What You Need to Know About the Deflation Scare Campaign

Inflation is one form of taxation that can be imposed without legislation.’

Milton Friedman

When the RBA met yesterday, Australia’s lowest inflation figures in 17 years confronted governor Glenn Stevens. Consumer prices are up just 1% over the past year. And, apparently, that should alarm you.

It certainly alarmed Stevens. Faced with the figures, the stalwart governor blinked first and dropped Australia’s official cash rate by 0.25%. That brings it down to 1.5%, a new historic low.

As you probably know, the RBA’s inflation target is fair bit higher. The Bank aims to keep prices rising by 2–3% per year. Every year. Forever.

You’re meant to accept this as a good thing. If you don’t believe me, try finding any mainstream sources touting, say, 0% inflation as a superior target. Good luck. God forbid your dollar is worth as much next year as it is today.

Admittedly, the rationale for the 2–3% inflation target makes perfect sense…from the government’s perspective. According to the RBA, government debt stood at $406 billion in January this year. It’s certainly even higher today.

If you were in debt to the tune of $406 billion, wouldn’t you try to chip away at the debt pile by a handy 3% each year? It’s a brilliant figure really — not so high as to be alarming. You’re unlikely to lose sleep over the fact that today’s dollar will only be worth 97 cents next year, right?

But here’s the catch. Just as compounding interest can see your savings grow exponentially over time, inflation will see the value of your savings and assets shrink exponentially. Or your debts, of course.

Which brings us back to the government’s $406 billion liability. At an unassuming annual inflation rate of 3%, the government can halve its debt load in just 24 years. And they don’t have to do anything. Except, of course, manipulate fiscal and monetary policies with abandon.


$1 trillion and counting…

Of course, it’s not just our trusty government that’s living beyond its means. Banks and large corporates have happily piled on debt as well. So much so that Australia’s national debt — the money we owe foreigners minus the money they owe us — topped $1 trillion back in December.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald,

Of our trillion dollar net foreign debt, one quarter is owed by the public sector – including all federal, state and territory governments and their government-owned enterprises. The remaining three-quarters is owed by private sector corporations, mostly banks and large corporates.’

Throw in all the homeowners with six and seven digit mortgages and you can see how the government has some powerful backers for its inflation mandate. That’s also why you’ve likely had a difficult time finding proponents of the 0% inflation target I mentioned above.

Cheaper bread, pricier homes

Australians hold the dubious, erm, honour of being the world’s most indebted citizens.

From The Australian,

Australian households overtook the Swiss as the world’s most indebted this year, with outstanding debt equivalent to 125 per cent of GDP and no let up in sight. Combined owner-occupier and investor loans outstanding have risen from $1.2 trillion to $1.6 trillion in the past five years.’

With skyrocketing property prices in Sydney and Melbourne, these figures shouldn’t surprise you. Australia consistently ranks among the most expensive property markets in the world. According to ABC News, housing costs Down Under are second only to Hong Kong.

Yet, despite the low inflation figures released earlier this week, rising property prices — and rents — are still part of the picture. The Age states that Sydney housing prices are up 6.8% while Melbourne prices climbed 3.5% in the last quarter alone. Rents (nationally) rose ‘only’ 0.7% over the past six months.

I’ll let you decide for yourself how lowering the benchmark interest rate to a new record low will impact the Aussie real estate market.

But prospective home buyers and renters, fear not. Your weekly loaf of bread should now cost you 2% less than this time last year. Cha-Ching!

According to The Age,

In the past year, a raft of prices have fallen, including bread (by 2 per cent), milk (1.3 per cent), coffee (4.6 per cent), wine (2.6 per cent), books (1.3 per cent), men’s clothing (1.1 per cent), electricity (2 per cent), cars (3 per cent), and petrol (11.6 per cent).’

Now I’ve never been particularly put out by the cost of Aussie milk. But the price of books, electricity, cars, and petrol in Australia are shockingly high…at least when compared to the US. So you won’t find me gnashing my teeth over any modest declines.

The great scare campaign

But, I hear you asking, aren’t we treading dangerously close to the much dreaded spectre of deflation? And won’t that bring our economy to a grinding halt as everyone decides to delay their purchases, knowing they can buy their goods cheaper next year?

This is precisely what you’re supposed to think. Precisely the fears that have been so well seeded and nurtured by our indebted government and its powerful, equally indebted supporters. But it’s nonsense.

Whether prices are rising or falling, you still need to put food on the table. And petrol in your car. And replace worn clothing. And — let’s face it — drink wine.

When it comes to discretionary goods you do have more leeway. But let me ask you this. Say we’re experiencing 2% deflation across the board. If you’ve decided to replace your ratty old fridge with a $1000 shiny new one, would you put it off for a year knowing you’ll only pay $980?

Of course you wouldn’t.

How about a $30,000 new car? Wait just one year and you can have it for $29,400.

Now $600 isn’t insignificant. But if you’re like me, once you’ve made up your mind to purchase a new car, you won’t wait an entire year to save 2%. Especially if deflation takes hold and you know that you’ll be facing the same scenario a year down the road. Meaning you could continue to wait…and wait. And all the while your old car keeps getting older, and less reliable.

But the mainstream media steers clear of this argument. Instead they happily assume that any deflation will in fact act as hyperdeflation.

Now I’m sure you’ve heard of hyperinflation. Run away prices in 1923 Germany (the Weimar Republic) and Zimbabwe in 2008–2009 are two classic examples. And it’s with this picture in mind that deflation is consistently presented.

But hyperdeflation — which my spell check tells me isn’t a real word — isn’t on the cards for Australia. Low inflation — or very modest deflation — is what has the government’s panties in a wad.

And this is what prodded the RBA to lower rates yesterday. Despite the fact that following the series of previous cuts, inflation figures are at a 17 year low. Will this latest cut spur inflation and the wider economy?

I certainly don’t think so. And neither does former RBA board member Warwick McKibbin. According to the Financial Review he warned that,

‘…adopting the zero rate polices of Japan and Europe won’t fix the economy… [and] focusing only on keeping inflation within its target range would also lead to more house price distortions.’

Not that the RBA is likely to take this advice. Central banks and debt laden governments the world over will keep tinkering with the system until they get some ‘healthy’ inflation figures.

I wonder what Ronald Reagan would think about that. Back in 1980 when he moved into the White House, US inflation figures topped 14%. He said at the time, ‘Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber and as deadly as a hit man.

Be careful what you wish for.


Bernd Struben,
For Markets and Money

Ed Note: This article was originally published in Port Phillip Insider.

Bernd Struben is a contribution Editor of Markets & Money. He holds a degree in Economics and is a published novelist. Bernd’s career spans multiple countries on four continents. With his diverse background, he brings unique business insight and a libertarian twist to his columns and analysis in Markets & Money.

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