The Inflation Olympics

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We're down here in the Andes, continuing our tour of the future. What have we learned so far?

It might be too early to sell America and buy Argentina, but we'd keep an eye on the trade.

Brazil and Argentina both have lived through very high rates of inflation (more than 1,000% per year). The US, Japan and Britain are headed in that direction.

Yesterday, on the streets of Salta, we saw an engaging sight. A group of girls were dancing in unison down the streets to the sound of loud music.

They wore very short skirts and elaborate headgear. They might have been drum majorettes, except that their outfits were carefully embroidered and looked so stiff that the girls' movement was restrained.

They were dark skinned, with round faces. Attractive people.

'They're Bolivians,' explained a friend.

'What are they doing?'

'It must be an important saint's day.'

Following the girls was a group of about twenty men. They, too, were dancing along. There was not much movement to the dance. Just to one side and then to the other, following the music. They might have been Shriners or Knights of Pithias in a small town parade.

But the effect was very different.

You imagined yourself watching an Inca ritual. These men were big. They wore brown shirts and brown ties, often stretched over large stomachs. And they had huge headdresses, made of yellow plumes.

Then came the older ladies. About a dozen of them. We don't remember their get-ups... except that they were fancy and colourful, like the others. What stood out was the girth of these women. They were all very round. Almost as round as they were tall. They turned around in circles as they danced which made them look like spinning tops.

Crowds gathered along the streets to watch them pass. Even the locals seemed not to know what to make of them. Then, after about five minutes, they were gone.

Bolivia is a champion in the inflation Olympics, too. Along with Brazil and Argentina. Between 1983 and 1985, prices rose 23,000% in Bolivia. Is that a record? Nah, not even close. But it's still impressive.

Brazil's consumer prices rose 14.2 quadrillion percent between 1961 and 2006. And consumer price inflation in Zimbabwe is probably incalculable; it got so bad there were no consumer items for sale!

Here in Argentina prices rose 12,000% in 1989, which again is impressive, but certainly not record setting.

Who cares?

Well, we only bring it up because we're here in South America on a tour of the future. Yes, dear reader, we are peering into not what is, but what is to be. At least, we think we are.

And what better place to do it than in Argentina? Is there any economic policy so dumb the Argentinians haven't tried it more than once? We doubt it. In fact, we are thinking about beginning a new publication: "Financial advice from an Argentinian: What we don't know about financial catastrophe isn't worth knowing".

Yes, dear reader, we are all becoming Argentinian. Now the US government interferes everywhere. Our central bank uses tricks and subterfuges. Our peso... oops, we mean, our dollar... is subject to devaluation without notice.

We may renege on our debts (as Richard Nixon did in 1971... telling foreign holders of US dollars that they could forget about redeeming their paper money at the fixed, statutory rate). Or, we may just inflate them away.

And that's where it will get really exciting... as it was here in South America in the '80s.

How will it come about? Well, first you'll hear responsible people claiming that printing extra money is not so bad. Then, you'll see people calling for the feds to actually drop money out of helicopters.

Get ready for it. Watch the skies. We're not kidding.

Of course, the idea was always fanciful. No serious economist ever suggested that they should drop money from helicopters. But that doesn't stop un-serious economists... and serious dumbkins - from wanting to do it.

A large number of people believe that the problem with the economy today is a lack of demand. You can hear people such as Krugman, Stiglitz and Summers say so regularly. The have backed efforts to increase demand by increasing government spending and lowering the price of borrowing - that is, by fiscal and monetary stimulus measures.

But those measures haven't worked. Instead, they've just enriched the bankers and bondholders. So, why not just bypass the banks? Why not just give money - extra demand - directly to the people?

Here's an article that ran last week in USA Today's opinion columns:

'Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke earned the nickname of 'Helicopter Ben' after suggesting that the Fed could employ the equivalent of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman's humorous suggestion that money could simply be dropped onto the population from helicopters in order to prevent deflation. Give people some free money and they will spend it, boosting demand and the price level.Bernanke's version of the "helicopter drop" involved paying for tax cuts with free money from the Fed. Alternatively, the Fed could finance increased government spending on such things as infrastructure and education, leading to more construction workers and teachers being hired without any need to increase borrowing or taxes.

'The only potential risk of this is increased inflation, though higher inflation is a potential consequence of any expansionary monetary policy, and the Fed has demonstrated its ability to reduce inflation when necessary. In any case, an additional bit of inflation would be welcome right now, as it would reduce the real values of fixed rate mortgages and help to decrease the number of "underwater" borrowers.'

It's just a matter of time...

Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia have already had their hyperinflation experience.

The US, Japan and Britain are getting ready for their own.

One learns. One unlearns. That's how it works. The world turns.

And at least one Argentinian economist thinks the world is turning in his direction. Bad policies caused Argentina a half century of back-sliding and poverty. He thinks Argentinians are getting fed up. He hopes they will mend their ways and use the next 50 years catching up to the US...

'The sun is shining bright on Argentina,' writes Xavier P Romer. 'We simply need to open the blinds.'

He may not have to worry about catching up. The US might come to the pampas before Argentina comes to the Great Plains.


Bill Bonner for The Daily Reckoning Australia

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