Even among folks that I respect there seems to be this weird fear that the US government is going to attempt to inflate away its debts. There are a couple of problems with this from my perspective.
First, its actually not that easy from a technical point of view. A significant portion of the US debt is in very short term securities, like 90 days. If I remember correctly the bulk of foreign holdings is in securities with a maturity of less than a year. This is because they are using Treasuries as a liquidity vehicle and under those circumstances you want the shortest maturity possible.
So what happens with this massive inflation? It simply drives up the interest rate of Treasuries. You get to screw investors for 90 days and then much of the jig is up.
Second, large domestic holders of Treasuries are folks the US government has implicitly agreed to backstop: pension plans, major US banks, insurance companies, state and local governments. What is the point of screwing these folks out of their money if you are just going to turn around and give the money right back to them?
Third, why is this better than a structured default? Its not as if people are going to be oblivious to the fact that they were screwed. Having done it raises the risk premium on US debt. Not the default risk premium but the inflation risk premium. What do you really accomplish with inflation versus structured default?
Fourth, what do you accomplish period? Structured default scares everyone because of the prospect that it will bring a crushing recession. An effective attempt to screw holders of US Treasury bonds should accomplish the same thing. Whose interest is that in? The Fed? Politicians? Bureaucrats?
I just don’t see the internal constituency for saying, yeah lets inflate away the debt.
Right now, there is a serious debate over whether or not the Fed should aggressively return to 2% inflation in a effort to bring down unemployment. The radicals are suggesting that the Fed should make up for the extremely low inflation that we have experienced. Way out on the bleeding edge are folks like myself who are arguing that we should carefully and deliberately establish a higher long run target of 4%. The Fed would move to this target slowly, over time giving the markets a full opportunity to adjust and price in movements.
Yet, in spite of this the Fed is dragging its heels.
So, at this point there is a reasonable argument that the majority of stakeholders could benefit from an increase in the US inflation rate to 2%. What’s stopping the Fed is its concern over whether or not such a move would spook the credit markets.
Yet, at the same time some folks are worried that the US government would engineer a default through inflation, a situation which would benefit almost no one and works only by completely catching the markets by surprise.
These just doesn’t seem like a justified fear to me.