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Overestimating Inflation

I’ve worked through a number of full economic cycles in the industry, including a number of recessions, that include:

  • The double-dip recession of 1980–1982 that was worsened by the Iranian revolution and the oil crisis.
  • A recession in 1990 was caused by accumulated consumer debt and another oil price spike.
  • The recession in 2001 was driven by the dot.com (and telecom) crash and worsened by September 11.
  • The great recession of 2007 – 2009 was the result of the subprime mortgage crisis and the meltdown of Wall Street.
  • A short recession in 2020 was caused by the COVID pandemic.

Most of these recessions were followed by periods of economic turmoil, which saw fluctuating interest rates and periods of inflation – like we are experiencing now as the delayed impact of the pandemic.

There are two interesting economic phenomena that recur in times of economic turmoil. The first is that people and businesses don’t believe that interest rates will rise. This current period of rising interest rates is a great example. Anybody that’s been paying attention has been hearing from the Federal Reserve for nearly a year that it would likely have to increase interest rates. With that much warning, people and businesses with adjustable-rate mortgages and loans had a lot of warning to refinance the debt to a fixed rate – and yet many did not do so. Mortgage rates recently hit 6% and are likely to increase further, and we’re soon going to be seeing stories of families and businesses defaulting because of the increased debt payments. For whatever reason, most people and businesses don’t refinance, even with persistent warnings that higher interest rates are on the way. This seems to be a recurring theme every time we enter a period of increasing interest rates.

The other phenomenon that I’ve seen repeated over and over is that businesses overact to inflation. Once they start seeing cost increases, they begin acting like inflation will be permanent and will continue to climb steadily. It has never done that in the U.S. economy. Costs spike, but the rate of inflation invariably slows down and goes back to normal. We’re already seeing inflation slowing due to falling fuel prices – which makes sense since escalating gasoline prices was one of the drivers of inflation.

What do I mean when I say that businesses overact to inflation? One way that I see it is in helping ISPs build business plans. I have clients that want me to build perpetual inflation into future forecasts. Building never-ending inflation into a forecast can quickly make a good idea look terrible. It is extremely unlikely that inflation will continue unabated – it never has in the U.S. economy. There are parts of the world where hyperinflation is normal, such as Nigeria that has seen inflation rates of 15% – 20% annually for many years. The country adjusts for this with currency manipulation, and businesses give big pay raises every year – and the real-life impact of inflation is barely noticed. It’s just how the economy works. But we have monetary policies in the U.S. and most of the top economies that are able to quash continuous hyperinflation.

The other overreaction to inflation also comes from vendors who raise prices in anticipation of inflation instead of reacting to actual cost increases. Economists will tell you that anticipation of inflation is one of the major drivers of inflation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when enough of the players in an industry raise prices in anticipation of future higher costs, which then becomes a driver of continued inflation. There was a lot of recent talk about price gouging and excess profits, and at least some of that came from businesses and industries that raised prices in anticipation that underlying costs would increase. There is a fine line between raising prices to be safe and price gouging. This is a phenomenon that happens in every recession, and the good news is that this also self-corrects over time when people flock to sellers that didn’t raise prices, and market prices eventually stabilize and stop climbing.

One of the most interesting things about the current period of inflation is that I’m not seeing ISPs increasing to keep up with inflation. I’m sure some ISPs have raised rates, but most broadband prices have not climbed in the past six months, as might be expected from looking at prices in other industries.

There are good reasons for this that are not related to inflation. The biggest cable companies have suddenly stopped growing, and they are probably afraid that raising rates will push folks to competitive alternatives – we’ll find out for sure at the end of the year. And most smaller ISPs take direction from the behavior of their large competitors – nobody wants to raise rates if they are competing against a bigger company that isn’t raising rates.

The good news for the industry is that everything will return to normal in a year or two – it always does. Interest rates will reach a peak and then slowly drop when the Federal Reserve no longer needs to be tweaking borrowing. Inflation will slow and will return to normal trends, and everybody will forget about it until the next crisis. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be casualties. There will be ISPs that will get into trouble if they hold a lot of variable rate debt – and some may fold. There will be some new projects that get derailed when costs climb higher than expected. But overall, the broadband sector will hunker down and wait out the current trends.

 

 

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