by futurist Richard Worzel, c.f.a.
There’s an unusual amount of dissension among economists and other commentators about whether we’re heading towards higher inflation or devastating deflation, and whether the economy will continue to grow, or slip into a double-dip recession. This is happening because we are in uncharted waters, with few, if any, precedents to guide us.
My own view is that the American economy will continue its anemic growth in a mostly jobless recovery; that the prices of necessities, particularly food and energy, will continue to tick upwards, gnawing away at workers’ real take-home pay; and that the economy’s precarious growth could be tipped over into a renewed recession by one of several different crises. I believe, in short, that all of the scenarios described above are possible. So, how do you plan for the future, whether it’s your investment portfolio or your company’s marketing plans?
Let’s start by looking at the various different forces at work on the economy today.
Those concerned about inflation are connecting dots and concluding that inflation or even hyperinflation are ahead of us. They see the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank (the “Fed”) pour newly-printed money into the economy via so-called quantitative easing, and they watch oil and food prices rise, and decide that one is causing the other. And since monetary inflation, caused by printing too much money, affects all prices, oil and food prices are merely harbingers of a much broader, more rampant inflation. This is not the case because these two dots aren’t, in fact, connected.
The Fed is, indeed, printing money, but it’s a kind of money with a relatively low inflation potential. Normally, the Fed, or any central bank, creates money by encouraging the banking system to create it. They do this by lowering reserve requirements, or by lower interest rates. Reserve requirements are the amount of cash that banks must hold for every dollar of money they loan out. Since this requirement is a small fraction of the loans on their books, every dollar in increased cash reserves creates many dollars loaned out and placed into the economy. Likewise, lowering interest rates makes it more attractive for corporations and individuals to borrow money, increasing the loans outstanding, which again multiplies the amount of money in the economy. This is high-impact money.
What the Fed is doing is almost literally printing money, then using it to pay the government’s bills. (There’s a bookkeeping entry where the U.S. Treasury issues bonds, then the Fed buys the bonds for cash, which the Treasury then uses to pay bills. Hence, the U.S. government borrows from itself, and prints money as a result.) But while this money winds up in the economy, the effect is only of the amount of money printed, not some multiple of that amount. This is a technical issue, but the effect is that while, yes, there is some inflationary effect from the Fed’s quantitative easing, it is nowhere near as important as the inflation hawks fear, especially in an economy where demand is weak, and there is virtually no leverage for workers to increase their wage demands.
Meanwhile, the prices of food and oil are going up because of the supply and demand for food and oil, without reference to the amount of money being created in the United States. Hence, the prices of food and oil are going up even in Japan, which is experiencing persistent deflation, not inflation. Both are global commodities, and the demand for both is being driven by the rapid expansion of the Rapidly Developing Countries (“RDCs”), like China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia. Hence, in an example I’ve used before (because it’s so compelling), China’s middle class expanded dramatically during the 40 years from 1960 to 2000, with the result that China’s food consumption tripled in forty years. As the developed world economies emerged from recession (albeit slowly), and added their demand to that of the RDCs, the demand for both rose faster than the supply, pushing prices up.
Unless the developed world slips back into recession, or the growth of the RDCs slow significantly, the prices of both food and oil will continue to move up.
Deflation is a widespread, persistent decline in prices, and is actually more dangerous than inflation (although neither are desirable). To see this, consider what happens if you’re considering buying a new car, but believe that the price will go down if you wait a month. Chances are you and others like you will postpone your purchase. A month later, if you are proven correct, but believe that the price of the car you want will fall further in the next month, you’re likely, again, to wait to buy the car. Hence, deflation creates a vicious, downward spiral: people postpone purchases, which lowers demand, which causes prices to fall, which cause people to postpone purchases. When entrenched, deflation can wreak havoc on an economy – as has happened with Japan. Japan has experienced almost 20 years of recession-like non-growth in part because of deflation. (The Japanese government has also made persistent policy mistakes that have prevented the economy from breaking out of this cycle.)
So, are we likely to experience the same kind of persistent, widespread declines in prices? Based on what I’ve said above, not in oil and food, but what about beyond that? In many ways that depends on what happens to the economy. If the U.S. economy continues to grow, even weakly, then the prospect of serious deflation is remote. I could see the possibility of weakness in discretionary consumer purchases, such as TVs and consumer electronics, if employment growth remains weak. When people are hurtin’ financially, they’re less likely to splurge on a large luxury item. So let’s turn to the prospects of a renewed recession, which is the scenario where I can see widespread deflation.
There are several reasons why this recovery is weak. First, it was provoked by a severe financial debacle, and such recessions typically take longer to recover from as people feel poorer. It will take time – years – for people to rebuild their balance sheets, and meanwhile, demand will remain weak.
Next, there is no group within the economy to really stimulate demand. Most recoveries are lead by the consumer, but as I’ve just said, that’s not happening this time. Governments, notably the U.S. federal government, have largely shot their bolts, and are now more worried about repairing their balance sheets. And businesses, which are actually in pretty good financial shape as a group, see no reason to overextend themselves. In particular, businesses are not eager to take on more staff. Instead, they are either asking their current employees to work longer hours or take on additional shifts as demand slowly rises, or they are investing in increasingly sophisticated automation. The knock-on effect of this is that employment is likely to stay weak. In total, then, this is a recovery without leadership.
A longer-term problem is that all countries are going to experience a squeeze in employment growth, but it will be particularly noticeable in the developed countries. First, a global economy implies a global labor force, which means that workers in Canada or America, for instance, are competing with workers everywhere. It used to be most noticeable in low-skilled industries, but as RDCs increase the number of highly educated people they have, and as they build up more sophisticated commercial bases, they are competing in broader swaths of the global workplace, including very highly skilled areas that used to be the exclusive preserve of rich countries. Meanwhile, in an attempt to minimize the differential in labor costs, companies in developed countries are automating as quickly as they can. This is helping in that companies that might otherwise go out of business are surviving, but even when they do, it means that they do so with fewer employees. Hence the economy will grow faster than the number of jobs.
Automation is also affecting RDC economies and workers as well, but their faster rate of GDP growth is masking the effects. Still, the Chinese government worries about not creating enough jobs to maintain social stability.
But beyond economic growth and employment growth, there’s another factor that’s in play: the fragility of governments, notably because of their heavy debt loads, means that the recovery is not as robust. It also means that the recovery would be easier to derail, much as an overloaded boat is easier to sink.
This brings me to my major point: we are vulnerable to nasty surprises or shocks. If, for example, Greece defaults on it’s debts (or perhaps I should say “when” as it seems pretty inevitable to me), this could trigger a re-evaluation of all sovereign and sub-sovereign (i.e., state and local) debts. This might throw a jurisdiction like California or Illinois into the spotlight, or trigger a run on Portuguese bonds. It could, in short, trigger a panic that could produce another financial catastrophe. Only this time, governments have fewer bullets available to stop a financial stampede, and we could well see the financial collapse that we so very, very narrowly avoided in 2009.
Is this likely? Probably not, but the odds of it happening are higher than I would like. And if a scenario like that does happen, then deflation is a real threat, and you can forget about inflation because even the RDC economies will slow or go into reverse.
So what do we do now?
The highest probability is still for continued economic growth in the developed world, albeit slower than we would like, and that’s how I’m placing my bets right now. I believe that the cost of necessities will continue to rise, but that it won’t degenerate into high, widespread inflation. This is consistent with a slow growth scenario coupled with rising demand from RDCs.
But I’m also watching developments very carefully, and have an exit strategy in mind in case I don’t like the way things develop in Europe, with the foolish, almost-suicidal discussions over the U.S. federal debt ceiling, and with credit watches on shaky governments (both national and American states). I’ve been saying this for some time, and it may be that readers are getting bored with the message, but this is a time to plan for the worst, and hope for the best. I’m not sure, in the current situation, what else you can do.
© Copyright, IF Research, June 2011.