Hyperinflation or Prolonged Deflation? Coping and Investing Strategies For Either Scenario

by Millionaire Mommy Next Door on June 22, 2009

in Debt Reduction,Economy,Investing,Real Estate

Rebecca commented:

I enjoy these posts – thanks for adding a voice of reason given the vast propensity to imagine the solution to the problem is doing more of the thing that caused the problem. We’ve collectively been telling ourselves the same stories so long it’s hard to ram home still that they *are* just stories; it’s good to keep hearing stuff like this to remind us. Like Anna, I’d love to read your thoughts on surviving the possibility of heightened inflation over the coming years – its impact on savings and so on. I know you suggested in a previous post you were concerned with this matter. Any thoughts?

Many fear hyperinflation, but after digging into the topic, I don’t think it’s as likely a scenario as prolonged deflation. From what I’ve been hearing, talk of hyperinflation might be driven more by politics than economics.

We are experiencing deflation right now. Using the 12-month change in the Consumer Price Index as the measure, inflation has been negative for three consecutive months. I think the more likely scenario will be like Japan: low inflation, low interest rates, and falling house prices for at least a couple more years.

… Japan, during what came to be known as its “lost decade.” A gigantic real-estate boom in the 1980’s came crashing down in 1991, bringing many other prices with it. Efforts to restart the economy foundered time and again, as businesses were not able to generate the kind of profits that would reignite prosperity’s cycle of hiring and spending. Not until 2005 was the deflationary era finally declared to be over. ~ New York Times

Because I’ve been sitting on a considerable sum of cash since I made my exit from the stock market during the first half of 2008, I’ve been mulling over this topic. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the implications of hyperinflation and prolonged deflation. I am not an economist, so please take my thoughts and opinions with a grain of salt. In other words, this post is not investment advice; just my best guess and opinion.

During deflation, debt is the enemy. Deflation is better for those with savings accounts because it increases the value of the money they have saved. Deflation rewards people like me (with cash) and retired seniors (who no longer need to worry about rising unemployment rates and would benefit from living cost containment).

During hyperinflation, the last place one wants to be is in cash. Inflation is better for those who owe money because it reduces the value of the money previously borrowed. Inflation is better for those in debt — including the US Government. So naturally, the Fed wants to create and maintain a moderate, steady rate of inflation.

Many people worry that the amount of money the Fed is spending to stimulate the economy will create hyperinflation. I think these fears are unfounded, at least for now. Last I heard, the Fed created about a trillion dollars, which sounds enormous, but is actually small when compared to the approximately $10 trillion drop in housing values and ~$10 trillion drop in stock market capitalization.

The Fed realizes they need to be careful — if they dilute the economy with too many dollars, they risk creating hyperinflation. Hyperinflation would be tough on everyone, including the Government, because foreigners would stop lending money to the US — unless they were sufficiently rewarded for taking on the heightened risk of investing in dollars.

Compensating foreign investors for taking on inflation risk means raising interest rates. But increasing interest rates would push homebuyers and homeowners with adjustable mortgages right over the edge. Mortgage rates have increased recently and if they keep increasing, we should see home prices fall further. Prices fall as interest rates rise, because a given monthly payment covers a smaller mortgage at a higher interest rate. Collapsing property values simply are not synonymous with hyperinflation.

According to this recent article in the New York Times:

For the short term, investment experts agree, deflation is more probable, with unemployment still climbing and the economy still mired in a recession. There’s talk of green shoots, but most everyone agrees that an earnest recovery is a long way off.

No one knows for sure what is more likely to occur: prolonged deflation or hyperinflation; or when the economy might change course. So how can we prepare for either scenario?

If you think hyperinflation is likely, you could invest in:

  • shorter-term fixed-income investments
  • TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities)
  • foreign stocks and currency
  • real estate, REITS (real estate investment trusts)
  • commodities
  • precious metals
  • gold

During hyperinflation, the last place one wants to be is in cash.

If you think deflation is likely, you could:

  • raise and hoard your cash.
  • live below your means.
  • put off big purchases until prices drop more. You are, in essence, actively making money just by not losing it.
  • rent a home rather than own because home prices, like other hard assets, will continue to drop in value during deflationary times.
  • de-leverage yourself: pay off your credit debt as soon as possible — and don’t start building it up again. You don’t want your debt to expand at the same time dollars are becoming more valuable!
  • invest in dividend paying stocks. But it can be tricky to find a secure dividend paying stock in a deflationary environment.
  • play the currency market (certainly not my area of expertise).
  • play the short side using things like inverse index funds that move in the opposite direction of the market. Caution: While there are possibilities for making huge returns in this market, the rallies in a bear market can whomp you. Your timing must be precise.
  • build a CD ladder. The longer the duration the more risk there is, but at least your principal is protected.
  • invest in yourself and your education. Staying employed in such a downturn is the most important thing.

During deflation, debt is the enemy.

What am I doing? What do I plan to do?

Over the course of the past few years, I have positioned myself as best I can for the current economic deflation: I sold my home, paid off all of our debt, pulled out of equities and hoarded cash.  Today I am in a wait-and-see holding pattern and once deflation is curbed, I am in a great position to change course accordingly: I have cash ready to buy the hard assets (when they are cheap) that will help me weather inflation.

What about you? Do you think prolonged deflation or looming hyperinflation is more likely? Why?

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