Inflation – the Zombie of Economic Cycles

At this time, inflation is so benign that people don’t even think about it. In fact, some people are more worried about deflation than inflation. However, all this will change in the coming years, and we all need to prepare and plan for the eventual and inevitable pendulum swing to the other side of the inflation cycle.

The last peak of the inflation cycle was in 1982. For almost two decades before that, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter wrestled with labor, corporations, and the economy to get inflation under control. Does anyone remember the “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) button? That was President Ford’s attempt to arouse public support for his “ten-point program to deal with inflation.” [1]

What killed inflation? President Carter nominated Paul Volcker to the position of Chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1979. By the end of spring 1981, Volcker had put in place a combination of monetary policy and interest rates changes that squeezed all the financial excess out of the economy. This caused a severe recession and a spike in unemployment, but when it was over the systemic inflationary issues disappeared and the inflation beast was slain.

Because of the long length of the inflationary cycle, people have a hard time relating to it. It takes more than a generation (about 27 years) for the down cycle, when prices are declining, and people think that inflation has gone away. But at the end of that 27 year down cycle, inflation then turns around and starts its 27-year ascent to the peak of the inflation cycle. As you can see, inflation has an overall 54-year cycle known as the Kondratieff cycle (also known as the Long Wave cycle).

“So strong was the decline of prices by 1996 that several leading economists asserted that the age of inflation was at an end.” [2] However, this is just the typical rear-view-mirror perspective of any person who is trying to predict the future by extrapolating the recent past. It does not work. Everything in life has a cycle, and the next phase of Kondratieff’s Long Wave will be the upswing of the inflation cycle. The beast we thought was slain in 1982 will come back to bite us.

[1] Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment With History, by James Cannon, 1994, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, New York, page 401

[2] The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, by David Hackett Fischer, 1996, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, New York, page 233

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