Inflationists vs. Deflationists: Who's Right?

by: Michael Panzner

Those of us in the very small group that has correctly anticipated that past excesses would eventually come home to roost generally fall into two camps: the deflationists, who believe that another Great Depression is on the cards, at least initially, and the inflationists, who argue that hyperinflation - where prices spiral rapidly higher - is the most likely near-term outcome.

While there are more than a few reasons for the contrasting perspectives, in my view it largely comes down to a difference of opinion about how the U.S. reached the "tipping point" to begin with. That is, was it "printing presses" that fueled the housing and other bubbles, the malinvestment and imbalances, and the widespread belief in "something for nothing," or was it excessive credit creation?

If the answer is the former, then the dollars that were and continue to be created remain in circulation, stoking inflationary expectations and exerting a relentless upward push on prices. As economists put it, there is too much money chasing too few goods.

If the answer is the latter - which is what I believe has been and is the case - then logic and history suggest that when the jig is finally up, it leads to relentless, liquidation-driven downward pressure on asset and other prices. As opposed to paper currency (or even digitally-created "money" that did not come about as a result of central bank buying and selling of government and other securities), much of the credit-money that was created out of thin air ends up "disappearing" (e.g., through default), diminishing overall demand.

In "Worried about Inflation? Just Wait," Reuters columnist James Saft lends further weight to the deflationist perspective, and puts paid to growing worries over rising commodity and consumer prices.

Never mind inflation, the powerful and long-lasting effects of the credit crisis will rein it in soon enough.

With oil, gold and other commodities at very high levels and U.S. producer prices up 6.3 percent last year -- the most since 1981 -- fears have risen that an aggressive round of rate cuts by the Federal Reserve will embed inflation.

Consumer price inflation for December was up 0.3 percent and has risen 4.1 percent since a year earlier.

But these are likely to prove lagging indicators, even if demand from emerging markets remains strong for raw materials.

If credit is being strictly rationed and asset prices falling -- as they are in housing and in stocks -- investment, consumption and just about anything else that can be put off will be put off.

"The strong probability is that we will get at least disinflation in 2008," said George Magnus, senior economic advisor to UBS.

"I'm not aware of any banking crisis in history, almost without exception, that was not accompanied by falling inflation.

"When balance sheets are shrinking and credit restriction is being applied, the whole effect is to cause people either to not be able to make spending decisions or to defer them. It puts a downer on aggregate demand," Magnus said.

A round of poor data, notably unexpectedly weak retail sales, prompted rumors of a highly unusual inter-meeting rate cut by the Federal Reserve, whose next scheduled meeting is January 29-30.

The Fed declined to comment. Traders were roughly evenly split on Wednesday in betting on a 50 basis point or a 75 basis point cut this month in the Fed benchmark, currently 4.25 percent.

But even aggressive cuts in interest rates will have a limited and painfully slow impact on demand under these circumstances, according to Magnus. He contrasts the current crisis, which is fundamentally about the solvency of borrowers and the banks that lent to them, with other crises, such as 9/11 or the stock market crash of 1987.

"When solvency is involved and asset prices are declining, monetary policy can help but can't solve the problem."

Yen carry trade and credit cards next?

Ominously for the economy, the Baltic Dry Index BADI of shipping capacity suffered its biggest one day drop since records began on Wednesday, down 5.74 percent and following similar heavy falls on Friday and Tuesday. The index is down almost 20 percent since January 1.

Because trade travels on ships, the Baltic index is often a good indicator of forward demand, both for natural resources and finished goods. Interestingly, the Baltic index continued to climb as the credit crisis unfolded through the summer, supported by strong economic growth in emerging markets.

Tim Lee of pi Economics in Greenwich, Connecticut, thinks prices of many assets and commodities will fall strongly in what he calls an "incipient deflation".

"Ignore gold, ignore oil: they are lagging indicators of the excessively loose central bank policies we had in the past," Lee said.

"The leading edge that is really telling us what is going on is the government bond market and property prices."

Yields on 10-year U.S. treasuries have fallen as low at 3.69 percent, down almost a half a percent since late December.

The credit crunch is breeding new areas of concern, such as credit cards and commercial loans. Another round of losses in a new area would further dampen credit.

Citibank has more than doubled its loan loss reserve ratio on U.S. consumer debt since the end of the second quarter, with the sharpest move in the past three months.

Then there is the risk that cuts in U.S. interest rates will unravel what is perhaps the world's biggest leveraged bet, the use of carry trades, according to Lee of pi Economics.

Estimated at as much as $1 trillion, carry trades involve borrowing cheaply in yen or other currencies such as Swiss franc that have low interest rates in order to invest in higher yielding currencies, or indeed in anything else the borrower hopes will go up.

Both the yen and the Swiss franc have rallied sharply against the dollar in recent days driven by expectations of much lower rates in the U.S.

If funding currencies like the yen and franc continue to rise, borrowers could sustain big losses. For example, many Hungarians have taken out mortgages in Swiss francs and many Korean corporations have funded in yen. Strong moves upward in the currency they borrowed may leave them unable to carry the debt.

"As the carry trade unwinds, liquidations and asset sales will push prices (down) further," Lee said.

It seems clear that, as with the credit-fuelled boom that preceded it, the bust has taken on a life of its own.