Buffett: Inflation Coming, Congress Must Step Up

In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Warren Buffett writes that significant inflation problems could be headed our way, and that it’s up to Congress to keep it from growing out of control.

“The United States economy is now out of the emergency room and appears to be on a slow path to recovery,” Buffett writes. “But enormous dosages of monetary medicine continue to be administered and, before long, we will need to deal with their side effects. For now, most of those effects are invisible and could indeed remain latent for a long time. Still, their threat may be as ominous as that posed by the financial crisis itself.”

According to Buffett, aside from the war-impacted years of 1942 to 1946, “the largest annual deficit the United States has incurred since 1920 was 6 percent of gross domestic product. This fiscal year, though, the deficit will rise to about 13 percent of G.D.P., more than twice the non-wartime record. In dollars, that equates to a staggering $1.8 trillion. Fiscally, we are in uncharted territory.”

That means the U.S. “net debt” — the amount held publicly — “is mushrooming,” Buffett says. “During this fiscal year, it will increase more than one percentage point per month, climbing to about 56 percent of G.D.P. from 41 percent. Admittedly, other countries, like Japan and Italy, have far higher ratios and no one can know the precise level of net debt to G.D.P. at which the United States will lose its reputation for financial integrity. But a few more years like this one and we will find out.”

Buffett says there are three ways to finance a ballooning federal debt: borrowing from foreigners, borrowing from Americans, or, printing money.

According to Buffett, that last option will need to account for $900 billion, meaning a lot of money-printing for the government. Slowing down the printing presses will take a lot of political will, however. “Legislators will correctly perceive that either raising taxes or cutting expenditures will threaten their re-election,” he says. “To avoid this fate, they can opt for high rates of inflation, which never require a recorded vote and cannot be attributed to a specific action that any elected official takes.”

“Our immediate problem is to get our country back on its feet and flourishing — ‘whatever it takes’ still makes sense,” Buffett concludes. “Once recovery is gained, however, Congress must end the rise in the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio and keep our growth in obligations in line with our growth in resources.”

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