The Fed’s announcement last week to flood the financial markets with $1.2 trillion in new money stunned many. True, governments often print money as a cheap way to buy off their debt. Governments also find that instead of paying off their debt they can simply reduce the value of the currency so much that earlier debts are not worth anything. But the shear size of the current change to the world’s preeminent currency is unprecedented.
More money means that each dollar falls in value and can purchase less than it did previously. Think of it this way: If the number of apples suddenly doubled tomorrow, what would happen to the price of each apple? It would fall. Same with dollars, whether American or Zimbabwean, where the current inflation rate is 230 million percent annually.
The size of this $1.2 trillion increase is breathtaking, and the U.S. monetary base has already more than doubled so far, from $800 billion to $1.7 trillion. One normally needs a microscope to see past yearly changes in the money base, and the current change already jumps off of any chart – look at the one on the right from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank showing the blastoff. As the chart illustrates, even before the last infusion of money, we have already seen a huge increase in the money supply (M1) this year.
Devaluating our currency and our debt is a dangerous game. It may cure short-term ills but, in the long run, countries won’t want to hold U.S. government bonds or other investments if they think they risk losing a lot of money this way.
With the Fed’s announcement, the value of the dollar has started dropping precipitously. On March 12 it took $1.27 to buy a Euro. By last Thursday it took about $1.37. It is surprising that the size of the drop hasn’t been even larger.
The Fed seems to think that it is battling what might be a massive deflation and wants to protect against the unemployment that might result from sticky wages and prices. But instead of deflation, these huge increases in the money worry us that the opposite, a hyper-inflation, will be more likely the case and there will be real costs. And while this huge increase in money will undoubtedly be the one thing that the federal government has done that will lower unemployment, it is just the wrong way to lower it.
As Milton Friedman was well known for pointing out, inflation will cause some workers to think some jobs are offering higher real wages than they actually are. The problem is that once these workers realize their mistake – that the slightly higher wages they accepted were eaten up by inflation and did not represent a real increase – they will leave the jobs they took hastily to look for positions offering a real increase, ones they should have pursued all along. It is a solution, but a false one.
There are other bad consequences from this huge increase in the money supply. Interest rates will go up, simply because lenders will have to be compensated for the fact that any money that they get back a year from now will be worth less because of inflation. With the rates up, investments will fall.
However, the interest rate will actually go up by more than the inflation rate because our tax rules don’t adjust taxes on interest rates for inflation. If inflation goes from zero to 10 percent, the interest rate doesn’t simply go from, say, 5 percent to 15 percent – it has to go up by more than that to keep the after-tax return to investors the same. In fact, if someone is paying a 50 percent tax rate, increasing inflation from 0 to 10 percent would require increasing the interest rate to 25 percent to keep even!
This huge increase in the money supply may provide a short gain, but the long term costs are going to be huge. The notion that the Federal Reserve is capable of smoothing out the impact that such a change has on inflation is hubris at its worse. The Fed has a difficult enough job controlling inflation under the best of circumstances, and the Fed has never had to be asked to control this type of increase in the monetary base before.