QE, Zimbabwe, And The Surreptitious 30% Haircut Every Decade

Dizzying QE gobbledygook is upon us once again. It would restart its big 480-volt money printer, in addition to the desktop machine it had been using recently, the Fed said, in order “to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with its dual mandate,” namely “maximum employment and price stability.” Thus, more inflation magically creates more jobs, and “price stability” requires more inflation in order to become more … stable maybe?

The Dallas Fed shed some light on this conundrum. Inflation hounded the Zimbabwean dollar ever since its creation in 1980, when it was worth US$ 1.54. By 1997, when I was in Zimbabwe, the Zim dollar had plummeted to about 10 cents. I’d been traveling solo through Africa by whatever “public transportation” was available. There were days on dirt roads with washed out bridges or no bridges, dry river beds, expressways, rickety railroads, or the sand of the Sahara—and some remaining landmines. By comparison, Zimbabwe was still in decent shape.

But inflation steepened. In 2006, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe created the new (second) Zimbabwean dollar by chopping off three zeros. It still wasn’t hyperinflation. Just plain inflation. In March 2007, the Z$ 500,000-note was issued, signaling the official arrival of hyperinflation (more than 50% inflation per month). By 2008, the Zim dollar had become useless for transactions. To keep the country from total collapse, authorities finally allowed transactions to be made in dollars.

In January, 2009, Zimbabwe issued the one-hundred-trillion Zim dollar note, the largest denomination banknote ever. It marked the end of the currency. In February, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe—which was still around despite the mayhem it had caused—introduced the fourth Zim dollar, which chopped off 12 zeros. Forget it, the people said, and the currency was abandoned. An ignominious end.

The US greenback, the South African rand, and the Botswana pula were given official status, prices “stabilized,” and real GDP per capita turned significantly positive in 2009, the first such reading since 1998. Decades of inflation and two years of hyperinflation left desperation and destitution in their wake; they’d destroyed wealth and the economy, and knocked real per capita GDP down by nearly 50% to a level not seen since the early 1950s.

Does the Fed want to create this kind of scenario in the US? Its stated inflation objective is 2% per year, as measured by PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditure), which understates the already questionable CPI numbers. So perhaps their goal is just under 3% per year as measured by CPI, or just under 30% per decade.

They succeeded: 27.5% from 1990 to 1999 and 24.6% from 2000 to 2009. But that isn’t enough anymore: inflation must be higher, the Fed said. 30% per decade perhaps. That’s the surreptitious haircut they impose on all assets every decade. If you live long enough—knock on wood—pretty soon it’ll add up to real money.

Make it up with yield? You bet. I mean, forget it. Its Zero Interest Rate Policy will stay in place indefinitely, the Fed reassured us, as it pushed its ZIRP horizon from mid-2014 to mid-2015, to be extended ad infinitum. Make it up with higher wages? Um, no. Wage increases must lag behind inflation … to make wages competitive with those in China or Mexico. And that’s been happening since 2000.

That’s the kind of inflation modern central banks collude to create. When it gets out of hand, they know how to slow it down. These folks are smart and powerful, and unlike the guys in Zimbabwe, they know what they’re doing. Governments, the financial industry, and large corporations benefit from “contained” inflation as it pays off part of their massive debts. They’re the constituents of central banks. Others benefit as well, such as homeowners, but they’re just bystanders. And anyone who owns that crappy debt gets a haircut.

Once inflation edges towards 10% per year, even the Fed’s constituents no longer benefit from it, but are threatened by it. And a consensus forms among central bankers to act, however painful it will be for everyone else—and suddenly, the “maximum employment” mandate is out the window.

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