Trying to Inflate Our Way Out of Debt Is Like a Monkey Trying To Outrun a Lion

Washington’s Blog
Saturday, August 29, 2009

Commonly-accepted wisdom says that we can inflate our way out of our debt crisis.

Ben Bernanke and Paul Krugman apparently think we should force inflation on the economy. University of Oregon economics professor Tim Duy thinks the U.S. will ultimately try to inflate its way out of debt.

Warren Buffet says:

A country that continuously expands its debt as a percentage of GDP and raises much of the money abroad to finance that, at some point, it’s going to inflate its way out of the burden of that debt.

But as I have previously noted, UBS economist Paul Donovan has demonstrated that governments can’t inflate their way out of debt traps, saying:

The problem with the idea of governments inflating their way out of a debt burden is that it does not work. Absent episodes of hyper-inflation, it is a strategy that has never worked.

Megan McArdle points out:

It is a commonplace on the right that we’re going to have enormous inflation, not because Ben Bernanke will make an error in the timing of withdrawing liquidity, but because the government is going to try to print its way out of all this debt.Clusterstock notes that it doesn’t quite work this way:

As this chart shows, instances of declining debt-to-GDP rarely coincide with periods of inflation. If it did If it did, we’d see more dots in the lower right-hand

The bad news for central bankers is that creating currency isn’t like, say, diluting shareholders in a company. You’re always rolling your debt, and the market’s response to an inflationary strategy is (not surprisingly) higher interest rates. It’s a treadmill, and it’s extremely hard to get ahead.

Inflating your way out of debt works if you’re planning to run a pretty sizeable budget surplus–big enough that you won’t have to roll your debt over. Otherwise, your debt starts to march upward even faster, as old notes come due, and you have to roll them at ruinous interest rates. Hyperinflation might wipe out that debt, but also your tax base.

Financial Week notes:

Analysis shows even a sizable hike in CPI won’t do much for companies or households that owe money.

Analysis released by Leverage World, a publication of debt research firm Garman Research, showed that companies that have issued debt at a coupon rate of 8%, as is typical for non-investment grade issuers, would have to see inflation hit 23% to inflate away the amount of debt they owe in 5.5 years. That’s the average amount of time that investors would have to hold such debt to compensate for the risk of default.

But investors would refuse to do so under such a scenario, Chris Garman, principal in the research firm, noted—not with yields on such debt currently running at 18%.

As Mr. Garman put it in the publication, inflation at that level “would crush the appeal of an 8% coupon.