RIP Inflation

Inflation is dead!!!  That’s quite a proclamation.  Is the stress of the holidays getting to me, making my mind soft?  Or is there something really to it?

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that inflation can have an enormous impact on your financial plan.  You also know that I think that the government’s official measure of inflation (CPI) is way overstated.  No matter what you think, it’s undeniable that inflation is important and generally the lower the better.

If you don’t want to read the whole column, I’ll give you the answer: robots and engineering.  If you’re interested in my reasoning, read on.


Quick Crash Course

Inflation basically comes from one of two places:

  1. The government going insane and turning the presses on to print more money. This is hyperinflation and Zimbabwe and Venezuela lately and the Weimar Republic in the 1920s are good examples of this.
  2. The general rise in prices as people demand more for their labor and raw materials get more scarce, leading to increased prices.

Say what you will about the insanity of Washington, but #1 really isn’t a concern.  So inflation for the rich countries of the world really comes from #2.



The latest bout of really bad inflation in the US was in the 1970s and carried over to the early 1980s until Ronald Reagan and Paul Volker punched inflation in the face.  That was started by the oil shocks that OPEC imposed on the world.

Oil production was curtailed which drove prices higher.  Oil is a bit of a unique commodity in that we used it (and continue to do so although to a lesser degree) in nearly every aspect of life.  More on that in a minute.  Our world was based on oil so we really couldn’t do with less, so we had to pay more.  We really didn’t have a choice.  Prices rose (inflation).

Thirty years later in the mid-2000s oil prices dramatically rose again to $150 per barrel as demand from India and China shook the markets.  Again we had to use oil so we paid the higher prices, but then that story ended differently.  Technology had advanced so we could use less oil—natural gas powerplants, hybrid cars, solar panels, etc.—which took a bite out of the 2007 oil shock.

Also, and more importantly, technology also allowed fracking and oil sands to produce amazing amounts of oil in the US and Canada.  All the teeth were taken out of the OPEC threat.  Prices cratered over the next few years and have remained at very low levels.  If oil ever goes up again, more fracking and shale sands will be mined to bring prices back down.  We’re probably set with oil prices being moderately controlled for the next 100 years.

BOLD PREDICTION—Oil prices will never rise faster than 2% for the rest of my lifetime.


Other raw materials

Oil is a very unique raw material in that it is used everywhere.  Others aren’t nearly so ubiquitous.  That said, raw materials can increase in price.  However, when that happens our dynamic economy has shown an amazing ability to engineer products to substitute the more expensive raw materials for cheaper ones.

The price of copper has doubled over the last 30 years (from about $1.50 per pound to $3.00 per pound).  That should cause inflation yet think about engineering.  Thirty years ago how much copper was used in telephone line—a ton (literally)?  Now that’s all fiber-optic cable (mostly plastic—which is cheap) that carries a 1000x information at marginally higher prices.  Copper pipes used to be used exclusively in homes.  Now it’s PVC which is cheaper and more durable.  You get my point.

You can also have commodities like foodstuffs (cows and bushels of corn).  In the past those have increased in price significantly.  However, as an economist would predict, as the price goes up farmers plant more corn and ranchers husband more cattle.  That keeps everything at relatively steady prices.

When ever anything gets more expensive, businesses, with their profit motive, will find alternatives to do the job better at a lower price.  That is going to keep a major cap on inflation.

BOLD PREDICTION—There won’t be raw material whose price goes up significantly while also whose use increases significantly.



The largest component of inflation is human labor.  In the past, there has always been a general pull towards higher wages.  When the economy is weak (unemployment is high) that tends to slow or even stop.  When the economy is strong (unemployment is low) companies have to compete for workers and they do so by raising wages.  That leads to higher prices.

Of course, higher prices don’t always translate to inflation.  If a person is paid more but is much more productive (thanks to computers or other tools) that doesn’t lead to inflation, and if the productivity improvements are large enough will often lead to deflation.

However, and here’s the political hot potato, those productivity advances tend to be focused on the highest-skill workers.  Engineers now have computers to make them more productive; airline pilots have more advanced aircraft; construction workers have better tractors.  When most of those people got pay increases it was because they were more productive, no their impact on inflation was minimal.

The low-skill workers really haven’t gotten productivity enhancements, so any pay increases they got typically led to inflation.  But look at what has happened to all those low-skill jobs.  They have disappeared or are disappearing.  You don’t have gas-station attendants and grocery-store baggers anymore.  Cashiers are quickly disappearing.  Soon waitresses are going to disappear.

Most of the time the extinction of these jobs is because technology (robots) can replace them at a fraction of the cost.  Politically and socially this is deep water and we could debate this for hours whether this is good or bad.  But from an inflation perspective this is definitely keeping a cap on inflation.  If the wage for a low-skill job rises to fast, a robot or computer replaces it at a cost of pennies on the dollar.

Go to your grocery store and see all the self-checkout lines.  Each of those used to be manned by a low-skill worker.  Now one worker is overseeing 8 lines.  Many restaurants have self-order tablets which eliminate the need for waitresses (now you only need servers).  Of course countless low-skill factory jobs have been eliminated by robots.  You could go on and on.

This puts a huge cap on inflation, leading to much of what we see:

  1. Stagnant wages for low-skill workers
  2. Exponential growth of people-replacing machines
  3. Persistently low inflation.

BOLD PREDICTION—Wages for skilled workers will continue to increase while unskilled workers will decrease. Only a minimum wage will keep wages at the low end up, but that will lead to fewer low-skill jobs available.


The Federal Reserve has said it is baffled by the persistent low inflation in the face of fast economic growth, historically low interest rates, a low unemployment.  In the past those three ingredients always led to inflation, something that the Fed is chartered to control.  To me it seems like an easy situation to figure out, but I am smarter than a Nobel Prize winner 😊.

It’s pretty simple—we aren’t going to have inflation because there are so many amazingly smart (and very well paid) engineers that can find any product (including people) whose prices are rising and replace them with cheaper substitutes.

Like I said before, there are social implications for this which make these issues very gray.  However, keeping to the black and white areas, I believe this means inflation will probably remain low for years to come.  As an investor that’s GREAT NEWS.

Bitcoin—Top 5 WTF

A few of you have written in asking what I think of Bitcoin and its crazy ride.  Here are my Top 5 observations on Bitcoin.


5. Unprecedented wild ride

What has happened with Bitcoin in 2017 is really unprecedented.  Its price has risen about 17x which obviously is a lot.  To me, the more astounding point is that it has risen that high given it has a market cap of $300 billion (that is the total value if you added up all the bitcoins in the world).

If you think of bitcoin as a stock, that combination is pretty incredible.  A lot of stocks have had crazy good years where they increased 17x.  However, most of those are off a really low base: so maybe a $50 million company grew to a $1 billion company.  Obviously, that is much easier to do off a smaller base.

However, with Bitcoin, continuing with that analogy, it grew from a $15 billion company (that’s about in the top 2000 globally) so that isn’t exactly small.  Then it vaulted to $300 billion which would put it at about top 10.  Think about that for a minute.  Crazy.


4. I still don’t get it

I feel like some old man who doesn’t get the world around him.  Damn kids won’t get off my lawn.

I couldn’t tell you with any specificity what Bitcoin is (there are buzzwords like “blockchain” but I don’t know what that means either).  I certainly couldn’t tell you how I could “buy” them or “mine” them.  I don’t know a single vendor who would accept Bitcoins, and if they did I wouldn’t know how you do that transaction.

And I think I tend to be fairly knowledgeable about these things.  I can pay for stuff using my watch which proves I’m at the forefront of technology, but Bitcoin is just beyond me.  I think that applies to most people—the story of Bitcoin is exciting but the details are pretty fuzzy.


3. Not surprising run-up

Given the incredible run-up, I am not surprised of it’s continued push higher in the past couple weeks, thanks to it’s listing on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange earlier in the month.

Being listed (or having your futures listed) on a very legitimate financial exchange obviously lends some credibility to something that up to this point had very little of it in respected financial circles.  Also, it somewhat addresses #4.  You can buy Bitcoin futures on the CME and I think many more people know how to do that than knew how to buy Bitcoins on their own two weeks before.

I still think Bitcoin is built on quicksand and will eventually collapse (more on this in a second), but in the short term it’s not surprising that it’s value has gotten a huge bump as it has been listed.


2. Ticking timebomb

There are a lot of people extremely bearish on Bitcoins, and many can give you a ton of reasons why it’s just an eyelash away from collapse.  I predict that eventually a central bank will crush it like an elephant finally getting annoyed by a gnat.

What would provoke such action by the US Treasury?  A terrorist attack.  It seems likely that given Bitcoins anonymity features, it will be used to fund some type of terrorist attack that will kill innocent Americans.  When that happens you can easily imagine the headlines, and then easily imagine the government’s response.

Bear in mind the whole premise of Bitcoin is that governments aren’t responsible stewards of their fiat currencies, so society needed some type of currency that the government can’t screw up.  That’s a bit of a “Screw-you” to Washington, so I think if there’s any connection between Bitcoin and a terrorist attack, the government will come down HARD.


1. Go left when everyone else says “go right”

There’s a famous saying in investing that saying when everyone believes one thing, the opposite tends to happen.  Right now, EVERYONE is saying that Bitcoin is a bubble and its value will crater.  People have been saying that when it was at $1000 and then the chatter exploded when it crossed the $10,000 threshold.  Now it’s at about $18,000.

Seriously, can you think of one serious, respected analyst who is bullish on Bitcoin?  I can’t.  Can you think of highly-regarded financial people who said Bitcoin is a crazy bubble that will crash HARD.  I can think of about a thousand.

Given that, it makes me think that Bitcoin might still have some upside.


Who knows with all of this?  I know I certainly don’t.  Personally, we don’t invest our money in Bitcoin, mostly because of #4 and a bit because of #2.  That said, I am enjoying the crazy ride that makes for fun reading in The Wall Street Journal.


Inflation–the big scary monster hiding under your bed


“Ocean waves will grind the greatest boulder into sand if given enough time”

Inflation, the general rise in prices over time, is a powerful and unrelenting force which is eroding the value of your money every year, every month, every day.  How powerful is inflation?  Look at this simple example with my neighbors, Mr and Mrs Grizzly.

If they want to spend $50,000 per year (in today’s dollars) in retirement they’ll need about $1.2 million on the day they retire (40 year retirement, 6% return, 3% inflation).  Every year in retirement they’ll spend a little more than $50,000 to buy what $50,000 buys today because of inflation.  However, if you crank the inflation knob up a notch from 3% to 4%, they’ll need $1.5 million.  Up to 5%, they’ll need $1.8 million.  What makes inflation so scary is that the impact is huge—a 2% increase requires your nest egg to be $600,000 larger—and it’s also completely out of your control.

In the US, inflation is tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the Department of Labor, with a tool called the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  Basically (I know it’s much more complex, but for brevity’s sake) it looks at a general basket of goods that people buy and tracks how those prices change over time.  It’s meant to track EVERYTHING that consumers buy: food, housing, cars, airline tickets, medical expenses, entertainment, and on and on and on.  The US boasts an amazing record of tame inflation over the decades, but even then it’s been quite a roller coaster: in the early 1980s, according to the CPI, inflation was averaging about 12%, and it has averaged about 1.6% since 2009.

That just ruined Mr Grizzly’s day.  So he needs $1.2 million today to retire, but depending on inflation it could range from $1 million to $8 million if it got as high as it did in the early 1980s?!?!?!  No bueno.  How the heck is he supposed to plan for a range like that?

What to do with inflation.  It’s like that big, scary monster living under your bed.  It can be a powerful force that can completely turn your financial world upside down.  Or, it can be something that is built up in our imagination that in reality isn’t that bad at all.  Let’s figure this out.


Inflation is going to do what it will do, and there isn’t a lot you can do about it as an investor.  The US government sets an inflation target at 2%, but reasonable people can debate how good Washington is at managing stuff like this.  When I do my planning for the Fox family, I personally use 3%.  But there is some good news—I actually think the CPI waaaaaaay over estimates inflation and that it is going to be on the lower side of historic averages, which is a good thing for those of us saving for retirement (as always, this is just my opinion and may turn out to be quite wrong, also with my projections I am not predicting the future).

The CPI is supposed to compare apples to apples, so basically what did you buy last year and how much would that cost if you bought the exact same stuff this year.  I think over the short-term the CPI works pretty well; I’d believe that prices in 2017 were about 2% higher than in 2016 (in line with the CPI’s figures).  But over longer periods of time, the CPI really fails because I think it does a really lousy job of dealing with major technological advances.  So when you look at 10 or 20 or 50 years, which happens to be the time horizon we’re looking at for retirement, I think the CPI really overestimates inflation.

If you go back to 1965 (I picked 50 years ago, because I figure I have 50 years to live, so that’s my time horizon), the CPI says prices have risen about 7.5 times.  So something that cost $100 in 1965 would cost about $750 today.  If you do the math, that equates to about 4.1% per year.  We saw the impact that the level of inflation has in the above examples (pretty major impact), yet let me tell you why I think the government is getting it wrong and there is some real relief.  This is going to be a long post (but I hope a valuable post), so get comfortable.




In 1965 you could get a new 4-door sedan like the Chevy Impala for about $3000.  Today you could get a new 4-door sedan like the Honda Civic for about $20,000.  If you do the math, that calculates to about 3.9% inflation per year, right around what the CPI says (I know, you’re saying: “Stocky, so far I’m not impressed.”)  But remember, the CPI is supposed to compare apples to apples; when you compare a 1965 Impala to a 2015 Civic, the Civic has a ton of advantages.

The Civic gets 35 miles to the gallon, while the Impala got about 12.  The Civic has incredible safety features like airbags, antilock brakes, backup camera, and on and on; the Impala has seat belts across your lap (they didn’t even have the shoulder ones).  The Civic has Bluetooth to connect to your MP3 player, while AM/FM was an option on the Impala.  A new Civic will probably last you 200,000 miles or more, but your Impala would be lucky to get to 100,000 (like “go-out-and-buy-a-lottery-ticket” lucky).

Put all that together and how much of that 3.9% annual price increase is due to inflation, and how much is due to the Civic just being a better car?  It’s not an easy question to answer, but I would think an awful lot of the price increase is because you’re getting a safer, more fuel-efficient, and more durable car . . . just a better car.

To look at it from a different angle, we know $3000 in 1965 would buy you a new Chevy Impala.  What would $3000 buy you in 2015?  A quick look at shows that for $3000 you could get a 1998 Honda Civic with 150,000 miles.  Between those two choices, each of which is $3000, don’t you have to pick the Civic as the better car?  It’s safer, much more fuel efficient, has more convenient features (cruise control, automatic windows), and it will probably last longer.  All that says that inflation was actually a lot less than the 4.1% the CPI said or the 3.9% we calculated.



Housing is the biggest expense that people have, so how does that come into play?  In 1965 the average rent was about $90 per month while in 2011 it was around $870 which calculates to about 5.1%.  That’s higher than the CPI, but before we freak out about runaway inflation in the housing market, let’s do the apples-to-apples comparison.  In 1965 you were getting a place where you might have shared a bathroom with your neighbor and a phone too.  You had an icebox instead of a fridge (literally a cabinet that you kept cool with blocks of ice), and radiator heating.

Today you have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, central air conditioning, and a fitness center downstairs if you’re lucky.  How much of that 5.1% increase is due to prices rising, and how much is due to you just getting a much, much nicer place with much better amenities?  Today, I’m sure if you tried hard enough you could get a total armpit of an apartment that was completely vintage 1965, and I bet you probably wouldn’t pay more than a few hundred bucks for it, showing that prices for apples-to-apples apartments haven’t risen near that 5.1% level.


Heart Stents


Ahhhh.  This is where you’re saying: “But what about healthcare?  Medical prices are spiraling out of control.  That’s where they get you.”  The Medical CPI shows that prices have increased an astounding 17 times since 1965—about 5.9% annually.  Mr Grizzly just had a minor aneurysm, which he knows is really going to cost him.  But before you despair, do the apples-to-apples comparison and realize that the quality of healthcare has gone up exponentially while costs it can be argued have come down.

Let’s say Grandpa Fox had a heart attack in 1965.  First, his chances of survival weren’t very good, but let’s assume he survives and gets coronary bypass surgery.  After two months of recovery he’s back at home living his normal life, but now with a sweet scar running all the way down his chest from the open-heart surgery.  That surgery back then would cost around $6000 (it’s hard to find exact numbers on this so I estimated; any reader who has better data please let me know) which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $100,000 price tag bypass surgery costs today.

Unfortunately, Grandpa Fox passed his lousy heart genes on to me.  However, instead of a heart attack hitting me out of the blue, my doctor discovers early on that I have high cholesterol and prescribes me Lipitor which costs about $300 per year, and that is even lower if you go generic.  My heart problems get taken care of for much less money, plus I didn’t have to go through a high-risk surgery and brutal recovery.

But maybe Lipitor doesn’t work, so after a while they find my coronary arteries are severely blocked and I get a stent (of course, I only use a Medtronic brand stent).  I have a non-invasive surgery where they insert the stent through a tiny incision in my hip, I go home that evening, and it all costs me about $20,000.  Like before I probably would have a much better outcome than Grandpa Fox, at about three times the cost which equates to about 2.4% inflation over the 50 years.

So while medical expenses have skyrocketed (and I totally agree they are out of control), if you look at the idea of taking someone with a heart problem and getting them back to health, prices have actually gone way down since 1965.  So much for aggressive inflation here; you could actually argue that there has been deflation.



So let’s compare apples to apples, literally.  Apples in 1965 cost about 16¢ per pound while today they are about $1 per pound—that equates to inflation of about 3.6% inflation.  But there is actually a difference between 1965 apples and 2017 apples.  Back then there was this weird concept of fresh fruits and vegetables being “in season.”  You could only buy apples certain times of the year which was around late summer and fall (I had no idea so I actually had to look this up, which kind of proves my point).  Today fresh fruits and vegetables are in season when your grocery store is open and you have money.  So again, you’re paying more but you’re also getting a better product as well—year round fresh fruits and vegetables.


And there are many product categories whose prices have fallen drastically (air travel, anything with electronics), and others that we used to be charged for but are now free (telecommunications, news articles, books).  The whole point of all this is that depending on how you look at it, inflation isn’t going to be nearly as high as the CPI says which is a huge help to savers.  That means your dollar will stretch further in retirement than you might otherwise think, and that you’ll need less to retire on.  Consider this my gift to you.