Legendary investor Warren Buffett recently admitted that he was wrong on interest rates, noting at the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, “It is so hard for me to believe that you can drop money from a helicopter and not have inflation, but we haven’t.” Many like Mr. Buffet are wondering the same thing. After dire predictions of the coming inflationary tsunami from sound money advocates, where is inflation?
When most people talk about inflation, they mean a general rise in the level of prices, usually measured by the CPI. After bouncing between 1-2% for the last few years, the CPI has recently made a dramatic downturn and has even posted a small negative year-over-year rate for March. But as many of our readers know, the true definition of inflation is literally inflating the money supply – the general rise in prices is merely a symptom or consequence of this.
Using this definition, we see that the money supply is indeed being inflated by a number of measures. The M1 money supply (cash and checking) continues its march upward, still growing around 10% per year; M2 (M1 plus savings deposits) shows similar constant growth, but growing around 6% per year. But if we have established that the money supply is growing, why haven’t general consumer prices risen?
If consumers did receive a “helicopter drop” of money in their front yard, we probably would see an almost immediate increase in prices as they would go out and bid up goods and services with their new money. But the growth in the money supply we have seen is done through a different channel. When the Fed engages in things like QE, it doesn’t send regular citizens a check in the mail; rather, it buys government bonds and lowers interest rates.
So if newly created money is going to financial assets, we would expect to see increases in those assets as well as interest-rate sensitive assets, not in the prices of consumer goods and services that the CPI measures. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we find. Publically traded stock valuations are at all time highs, private company valuations are ballooning, and bonds yields are at record lows with forty-five percent of the world’s government bonds yielding less than one-percent, and many even showing negative yields (which means their prices are at record highs.) When he was chairman, Bernanke noted that higher stock prices will create a “wealth effect” as consumers will be wealthier, helping to increase confidence and therefore spending. Unfortunately, only fifty-five percent of Americans own stocks. As stocks and bond valuations get frothy for the wealthy, we would then expect money to start flowing into other assets to preserve wealth. Art is one example of this, which has recently been on a tear; this past week a Picasso sold for $179 million, a new world record. Real estate is also seeing a boom and price surge in the ultra-luxury markets.
So to see where the inflation is, one only needs to look at where the newly created money is going. Yes, general consumer prices aren’t running away (except for healthcare and tuition expenses, but that’s another topic); however, prices of assets that are affected by QE and low interest rates certainly are. Remember, the CPI didn’t go to the moon during the last housing bubble either, staying around 3% even though house prices and the stock market were bid up.
Finally, it is also helpful to remember the true definition of inflation because today’s definition can mask a lot of small but constant inflation. For example, if entrepreneurs can find a way to deliver a product to consumers for five percent less than the current price, the consumer benefits. Yet if inflation causes the price to increase back to its former price, the CPI will register 0% inflation, yet there is indeed a loss of purchasing power here.
Keeping the true definition of inflation in mind reminds us how and why asset bubbles can form and also why inflation will continue to erode standards of living and the need for personal wealth preservation.
Chris Kuiper, CFA is currently a student and researcher at George Mason University pursuing a Master’s of Economics. His previous experience includes asset management, investing and banking.