phase of the game: bad inflation. So, in my usually position ahead of the curve, I shall begin examining this phenomenon, what it is, why it is, its larger effects, and how to prepare for it.

One of the best things to do in the face of a looming inflation is to get leveraged to the hilt. Take on as much debt as possible. The inflation will make it easier to pay off in the future, but you can use the cash to position yourself now.
If you have the money, becoming a producer/manufacturer would be a good move. As the price of everything, especially everything imported, skyrockets in the inflation, producers/manufacturers will be able to benefit, or at least keep up with, the inflation. In today's asset-deflation, there are many bargains available when looking to purchase plant and capital for a production business.

The worst place to be in an inflation is in a fixed-income position, such as your average white-collar salaried worker. As prices rapidly rise, if your salary is fixed, you are screwed. Your only option if you stay in white collar work will be to continually job-hop, trying to ride the wave of expanding salaries.

Better if you can switch to an independent service business, where you can pass on rising costs to your customers. If you have an independent service, you can also join a barter club, which can maintain services even in cash-uncertain times.

One coping mechanism for the common person is to pick up a trade, especially a repair trade. For one, a skilled trade can be used as a service in a barter economy. For two, skilled repair trades will be more common in the future as the price of goods rises. Cheap foreign goods have wiped out the repair industry in the last 10 years, but when the price of goods rises again, people will once again find it economically useful to repair their old items rather than purchase new ones.

Obviously, get your money out of dollars. It is great time, in our asset deflation, to pick up cheap assets. Timing is difficult here because we have not hit the bottom, and as long as asset prices are still falling, cash is king. I personally think we are much closer to the bottom than to the top, and inflation can already be seen, so buy now.

Any hard asset with consistent long-term value will do the trick. Many recommend gold, and it is hard to argue with the principle, but becoming a trader in actual gold has lots of costs and the market is out of reach for most people. For the common person, you can easily get involved in hoarding more easily/cheaply marketable assets, like guns, ammo, tools, equipment, etc.

As a consumer, you can shield yourself from some of the effects of inflation by joining a barter network or local alternative currency group. These are evolving concerns at this point, so you'll have to do your research.

Some have recommended getting into food production. Prices there are falling, but it stands to reason they will eventually rise in an inflation. Farming, like all capital heavy industries, probably sees some good bargains right now. For the common person, start your own garden to insulate yourself from food shocks. Buying solar panels might be a good idea now too, picking them up on the cheap in the face of rising energy costs.

Next follows a description of a hyperinflation. Enjoy! One of the most surprising/counter-intuitive things I gather from the article is the need to be in cash, early in the hyperinflation, because of the shortage of physical dollars. Very interesting. This certainly jibes with some recent observations about getting deposits out of the banks, because of the rising probability of bank closures.

Hyperinflationary Great Depression

In the United States, the printing presses have not been revved up heavily, yet, but the commitments are in place, as seen in the annual GAAP-based deficit running on average more $4.0 trillion per year. That amount is far beyond the ability of the government to tax or the political willingness of the government to cut entitlement spending. While the inevitable inflationary collapse, based solely on these funding needs, could be pushed well into the next decade, actions already taken likely have set the stage for a much earlier crisis.

The current systemic bailout being worked at all costs by the Federal Reserve and the U.S. government, as well as earlier efforts by the Fed to buy time, have made the circumstance worse. Pushing recent Treasury funding needs on foreign investors — stuck with excess dollars from the ever-expanding U.S. trade deficit — has created a huge dollar overhang in the markets that already has started to crumble. The more the crisis has been pushed into the future, the greater the potential for pending calamity has become.

Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz noted in their classic A Monetary History of the United States that the early stages of the Weimar Republic hyperinflation were accompanied by a huge influx of foreign capital, much as had happened during the U.S. Civil War. The speculative influx of capital into the U.S. at the time of the Civil War inflation helped to stabilize the system, as the recent foreign capital influx to the United States has helped stabilize the equity and credit markets of recent years. Following the Civil War, however, the underlying economy had significant untapped potential and was able to generate strong, real economic activity that covered the spending excesses of the war.

Post-World War I Germany was a different matter, where the country was financially and economically depleted as a penalty for losing the war. Here, after initial benefit, the influx of foreign capital helped to destabilize the system. "As the mark depreciated, foreigners at first were persuaded that it would subsequently appreciate and so bought a large volume of mark assets …" Such boosted the foreign exchange value of the German mark and the value of German assets. "As the German inflation went on, expectations were reversed, the inflow of capital was replaced by an outflow, and the mark depreciated more rapidly … (Friedman p. 76)."

The Weimar circumstance is closer to the current U.S. circumstance, although, in certain aspects, the current situation is worse. Unlike the untapped economic potential of the United States 140 years ago, today’s U.S. economy is languishing in the structural problems of the loss of its manufacturing base and a shift of domestic wealth offshore.

In the early 1920s, foreign investors were not propping up the world’s reserve currency in an effort to prevent a global financial collapse, knowing in advance that they were doomed to take a large hit on their investments in Germany. In today’s environment, both central bank and major private investors know that the dollar is going to be a losing proposition. They either expect and/or hope that they can get out of the dollar in time to lock in their profits, or, primarily in the case of the central banks, that they can forestall the ultimate global economic crisis.

It is this environment that leaves the U.S. dollar open to potentially such a rapid and massive decline, and dumping of U.S. Treasuries, that the Federal Reserve would be forced to monetize significant sums of Treasury debt, triggering the early phases of a monetary inflation. In this environment annual multi-trillion dollar deficits rapidly would feed into a vicious, self-feeding cycle of currency debasement and hyperinflation.

Lack of Physical Cash. The United States in a hyperinflation would experience the quick disappearance of cash as we know it. Shy of the rapid introduction of a new currency and/or the highly problematic adaptation of the current electronic commerce system to new pricing realities, a barter system is the most likely circumstance to evolve for regular commerce. Such would make much of the current electronic commerce system useless and add to what would become an ongoing economic implosion.

Therein lies an early problem for a system headed into hyperinflation: adequate currency. Where the Fed may hold roughly $210 billion in currency (sharply increased in the last year) outside of $50 billion in commercial bank vault cash, the bulk of roughly $780 billion in currency outside the banks is not in the United States. Back in 2000, the Fed estimated that 50% to 70% of U.S. dollar cash was outside the system. That number probably is higher today, with perhaps as little as $200 billion in physical cash in circulation in the United States, or roughly 1.5% of M3.

The rest of the dollars are used elsewhere in the world as a store of wealth, or as an alternate currency free of the woes of unstable domestic financial conditions. In Zimbabwe, for example, where something akin to hyperinflation is underway, U.S. dollars are used to maintain some semblance of economic activity, where wages and salaries seriously lag inflation, and goods often are available only on the black market.

Given the extremely rapid debasement of the larger denomination notes, with limited physical cash in the system, existing currency would disappear quickly as a hyperinflation broke.

For the system to continuing functioning in anything close to a normal manner, the government would have to produce rapidly an extraordinary amount of new cash, and electronic commerce would have to be able to adjust to rapidly changing prices.

In terms of cash, new bills of much higher denominations would be needed, but production lead time is a problem. Conspiracy theories of recent years have suggested the U.S. Government already has printed a new currency of red-colored bills, intended for some dual internal and external U.S. dollar system. If such indeed were the case, then there might be a store of "new dollars" that could be released at a 1-to-1,000,000 ratio, or whatever ratio was needed to make the new currency meaningful, but such would not resolve any long-term problems, unless it were part of an overall restructuring of the domestic and global financial and currency systems.

From a practical standpoint, however, currency would disappear, at least for a period of time in the early period of a hyperinflation.

While I have been advised that a number of businesses have accounting software that can handle any number of digits, I also noted on a recent cross-country trip that a large number of gas stations have older pumps that cannot register more than two digits’ worth of dollars in their totals or more than $9.99 per gallon of gas.

From a practical standpoint, the electronic quasi-cashless society of today also would shut down early in a hyperinflation. Unfortunately, this circumstance rapidly would exacerbate an ongoing economic collapse.

While I have been advised that a number of businesses have accounting software that can handle any number of digits, I also noted on a recent cross-country trip that a large number of gas stations have older pumps that cannot register more than two digits’ worth of dollars in their totals or more than $9.99 per gallon of gas.

From a practical standpoint, the electronic quasi-cashless society of today also would shut down early in a hyperinflation. Unfortunately, this circumstance rapidly would exacerbate an ongoing economic collapse.

Barter System. With standard currency and electronic payment systems non-functional, commerce quickly would devolve into black markets for goods and services and a barter system.

Unlike Zimbabwe, the United States does not have widely available, for circulation, a back-up reserve currency for use in place of a highly-inflated domestic currency. The alternative here is in the traditional monetary precious metals. Gold and silver both are likely to retain real value and would be exchangeable for goods and services. Silver would help provide smaller change for less costly transactions.

Other items that would be highly barterable would include bottles of a good scotch or wine, or canned goods, for example. Similar items that have a long shelf life can be stocked in advance of the problem, and otherwise would be consumable if the terrible inflation never came. Separately, individuals, such as doctors and carpenters, who provide broadly useable services, would have a service to barter.

A note of caution was raised once by one of my old economics professors, who had spent part of his childhood living in a barter economy. He told a story of how his father had traded a shirt for a can of sardines. The father decided to open the can and eat the sardines, but he found the sardines had gone bad. Nonetheless, the canned sardines had taken on a monetary value.

Other Issues. A hyperinflationary depression would be extremely disruptive to the lives, businesses and economic welfare of most individuals. Such severe economic pain could lead to extreme political change and/or civil unrest. What has been discussed here still has not been a comprehensive overview of all possible issues, but rather at least has raised some questions and touched upon some likely consequences. No one can figure out better than you the peculiarities of this circumstance and how you and/or your business might be affected. Using common sense is about the best advice I can give.

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