Economist Peter Bernholz is an expert on the subject of national hyperinflations. He has studied all the major cases of hyperinflation since 1980. His conclusion: The tipping point occurs when a government’s deficit exceeds 40% of its expenditures.

Guess what? The U.S. will hit the 40% mark in 2009:

debt-expenditures

Hayman Advisors provided a good summary of Bernholz’s research in their October letter (via FS):

There have been 28 episodes of hyperinflation of national economies in the 20th century, with 20 occurring after 1980. Peter Bernholz (Professor Emeritus of Economics in the Center for Economics and Business (WWZ) at the University of Basel, Switzerland) has spent his career examining the intertwined worlds of politics and economics with special attention given to money. In his most recent book, Monetary Regimes and Inflation: History, Economic and Political Relationships, Bernholz analyzes the 12 largest episodes of hyperinflations – all of which were caused by financing huge public budget deficits through money creation. His conclusion: the tipping point for hyperinflation occurs when the government’s deficit exceed 40% of its expenditures.

It’s important to note that the dollar does have some built-in protection as the world’s current reserve currency. That lets us get away with a higher debt-load than we should be able to. The question is, how much protection does that offer?

Also, how long will the dollar remain the world’s reserve currency? As Bloomberg noted, the world’s reserve banks are shifting away from US dollars. They’re shifting to currencies from countries with sound(er) monetary policy and less debt. We’re really in uncharted economic territory.

“It can’t happen here”

Hyperinflation in the US is hard to imagine. It could never happen to us… right? Well, fiat money has always collapsed eventually. I wonder if people in those countries ever saw it coming. My gut says the vast majority never saw it coming, but every case is unique.

Hedging Against Hyperinflation

If we are on the road to hyperinflation, you’ll definitely want to be in commodities. Stocks may do OK, but generally don’t keep up with inflation during hyperinflation. The exception would be commodity producers, such as gold miners. Foreign currency funds are another way to play it. I did a writeup on two mutual funds I like as inflation hedges here.

Jim Rogers likes agriculture plays better than precious metals: Cotton, sugar, etc. I’m mostly using metals to hedge against inflation, but Mr. Rogers’ suggestions certainly warrant a closer look.

If you’re looking to read more on the topic, Peter Bernholz’s research is featured in his new book Monetary Regimes and Inflation: History, Economic and Political Relationships. Looks interesting, I’ll probably pick one up with my next Amazon order.

Hat tip to Michael Panzner. He has an excellent writeup on the risks here.