Inflation will remain a challenge to control as long as globalisation continues to run in reverse and long-term energy needs remain unaddressed.
Nearly all wars have brought price controls and rationing, seemingly as inevitable as battle casualties. The list of precedents stretches at least as far back as the Roman emperor Diocletian trying to set maximum prices for all commodities in the late third century AD. Over the last century-plus we saw comprehensive price controls and rationing in the two world wars. And even without the context of war, price and even wage controls were implemented during the peak statist years under UK Prime Minister Wilson and even US President Nixon.
2022 has also seen early and haphazard initiatives to manage inflation. Taxes on windfall profits for energy companies are all the rage while governments are failing to use the classic tool of rationing supplies. Instead, they are actively subsidising excess demand by capping heating and electricity prices for consumers. In France, this simply means that utilities go bankrupt and must be nationalised. The bill is passed to the government and then to the currency via inflation. Then we have the likely doomed effort by western officials to cap Russian energy prices from December 5. The intent is to starve Russia of revenue and hopefully cheapen crude oil export prices everywhere, but it will likely do neither.
In a war economy, the government hand will expand mercilessly as long as price pressures threaten stability. The thinking among policymakers is that rising prices somehow suggest market failure and that more intervention is needed to prevent inflation from destabilising the economy and even society. In 2023, expect broadening price and even wage controls, maybe even something like a new National Board for Prices and Incomes being established in the UK and the US.
But the outcome will be the same as it is for nearly every government policy: the law of unintended consequences. Controlling prices without solving the underlying issue will not only generate more inflation but also risking tearing at the social fabric through declining standards of living due to disincentives to produce, and misallocation of resources and investment. Only market-driven prices can deliver improved productivity and efficiency through investment. Looks like we’ll have to learn the lesson all over again in 2023 and beyond.
Market impact: please see Outrageous Prediction on gold rocketing to USD 3,000.