Market Extra: Here’s what a 1970s inflation-fighting fiasco says about the battle against rising prices
Surging inflation is stirring memories of the 1970s, but isn’t doing much to boost the value of a piece of political memorabilia that’s an artifact of an ill-fated fight against rising prices.
Art Hogan said he scrambled last month to find a “Whip Inflation Now,” or WIN, button. The chief market strategist at B. Riley National said he wears the button, which he bought on eBay for less than $10, during video calls with financial advisers to help rebut concerns that current price pressures are comparable to the stagflation that came to define the 1970s.
But ironic interest in the red-and-white buttons produced in bulk as part of a public-service campaign launched in 1974 by President Gerald Ford, and widely viewed as a flop, isn’t likely to turn the souvenirs into anything resembling an inflation hedge.
“They don’t sell for a lot of money,” said Curtis Lindner, director of Americana at Heritage Auctions, a Dallas-based auction house. “At one time they were very popular with collectors.”
As for inflation, Hogan said the 1970s comparisons aren’t surprising, with the Consumer Price Index rising to a nearly 31-year high in October at 6.2%. But like many investors and economists, Hogan contends that the similarities are only skin-deep.
The 1970s saw even higher stretches of double-digit U.S. inflation than this year, after the supply shock caused by OPEC quadrupling crude oil prices, while unemployment also rose and the economy foundered — a condition that came to be known as “stagflation.” The current inflation surge, in contrast, is due in large part to surging demand for goods as government stimulus payments helped the economy bounce back from business shutdowns during the pandemic which also caused some supply chain disruptions.
“That was inflation with no economic benefit to it,” Hogan said of the 1970s, in a phone interview last week. Now, inflation is rising “because demand came back faster than supply” in the wake of the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average
fell nearly 28% in 1974, while the S&P 500
dropped nearly 30% before both gauges bounced back sharply in 1975. Stocks saw a negative 11.6% real return over the high-inflation period stretching from 1969 to 1982, according to DataTrek Research.
The Dow is up more than 17% year to date, while the S&P 500
has risen around 25%, with major indexes hitting numerous records over the course of 2021.
That doesn’t mean inflation isn’t a concern. Though many economists emphasize the differences between the 1970s and now, there is debate over how quickly those inflation pressures are likely to fade.
For politicians, the pain inflicted by inflation can be costly. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have suffered, with a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday showing that 55% of respondents disapproved of his handling of the economy, 6 percentage points more than former President Donald Trump’s worst showing in September 2017.
Ford was feeling the heat in 1974. WIN buttons were introduced in October as inflation accelerated in the wake of the first Arab oil embargo; the Consumer Price Index rose at an annual rate of more than 11% that year. With the economy mired in recession, Ford, in a speech, proposed a raft of measures aimed at squelching inflation, including removing acreage limits on a number of crops and overhauling energy regulations.
But the heart of the effort, and what’s most remembered today, was Ford’s description of the fight against inflation as a moral battle, invoking comparisons to the home-front efforts of World War II and exhorting citizens to spend less and save more.
“Every housewife knows almost exactly how much she spent for food last week. If you cannot spare a penny from your food budget — and I know there are many — surely you can cut the food that you waste by 5%,” Ford said.
Needless to say, the effort had little impact. Inflation wouldn’t be tamed until the early 1980s when the Paul Volcker led the Federal Reserve to mercilessly hike interest rates to double-digit levels, sparking a deep recession.
The performance of the economy was blamed in part for Ford’s election loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter, who appointed Volcker as Fed chair, would lose his 1980 re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, a defeat also blamed partly on inflation and other economic woes.
As for the WIN campaign, it largely fizzled out by Christmas 1974 as the recession deepened. Even Ford’s economic advisers later disparaged the effort.
In his memoirs, Alan Greenspan, who was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers at the time and would go on to serve five terms as chairman of the Federal Reserve, recalled Ford’s speechwriting team proposing the campaign at a senior staff meeting: “I was the only economist present, and I said to myself, ‘This is unbelievable stupidity. What am I doing here.’”
The campaign left behind ample supplies of memorabilia, including the red-and-white buttons emblazoned with the “WIN” logo. Many buttons were distributed free. Pins could also obtained by simply mailing the White House a form, printed in newspapers, agreeing to enlist in the battle against inflation.
Would-be inflation fighters could also don sweaters, swig from coffee cups or even play with footballs fashioned with the WIN logo, which were often produced by companies hoping to cash in on the government campaign.
Hogan, who began collecting political souvenirs as a child, said he searched for the WIN button he had acquired in the 1970s in vain, eventually going to eBay. They’re not hard to find. Despite renewed inflation worries and a whiff of ironic nostalgia, WIN memorabilia isn’t exactly back in vogue.
There’s been a “minor pickup” in purchases of the buttons, but they’ve remained “slow movers,” said Steve Ferber of Lori Ferber Collectibles, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based dealer in political collectibles.
meanwhile, listings of WIN buttons rose earlier this year, but sales fell by around 40% in the third quarter, according to data provided by the auction site.
“I don’t know that it struck a chord with collectors any more or less than it did with the general public,” Ferber told MarketWatch. “Gerald Ford, in general, is one of the least collected presidents in the modern era.”
Ferber said he has around 1,000 of the buttons in stock, noting that they move in bulk for as low as 50 cents each while individual buttons rarely sell for more than $10.
Lukewarm collectors aside, what do economists make of the effort nearly a half decade later?
William Polley, associate professor of economics at Western Illinois University — Quad Cities in Moline, said that while the campaign clearly failed, the reasoning behind it wasn’t “totally misguided.”
“Their thinking was in the right place, but I think they overestimated consumers’ ability to really follow through and do it,” he said, in an interview.
In the end, asking consumers to walk to work and waste less food wasn’t a match for M2 money stock, a measure of money supply including cash, checking deposits and easily convertible near-money assets, that was growing at a double digit rate, Polley said.
The volunteer approach at the center of the WIN campaign should also be viewed in relation to the more interventionist attempts to squelch inflation that preceded it, and failed, including the wage and price controls instituted by President Richard Nixon in 1971, said Rebecca Spang, a professor of history at Indiana University in Bloomington.
In contrast, the volunteer-focused WIN campaign appeared to reflect “very deep skepticism” by Ford and his advisers “that there was anything governments could do,” she said in an interview.
Meanwhile, investors probably shouldn’t expect WIN buttons to see a lasting surge in value regardless of what happens with inflation in the near term, said Ferber, the collectibles dealer, though they do offer a basic lesson in economics. After all, he noted, it takes two things — scarcity and demand — to make a collectible valuable.
“They’re certainly not scarce,” he said, “and there’s not a tremendous demand.”