There is an interesting story from CNBC.com that illustrates that a bond trader is concerned that the bond market will collapse. It is not the fear that the bond market will collapse that caught my eye, it is the fact that he thinks deflation will fuel the collapse. I do not see that happening, exactly, not yet at least. Clearly housing is still seeing deflation and we are not at the bottom yet either.
Logic dictates that we should all be gearing up for inflation, now, but the data does not lie and I can pull the most aggressive data I want and it shows ultra low inflation rates, which is scary, frankly. With the massive printing and monetization of debt that we have seen over the past 2 years, we should see some inflationary pressure, somewhere, but nothing. Not only has the Fed’s balance sheet grown, it is growing and so is the national debt, at a record breaking rate. Still, inflation is nonexistent which is puzzling to all economists and policy makers; even housing that is given the most generous tax breaks and, recently, a huge tax credit to buy, is showing that prices are falling, not rising. This is a severe problem and it is going to get worse.
Deflation will continue to rip through the economy as the deleveraging continues, which could be for another 3-4 years, but there are always caveats which I will go over. The primary reason there is no inflation (this isn’t rocket science unless you are an economist), credit is contracting and people are saving more which means less money is in circulation. Bank balance sheets are enormous right now, but the irony is they are still largely insolvent and even if they could lend - why would they with 10% unemployment and initial claims coming in at 470K a week? All of this means prices will drop lower across all categories, except for food which I admit has me perplexed as well.
The primary reason is the fact that everyone is deleveraging and paying down debt. We live in a society that was driven by consumption, but that consumption was not organic, i.e. actual income driven, it was credit driven. Once that credit is gone, and it is long gone, consumption as we once knew it ends. Sure, we will have hot products like the iPad (why, I do not know), but that is not for me to decide and even those products have a certain shelf life, meaning their appeal will eventually wear off. Especially when we have initial claims on a monthly basis at 1.8M which is twice the population of Montana and the target market, 18-30, is experiencing a high rate of unemployment.
This lack of inflation is not lost on the Federal Reserve and believe me they are worried about it. Wednesday you will not see any drastic change in their language or actions. They will likely get rid of paying interest on bank deposits, what’s the point if inflation is nil. In fact, I am willing to bet what will not be in the announcement, is that the Fed’s balance sheet will get even bigger and what should concern you is the amount of currency swaps that appear on their balance sheet. Those swaps are for Europe’s banks that “are just fine” so they can settle their trades in the relatively safe reserve currency, the USD. If that number keeps growing, the problems in Europe are much larger than we are being told. Europe will also weigh heavily on Wednesday’s decision and that will be a reason that no major action will be taken as well.
It is clear that deflation or disinflation is here at the moment and I am sure it will get worse, but it will also be somewhat quick. As many of you know, the U.S. has decided to not pass an official budget this year. This is the first time this has happened in almost 40 years and there is only one reason I can speculate this is not happening, the $1.6T estimated by the President was a little too conservative and the actual number is probably much higher. Why debate that before the midterm elections? It would also bring the U.S. front and center in the whole sovereign debt fiasco that Europe is going through at the moment. Frankly, our balance sheet is much, much worse than what we are so critical about over in Europe and we haven’t even instituted socialized medicine yet.
Deflation is great for U.S. treasury debt as investors can capture greater real returns and the treasury pays out little interest, but this is not going to last long. Our deficits and our tinkering in China’s affairs is about to bite us in the rear end in a big way. First, we owe too much and can never, ever repay it, there is just no way out of it and we cannot “grow our way out” - the people suggesting that are loony tunes. Second, I suspect the RMB, Yuan, China’s currency, will eventually weaken, I am very sure of it, but it may also strengthen in the meantime which would be humorous only because China would then be running big trade deficits, not surpluses, and would not have to buy our debt. I wonder how well our $40B daily auctions would go then.
I also wonder if Congress will actually pass the much dreaded Currency Manipulator Bill they are threatening China with. I think that is Smoot-Hawley on steroids. If both these things happen, China lets the currency strengthen to get the U.S. off their back, right before they drop it to new lows, and Congress passes their tariff act (that is essentially what it is), what would that do? It would force Americans to pay much more for goods (that is inflationary), and it would force China tonot buy more U.S. debt because there is nothing to hedge against and in all likelihood China would end up being net sellers of treasuries because all of their bubbles would have popped and they would need to get liquid. All thanks to politicians who have no clue how capital works. That would lead to inflation in a big way because all that inflation we exported over the years would wind up right back home where it belongs. This, of course, is a worst case scenario.
What is more than likely to happen is the fact that the U.S. simply continues to spend and the bond market slowly begins to demand higher risk premiums. Eventually it will end up like Greece where the U.S. cannot borrow at reasonable rates, but long before that the Fed will take matters into its own hands and begin to buy treasuries through quantitative easing programs; they did it once, they can do it again, right? Except this time it will be inflationary, but not from a money velocity point of view, from a dollar depreciation point of view. That is much worse because you actually do not have to increase money velocity to destroy the currency which will crush savers and the middle class.
The beauty of this is it doesn’t happen all at once, it happens over a period of months and the government will tell you this is a good thing. How, you say? Oh, it is a perfect plan. Because we consume about 80% of what we produce domestically so we won’t see it right away, but what we will see is our exports increase dramatically, because the dollar is falling on the international markets. More people will become employed, sounds good right? Well, I am not done yet. As people become employed they spend more and prices rise and as prices rise wages will need to increase, but no one is buying our debt except the Fed. The money supply will have to keep growing to keep up with inflation so they print, monetize and send out more money to banks to get into circulation. Wages will increase at exponential rates, but it won’t mean anything.
You see, it is all fake, driven by the monetization of our debt and eventually the dollar will simply be worth nothing and no one will want to trade with us or at least do business in our currency, which means production stops because you cannot exchange our currency for anything else. It is Zimbabwe. The printing of money is a dangerous thing and the economists who insist that what separates us from Greece is that we do have a printing press are right, but for the wrong reasons. It is much more dangerous that we have a printing press because we can do terrible things to ourselves and what I just laid out above could happen. It might happen because there is historical precedence. There are 2 well documented cases, the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe.
It happened, in both cases, quickly, very quickly and in Germany’s case they started out with deflation, much like what we have now. As the government repaid debt and tried to keep the economy going, they printed money and they went from deflation to inflation in the blink of an eye. They were so efficient at printing money they eventually only printed money on one side of the paper, to speed up the process. They even used wood tokens so people could at least burn them for some value. It doesn’t take much to start down the path of inflationary cycles because neither the Germans nor Zimbabwe wanted to be the poster child for hyperinflation, quite the contrary in fact, they, like Ben, think they can control events, capital. That is where they went wrong, capital has a mind of its own and once a path is determined it is tough to change course or stop it altogether. Some very smart men were in both countries and they failed at stopping the inflationary onslaught. I highly doubt our Fed can stop it since they admit they cannot see things coming anyhow.
As far as the folks who say these things cannot happen here, well, they can and they will. It is inevitable at some point and there is no way a deficit reduction committee can stop it or implement a plan to reduce our debt before it happens. There is no political will left in Washington to stop their spending ways. Especially with some 78M Baby Boomers about to receive the mother of all socialized benefits, how do you say no to the largest voting bloc in history? You don’t. I believe that the whole deflation/inflation debate is irrelevant as we will have both. Plus, investing for deflation is really no different than normal investing, some bonds and strong dividend paying stocks which should be your core holdings anyhow. Inflationary investing, well, that is a different story and while I prefer toilet paper and gold you may prefer tobacco and food, either way. The point is, it is coming and you will not see it happening until it is here.