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By George P. Brockway, originally published February 6, 1989

1989-2-6 The Truth About InflationTitle

1989-2-6 The Truth About Inflation Dollar Sign

THERE ARE supposed to be two kinds of inflation, cost-push and demand-pull.  A benevolent

Providence is supposed to have provided them with the same cure: raising the interest rate or – if you prefer to do things indirectly – restricting the money supply. Last time out (“Bankers Have the Classic COLA,”NL, January 9), we looked at the panacea macro-economically and came up with the heretical conclusion that it caused inflation, rather than cured it. This should have occasioned no surprise, since medicine is a lot older than economics, and it was not until about a hundred years ago that your odds were better if you consulted a doctor than if you didn’t. Neoclassical economics has about caught up with Paracelsus.

The interest-rate panacea is, nevertheless, so solidly fixed in everyone’s pharmacopoeia that we’d better look at it micro-economically to try to discover its supposed merits. I should confess, at the outset, though, that having once met a payroll, as they used to say, I can’t imagine how raising the interest rate is expected to inhibit or prevent businesses from raising prices in response to the increased cost.

Every business must have money, and it therefore has to consider the cost of money, which is interest, whether it is a borrower or not. If it needs to borrow, interest is obviously a cost of doing business. If it is cash rich and doesn’t need to borrow, interest is an opportunity cost. By investing in its own business, it passes up the opportunity of lending its money to someone else and thereby earning the going rate of interest without working; so unless its own business can earn at least that much, it’s not worth continuing.

Interest is thus an inescapable element in doing business, and hardly a trivial one. Moreover, raising the rate not only affects every business, it does so geometrically. An increase in the interest rate is continuously compounded; the push is to an upward slope that becomes steadily steeper. Consequently, if the problem is cost-push inflation, upping the rate makes it worse.

In contrast, an increase in the price of oil is a one-time affair: It pushes most costs (not all, but most) up to a higher plateau, because oil is essential for the contemporary economy. At any given moment – now, for example – a certain quantity of it is used in myriad ways. At another moment – tomorrow, for example – the price may be doubled, thus doubling the economy’s outlay for oil and of course the percentage of total costs devoted to it. Producers, faced with the new cost, will raise their prices. They could maintain their profits if they just covered the increased cost of oil. In all probability, however, they will have been brought up to set their prices as a percentage markup on costs, and workers will have been brought up to expect their wages to be a certain percentage of costs.

Whether or not the new prices are enough to restore the balance among the factors of industry, they pretty quick-1yr each a new level and settle down there. Some industries and companies and workers may make out better than others, especially in the short run, yet by and large business soon goes on about as before. Prices are somewhat higher, to the detriment of people living on fixed incomes and of people who have lent money-and to the benefit of people who have borrowed money. But there is no reason for prices to rise above the new plateau unless the interest rate is tampered with.

When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) made its successful moves, the Federal Reserve Board characteristically reacted in precisely the wrong way. OPEC raised costs for almost all businesses, and they now needed more money to continue. The Reserve Board perversely tightened the money supply, hiking the interest rate. I suppose they thought that by hurting business they would reduce the need for oil and OPEC would then be forced to lower the price. If so, they forgot that we had, as Art Buchwald wrote, encouraged the sheiks to send their sons to Harvard Business School rather than to Bowling Green State to learn basketball. At any rate, OPEC’S response was the standard one of a modem business faced with falling demand. Instead of cutting the price (as a neoclassical economist would have done), they cut production (as a modern businessman would do).

To be sure, the Reserve Board did manage to induce a recession, and that did, after eight years of trying, eventually result in an oil glut and lower oil prices. Just as in Vietnam some of our more thoughtful military leaders occasionally destroyed a village in order to save it, the Reserve Board caused massive unemployment, widespread bankruptcies, a growing Federal deficit, disaster in Latin America and the Third World, and a loss of much of our overseas business – all in the effort to control the price of oil. It was not a rational trade-off; and micro-economically the fact remains that raising the cost of any of the factors of production, of which interest is one, is not the way to inhibit cost-push inflation.

Demand-pull inflation is described by the popular cliché of too much money chasing too few goods. What is in the back of everyone’s mind is either an auction where millions of dollars are unexpectedly bid for a painting, or the hyperinflation that occurred in Weimar Germany, or the bread riots of pre-Revolutionary France. Briefly let us note that modern business is nothing like an auction, that hyperinflation occurs only when a nation has un-payable debts denominated in a foreign currency, and that the failure of the bread supply caused, not general inflation, but a deflation of all other prices as desperate people sold whatever they could at distress prices in order to pay for bread.

Putting to one side the probability that there is no such thing as demand pull inflation, we may doubt whether raising the interest rate will prevent too much money from chasing too few goods. A high interest rate no doubt chills the ardor of borrowers and thus may be thought to hold down the amount of money in circulation. Not all borrowers, however, are chilled equally. Speculators find high rates stimulating. Of course, money that goes into speculating doesn’t go into consuming; it chases paper, not goods; as far as consumption (or production, for that matter) is concerned, it might as well not exist.

Consumers, for reasons thought important by Professor Franco Modigliani and others, are said to try to maintain their accustomed or desired standard of living. They will shoulder heavy debts at usurious rates to do so. Hence their readiness to assume mortgages at more than double the maximum legal interest rate of a few years ago; hence the cavalier expansion of credit-card borrowing; and hence the failure of high interest rates to impede the chase for goods. In fact, because high interest rates have proved acceptable to consumers, the consumer loan business, once left to frowned-upon outsiders, has become attractive to banks-with the paradoxical probability that high rates have resulted in more money chasing goods, not less.

The famed bottom line, on the other hand, forces a more circumspect demeanor on businesses; few of them find it profitable to expand when the cost of financing is well up in the double-digit range. Many find it impossible to go on (right now, in this supposedly prosperous time, corporations are going bankrupt at a greater rate than at any time since the Great Depression). So high interest rates, while having only a minor effect on demand, have a major effect on supply. Whether or not there is more money in the chase, there are fewer goods in the running. To put it more generally, there are fewer goods than there might have been otherwise.

OUR HALF-CENTURY-LONG preoccupation with inflation is a sign of a profound confusion of American-even of global mind and will. Since World War II, inflation has been regarded as a pandemic disease, and a panacea has been sought. But social ills are specific, not universal, and corrective policies must be similarly specific.

If inflation were all prices going up together, a few people would be befuddled, but no one would be hurt much. As early as David Hume it was recognized that moderately rising prices stimulate the vital juices of entrepreneurs. As recently as the current “prosperity” it has been evident that business can readily accommodate itself to pretty steep inflation if it is fairly steady.

The trouble is that even moderately rising prices can be devastating to people living on fixed incomes, because they have no way of protecting themselves. This is a specific ill (there are others). Specific treatments are available, and some of them have been successfully applied. In 1966 Medicare began to protect the aged from one of the most crushing burdens of old age, and at the same time to provide millions with health care that otherwise would have been denied them. Since 1972 the Social Security COLAS have done much to prevent many of the retired from falling into poverty.

Some now say that the aged have it too good. This is a dubious proposition, but it is not to the point. The point is that the mentioned policies have had an effect. A specific ill was perceived, a specific treatment was devised, specific cures were effected, the cures may be judged, and specific improvements in them can be made. In contrast, the conventional theory of inflation that regards it as a pandemic ailment can propose only the panacea of a growing underclass of the chronically unemployed, and a narrowing overclass of those who have been able to make the Bankers’ COLA work for them.

Because interest payments are made pursuant to contract and continue years, often decades, into the future, the heavy hand of the Bankers’ COLA will be upon us, no matter what we do, for years to come. In the meantime our urgent task is to free ourselves, our politicians and our bankers from thralldom to the most dismal view of this dismal science.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 9, 1989[1]

1989-1-9 Bankers Have The Classic Cola Title

IN “The Fear of Full Employment” (NL, October 31, ’88) we examined some of the fallacies behind the almost universally held doctrine that full employment makes for high inflation. This time we’ll look at another almost universally held doctrine, namely that raising the interest rate is the cure for whatever inflation exists. An astonishing thing about the latter doctrine is that no one bothers to say why it should work. The New York Times, which never mentions the prime interest rate without pedantically explaining that it is the rate banks charge their most credit-worthy borrowers, regularly reports without question that if the Consumer Price Index (CPI) starts to rise, the Federal Reserve Board will have to raise the interest rate.

Economists divide what they call the nominal or “money” interest rate (which is what you pay) into two parts: “real” interest (what they think you’d pay if the economy were in equilibrium) and an allowance for inflation. The allowance for inflation is what in other sectors of the economy is called a Cost of Living Adjustment, or COLA. People with money to spare are said to be enticed into lending by the prospect of getting back their money at a stated time with stated interest. What they want back is not the money, but the money’s purchasing power; and in inflationary times the only way to get back the same purchasing power is to get back more money. Hence the Bankers’ COLA.

Of course, bankers don’t call it a COLA. They have, in fact, been unremitting in propagandizing the notion that COLAS are bad and greedy and inflationary and likely to cause the downfall of the Republic. The COLAS bankers talk about are those that appear (or used to) in labor contracts, where they are manifestly an increased cost of doing business for companies with such contracts, and those that appear in Social Security and other pension payments, where they are manifestly an increased cost of running the government. (Another COLA, seldom mentioned, is the indexing of the income tax.) Since increased costs of doing business increase prices, and increased costs of running the government increase taxes (or the deficit), it is argued with some reason that COLAS are inflationary.

The propaganda against them (coupled with high unemployment and underemployment) has pretty well knocked cost-of-living clauses out of labor contracts. The Social Security COLAS are somewhat more secure because there are more worried senior citizens than alert union members. Even so, the steady cacophony from Peter Peterson and other investment bankers (when they take time off from promoting leveraged buyouts, which they evidently don’t think inflationary) has put the American Association of Retired Persons on the defensive. The Bankers’ COLA, however, is accepted as a natural law and discussed matter-of-factly in the textbooks, while the others are deplored as the work of greedy special interests out to line their own pockets at the expense of the nation and its God-fearing citizens.

One way of stating the Banker’s COLA is that it is the difference between the interest rate now and that of some earlier, less inflationary time. The prime rate at the moment is 10.5 per cent, and may have gone higher by the time this appears. In the 4O-oddyears since the end of WorId War II, there is one stretch, from 1959 through 1965, when the CPI and the prime were both substantially stable. In those seven years the CPI varied from 0.8 per cent to 1.7 per cent, and the prime from 4.48 per cent to 4.82 per cent. (Readers with a political turn of mind will note that the Presidents in this period were a Republican and two Democrats- Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.). The Bankers’ COLA was evidently no more than 1.7 in those years, and the “real” interest rate was somewhere between 3.5 per cent and 4.5 per cent.

Let’s accept the higher figure, even though it is substantially higher than, for example, the rate in the years when the foundations of the modern economy were laid. Subtracting 4.5 per cent “real” interest from the current prime, we determine that the current Bankers’ COLA is, conservatively, 6 per cent.

But only about a tenth of outstanding loans were written in the past year, and many go back 25-30 years. Over the past 10 years the CPI has increased an average of 6.01 per cent a year. That is remarkably (and coincidentally) close to our estimate of the current Bankers’ COLA.  The average gets higher as we go back 15 and 20 years, and falls slightly if we go back 25 years. Consequently if the Bankers’ COLA has been doing what it’s supposed to do, we are not overstating the case in saying that today it is running at about 6 per cent.

Now, the present outstanding debt of domestic  non-financial sectors is about $8,300 billion. This figure includes everything from the Federal debt to the charge you got hit with when you didn’t pay your bank’s credit card on time; excluded are the debts banks owe each other and, for some reason, charges on your nonbank credit card. The cost of the Bankers’ COLA for this year therefore comes to about $498 billion (6 per cent of $8,300 billion).

As the late Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen would have said, we’re talking about real money. Let’s try to put it in perspective. At the moment the CPI is said to be about 4.5 per cent (less, you will have noticed, than the Bankers’ COLA, because bankers expect inflation to get worse). Since the GNP is currently about $4,500 billion, inflation is currently costing us 4.5 per cent of that, or $202.5 billion. The Bankers’ COLA is thus costing us almost two and a half times as much as the inflation it is claimed to offset.

So we come to Brockway’s Law No. 1: Given the fact that outstanding indebtedness is greater than GNP (as is always the case, in good years and bad), the Bankers’ COLA costs more than the total cost of inflation, at whatever rate.

Another comparison: The Bankers’ COLA costs close to three times as much as the Federal deficit the bankers moan about. (If there were no Bankers’ COLA, we’d be running a surplus, not a deficit.)

Also: The Bankers’ COLA costs many times more than all the other COLAS put together, and about 50 times – repeat 50 times – more than the Social Security COLA that so exercises investment banker Peter Peterson. (If there were no Bankers’ COLA, none of the other COLAS would exist, because the cost of living would not be going up.)

Also: The Bankers’ COLA costs more than giving every working man and woman in the land, from part-time office boy to CEO, a 10 per cent raise. (So much for the fear of full employment.)

SINCE THE Bankers’ COLA costs the economy more than inflation does, without it there would in effect be no inflation. Other things being equal, there would actually be deflation. And of course very great changes would follow if so large a factor as the Bankers’ COLA were eliminated. Reducing the interest rate to its “real” level would quickly and powerfully stimulate investment in productive enterprise, with a consequent growth in employment. It would trigger a one-time surge in the stock and bond markets, followed by a gradual tapering off of speculation.

1989-1-9 Bankers Have The Classic Cola Factory

As matters stand now, the Bankers’ COLA is an incubus of terrible weight depressing the economy. That this is so is revealed by the statistics whose subject is people rather than things. The standard of living of the median family is falling, even with two earners per family much more common than formerly. The number of people living in poverty is growing, and within that group the number of those who work full time yet are poverty stricken is growing still faster. The rate of unemployment – even counting part-timers as fully employed, and not counting at all those too discouraged to keep looking for work – would have been shocking a few years ago. These are signs of recession, of bad times.

The interest cost is the only one that has a general effect on the economy. We used to hear a lot about the wage price spiral, but a wage increase in the automobile industry (for many years the pundits’ whipping boy) works its way through the economy slowly and uncertainly. Initially it affects only the price of automobiles, and it never brings about a uniform wage scale. Wages of grocery clerks remain low, and all wages in Mississippi remain low. A boost in the prime rate of a prominent bank, on the other hand, immediately affects the rates charged by every bank in the country; and while it is possible for borrowers to shop around a bit for a loan, they find that rates vary within a very narrow range.

More important, interest costs affect all prices, because all businesses must have money, even if they don’t have to borrow it, and the cost of money is interest.

Vastly more important, the Bankers’ COLA is a forecast, a prediction, a prophecy. The figures we have been working with are from the past, but bankers – including, especially, those who make up the Federal Reserve Board – set rates that will have to be paid decades into the future. Well into the 21st century, for instance, we will be paying up to 15.75 per cent interest on a trillion dollars’ worth of Treasury bonds sold in the wonder-working days of former Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker.

So we come to Brockway’s Law No. 2: Raising the interest rate doesn’t cure inflation; it causes it.

The New Leader

[1] Editor’s Note:  For those who are too young or forget the Coca Cola company came out with the “New Coke” in 1985, and it bombed.  Under-duress they kept the New Coke on the market, for a while, and re-issued the product people wanted to buy as Coca-Cola Classic, or the “Classic Cola.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca_Cola_Classic. Thus the gentle wit of the title of this article.

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