Of Inflation and Borrowing

Photo by Mar Cerdeira on Unsplash

Inflation is good for borrowers?  Really?  So some say.  The case goes like this:  when the borrower receives his loan for so much, he promises to pay it back with money that would buy so much, but after inflation the money he uses to repay the loan will buy less.  He repays with cheaper money.  The lender gets his money back, but it is worth less than it was when he lent it.  Hold that thought, because that is the weakness in the case.

This inflation “benefit” may work for borrowers who already have loans, with a fixed rate that they can handle.  For all others, however, inflation raises the costs of everything, including borrowing.  How long will lenders be willing to lose value in the loans they make?

Think of it this way.  Does inflation work for people who sell things?  Maybe for their current supply, but their new supply will cost them more, eating into what they earn and raising the cost of what they try to sell to the next potential buyer.  The same reality is true for people who “sell” money, which is what lenders do. 

As we buyers know, inflation does not work well for buyers.  We face ever higher prices for the same things.  The same is true for people who “buy” money, which is what borrowing is.

New borrowers will find interest rates, the price of borrowing, rising with inflation, too.  That could put borrowing out of reach for some, just as it does for buying a house, a car, or work tools.  Businesses that need to roll over their existing loans could find the new loan more expensive, maybe even too expensive.  People who want to refinance their mortgage may find the new rate makes that much less attractive.  Floating rates, like credit card rates, will rise, so the cost of the products charged to the card will not be the only higher costs that card users face.  In short, only some borrowers, a declining some, may benefit from inflation, and only for a time.

Today’s money rests on trust, whether we talk of paper money, coins, or financial accounts.  We sell our time, our goods, our services in exchange for money.  That money is a promise that we can use it in trade with someone else for something of comparable worth.  When we accept money in payment, we in turn are making a loan to someone who has already received our goods, or services, or time.  All we got was a promise, which we trust we can exchange with someone else.  Inflation undermines that trust.  We receive a $100 payment of money which because of inflation may soon buy only what $95 used to buy.

Even governments will face the challenge of higher costs.  Sure, they will be paying back existing government debt with devalued money, but their new borrowings will carry a higher price tag, as will the things that governments buy.  I was going to say, look in the mirror if you want to know who will pay that higher cost of government debt, but if you do, have your children looking with you.

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.

Of Presidents and Training for the Job, 2015

More and more I have been struggling for the words to express my concern over the frightening incompetence of the current President of the United States. Barack Obama’s economic blunders deepened and prolonged the recession and bequeathed to us the most anemic recovery of modern times. Most of us have been seriously harmed by those policies, some more than others. Unfortunately, the extent of his economic errors are obscured by the benighted economic management in Europe, which amazingly is managing even to underperform ours.

President Obama’s politics have yielded the opposite of what he publicly promised: division in place of unity, secrecy and deception in place of open government, exclusion of those who disagree with him in place of inclusive embrace of open debate, privilege for the few in place of opportunity for the many, racial bigotry for political gain in place of a “post racial” society, rule by breaking laws and ignoring the Constitution in place of rule of law. I am sure that you could easily lengthen the list. Again, these perfidies have been to some degree obscured by congressional Democrat leaders far too willing to compromise their duties of office and the rights of the legislative branch of government, all to cover up and support the Obama Administration’s outrages on the nation and the political institutions of the Republic.

Most frightful of all, however, is President Obama’s dangerously bungling foreign policy. No friend of the United States is safe from this Administration’s blunders. Vladimir Putin, the boss of a second rate economic and military power—albeit one with a formidable nuclear arsenal—has been able to engage in 19th Century military adventures of invasion, conquest, and territorial acquisition against little more than vacuous bully talk from Obama, the emptiness of which has produced similarly pitiful responses from the leading Powers of Western Europe, derision from Moscow, and fear among America’s friends only recently escaped from the Soviet Union. China commits aggression against India and the Philippines, threatens Japan, and toys with close relations with Russia to isolate the United States, while openly engaging in cyber attacks on the U.S. government and American industry. Islamist barbarians increasingly brutalize Muslims, Jews, Christians, and humanists alike, undeterred by inchoate responses from Obama, who asserts leadership while failing to lead, other than with his transparent policies of pusillanimity and indecision. American allies in the Middle East feel abandoned or betrayed, while enemies are emboldened; the best counter strategy that Barack Obama is able to envision is a plan that might delay but will not prevent the nuclear arming of the mullahs of Iran—committed to the incineration of Israel, the more Jews killed the better. Each day seems to extend the list of foreign policy failures.

While considering the consequences of an amateur in the Oval Office, I came across a brief note I wrote during the 2008 presidential campaign. It might be immodest for me to point out how correct my warnings proved. I can make no claims to perspicacity, as all of this was rather obvious. No self congratulations are in order. It is too dangerous a world to trust the Presidency of the United States to one whose inexperience is only matched by his hubris. This is what I penned August 25, 2008, just before Barack Obama received the nomination of the Democrats:

There are some jobs you just cannot safely do without proper training and experience. Flying an airplane is one that comes to mind. Driving a bus is another. I would put being President of the United States in the Twenty-First Century on the list, too.

President of the United States was a tough job in the days of George Washington. It was even a challenge in the days of Millard Fillmore. It has not become any easier in recent years, and next year it will be a very big job. Considering the global responsibilities of the United States, with several irresponsible oil-drunk regimes threatening peace and freedom (ours and other’s) around the world, can we afford to enroll our new President in a foreign policy on-the-job-training program?

Economically as well, there is little room for error. So far we have gone through a year and a half of the housing market bust without falling into a recession. But our economic growth is anemic. A small false step or two can put us into a full-blown economic decline, exploding banking and financial markets that will then take years to recover. It is important that economic policy next year be led by someone who understands economic growth and how to promote it. The formula for growth—low taxes and steady prices—is well known to those who have learned the lesson; we do not need a novice who does not have enough experience to know that you cannot tax and spend your way to prosperity. We cannot afford his experiments with our jobs and livelihood.

That is why it is breathtaking that a major political party is on the verge of nominating for President someone so inexperienced as Barack Obama. I am unable to recall a single nominee for President, by any major party, less prepared for the office than Barack Obama. Really, there is the challenge for you. Name a nominee—Republican, Democrat, Whig, Federalist—less prepared than Obama.

Barack Obama likes to liken himself to Abraham Lincoln. I cannot claim to have known Abraham Lincoln or assert that he was a friend of mine, but I do say, Barack Obama is no Abraham Lincoln. Even liberal exaggerations of Obama’s undistinguished career cannot make it compare favorably with the long and grueling life experiences that schooled Lincoln for the White House.

In short, Obama does not have the training for the job. It may be that the Democrats’ talent pool is so thin that he will be nominated. But the job of President is too important—to all of us—to be extended to someone so unready.

Of Presidents and Training for the Job

There are some jobs you just cannot safely do without proper training and experience. Flying an airplane is one that comes to mind. Driving a bus is another. I would put being President of the United States in the Twenty-First Century on the list, too.

President of the United States was a tough job in the days of George Washington. It was even a challenge in the days of Millard Fillmore. It has not become any easier in recent years, and next year it will be a very big job. Considering the global responsibilities of the United States, with several irresponsible oil-drunk regimes threatening peace and freedom (ours and other’s) around the world, can we afford to enroll our new President in a foreign policy on-the-job-training program?

Economically as well, there is little room for error. So far we have gone through a year and a half of the housing market bust without falling into a recession. But our economic growth is anemic. A small false step or two can put us into a full-blown economic decline, exploding banking and financial markets that will then take years to recover. It is important that economic policy next year be led by someone who understands economic growth and how to promote it. The formula for growth—low taxes and steady prices—is well known to those who have learned the lesson; we do not need a novice who does not have enough experience to know that you cannot tax and spend your way to prosperity. We cannot afford his experiments with our jobs and livelihood.

That is why it is breathtaking that a major political party is on the verge of nominating for President someone so inexperienced as Barack Obama. I am unable to recall a single nominee for President, by any major party, less prepared for the office than Barack Obama. Really, there is the challenge for you. Name a nominee—Republican, Democrat, Whig, Federalist—less prepared than Obama.

Barack Obama likes to liken himself to Abraham Lincoln. I cannot claim to have known Abraham Lincoln or assert that he was a friend of mine, but I do say, Barack Obama is no Abraham Lincoln. Even liberal exaggerations of Obama’s undistinguished career cannot make it compare favorably with the long and grueling life experiences that schooled Lincoln for the White House.

In short, Obama does not have the training for the job. It may be that the Democrats’ talent pool is so thin that he will be nominated. But the job of President is too important—to all of us—to be extended to someone so unready.

(First published August 25, 2008)

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