In these dark times, when betting on horses yields better returns than the stock market, hedge fund manager and amateur hedge fund manager alike must look for other means of making money easily. To those considering selling junk on ebay, stuffing envelopes in your home, starting a Ponzi scheme or gambling to make an honest dollar, hark! I know of a way you can get richer by doing absolutely nothing. Really. And you don’t even have to pay me for a book to tell you how.
This proven and reliable get-rich-quick scheme is called deflation, and it’s a great reason to start recycling your beer cans. Deflation means that the purchasing power of the dollar increases. Or, in simple terms, that the five-cent refund from your beer cans buys more now than it did before.
The mechanics behind it are not too important. All you need to know is that Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, has lowered interest rates (basically lowering the cost of investing money) almost as far as he can, and our economy is still tanking. Encouraging, no? To give you some idea of what is supposed to happen, last time interest rates were this low, it resulted in the stock and real estate booms (or bubbles, same difference) that we were all so happy about during the early 2000s.
Lowering interest rates generally has one big trade-off, though. In the rhetoric of Dr. Ron Paul, M.D. — the Texas congressman and “currency reformer” who has developed a Jim Jones/People’s Temple following among college students — the dollar loses value because lower interest rates are achieved by simply printing more money. On a similar note, if you watched any late-night TV over break, you may have come across the apocalyptic infomercial urging you to purchase a “how to” book on buying gold:
“Ron Paul urges you to buy and hold gold coins in your possession,” it inspires, “Protect against the rising risks of a currency crisis.”
But don’t drink that Kool-Aid just yet. So far, there has been no dollar-slaughtering inflation. Instead, we’re seeing the lowest rise in price levels since 1954, and many economic indicators point to deflation. Quite worryingly, deflation also coincided with Japan’s deep recession in the 1990s and the Great Depression.
On the bright side, however, deflation means that a good ol’ George W. — the original greenback, and soon the shiny presidential dollar with Bush’s smirking face on it — could go further than ever. To put deflation in another way, it is like a big, economy-wide sale. And as an added bonus, unlike in the boom times, you are less likely to get trampled to death at Walmart.
One source of deflation is the strengthening of the U.S. dollar. In the last few months, the dollar is up almost 20 percent against the euro and nearly 35 percent against the British pound. While, technically, this means that the rest of the world is doing even worse than we are, economics is a complicated science. As it happens, the strengthening dollar is bad for the competitiveness of our exports.
But let’s face reality — who really wants an American car anyway? While the automakers hit skid row, struggling to sell overpriced SUVs overseas, this is great news for you, the college consumer. And it may just be the reason to study abroad that you have been looking for!
Let me offer you a real world example. Say you are at McDonald’s in London. As a college student, you instinctively look for the menu designed specifically for you: the dollar menu (though you’re in England, so naturally it’s the pound menu). Last year, a cheeseburger cost you over two dollars — that’s how bad the exchange rate was. Now it’s only $1.30.
“Taste the rich life dollar menuaire!”
Okay, so the dollar is still not what it used to be, but, in truth, you are relatively richer.
As can be expected, there’s an ugly yang to this yin. For one, deflation also means that the value of your student loans is larger in real terms — deflation makes debt more expensive. What is more, it becomes harder to get credit, such as more student loans. Unemployment also rises, so good luck finding a job when you’re out of college. Oh, yeah, and the economy pretty much grinds to a halt. This all happens while the value of the dollar is increasing, not decreasing, so there’s no reason to buy gold.
But don’t worry: most economists think we can prevent another Great Depression, as long as policy makers are aggressive (thus, the proposed $825 billion package of spending programs and tax breaks that Obama keeps talking about). While Britain, the rest of the European Union and even China have already put together fiscal stimulus packages that rival those of the New Deal — China is spending $600 billion on infrastructure alone — debate still rages in the U.S. on how big the stimulus should be, and whether more money should go towards infrastructure or tax cuts. Ironically, the country that got it right during the Great Depression is reluctant to act today.
In the meantime, you, the college consumer, can make money doing nothing in a do nothing government. Take advantage of the delay and intransigence of our public officials before it’s too late. Soon the Obama stimulus package will dilute your dollar with a trillion more. There may even be no dollar menu after that. Perhaps then you will think about buying gold, especially if the stimulus doesn’t work because it was too slow or not big enough.
Until then, study abroad, cash in your beer cans and get to McDonald’s — before the juicy, ambrosia-like grease of the George W. menu becomes one of the few things under George W. Bush that you are nostalgic for.