Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Discerning the Pattern

Hyperinflation has happened before, quite a few times. For that matter it's happening in Zimbabwe right now. Given that this is not a unique phenomenon, we should be able to learn from past data.

Looking at the historical record, there does seem to be a pattern to hyperinflation:

1. Slow Climb: 6 months to 2 years
2. Ramp-Up: 2 months to 1 year
3. Crazy: 1 month to a year
4. Currency Nuked: 1 day
5. Recovery: 6 months to years

In more detail:

1. Slow Climb: This is arguably "normal" inflation, but with a noticable upturn. By itself it doesn't guarantee hyperinflation, as inflation typically fluctuates anyway, but I have not found a case of hyperinflation that started with deflation. So an uptick in "normal" inflation may be a red flag that something bigger is on the way. Approximate time scale is 6 months to 2 years.

2. Ramp-up: This is the transition from "normal" inflation to something unusual. In this phase, the majority of people start changing their spending patterns due to inflation. It starts significantly affecting economic behavior. Approximate time scale is 2 months to 1 year.

3. Crazy: Full-fledged hyperinflation is truly crazy. This is the Weimar Republic, wheelbarrow full of money to buy a loaf of bread phase. There is no mistaking this one. The primary economic effort will be getting rid of your cash as fast as possible. Got money in your bank account? Wrong! Get rid of it now! Buy stuff as soon as you get paid, otherwise your paycheck is worthless by next week. Better hope your employer starts making COLA increases for each paycheck. This could last perhaps 1 month to a year.

4. Currency Nuked: Inevitably, hyperinflation is halted by revaluing the currency. There is no time scale to this, you just wake up one morning and bam! The Central Bank (The Fed in our case) puts the hammer down and says "The value of the currency is now [whatever]." It's that [whatever] that is critical. Often they will simply issue new currency at, say, 1000 times the value of the previous currency, and call it "New!". The "New Peso", the "Rentenmark", the "New Dollar", whatever. This is not a revaluation, it's just shifting the decimal point and it doesn't solve the underlying problem. Argentina tried this several times. The key to nuking the currency is to tie it down to something of real value. In the Weimar Germany, with typical German efficiency, the currency was revalued only once by tying it to a mortgage on all the land in Germany.

5. Recovery: Nuking the currency doesn't necessarily solve everything. There will be instabilities and hyperinflation could even start over again. Or you can get a recession. In the end, the solution is always for the government to maintain a sound, stable, and sustainable monetary policy while the economy sorts itself out. Recovery can happen fairly quickly (6 months), or could go on for years.

At this point, I'm not sure if we're in phase 1 or 2. Feedback is welcome.