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How Inflation Screws the Poor the Most

by Darwin on November 17, 2010

With all this talk of inflation on the horizon while the US and Europe embark on bailouts and print money like it’s goin’ outta’ style, it’s instructive to evaluate what the impact of hyperinflation would be on you, the people you know, and the country at large.  Without expounding on historical interest rates, the correlation between gold and the dollar and what the “experts” are saying, it’s key to recognize that higher inflation isn’t bad for everyone.  At the risk of oversimplifying, people that have a lot of assets denominated in our fiat currency actually thrive in periods of high inflation while those at the lower end of the spectrum get absolutely crushed.

Many Are Praying for High Inflation

Why?  At its most basic level, inflation is great for people who have “stuff” – hard assets.  I’m not talking about designer clothes, iPhones and other “stuff” that is obsolete in 3 months, but rather, real estate, possession of precious metals, equity positions in companies with pricing power, etc.

Basically, as inflation rises, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.  Everything becomes more expensive, so fixed assets that have real-world tangible value increase in terms of a weakening US Dollar.  So, if you own a lot of actual physical assets, those assets are worth more in terms of US Dollars and if you’re leveraged, all the more delicious!  Nevermind what those holdings are worth in yen, Euro and Pound Sterling.  In the US, if you’re a real estate magnate, you’re rooting for inflation.  Let’s see why:

  • Real Estate – When you own real estate, you’re typically leveraged quite heavily and you’re holding an asset with tangible value – pricing power.  If the cost of everything is going up, that means wages, goods and guess what else? Rents!  Landlords can easily raise rents during inflationary periods because a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to so it takes more dollars to occupy the same space.  While the income from property rentals is going through the roof, your debt servicing is flat!  You took on a conventional 25-year commercial mortgage at 6% and you were already cash flow positive.  Now, instead of raising rents 3% per year like you did in the good years, you can raise rents 7% year over year when inflation’s taking off.  It just increases your ROI with no effort whatsoever!  Owners of real estate root for inflation.  with all these extra dollars from your real estate holdings, you can now buy CDs yielding 16% like the stories you hear from the 70s.  When inflation returns to 3% and you’re earning 16% on a 10 year CD that’s FDIC insured, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
  • Stocks – Inflation’s bad for the country, right?  So, it strikes people as odd that stocks can do well during a period of high inflation (or a falling dollar – somewhat correlated but not necessarily the same thing).  In looking at periods of high inflation, low inflation and moderate inflation, there’s no evidence that there’s any harm to stocks necessarily.  There are some reasons why a weakening dollar actually benefits stocks instead of hurting them.  Multinationals do especially well when the dollar falls against other currencies.  When goods and services are sold abroad in stronger market currencies and then converted back to weak dollars for earnings reports here, there’s often a nice boost due to currency exchange.  With a continuing weak dollar, this just boosts the bottom line for large corporations.  While it’s tough to quantify, the weak dollar we saw after the financial collapse has certainly helped boost the bottom lines of Us multinationals which comprise the large equity indices most investors hold.
  • Jobs in Hot Sectors – While one would anticipate continued stagnant job creation and perhaps a new increase in layoffs in the face of high inflation, employees with jobs in hot sectors – they will be rewarded by high inflation.  In jobs where the employee can name their own price and find higher paying positions elsewhere, wages will be more likely to rise with inflation to stem risk of flight of key employees.  Just like we saw with programmers approaching Y2K and the internet bubble and the biotech sector in the 2000s, when a sector is exploding, key employees can write their own ticket.  Throw in inflationary pressures and for that small segment of workers, wages are going to skyrocket from current values.  For these employees living with fixed costs like a mortgage, a car payment and no high interest debt to speak of, their disposable income increases meaningfully.  Conversely, in commoditized low-skill jobs, wages will remain stagnant as the unemployed will work for anything above the unemployment insurance rate (if it hasn’t run out already!).  If, as a worker, you don’t have a specialized skill set that can demand higher pay and others are fighting for the same position because of high supply and low barrier to entry, it’s reasonable to expect that your wages will not increase to keep pace with inflation, if at all.  That means in terms of today’s dollars, these jobs take a salary reduction at the same time they’re paying more for food, gasoline (and Rent!) and other necessary items for routine survival.

I’m not making a social statement here and I’m not convinced we’re going to be facing hyperinflation in the near term given the fact that our 9-10% unemployment rate is likely to suppress wage pressures and price increases for some time to come, but it’s important to at least have the perspective of how macroeconomic forces impact people who may not be in your demographic.

Like the age-old adages – “You’ve gotta have money to make money” or “The rich get richer while the poor get poorer”, in the context of inflation, these are very actually accurate statements.  Cutting budgets can only go so far, but it’s a necessity for so many already on the fringe.  If interested, here’s a V8 Fusion Coupon.  And there are tons of other coupon sites out there, but primarily, people need to earn more to keep up in an era of high inflation – and the prospects aren’t looking good.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Everyday Tips November 18, 2010 at 9:31 am

I keep waiting for inflation to take off, but so far it has not. As you said, the unemployment rate helps keep inflation at bay.

However, I do think it is on the horizon, and I am not sure I am properly prepared for its arrival.

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Darwin November 18, 2010 at 10:14 pm

There’s even that pesky shadow inflation. The government figures don’t seem to capture what’s really going on with their basket of assets. If I were a betting man, I’d go with near-term deflation turning into long term hyperinflation – within the next 10 years. Not like Zimbabwe inflation. But 70s inflation. I hope I’m wrong.

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Invest It Wisely November 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Great post. Inflation is a vicious tax, but it is a tax that falls much more heavily on the disconnected and the poor, rather than the connected and the rich.

Before there is inflation, money must be used to bid up assets and resources. So, we also need to ask: Who gets the new purchasing power? It’s those people that receive the dollars first. They get to spend at today’s prices with their larger balances, so purchasing power is transferred to them.

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Get Happy Life November 26, 2010 at 6:42 am

Well written! I never thought that inflation can be good for someone!

I have a question, though.
“Nevermind what those holdings are worth in yen, Euro and Pound Sterling. ”

Do these points you have written apply for European market as well ?

Reply

Darwin November 26, 2010 at 9:20 am

Sure, same concept applies anywhere but only in terms of local currency.

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Barb Friedberg December 4, 2010 at 9:45 am

Thanks for a really smart article. I enjoy your economic commentary and value your social conscience. (this one’s going in my round up)

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