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The Ghost of Christmas Inflation

In a pandemic, you can send people all the money in the world and they still won’t go out to dinner or book a flight, especially if those services are suspended by government fiat. A pandemic is like a blizzard: If people get a lot of money when the snow is falling, they will fuel inflation once it has been cleared.

STANFORD – Inflation continues to surge. From its inflection point in February 2021 to last month, the US consumer price index has grown 6% – an 8% annualized rate.

The underlying cause is no mystery. Starting in March 2020, the US government created about $3 trillion of new bank reserves (an equivalent to cash) and sent checks to people and businesses. The Treasury then borrowed another $2 trillion or so and sent even more checks. The total stimulus comes to about 25% of GDP, and to around 30% of the original federal debt. While much of the money went to help people and businesses severely hurt by the pandemic, much of it was also sent regardless of need, intended as stimulus (or “accommodation”) to stoke demand. The goal was to induce people to spend, and that is what they are now doing.

Milton Friedman once said that if you want inflation, you can just drop money from helicopters. That is basically what the US government has done. But this US inflation is ultimately fiscal, not monetary. People do not have an excess of money relative to bonds; rather, people have extra savings and extra apparent wealth to spend. Had the government borrowed the entire $5 trillion to write the same checks, we likely would have the same inflation.

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