Thursday, April 16, 2009

US had chosen to err on the side of too much, rather than too little, inflation – and it was that error that conclusively ended the Great Depression

TO BE NOTED: From Employment, Interest, and Money:

"There Will Be No Inflationary Episode...Unfortunately

Rapid money creation usually results in rapid inflation. That point is hardly disputable. It is indisputable that the Fed has been creating money rapidly over the past six months, and there is every indication that it intends to continue doing so in the immediate future. Will this rapid money creation result in rapid inflation?

In the immediate time frame – say over the next 12 months – the answer is clearly “no,” for two reasons. First, the Fed’s money creation is designed in part to offset money (and credit) destruction by the banking system. Second, the demand for money is unusually high, and the increase in the demand for money offsets the increase in supply, leaving the value of money approximately constant.

But both these factors are at least partly temporary. Eventually, the condition of the banking system will improve, and it will start creating more money and credit, multiplying the money already created by the Fed. And eventually, households and institutions will get more comfortable and stop wanting to hold so much of their assets in the form of money, thus reducing money demand and causing the value of money to go down (i.e., inflation). At least that’s the way the story is typically told. And the usual version of the story suggests that, in order to prevent this inflation, the Fed will have to scamper very quickly to destroy much of the money it has recently created. It is often argued that losses on assets, or market inefficiency, or political pressure, will prevent the Fed from doing so, thus making an inflationary episode likely.

I’m extremely skeptical of that argument. In particular, I’m skeptical of the premise that the Fed will ever have to scamper quickly to prevent an inflationary episode. To see why I’m so skeptical, consider what “inflation” means: inflation is an ongoing pattern of rising prices. For the moment, let’s leave aside the “ongoing pattern” issue and just say that inflation means rising prices. In a modern economy, what is the immediate cause of rising prices?

In a commodity market, of course, the immediate cause of rising prices would simply be an excess of buyers over sellers at the current price. But most goods and (especially) services (which are more important than goods today) in a modern economy do not trade in commodity markets. Rather, their prices are set by sellers. The only immediate cause of rising prices is that sellers decide to raise them.

So why would sellers decide to raise prices? It boils down to two possibilities: an increase in actual or anticipated demand, so that they can (or think they can) get away with raising prices without losing customers, or an increase in actual or anticipated costs, so that they are forced to raise prices to keep their profit margins positive. The impact of money creation on prices must operate through one of these two channels.

We saw this process operating during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Over the course of the 1960’s, the Fed began to create money more rapidly than it had in the past. Gradually, over several years during the late 1960’s, the increase in actual demand induced sellers to start raising prices more quickly than in the past. Then gradually, over the course of the 1970’s, sellers began to anticipate higher and higher levels of (nominal) demand and higher and higher levels of (nominal) costs, so they started raising prices even before the demand materialized. Under the circumstances, the only way to keep the economy growing was to create enough money to realize the anticipated level of demand, so the inflation rate remained high until Paul Volcker’s Fed finally decided to stop the economy from growing for a while.

But that whole process took a long time. The inflation rate rose from 1% (in 1964) to 10% (in 1980), but it took 16 years to do so. And it took a series of policy errors, not just a one-time failure. William Martin’s Fed (along with the Johnson administration) made errors in the late 1960’s; Arthur Burns’ Fed (along with the Nixon administration) made errors in the early 1970’s; William Miller’s Fed (along with Carter administration) made errors in the late 1970’s; and OPEC took several unprecedented moves to restrict oil production over the course of the 1970’s. And the whole process began with a huge economic boom. The unemployment rate fell from 5.7% in 1963 to 3.5% in 1969. The inflationary pressure didn’t happen overnight: boom conditions, with the unemployment rate below 4%, lasted for about four years, from 1966 through 1969.

For whatever reason – misguided economic theories, pressure from the Johnson administration, inexperience with policymaking during boom conditions, timorousness about restricting credit too much, political bias, concern about the war effort in Vietnam, or come up with your own reason – the Fed repeatedly chose to allow the boom to continue, until sellers learned to anticipate rapid growth of nominal demand. And once the Fed finally did put its foot on the brake, President Nixon took the first opportunity to replace the Fed chairman with one who promptly put his foot back on the accelerator.

The unemployment rate remained at or below 4% from December 1965 through January 1970. Most economists expect the unemployment rate to be above 9% in 2010 and to fall only slowly thereafter. We will not get a late-1960’s-style boom any time soon, certainly not in 2010, 2011, or 2012. Over the next few years, the pressure will be on workers to accept flat wages at best. If actual demand, or actual domestic costs, are going to induce rapid price increases, it is going to happen in the distant future, and one will hardly be able to blame today’s rapid money creation.

The are two ways in which high inflation could conceivably happen in the not-too-distant future, but both seem highly unlikely to me. The first is that costs of foreign products and inputs could rise so quickly that they have a large effect on the overall price level and anticipated future costs. That’s the typical “emerging market” scenario that some fear for the US.

But the US is not at all like a typical emerging market country. The US is a large country, and though it may seem otherwise at times, statistics show that the vast bulk of the value consumed in the US is produced in the US. The ratio of imports to GDP is only about 16%. If the foreign exchange value of the dollar were to fall by half, theoretically doubling the prices of foreign products (under the unrealistically pessimistic assumptions that foreign sellers fully pass on the increased cost and that Americans continue to buy the same foreign products), the resulting increase in the domestic price level would only be about 16%, and that would likely be spread over several years. That’s inflation (by some definitions) but hardly the runaway inflation that some are worried about.

In any case the foreign exchange value of the dollar is not going to fall by anywhere near half, because the consequences would be disastrous for the rest of the world’s economies. China won’t let that happen; Japan won’t let that happen; Europe won’t let that happen. Until today’s weak conditions are completely reversed and turn into a major boom, every other country or currency area will find it in their national interest to buy huge quantities of dollars, if necessary, to prevent a dollar crash. In all likelihood, the dollar will fall slowly over the next decade, imparting only a tiny amount of inflation, certainly not making the difference between a high-inflation economy and a low-inflation economy.

The other theoretical inflationary possibility is that, even if actual domestic demand rises only slowly, anticipated nominal demand will rise quickly due to the observation that the money supply has risen quickly. If so, theoretically, inflation could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there’s a problem with that scenario. If sellers raise prices in the face of high anticipated demand, actual demand will come in far below their expectations, forcing them to cut prices again. In the slow recovery that is likely over the next several years, no matter what the Fed does, sellers will not be able to make large price increases stick. Eventually, presumably, the recovery will run its course and we’ll arrive at the point where demand expectations could be validated by a sufficiently loose monetary policy. But by the time we get to that point, sellers will have been kicked in the face repeatedly and are unlikely to have the courage to implement large price increases.

The Fed will have years to unwind the positions wherewith it has created money so quickly in recent months. Egged on by economists of all stripes, the Fed has stated in no uncertain terms its intention to do so. I have every confidence that it will.

But “confidence” may not be quite the right word. It’s kind of like being confident that someone’s blackjack hand is not going to go bust. You can be confident that a particular bad outcome is not going to happen, but that doesn’t mean being confident that the actual outcome will be a good one. Unless it’s feeling particularly daring, the Fed is going to stand on 12, and history shows that to be a losing strategy.

It’s what the US did in 1937, when 3% inflation was too much. It’s what Japan did in 2006, when 1% inflation was too much. The US subsequently went into the second dip of the Great Depression. Japan became part of the international downturn that we’re all experiencing today.

The next chapter of Japan’s story has yet to be written. The story of the US in the 1930’s eventually has a happy ending (at least for those who survived World War II without crippling injuries), but it’s an ending that involves a lot of inflation. With the excuse of the war, the Fed let the inflation rate rise to an average of about 6% during the early years of the war, before inflation was tamed by price controls. After wartime price controls were lifted, the inflation rate rose to around 10% for a couple of years, making the average inflation rate between 1933 and 1948 a little higher than 4%. Ultimately, the US had chosen to err on the side of too much, rather than too little, inflation – and it was that error that conclusively ended the Great Depression.

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management.

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