Of More Money and Higher Prices

Photo by Shane on Unsplash

We have a new occupant of the Oval Office.  I did not hear his inaugural address, uncertain who would forget it more quickly, myself or its deliverer.  Inaugural addresses are highly forgettable literature, Lincoln’s first and second addresses (the second especially) the only ones that anyone can seem to remember, and worthy they are as exceptions to the genre.

I have been remembering the mountains of money that the government has been spending that it does not have, wondering where it is coming from even more than where it is going.  It is hard to find anyone who can tell you much with certainty about either.  The current attention is more focused on plans to spend yet another two trillion dollars that the government does not have on things that are not very clearly explained.  This would be on top of the most recent trillion dollars approved by Congress drawn from an empty well to be spent watering many a hidden garden.

I can understand the first round or two of multi-trillion dollar government expenditures.  Since government caused the collapse of a strongly growing economy by shutting down commerce and locking up the population, a strong argument can be made that paying these victims is not exactly a bailout as it is compensation.  To quote Will Rogers, if Stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out? 

A serious problem seems to be that once you get into the game of paying people more to stay at home than they can earn on the job, how do you bring the game to an end.  The plan of the new Oval Office occupant seems to be to go into extra innings but continue serving spiritous refreshments well past the seventh inning.  How will the people get home safely once the game is over?

The classic formula for inflation is to have too much money chasing too few goods and services.  The kindling for a roaring inflation would appear to be carefully set. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been dramatically expanding the money supply, with the Federal Reserve supporting the market for the government’s electronic debt (not much money is printed on paper anymore) by purchasing gobs of Treasury securities from banks, paying the banks with electronic credits on their accounts held at the Federal Reserve, which the banks cannot find much to do with.  At the same time, many governors continue to issue orders to suppress the supply of goods and services.  As Elon Musk reportedly said last year, if you don’t make stuff, there is no stuff.

If this worry is well-founded, then why have we not yet seen any inflation, government spending surges and the Great Cessation having been Federal and State policies for nearly a year?  A very good question, the answer to which may be found in the savings rate.  While a lot of electronic money has been going into people’s bank accounts, people have been shy about spending it.  The personal savings rate jumped in 2020 from about 7% to nearly 35%.  Worried people hoard more than toilet paper.  And a lot of things that people might spend money on, such as travel, suddenly were not available.  I was surprised last year when our car insurance company sent us a rebate:  insurance losses were down because people were traveling less.

The roads are a bit more congested these days, and the economy is showing strong signs of trying to recover.  Even the savings rate is coming down, dropping to about 13% as 2020 approached its close.  More activity is good, but what is the Federal Reserve going to do if more people spend more savings faster than more goods and services are provided?  How will the Federal Reserve respond to another couple trillion dollars of deficit spending to stimulate an economy that is already on a recovery trajectory and families continue draining their savings?  They could allow interest rates to rise, to encourage people to keep some of their money in savings accounts that have paid less than a penny a year per dollar saved.  Recent Federal Reserve comments, though, declare that is not on the table.

In the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was president, economists invented the term “stagflation,” as inflation was high and the economy was in the doldrums.  Joe Biden was a relatively new Senator back then.  Maybe he will remember those days.  That economic pattern served no one well.

About Wayne Abernathy
I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am the husband of one wife, the father of 5 children, and grandfather of 15 (and counting). In my career I have served on the staff of the U.S. Senate for some 20 years, including as staff director of the Senate Banking Committee. For just over 2 years I was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions. Just recently, I retired from the American Bankers Association, where for 15 years I was an Executive Vice President, for financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs. I am most comfortable at home, where I like to read and write.

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