Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Inflation Boat Is Leaving the Dock

Last night we learned that the Federal Reserve is going to put into practice its announced plan to buy US government debt. Today's Financial Times article by Krishna Guha gives the gory details.

Everyone knows that this action by the Fed increases money supply, and most are aware that it increases the probability that at some point in the future the amount of money created will be excessive with regard to the actual needs of the marketplace, which in turn will tend to lead us towards a state of price inflation, or bubble inflation. Another article by Javier Blas on the early signs of this in the commodities markets is a fun read on the subject.

As the Fed sees the problem, then, they must feed us with money supply while the banks are frozen in a state of rigor vivus, and then in future, just at the right moment, they will take steps to prevent the normal outcome of price or bubble inflation by reversing the process.

[Thanks to for the nice photo.]

This sounds logical. As an obscure economist named Edward C. Harwood wrote during our last episode of purposefully inflationary Federal Reserve intervention ("the ill-fated Operation Twist in the 1960s"), during a time when we were still trying to adhere to a modified form of the global gold standard:

"Once inflationary purchasing media have been placed in circulation, there are two ways in which sound money-credit relationships may be restored: (1) by means of devaluation, that is, reducing the gold weight of the monetary unit so much that the increase in the number of (smaller) gold dollars equals or exceeds what had been the inflationary portion of total purchasing media; or (2) by means of deflation, that is by removing inflationary purchasing media from circulation." [See this article from the American Institute for Economic Research website [AIER.]

Let's take these in order. In the 1960s during the last years of the gold standard era, the word "devaluation" had by definition a specific political action attached to it. We could say it was an official public confession to a previously committed inflationary crime, the central bank's admission of guilt and acceptance of their incapacity to rectify the situation. To devalue a currency was ripe with ominous significance, and central banks were supposed to take pains to avoid the embarrassment by not inflating the currency in the first place.

Today, however, the devaluation of our currency takes place painlessly for most of us (except for importers), and effectively the Fed gets away with it on a regular basis. In fact, without a gold or any kind of standard, the inflationary purchases of debt instruments that the Fed has already made, plus those it intends now to make, are already devaluing the dollar as I write. We don't have to wait for an official recognition and adjustment of any standard; it just happens on a day-to-day basis.

Under these circumstances, an official announcement of devaluation, therefore, will have no corrective effect. Quite the contrary, inflation will take place simultaneously with the devaluation of the dollar--a double whammy, if you will.

But we don't want prices to skyrocket, so the inflation will still need correction. Let's turn to the other option, deflation. Paradoxically, the Fed is taking its present inflationary action to fight fear of deflation. They are afraid that a banking panic and a lack of credit could cause the system to collapse in what is called a "deflationary spiral." So it will be a while before they feel comfortable with using the deflationary tactic.

Nevertheless, the Fed scientists and governors do believe that it will be possible for them, at some appropriate moment in the future, to begin a controlled deflation of money supply that will not upset the apple cart.

Harwood does write this about the possibility of a controlled deflation:

"That a period of gradually declining prices can be a period also of great economic growth has been amply demonstrated in the past. For example, between 1875 and 1895 while prices decreased substantially, the Nation's productive capacity and output of goods and services increased at a very rapid rate. The often heard assertion that an economy cannot grow unless prices are rising has no basis in fact....

"With gradual deflation, a longer time would be required to eliminate all inflationary purchasing media and reach an equilibrium between the remaining (noninflationary) purchasing media and prices and wages, but the traumatic events that are a feature of rapid deflation would not occur. The Nation would 'outgrow' the inflationary condition as part of the savings of individuals, businesses, and perhaps of the Government were used to pay off inflationary bank loans and thereby cancel both the loans and the checking deposits that the loans had created. Although gradual deflation would be accompanied by decreasing prices, wages almost certainly would decline less or might even be sustained by greater productivity due to technological and other developments."

(For more on why deflation is not always bad thing, read this research by David Beckworth at Cato.)

So it would seem that a gradual well-timed deflation is what Bernanke and his cohorts are counting on. But... there are a few minefields here. One is that we are no longer on a gold standard. We have no point of reference as to where the dollar should end up. I won't go into the reasons why this makes Bernanke's task more difficult, but it does.

Second, how will we know when prices begin to inflate or when bubbles start to form? Alan Greenspan is famous for having remarked that it is impossible to detect when a bubble is appearing. It's true that we all knew the real estate mania was a bubble (or at least I did; didn't you?), but our financial wonks at the Fed either preferred not to recognize it or couldn't prove it to their own satisfaction, at least not to a point where it would have forced them to take action. (I'd add that they may have had incentives not to want to find reasons to take that action, but that would be unfair speculation, so I won't.)

And what if prices remain the same? Does this necessarily mean that we don't have an inflationary maladjustment in the money supply that maintains prices at an artificially stable but too high level? What if the stimulus package spending turns out to be wasteful to some significant degree? Isn't that like blowing bubbles? Example: Bailout-funded Wall Street bonuses.

Third, and here's the real rub, we have not practiced what Harwood calls "sound money-credit principles" since the Fed was created. These principles mandate a specific equilibrium in the commercial banking system between true reserves, deposits, savings, and short-term commercial paper on the one hand; and loans and investments that are speculative and/or based only on some form of collateral, on the other, where these more risky activities would be allowed only outside the strict commercial banking system. (For more on sound commercial banking, find a copy of Harwood's book "Cause and Control of the Business Cycle," 1974 edition, at your local library, or in the AIER catalog. I will delve into the idea of sound money-credit banking in a future blog.)

Fourth, the Fed cannot reverse its current trajectory and start to take deflationary action until the time is right and the worst of the credit crisis is past. Will nothing unexpected disturb their plans? They are relying on deflationary scenario computer models where "all else is equal," meaning when outside factors remain stable. What if the market does something surprising that will make a controlled deflation either inadvisable or even impossible, at the very moment when it must happen? For example, US treasury bonds could become radically less popular among our foreign buyers as a result of the dollar devaluation the inflation will cause; and as nations all over the world scramble to inflate their own currencies, we may find that we have a lot of competition in the bond market.

Personally, I'm betting (and I disclose that I have put a little money where my mouth is by investing in gold-related products) that the Fed will be hard-put to time and measure the controlled deflation.

Why gold? Because, as I've said many times: You can take gold out of the standard, but you can't take the standard out of gold.

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