Here is a guest post by Arthur Goikhman with a great analogy about inflation. His explanation for student loans is what struck me right away. I still believe this will be our next bubble, and Arthur does a great job in showing how the student loan system makes no sense. Read the whole article, though, if you’d like a simple explanation for inflation. Below the article you will find Arthur’s bio and contact information.
When most people think about inflation, they think about commodities such as gold and gas going up in price and currencies eroding in value.
As the speed of inflation picks up, the risk of hyperinflation occurs, with prices in supermarkets changing in front of your eyes as you shop and rotating strike cycles for workers struggling to keep up with those price increases. As workers salaries are raised by paralyzed goods producers, producer margins are squeezed, forcing producers to increase prices, and so it goes, a classic textbook economics case that that has been demonstrated, particularly in the 70s, and well studied. Recent world wide unrest is thought to be at least in part related to the inflationary commodity spikes, by analysts and economists of various stripes (i.e., it’s not meaningfully in dispute), although the Fed insists that such inflationary pressures are “transitory”.
But there’s a different way to think about inflation, and the best analogy is all around us, and it obeys well understood (or at least better understood) laws — it’s our inflationary universe. It may seem a stretch (pun intended), but it’s a great analogy. Once viewed in those terms, bubbles do in fact become more predictable.
How does the inflationary universe work? It’s expanding in all direction but, most of it,quantum foam aside, is completely empty. The interesting stuff tends to happen around sources of mass and energy, and the larger the object, the more interesting stuff happens around it, as it actually causes smaller objects, and space itself, to warp around it.
Back to the world economy. On a macro level, it’s been growing since at least the Sumerians, and just as space warps itself around sources of mass and energy, the economy warps around sources of money. This is perfectly normal, of course: a Walmart feeds over a million workers, numerous small businesses, a large range of medium size businesses, and finally dozens of large businesses (e.g. a Sony or a Kellogg). And, just like the physical universe has “unusual” objects where the laws of nature themselves get warped, such as black holes, or perhaps the even more exotic worm holes, so does the economy — the unusual objects in this case are governments with “fiat currencies”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiat_money.
To create warps in the economy, such governments can go way beyond printing money. They can create incentives and regulations that then rapidly attract (or divert) smaller entities (i.e. people, small businesses, large businesses and even giants). But there’s a price to be paid: this mass of people and companies, instead of being distributed “evenly”, or among naturally occurring gravity wells, streams quicker and quicker towards the source of “free lunch”, or, as another common phrase would put it, OPM or Other People’s Money. Eventually, unless the incentive is eliminated or reduced, a bubble is formed. And, since even governments must obey physical laws, the free lunch eventually ends, and poof, supernova, or worse, everything gets sucked into a black hole.
OK, so far we have a fancy analogy, what are some real world examples?
Here’s a quick list:
1. Housing bubble. Started forming on a combination of artificially low
interest rates and pressure and incentives to lenders to issue
unprofitable loans. The housing deduction in the US is a major
distortion of the market.
2. Student loans. Government mandates and participation in the market
distort the real value of loans. When you open a business and borrow
money from a bank, the rate you get (if you get the money at all) is
based on the risk of your business actually generating sufficient money
to pay it back. How can a degree in English Literature, with an average
starting salary of $30K, be worth the same, to the bank, as a degree in
mechanical engineering which might result in a starting salary of $100K?
The availability of loans, out of proportion to ability to pay,
continues to direct students to more expensive schools and academic
pursuits with dubious employment opportunities, instead of saving $100K
or more by going to a local community college
3. Medical costs. The government ostensibly tries to contain costs by
regulating prices, or at least the rate of price increases. But since
buyers are divorced from the financial impact of their choices, costs
continue to go up.
Numerous other examples abound. Bubbles (and the business cycle) cannot be wished out of existence, or repealed. Fear and greed drive the markets, and speculative excess (early notable example being the Tulip Mania during the Dutch Golden Age) will occur even without fiat currencies. But markets work. When people talk about “free markets failing” in 2007, they didn’t — what failed was the set of economy warping incentives and regulations and the Fed, which inflated the bubble. We continue to be in the “try to tear the Band-aid off slowly” phase now. It’s not going too well, because we have not let markets work.
Arthur is a a venture investor, inventor and alchemist. His early stage investment fund, @venture.us, turns ideas jotted down on napkins into gold, and he is building his latest company, Surre.al to give the entire world rose colored glasses.
He hails from suburban New Jersey, where he arrived by way of lucky marriage, Brooklyn, Haifa and Tiraspol, Moldova, which he is quite confident he does not remember. His solid credentials as a card carrying member of the Bourgeois class are cemented by his personal twitter handle, @iamthepoint99pct and his obsession with words and ideas is best exemplified by his Halfbakery account http://www.halfbakery.com/user/theircompetitor, where he is nearing 300 posted inventions.