This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s (1960s) Inflation Scare

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“This reminds me of the late 1960s when we experimented with low rates and fiscal stimulus to keep the economy at full employment and fund the Vietnam War. Today we don’t have a recession, let alone a war. We are setting the stage for accelerating inflation, just as we did in the late ‘60s.”
Paul Tudor Jones

As soon as the GOP followed its long-promised tax cuts with damn-the-deficit spending increases (who cares about the kids, right?), you knew to be ready for the Lyndon B. Johnson reminders.

And it’s worth remembering that LBJ pushed federal spending higher, pushed his central bank chairman against the wall (figuratively and, by several accounts, also literally) and eventually pushed inflation to post–Korean War highs.

Inflation kept climbing into Richard Nixon’s presidency, pausing for breath only during a brief 1970 recession (although without falling as Keynesian economists predicted) and then again during an attempt at wage and price controls that ended badly. Nixon’s controls disrupted commerce, angered businesses and consumers, and helped clear a path for the spiraling inflation of the mid- and late-1970s.

So naturally, when Donald Trump and the Republicans pulled off the biggest stimulus years into an expansion since LBJ’s guns, butter and batter the Fed chief, it should make us think twice about inflation risks—I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that.

But do the 1960s really tell us much about the inflation outlook today, or should that outlook reflect a different world, different economy and different conclusions?

Learning from the 1980s: The Power and Irony of “MDuh

Forget about big hair, Ray-Bans, and Donkey Kong. Don’t even think about Live-Aid, Thriller, and E.T. Above all else, the 1980s were the gravy days of the money supply aggregates.

Beginning in late 1979, the Fed built its policy approach around the aggregates—primarily M1 but occasionally M2, and policy makers also monitored M3 while experimenting with M1B and, later, MZM. But those were just the “official” figures. Economists and pundits debated the Fed’s preferred measures while concocting their own home-brewed variations.

Notably, the Fed allowed interest rates to fluctuate as much as necessary to achieve its money growth targets. Fluctuate they did—rates soared and dipped wildly as a direct result of the Fed’s policy. The world, meanwhile, watched the action as attentively as a Yorkie watches breakfast, studying every wiggle in every M. Missing one wiggle could have meant the difference between exploiting the volatility that the Fed unleashed or being sunk by that same volatility.

And to make sense of it all, the world looked to the most famous economist of his day, Milton Friedman. By converting a large swath of his profession to his strict brand of Monetarism, Friedman more than anyone else had triggered the monetary frenzy.

But then, almost as quickly as the frenzy blew in, it blew right back out. With none of the Ms living up to their billings as economic indicators, the Monetarists drifted from view. Not in five minutes but in five years, give or take a couple, their period of fame was over. Friedman’s reputation as an economics savant fell particularly hard—his highly publicized forecasts proved inaccurate in each year from 1983 to 1986. And the Fed once again redesigned its approach, first deemphasizing and eventually dropping its money growth targets.

But maybe the Monetarists came closer to explaining the economy than their critics allowed?

Maybe the best indicator—I’ll call it “MDuh”—was somehow hidden in plain sight?