1000% Inflation?

UBS’s Larry Hatheway — who once issued some fairly sane advice when he recommended the purchase of tinned goods and small calibre firearms in the case of a Euro collapse — thinks 1000% inflation could be beneficial:

When 1000% inflation can be desirable

In fact, the costs associated with inflation (price change) are less than commonly supposed. There is the famous “sticker price cost” – the cost of constantly changing price labels – but in a world of electronic displays and web based ordering this is not a serious economic cost (in fact, it never was). To take an extreme position, one can make the economic argument that there are only limited costs in having inflation running at 1000% per year, with one caveat. 1000% inflation is perfectly acceptable, as long as the 1000% inflation rate is stable at 1000%, and it is anticipated. Of course, one can argue that high inflation tends to be associated with high inflation volatility and uncertainty (and that is true empirically), but economically it is the volatility and uncertainty that does most of the damage.

The maximum damage from inflation comes if it is unexpected or if it is unpredictable.Unexpected inflation causes damage, because the investor who holds bonds yielding 1% for a decade is going to feel cheated if inflation turns out to be 1000%. Of course, no one would voluntarily buy 1% yielding bonds if 1000% inflation was expected. Thaler’s Law comes into operation here; people dislike losing money more than they like making money. As a result episodes of unexpected inflation will lead to a significant adverse reaction on the part of consumers.

Unpredictable inflation is damaging because it causes uncertainty over an investment time horizon – and that uncertainty is a risk that will demand a compensating premium. What the inflation uncertainty risk does is raise the real cost of capital. If I think inflation will be 3% but I am not sure whether it will be 3%, 0%, or 6%, I am likely to demand compensation for the 3% inflation risk but then additional compensation for the possibility that the inflation risk is as high as 6%. The additional compensation is an addition to the real cost of capital.

Nope.

This is a fairly typical mistake for an economist. In an imaginary economic model, it is possible to assume that inflation is stable, and that it is predictable, and to draw conclusions based on those (absurd) assumptions. In the real world, inflation and the effects of inflation are never predictable, because human behaviour — the micro-level phenomena on which macro-level phenomena like “inflation” are founded — is never fully predictable or stable. This means that future rates of inflation will always be uncertain, and renders Hatheway’s point meaningless.

As Hatheway readily admits, high inflation is associated in the real world with inflation volatility and uncertainty. It is not relevant to say that the real issue is not the high rate of inflation, because there has not been a single case in history where such a high rate of inflation has resulted in stability or predictability. Getting to a 1000% inflation rate is an inherently volatile path, historically one which has resulted in panics, crashes and breakdowns.

And beyond that, such a path would completely undermine the currency and instruments denominated in the currency as a store of value. There are no empirical examples of such high rates of inflation being tolerated, because at every stage in history such effects have been intolerable; when such rates of inflation set in, nations just end up ditching the currency, as happened most recently in Zimbabwe.

That is why 1000% (or 100%, or 50%, or probably even 10%) inflation will never be “perfectly acceptable”.

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Krugman’s Inflation Target

The Keynesian blogosphere is up in arms at Ben Bernanke’s response to Krugman’s view that he should pursue a higher inflation target as a debt erasure mechanism.

According to Chairman Bernanke:

We, the Federal Reserve, have spent 30 years building up credibility for low and stable inflation, which has proved extremely valuable in that we’ve been able to take strong accommodative actions in the last four, five years to support the economy without leading to an unanchoring of inflation expectations or a destabilization of inflation. To risk that asset for what I think would be quite tentative and perhaps doubtful gains on the real side would be, I think, an unwise thing to do.

Krugman responded:

This is not at all the tone of Bernanke’s Japan analysis; remember, Japan had nowhere near as high unemployment as we do, and his analysis back then was not simply focused on ending deflation.

Disappointing stuff.

The basic Keynesian logic is as follows:

The economy is performing far below its potential, due to an ongoing slump in aggregate demand caused by a contraction of confidence. Simply, there is plenty of money, but far too many people are risk averse and thus are not spending (and thus creating economic activity) but instead just holding onto their money. The Fed should ease some more, so as to create inflation that turns holding cash into a risk, and so encourage investment and consumption. What’s more, residual debt overhang is a burden on the economy, and additional inflation would decrease the relative value of  debts, giving some relief to debtors.

Matthew O’Brien presented this chart to make the case that output is far below its potential:


I am deeply sceptical that GDP is a sufficient measure of output, and I am even more sceptical that the algorithmic jiggerypokery involved in calculating what the Federal Reserve calls “Potential Nominal GDP” has anything whatever to do with the economy’s real potential output. But I will accept that — based on the heightened unemployment, as well as industrial output being roughly where it was ten years ago — that potential output is far below where it could be, and that the total debt overhang at above 300% of GDP is excessive.

The presupposition I really have a problem with, though, is the notion that this is a problem with hoarding:

Simply, the United States is a consumption-driven economy. And that isn’t so much of a fact as it is a problem. More and more money is going toward consumption, and less and less is going toward investment in companies, in ideas and in businesses. Exemplifying this, less and less money — even in spite of the Fed’s “pro-risk” policies (QE, QE2, ZIRP, etc) is going into domestic equities:

The fundamental problem at the heart of this is that the Fed is trying to encourage risk taking by making it difficult to allow small-scale market participants from amassing the capital necessary to take risk. That’s why we’re seeing domestic equity outflows. And so the only people with the apparatus to invest and create jobs are large institutions, banks and corporations, which they are patently not doing.

Would more easing convince them to do that? Probably not. If you’re a multinational corporation with access to foreign markets where input costs are significantly cheaper, why would you invest in the expensive, over-regulated American market other than to offload the products you’ve manufactured abroad?

As Zero Hedge noted:

In the period 2009-2011, America’s largest multinational companies: those who benefit the most from the public sector increasing its debt/GDP to the most since WWII, or just over 100% and rapidly rising, and thus those who should return the favor by hiring American workers, have instead hired three times as many foreigners as they have hired US workers.

So will (even deeper) negative real rates cause money to start flowing? Probably — but probably mostly abroad — so probably without the benefits of domestic investment and job creation.

Then there is the notion that inflation will effect debt erasure. This chart tends to suggest that at least for government debt it may not make much difference:

There’s no real correlation between government debt erasure and high inflation.

Paul Donovan of UBS explains:

The fundamental obstacle to governments eroding their debt through inflation is the duration of the government debt portfolio. If all outstanding debt had ten years before it matured, then governments could inflate their way out of the debt burden. Inflation would ravage bond holders, and governments (with no need to roll over existing debt for a decade) could create inflation with impunity, secure in the knowledge that existing bond holders could do nothing to punish them. In the real world, of course, governments roll over their debt on a very frequent basis.

Consumer debt may also not experience significant erasure.

From Naked Capitalism:

Inflation only reduces debt overhang in a significant way for households who are fortunate enough to see their nominal wages rise along with the general rise in prices. In today’s economy, workers are frequently not so fortunate.

The deeper reality though, is that even if my concerns are unfounded and Krugman is correct, and that a higher inflation target would achieve precisely what Krugman desires, I don’t think it would solve the broader problems in the economy.

As I wrote in November:

The problem is that most of the problems inherent in America and the West are non-monetary. For a start, America is dependent on oil, much of which is imported — oil necessary for agriculture, industry, transport, etc, and America is therefore highly vulnerable to oil shocks and oil price fluctuations. Second, America destroys huge chunks of its productive capital policing the world, and engaging in war and “liberal interventionism”. Third, America ships even more capital overseas, into the dollar hoards of Arab oil-mongers, and Chinese manufacturers who supply America with a heck of a lot. Fourth, as Krugman and DeLong would readily admit, American infrastructure, education, and basic research has been weakened by decades of under-investment (in my view, the capital lost to military adventurism, etc, has had a lot to do with this).

In light of these real world problems, at best all that monetary policy can do is kick the can, in the hope of giving society and governments more time to address the underlying challenges of the 21st Century. When a central bank pumps, metrics (e.g. GDP and unemployment) can recover, but with the huge underlying challenges like the ones we face, a transitory money-printing-driven spike will in no way be enough to address the structural and systemic problems, which most likely will soon rear their ugly heads again, triggering yet more monetary and financial woe.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see Bernanke go the whole hog and adopt a fully-blown Krugmanite monetary policy, just to see Krugman’s ideas get blown out of the water by the cold, dark hand of falsification.

Of course, there was an opportunity to achieve debt erasure in 2008, when the world faced a default cascade and a credit collapse. Had economists and planners let the system liquidate, a huge portion of bad debt and bad companies and systems would have been erased, and — after a period of pain — we might well be well into a new phase of organic self-sustaining growth. But we live in a different world; where zombie systems, companies and their assets are preserved by government bailouts and interference, and very serious people like Paul Krugman earnestly push dubious solutions to problems that their very interventionist worldview created.

Another Sign of Coming Blowup?

Last week I asked:

Look at the following graph from the St. Louis Fed. It is the amount of deposits at the US Fed from foreign official and international accounts, at rates that are next to nothing. It is higher now than in 2008. What do they know that you don’t?

Here’s another sign that powerful insiders are increasingly running scared.

From Zero Hedge:

Back in the summer of 2007 two important things happened: the market hit an all time high, and the smart money realized what was about to happen (following the subprime and the Bear hedge fund blow up, it was pretty clear to all but Jim Cramer) and bailed out of stocks and into bonds, with Treasury holdings of Primary Dealers soaring at the fastest pace in history.

Finally, disgraced ex-President of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn has weighed in, to confirm what everyone already knew.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The former International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director, Dominique Strauss Kahn, Sunday said Greece is unable to pay its debt and its creditors will have to take losses on the debt they hold.

“Greece got poorer, we can say Greeks will pay on their own, but they can’t,” Strauss Kahn said in an interview on French TV channel TF1. “There is a loss and it must be taken by governments and banks,” he said.

Yes — and so the real question, which nobody in a position of global or national authority has addressed — is just how will the global financial system be made to cope with the another Lehman-style cascade of defaults?

Black Clouds Over UBS?

From the BBC:

Police in London have arrested a 31-year-old man in connection with allegations of unauthorised trading which has cost Swiss banking group UBS an estimated $2bn (£1.3bn).

Kweku Adoboli, believed to work in the European equities division, was detained in the early hours of Thursday and remains in custody.

UBS shares fell 8% after it announced it was investigating rogue trades.

The Swiss bank said no customer accounts were affected.

One question is what ramifications such a write-down might have on the bank’s liquidity. In this cloudy and dark financial atmosphere, fire-sales of assets to pay down such a loss might spark panic.

Another question is how — after the Jerome Kerviel and Nick Leeson debacles — does a large financial fail to effectively monitor its staff’s trading activities? Hasn’t investment banking experienced enough of these rogue trading shocks to put a system in place to prevent these kinds of activities?

After all, if a too-big-to-fail bank suddenly implodes, the state is perfectly willing to stand-by to inject in the earnings of future generations to “save the system”