Just when you thought it was safe to wear bell-bottom pants again, that other nightmare from the 1970s -- double-digit inflation -- is also about to make a comeback as a result of the European financial crisis. It will likely be a year or two before the fun and games get into full swing, but when they do, don't have an adjustable rate mortgage.
Inflation occurs when there is surplus money floating around the economy, and a surplus of anything, be it ham or housing, causes its value to fall. In simple terms, inflation is caused by a government printing more and more bank notes to fund itself. A famous example was Germany after World War I. In 1918, one U.S. dollar bought 10 German marks, but five years later, the same dollar bought 4.2 trillion marks. That situation is often blamed for the rise of Adolf Hitler, so understandably the Germans have been obsessed with controlling inflation ever since. Unfortunately, this obsession and recent action by the U.S. Federal Reserve will likely bring inflation to the United States. Here's why.
In 2008-2009, the U.S. banking system came within a whisker of collapse. Artificially low interest rates and scandalously lax lending standards created a housing bubble that inevitably burst. Partly to blame was a practice known as securitization, whereby lenders packaged their housing loans into one security sold to investors (mainly banks) who earned a return, as long as mortgages were being paid off. Mercifully, the Fed was able to quickly buy up and quarantine these securities because they were already prepackaged. The situation in the Eurozone is entirely different.
Although we keep hearing about the sovereign debt, which is securitized, the majority is unsecuritized consumer and business debt. Yes, the European Central Bank (that's Germany to you and me) can buy dribs and drabs of Greek bonds, but no, it can't do much about auto loans in Athens, or credit cards in Corinth.
The Federal Reserve did not actually print money to buy the mortgage-backed securities. Instead, it simply added $2.5 trillion worth of zeros to the accounts banks held with the Fed. So far, all those zeros are just book entries and have yet to leak into the economy, but should they do so, the only possible result will be inflation. And a lot of it. Worse yet, no one, least of all the Fed, is quite sure how to unwind this situation.
However, since the inflationary risk is so obvious, the financial markets assumed the Fed, as the principal banking regulator, would guard the zeros and keep the banks from doing anything foolish with them. That was until late November 2011 when the financial markets suddenly realized, like most people, they had forgotten their Latin, specifically: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians?
On Nov. 30, 2011, the Fed seemingly left the Eccles building in Washington, D.C., and moved into Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch, whereupon it started taking economic advice from the llamas and the chimps. Specifically, it offered European banks -- banks over which the Fed has no control or influence -- access to all of the zeros currently under lock and key in Washington.
By the end of the day, the Dow Jones had risen nearly 600 points. Was this rally an emotional outpouring of relief that our beleaguered Greek friends would no longer have to chase down lizards and crickets for dinner? Almost certainly not. It was the instantaneous realization that all those zeros would soon find their way back to the United States and spike inflation to 15 percent or more.
The Eurozone has a banking crisis. The politicians are selling it as a currency crisis because it is easier to garner public support for the popular and convenient euro, than for unpopular and incompetent bankers. Otherwise stated, when Cinderella's house catches fire, guess who gets rescued first? Cinderella or her ugly sisters?
While it is convenient to point fingers at the sovereigns like Greece and Spain, the real culprits are the consumers in those countries who gorged themselves on the low interest rates Germany needed in order to assimilate the old East Germany. If the European Central Bank is sensible enough to cut off the euro credit card, the Fed should not start issuing the Europeans a U.S.-dollar credit card. After all, if we realize the economic unsustainability of the Chinese lending us money to buy their goods, why should we lend dollars to Eurozone countries to buy our goods, especially when they have already demonstrated their inability to repay their debts?
By offering to lend to the Eurozone, the zeros that currently exist only as entries on a balance sheet will turn into physical paper dollars that will return to the United States. Proponents of this malarkey will argue much of the $900 billion of paper currency in existence circulates abroad. This is true, but the majority of it circulates in the developing world as a secondary currency for big-ticket items and as a hedge against local inflation.
The Eurozone is not Zimbabwe. The Eurozone countries buy 12.5 percent of our exports, and what they don't buy from us, they buy from other countries who buy from us. These dollars will come home as surely as Lassie always did, and in doing so, will spark inflation here in the United States.
Giles Bootheway, a native of the United Kingdom, is a finance professor at St. Bonaventure University. He recently won an award from the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences for his paper, "The Symbolic Value of the Euro in the Eurozone Crisis."