Is Deflation Really That Bad?

People in the financial world don’t have nightmares about werewolves or falling off a cliff, they wake up in a cold sweat crying out one bone-chilling word: “Deflation!”

Ordinary (or should I say normal?) people don’t suffer from this affliction.  In fact, I’d dare say most people don’t even think of the word deflation, much less dream about it.

However, to those in the financial world, whether investors, economists, accountants, or central bankers, the word deflation conjures up visions of the Great Depression and Japan’s Lost Decade (it’s been 2 decades, actually, but it’s always referred to as 1 for some reason).

Is deflation really that bad?  It all depends on what you mean by the term.  For some odd reason, the term refers to two very different things.

One refers to the end of a credit expansion that ends in debt defaults, bank failures, and tremendous and long-lasting economic collapses.  That’s the nightmare one.

The other thing deflation refers to is when money supply doesn’t keep up with economic growth.  In my opinion, this one isn’t bad at all. 

Can you imagine what life would look like if the cost of goods went down by 3% a year instead of up 3% a year?  Would you really have nightmares if the cost of computers, cars, TV’s, food, clothing, etc. went down each year?  I don’t think so–everyone loves a sale!

And yet, this is why people get so confused, because deflation refers to two entirely different things.  Can you imagine going to the grocery store and seeing hamburgers labeled “Rat Poison”?  You know hamburgers aren’t poisonous, but the label would definitely throw you off.  The same is true with the word “deflation.”  It refers to something yummy like a hamburger, and at the same time something terrible like rat poison.  No wonder people fear deflation.

Historically, deflation (the good kind) got a bad name in late 1800’s United States.  After the Civil War, the U.S. experienced years of declining prices as the government worked to get its finances back in order and U.S. currency back on the gold standard.

It was great as long as you hadn’t borrowed lots of money.  This was a boom time for railroads and manufacturing industry like Carnegie Steel.  If you owned stock in James J. Hill’s railroad, the Great Northern, you received 8% dividends that bought more and more stuff each year, plus you benefited from the railroad’s growth! 

The cost of things were going down because the U.S. economy was becoming more productive.  It was great unless you owed debt.  Debtholders hate deflation because it means they must pay back loans with dollars worth more each year.

This was especially painful for marginally profitable farmers.  Industrialization had made farming more productive, which meant marginal farmers couldn’t break even.  They borrowed to try to keep up with productive farmers, but this just created new problems.  You can’t pay back loans or farm profitably if the value of the corn you produce is going down faster than the debt you owe. 

So it is with every technological advance.  I’m sure caveman Ug was put out of the hunting business by caveman Thug who invented a new, more effective spear.  Such is the way of the world.

This industrial/technological/economic shift led to the populist movement and William Jennings Bryant’s “cross of gold.”  But, none of that helped the poor farmers who needed to find economical work.  Eventually, they went to work in factories and a new boom occurred.

But, the legacy of deflation as a bad thing lived on.  The very vocal minority of unprofitable farmers (and especially their political demagogues) made enough of a ruckus that deflation has a bad name to this day.

Next time you wake up in a cold sweat dreading deflation (not very likely, huh?), just reflect on which type you dreamed about–the hamburger, or the rat poison?

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Is Deflation Really That Bad?