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What Causes Inflation and Should I Worry About It?

In the longer term, the (sometimes contested) theory goes, high inflation can become entrenched if workers begin to expect it and can successfully negotiate wage increases to cover their climbing costs. Companies, facing higher labor bills, may manage to pass the costs onto consumers — and voilà, you have a situation where pay and prices push one another steadily upward.

Whether inflation is “bad” depends on the circumstances.

Most everyone agrees that super fast price increases — often called hyperinflation — spell trouble. They destabilize political systems, turn middle-class workers into paupers overnight, and make it impossible for businesses to plan. Weimar Germany, where hyperinflation helped to usher Adolf Hitler into power, is often cited as a case in point.

Moderate price gains, even ones a bit above the Fed’s official goal, are a topic of more-serious debate. Slightly higher inflation can be good for people who owe money at fixed interest rates. If I sell coconuts for $1 and owe my bank $200 today, but next year I am suddenly able to charge $1.05 for my coconuts, my debt becomes easier for me to pay back: Now I only have to sell a little bit over 190 coconuts plus interest.

But inflation can be tough for lenders. The bank to whom I owe my $200 is obviously not happy to get 190 coconuts worth of money instead of 200 coconuts worth. While politicians and the public rarely cry for bankers, the same is true for people with savings that bear low interest: Their holdings will not go as far. Inflation can be especially tough for people on fixed incomes, like students and many retirees.

For workers taking home paychecks, whether inflation is a good or bad thing hinges on what happens with wages. If a worker’s pay goes up faster than prices increase, they can still find themselves better off in a high-inflation environment.

Wages are growing quickly right now, especially for lower earners, but some measures suggest the growth is not keeping pace with inflation as it picks up steeply. Still, many households are also receiving transfers from the government — including an expanded Child Tax Credit — which could keep some families’ financial situations from deteriorating.

High or unpredictable inflation that isn’t outmatched by wage gains can be especially hard to shoulder for poor people, simply because they have less wiggle room.

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