- The possibility of deflation poses a risk to current stock market valuation.
- Inflation is falling and the risk of a deflationary episode is growing.
- Deflation is a monetary phenomenon caused by inadequate money growth.
- The Fed appears to be unable or unwilling to raise the rate of inflation to its targeted level.
In a recent post I argued that the stock market is not overvalued, and that the equity risk premium is historically high, or at least within a normal range (depending on your calculations). I cited a study by Duarte and Rosa at the NY Fed which found that:
"The ERP is high at all foreseeable horizons because Treasury yields are unusually low at all maturities. In other words, the term structure of equity premia is high and flat because the term structure of interest rates is low and flat."
In other words, the market is not overvalued in the context of bond yields. I further argued that I don't expect bond yields to rise because of the subdued inflation outlook. Today I will discuss the other side of the inflation equation: deflation risk.
Research suggests that the stock market sweet-spot for inflation is between 1% and 6%. The market reacts negatively (i.e., it demands a higher risk premium) to inflation levels that are above or below this range. The stock market doesn't like high inflation because it raises the discount rate for future cash flows, and it doesn't like low inflation/deflation because it reduces corporate earnings and magnifies debt. You will recall that the market performed badly during the 1929-33 deflation, the very low inflation in 2002, and the deflation of 2009.
Deflation poses a risk to today's market outlook. Consumer price inflation has fallen to low levels, producer price inflation has been bouncing around zero, commodity prices have been falling for three years, while the price of oil has been flat.
As we know from Friedman and Bernanke, deflation is a monetary phenomenon. Today's low inflation is a result of low velocity-adjusted money growth (M x V). Strong growth in the monetary base (QE) has not translated into money growth, and the current moderate money growth has not translated into equivalent nominal growth (P x T) due to falling velocity. Hence, we have subpar nominal growth and deflationary pressures.
It is at this deflationary brink that the FOMC has chosen to taper monetary stimulus. The rationale for tapering in the face of below-target inflation is that the current sub-target level is temporary and inflation will rise (as monetary stimulus falls). Not every member of the FOMC buys this logic, according to the minutes of the latest meeting:"A couple of participants expressed concern that inflation might not return to 2 percent in the next few years." What these two dissidents got was a meaningless promise: "members agreed that inflation developments should be monitored carefully." In other words: ignore the numbers, the taper will continue.
When Ben Bernanke gave his famous helicopter speech in 2002, he listed five reasons why "the chance of significant deflation in the United States in the foreseeable future is extremely small". These reasons were:
1. The stability of the US economy.
2. The strength of the financial system.
3. Stable inflation.
4. Anchored inflation expectations at a non-deflationary 3%.
5. The willingness and ability of the Fed to take whatever means necessary to prevent significant deflation.
Let's look at these five factors in today's context:
1. Economic stability: Check; the economy is stable.
2. Strong financial system: Check; we are not having a financial crisis.
3. Stable inflation: No; inflation has been falling since 2011.
4. Anchored inflation expectations at a noninflationary 3%: No; inflation expectations have been falling since 2010 and are now below 2%.
5. The ability and willingness of the Fed to meet its inflation target: No, current inflation is running at half of target, and the Fed is withdrawing stimulus.
So today's economy currently meets three of Bernanke's five deflation risk criteria. Hence the recent concerns being expressed by the two dovish committee members. In his speech, Bernanke listed steps that the Fed could take to counteract deflationary pressures:
1. Cap the entire yield curve;
2. Offer zero interest loans to banks;
3. Buy foreign government debt;
4. Monetize Treasury purchases of private assets.
Twelve years later, despite the clear risk of deflation, all of these tools remain unused--not even during the 2008 deflation.
Current market valuations are merited as long as inflation remains within the moderate range (1-6%). Given that current inflation is at the bottom of that range, and that the Fed is reducing monetary stimulus, the principal risk to today's market valuation appears to be lower inflation or outright deflation.
Additional disclosure: I am long stocks and bonds.