Paul Krugman wonders why others worry about inflation when he sees no evidence of inflationary trends:
Joe Wiesenthal makes the well-known point that aside from certain euro area countries, yields on sovereign debt have plunged since 2007; investors are rushing to buy sovereign debt, not fleeing it. I was a bit surprised by his description of this insight as being non-”mainstream”; I guess it depends on your definition of mainstream. But surely the notion that what we have is largely a process of private-sector deleveraging, with government deficits the consequence of this process, and interest rates low because we have an excess of desired saving, is pretty widespread (and backed by a lot of empirical evidence).
And there’s also a lot of discussion, which I’m ambivalent about, concerning the supposed shortage of safe assets; this is coming from bank research departments as well as academics, it’s a frequent topic on FT Alphaville, and so on. So Joe didn’t seem to me to be saying anything radical.
But those comments! It’s not just that the commenters disagree; they seem to regard Joe as some kind of space alien (or, for those who had the misfortune to see me on Squawk Box, a unicorn); they consider it just crazy and laughable to suggest that we aren’t facing an immense crisis of public deficits with Zimbabwe-style inflation just around the corner.
Krugman, of course, thinks it crazy and laughable that in the face of years of decreasing interest rates that anyone would believe that inflation could still be a menace. In fact, Krugman has made the point multiple times that more inflation would be a good thing, by decreasing the value of debt and thus allowing the private sector to deleverage a little quicker.
I remain convinced — even having watched Peter Schiff and Gonzalo Lira make incorrect inflationary projections — that there is exists the potential of significant inflationary problems in the medium and long term. Indeed, I believe elevated inflation is one of three roads out of where we are right now — the deleveraging trap.
In my worldview, this depression — although a multi-dimensional thing — has one cause above all others: too much total debt. Debt-as-a-percentage of GDP has grown significantly faster than productivity:
The deleveraging trap begins with the boom years: credit is created above and beyond the economy’s productive capacity. Incomes rise and prices rise above the rate of underlying productivity. And as the total debt level increases, more and more income that was once used for investment and consumption goes toward paying down debt and interest. This means that inflated asset prices become less and less sustainable, making the economy more and more susceptible to a downturn — wherein asset prices deflate, and the value of debt (relative to income) increases further. Under a non-interventionist regime, once the downturn occurs, this would result in credit freeze, mass default and liquidation, as occurred in 1907.
However, under an interventionist regime — like the modern Federal Reserve, or the Bank of Japan — the central bank steps in to lower rates and print money to support asset prices and bail out failed companies. This prevents the credit freeze, mass default, drastic deflation and liquidation. Unfortunately, it also sustains the debt load — following 2008, total debt remains over 350% of GDP. The easy money leads to a short cycle of expansion and growth, but the continued existence of the debt load means that consumers and businesses will still have to set aside a large part of their incomes to pay down debt. This means that any expansion will be short lived, and once the easy money begins to dry up, asset prices will again begin to deflate. The downward pressure on prices, spending and investment from the excessive debt load is huge, and requires sustained and significant central bank intervention to support asset prices and credit availability. The economy is put on life-support. Debt-as-a percentage of GDP may gradually fall (although in the Japanese example, this has not been the case) but progress is slow, and the debt load remains unsustainable.
A fundamental mistake is identifying the problem as one of aggregate demand, and not debt. Lowered aggregate demand is a symptom of the deleveraging trap caused by excessive debt and unsustainable asset prices. The Fed — and advocates of greater Fed interventionism to support aggregate demand, like Krugman — are mostly advocating the treatment of symptoms, not causes. And the treatment in this case may make the underlying causes worse — quantitative easing and low-interest rates are debt-additive policies; while supporting assets prices and GDP, they encourage the addition of debt.
There are three routes out of the deleveraging trap; liquidation (destroying the debt via mass default), debt forgiveness (destroying the debt via systematically cancelling it), and inflating the debt away. Liquidation in a managed economy with a central bank is politically impossible. Debt forgiveness is politically difficult, although perhaps the most realistic effective bet. And inflating the debt away at a moderate rate of inflation would seem to be a slow and laborious process — the widely-advocated suggestion of a 4% inflation target would only eat slowly (if at all) into the 350%+ total debt-as-a-percentage-of-GDP load.
All three exit routes seem blocked. So the reality that we are staring at — and have been staring at for the last four years — has been remaining in the deleveraging trap.
So why in a deflationary environment like the deleveraging trap would I fear high inflation? Surely this is an absurd and unfounded fear?
Well, Japan shows that nations can remain stuck in a deleveraging trap for a long, long time — although Japan has had to take to increasingly authoritarian measures such as mandating the purchase of treasury debt to keep rates low and so to keep the debt rolling. But eventually nations stuck in a deleveraging trap will have to take one of the routes out. While central banks refuse to consider the possibility of a debt jubilee, and refuse to consider the possibility of allowing markets to liquidate, the only route out remains inflation.
Yet the big inflation that would be required to eject the United States from the deleveraging trap makes creditors — the sovereign states from which the US imports huge quantities of resources, energy, components, and finished goods — increasingly jittery.
According to Xinhua:
The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.
And last October:
Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.
China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.
Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.
And it’s not like America’s Eurasian creditors are doing nothing about this. As I wrote earlier this month:
If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.
More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.
And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.
The Fed is caught between a rock and a hard place. If they inflate, they risk the danger of initiating a damaging and deleterious trade war with creditors who do not want to take an inflationary haircut. If they don’t inflate, they remain stuck in a deleveraging trap resulting in weak fundamentals, and large increases in government debt, also rattling creditors.
The likeliest route from here remains that the Fed will continue to baffle the Krugmanites by pursuing relatively restrained inflationism (i.e. Operation Twist, restrained QE, no NGDP targeting, no debt jubilee, etc) to keep the economy ticking along while minimising creditor irritation. The problem with this is that the economy remains caught in the deleveraging trap. And while the economy is depressed tax revenues remain depressed, meaning that deficits will grow, further irritating creditors (who unlike bond-flipping hedge funds must eat the very low yields instead of passing off treasuries to a greater fool for a profit) who may pursue trade war and currency war strategies and gradually (or suddenly) desert US treasuries and dollars.
Geopolitical tension would spike commodity prices. And as more dollars end up back in the United States (there are currently $5+ trillion floating around Asia), there will be more inflation still. The reduced global demand for dollar-denominated assets would put pressure on the Fed to print to buy more treasuries.
Amusingly, this kind of scenario was predicted in 2003 by Krugman himself!:
The crisis won’t come immediately. For a few years, America will still be able to borrow freely, simply because lenders assume that things will somehow work out.
But at a certain point we’ll have a Wile E. Coyote moment. For those not familiar with the Road Runner cartoons, Mr. Coyote had a habit of running off cliffs and taking several steps on thin air before noticing that there was nothing underneath his feet. Only then would he plunge.
What will that plunge look like? It will certainly involve a sharp fall in the dollar and a sharp rise in interest rates. In the worst-case scenario, the government’s access to borrowing will be cut off, creating a cash crisis that throws the nation into chaos.
This is not a Zimbabwe-style scenario, but it is a potentially unpleasant one involving a sharp depreciation of the dollar, and a significant change in the shape of the American economy (and geopolitical reality). It includes the risk of costly geopolitical escalation, including proxy war or war.
However, American primary and secondary industries would look significantly more competitive, and significant inflation — while penalising savers — would cut down the debt. Such a crisis would be painful and scary, but — so long as there is no escalation — largely beneficial.