Hyperinflation is when the prices of goods and services rise more than 50% per month. At that rate, a loaf of bread could cost one amount in the morning and a higher one in the afternoon. The severity of cost increases distinguishes it from the other types of inflation. The next worst, galloping inflation, sends prices up 10% or more a year.
Hyperinflation has two main causes: an increase in the money supply and demand-pull inflation. The former happens when a country's government begins printing money to pay for its spending. As it increases the money supply, prices rise as in regular inflation.
The other cause, demand-pull inflation, occurs when a surge in demand outstrips supply, sending prices higher. This can happen due to increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.
The two often go hand-in-hand. Instead of tightening the money supply to stop inflation, the government might continue to print more money. With too much currency sloshing around, prices skyrocket. Once consumers realize what is happening, they expect continued inflation. They buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. That excessive demand aggravates inflation. It's even worse if they stockpile goods and create shortages.
These five takeaways sum up our understanding of hyperinflation:
- When prices soar over 50% in one month, the economy is experiencing hyperinflation.
- This is often caused by a government that prints more money than its nation’s GDP can support.
- Hyperinflation tends to occur during a period of economic turmoil or depression.
- Demand-pull inflation can also cause hyperinflation. Soaring prices cause people to hoard, creating a rapid rise in demand chasing too few goods. The hoarding may create shortages, aggravating the rate of inflation.
- Countries that have suffered horrendous inflation rates are Germany, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and the United States during the Civil War. Venezuela is still trying to cope with hyperinflation in the present day.
To keep from paying more tomorrow, people begin hoarding. That stockpiling creates shortages. It starts with durable goods, such as automobiles and washing machines. If hyperinflation continues, people hoard perishable goods, like bread and milk. These daily supplies become scarce, and the economy falls apart.
People lose their life savings as cash becomes worthless. For that reason, the elderly are the most vulnerable to hyperinflation. Soon, banks and lenders go bankrupt since their loans lose value. They run out of cash as people stop making deposits.
Hyperinflation sends the value of the currency plummeting in foreign exchange markets. The nation's importers go out of business as the cost of foreign goods skyrockets. Unemployment rises as companies fold. Then government tax revenues fall and it has trouble providing basic services. The government prints more money to pay its bills, worsening the hyperinflation.
There are two winners in hyperinflation. The first beneficiaries are those who took out loans and find that higher prices make their debt worthless by comparison until it is virtually wiped out. Exporters are also winners, because the falling value of the local currency makes exports cheaper compared to foreign competitors. Additionally, exporters receive hard foreign currency, which increases in value as the local currency falls.
The most well-known example of hyperinflation was during the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s. Through World War I, the amount of German paper marks increased by a factor of four. By the end of 1923, it had increased by billions of times. From the outbreak of the war until November 1923, the German Reichsbank issued 92.8 quintillion paper marks. In that period, the value of the mark fell from about four to the dollar to one trillion to the dollar.
At first, this fiscal stimulus lowered the cost of exports and increased economic growth.
When the war ended, the Allies saddled Germany with another 132 billion marks in war reparations. Production collapsed, leading to a shortage of goods, especially food. Because there was excess cash in circulation, and few goods, the price of everyday items doubled every 3.7 days. The inflation rate was 20.9% per day. Farmers and others who produced goods did well, but most people either lived in abject poverty or left the country.
The most recent example of hyperinflation is in Venezuela. Prices rose 41% in 2013, and by 2018 inflation was at 65,000%. In 2017, the government increased the money supply by 14%. It is promoting a new cryptocurrency, the "petro," because the bolivar lost almost all its value against the U.S. dollar. It can't afford the cost of printing new paper currency.
In response, people began using eggs as currency. A carton of eggs was worth 250,000 bolivars compared to 6,740 bolivars in January 2017. Unemployment rose to over 20%, similar to the U.S. rate during the Great Depression.
How did Venezuela create such a mess? Former President Hugo Chávez had instituted price controls for food and medicine. But mandated prices were so low it forced domestic companies out of business. In response, the government paid for imports. In 2014, oil prices plummeted, eroding revenues to the government-owned oil companies. When the government ran out of cash, it started printing more.
As of 2019, Venezuela’s foreign debt was about $100 billion. The annual inflation rate for consumer prices was at 15,000% percent in early 2020. With the continued collapse of its economy, the country is facing a monumental problem of debt repayment. At this moment, it is the only country in the world suffering from true hyperinflation.
Zimbabwe had hyperinflation between 2004 and 2009. The government printed money to pay for the war in the Congo. Also, droughts and farm confiscation restricted the supply of food and other locally produced goods. As a result, hyperinflation was worse than in Germany. The inflation rate was 98% a day, and prices doubled every 24 hours. It finally ended when the country changed its currency to the U.S. dollar.
The only time the United States suffered hyperinflation was during the Civil War when the Confederate Government printed money to pay for the war. If hyperinflation were to reoccur in America, the Consumer Price Index would measure it. The current inflation rate shows that the United States is nowhere near hyperinflation (it isn't even in the double digits). In fact, inflation may be too low, although mild inflation can be good for economic growth.
The Federal Reserve prevents hyperinflation in America with monetary policy. The Fed's primary job is to control inflation while avoiding recession. It does this by tightening or relaxing the money supply, which is the amount of money allowed into the market. Tightening the money supply reduces the risk of inflation while loosening it increases the risk of inflation.
The Fed has an inflation target of 2% per year. That's the core inflation rate, which leaves out volatile oil prices and gas prices. They move up and down rapidly depending on commodities trading. That affects the price of food that trucks transport long distances. For this reason, the CPI also removes food prices from the core inflation rate.
If the core inflation rate exceeds 2%, the Fed will raise the fed funds rate. It will use its other monetary policy tools to tighten the money supply and lower prices again.
Most of the funds the Fed pumped into the banking system sit in bank reserves. It has not gone into circulation. If the banks start to lend too much, the Fed can quickly raise its reserve requirement and lower the money supply.
Despite the rarity of hyperinflation, many people are still worried about it. So, if it were to happen, what should you do? There are three ways you can protect yourself from any kind of inflation. Sound financial habits would help you survive hyperinflation.
First, be prepared by having your assets well-diversified. You should balance your assets among U.S. stock and bonds, international stocks and bonds, gold and other hard assets, and real estate.
Second, keep your passport current. You'll need it if hyperinflation in your country makes your standard of living intolerable.
Third, ensure that you have a wide variety of skills and talents. Hyperinflation makes a bartering system necessary when money is useless. A broad range of practical skills gives you an advantage when trading. If you need a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread, you should know how to bake bread.