Monday, April 14, 2008

The return of inflation

Most of us never really lived through periods of high inflation, thanks to very effective central banks throughout the 80s until today. But with recent rise in commodity prices translating to higher food prices, higher raw material prices, higher property prices, higher taxi fare, higher this, that and everything else, inflation may be coming back to haunt us. And believe me it's gonna be scary.

It is generally accepted that mild inflation is actually good for the economy bcos it helps increase wages, improve productivity, encourage employment and keeps the economy churning along and all is well. But usually this means inflation of 2-3% per yr or something. And if wages increase by 5% per yr then it is a real increase over inflation and everybody is happy!

However, this time round, the world, and hence Singapore (or maybe more Singapore) may be going into a period of not-so-mild inflation. This means inflation of maybe 5-10% per yr. Although not as bad as hyperinfation, this has very drastic consequences for value investors, or rather, everybody.

A bit of digression here. Hyperinflation refers to inflation getting totally out of whack and hence the value of the currency of the sovereign entity goes down the drain. This means that in people's eyes, the currency has no value and becomes as good as banana money (read further down to know more abt this) or simply worthless paper. The worst case of hyperinflation is of course Germany in the 1920s when the inflation rate was 10^27 times.

For those who fail to comprehend the significance of this, it means that $1 today get reduced to 1/1,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 of its value. To put it in another way, even if you are a gozillionaire in Deutsche Mark, ie you have 1 million billion trillion Mark, all you have becomes $1 at the end of the day.

Basically your money is worth even less that the paper used to manufacture the note.

In Singapore, of course, we have our infamous case of the banana money issued by the Japanese military during WWII. Luckily or unluckily $1 of banana money becomes only 1/1,000 of its value by the end of Japanese occupation.

Well all these seems a bit far-fetched and probably we will not see such dramatic times again. So back to the real story, if inflation hits us at 5-10% per yr what happens? Well let's work with 8%pa (I like my blog name you see). This means that your money loses 8% of its value every year. Basically in 6 yrs, every dollar you save becomes 50c. Even if you invest wisely and earn 8%pa return, it only means that your $1 stays at its original purchasing power.

In reality $1 you invest becomes $1.08 after 1 yr but your Kopi-O also jump from $1 to $1.08 so effectively your investment did not help you build up your wealth.
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