Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hyperinflation and the Venezuela Example

Everyone needs a few scary stories for telling around the campfire, and for economists, stories about hyperinflation are an obvious choice. Four years ago, "Hyperinflation and the Zimbabwe Example" (March 5, 2012) was a vivid story. But Venezuela is now providing a more current example. 

For up-to-date figures, a useful place to turn is the Troubled Currencies Project run by Steven Hanke.
The official exchange rate is 10 Venezuelan bolivars for $1 US. As inflation has hit and the value of the bolivar has plummeted, the black market exchange rate looks like this:

One can then infer an annual rate of inflation from these changes, which is shown by the blue line, with Venezuela's official inflation rate appearing in red: :

The facts emerging from Venezuela's hyperinflation are unsurprisingly grim. Annual inflation has run above 700% during some periods. According to summaries of the available data (like here and here), the IMF estimates that Venezuela's economy shrunk by 10% in 2015, and per capita GDP will be the same size in 2018 as it was back in 2000. Poverty rates, which fell from 60% to 30% with the rise of oil prices in the early 2000s, are now above 70% and rising. One estimate is that the cost of buying a basic basket of food for a month is eight times what would be earned at the minimum wage--always assuming a worker can find that minimum wage job in the first place.

On some dimensions, the bad news shades into black comedy, like the unavailability of basic consumer goods like aspirin or diapers or toilet paper. Venezuela, like many countries, does not print its own currency, but instead relies on outside firms like De La Rue. Of course, hyperinflation means a dramatically increased need for currency if the economy is to function at all. However, Andrew Rosatti at Bloomberg is reporting that the outside firms are worried about being paid for providing currency. He writes: "Venezuela, in other words, is now so broke that it may not have enough money to pay for its money." If memory serves, the hyperinflation in Bolivia back in the 1980s led to a similar problem, in which it was reported that for Bolivia, the cost of importing its own currency became for a time the country's third-largest import.

But the short-term problems of inflation are only part of its effect; indeed, one might argue that the curse of high inflation rates is that they encourage an extreme short-term focus throughout the economy. One of the most succinct explanations of inflation and short-termism that I know appeared in an essay written back in 1992 by V.S. Naipaul, called "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron," in which Naipaul quoted "Jorge" on the situation of hyperinflation in Argentina. Here, I'm quoting from the essay as reprinted in the 2003 collection of Naipaul's travel writing, The Writer and the World.
"Another aspect of inflation is that you cease to worry about productivity and even technology. Now, that is the secret of all progress: productivity. But you really can get no more than 3 or 4 percent per annum improvement in productivity anywhere in the world. With inflation like ours you can get 10 per cent in one day, if you know when and where to invest. ... It is much more important to protect your working capital than to think about long-term things like technology and productivity--although you try to do both.  So capital investment in Argentina is not even covering wear and tear. In short, when the current plant reaches the end of its working life there won't be a provision built up to purchase new capital equipment. This is the inevitable result of inflation, which is the monetary disease. Your money is disintegrating. It's like cancer. You live day to day. That's all you can do when you have inflation of more than 1 per cent per day. You cease to plan, You're just happy to make it to the weekend."