Why Everyone Is Talking About Inflation


Well, not everyone, necessarily. But all of those chatty economists. And your grandma, of course ("Why is this store so expensive? You know, I used to be able to buy a loaf of bread for a nickel!"). But we are seeing signs that inflation is on the rise after years of a whole-lot-of-nothing. So what does it mean and why should you care?

Inflation, of course, is that phenomenon whereby the loaf of bread your grandmother could by for a nickel now costs $4.25. As economies grow, there is more money moving faster amongst more people. More dollar notes swirling around means they aren't as hard to come by, which means you have to give up more of them to get the same thing. If you are an average shopper, this doesn't sound great. I personally would love to go to the grocery store without wondering if my son will actually eat his inheritance. But really bad things happen if inflation goes too low. Consider this story from your great-grandmother's era—

Inflation in the U.S. has averaged about 3.32% over the years from 1914 to now. But in between there have been a few times when things went crazy. In June of 1920, the price of all sorts of products skyrocketed by 23.70%. That's like watching your neighbor by a car for $20,000 and four weeks later, having to pay $24,740 for the exact same car. It gets worse if you think about the fact that the CPI (Consumer Price Index) by which we generally measure inflation includes a lot more than cars—groceries, rent, medical costs, clothing, services and supplies are all in there getting ridiculously expensive all of a sudden.

It was a moment of spectacular political failure—the feds had slashed spending and raised interest rates to try to balance the budget, and everyone panicked. But what followed was equally bad. By June 1921, prices had dropped to the point where it became obvious that no one was buying anything. That month, the lowest inflation rate in U.S. history came in at -15.80%. Over the 18 months that the recession lasted the wholesale price of a lot what we buy fell by well over a third. Things were cheap because no one was buying. And the jobs disappeared as a result; unemployment went from a pretty normal 5.2% to a painful 11.7%. That's almost 12% of American who could work not being able to find a job.

All of this brings us to our current predicament. Our own Great Depression (after the 2008 crash—thank you, Wall Street) pretty much killed off inflation. The money just wasn't moving. And as much as we enjoy the lower prices, we've been counting on inflation to make a return (along with some more jobs, thank you).  Fortunately things are finally looking up. Inflation has gone from -2% this past April to .1% in June (total for the past 12 months). Still not impressive, but better than the goose egg we've been looking at since 2008. And speaking of eggs— they accounted for most of the inflation in food this summer (it was a tough spring for chickens). So you might do better to stick with that loaf of bread after all.