What Causes Inflation?

What causes the prices to go up and real value to go down? To understand what causes inflation, visualize using only one economic variable – LAND; because ALL material things we buy or use originate from the land.

The land may change form, but the wooden floor you stand on (trees), the fork you hold (metals), the road you drive on (asphalt, derived from oil), the T-shirt you wear (cotton plant), the boat you sail (fiberglass, from sand or silica), and the food you eat are all originally derived from the land.

And the cost of this single economic variable, land, is RENT. Because Mother Nature isn’t making any more land (supply is limited), all land use is valued preciously through its cost of rent.

Rent dominates our entire economy. For example, the production and distribution of a cotton T-shirt pays costly rent every step of the way. The cotton farmer begins the production process by paying land rent as well as rent for his tractors. Rent is also often disguised in words like “interest” and “price”. The T-shirt manufacturer pays “interest” on his mortgage or business loan, otherwise known as rent on money; and then pays to rent space on a truck to ship it (they are not buying the truck space, so they must be renting it for a period of time).

So the consumer eventually pays for the farmer’s, manufacturer’s, shipper’s, and retailer’s costly rent in the “price” of the T-shirt. Also hidden in the “price” is typically all the office rent for accountants, lawyers, marketing, healthcare and insurance services that may be involved in the process. And the consumer so often uses a credit card, which typically charges “interest” or rent on the money it lends. Finally, the consumer rents their own house to store the T-shirt. 

Labor wages are also derived from land rents, as wages and rents are mirror images of one another. The amount of labor wages we receive are directly proportional to the land rent we pay. For example, NYC has high rents and therefore high labor wages. As the rents rise or fall, so to do the labor wages, which we are clearly seeing today. The same is true in China, India and Mexico, as it is NOT their low labor wages that produce such cheap goods, it is their low land rents. Said differently, if land rents in China were high, labor wages must also be inflated proportionately to pay for them, not the other way around.

So what do land rents have to do with inflation? Everything. As our population grows and/or we desire more ways to use our limited land, the land becomes more precious and our rents rise, causing inflation. In other words, as we demand more and more things from our limited supply of land, land rents go up and up, which in turn inflate prices of everything, resulting in a decline in the real value of things.

So what causes inflation? Rising land rents.

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  1. The period we have been in for the past 18 months is the most severe financial downturn since the 1930’s. The current cycle actually began in 2001 with the crash of the technology stock market in 2001. After that event the Federal Reserve kept a policy of extraordinarily low rates which caused a valuation bubble for both commercial and residential properties. For commercial properties, this resulted in a substantial decline in capitalization rates and leveraged return rates. This trend continued reaching a peak in late 2006. From 2006 to the failure of Lehman Brothers prices began to decline.

    With the failure of Lehman and freezing of the credit markets the market has moved substantially. I believe that the extent of the change has not yet been understood since very few properties are trading. There exists a significant gap between sellers and buyers, and in this cash constrained market the buyers will win. This is because there will be significantly fewer buyers, and as demand goes so goes price. This will also create a widening between income producing and non-income producing properties.

    In some respects this is very similar to the market during 1991, only more extreme. This will be compounded and magnified by two factors. First, $1.3 trillion of commercial mortgages are coming due during the next four years, most written at high valuation levels with no underwriting standards. Loans are now underwater and many owners who cannot refinance will be forced to sell, or their banks will sell for them. Both will need to offer higher return levels to attract a buyer. Second, many properties have current cash flow below levels they had at the time of origination, either the result of vacancies or rent concessions. These two realities will continue to put upward pressure on capitalization rates, and continue to depress the value of both income producing and development properties. Add to this the specter of inflation, and it looks to be a rough ride down.

  2. What we are experiencing is inflation of essentials (increased prices of fresh food and electricity) and deflation of non-essentials (falling prices of big houses, cars and flat screen TVs). This will continue in order for the economy to rebalance itself. In times like these, the economy is forced to become super efficient, and the prices of essentials vs. non-essentials (luxuries) reflect it.

    This effects everyone differently. If you are trying to sell your house, you may be worried about a $10,000 or $100,000 price cut, but then again, you may not really care that the price of eggs just went up 10% or a few dollars. In other words, at this moment, some of us are worried about hundreds of thousands of dollars of deflation, and others about a few dollars of inflation.

    In any case, the inflation of essentials such as food and electricity will not be so evident in the overall CPI statistics (inflation stat) because they are dwarfed by the super-large deflationary numbers of cars and houses. This is critical to keep in mind as the inflationary stats are reported. The stats create an economic mirage for every day producers and consumers trying to decipher the reality of inflation and/or deflation.

    The human error or variable is the Fed. As they “play” with interest rates and/or print money; they can not change the supply and demand fundamentals of our credit, but can greatly distort price. For example, the house may finally sell for $300,000, but the value of the money is worth half as much since the Fed has doubled money supply. In other words, you can’t buy as many eggs (essentials) with your inflated money.

    This excerpt from Jean-Baptiste Say, one of my favorite economists, explains on page 227 of Treatise on Political Economy:

    “As a proof that this paper (money) has a peculiar and inherent value, when its credit was the same as at present, and its volume or nominal amount was enlarged, its value fell in proportion to the enlargement, just like that of any other commodity… No government has the power of increasing the total national money otherwise than nominally. The increased quantity of the whole reduces the value of every part; and vice versa.”

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