Bringing back the Scylla and Charybdis flation meme

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In June of last year, I wrote a post called "Central banks will face a Scylla and Charybdis flation challenge for years." The crux of the piece was that we are living in a world in which debt deflation is always one downturn away, but in which massive amounts of stimulus and liquidity are driving economic policy. To my mind, this creates flation whiplash. In June I posed it this way:

The problem is this: we have just witnessed one of the most serious asset bubbles in history. In fact, I would call the great housing bubble an ‘echo bubble’ that was merely a continuation of the bubble forces that created the technology bubble of the late 1990s.  So, the world saw asset price inflation of the most severe kind for over a decade…  What results from the implosion of such a significant bubble is deflation.

Actually, more crisply put, what results is ‘the D-process,’ an outcome highlighted by Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates (see my post “A conversation with Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio” for more detail).  This process involves the three D’s of deleveraging, deflation and depression (outlined in my post “We are in depression“).

Richard Koo goes further in his book “The Holy Grail of Macro Economics.”  Here, he argues that the unwind of great bubbles suffers from what he labels a ‘balance sheet recession.’  In essence, … the psychology of debt reduction will limit the effectiveness of monetary policy as a policy tool.

In my view, the catalyst for this change of psychology is the ‘debt revulsion’ that ushers in the panic phase of an asset bubble collapse… In fact, I would argue that companies learned their lesson about debt from the aftermath of the tech bubble.  It is the household sector in the U.S. (and the U.K.) which is heavily indebted. Therefore, if the psychology of a balance sheet recession does take form, it will be the household sector leading the charge.

In sum, the psychology after a major bubble is very different than the psychology before its collapse.  The post-bubble emphasis becomes debt reduction and savings, making monetary policy ineffective, not because financial institutions are unwilling lenders but because companies and individuals are unwilling borrowers. These are forces to be reckoned with for some to come.

Inflationary forces

Meanwhile, inflation is going to be a problem too.  Why?  Two principle reasons come to mind: commodity prices and money supply…

…The Federal Reserve and other central banks have been pumping a lot of money into the financial system in an attempt to add reserves to the system and to take on the intermediation role the wider banking system normally serves.  Nevertheless, this money is not being lent out and excess reserves are piling up at the Federal Reserve…

 

excess-reserves

 

But, what happens when the economy returns to an environment in which those excess reserves start to be lent out?  Inflation.  And this is an inflation that will not be so easy to control because the Federal Reserve has embarked on a policy of ‘qualitative easing’ by buying up non-treasury assets, transforming its balance sheet from one dominated by treasury assets to one in which Treasury assets are in the minority.  So, as the Fed has intervened and bloated its balance sheet, an increasing amount of the assets it has with which to withdraw the excess liquidity in the system is hard to sell.

fed-assets-2009-05

So, you have a huge amount of excess reserves, hard to sell assets on the Fed’s balance sheet.  Add in the fact that the Federal Reserve is going to be loathe to choke off an incipient recovery and you have the makings of inflation when recovery takes hold.

Moreover, there is a rise in commodity prices which is adding inflation to the pipeline.  Much of the recent decrease in headline inflation numbers is due to the collapse in commodity prices.

That was then. Right now, much of the increase in inflation is due to commodity prices. And the economy is clearly in recovery mode. Witness recent comments by Robert Hall who has a hand in calling the recession date. He says it is “pretty clear” the recession is over. The recent data from the services and manufacturing PMI say so too. Employment is still pretty murky in my view, not nearly as robust as the headline number. But this graph from FiveThirtyEight tells you we are trending better than one year ago.

 

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Employment-Mar2010

So, with consumers in a more buoyant mood, is it only a matter of time until credit growth begins?  That’s a question, not a statement – as I still give a double dip even odds.   But, a lot of people see galloping inflation on the horizon. And then what will the Fed sell to soak up liquidity? CDOs from Maiden Lane III?  The U.S. ten–year yield is way up today – surpassing 4.00% at one point. And TIPS (Treasury inflation-protected securities) are in hot demand.  Oil is at $85 a barrel. Gold is rising now too. Unless we do get a double dip, what’s to stop this from continuing onward and upward?

I still see it the way I did in June:

There are two outcomes I am looking for.

Outcome Number One

  • No policy traction. This is a sluggish muddle-through Japanese scenario where the Richard Koo thesis of the balance sheet recession comes into play. You would see an output gap and below-trend growth for an extended period. Most pundits would say it is the lack of lending that is creating the problem.  However, what if it is the lack of borrowing which is at fault?  Then, we are going to see no traction from monetary policy.

Outcome Number Two

  • Start-Stop economy. I believe Bernanke would prefer this outcome. This is one in which the Federal Reserve allows the economy to recover by keeping interest rates low.  The result is a rise in inflation. We could see inflation rising to 3 percent inflation and then to 5 to 7 and 10 percent. An example would be animal spirits coming back in 2010. And leading to 3 percent inflation followed by 7 percent including $100 oil and then interest rate hikes and another recession at which point the deleveraging begins again in earnest. Followed by more easing and on it goes. But, of course, the problem with outcome two is it is unstable and that it invites an aggressive policy response which risks situation one as an ultimate outcome.

Neither of these scenarios is one in which asset markets are likely to benefit, one reason I see the latest uptick in share prices as nothing more than a bear market rally.

Can you give me a goldilocks scenario that doesn’t fall into these camps?

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