The Elements of Deflation
One of the advantages of travel is that it gives you time away from the tyranny of the computer to think. (Am I the only one who feels like I am drinking information through a fire hose?) But getting the information is important too, as it gives you something to think about. And I have been thinking a lot lately about deflation.
I get asked at almost every venue where I stop, whether I think we will see inflation, or deflation. And I answer, “Yes.” And I am not trying to be funny. I think the primary forces in the developed world now are deflationary. When asked if I don’t think that the Fed monetizing debt of all kinds won’t eventually be inflationary, I answer, “We better hope so!”
Let’s quickly summarize some of the ideas from the last few months of this letter. Just as water is made up of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen, so deflation has its own elemental structure.
The first element is Rising Unemployment. There has never been a sustained inflationary period without wage inflation. Wages are basically flat and falling. With 9.8% unemployment, 7% underemployed (temporary), and another 3-4% off the radar screen because they are so discouraged they are not even looking for jobs, and thus are not counted as unemployed (who made up these rules?), it is hard to see how wage inflation is in our near future.
Think about this. Only a few years ago, less than 1 in 16 Americans was unemployed or underemployed. Today it is 1 in 5. That is a staggering, overwhelming statistic. Mind-numbing.
Keynes said that you should stimulate the economy in recessions in order to bring back consumer spending. That is not going to happen this time. As my friends at GaveKal point out, this time we will have to have an Austrian (economic) recovery, or a business-spending recovery. My argument will be, when I am with them in Dallas in December at their conference, “Where are we going to get business-investment spending when banks aren’t lending and capacity utilization is at an all-time low?” This, of course, leads the Keynesians to jump in and say, “The government has to step up and jump-start consumption!” Which means more debt. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The next element of deflation is massive Wealth Destruction. Two bear markets and a housing market collapse have put the American consumer on the ropes. And the next bear market will bring him to the canvas.
Then we have Reduced Borrowing and Lending, as consumers are paying down debt and banks are reducing their lending. Both are necessary in a credit crisis-caused recession. Bank lending is basically back to where it was two years ago, and shows no sign off rebounding. Banks, as I have written, are buying US government debt in an effort to shore up their balance sheets. Lending to small business, the real engine of job creation, is sadly decreasing each month. (See graph below.)
Next up in our elemental list we have Decreased Final Demand and its counterpart Increased Savings. Although the savings rate has come back down to 3% from 6% a few months ago, almost every expectation is that it will rise over the next 3-5 years back up to the 9% level where it was only 20 years ago. The psyche of the American consumer has been permanently seared. Consumption and savings habits are being changed as I write.
And of course we must address the element of Low Capacity Utilization. While capacity utilization is rebounding, it is still lower than at any time since the data has been collected, other than the last few months. It is hard to see where businesses are going to get pricing power, when not only US but world capacity utilization is still extremely low. The chart below is not the stuff that inflation is made of.
And let’s just quickly throw in Massive Deleveraging and $2 trillion in Bank Losses and a Very Weak Housing Market. Which brings us to a Slowing Velocity of Money.
As I have written on several occasions, prices are a function of the amount of money times the velocity of money. If the velocity of money is slowing, the amount of money can rise without bringing about inflation. It is a delicate balance, but nonetheless the hyperventilation in some circles about the coming hyperinflation is, well, overinflated. Simplistic. Economically naive.
The Fed is going to do what it takes to bring about inflation (in my opinion). But they will not monetize US government debt beyond what they have already agreed to. If they need to “print money” to fight deflation, they can buy mortgage or credit-card or other forms of private debt, which have the convenience of being self-liquidating. Read the speeches of the Fed presidents and governors. I can’t imagine these people will recklessly monetize US debt. You don’t get to their level without having a stiff backbone. (Yes, I know the gold bugs will call me terminally naive. We will have to wait to see who is right. Peter Schiff, care to make a bet on this one?)
Bernanke warned Congress again last week about rising deficits. Watch the deficit rhetoric coming from the Fed after the next two governors are appointed next year, side by side with Bernanke’s reappointment. There will be a line drawn in the sand. Some in Congress will not be happy, but my bet is that the Fed will maintain its independence. If they do not, then my recent letters will prove far too optimistic (and many of you protest my rather less-than-positive suggestion of a double-dip recession). But I must admit I cannot imagine that happening. And there are not enough votes in Congress to change that independent status. There is a day of reckoning coming with the US debt. And thank God for that.
Bottom line: The Fed will do what it takes to keep us from deflation. They will deal with the problems of the ensuing inflation. I wrote six years ago that the best outcome from all the easy monetary policy and budget deficits would be stagflation. I see no need to change that assessment. I am not happy with stagflation, but as I came into my young adult life in the ’70s (see below), I know that we can deal with that. The far more worrisome prospect is continued trillion-dollar deficits.