The “other side” of the deflation trade

Graphite here. I remain an ardent deflationist and continue to see strong risks of a continued collapse in asset values in world real estate and equity markets. That said, one key practice in speculation, no matter how strong one’s conviction in a particular trade, is to understand the other side of that trade and how the market could move against your position.

This can sometimes present a challenge for deflationists because so much of the opposing camp is composed of die-hard Panglossian buy-and-holders betting on a V-shaped recovery, rounded out with a few gold bugs who present little or no argument other than that the Bernanke Fed will embark on a suicidal campaign of massive money printing.

Although Marc Faber has issued calls for hyperinflation before, the discussion in the video below represents a much more measured discussion of a serious alternative to the near-term bearish case for stocks and the economy:

“My sense is that — here I’m talking about the economy — that the economy, near term, can recover, and maybe the recovery will be somewhat lengthier than expected a crack-up boom, because the first stimulus package in the U.S. probably will be followed by a second one, and money printing will lead to even more money printing next year. So it can last, say, 12 to 18 months, and then we will get another set of problems ….”

Faber goes on to recommend buying financial stocks, on the expectation that the banks will continue to get free money from the government and parlay that largess into significant profits. His long-term view remains as bearish as ever, but he presents an important alternative perspective on how soon the economic calamity will arrive and what form it will take.

That said, I think Faber is wrong that the market will continue to enthusiastically take up the Fed’s offers of liquidity and use them to fuel speculation for very much longer. No one is laboring under the delusion that the garbage stocks like AIG, FNM, and FRE which have led this last leg upward are worth anything more than zero — and while from a contrarian perspective that could indicate that there is room remaining for investors to develop an even more desperate belief in a new bull market, I think it is much more likely a manifestation of the new trend toward skepticism which will come to permeate the entire market as the bear runs its course.

Whatever your perspective, it’s always fun to see Marc Faber’s characteristic chuckle at the suggestion that our wise overseers will competently steer us through the crisis.

Summer school

There are still a lot of people out there who didn’t absorb last year’s course on the credit cycle, particularly the chapter on inflation and deflation. To remedy this gap in your elementary economic education, before buying resource stocks or saying that any market will go to the moon on Fed-powered rockets, you are required to read this refresher by Mish Shedlock. An except is below:

…there are practical as well as real constraints on what the Fed can and will do. Nearly everyone ignores those constraints in their analysis.

Congress in theory and practice can give away money. Indeed, Congress even does that to a certain extent. Extensions to unemployment insurance, increases in food stamps, and cash for clunkers are prime examples.

However, those are a drop in the bucket compared to the total amount of credit that is blowing up. Take a look at the charts in Fiat World Mathematical Model if you need proof.

The key point is it is the difference between Fed printing and the destruction of credit that matters! As long as credit marked to market blows up faster than handouts and monetary printing increase we will be in deflation. Deflation will not last forever, but it can last a lot longer than most think.

Also ponder this missive from the dean of Deflation U, Robert Prechter:

“The Fed’s balance sheet ballooned from $900 billion just five months ago to more than $2 trillion, by buying outright, or swapping the pristine credit of U.S. Treasury debt for the questionable paper held by troubled banks, brokerages and insurance companies. One of the marketplace’s most strongly held beliefs is that the U.S. dollar is on the verge of an imminent collapse and gold is set to soar because of the Fed’s historic and irresponsible balance sheet expansion… We agree about the irresponsible part, but not about the near-term direction of the dollar and gold. Our forecast is being borne out by the dollar, which has soared straight through the Fed’s most aggressive expansion to date. Just as Conquer the Crash forecasted, the Fed is fighting deflation but, as the book says, ‘Deflation will win, at least initially.’ The reason is that there are way more debt dollars than cash dollars, with about $52 trillion currently in total market credit. As this enormous mountain of debt implodes, it is swamping all efforts to inflate. Of course, the Fed has explicitly stated that it will keep trying. Its initial effort was akin to trying to fill Lake Superior with a garden hose. But $2 trillion still won’t do the trick of stemming a contracting pool of $52 trillion. The only real effect is that taxpayers get hosed. Obviously not all of the $52 trillion is compromised debt, but the collateral underlying this mammoth pool of IOUs is decreasing in value, placing downward pricing pressure on the value of related debt, which won’t show up in the Federal Reserve figures for many months. A reduction in the aggregate value of dollar-denominated debt is deflation, which is now occurring. Eventually the value of credit will contract to a point where it can be sustained by new production. At that point, the U.S. dollar may indeed collapse, as gold soars under the weight of the Fed’s bailout machinations. But deflation must run its course first. In our opinion, it has a long way to go…”

Also consider an oldie from yours truly  (Some Basic Points on Inflation and Deflation):

#1 The business cycle is the credit cycle.

#2 Inflation is a net increase in money and credit, not just prices (mainstream opinion) and not just money (common misconception among contrarians).

#3 Deflation is a net decrease in money and credit.

#4 There cannot be both inflation and deflation at once.

#5 The central bank and the government bring about inflation by absolving banks of the responsibility for their actions. 9:1 fractional reserve lending would not be rewarded in a free market devoid of FDIC insurance and a central bank to print the money to pay for it and other bailouts for bankers.

#6 Price increases themselves are not inflation. If you have a fixed expense budget and your grocery and energy bill goes from $500 to $700, you must cut back $200 somewhere else (for instance, many are deciding to forgo eating out).

For points 7-11, click here

Also see, Why Bailouts will Not Stop the Depression

Don’t worry about the Fed printing…yet.

Here are a couple of charts that illustrate the significance of what the Fed has undertaken lately. First, look at the change in its balance sheet this year from about $870 billion, almost all in Treasuries, to $1.5 trillion, with fewer Treasuries, more repos and swaps, and an alphabet soup of new credit facilities:

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Macroblog (yes, a Fed branch has a blog).

For the inflation/deflation issue, what matters at the moment is that all that new credit (not much new currency, only about $30 billion more in actual notes) is just sitting in banks. Unlike in the Greenspan years, nobody worthy of credit wants to borrow the new funds, since they can’t generate positive returns on investments, and the banks aren’t lending to people with bad credit anymore.

How do we know it is not being lent out? The Fed is actually pretty transparent as far as nefarious government sponsored entities go, and provides a lot of useful data through the FRED website. Here is the sum of loans and investments at US commercial banks:

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As you can see, lending has gone flat after an enormous expansion. And this is just the past 5 years — check out the longer view for a graph that would have knocked Mises’ Austrian socks off:

When you hear “credit bubble”, think of the above.

Workers of America, Unite! (to fight the evil of lower prices)

Inflation, in the end, will have to come from massive government spending programs. The Greater Depression will have a scaled up New Deal. Keynesianism is still all the rage, and when the bailouts have had time to fail, expect Obama to start handing out trillions to government contractors through various new Orwellian-sounding departments and administrations.

For the dollar, the Treasury market will be the canary in the coal mine. It is rallying now from safe-haven buying, as it should, and it could even go a lot higher, but when it turns, grab your gold and run. Nothing is so damaging to an economy as government work programs and the kind of inflation that they create. This is what happened in the Wiemar Republic. The government was the main employer, and it paid workers (and foreign creditors) with freshly printed cash.

In the US, I imagine that the public finance system will continue to operate as it always has: 1) Taxes, income from which will continue to drop in the depression; 2) Bond sales, but there is a limit to the world’s appetite for notes from a bankrupt creditor; 3) Federal Reserve money creation for the purchase of bonds that the public does not want. This last part is how fresh cash gets into circulation, and how the government indirectly funds itself through printing. When public demand for Treasuries dries up, you can bet the government’s demand for funds will be greater than ever, so then we will see what Bernanke can really do with a printing press.