Why I Was Wrong About Inflation

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Back in 2007, I was much more interested in finance and trading than I was in macroeconomics. When the crisis — and the government’s macroeconomic response to the crisis — began in 2008 what was really needed to get a strong grasp of the situation was an understanding of macroeconomics, which I did not have as it was a topic I only really began studying in depth at that time. This led to some misconceptions, particularly about inflation. I mistakenly assumed — as did many at the time, and as do many today — that the huge expansion of the monetary base would lead to stronger inflation than the timid and low inflation we have seen in years since the programs began. While I strongly doubted the claims of individuals like Peter Schiff that hyperinflation might be nigh — as I understood that most historical hyperinflations occurred due to a collapse in production, not solely due to money printing — I thought a strong inflationary snapback was likely, Why? A mixture of real effects and expectations. If central banks are printing money at a higher rate, people will fear that money is becoming less scarce. If having more money in circulation does not begin to bid prices upward, producers will soon begin to raise prices to anticipate any such rise. Simply, I thought that central banks couldn’t print their way out of disaster without some iatrogenic side-effects. I assumed the oncoming pain was unavoidable, and that the onset of inflation was the price that would be paid. As Ludwig von Mises put it: “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”

So why did that not occur? After all, plenty of internet goldbugs — and very serious people following the advice of people like John Taylor, Eugene Fama, and Niall Ferguson — were talking about the potential for a strong inflationary shock. The gold price was soaring — hitting a peak above $1900 an ounce in September 2011 — as people anticipating inflation sought to buy insurance against it. Well, for a start it seems like the public did not really buy into the notion of an oncoming inflationary shock. Expected inflation as measured by the University of Michigan has remained very close to the post-1980 norm since the crisis:

MICH_Max_630_378

But above and beyond this, the real monetary effects were not the ones I first assumed them to be. The total money supply — most of which is generated not by the Fed but in the private sector through lending — has been stagnant, even while the Federal Reserve is expanding the monetary base. So while the financial sector is flush with cash and has bid the stock market up above its pre-recession nominal peak, other goods in other sectors just have not had enough of a bid behind them to send inflation strongly upward because other areas of the economy (for instance housing, consumer electronics and real wages) have continued to deflate in the context of continued deleveraging, accelerating offshoring driving down wages and the receding effects of the 2008 oil shock.

Yet even more importantly the supply of goods in the West — flowing as it does from East to West, from the factories of the Orient to the consumers of the West — has remained strong and stable. There has been no destabilising, chaotic Chinese crash or revolution, even though many wished there would be in the wake of the Arab spring. And for all the talk by the Chinese and Russians of bond vigilantism, starting a new global reserve currency and dumping the dollar, that has not happened either. And why would it? Certainly, the Asian bond-buyers might have suffered a few years of negative real interest rates. This might have pissed them off. But undermining the Western recoveries further (which have been quite pathetic thus far) when such a high proportion of their assets — dollars and treasuries and increasingly real assets like land and industrials — are related to the economic performance of the West would be to cut off their nose to spite their face, while simultaneously risking conflict with the American military, whose capabilities remain unmatched. The Chinese and Russian talk of de-Americanisation and a post-American world is all bluff and bluster, all sound and fury signifying very little. In the long run, America will have to accept a world where it is no longer the sole global superpower, but there is no incentive for America’s competitors to hasten that way with the kind of aggressive economic warfare that might cause an economic shock.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that much of the new money entering the system is sitting as excess reserves. Is that a symptom of the inflation simply being delayed? Until the middle of last year I thought so. Now I very strongly doubt it. The existence of excess reserves in the system is not a symptom of stored-up future inflation, but a symptom of the weakness of the transmission mechanism for quantitative easing. Simply, the system is in a depression. The banking system is infected with a deep paranoia, and would prefer to sit on risk-free cash instead of lending money to businesses. If the money was lent out, there would be an increased level of economic and business activity. Therefore there is no guarantee of any additional inflation as the money is loaned out.

So I was wrong to worry that inflation could become an imminent problem. But I was wronger than this. The entire paradigm that I was basing these fears upon was flawed. Simply, I was ignoring real and present economic problems to worry about something that could theoretically become a problem in the future. Specifically, I was ignoring the real and present problem of involuntary unemployment to worry about non-existent inflation and non-existent Asian bond vigilantes. The involuntariness of unemployment is a very simple fact — there are not enough jobs for the number of jobseekers that exist, and there hasn’t been enough jobs since the crisis began. Currently there are just over three job seekers for every job. So unemployment and underemployment are not simply things that can be dismissed as a matter of workers becoming lazy, or preferring leisure to work. Mass unemployment has insidious and damaging social effects for individuals and communities — people who are out of work for a long time lose skills. For communities, crime rises, and health problems emerge. And there are 25 million Americans today who are either unemployed or underemployed as a practical matter it is not simply a case of sitting back and allowing the structure of production to adjust to the new economy. And worse, with unemployment high, spending and confidence remain depressed as the effects of high unemployment create a social malaise. This is a mass sickness — and in the past it has led to the rise of warmongering political figures like Hitler. So while it may be preferable for the private sector to be the leading job creator under ordinary conditions, while the private sector is engaging in heavy deleveraging this is impractical. Under such an eventuality the state is the only institution that can break the depressionary trend by creating paying jobs and fighting back against the depressionary tendency toward mass unemployment. Certainly, centralised bureaucracy can be a troublesome and distortionary thing. But there are many things — like mass unemployment and underemployment, and the social problems that that can bring — worse than centralised bureaucracy. And no — this kind of Keynesianism was not the problem in the 1970s.

By worrying over the potential for future inflation or future bond vigilantism due to monetary and fiscal stimulus, I was contributing to the problem of mass unemployment, first of all by not acknowledging the problem, and second by encouraging governments and individuals to worry about potential future problems instead of real-world problems today. As it happened, a tidal wave of evidence has washed these worries away. It is clear from the economic data that inflation is not a concern in a depressionary economy, just as Keynesian-Hicksians heuristics like IS/LM suggested.

Of course, if the depression ends of its own accord then inflation could become a problem again.  If the United States were to experience a strong unexpected spurt of growth sustained over a year or so, pushing unemployment significantly down and growth significantly up, inflation could rise appreciably. The Federal Reserve would have to quickly taper both its unconventional policies and probably begin to raise rates. Of course, that is rather unlikely in the present depressionary environment. But certainly, it is a small possibility. That would be the time for the Federal Reserve to start to worry about inflation. A strong negative energy shock — like the one experienced by the UK in 2010 and 2011 — could push inflation higher too, yet that would be a transitory factor in the context of the wider depressionary environment, and would most likely fall back of its own accord.

If the Fed was engaging in actual helicopter drops — the most direct transmission mechanism possible — there would likely be a stronger inflationary response than that which we have seen thus far. Yet ultimately, this might prove desirable. After all, if the private sectors of the entire Western world have a very large nominal debt load which they are struggling to deleverage, some stronger inflation would certainly begin to minimise that. Yes, that is redistribution from lender to borrower. No, creditors will not be happy about this. But in the end, creditors may find it easier to take an inflationary haircut than face twenty years of depressionary deleveraging as Japan has done. Although the West certainly does not have the same demographic troubles as Japan, such an outcome is possible unless people — governments, entrepreneurs, individuals, society — decide that unemployment and a lack of demand in the economy must be tackled, and do something about it. Then can we confidently expect to climb out of the lip of the deleveraging trap.

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Why Europe Is Still In Peril, In Two Charts

A lot of analysts, including myself, have given the European situation a rest since last year. There were certainly some signs that the ECB and IMF had slowed (if not stopped) the deterioration by providing liquidity backstops to the addled banking system. But perhaps that was just the calm before the storm.

In truth, things were still was probably just as perilous as ever up until yesterday when the ECB and IMF decided to start a banking panic by enforcing a haircut of up to 10% on bank depositors. That was literally the stupidest thing that anyone has done since the Euro crisis began, and while it may not lead to utter disaster, there is a significant chance that it will. Not only is it excruciatingly unjust (it’s theft!), it is also incredibly suicidal. Many, many Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and Portuguese will have looked at the Cyprus haircut in horror, and wondered “Am I next?” Some of those will withdraw their money from the bank and stuff it in a mattress or into tangible assets, furthering stressing the already-fragile and highly-leveraged European banking system. Even a 1% drop in European deposits would lead to over €100 billion of withdrawals.

The background to this is soaring European unemployment:

EuroUnemployment

The people running the European financial system and engineering the bailouts and austerity (ECB, EU, IMF, Germany) have ploughed on through with more and deeper austerity even as European countries (other, of course, than Germany) have run up to higher and higher unemployment levels. Spain and Greece are above 25%. Italy is above 10%, and Portugal above 15%. Hiking taxes and cutting spending is leading to more and more people in unemployment oblivion. That isn’t healthy. Let’s not forget what happened to Germany the last time when over 25% of its people found themselves unemployed:

Chart-German-Unemployment-and-Nazi-Links

If bank runs materialise across Europe next week, the unemployment situation is most likely to worsen even further. If that happens, expect more and more unemployed, underemployed and angry Europeans to start voting for increasingly radical political parties. This is suicidal. Europe needs to not only reverse the awful, stupid Cypriot haircut, but also to put fiscal consolidation on hold (it has, lest we forget, so far been counterproductive) and start worrying about unemployment levels.

Of Krugman & Minsky

Paul Krugman just did something mind-bending.

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In a recent column, he cited Minsky ostensibly to defend Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies:

Business Insider reports on a Bloomberg TV interview with hedge fund legend Stan Druckenmiller that helped crystallize in my mind what, exactly, I find so appalling about people who say that we must tighten monetary policy to avoid bubbles — even in the face of high unemployment and low inflation.

Druckenmiller blames Alan Greenspan’s loose-money policies for the whole disaster; that’s a highly dubious proposition, in fact rejected by all the serious studies I’ve seen. (Remember, the ECB was much less expansionary, but Europe had just as big a housing bubble; I vote for Minsky’s notion that financial systems run amok when people forget about risk, not because central bankers are a bit too liberal)

Krugman correctly identifies the mechanism here — prior to 2008, people forgot about risk. But why did people forget about risk, if not for the Greenspan put? Central bankers were perfectly happy to take credit for the prolonged growth and stability while the good times lasted.

Greenspan put the pedal to the metal each time the US hit a recession and flooded markets with liquidity. He was prepared to create bubbles to replace old bubbles, just as Krugman’s friend Paul McCulley once put it. Bernanke called it the Great Moderation; that through monetary policy, the Fed had effectively smoothed the business cycle to the extent that the old days of boom and bust were gone. It was boom and boom and boom.

So, people forgot about risk. Macroeconomic stability bred complacency. And the longer the perceived good times last, the more fragile the economy becomes, as more and more risky behaviour becomes the norm.

Stability is destabilising. The Great Moderation was intimately connected to markets becoming forgetful of risk. And bubbles formed. Not just housing, not just stocks. The truly unsustainable bubble underlying all the others was debt. This is the Federal Funds rate — rate cuts were Greenspan’s main tool — versus total debt as a percentage of GDP:

fredgraph (18)

More damningly, as Matthew C. Klein notes, the outgrowth in debt very clearly coincided with an outgrowth in risk taking:

To any competent central banker, it should have been obvious that the debt load was becoming unsustainable and that dropping interest rates while the debt load soared was irresponsible and dangerous. Unfortunately Greenspan didn’t see it. And now, we’re in the long, slow deleveraging part of the business cycle. We’re in a depression.

In endorsing Minsky’s view, Krugman is coming closer to the truth. But he is still one crucial step away. If stability is destabilising, we must embrace the business cycle. Smaller cyclical booms, and smaller cyclical busts. Not boom, boom, boom and then a grand mal seizure.

Britain’s Greatest Depression

This is just a disaster — and more prolonged than the depression of the 1930s:

GDP to January 2013

And even more of a disaster when we consider the impact this has had on youth unemployment, which has climbed far above the EU and OECD averages (although nothing like as badly as Spain or Portugal):

o-UK-YOUTH-UNEMPLOYMENT-570

This is not just a failure of government austerity, although that in itself has totally failed to ignite any kind of growth or recovery. The fiscal trajectory is important (not least for business expectations) — and trying to cut public spending and raise taxes during a severe depression in private activity has been shown repeatedly to just exacerbate the private slump — but it’s just one aspect of a greater problem — the failure to create a favourable business environment that can attract capital and growth to the UK.

Lending to UK business remains severely depressed:

LendingtoUKbusiness

Given that the British government owns the bailed-out commercial banks, it’s a shock that they haven’t leveraged this power to reignite lending to business, and particularly to business startups. So long as businesses are allowed to either succeed or fail on their own merits, it would not be a malinvestment of time, energy or capital to use publicly-owned bailed-out banks to break through the lending freeze.

It is something of a chicken-or-egg problem to say exactly how much of the problem is austerity, and how much of it is a weak business environment. But either way, we are on the wrong track. Business confidence levels are still deeply depressed — lower than they were when Cameron and Osborne came to power:

uk-pmi-services-buisness-confidence-feb-2013

We’re now half of the way to a Japanese-style lost decade. If we carry on on the same track, we may end up with exactly that.

If British businesses don’t have confidence in Cameron and Osborne’s policies, if their policies don’t lower unemployment, don’t create growth, don’t boost imports and exports, don’t result in recovery, and don’t even result in less borrowing  (their stated aim), why do they continue to pursue them?

Jobs For Boomers

Via Zero Hedge — as two Boomers battle it out for the White House, plenty of jobs for Boomers, crumbs for everyone else:

And here’s last month’s data:

I’m 25. This age-bracket has consistently shed jobs since 2009.

While the underlying reality beneath the statistics is undoubtedly complex and multi-dimensional, one factor has to be that younger workers are stuck in a kind of Catch-22. Many younger individuals are trapped with job little experience. To get experience, they need to get hired, and to get hired they need experience. In a depressionary environment, employers may be less willing to take chances with new employees, and so when hiring may more often choose experience over youthful enthusiasm and academic qualifications. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Boomers were retiring en mass. But with plenty of older individuals still in the work force — at least in part due to the very low-interest rate environment where returns on savings are meagre, and due to the depressed housing market that has left many underwater on their homes — the elderly are snapping up jobs and experience, and so consigning many younger individuals — even those with degrees — to flipping burgers, making coffee, the unemployment queue, or writing blogs.

The European Union is Destroying European Unity

So we know that the pro-bailout parties in Greece have failed to form a coalition, and that this will either mean an anti-bailout, anti-austerity government, or new elections, and that this will probably mean that the Greek default is about to become extremely messy (because let’s face it the chances of the Greek people electing a pro-austerity, pro-bailout government is about as likely as Hillary Clinton quitting her job at the State Department and seeking a job shaking her booty at Spearmint Rhino).

It was said that the E.U.’s existence was justified in the name of preventing the return of nationalism and fascism to European politics.

Well, as a result of the austerity terms imposed upon Greece by their European cousins in Brussels and Frankfurt, Greeks just put a fully-blown fascist party into Parliament.

From the Telegraph:

The ultra nationalist far right party Golden Dawn supporters celebrated on Sunday after exit polls showed them winning between 5 to 7 per cent of the vote, enough for them to gain representation in parliament for the first time in Greek history. Golden Dawn Leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos shouted “The Europe of the nations returns, Greece is only the beginning” as he walked towards party headquaters and pledged to deal with illegal immigrants first.

For doubters of their intellectual lineage, here’s their logo:

I (among many others) have argued since at least last year that increased nationalism would be a result of the status quo, which is of course deeply ironic.

Winston Churchill famously noted that a new European unity was the path to the people of Europe forgetting the “rivers of blood that have flowed for thousands of years”.

Well it looks like some of the memories of those rivers of blood are about to be unleashed. How was it possible that a regime set up ostensibly to create more and deeper European unity seems to have sown the seeds for division and nationalism? Quite easily, really.

By designing a system that allowed for governments to spend freely in a fiat currency they could not print more of, Brussels effectively set up member states for fiscal crises. But the fiscal crisis hit at the worst possible time, one of global economic contraction. And by enforcing contractionary policies on states that were already in a depression, economies in Europe are getting to Great Depression levels:

The key here is that the Euro system is not giving the public the idea that all peoples are in the same boat. It is giving the impression that some nations are benefiting at the expense of others.

For there can be no doubting the perception on the ground in Europe that Germany (the first nation, lest we forget, to violate the Stability and Growth Pact) is sado-masochistically brutalising the periphery in the name of its own prosperity. And the facts back that up:

Certainly, the steep austerity policies have in Portugal, Spain and Greece only produced bigger deficits as tax revenues have fallen. But what really matters is that Europeans more and more are coming to see the E.U. and the policies it enforces as counter to their interests and harmful.

While Britons have long resented the E.U. and its micro-managerial regulatory regime, it is becoming clear that much of Europe is coming to distrust the E.U. and its institutions:

In the wake of WW2 there was deep and genuine grassroots concern throughout Europe for unity, and Europe should never have to go through another war. Yet the actions of this bureaucratic, centralising, technocratic institution are jeopardising that reality. This is top-down fragility transmitted throughout Europe by the actions of misguided planners.

I don’t believe that many Europeans really want to go down this path again. But as the European economies continue to bleed, as millions of youths remain jobless, those deep scars that thousands of years of war and violence created, culminating in the rise of Nazism and WW2, are rising again to the surface.

Voters become radical when they are denied economic opportunity. That’s the reality I think we should all take from Hitler’s rise to power, and that’s the reality of Europe today.