Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Beware the Money Illusion Coming to Destroy Your Wealth

A money illusion sounds like something a prestidigitator performs by pulling $100 bills from a hat shown to be empty moments before. In fact, money illusion is a longstanding concept in economics that has enormous significance for you if you’re a saver, investor or entrepreneur.

Money illusion is a trick, but it is not one performed on stage. It is a ruse performed by central banks that can distort the economy and destroy your wealth.

…that people prefer a raise over a pay cut while ignoring inflation is the essence of money illusion.

The money illusion is a tendency of individuals to confuse real and nominal prices. It boils down to the fact that people ignore inflation when deciding if they are better off. Examples are everywhere.

Assume you are a building engineer working for a property management company making $100,000 per year. You get a 2% raise, so now you are making $102,000 per year. Most people would say they are better off after the raise. But if inflation is 3%, the $102,000 salary is worth only $98,940 in purchasing power relative to where you started.

You got a $2,000 raise in nominal terms but you suffered a $1,060 pay cut in real terms. Most people would say you’re better off because of the raise, but you’re actually worse off because you’ve lost purchasing power. The difference between your perception and reality is money illusion.

The impact of money illusion is not limited to wages and prices. It can apply to any cash flow including dividends and interest. It can apply to the asset prices of stocks and bonds. Any nominal increase has to be adjusted for inflation in order to see past the money illusion.

The concept of money illusion as a subject of economic study and policy is not new. Irving Fisher, one of the most famous economists of the 20th century, wrote a book called The Money Illusion in 1928. The idea of money illusion can be traced back to Richard Cantillon’sEssay on Economic Theory of 1730, although Cantillon did not use that exact phrase.

Economists argue that money illusion does not exist. Instead, they say, you make decisions based upon “rational expectations.” That means once you perceive inflation or expect it in future, you will discount the value of your money and invest or spend it according to its expected intrinsic value.

In effect, inflation is a hidden tax used to transfer wealth from savers to debtors…

Like much of modern economics, this view works better in the classroom than in the real world. Experiments by behaviorists show that people think a 2% cut in wages with no change in the price level is “unfair.” Meanwhile, they think a 2% raise with 4% inflation is “fair.”

In fact, the two outcomes are economically identical in terms of purchasing power. The fact, however, that people prefer a raise over a pay cut while ignoring inflation is the essence of money illusion.

The importance of money illusion goes far beyond academics and social science experiments. Central bankers use money illusion to transfer wealth from you — a saver and investor — to debtors. They do this when the economy isn’t growing because there’s too much debt. Central bankers try to use inflation to reduce the real value of the debt to give debtors some relief in the hope that they might spend more and help the economy get moving again.

Of course, this form of relief comes at the expense of savers and investors like you who see the value of your assets decline. Again a simple example makes the point.

Assume a debtor bought a $250,000 home in 2007 with a $50,000 down payment and a $200,000 mortgage with a low teaser rate. Today, the home is worth $190,000, a 24% decline in value, but the mortgage is still $200,000 because the teaser rate did not provide for amortization.

This homeowner is “underwater” — the value of his home is worth less than the mortgage he’s paying — and he’s slashed his spending in response. In this scenario, assume there is another individual, a saver, with no mortgage and $100,000 in the bank who receives no interest under the Fed’s zero interest rate policy.

Suppose a politician came along who proposed that the government confiscate $15,000 from the saver to be handed to the debtor to pay down his mortgage. Now the saver has only $85,000 in the bank, but the debtor has a $190,000 house with a $185,000 mortgage, bringing the debtor’s home above water and a giving him a brighter outlook.

The saver is worse off and the debtor is better off, each because of the $15,000 transfer payment. Americans would consider this kind of confiscation to be grossly unfair, and the politician would be run out of town on a rail.

Now assume the same scenario, except this time, the Federal Reserve engineers 3% inflation for five years, for a total of 15% inflation. The saver still has $100,000 in the bank, but it is worth only $85,000 in purchasing power due to inflation.