Economics has been called “the science of scarcity” and “the dismal science.” While a lot of my peers may take offense to that description, it is economists who are called on to analyze data, predict the future, and share our conclusions, however rosy or gloomy they may be.
Sometimes the information we have before us is so compelling there is only one way to interpret it. Today is such a time. As I look at key indicators, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are headed toward some very dramatic events.
It reminds me of an incident experienced by my uncle, Bill Cook, back in the 1930’s. The images he shared were just as stark as the economic future that looms ahead today.
Bill Cook left Iowa for Reno, Nevada where he spent his life. He made a living as a railroad man. He was the engineer on freight trains; the huge ones that went on and on and fascinated me as a boy.
About twenty years ago he told me about a time he was involved in a massive train wreck. Another train, which came from behind his, was engineered by a man who had many years on passenger trains but very little experience with freight trains. The difference is huge. Freight cars typically carry many tons while passenger cars are comparatively light.
Lacking understanding of (and respect for) the care needed on a long downgrade, the passenger trainman went into it too fast. Realizing he needed to slow down, he made a fatal mistake. He slammed on his air brakes – an action that caused all the air pressure to be released. That left him with no braking power.
Bill could see the other train coming, so tried to pull his train off onto a siding. It rapidly became clear the collision was unavoidable. Try as he would to avoid it, the second train hit the back of his. Fortunately, for Bill, he was far enough forward that he was not injured. But the wreckage behind him was massive.
The men on the second train were doomed. Bill said it was impossible to imagine the sight of two 80-ton diesel engines colliding and being tossed into the air. The back of the first engine was almost vertical up against the front of the second, which was also almost vertical. Railroad car after car crashed. The remains of the engineer of the second train were gathered up in a shoe box.
Bill was later exonerated of any responsibility for the event; but he never forgot what he saw and the feeling of impending doom as he watched the unfolding of an unstoppable disaster.
When I watch the current economic situation, I have something like the feeling my uncle did.
As an economist, I am aware of a simple rule from one of the twentieth century’s great minds – Milton Freidman. Inflation tends to be the difference between the rate of growth of the money supply and the real (inflation adjusted) rate of growth of output. (For example, growing the money supply at a 5% rate, with GDP growing at a real rate of 3.5%, causes inflation of about 1.5%.)
Since about 1960, the money supply (called M2 by the Fed) has been increasing at a little less than 7% per year. Over that same period, inflation adjusted GDP has been increasing at about a 3% rate. Inflation over the same period has averaged about 3.7%. Given other influences (lesser) on inflation, that’s close enough for me.
In the last 18 months, the money supply has been increased by about 31%. That’s more than 20% per year! The fastest GDP (adjusted for inflation) grew since 1960 is 7.2%. If we hit that high mark again (and that is very unlikely), inflation would be about 13%!
That’s not the worst of it. Over the long-term, interest rates tend to run about 3% more than the rate of inflation. You do the math. Extremely high interest rates bring the train wreck of falling housing values and downward pressure on stock values (the basis of a huge amount of retirement funds). The inflation train is on the downhill side of the mountain. You can see the collision coming – but it may already be too late to get off the tracks!