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The United States government, with its massive spending and money printing programs intended to address the current recession, together with social reform programs sponsored by the Obama administration, now runs the risk of unleashing a level of inflation not seen since World War II or the Carter years.
To sop up the money being issued and to scale back over-blown entitlement programs, will take a level of political will not observable in Washington DC today.
Furthermore, there is no Ronald Reagan on the horizon to clear up the coming mess.
Therefore, it is prudent to consider what the economy might be like under prolonged inflation, such as is often seen in the Third World.
Insurance and inflation
Inflation has many casualties, but one of the sectors most seriously harmed is the insurance business.
High, persistent inflation grievously harms the insurance industry
Insurance is a contract in which money is paid today in expectation of return of a greater amount to cover a named risk at some uncertain future date.
That named risk has a value to the insured, generally related to the amount it will cost at a future date to heal the damage related to that risk.
For example, fire insurance is paid when one’s house burns down. The idea is that the amount of the insurance payment should be reasonably related to the cost of resolving the damage at that future date.
Long-term insurance becomes worthless
However, in an environment of high inflation, say 20% or more a year, the amount that would be necessary to cover the future risk will be much higher than in a non-inflationary environment.
Also, because inflation may vary considerably from year to year, the cost is highly uncertain.
With high inflation, the cost of the premium goes up, well before the salary and wages of the insured.
The higher the expected rate of inflation, the greater portion of current income must go to cover the future risk and the less certain that the coverage will be sufficient.
At some point, people stop buying insurance and the insurance business dries up.
Longer term insurance is more vulnerable than short term insurance
The life insurance one buys at the airport to cover the risk of dying on today’s flight is hardly effected by the rate of inflation. However, life insurance with expected payment in thirty of forty years is no longer purchased.
Each class of insurance is effected to a different degree by inflation, but generally, inflation is bad news for the insurance business.
Collateral damage if insurance disappears
In the United States, the principle buyers of municipal bonds include property and casualty insurance companies.
Inflation will adversely effect municipalities, not only by driving up the rates on bonds directly, but also indirectly by reducing demand through insurance companies.
Life insurance companies are major buyers of equities in the United States.
High inflation is the kiss of death to the life insurance business.
As life insurers fold their tents and slip away into the night, this source of equity demand will disappear.
Prices of stocks will be depressed.
Defined benefit pension plans and annuities are another casualty of inflation.
Not only will inflation reduce the value of such programs to the beneficiaries, wreaking havoc on those in retirement, but another source of capital to support employment will be removed.
The impact of inflation on health insurance may be somewhat different from that on other lines, principally because of government involvement and political connotations.
In Brazil, in the hyper inflation of the early 1990s, doctors were found driving taxi cabs, because the government health insurance program did not provide them with sufficient income to make a living.
Inflation may shrink the capital market
Insurance companies are an important segment of developed capital markets.
However, with inflation, their contribution as a source of capital is removed or greatly diminished.
The direct results are on equity and long term bond markets.
The current scandal over the bonuses paid to executives of AIG is a gigantic misdirection of anger which should be directed to members of Congress who are directly responsible for the excessive spending that is likely to drive future inflation.
This inflation, if not controlled by some future government with far more backbone than the current, by wiping out the life insurance business will do more harm to the American taxpayer than all the irrational behavior of a few misguided executives.
In inflation, investment market may tend to shift to very short term commercial paper and real estate.
Life goes on, it’s just different.