Inflation, Prices and Wages (Real and Nominal)

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Inflation is Good for those who Owe Money but Bad for Bankers 

There is a direct correlation between the amount of money in circulation and prices.  The more money the higher the prices.  The less money in circulation the lower the prices.  During the Great Depression the Federal Reserve contracted the money supply and prices fell.  And it caused havoc in the economy.  Low prices a problem?  Yes.  For some.  It was good for anyone buying anything for their money was worth more and could buy more.  But it wasn’t good for people who owed money.  Or banks.

Farmers had borrowed a lot of money to mechanize their farms in the Twenties.  So they owed the banks a lot of money.  When prices fell so did their earnings as the crops they grew sold for less at market.  Good for the consumer.  But bad for the farmer.  For with that big ‘pay cut’ they took they could not repay their loans.  They defaulted.  And when a lot of them defaulted they left banks with a lot of bad loans on the books and little cash in their vaults.  Causing bank runs and bank failures.

This is why farmers are in favor of inflation.  Increasing the amount of money in circulation.  Instead of deflation.  Decreasing the amount of money in circulation.  For when you increase the money supply prices rise.  Meaning more money for them at market.  Making it easier for them to repay their loans.  For although the money supply increased loan balances remained unchanged.  Higher earnings.  Same old debt.  Therefore easier to pay off.  Even though the value of the dollar fell.  So inflation is good for the farmer.  But bad for the banker.  Because the dollars they get back when the farmer repays his loan now buy less than they did before the inflation.

To Fully Appreciate the Impact of Inflation we must talk about Real Prices and Real Wages

Think of a grocer.  He buys from a food distributor to stock his grocery store shelves.  His distributor buys from farmers and food processing companies.  These purchases and sales happen BEFORE a consumer buys anything from a grocery store.  Now BEFORE the consumer goes shopping let’s say the Federal Reserve doubles the amount of money in circulation.  So the consumer goes shopping with a dollar worth HALF of what it was worth when the grocer stocked his shelves.  So if the grocer doesn’t raise his prices to account for this inflation he’ll be able to replace only HALF of what he sells with the proceeds from those sales.  Because his distributors will have doubled their prices to reflect the halving of the value of the dollar.

Of course doubling prices throughout the food supply chain will ultimately lower sales.  Which no one in this chain wants.  Which creates somewhat of a problem.  Especially when consumers don’t like paying higher prices.  Food processing companies will raise their prices.  But they can do something else to make it look like they’re not raising their prices that much.  They can reduce their packaging.  So boxes of cereal and bags of chips get smaller while prices increase only a little.  This lessens the perception of inflation on both consumer and seller.  At least, for those who can do this.  We sell gasoline by the gallon.  Which means they have to pass on the full impact of inflation in the price at the pump.  Which makes it look like gasoline prices are rising faster than most other prices.  Which is why consumers hate oil companies more than food companies.

The price we pay in the grocery store and at the pump are nominal prices.  Prices noted in dollars.  Nominal prices rise to factor in inflation.  But they don’t tell us the real impact of inflation.  That is, how it reduces our purchasing power.  For prices aren’t the only thing that rise.  Our wages do, too.  And if our nominal wages rise at the same rate as nominal prices do we won’t really notice a difference in our purchasing power.  If our nominal wages rise faster than nominal prices then we gain purchasing power.  If nominal prices rise faster than our nominal wages we lose purchasing power.  So to fully appreciate the impact of inflation we must talk about real prices and real wages.  Not the dollar amount on the price tag.  But the affect on our purchasing power.  In times of increasing purchasing power a single earner may be able to meet all the financial needs of a family.  In times of declining purchasing power it may take a second income to meet the financial needs of the family.  This is what we mean when we talk about real prices and real wages. 

Government causes the Erosion of Purchasing Power Always and Everywhere

You may get a large raise at work giving you a high nominal wage.  But if nominal prices are rising (as in a higher price at the gas pump) real wages are falling.  Because you can’t buy as much as you once did.  Meaning you’ve lost purchasing power.  So even though you got a nominal raise you may have taken a real pay cut.  Pretty much everyone today earns more than their father did.  Yet today we struggle to have as much as our fathers did.  Even with a second income in the family.  This is the impact of inflation.  Which causes real prices to rise.  Real wages to fall.  And our standard of living to fall.

As real prices rise and real wages fall we have to make choices.  We can’t have the same things we once did.  If we lose too much purchasing power our spouse may have to provide a second income, spending less time with his or her children.  Or people may work more overtime.  Or take a second job.  Or simply cut back on things.  And enjoy life less.  Cut out movie night.  Or going out to dinner.  Not renew their season tickets.  Or give less to charity.  This is the true cost of inflation. 

This all goes back to the amount of money in circulation.  As Milton Friedman said, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”  Meaning that only government can create inflation.  Because government controls monetary policy.  And the amount of money in circulation.  Which means government causes the erosion of purchasing power always and everywhere.  Even the price at the pump.  As oil is a global commodity priced nominally in U.S. dollars.  So whenever the Americans inflate their money supply the oil producers raise their prices to offset the devalued U.S. dollar.  So government causes much of the pain at the pump.  Whose monetary policies decrease real wages.  And increase real prices.   

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