Inflation is a decrease in purchasing power over time. In other words, it’s a rise in prices. With inflation, prices of goods and services rise as money becomes worth less.
While it’s not guaranteed, inflation typically happens consistently at roughly 2% per year. Over the years, these inflation percentages add up. While in one year a $1 bill may go down in value of about $0.02, over 50 years it may go down by $0.64.
There are certain situations where inflation may be negative (known as deflation), although with nearly 100 years of measuring purchasing power, inflation has continued onwards.
As prices rise and money’s value falls, the amount that a dollar can buy decreases. For example, up until 1959 you would have been able to buy a bottle Coca-Cola for $0.05. Alongside the United States’ increase in the amount of bills in circulation to pay for infrastructure, bills, and other expenses, prices across the country have increased.
Inflation happens when a reserve, in this scenario, the United States’ Federal Reserve, increases the amount of bills in circulation. It’s important to remember that money doesn’t increase, but the number of bills does. As this happens the value of currency, or the US dollar, falls and the bill is worth less. Companies selling products, such as Coca-Cola in the previous example, will increase their prices to cover the drop in value.
Let’s say the United States had $1 trillion in bills in circulation around the world. At this base value, a dollar is worth $1. If the government decided to print out $1 trillion more to cover expenses, then there would be $2 trillion bills in circulation. As there are more physical bills out in the world, but the value hasn’t increased, then a dollar would be worth half as much. In this extreme example, a dollar bill would be valued at $0.50.
Since a dollar can only buy $0.50 worth of a product now, then sellers might increase their prices to make up for the loss in value. With this dramatic scenario, a $1 item might be sold for $2 now, or it might slowly increase in price over time, to make up for inflation. This number is usually measured with a CPI or Consumer Price Index, which measures the relative price of something. If the $2 item originally cost $1, then the CPI would be 200, as it’s 200% the original price.
As to whether inflation is good or bad depends on the increase amount. It’s nearly universally agreed that too much or too little inflation is bad. As inflation increases, then the value of a dollar is worth less. Prices increase, wages increase, savings dry up, and nobody’s happy. If there’s not enough inflation, beneficial projects don’t happen, demand for items may fall, the economy slows, and wages fall.
There are, of course, some negatives. These might include:
There are, of course, some negatives. These might include:
The US government has pushed a target of 2% inflation annually, which works to help boost the economy over time. This also helps reduce the size of debts, doesn’t harm savings too much, helps to increase demand for products, and allows the government to undertake large projects. It all depends on context though, as some periods of low or high inflation may need high or low inflation, respectively, to follow up.
The US is an odd case when it comes to inflation. Over 88% of foreign trades use the US dollar, and it’s the world’s primary reserve currency. Thousands of banks and billions of people across the world either use or store USD (United States dollar), so the United States government must be especially careful about inflation.
Luckily though, the Feds have been careful with the dollar’s inflation, keeping just an average inflation rate of around 3.1%. This means, over the last 25 years, prices have increased around 115%. While that may seem like a lot, it pales in comparison to similarly-sized Brazil’s annual inflation of 328%.
With the dollar’s low inflation rate, it helps to ensure that the USD remains a useful currency across the world. Even still, there have been some years with above average inflation, usually following an accident or a crisis. Including the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, these years have the United States government printing money to afford large relief packages or infrastructure projects.
Some of these years include:
In many of these scenarios, the Federal Reserve will move to increase interest rates, which slows down the economy. As increasing inflation increases the economy, by slowing down the economy, inflation falls. In scenarios with a fall in spending, the States decrease interest rates to attempt to boost inflation and spending. When rates rise, inflation falls.
With the Coronavirus pandemic, inflation had fallen to great lows as the government dropped interest rates and spending stopped. The number has increased since then, reaching a 13-year high earlier in 2021, thanks in part to the multi-trillion-dollar stimulus packages.
As these are massive, the Federal Reserve increases the amount of bills in circulation to pay for it. Inflation then increased as the number of bills and value of money attempted to even themselves out.
Since its founding, the United States Federal Reserve has slowly decreased inflation rates over time. Even still, there are countless spikes and dips as different things occurred. The highest inflation rate since the United States’ beginning was 29.78% in 1778, although the highest rate since the Consumer Price Index’s (CPI) creation was 19.66% in 1917. Following these two, the Reserve went through periods of deflation, as negative inflation was the only option at the time.
The Federal Reserve didn’t have a plan as to what the consensus inflation rate was to be, so for the first few decades since the CPI’s creation in 1913, inflation was all over the place. With the addition of World War I and WWII, the Great Depression and more, there were many major events.
Inflation is an always changing and always present part of living in the United States or using the USD. With a government as big as in the States, there will always be major expenses which will have to be paid with printed money. There’s also the constant need to stimulate the economy and its growth, especially with over 300 million citizens within the nation.
There will always be years with high inflation alongside low inflation. Following the Coronavirus pandemic, inflation immediately sped up, but understanding inflation allows you to prevent losing money. Inflation also erodes at your wealth overtime, meaning that putting up a shield against inflation can be exceedingly important.
By understanding that inflation will continue, you can act and prevent yourself from falling victim to its associated issues. You can also take advantage of certain aspects, including falling debt values or increasing wages. To beat the 3% annual inflation which is nearing 2%, invest your wealth in high income savings accounts or the stock market. A high percentage over 2% or investing in the S&P 500 will almost guarantee you can outdo the negative effects of inflation.
The most important reason behind understanding inflation, is preventing yourself from acting irrationally. While inflation speeds up on occasion, many people move their money to non-consumables or stop themselves from spending. By understanding that inflation is usually compensated with buybacks or lower interest rates, you can help prevent yourself from moving too quickly.
We’ll have to see! The Federal Reserve has worked incredibly hard over the past few decades to push annual interest to 2% or below, although this can never be assured. Major events like the Coronavirus pandemic or another recession can push inflation down before it explodes again, meaning that we’ll have to wait.
While inflation rates are currently picking up following increased spending and the quantity of money printed in 2020, the Reserve is determined to continue to keep rates low and work to buyback bonds and other valuables to boost the value of the USD. If not careful though, the government could potentially lead towards hyperinflation which could destabilize the economy.
It’s way too early to go that far though, although we can rest assured that with the right precautions and understanding of inflation, users of the USD will be able to save wealth and value, even with inflation. Although 3.1% average inflation over the past hundred years meant prices increased by over 150% since then, with proper investments and inflation hedging, inflation can be counteracted. It’s important to stay rational and understand how inflation works and can potentially benefit you.