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Which Will Be Worse: Inflation or Stagflation?

fed inflation expectations
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EDITOR'S NOTE:

The Federal Reserve is driving the economy like a bad motorist: According to legendary investor Ray Dalio, the way the Fed has been lowering and raising interest rates is similar to a poor driver who floors the gas pedal and then hits the breaks as a means of moving forward. We end up in a constant state of backward and forward lurches. 

 

Okay. Go on: But we haven’t been moving forward steadily as most people would presume. Instead, these small lurches are feeding into bigger ones: because the investing public (including Wall Street and most politicians) likes to see more upside than downside, the Fed’s stimulative adjustments have created a scenario where inflation and debt have been accumulating to unsustainable levels. Money and credit/debt creation are out of sync with real production and income. While money creation can increase demand, spending, and debt, only production can generate real income. And that’s where we’re falling short.

 

So, what might this all mean? According to Dalio, the Fed can’t raise rates high enough without weakening the economy. To fight inflation effectively, it will have to sacrifice growth, settling for a “middle course” which will likely be stagflation. If this sounds strange or inconceivable to you, Dalio’s article provides a more detailed explication of his thinking. 

For you gold bugs: Take a guess: what do high inflation and slow economic growth mean for gold?

For me, hearing supposed “experts” talk about what’s now happening in the markets and economy is like listening to nails scratch against a chalkboard because they are typically saying incorrect things in an erudite rather than commonsense way. Markets and economic movements are driven by much simpler and more commonsense linkages than most people articulate. I tried to describe the most important of these in my 30-minute animated video “How the Economic Machine Works" and I tried to lay out for you how I saw the paradigm shifting over the last 18 months in “The Changing World Order: The New Paradigm," which have more of the specifics than I will cover here. Here, I just want to talk about fighting inflation and what’s happening pertaining to it.

More specifically, I now hear it commonly said that inflation is the big problem so the Fed needs to tighten to fight inflation, which will make things good again once it gets inflation under control. I believe this is both naïve and inconsistent with how the economic machine works. That’s because that view only focuses on inflation as the problem and it sees Fed tightening as a low-cost action that will make things better when inflation goes away, but it’s not like that. The facts are that: 1) prices rise when the amount of spending increases by more than the quantities of goods and services sold increase and 2) the way central banks fight inflation is by taking money and credit away from people and companies to reduce their spending. They also take buying power away by raising interest rates, which increases the amount of money that has to go toward paying interest and decreases the amount of money that goes toward spending. Raising interest rates also lowers spending because it lowers the value of investment assets because of the “present value effect” (which I won’t get into because it would be too much of a digression), which further lowers buying power. My main point is that while tightening reduces inflation because it results in people spending less, it doesn’t make things better because it takes buying power away. It just shifts some of the squeezing of people via inflation to squeezing them via giving them less buying power. [1] 

The only way to raise living standards over the long term is to raise productivity and central banks don’t do that. 

So, what do central banks do?

Central banks move demand around by providing and withdrawing spending power by influencing the creation and amounts of debt assets and debt liabilities. They do that in a way that naturally produces cycles in markets (bull and bear markets) and economies (expansions and recessions). More specifically, central banks inject doses of stimulation into the system via injecting credit and money into the system, which produces increases in demand for goods, services, and investment assets that are followed by periods of paying back and withdrawals of the stimulations, which produce lows in demand that are depressing. Whenever these depressing periods of paying back become too depressing, central banks typically provide another and even bigger dose of stimulation. They produce the short-term debt cycles (also known as the business cycle), which typically last for about seven years give or take a few.

These short-term debt cycles add up to the long-term debt cycles that typically last about 75 years, give or take about 25. That’s because most everyone wants the ups and not the downs, so the stimulations and debts that central banks produce typically add up over time to produce more ups than downs until the debt assets and liabilities get unsustainably large, at which point they have to go down via some mix of inflation (due to money printing to reduce the debt burdens by monetizing them, which is inflationary), debt restructuring, and paying the debt service in non-depreciated money (which is depressing). 

That is what we have been experiencing. It’s why debts have been increasing relative to incomes at the same time as each cyclical rise and each cyclical decline in interest rates since 1980 has been lower than the one before it until interest rates hit 0%, and since then each central bank printing and buying of debt has been greater than the one before it up until now.

Most fundamentally: 1) one person’s debts are another person’s assets, and 2) one person’s spending is another person’s income (in the way described in “How the Economic Machine Works”), which means 1) when there are a lot of debt liabilities and debt assets outstanding it becomes impossible to make things good for both debtors and creditors, and 2) when the credit/debt creation is curtailed to bring spending in line with incomes, that causes investment, asset prices, and incomes to fall, which cuts spending and is depressing. 

So, what should central banks do to do their job well? 

Central banks should:

  1. Use their powers to drive the markets and economy like a good driver drives a car—with gentle applications of the gas and brakes to produce steadiness rather than by hitting the gas hard and then hitting the brakes hard, leading to lurches forward and backward.
  2. Keep debt assets and liabilities relatively stable and, most importantly, not allow them to get too large to manage well.

To do this they should not allow interest rates and availabilities of money to be either too good or too bad for the debtors or the creditors. 

By these measures central banks policies have not been good. More specifically,

  1. The Fed is moving from printing and buying debt at an annual rate of around $1.5 trillion to selling it at an annual rate of $1.1 trillion, and from sharply lowering interest rates to sharply raising them. For that reason, we experienced the big lurch forward and are now experiencing the big lurch backward.
  2. Because debt assets and liabilities are now very high and because government deficits will remain high, it is virtually impossible for the Fed to push interest rates to levels that are high enough to adequately compensate holders of debt assets for inflation without them being too high to support strong debtors, strong markets, and a strong economy. If the holders of debt don’t get adequate returns they will sell them, which worsens the free market debt supply/demand picture, which either leads to a dramatic cutback in private credit (which is depressing) or the central bank creating more money and buying more debt to fill in the funding hole (which is inflationary). 

In summary my main points are that 1) there isn’t anything that the Fed can do to fight inflation without creating economic weakness, 2) with debt assets and liabilities as high as they are and projected to increase due to the government deficit, and the Fed also selling government debt, it is likely that private credit growth will have to contract, weakening the economy, and 3) over the long run the Fed will most likely chart a middle course that will take the form of stagflation. 

Footnotes

[1] While Paul Volcker’s bone-crushing tightening was followed by an improvement in conditions in the 1980s, a) it took a rise in real short rates to 8.4% and an economic dive that took the unemployment rate to 10.8% to reduce the spending to lower inflation and b) it led foreign countries’ debtors to be squeezed and to cut spending a lot, putting them into 10-year-long depressions. In other words, inflation was reduced by people and companies being painfully squeezed and reducing spending. That’s always the case and will be the case this time.

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