Tag: inflation

The Iran Hyperinflation Fact Sheet

For months, I have been following the collapse of the Iranian rial, tracking black-market (free-market) exchange-rate data from foreign-exchange bazaars in Tehran. Using the most recent data, I now estimate that Iran is experiencing hyperinflation – a price-level increase of over 50%, per month.

In recent days, Iranians have taken to the streets in protest over the collapse of the rial. In response, the Iranian government has cracked down on the protestors and shuttered Tehran’s foreign-exchange black market.  Moreover, it has effectively cut off the supply of reliable economic information. Indeed, the signal-to-noise ratio in the Iranian economic sphere, which is normally quite low, is now even lower than usual.

To address this, I have prepared a fact sheet of the top 10 things you should know about Iran’s hyperinflation.

  1. Iran is experiencing an implied monthly inflation rate of 69.6%.
    • For comparison, in the month before the sanctions took effect (June 2010), the monthly inflation rate was 0.698%.
  2. Iran is experiencing an implied annual inflation rate of 196%.
    • For comparison, in June 2010, the annual (year-over-year) inflation rate was 8.25%.
  3. The current monthly inflation rate implies a price-doubling time of 39.8 days.
  4. The current inflation rate implies an equivalent daily inflation rate of 1.78%.
    • Compare that to the United States, whose annual inflation rate is 1.69%.
  5. Since hyperinflation broke out, Iran’s estimated Hanke Misery Index score has skyrocketed from 106 (September 10th) to 231 (October 2nd).
    • See the accompanying chart.

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  6. Iran is the first country in the Middle East to experience hyperinflation.
  7. Iran’s Hyperinflation is the third hyperinflation episode of the 21st century.
  8. Since the sanctions first took effect, in July 2010, the rial has depreciated by 71.4%.
  9. At the current monthly inflation rate, Iran’s hyperinflation ranks as the 48th worst case of hyperinflation in history.
  10. The Iranian Rial is now the least-valued currency in the world (in nominal terms).
    • In September 2012, the rial passed the Vietnamese dong, which currently has an exchange rate of 20,845 VND/USD.

Hyperinflation Has Arrived In Iran

Since the U.S. and E.U. first enacted sanctions against Iran, in 2010, the value of the Iranian rial (IRR) has plummeted, imposing untold misery on the Iranian people. When a currency collapses, you can be certain that other economic metrics are moving in a negative direction, too. Indeed, using new data from Iran’s foreign-exchange black market, I estimate that Iran’s monthly inflation rate has reached 69.6%. With a monthly inflation rate this high (over 50%), Iran is undoubtedly experiencing hyperinflation.

When President Obama signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, in July 2010, the official Iranian rial-U.S. dollar exchange rate was very close to the black-market rate. But, as the accompanying chart shows, the official and black-market rates have increasingly diverged since July 2010. This decline began to accelerate last month, when Iranians witnessed a dramatic 9.65% drop in the value of the rial, over the course of a single weekend (8-10 September 2012). The free-fall has continued since then. On 2 October 2012, the black-market exchange rate reached 35,000 IRR/USD – a rate which reflects a 65% decline in the rial, relative to the U.S. dollar.

The rial’s death spiral is wiping out the currency’s purchasing power. In consequence, Iran is now experiencing a devastating increase in prices – hyperinflation.  As Nicholas Krus and I document in our recent Cato Working Paper, World Hyperinflations, there have been 57 documented cases of hyperinflation in history, the most recent of which was North Korea’s 2009-11 hyperinflation. That said, North Korea’s hyperinflation did not come close to the magnitudes reached in the recent, second-highest hyperinflation in the world, that of Zimbabwe, in 2008, nor has Iran’s hyperinflation – at least not yet.

North Korea’s Hyperinflation Legacy

North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly met on Tuesday. The failed communist state failed to deliver on its advertised economic reforms. The big change introduced by the all-knowing Assembly was in the area of food and fuel rations. Teachers will have their rations increased. Fine. But, I wonder whose bowl those bumped-up rations will come from. Never mind.

North Korea’s communist economic legacy—in addition to starvation—is hyperinflation. North Korea is one of only 40 countries in the world that have experienced hyperinflation. In our recent Cato Working Paper, Nicholas Krus and I concluded that a North Korean episode of hyperinflation occurred from December 2009 to mid-January 2011, with an estimated peak monthly inflation rate of 496 percent, in March 2010. At this rate, prices were doubling every 14.1 days. Alas, the horrors of hyperinflation will linger, generation after generation. What a legacy.

Paul Krugman’s Distorted Views on Inequality in Latin America

When it comes to discussing Latin America, Paul Krugman has a tortuous relationship with facts. Let’s take a look at a post he wrote last week on inequality in the region. Krugman claims that Latin America’s decline in inequality in the last decade is due to the region “partially turning its back on the Washington Consensus” (a term that has misleadingly become short hand for free market policies). Is that the case?

First, note how the graph in Krugman’s post actually shows inequality going up in Latin America during the 1980s, before the implementation of policies related to the Washington Consensus (which for most countries begins in the early 1990s), and then sharply declining before the arrival of what he calls the “new policy approach” of left-of-center governments. The rise of inequality in Latin America in the 1980s coincides with the periods of hyperinflation that crippled the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, and Bolivia. Central banks in Latin America were all too busy in those years financing the acute fiscal imbalances of their central governments through the emission of money. And Latin American countries were deep in the red precisely because their bloated public sectors became unsustainable, leading to the serious debt crisis of 1982. Thus, it was an inflationary spree, caused by the crisis of big government, that exacerbated inequality in the region. Of course, Krugman fails to mention this.

Can we assign the recent decline in inequality in Latin America to any specific ideology? A recent study by Kenneth Roberts of Cornell University on the politics of inequality in Latin America looked at inequality trends from 2000 to 2010 and found that “countries that experienced net declines in inequality were governed by diverse administrations of the left, centre, and right, including non-leftist governments in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.” According to Roberts, “there was no strict correspondence between declining inequality and either the ideological profile of national governments or any specific set of redistributive initiatives.”

Second, it’s quite a stretch to state that Latin America as a region moved away from the Washington Consensus. I’m not going to dwell here on the virtues of all the policy recommendations identified by John Williamson back in 1989 or discuss the extent to which they were actually implemented by the various Latin American governments. However, even though some countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina have turned their backs on responsible macroeconomic policies in the last few years, most governments in the region, including those called “left of center,” still implement macroeconomic policies related to the Washington Consensus such as freer trade, fiscal and monetary discipline, and attraction of foreign direct investment.

It is telling that despite the serious deterioration in economic freedom in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina economic liberty has actually increased—slightly—in Latin America as a region in the last decade. According to the Economic Freedom of the World , Latin America went from a regional average grade of 6.56 (out of 10) in 2000 to 6.62 in 2009. Implying that Latin America has somehow turned its back on market-friendly policies is misleading.

Third, Krugman looks at the economic performance of Latin American governments based on their ideological affiliation, suggesting that social democratic regimes have a better record than non-left-of-center governments. However, the study on which he bases his post relies too heavily on analyzing governments by their ideological labels, rather than looking at their actual economic policies. This can be very misleading. For example, during the period covered by the study (2000s), Chile is ranked as left of center, even though during that decade the country increased its level of economic freedom, moving up in the ranking of the Economic Freedom of the World index from 28th place in 2000 to 5th in 2009.

Finally, Krugman finished his post questioning Chile’s free market model and private pension system (even though the study he was referencing categorizes Chile as “left of center” and thus credited that ideological camp for Chile’s healthy economic indicators). Krugman doesn’t provide evidence to substantiate his criticism other than making a presumable reference to the recent student protests in Chile. If he looked at the facts, he would see a different picture. He would find that Chile is the country with the most impressive record in poverty reduction in Latin America (the poverty rate fell from 45 percent in the mid-1980s to just 15 percent in 2011), that it has tripled its income per capita since 1990 to $16,000 (the highest in Latin America), and that it is set to become the first developed nation in Latin America within a decade. What is it about this record that Krugman finds so annoying?

Chained CPI: A Stealth Tax Increase

As we close in on congressional votes to increase the federal debt limit, negotiators are coming up with all kinds of ideas to hike taxes. (Suspiciously, they haven’t revealed very many spending cut ideas so far).

One idea being discussed is to raise revenue by reducing the indexing of parameters in the income tax code. Currently, tax brackets and other features of the tax code are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It is widely recognized that the CPI overestimates inflation for various reasons, as discussed here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a more accurate (and lower) measure of inflation, called chained CPI. If the tax code was indexed to chained CPI instead of CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time.

Switching to chained CPI is a very bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would create a large tax increase over the long run. And it would be an invisible annual tax increase on families and voters because there would be no obvious changes in their tax forms.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push families into higher tax brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to increase marginal tax rates slowly and steadily over time.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes families into higher tax brackets over time, which is called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth. The discussion in the Congressional Budget Office’s new long-range budget outlook implies that this will be an important force in raising federal revenues as a share of GDP in coming decades.

So I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to chained CPI: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

Inflation Expert

Who knows more about inflation, Richard Galanti or Ben Bernanke? I maintain that, when it comes to the facts, Mr. Galanti knows more than the Fed chairman. Galanti is the CFO of Costco Wholesale Corp.

The Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday (May 26th) on a conference call with Mr. Galanti. He said “we saw quite a bit of inflationary pricing” in the 3rd quarter.

Price increases occurred in a broad range of products” dry dog food (3.5%). Detergents (10%+), plastic products (8-9%). Costco will “hold prices as long as we can.” When it can no longer, the consumer will face rising prices.

Costco is a good leading indicator of inflation at the retail level. It turns over inventory quickly, and is leading other retailers in restocking at higher prices. Costco offers a forward-looking view of consumer price inflation.

Meanwhile the Fed and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, rely on backward looking measures of inflation, like the CPI. That index, and the “core” component that excludes food and energy prices, overweight the depressed housing sector. And they are yesterday’s news.

For years, American consumers have benefitted from cheap imports from China and India. When those countries liberalized and opened up to global commerce, Americans got the benefit of the hard work and low wages of 2 ½ billion workers. The era of cheap labor is coming to an end, and with it the flood of imports that held down prices in the U.S. Especially in China, wage rates are rising rapidly.

Heretofore, the flood of dollars has chiefly affected asset prices and inflation in other countries. The flow through to U.S. consumer prices will now be quicker. You’ll experience it when you go to Costco to restock.

Is Housing Holding Back Inflation?

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the consumer price index (CPI) numbers for April, which generally gives us the best picture of inflation.  The headline number is that between April 2010 and April 2011, consumer prices increased 3.2 percent, as measured by the CPI.  Obviously this is well above 2 percent, the number Ben Bernanke defines as “price stability.”  Setting aside the reasonableness of that definition, there is definitely some mild inflation in the economy.

Also of interest in the April numbers is that if you subtract housing, which makes up over 40% of the weight of the CPI, then prices increased 4.2 percent — twice Bernanke’s measure of stability.  What has always been problematic of the housing component is that its largest piece is an estimate of what owners would pay themselves if they rented their own residence.  This estimate makes up about a fourth of the CPI.  As the chart below demonstrates, for much of 2010, the direction in this number was actually negative, which held down CPI over the last year.  The current annualized figure for owner’s rent is 0.9 from April 2010 to April 2011.  Oddly enough, this is below the actual increase in rents, which was 1.3.  For most homeowners, the real cost of housing — their mortgage payment — has likely been flat, not decreasing.  So whatever benefit there has been to declining housing costs, most consumers are unlikely to feel any benefit from those declines, if they are actually real.

While the primary driver of CPI has been energy costs, food prices have also garnered considerable attention.  Excluding food from the CPI does not change the headline number, although this is due to the fact that the cost of eating out has been rising considerably slower than the cost of eating at home.  So as along as you’ve been eating out every night, you’ve apparently been fine.  This touches upon what is one of the less recognized features of current inflation trends:  the regressive nature of these prices increases.  If you rent, then you’ve seen costs increase more than if you own.  If you mostly eat at home, then you’ve seen prices increase more than if you dine out a lot.  If you have a lot of leisure time, the you’ve gained by the decrease in reaction prices.  While I don’t think one’s position on inflation should be driven purely by distributional concerns, the fact that working middle-income households have been hit harder by recent inflation trends than higher-income households should cut against the claims that inflation is somehow good for the poor or working class.