Ten reasons inflation could be set to return

We’ve been living in fear of inflation for over 40 years. Now, however, it could finally be coming. Dominic Frisby outlines ten compelling reasons why.

Print worker with sheets of dolars © Getty
Money printing - just one of the reasons inflation could be about to return © Getty
(Image credit: Print worker with sheets of dolars © Getty)

Inflation. Remorseless, insatiable inflation. The auto-cannibalistic monster that eats away at its own flesh and destroys economies from within.

We’ve been living in fear of it since the 1970s. But, like the troll under the bridge, it’s never really shown its head in the real economy, only in house prices and financial assets.

Today we present ten reasons it could make an unwelcome return. We don’t say it will – we just say it could.

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The return of inflation – here’s how it could happen

1. Deglobalisation

Love it or loathe it, globalisation has brought us cheap goods aplenty. China has become the manufacturer to the globe and, in doing so, exported its low labour costs so that you and I can have cheap computers, clothes and consumables, durables and disposables.

But protectionism and coronavirus are both forces for deglobalisation. Deglobalisation will have the opposite effect on prices to globalisation – it will push them up.

2. Money printing

Have you any idea how much money has been printed – or whatever the digital, virtual equivalent of printing is – since the coronavirus hit? I’m not sure anyone does. Extraordinary amounts; at least an entire USA’s worth of annual GDP in three months. All that money’s got to go somewhere.

3. Fiscal spending is being directly paid for with printed money

In the “prudent” money printing of the post-2008 era, central banks would buy government bonds and financial assets, and money was created that way. This time around the Bank of England is printing directly to fund government coronavirus spending. Consequences, dear boys, consequences.

4. Revenge spending

It’s not just about how much they print, it’s about where it goes and how quickly it goes there. “Velocity of money”, as they call it. The groovy new saying for the burst of sales expected in a post-lockdown rebound is “revenge spending”. China saw lots of it when business re-opened there. If Western consumers do the same, then a large “revenge spend” will be one way by which velocity increases.

5. This time the money is going into the real economy

Post-2008 all that QE (quantitative easing) went into financial assets. This time around, whether it’s via all the inventive new bank lending schemes, furloughing, VAT postponement, or other means, the money is going to go into the real economy. Some will use it to pay down debt, but others will spend or invest it. Either way the money has come from zero economic output. More money sloshing around implies greater velocity of money and higher prices.

6. Weak dollar

Donald Trump, US president, wants a weak dollar. He’s said so many times. The Federal Reserve., America’ s central bank, now seems to have got with the programme so that, since March, the dollar is down by almost 10%. Trump is getting his way.

“A weaker dollar is like a tax cut for the rest of the world,” says Charlie Morris of Atlantic House. “It makes it easier for the emerging markets to repay their dollar debts. It puts upward pressure on weak currencies, which then enjoy capital flows. That leads to economic activity, which boosts commodity demand and causes equities to rise. A stronger economy also sees rates rise and a boom in real estate follows.”

It’s all inflationary.

7. Commodities

Commodity prices, relative to the S&P 500, are the cheapest they have ever been. They could get cheaper, of course. But sooner or later money flows will change, and that trend could change pretty quickly. A weak dollar puts a lot of upwards pressure on commodities prices.

Governments’ fiscal spending on infrastructure projects means they will need commodities. But, guess what, because commodity prices have been so low for so long, the investment hasn’t been there, and so there will be a shortage. Which means prices will rise until new supply comes online. But getting new supply online, particularly of metals, can take a long time. The implication, then, is rising prices of raw materials.

8. Higher energy costs

Oil got absolutely hammered during Covid-19, as we all know. The price of one key benchmark even went negative. But since then the price has gone ballistic, rising every day relentlessly, it seems.

As economies pick up there will be more demand for energy. But there will also be oil shortages as a result of the coronavirus. Again, the implication is higher oil and energy costs, generally. At $40 a barrel, West Texas Intermediate is already up 500% since April. Bet you see $100 before we see $10 again.

9. Unemployment

One theory says unemployment is deflationary. People have less money and so they spend less. But unemployment and inflation seem to go hand in hand, particularly where money is fiat.

Many businesses are going to go bust because of Covid-19, meaning higher unemployment. Many other businesses are using Covid-19 as an excuse to clear unwanted staff off their books and slim down. Either way, higher unemployment is coming.

On a podcast I appeared on last week, Chris Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs was projecting unemployment of four to five million. As I say, inflation and unemployment often like to go to the dance together.

10. Higher taxes

They’re coming too. Again, higher taxes should be deflationary – they leave less money in people’s pockets. But it doesn’t always work like that. If inflation and unemployment are going dancing, taxes will, as sure as eggs are eggs, be there as well. They’re the gatecrashing threesome nobody wants at their party, but if they decide they want to come, they’re coming, whether you like it or not.

So there you go – ten reasons we could see inflation make a very unwelcome return.

It’s worth adding that temporary government policy almost always becomes permanent. Just as QE was supposed to be temporary, so will many of the recent spending programmes be normalised.

If something doesn’t work, it will be because they didn’t do it enough – and so they will just do more of it, and thus will full-on amputations in the economy occur where just a plaster would have done the trick.

Both in the US and the UK, monetary policy will remain accommodative. Jobs need to be created and that won’t happen with tighter monetary policy, runs the thinking. That means a whopping government deficit and increased debt. These they will attempt to inflate away.

This is all, of course, assuming the government bond market allows it to happen. But then – suppressing interest rates is what all the money printing is for.

Even as we speak, my colleague John is writing all about inflation – and how to prepare your portfolio for it – for the next issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out on Friday. Don’t miss it – get your first six issues for free right here.

Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future is available at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere. If you want a signed copy, you can order one here.

Dominic Frisby

Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. He is the author of the books Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After The State. He also co-wrote the documentary Four Horsemen, and presents the chat show, Stuff That Interests Me.

His show 2016 Let’s Talk About Tax was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival and Penguin Random House have since commissioned him to write a book on the subject – Daylight Robbery – the past, present and future of tax will be published later this year. His 2018 Edinburgh Festival show, Dominic Frisby's Financial Gameshow, won rave reviews. Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art.

You can follow him on Twitter @dominicfrisby