What Caused the Great Inflation of the 1970s?

What Caused the Great Inflation of the 1970s?

The Great Inflation of the 1970s was a period of economic turbulence that impacted the United States and other advanced economies. This decade-long era of persistently high inflation rates reshaped economic policies and challenged long-held beliefs about monetary management.

To understand this complex phenomenon, we must examine the factors that contributed to its emergence and persistence.

The Perfect Storm: An Overview of Contributing Factors

The Great Inflation wasn’t the result of a single cause but rather a perfect storm of economic, political, and social factors converging at a critical time, from misguided monetary policies to global oil shocks, from changing labor dynamics to shifts in the international financial system, a multitude of elements combined to create an inflationary environment that proved challenging to control.

Throughout this article, we’ll explore these factors in detail, shedding light on how they interacted to produce one of the most significant economic events of the 20th century. By understanding the causes of the Great Inflation, we can gain valuable insights into the complexities of financial management and the far-reaching consequences of policy decisions.

Global Economic Shifts: The Bretton Woods Breakdown

The 1970s also saw significant changes in the global economic order that contributed to inflationary pressures. Chief among these was the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system, which had governed international monetary relations since the end of World War II. Under this system, major currencies were pegged to the US dollar, which was converted, able to gold.

1971 President Richard Nixon ended the dollar’s convertibility to gold, effectively dismantling the Bretton Woods system. This led to floating exchange rates and increased volatility in currency markets. The subsequent devaluation of the dollar increased import prices, adding to inflationary pressures as countries adjusted to the new monetary regime.

Monetary Missteps: The Federal Reserve’s Role

At the heart of the Great Inflation lay a series of monetary policy decisions made by the Federal Reserve. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Fed, under the leadership of Chairman Arthur Burns, pursued an expansionary monetary policy to stimulate economic growth and reduce unemployment. This approach involved maintaining low interest rates and increasing the money supply.

While well-intentioned, these policies ultimately contributed significantly to rising inflation. The Fed underestimated the persistence of inflationary pressures and overestimated the economy’s capacity to grow without generating inflation.

The central bank inadvertently fueled the inflationary fire by keeping interest rates low and flooding the economy with money. This misjudgment allowed inflationary pressures to build up over time, setting the stage for the following tumultuous economic period.

Oil Shocks and Supply Disruptions

The 1970s were marked by two major oil price shocks that sent ripples through the global economy. The first occurred in 1973-1974 when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo, leading to a quadrupling of oil prices. The second shock came in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution, which again disrupted oil supplies and caused prices to spike.

These oil shocks had far-reaching consequences. As the cost of oil skyrocketed, so did the expenses associated with production and transportation across all sectors of the economy. This led to higher prices for goods and services, contributing significantly to the inflationary environment.

The oil crises highlighted the US economy’s vulnerability to external shocks and the intricate connections between global events and domestic economic conditions.

Food Prices and Agricultural Challenges

While oil shocks grabbed headlines, significant increases in food prices also contributed to the inflationary environment of the 1970s. Poor harvests and rising global demand led to substantial increases in the cost of food.

These price hikes further contributed to the overall inflationary pressures, affecting household budgets and fueling demands for higher wages.

The agricultural sector faced challenges during this period, including adverse weather conditions and increasing production costs. These factors combined to push food prices higher, adding another dimension to the complex inflationary dynamics of the era.

The Wage-Price Spiral: A Self-Reinforcing Cycle

The wage-price spiral during this period was one of the most pernicious aspects of the Great Inflation. As prices rose, workers demanded higher wages to maintain their purchasing power.

Employers, faced with increased labor costs, responded by raising prices further to protect their profit margins. This created a self-reinforcing cycle of wage and price increases that proved difficult to break.

The wage-price spiral was particularly challenging because it became self-perpetuating. Higher wages led to higher prices and demands for even higher salaries. This cycle contributed to the persistence of inflation throughout the decade, making it increasingly difficult for policymakers to bring the situation under control.

Fiscal Policy: Government Spending and Deficits

The role of fiscal policy in fueling the Great Inflation can’t be overlooked. During the 1960s and 1970s, the US government significantly increased its spending, partly due to the Vietnam War and partly due to the expansion of social programs under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiative.

However, this increased spending was not matched by corresponding tax increases, leading to substantial budget deficits.

These fiscal deficits added to inflationary pressures by increasing aggregate demand in the economy. As the government pumped more money into the system through deficit spending, it contributed to the overall excess of money, driving up prices. This fiscal expansion and the Fed’s loose monetary policy created a potent mix that fueled inflation throughout the decade.

The Psychology of Inflation: Expectations and Behavior

An often underappreciated aspect of the Great Inflation was the role of psychology and expectations. As inflation persisted, people began to expect higher inflation in the future based on their recent experiences. These adaptive expectations led to behaviors that further perpetuated inflation.

Businesses, anticipating future price increases, began raising prices preemptively. Workers, expecting the cost of living to continue rising, demanded higher wages in advance.

These actions, based on the expectation of future inflation, actually contributed to making those expectations a reality. Breaking this cycle of inflation expectations proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of bringing the Great Inflation under control.

The Vietnam War’s Economic Impact

The Vietnam War significantly impacted the US economy during this period. The war effort required substantial government spending, contributing to the budget deficits and fueling inflation.

Moreover, the war diverted resources from productive civilian use, potentially constraining the economy’s ability to meet increasing demand without generating inflation.

The war’s economic effects intersected with other inflationary factors, creating a complex financial environment that policymakers struggled to navigate. The war’s impact on government spending, resource allocation, and public sentiment all shaped the economic landscape of the 1970s.

Policy Responses and Lessons Learned

The Great Inflation proved to be a stern teacher, offering valuable lessons in economic management. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, under the leadership of Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, that inflation was finally brought under control through strict monetary policies.

These policies, while effective, came at the cost of a severe recession, highlighting the challenges of managing inflation once it becomes entrenched.

The experiences of the 1970s profoundly influenced subsequent economic policies. Central banks worldwide now place a much greater emphasis on price stability, and there’s a broader recognition of the importance of managing inflation expectations.

The Great Inflation serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between various economic factors and the far-reaching consequences of policy decisions.


The Great Inflation of the 1970s resulted from a perfect storm of factors, including misguided monetary policies, supply shocks, structural changes in the global economy, fiscal expansion, and shifts in economic behavior and expectations.

Understanding this complex episode in economic history provides valuable insights for policymakers and citizens alike, reminding us of the delicate balance required in managing a modern economy.



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