Tag: inflation

On the Great Inflation Canard

Charles W. Calomiris and Peter Ireland, two distinguished economists and friends, wrote an edifying piece in The Wall Street Journal on 19 February 2015. That said, their article contains a great inflation canard.

They write that “Fed officials should remind markets that monetary policy takes time to work its way through the economy—what Milton Friedman famously referred to as “long and variable lags”—and on inflation.” That’s now a canard.

For recent evidence, we have to look no further than the price changes that followed the bursting of multiple asset bubbles in 2008. The price changes that occurred in the second half of 2008 were truly breathtaking. The most important price in the world — the U.S. dollar-euro exchange rate — moved from 1.60 to 1.25. Yes, the greenback soared by 28% against the euro in three short months. During that period, gold plunged from $975/oz to $735/oz and crude oil fell from $139/bbl to $67/bbl.

What was most remarkable was the fantastic change in the inflation picture. In the U.S., for example, the year-over-year consumer price index (CPI) was increasing at an alarming 5.6% rate in July 2008. By February 2009, that rate had dropped into negative territory, and by July 2009, the CPI was contracting at a -2.1% rate. This blew a hole in a well-learned dogma: that changes in inflation follow changes in policy, with long and variable lags.

Milton Friedman was certainly correct about the period covered in the classic, which he co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz: A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Recall that the world of that era was one in which the fixed exchange rates ruled the roost. That’s not today’s world. Indeed, many important currencies now float. Since the world adopted a flexible exchange-rate “non-system”, changes in inflation can strike like a lightning bolt.

MENA’s Misery Indices, a Story of Economic Failure

In my misery index, I calculate a ranking for all countries where suitable data exist. The misery index — a simple sum of inflation, lending rates, and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth — is used to construct a ranking for 108 countries. The table below is a sub-index of all Middle East and North African (MENA) countries presented in the world misery index.

A higher score in the misery index means that the country, and its constituents, are more miserable. Indeed, this is a table where you do not want to be first.

Syria and Iran were the most miserable in the region. War and sanctions have taken their toll. Bahrain and Kuwait are at the other end of the spectrum, with low (read: good) misery index scores.

Two points worth noting are somewhat related. First, the majority of countries in MENA have elevated misery index scores – scores above twenty. These poor scores indicate structural problems that require serious economic reforms. The second point, as indicated in the notes to the table, is that the governments in eight MENA countries were not even capable of producing the basic data required to calculate a misery index score. This represents government failure and suggests a lack of capacity to implement structural economic reforms.

Ukraine Hyperinflates

Since the New Year, Ukraine’s currency – the hryvnia – has collapsed, losing 51 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. To put this rout into perspective, consider that the Russian ruble has only lost 8 percent against the greenback during the same period.

Like night follows day, the hryvnia’s meltdown has resulted in a surge of inflation. The last official Ukrainian year-over-year inflation rate is 28.5 percent. This rate was reported for January and is out of date. That said, the official inflation rate has consistently and massively understated Ukraine’s brutal inflation. At present, Ukraine’s implied annual inflation rate is 272 percent. This is the world’s highest inflation rate, well above Venezuela’s 127 percent rate (see the accompanying chart).

When inflation rates are elevated, standard economic theory and reliable empirical techniques allow us to produce accurate inflation estimates. With free market exchange-rate data (usually black-market data), the inflation rate can be calculated. Indeed, the principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable inflation estimate.

To calculate the inflation rate in Ukraine, all that is required is a rather straightforward application of a standard, time-tested economic theory (read: PPP). At present, the black-market UAH/USD exchange rate sits at 33.78. Using this figure and black-market exchange rate data that the Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute for Troubled Currencies Project has collected over the past year, I estimate Ukraine’s current annual inflation rate to be 272 percent – and its monthly inflation rate to be 64.5 percent. This rate exceeds the 50 percent per month threshold required to qualify for hyperinflation. So, if Ukraine sustains its current monthly rate of inflation for several more months, it will enter the record books as the world’s 57th hyperinflation episode. 

Argentina: Down The Tubes, Again

President Christina Fernández de Kirchner has turned up her left-wing rhetoric as the economy goes down the tubes. Indeed, GDP has contracted for the past two quarters; inflation is galloping at 56%, not the official 15.01%; and the country has defaulted on its debt, again. Never mind. The President claims Argentina’s financial system is “one of the most solid in the world.” She asserts that Argentina’s woes can be laid squarely at the feet of foreign “vulture funds” and greedy capitalists who have speculated against the peso. Yes, the peso has lost 42.6% of its value against the U.S. dollar on the black market since the first of the year, and for very legitimate reasons.

But, for realists like me, a fact check is always worth a peso. Recently, Bloomberg’s Charlie Devreux and Pablo Gonzales penned some most edifying reportage on one thing that’s booming in Argentina: criminality. Bandits have put cargos of grain headed for the port of Rosario in their crosshairs. And why not – grain is traded in greenbacks, not pesos.

Property’s worst enemy is theft: theft makes property insecure. And unless property is secure, it can’t be accumulated and it is wasted. The increasing incidence of heists on grain, Argentina’s most valuable export, indicates that property rights are becoming more insecure and that the economy only has one way to go: down the tubes.

Africa: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last week, President Obama hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. He welcomed over 40 African heads of state and their outsized entourages to what was a festive affair. Indeed, even the Ebola virus in West Africa failed to dampen spirits in the nation’s capital. Perhaps it was the billions of dollars in African investment, announced by America’s great private companies, that was so uplifting.

Good cheer was also observed in the advertising departments of major newspapers. Yes, many of the guest countries paid for lengthy advertisements–page turners–in the newspapers of record. That said, the substantive coverage of this gathering was thin. Neither the good, the bad, nor the ugly, received much ink.

What about the good? Private business creates prosperity, and prosperity is literally good for your health. My friend, the late Peter T. Bauer, documented the benefits of private trade in his classic 1954 book West African Trade. In many subsequent studies, Lord Bauer refuted conventional wisdom with detailed case studies and sharp economic reasoning. He concluded that the only precondition for private trade and prosperity to flourish was individual freedom reinforced by security for person and property.

More recently, Ann Bernstein, a South African, makes clear that the establishment and operation of private businesses does a lot of economic good (see: The Case for Business in Developing Countries, 2010). Yes, businesses create jobs, supply goods and services, spread knowledge, pay taxes, and so forth. Alas, in the Leaders Summit reportage that covered the multi-billion dollar investments by the likes of Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford Motor Co., the benefits of the humdrum activity of business and trade were nowhere to be found. But, as they say, “that’s not the president’s thing.”

Let’s move from the good to the bad and the ugly, and focus on the profound misery in Sub-Saharan Africa. I measure misery with a misery index. It is the simple sum of inflation, unemployment, and the bank lending interest rate, minus year on year GDP per capita growth. Using this metric, the countries for Sub-Saharan Africa are ranked in the accompanying table for 2012.

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

Iran, Stable but Miserable

Since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran in August of last year, the economic outlook for Iran has improved. When Rouhani took office, he promised three things: to curb the inflation which had become rampant under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to stabilize Iran’s currency (the Rial), and to start talks to potentially end the sanctions which have battered Iran since 2010. Rouhani has delivered on each of these promises. From this, one might assume that the Iranian economy, and the Iranian people, are headed towards better times.

Unfortunately, the Misery Index paints a different picture. The Misery Index is the sum of the inflation, interest, and unemployment rates, minus the annual percentage change in per capita GDP. It provides a clear picture of the economic conditions facing Iranians.

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