Thursday, April 8, 2010

What’s Next: Inflation or More Deflation?

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.

Excessive government spending fueled by ‘printing more money’ or selling Treasury Bonds always raises the specter of runaway inflation. Inflation causes prices to rise rapidly, and is measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Since the current downturn in 2008, the CPI has barely risen, and some measures of CPI actually indicate deflation (which is why retired folks didn’t get a CPI increase in their Social Security benefits this year).

Financial journalists, who write articles and commentary, as well as advertisements selling gold as an investment, often predict future inflation and point to reckless federal spending that erodes the future value of the dollar. Some suspect that government believes it can solve our economic issues by adding programs that will eventually pay for themselves (even though they never have in the past). These commentators may well be right. Inflation is created by too many dollars chasing too few goods. As the money supply increases on a vast scale many armchair economists are convinced that run-away inflation is inevitable.

The economic environment of the 1970’s is often offered as an example of government bungling that poisoned the financial markets. The 70’s remind us of wage and price controls, gas rationing, and oil prices increasing at the whim of the oil cartel. Yet these aren’t pertinent to today’s issues (so far). There are some parallels to the ‘guns and butter’ deficits (i.e. Vietnam and expansion of social services), distrust of government leaders, and the federal government artificially holding down interest rates. So while rampant inflation is a potential outcome, today’s economy doesn’t compare exactly with the 70’s. Inflation is not the only possibility.

Another possibility is the opposite of inflation, or deflation, which is characterized by too few dollars being available to purchase the goods and services being produced. If there is not sufficient ‘velocity’ in an economy to maintain ongoing economic growth, then prices, wages and employment can all decrease. I am more concerned about deflation than inflation in the future because deflation hits suddenly, whereas inflation typically increases gradually.

The Great Depression is the most common example of the deflation vortex. It was very difficult to obtain bank loans, so businesses had to scale back production and inventories. Lower sales created more layoffs, leaving even fewer people to buy goods and services. Deflation, once ignited, can become a voracious beast that sucks the life out of an economy.

Some economists believe the programs initiated by FDR pulled us out of the Great Depression. Others believe that the federal intervention created ‘make-work’ programs that made the situation worse. They note that we didn’t recover until we went into World War II. World wars are a horrible way to create full employment.

But what about today? As in the past the government is intent on increasing the money supply to help the economy move forward. Is deflation a possibility? I think so. There are at least three current phenomena, which can deflect the impact of increasing the money supply, and result in deflation rather than inflation.

The first is productivity, which measures G.D.P. This is the output of goods and services produced per worker. If productivity increases while the money supply is increasing, the impact of inflation can be nullified. Generally, recessions are initially accompanied by increased productivity as firms lay off the least efficient workers. This, of course, creates higher unemployment and puts downward pressure on prices. During the current ‘recession,’ productivity has steadily increased.

When the government creates ‘make-work’ jobs, which do not increase G.D.P., economic activity may be propped up temporarily. But this approach is not sustainable and could ignite inflation. If it were to continue, the economy would reach the point where virtually everyone worked for the government, as in Russia during the Cold War. But these daily lives without private incentive ultimately create economic collapse, sometimes expressed by the Russian saying: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us!”

The second factor is personal savings. If the personal savings rate increases in step with increases in the money supply, then less money is being spent. As monetary velocity drops, there are fewer buyers, and eventually fewer workers. Japan experienced this during the ‘Lost Decade’ of the 1990’s when they did not address the core problems with their banking system. As the Japanese government tried to “paper it over” by printing more money, people who increased their savings thwarted its efforts. It should be noted that the personal savings rate in the U.S. has increased from 0.5% at the beginning of this recession to 6.0% currently.

The third factor that comes into play is the global economy. Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, commented as he stepped down from office that he had been baffled by the low inflation in the 90’s despite large increases in the money supply. But by the end of his term he had identified that the expanding global economy enabled production to move to the least costly sites, which offset inflationary pressures.

Consider a ‘Perfect Storm’ of higher government spending and expansion of the money supply, offset by 1) higher productivity with high unemployment, 2) increased personal savings rates generated by widespread fear, and 3) protectionism exacerbated by a cycle of retaliatory tariffs strangling the global economy. This could create a much more destructive deflationary spiral than creeping inflation.

I am not forecasting this outcome for our economy. But it is a significant possibility that concerns me. That’s why we continue to structure our clients’ net worth using the guidelines of Functional Asset Allocation. This approach is designed to hedge against both inflationary and deflationary environments, as well as provide for long-term portfolio growth whenever we are fortunate enough to return to a period of prosperity.

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.

1 comment:

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