Tuesday, November 18, 2008
A few thoughts on the subject of deflation to help you make sense of what has unnecessarily become one of the hottest topics of discussion in recent months, excerpted from the most recent Weekend Update at the companion investment website Iacono Research.
1. The entire discussion of deflation is overrated and attracts far more attention than it deserves. One can discuss the advances and declines of economies and asset classes over the last two decades without once mentioning the words inflation or deflation and do just fine. More than ever before, it seems that deflation is just a word that central bankers and economists whip out as if it were some sort of a trump card that allows them to take extraordinary measures to counteract the bursting of asset bubbles.
That has certainly been the case over the last 18 years in Japan and in the U.S. where extraordinary measures have been taken amid the fear of deflation, either real or imagined. Importantly, these measures were much more effective in the U.S. earlier in this decade when recovering from the bursting of a stock market bubble than in Japan during the 1990s when recovering from the bursting of bubbles in stocks and real estate.
Of course, the recent recovery in the U.S. just led to an even bigger asset bubble which, in turn, is now producing the expected calls for deflation now that it has burst.
In economies around the world today, it seems obvious that falling consumer prices are a natural consequence of the bursting of asset bubbles and the dramatic pullback in demand that results from slower economic growth and, in the period ahead, plunging commodity prices will play an important role as well. Falling consumer prices should not be seen as anything particularly significant, in and of themselves, as they are not the driver of present or future problems.
Of course, falling asset prices are simply the result of the asset bubbles bursting.
More than anything else, falling prices in general are just a symptom of the disease that is modern day monetary policy, contemporary economic thought, and poor regulatory oversight that have, together, allowed and encouraged asset bubbles to expand and burst.
2. It would be the worst blunder in centuries for governments and central banks to "allow" a repeat of the debilitating Great Depression of the 1930s. Simply put, with the absence of a gold standard, you can not have a deflationary depression unless governments and central banks allow it to happen. Some day they might, but that won't happen anytime in the next five years or so - that would be political suicide when nearly all political leaders around the world continue to believe that Keynesian remedies will still restore health and vitality to the global economy.
3. don't confuse 1990s Japan with 1930s America - Japan-style CPI-deflation really wasn't that bad. We already have asset-deflation in much of the world and we may well see modest CPI-deflation in the year or two ahead as was seen in Japan in the 1990s. This shouldn't be thought of being particularly significant - remember that real economic growth in Japan averaged about +1.5 percent in the 1990s and CPI-deflation never exceeded one percent per year. If, on the other hand, we were to see 1930s-style American CPI-deflation of 10 or 20 percent per year - then that would be an entirely different, much more important development.
4. The "aura" of the word deflation and the fear it instills have to do with the workings of a hard money standard from which we departed decades ago. In a hard money standard, the currency was "as good as gold" and serious problems arose within the banking system when consumers came to believe that prices would continue to fall, figuring they'd be better off delaying purchases (this was an all too common event prior to the 20th century when CPI-deflation occurred frequently). We've had nothing but inflation for more than seven decades and this fear of the currency gaining purchasing power over time is sorely misplaced in today's world of pure fiat money - money always loses value in a fiat money system.
5. There are legitimate concerns about Americans becoming much more frugal and less willing to spend as they have over the last twenty years and a prolonged period of weak consumption in the U.S. will place great strains on the economy putting downward pressure on consumer prices. Here too, CPI-deflation would be an after-effect of these potential fundamental changes in the U.S. economy, not the driver. In my view, this will eventually happen, but it is still at least five years away. Contemporary mainstream economic thought posits that all downturns can be successfully countered with easy money policies and this theory will not be completely discredited until we get rip-roaring inflation at much higher rates than what we saw over the summer.
6. Here's what I think we'll see happen in the period ahead, timing uncertain:
I do not foresee a Zimbabwe-style "hyper-inflation" on the order of 100, 1,000, or 10,000 percent. The talk of "hyper-inflation" also detracts from the quality of the overall discussion on this topic as, more often than not, there seem to be only the two extremes from which to choose - either 1930s-style deflation or Weimar Germany hyper-inflation. In my view, we are much more likely to first see 1990s Japan-style deflation and then 1970s U.S.-style inflation (absent the wage pressures) which will surely be enough to send the price of gold soaring once again as it did in the late-1970s.
7. At some point there will be some sort of a new monetary order that will forever change how the economies of the world work, hopefully relegating run-away asset bubbles and perpetual inflation to the history books. Ideally, this would be a hard money system of some sort (see this item from last Friday for some hopeful signs that people are starting to think along these lines). I have no idea what this system might look like, how we might get there, how painful that process might be, or how long it might take, but I don't believe we'll see this sort of thing develop voluntarily. It will only occur after the next major inflation crisis, possibly after military action precipitated by competition for energy resources that will be played out as part of the next global economic recovery.
This crisis will likely make the 2008 inflation with $150 oil and $1,000 gold appear tame in comparison.