Friday, August 31, 2007

Zimbabwe's inflation rate has hit a staggering 7600%. The International Monetary Fund has suggested that it may rise further over the coming months, possibly to as much as 100000%. German economic students will be pleased - it means that their lecturers will at last stop using their country's experience after the first world was as an example of hyperinflation.

Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, has frozen prices and wages in an attempt to curb the inflation. Price and wage controls have been used before, of course, including in the UK during the 1970s. They work too, but experience suggests that their beneficial impact is short-lived. This is because they do not tackle the fundamental cause of inflation. As Milton Friedman so memorably said: 'Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.'

The flip side of rising prices is the falling value of money. Money falls in value because the stock of money in circulation is rising. The fix for inflation is to curb this increase in the money stock. In practice that means hiking interest rates so that people prefer to hold their assets in an interest bearing form - that is, they trade their money for interest-bearing assets.

The overnight interest rate in Zimbabwe is currently 600%. That may sound high, but it is dwarfed by the rate of price increase, so the real rate of interest is negative. People take out loans, knowing that in real terms they will pay back (a lot) less than they have borrowed. This fuels demand, and prices skyrocket.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. A credible stance against this hyperinflation probably means a new currency, one that is linked to a stable international currency, and the adoption of a really tough interest rate policy. To the extent that credibility is linked with people, it means new people too.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Share prices are tumbling. The root cause appears to be concern over defaults on loans in the USA, specifically in the sub-prime lending market. The sub-prime market offers mortgage loans to people who might not be able to get loans from mainstream lenders - in other words, high risk borrowers. As American interest rates have risen, so the default rate on these loans has increased.

The extent of these defaults is currently only being guessed at, with estimates up to several hundred billion dollars. Obviously this is a huge amount, and it is easy to see why investors have become jittery. Nevertheless, sub-prime lenders insure themselves to some degree against default by charging higher interest rates than the norm. A high rate of default in this market is par for the course. This is not to minimise the potential seriousness of the current situation. But it is likely that many investors are pulling their money out of the equity markets on the basis of fears of a worst case scenario. Eventually the market will bottom out, and the likelihood is that there will be some bounce-back - a re-adjustment back up to bring prices in line with the real (rather than the feared) situation. Just when it will bottom out, and how substantial the bounce-back will be remains unclear at this point.