Starting with a definition. In 1956 Phillip Cagan, an economist working at America’s National Bureau of Economic Research, published a seminal study of hyperinflation, which he defined as a period in which prices rise by more than 50% a month.
There seems to be common patterns when hyperinflation occurs in an economy. These include:
- Fiscal pressure – cost of funding a war, increased social welfare payments, corrupt officials taking money from the budget.
- Dependence of a particular resource – the resource curse. Some economies rely on exports of oil, iron ore or other resources to fund its spending. This has the effect of increasing the value of the currency and although this will make imports cheaper once the resource runs out or global prices start to drop the overvalued currency falls causing a large increase in imported prices. Furthermore governments come to depend on revenue from oil and a sudden drop in prices saw a massive drop in tax revenue – 90% of Venezuela’s revenue came from oil.
- Printing money – like Bolivia in the 1980’s, Venezuela overcame their shortfall in income by printing more money. The increase in the supply of money pushes up inflation. But what makes it worse is, as the inflation rate impacts the real value of government revenue, they continue to print money to finance the budget deficit which in turn exacerbates the problem – bigger budget deficit and further inflation.
- Exchange rate – at some stage the exchange rate will collapse as people lose confidence in the currency. Imports become ever increasingly expensive and feed into the inflation calculation.
- Inflationary expectations – In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue. This is evident in Venezuela as people become accustomed to higher prices and expect them to continue which makes inflation likely to continue.Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves.
Hyperinflation tends to end in two ways.
- The paper currency becomes so utterly worthless that it is supplanted by a hard currency. This is what happened in Zimbabwe at the end of 2008, when the American dollar took over, in effect. Prices will stabilise, but other problems emerge. The country loses control of its banking system and its industry may lose competitiveness.
- The second, hyperinflation ends through a reform programme. This was very much the case in Bolivia in the 1980’s – Government spending was slashed. Price controls were scrapped. Import tariffs were cut. Government budgets were balanced. Therefore this typically involves a commitment to control the budget, a new issue of banknotes and a stabilisation of the exchange rate—ideally all backed with confidence-inspiring foreign loans. Without such reform, Venezuela’s leaders, though scornful of America, may find that its people are forced eventually to adopt its dollar anyway.
- The Economist “The half-life of a currency” September 15th 2018
- The Economist “The roots of hyperinflation” February 12th 2018