BIS explains the path to hyperinflation

“But then finally the masses wake up. They become suddenly aware of the fact that inflation is a deliberate policy and will go on endlessly. A breakdown occurs. The crack-up boom appears. Everybody is anxious to swap his money against “real” goods, no matter whether he needs them or not, no matter how much money he has to pay for them. Within a very short time, within a few weeks or even days, the things which were used as money are no longer used as media of exchange. They become scrap paper. Nobody wants to give away anything against them.

It was this that happened with the Continental currency in America in 1781, with the French mandats territoriaux in 1796, and with the German Mark in 1923. It will happen again whenever the same conditions appear. If a thing has to be used as a medium of exchange, public opinion must not believe that the quantity of this thing will increase beyond all bounds. Inflation is a policy that cannot last.”

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (chapter XVII)

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in March 2010 published a working paper entitled ”The future of public debt: prospects and implications.” From the abstract:

“Since the start of the financial crisis, industrial country public debt levels have increased dramatically. And they are set to continue rising for the foreseeable future. A number of countries face the prospect of large and rising future costs related to the ageing of their populations. In this paper, we examine what current fiscal policy and expected future age-related spending imply for the path of debt/GDP ratios over the next several decades. Our projections of public debt ratios lead us to conclude that the path pursued by fiscal authorities in a number of industrial countries is unsustainable. Drastic measures are necessary to check the rapid growth of current and future liabilities of governments and reduce their adverse consequences for long-term growth and monetary stability.” [HA emphasis]

Their conclusion:

“Our examination of the future of public debt leads us to several important conclusions. First, fiscal problems confronting industrial economies are bigger than suggested by official debt figures that show the implications of the financial crisis and recession for fiscal balances. As frightening as it is to consider public debt increasing to more than 100% of GDP, an even greater danger arises from a rapidly ageing population. The related unfunded liabilities are large and growing, and should be a central part of today’s long-term fiscal planning.

It is essential that governments not be lulled into complacency by the ease with which they have financed their deficits thus far. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the path of future output is likely to be permanently below where we thought it would be just several years ago. As a result, government revenues will be lower and expenditures higher, making consolidation even more difficult. But, unless action is taken to place fiscal policy on a sustainable footing, these costs could easily rise sharply and suddenly.

Second, large public debts have significant financial and real consequences. The recent sharp rise in risk premia on long-term bonds issued by several industrial countries suggests that markets no longer consider sovereign debt low-risk. The limited evidence we have suggests default risk premia move up with debt levels and down with the revenue share of GDP as well as the availability of private saving. Countries with a relatively weak fiscal system and a high degree of dependence on foreign investors to finance their deficits generally face larger spreads on their debts. This market differentiation is a positive feature of the financial system, but it could force governments with weak fiscal systems to return to fiscal rectitude sooner than they might like or hope.

Third, we note the risk that persistently high levels of public debt will drive down capital accumulation, productivity growth and long-term potential growth. Although we do not provide direct evidence of this, a recent study suggests that there may be non-linear effects of public debt on growth, with adverse output effects tending to rise as the debt/GDP ratio approaches the 100% limit (Reinhart and Rogoff (2009b)).

Finally, looming long-term fiscal imbalances pose significant risk to the prospects for future monetary stability. We describe two channels through which unstable debt dynamics could lead to higher inflation: direct debt monetisation, and the temptation to reduce the real value of government debt through higher inflation. Given the current institutional setting of monetary policy, both risks are clearly limited, at least for now.

How to tackle these fiscal dangers without seriously jeopardising the incipient recovery is the key challenge facing policymakers today. Although we do not offer advice on how to go about this, we believe that any fiscal consolidation plan should include credible measures to reduce future unfunded liabilities. Announcements of changes in these programmes would allow authorities to wait until the recovery from the crisis is assured before reducing discretionary spending and improving the short-term fiscal position. An important aspect of measures to tackle future liabilities is that any potential adverse impact on today’s saving behaviour be minimised. From this point of view, a decision to raise the retirement age appears a better measure than a future cut in benefits or an increase in taxes. Indeed, it may even lead to an increase in consumption (see eg Barrell et al (2009) for an analysis applied to the United Kingdom).” [HA emphasis]

We have argued again and again that governments will always tend to resort to the soft political choice, the one which brings about the least resistance and upheaval from voters. As a result, and because voters don’t understand the implications, unfunded liabilities will not be reduced before it becomes impossible to fund. Benefits will only be reduced once the market removes governments’ very own funding tool – the printing press – which will happen when the crack-up boom strikes and all confidence is lost in the credibility of a central bank and its currency. Throughout history, this is always the event that triggers a hyperinflation, nothing else. At this point it is already too late, and the public has cottoned on to the governments’ counterfeiting scheme, meaning monetary and fiscal tightening will not stop the crack-up (hyperinflation).

It is unlikely that the retirement age will be increased throughout the Western world, for of course this would further pressure the unemployment rate as more workers remain in the job market. If you’re interested in reading more about the crack-up boom during the Weimar hyperinflation, and particularly the social implications of such a disastrous event, review this article by Tim Price, the director of investment at PFP Wealth Investment, dated March 2010. It really is worth a read, if even only for the intro paragraph.

Tim Price: Crack-Up

For those interested in reading the BIS paper:

BIS Working Paper: The future of public debt: prospects and implications

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