At last count, the potential cost to U.S. taxpayers will be $12.8 trillion for the federal economic stimulus, bailout of financial institutions, purchases of toxic assets, financial aid to automakers, loan guarantees, tax breaks and other aid to fight the recession. The Federal Reserve, U.S. Treasury, Congress and the President have greenbacks flying off government printing presses, and as everyone except government decision-makers seems to know, that is a surefire recipe for inflation, especially the 1970s style.
The U.S. inflation experienced in the late 1970s was unique in that it occurred during peacetime. All previous inflation spikes were during wars. After the vigorous economic growth of the 1960s, inflation spiked to double digits and stayed there for three years—1979, 1980 and 1981, reaching a high of 13.5% in 1980.
For a while, there was money for everything—a growing economy, an expanding political agenda and low unemployment—but prices kept rising until Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker abandoned the political attempt to keep unemployment low and turned off the money flow. Inflation was conquered with a recession that saw unemployment reaching 11%.
Today the nation is facing the potential irony that all the trillions of dollars being spent to create jobs, save institutions and stimulate the economy could come back to bite the U.S. if the mission is successful and banks start lending, people start working and demand escalates for everything. The trillions of new dollars sloshing around the economy and the debt incurred to put it there already has devalued the dollar and eventually will force prices up. There will be a point when the Fed and others will have to induce a recession and higher unemployment to fight the inflation caused by today’s recession-fighting investment.
At the moment, individuals and businesses are clutching the money available because they are worried about the future, want to build up savings or reserves and are reluctant to take on new ventures. The economy is stuck, but not plummeting. Now is the time for the Fed, Treasury and Congress to be planning ways to pull the trillions out of the economy once the U.S. economic engine starts roaring. At that point, it will be very difficult to control.
The construction industry now is just “stayin’ alive,” as the Bee Gee’s 1977 hit song declared. But the industry also should be thinking about escalators for rising materials prices and labor costs in long-term contracts. This has been a troublesome issue in the past and certainly will be again. The recession will be over in a couple of years, and there will be strong inflation issues to dance around.