De-Leveraging Is Not Deflation

Includes: GLD, TBT, TLT, UGL
by: Paco Ahlgren

"Inflation, as this term was always used everywhere and especially in this country, means increasing the quantity of money and bank notes in circulation and the quantity of bank deposits subject to check. But people today use the term `inflation' to refer to the phenomenon that is an inevitable consequence of inflation, that is the tendency of all prices and wage rates to rise. The result of this deplorable confusion is that there is no term left to signify the cause of this rise in prices and wages."

-- Ludwig von Mises

It's true that just about every asset class is coming down in price right now. This, however, is not deflation -- as I have said so many times recently, much to many readers' unqualified chagrin. To the contrary, these declines are the products of de-leveraging -- not deflation -- and the distinction is nearly incalculably important, although the subtlety seems to elude even the most astute these days.

If the previous premise is true (which it is), any removal of money from the economy would eventually result in an increase in the value of our currency, relative to everything else. And that, in turn, would eventually translate into lower prices in dollars. But that's clearly not what is happening. No, the Fed is printing money, sending the amount in the economy higher than ever seen in U.S. history. That's not deflationary. That's inflationary.

Just so you'll know, here's the definition of inflation I'm using. And before you pooh-pooh it with too much eagerness, remember that one of its authors, F.A. Hayek, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974.

Look, the thing we should be worried about is relative value, not "inflation," per se. It's not about the growth of M0, or M1, or M2 (or even M3, if you keep up with, so much as it is about what the money supply is doing relative to everything else that is happening. I know assets are falling in price -- believe me, I get no shortage of reminders every single day. But the amount of money in the system -- not just M0 -- is increasing at a tremendous rate. I won't argue that the relative value of things like real estate and equities are going to continue to drop -- maybe even dramatically, and for a long time -- in terms of demand (or lack thereof). No, what I'm most concerned about is that demand will stay extremely low, and yet prices will rise anyway because of the increase in the amount of money in the system.

But it's not just money; it's also Treasuries. The Fed has specifically stated that its objective is to stimulate "inflation" (by its definition). It wants prices to rise, and it's going to do everything it can to find success. But the amount of money in the system is unprecedented. When the Treasury bubble starts to collapse, yields are going to explode. Yes, the Fed will probably print more money to buy down the long-end of the curve, but how long will that work? Some people say years, but how? Do you really think the Chinese and the Japanese are going to keep funding that sort of behavior? Or even more importantly, do you think they're just going to sit on their current holdings? Probably not, and if they start dumping Treasuries, yields are going much higher.

It's not a matter of if this is going to happen. Yields can't stay where they are for any sustained amount of time, and once they start rising, so will prices. But will demand for, say, houses have increased? No. Cars? No. Boats? Televisions? No. Why? The American consumer is tapped out.

Credit card companies are tightening limits prodigiously. Teaser rates are all but gone. Home equity has dried up. The consumer has driven two-thirds of our economy for at least the last few decades, and now the consumer is dead. There's another aspect to this that I won't go too deep into: the American consumer protects his or her credit score for one reason -- to obtain future credit. But the consumer also knows that loans have dried up -- not just today, but for the very distant future as well. You know these consumers have to be thinking about defaulting; if they can't get loans anyway, why would they not default on thousands of dollars in unsecured credit card debt? I plan on writing more about this in future articles, but suffice it to say, I think credit card companies are going to give us the next blow to our collective stomach, and it's going to hurt.

So here we have a situation in which demand is gone, and yet prices and rates are rising -- because of inflation (printing money) and the Treasury collapse. And that's the point: it's not going to come from just one source. It's not just going to be inflation (printing money). It's not just going to be the collapse in Treasuries. It's not just going to be the nearly unfathomable costs of the stimulus packages that are coming online in the next two years. It's going to be the confluence of all of it. And if I'm right about the continued deterioration in credit markets, things will be even worse.

You think it's not different this time? Add it all up, in real dollars -- the staggering amount of debt, the parabolic rise of currency in the system, the annihilation of real-estate investment, and the demise of the consumer. $8.5 trillion committed to bailouts and stimulus packages. Oh, yes it is different this time. It's very different.

Credit cards didn't even exist in 1930, and the dollar was backed by gold. Credit cards barely existed in 1973. Nixon had just taken us off the gold standard, and look what happened? Volcker was immensely lucky to have stopped hyperinflation, and look at the extreme measures he had to employ to do it.

Of course, every time I bring all of this up -- which is a lot lately -- somebody starts talking about the velocity of money. And pretty soon after that, somebody starts talking about the multiplier effect.

Yes, the U.S. employs a fractional reserve system, and while that system certainly lends to rising prices and yields, the amplifier effect is not inflation. Like the printing of money, the fractional reserve system is only one ingredient in the poison that lends to the ultimate catastrophe inspired by central banks: rising prices and increased costs of borrowing.

And then there's velocity...

While I am eternally grateful to my critics for forcing me to defend the theories I hold dear, I sometimes fatigue of the incessant snapping at my heels by people who want me to know that the velocity of money has slowed down. I know the velocity of money has slowed. It doesn't matter. It's not going to stay this low for long, and when it starts speeding up, it's not going to be a "good thing." Treasuries are going to break, rates and prices are going to rise, and all that money pressing against the dam is going to find a crack. Why? It has to. People will flee from dollars that are losing value. They will extract all the dollars sloshing around the system, and they will buy commodities and durables in order to preserve the value of their wealth.

Remember, just because the dollar is losing value does not mean that the concomitant subsequent rise in certain asset classes necessarily means that demand for all assets has increased dramatically -- as it did during previous eras of easy money. Demand for assets economy-wide can continue to wane even as people spend dollars as fast as they can get them in the midst of rising prices. And this is a very important distinction: prices can rise because of demand, but prices can also rise because of excessive increases in the amount of money in the system. If prices are rising without a simultaneous increase in demand, well, I can't think of a more dangerous economic environment to be in.

You don't believe it can happen? You think there's a huge demand for houses, cars, and boats in Zimbabwe? Prices there are rising exponentially, but there is very little demand for assets -- other than staples, of course. What do you think their velocity of money is?

The other day I wrote that Treasuries and the dollar are not "safer" than gold, and for my efforts I was heckled by several readers. Ultimately, however, flight-to-quality will seek the true risk-free rate of return, and this is yet another factor that will contribute to the imminent ferocity of the move that's coming. Once Treasuries unwind, people and institutions will scramble to find a place to put the money they had once placed in the "safety" of U.S. government debt. And unless you know of a medium whose historical consistency and safety surpasses gold's, that will be the place investors find haven.

Just for future reference: when I say the dollar's going to fail (which it is), and you're hovering over your keyboard, poised like some bird-of-prey, ready to strike me with all the ire of God-upon-Sodom, will you try to remember that I acknowledge velocity is, at least for the time-being, near zero. Will you also try to remember that I don't believe the massive increase in currency alone will not be responsible for imminent rising rates and prices? In fact, I think Treasuries are going to play a greater role in the beginning.

Also, I agree with many of you that my timing may be a bit premature, and I exited my TBT after the last run-up. Unfortunately, today the stock market and Treasuries are getting crushed as gold rallies. I wouldn't want to declare myself "right" based just on the behavior of these markets in recent days. That would be stupid. And yet I sit here and watch TBT move higher, wondering if getting out was even more stupid.

To add to my trepidation, some sort of manager in the South Korean finance ministry came out over the weekend and announced that the time has come to sell U.S. Treasuries. How do you think that made my stomach feel? Of course, Bernanke keeps promising to do battle with the long end of the curve, so maybe he'll make good on his threat and I can find a point to get back in comfortably.

Of course, if I miss the move because I listened to some of you cynics. Well, at least I still own gold.

Disclosures: Paco is no longer short U.S. Treasuries (although he hopes to be again soon). He is long physical gold, and the Proshares Ultra long gold ETF (ticker: UGL).

Copyright 2009, Paco Ahlgren. All Rights Reserved.