Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Underlying Credit Crisis's Recent Effect on Market Prices

Once again, Doug Noland at Prudent Bear has come up with an answer I was looking for.

In this post from August 8, he offers one explanation for our current strange market conjuncture.

Commodity prices for things like food, petroleum, and oil ran up to record levels up until about mid-July for reasons that are unclear, but that economists have described as resulting from a mixture of:

1. Increased worldwide demand along with supply problems; and/or

2. Speculation that the US dollar would collapse.

In mid-July, along came the Freddie and Fannie problems (see this post for an explanation of the origin of their predicament, and this one for the latest dire news).

Then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson issued this press release regarding the Treasury's intention to bail out Freddie and Fannie should problems arise.

We also learned of the Treasury's intention to bail out the FDIC (the government entity that guarantees some of your deposits at the bank) in case of need. (See this entry explaining the FDIC situation, which forum, by the way, proves that ordinary citizens are not as dumb as some would think.)

These two government announcements blow both hot and cold. On the one hand, they reassure Freddie and Fannie bond holders and FDIC insureds that their investments will not disappear. This should be good news for the economy and for the market, and therefore for future demand for commodities.

On the other hand, they scream to market players that the US Government officials are really worried about Freddie, Fannie, and the banks. So what should be good news for market players and for future demand for commodities turns into a bad omen for the economy and thus for those same commodity prices.

Meanwhile, the signs of a recession are already evident. (See this American Institute for Economic Research post for the stats.)

So it would make sense that commodity prices would start to reverse big-time, which in fact they did in mid-July.

But--and here's the odd part--the stock market took a simultaneous leap upward, as did the dollar, counterintuitive movements under the circumstances.

Does this mean that the coming recession is somehow calming stock market nerves and inflation hawk fears? Perhaps so, because it might cause "inflation" (read "CPI price increase") to disappear just as the Fed predicted; and it will therefore allow the Fed not to raise rates to curtail such "inflation" (read "CPI price increases"). Low Fed rates mean, in the minds of some market players, that money will be available and things will improve.

BUT: I can't believe that such recessionary momentum will avert real inflation as that term is used in academic economics (read "excess money and credit"--see this post for an explanation of this word's definition problem), even though it may put a brake on CPI price levels.

I believe that real inflation will increase because:

The Fed and Treasury are taking unprecedented measures to avoid catastrophe, i.e. they have once again succumbed to the temptation to use the printing press to pay the monetary system's way out of trouble. They will use Treasury funds to bail out Freddie, Fannie, the FDIC, and--through the Fed's newly seized lending powers--any major failing commercial banks and other financial institutions. And these operations will be carried out on an unprecedented scale.

Remember, real inflation means more dollars running around than is necessary in a balanced monetary system. It means that you will be paying too many dollars for a particular thing, no matter whether the actual price of that thing rises, or whether the price just stays the same when it should in fact be falling in a deflationary market.

This also means that gold prices expressed in dollars (and perhaps other commodity prices as well) will not tend to decrease in the long run, because gold is a hedge against real inflation.

Doug Noland puts my theory into more appropriate financialese in his article. He offers a plausible explanation of how the speculative community has functioned under these unusual circumstances.

I particularly liked these two ideas:

"[I]t is not the nature of dislocated markets to let fundamentals get in the way of price movement. Markets, after all, live on fear and greed."

He is referring here to speculative markets, the ones he credits with causing both the run-up in commodity prices and the recent crashing of same.

And this one:

"The unwind[ing] of bearish speculations and hedges would be a most problematic market development, unleashing a final bout of speculative excess and disorder that would set the stage for a major market crisis."

He is talking about the credit maladjustments that are taking place behind the scenes and that most of us never hear about. See this post for a description of these.

This should all play out by the end of this year. Hold onto your hats.

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