WASHINGTON — Readers might remember that from time to time, I fret about the danger of price inflation due to the frenetic printing of money going on in the world. As a survivor of hyperinflation (Peru, 1980s), I suppose you can't blame me. In any case, symptoms of price inflation have begun to pop up in many countries.
The consumer price index in Britain has officially reached 3.7 percent but many observers think the real figure is above 4 percent, double what the government had forecast. In Europe in general, the annual inflation figure has surpassed what the European Central Bank had targeted. Not to speak of China, where it is almost 5 percent and rising.
Bill Gross, who manages the world's largest bond fund for investment advisers Pimco and whose job is essentially to find debt securities whose yields beat inflation, put it succinctly: "Why would you want to be a bondholder with bond yields so low and that sort of inflationary trend?" Bond investors are simply waiting for a big rise in inflation followed by significant interest rate hikes.
The emerging world has been shaken by exploding food prices. Indonesia has just taken measures to lower the prices of 57 different items after it was reported in December that annual inflation had surpassed 7 percent. Through a combination of tariff reductions and cash transfers to families, Indonesian authorities are trying to pre-empt the kinds of food riots we saw in Asia and Africa a few years ago. Indonesia's central bank is now ready to follow South Korea and Thailand, where interest rates were raised for fear of inflation. India made headlines when it did so too, and Brazil, where a new president came into office pledging to bring about a significant drop in interest rates (her country has by far the highest rates in the emerging world), has just had to increase them.
Several structural imbalances are affecting commodity prices, particularly the growing demand for food in places where the burgeoning middle class is expanding its intake of protein. But a major factor in what is happening is the liquidity disease of our times — "quantitative easing," the artificial creation of money as a way to spur a full economic recovery in the wake of the 2007-08 financial calamity.
The theory says that the money created by the government will prompt more spending, lifting businesses out of their morass. What really happens is that the money first goes to the financial markets, whose players mostly create bubbles by investing in whatever is fashionable. The reason is twofold. One, financial players expect to make quick money. Two, families and businesses reeling from the credit excesses of recent years are not ready to borrow as much as their governments say they should (the personal savings rate has tripled in the U.S. since 2007) and banks are probably not willing to lend as easily as they used to.
For a while, then, it looks as if more quantitative easing is necessary because consumption remains insufficient and unemployment high. So central banks print even more money. To justify themselves, sometimes they point to (highly unrepresentative) consumer price indexes that show low inflation. Until, of course, it is too late and the symptoms begin to show up everywhere.
Yes, everywhere: even in the United States, where, against every effort by the Federal Reserve to keep it very low, the 10-year bond yield has shot up, reflecting the fear of many investors that the authorities will soon be compelled to raise interest rates.
Pumping money into the economy when so much evidence of inflation is readily available is dishonest. What governments, particularly in the United States and Europe, are doing is attempting to whittle down their huge debts by debasing their currencies while continuing to borrow scandalous amounts of money. They are also hypocritically using the devaluation of their currencies brought about by quantitative easing to compete internationally — while accusing others, with good reason, of manipulating their own money to keep up their export machines.
As the world found out in the 1970s, the 1990s and quite recently — three periods in which monetary irresponsibility led to different forms of economic debacle in various parts of the world — no matter what ills inflation helps conceal in the short run, the endgame is always very painful. And the culprits rarely pay the price.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and the editor of "Lessons from the Poor." His e-mail address is AVLlosa@independent.org.