A Client Asks: What’s the Benefit of Inflation?

One of our retired clients sent us a question recently.

“I can’t understand the FED condoning and promoting any inflation rate. To me inflation means that the value of money is simply depreciating at the inflation rate. Further, any investment paying less than the inflation rate is losing money. A quick review of CD rates and government bonds show it is a rare one that even approaches the promoted 2% rate. It seems to me to be a de-facto admission of wanting to screw conservative investors and forcing them into riskier investments… Where is there any benefit to the financial well-being of the ordinary citizens?”

I suspect that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. It’s a good question. Who wants ever rising prices?

Here’s how I addressed his question.

Let me answer your inflation question first. My personal opinion is that 0% inflation is ideal, and I suspect that you agree. However, lots of people see “modest” rates of inflation (say 2%) as healthy because is indicated a growing economy. Here’s a quote from an article you may want to read:

Rising prices reflect a growing economy. Prices typically rise for one of two reasons: Either there’s a sudden shortage of supply, or demand goes up. Supply shocks—like a disruption in the flow of oil from Libya—are usually bad news, because prices rise with no corresponding increase in economic activity. That’s like a tax that takes money out of people’s pockets without providing any benefit in return. But when prices rise because demand increases, that means consumers are spending more money, economic activity is picking up, and hiring is likely to increase.

A case can be made that in a dynamic economy you can never get perfect stability (e.g. perfectly stable prices) so it’s better for there to be more demand than supply – driving prices up – rather than less demand than supply – causing prices to fall (deflation). Of course we have to realize that “prices” here includes the price of labor as well as goods and services. That’s why people can command raises in a growing economy – because employers have to bid for a limited supply of labor. On the other hand wages are stagnant or even decline when there are more people than jobs.

But for retirees on a fixed income inflation is mostly a negative. Your pension is fixed. Social Security is indexed for inflation but those official inflation numbers don’t take food and fuel costs into consideration and those have been going up faster than the “official” rate. The stock market also benefits from modest inflation.

Which gets us to the Federal Reserve which has kept interest rates near zero for quite a while. It’s doing this to encourage business borrowing which is supposed to lead to economic expansion but the actual effect has been muted. That’s because other government policies have not been helpful to private enterprise. In effect you have seen the results of two government policies in conflict. It’s really a testimony to the resilience of private industry that the economy is doing as well as it is.

The effect on conservative investors (the ones who prefer CDs or government bonds to stocks) has been bad. It’s absolutely true that after inflation and taxes the saver is losing purchasing power in today’s interest rate environment. The FED is not doing this to hurt conservative investors but that’s been the effect. The artificially low rates will not last forever and the Fed has indicated they want to raise rates. They key question is when, and by how much.

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