The Magazine

Fiat Money, Fiat Inflation

Why we need a dollar as good as gold.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By LEWIS E. LEHRMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Since the beginning of 2009, oil prices have almost tripled, gasoline prices are up about 50 percent, and basic food prices, such as corn, soybeans, and wheat, have almost doubled around the world. Cotton and copper prices have reached all time highs; major rises in sugar, spice, and wheat prices have been creating food riots in poor countries, where basic goods inflation is rampant. That inflation is in part financed by the flood abroad of excess dollars created over the last couple of years by the Federal Reserve.

Fiat Money, Fiat Inflation

Those dollars also made possible the emerging market equity boom of 2009-2010. But foreign authorities are now raising interest rates as growth shifts to the United States and Europe. The years 2011-2012 will witness a Fed-fueled expansion in the United States. Unless there is a major oil spike from here, growth for 2011 in the United States will be above the new consensus of 3.5 percent—perhaps as high as 5 percent this year, with about 8 percent unemployment at year-end. 

At first, the enormous Fed credit creation of 2008-2010 could not be fully absorbed by a U.S. economy in recession. But much of this new Fed credit has flooded stocks, bonds, and commodities. The excess credit went abroad, too, causing a fall in the dollar and creating bull markets and booming economies in the developing world. At the same time, inflation intensified, with riots and political turmoil as a result.

There is little new in this latest postwar boom cycle, associated as it is with the world dollar standard we have been living under since the end of gold convertibility and the Bretton Woods monetary system in 1971. With expansive credit policy and Fed financing of the U.S. government deficit, every boom and bust cycle has been enabled by the Fed. At this moment, we are witnessing in the U.S. equity market, and once again in the decline of the dollar, the predictable effects of Federal Reserve money and credit creation. This latest Fed credit boom has begun with commodity inflation. The extraordinary Treasury deficit, financed by the Fed at home, is financed abroad by the official reserve currency status of the dollar. For example, in addition to the Fed purchases of U.S. government securities, foreign financial authorities have absorbed at least $4 trillion of U.S. government securities, against which foreign central banks have created their own domestic money. And the U.S. budget deficit can continue to expand so long as there is undisciplined Fed and foreign credit to finance it. 

To finance the government deficit, the Treasury now sells bills and bonds at a rate of about $120 billion a month, or about $1.5 trillion per year. But this new Fed-created money, which finances the government deficit, is not associated with any production of new goods and services. Thus, total monetary demand, or purchasing power, exceeds the existing supply of goods, equities, and services at prevailing prices, with the predictable result that prices rise. But some of the excess dollars go abroad, creating booms and inflation in emerging markets. As prices rise faster than wages, profits rise. Production increases. A boom is underway.

But it’s a boom that turns into a bubble. And there are social effects, not only financial effects. This insidious international monetary and fiscal arrangement has been a primary cause of the increasing inequality of wealth in American society. At home, bankers and speculators have been and are the first in line, along with the Treasury, to get zero interest money and credit from the Fed. They are first to get bailed out. Then with new money, they finance stocks, bonds, and commodities, anticipating, as in the past, a Fed-created boom. 

Prices rise first for the most volatile goods, especially stocks, commodities, and financial claims, because they are relatively liquid vehicles for speculators and banks. This is the story of the past two years, with stocks and commodities advancing amidst a sluggish U.S. economy. This is also the story of postwar Fed-created booms. Each cycle experiences an inflation boom, often in different assets, e.g., Internet stocks in the late ’90s and real estate in the last boom and bust.

Inflation at the consumer level has been muted by high unemployment and unused production facilities. But the social effects are already discernible. The near-zero interest rates maintained by the Fed have primarily benefited the large banks and their speculator clients. A nimble financial class, in possession of cheap credit, is able both to enrich itself and to protect itself against inflation. 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers