Sunday, July 26, 2009

Outlook for Inflation

As always in such debates there is no consensus to be found as to whether the prices will rise or fall in the foreseeable future in the USA. On the one hand, inflation hawks see a Weimar-esque hyperinflationary financial armageddon brought about by what they consider to be profligate government spending and a complicit central bank providing massive liquidity and engaging in „quantitative easing“ all of which, for inflation hawks, is by definition inflationary. The dramatic increase in the monetary base (see Exhibit 1) has led some commentators to predict rapidly rising inflation and high interest rates (Laffer 2009, SeekingAlpha 2009), firmly following Milton Friedman´s mantra that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon (Meltzer 2009). But even such a stalwart conservative economist as Mr Laffer admits in his Wall Street Journal piece that the velocity of circulation is important and that banks will eventually lend enough to become reserve constrained again "given enough time."

David Altig, the vice president of the Atlanta Fed, takes issue with Laffer´s claims and points out that bank lending has actually decreased while the monetary base has increased (see Exhibit 2).

This means that money sitting in banks as excess reserves is not in itself inflationary (Thoma 2009) and since the velocity of circulation has dropped (see Exhibit 3 for an historical view) and there is no evidence that consumers or businesses are becoming more rather than less credit worthy, banks have consequently not increased their lending.

Krugman (2009) draws paralles to the liquidity traps faced by Japan in the 1990´s and the US in the 1930´s (see Exhibit 4).

As pointed out by Hoisington and Hunt (2009) only 1.9% of the increase in reserves was available for lending and bank loans fell an annualized 5.4% from December to March. They add that the velocity of circulation of money can be thought of conceptually as being related to leverage and financial innovation. Needless to say, the world has had its fill of financial innovation for some time and currently deleveraging is a pervasive and prevalent phenomenon. The Fed would like nothing better than to increase the velocity of the circulation of money but since it is unable to, for the reasons outlined below, fears of inflation are misplaced and threaten to prevent a robust recovery and lead to a W shaped double dip or worse.

Those who foresee a deflationary spiral point out that the overleveraged US consumer who has seen a massive drop in the value of assets and is facing rapidly rising unemployment will not be able to spend enough to prop up the economy. There would need to be multiple shifts in the aggregate demand curve and with unemployment rampant wages would seriously lag inflation (Hoisington and Hunt 2009). Moreover, unemployed people tend to spend less money, and people who feel poorer because of the drop in their portfolio, IRA, 401k, and house price are also unlikely to spend enough to cause much inflation. That is, asset price deflation can lead to a debt deflation spiral which interacts with the Keynesian paradox of thrift, along with cost cutting deflation and, as pointed out above, the contraction of bank credit, all of which are individually managable, but together a lethal combination (De Grauwe 2009).

To me, the latter view is much more plausible since inflation is not some bogy out to get us lurking in the shadows, but the succesful passing on of price increases by producers to consumers. On June 16, 2009, amid a slew of terribly economic data, reported that wholesale prices dropped 5 percent in the past year and that producer prices ex food and energy dropped 0.1 percent in May. Cost-push factors such as an increase in the price of inputs, for example oil, would not be immidiately passed off to consumers who are purchasing less anyway at lower prices. This all but precludes demand-pull factors triggering inflation, since people have to be willing to pay more for certain goods. In order for this latter to occur, consumers have to be willing and able to spend. The US consumer is overleveraged and has maxed out credit cards, which has led to default rates at credit card companies that are more than the unemployment rate (ZeroHedge 2009).

The precipitous drop in property prices and rise in unemployment
(see Exhibit 5 for unemployment data from Calculated Risk)
are not going to lead to any inflation.

The implied expectations of inflation in long term treasury bond funds reflect constant expectations (see Exhibit 6, Young 2009).

Moreover, even if demand for commodities, especially oil, increases, then there will still need to be a somewhat positive overall sentiment and, actually, dollar weakness, since, when „bearish“ sentiment predominates, then, in a „flight to safety“ investors paradoxically jump into the currency they love to hate, the dollar, whose appreciation will offset the effect of increased demand for commodities on their price. Furthermore, the last oil bubble was undoubtedly fueled by speculation, and, in my humble opinion, so has the current rally in commodities. Aluminum is a prime example of how the price of a commodity can defy supply and demand.

I do not subscribe to the monetarist doctrine that liquidity is per se inflationary. If no one is spending the money, that is, the velocity of circulation is very low, then there will also not be much of a general increase in prices. It should not be forgotten that world demand and consequently economic performance have dropped off a cliff (Eichengreen and O´Rourke 2009) and that because of rising unemployment and the debt and savings dynamics mentioned above we will not return „to happy days again“ anytime soon. What I mean is that the halcyon days of five or ten years ago of rapidly rising asset prices and moderate CPI increases when everyone felt richer and consequently fed huge increases in the value of assets are gone. The US consumer has started to save after decades of living beyond his means but is still faced with a mountain of debt and low or stagnating wages (see Exhibit 6 from sudden debt).

I do not think that much of an economic recovery is going to take place this year and that for the reasons outlined above inflation will not be a problem in the near future.

Of course, I did say „near future.“ To keep inflation in check once a real recovery does set in will take aggressive and, one would hope, enlightened policy responses. Prevention of another massive asset bubble would also help, but this is unlikely. In his book „A Short History of Financial Euphoria“ (1994) John Kenneth Galbraith said that the financial memory lasts about 20 years, until a new generation of wheelers and dealers will fuel the next asset bubble and assure everyone that this time it is different and asset prices can, indeed and contrary to all historical evidence, rise indefinetly.

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