Inflation is the rate at which the general level of prices for goods and services is rising and, consequently, the purchasing power of currency is falling. Central banks attempt to limit inflation, and avoid deflation, in order to keep the economy running smoothly.
The effects of inflation on different groups of society are discussed below:
(1) Debtors and Creditors:
During periods of rising prices, debtors gain and creditors lose. When prices rise, the value of money falls. Though debtors return the same amount of money, but they pay less in terms of goods and services. This is because the value of money is less than when they borrowed the money. Thus the burden of the debt is reduced and debtors gain.
On the other hand, creditors lose. Although they get back the same amount of money which they lent, they receive less in real terms because the value of money falls. Thus inflation brings about a redistribution of real wealth in favour of debtors at the cost of creditors.
(2) Salaried Persons:
Salaried workers such as clerks, teachers, and other white collar persons lose when there is inflation. The reason is that their salaries are slow to adjust when prices are rising.
(3) Wage Earners:
Wage earners may gain or lose depending upon the speed with which their wages adjust to rising prices. If their unions are strong, they may get their wages linked to the cost of living index. In this way, they may be able to protect themselves from the bad effects of inflation.
But the problem is that there is often a time lag between the raising of wages by employees and the rise in prices. So workers lose because by the time wages are raised, the cost of living index may have increased further. But where the unions have entered into contractual wages for a fixed period, the workers lose when prices continue to rise during the period of contract. On the whole, the wage earners are in the same position as the white collar persons.
(4) Fixed Income Group:
The recipients of transfer payments such as pensions, unemployment insurance, social security, etc. and recipients of interest and rent live on fixed incomes. Pensioners get fixed pensions. Similarly the rentier class consisting of interest and rent receivers get fixed payments.
The same is the case with the holders of fixed interest bearing securities, debentures and deposits. All such persons lose because they receive fixed payments, while the value of money continues to fall with rising prices.
Among these groups, the recipients of transfer payments belong to the lower income group and the rentier class to the upper income group. Inflation redistributes income from these two groups toward the middle income group comprising traders and businessmen.
Businessmen of all types, such as producers, traders and real estate holders gain during periods of rising prices. Take producers first. When prices are rising, the value of their inventories (goods in stock) rise in the same proportion. So they profit more when they sell their stored commodities.
The same is the case with traders in the short run. But producers profit more in another way. Their costs do not rise to the extent of the rise in the prices of their goods. This is because prices of raw materials and other inputs and wages do not rise immediately to the level of the price rise. The holders of real estate’s also profit during inflation because the prices of landed property increase much faster than the general price level.
Agriculturists are of three types, landlords, peasant proprietors, and landless agricultural workers. Landlords lose during rising prices because they get fixed rents. But peasant proprietors who own and cultivate their farms gain. Prices of farm products increase more than the cost of production.
For prices of inputs and land revenue do not rise to the same extent as the rise in the prices of farm products. On the other hand, the landless agricultural workers are hit hard by rising prices. Their wages are not raised by the farm owners, because trade unionism is absent among them. But the prices of consumer goods rise rapidly. So landless agricultural workers are losers.
The government as a debtor gains at the expense of households who are its principal creditors. This is because interest rates on government bonds are fixed and are not raised to offset expected rise in prices. The government, in turn, levies less taxes to service and retire its debt.
With inflation, even the real value of taxes is reduced. Thus redistribution of wealth in favour of the government accrues as a benefit to the tax-payers. Since the tax-payers of the government are high-income groups, they are also the creditors of the government because it is they who hold government bonds.
As creditors, the real value of their assets decline and as tax-payers, the real value of their liabilities also declines during inflation. The extent to which they will be gainers or losers on the whole is a very complicated calculation.