Journalists, politicians and economists all seem to agree that the biggest economic issue currently worrying voters is unemployment. It follows then that most believe that the deciding factor in the presidential race will be the ability of each candidate to convince the public that his policies will create jobs. It seems that everyone got this memo…except the voters.
According to the results of a Fox News poll released last week (a random telephone sample of more than 1,200 registered voters) 41 % identified "inflation" as "the biggest economic problem they faced." This is nearly double the 24% that named "unemployment" as their chief concern. For further comparison, 19% identified "taxes" and 7% "the housing market" as their primary concern. A full 44% of women, who often do more of the household shopping and would therefore be more sensitive to prices changes, identified rising prices as their primary concern. My most recent video blog addresses this topic in detail.
While these statistics do not surprise me, they should shock the hell out of the establishment. According to the Federal Reserve, inflation is not a concern at all. Time after time, in front of Congress and the press, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that inflation is contained and that it is below the Fed's "mandated" rate of inflation (whatever that may be). The Bureau of Labor Statistics is saying the same thing. The measures they use to monitor inflation, such as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE), show annual inflation well below 2%. In fact, the GDP price deflator used by the Commerce Department to calculate the second quarter's 1.3% annual growth rate assumed annual inflation was running at just 1.6%.
In fact, Bernanke thinks inflation is so low that he is actually worried about deflation, which he believes is a more dangerous issue. As a result, he is recommending policies that look to raise the inflation rate, not just to combat the phantom menace of deflation but to boost the housing market and reduce unemployment. He mistakenly believes these problems are the ones that concern Americans the most.
If inflation really is as subdued as the government claims, how is it that so many people are concerned? It's not as if the media or political candidates are fanning the fears of rising prices. In fact, given the media's preoccupation with the housing market, the fact that nearly seven times as many Americans worry more about rising food prices than falling home prices shows just how large the inflation problem must be. Yet most economic observers continue to swallow the government's inflation propaganda hook, line and sinker. In fact, although the Fox poll came out last week, I did not read or hear a single story on this topic, even from Fox news itself, which appears to not have noticed the significance of its own data.
For years my critics have always attempted to discredit my inflation fears by pointing to government statistics showing low rates. However, I have long maintained that such statistics underreport inflation, and the results of this poll seem to confirm my suspicion. There are only two possible ways to explain the disconnect. Either the government is correct and consumers are worried about a non-existent problem, or the consumers' concerns are real and the government's statistics are not. From my perspective, it seems that it is far more likely that consumers are in the right. If so, we are in a lot of trouble.
If annual inflation is actually higher than 3%, which would certainly be the case if consumers are so worried about it, then we are already in recession. Had government used a 3% inflation deflator (rather than the 1.6% that they actually used) to calculate 2nd quarter GDP, then growth would have been reported at negative .1% rather than the positive 1.3%. I believe that if the government used more accurate inflation data over the past several years, it is possible that we would have seen no statistical recovery from the recession that began in the fourth quarter of 2007. This would help explain why the "recovery" has failed to create jobs or lift personal incomes.
The Fed's zero percent interest rate policy is predicated on the assumption that there is currently no inflation. If this is not accurate, then they are making a major policy mistake. The Fed is easing when it should be tightening. If inflation is such a major concern now, imagine how much bigger the problem will become once the Fed achieves its goal of pushing the rate higher. More importantly, how much tighter will future monetary policy have to be to put the inflation genie back in her bottle? If inflation becomes so virulent before the Fed realizes its mistake, then it may be forced to raise interest rates significantly. U.S. national debt is projected to reach $20 trillion within a few years. As a result, a 10% interest rate (which would be needed to combat 1970's style inflation) will require the U.S. government to pay about $2 trillion per year in interest on the national debt. This will absolutely upend all economic projections.
Since 10% interest rates will likely crush the economy, not to mention the banks and the real estate market, tax revenues will plunge and non-interest government expenditures will go through the roof. Assuming we try to borrow the difference, annual budget deficits could go much, much higher from the already ridiculously high levels that they have reached during President Obama's term. Annual deficits of $2 trillion, $3 trillion, or even $4 trillion, would result in a sovereign debt crisis that would force the Federal Government to either default on its obligations or inflate them away. Given the tendency for politicians to prefer the latter, voters who think rising prices are a problem now should just wait until they see what is waiting down the road!