Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Inflation - winners and losers

Economists generally view inflation as a bad thing and for most people and for most purposes it is a bad thing. However, as with many (I would not say most) economic phenomena there will be people who benefit from inflation as well as those who lose by it. Also, people who are aware of the fact that inflation is happening and its effects can (usually) take steps to either limit its adverse effects or even profit from the situation.

The winners

The big winners from inflation are borrowers. Inflation reduces the real cost of servicing and repaying debt. Historically, inflation has often resulted in higher interest costs which has made borrowing either expensive or unaffordable. This time around, interest rates have dropped while inflation has risen. In Hong Kong we now have negative real interest rates which means borrowers are effectively being paid to borrow money.

Holders of hard assets such as real estate have traditionally benefited from inflation as the cost of replacing assets has had the effect of pushing up prices in the secondary market. That has certainly been the case in Hong Kong, China and a number of other places (although there are other factors involved). In contrast, some markets (e.g. the USA) are experiencing declines in the nominal value of real estate and in real terms inflation makes those declines larger. Even then, inflation will push up the cost of developing new properties which will in turn have some limiting effect on future supply. In effect, inflation should limit the longer term downside to holders of hard assets even in a market characterised by over supply.

With different countries experiencing different rates of inflation, economic theory suggests that this has an impact on currency movements. Holding assets (even cash) denominated in hard currencies is one way to preserve or even enhance the real value of those assets. In practice, inflation is not the only factor which drives currency movements.


People on a fixed income.

Salary earners whose incomes are rising at less than the rate of inflation.

People holding assets (like cash) which generates rates of return lower than the rate of inflation.

In Hong Kong the big winners over the last 3-4 years have been leveraged property owners who work in jobs for which there is excess demand (which is most jobs involving at least some skill level). They have benefited from (i) rising property values (ii) reduced interest rates (now around 2.5%) (iii) reduced property rates as the HKSAR government has waived rates in an effort to combat inflation (iv) rising employment income as employers compete to attract and retain staff and (v) for investors, rising rental incomes. The wealth and income effect for people who meet all of (i) - (v) is significant and accounts for a significant part of the growth in consumer spending in Hong Kong.

The losers are people who rent their accommodation, people on fixed income and those who work in most unskilled jobs.

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