All the perplexities, confusions, and distresses in America arise, not from defects in their constitution or confederation, not from a want of honor or virtue, so much as from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.
– John Adams
Have you noticed how everything seems to be getting more expensive? It’s not just happening in your head. It’s true. Everything costs more money these days. In fact, inflation is—according to official numbers—at a 13-year high. This means it is even worse than after the great financial crisis of 2008. And those numbers don’t even include food and energy prices, two of the most significant areas of increase.
It’s no wonder this is happening. As a recent Deutsche Bank report ominously put it: “US macro policy and, indeed, the very role of government in the economy, is undergoing its biggest shift in direction in 40 years. In turn we are concerned that it will bring about uncomfortable levels of inflation.”
John Adams was right –most people are not aware of how money is actually produced and how producing too much of it can lead to inflation. The short version of how money is produced is this: out of nowhere. The Federal Reserve literally creates it out of thin air, as recently explained on 60 minutes by Federal Research Chairman Jerome Powell.
But producing too much money can create very serious problems for the economy. When the money supply increases, that means the value of each individual dollar necessarily decreases, and more dollars are required to purchase the same goods and services. That’s what is called inflation, and inflation dramatically erodes the financial wellbeing of individuals and companies who find they can buy less and less with the same amount of money. Inflation becomes an even bigger challenge if it is the result of the Federal Reserve hastily creating more and more money, or if it is the result of the economy not growing as fast as the money supply, which is the case now. And that’s putting it mildly.
Inflation concerns first began to appear at the end of 2019 after the Fed intervened to prop up the troubled “repo” market (temporary loans between financial institutions). But then COVID-19 hit, and the Fed massively increased the money supply to fund historic amounts of government spending and debt to combat the virus.
To get a better sense of the scale of the inflation we are currently facing we need to look at the M1, M2, and M3 numbers that the Federal Reserve uses to measure the money supply. For example, it is extremely revealing to simply look at what is called the M1 Money Stock, which refers to physical currency and checkable bank deposits. The same is true of M2 and M3. While the shocking increase in the money supply is most evident in the M1 graph, M2 and M3 also show that last year, the supply of U.S. dollars went up like a rocket ship compared to the past 50 years. We are in truly unprecedented territory.
Perhaps the biggest increase in inflation has taken place in housing, a major component of many Americans’ net worth. The Case-Schiller Price Index indicates that home prices have gone up more than 13% since last year.
Inflation is making it especially difficult for Millennials to buy homes. According to a recent report, right at the moment that many Millennials were attempting to become homeowners, the price of a new home has increased by more than $35,000 in the past year alone, in part due to COVID-19 restrictions on lumber production. Overall lumber prices have jumped by nearly 200% since April 2020.
Yet the lumber shortage has only exacerbated the housing crisis. Freddie Mac estimates that the U.S. is short 3.8 million homes, pushing the American Dream further out of reach for young families. Just as Millennials were beginning to recover from the first economic crisis of the 21st century, they got hit with another.
Housing inflation is particularly difficult for the average American who rents or is seeking to buy a home, because housing isn’t an optional expense, unlike that optional road trip or Hawaiian vacation.
The same story is happening with gasoline, which has gone from an average of $2 per gallon to $3 per gallon since last year—a 50% increase.
All the while, as our national debt edges closer and closer to $30 trillion, we’re engaging in record government spending, and our birthrate is dropping to historic lows, which will only exacerbate the long-term solvency of our entitlement programs as relatively fewer people pay into them.
The problem of inflation isn’t going away, and it reveals a great deal about the financial challenges we will be facing as a nation into the foreseeable future.
Hard choices will be required. Will our leaders rise to the challenge?
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