Monday, August 4, 2008

The Inflation Versus Deflation Argument - Part 4

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. In addition to the term helicopter economics, we have also coined the term, helicopternomics, to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government and to update the old-fashioned term wheelbarrow economics.

While it is true that the U.S. experienced consumer price deflation in the 1930s and Japan did so in the 1990s and both experienced sharp drops in bank credit, there are few if any other similarities to the current situation in the United States in 2008. The situation in the 1930s U.S. and 1990s Japan is also a bit more nuanced that the deflationists would have you believe. In the late 1920s, the U.S. did see a big rise in money supply and credit, just as occurred in the U.S. in the early 2000s. According to the deflationists, this should have resulted in rising U.S. consumer prices at some point. It did not. Prices actually fell between 1926 and 1929. A similar thing happened in Japan in 1986. While consumer price deflation did appear in Japan after its banking system literally fell apart, it didn't show up consistently until 1999, nine years after the Japanese asset bubble began to burst. Based on these observations, the relationship between consumer prices and money supply and credit seem to be rather tenuous at best.

The deflations in the 1930s U.S. and 1990s Japan did have an important element in common that does not exist today - dropping commodity prices. As early as the spring of 1929, farm commodities in the U.S. experienced a sharp drop. All commodities declined in the crash month of October and then they crashed themselves in the spring of 1930 . While commodity prices didn't crash in the 1990s, they were weak throughout the decade. Oil reached its price low of just over $10 a barrel in 1998. Ten years later it would be almost 15 times higher. Not only were commodities not declining in the 2000s, but they were experiencing major price increases resulting in significant inflation in the U.S. and most of the world. The commodity picture in the 2000s was just the opposite of the early 1930s U.S. and 1990s Japan.

The import/export and deficit picture has no similarity to the contemporary U.S. either. In the late 1920s, the U.S. had a massive trade surplus and was the biggest creditor nation in the world. Its boom had been built on exports as was the case for Japan in the later twentieth century. Drops in exports damaged both economies. On the other hand, the U.S. in the 2000s was the biggest debtor nation in the world having both a massive trade deficit and government debt, which required heavy borrowing and had inflationary implications. Japan in the 1980s was similar to the U.S. in the 1920s and both were very dissimilar to the U.S. in the 2000s.

Currency also plays a different role in all three scenarios. The U.S. was on the gold standard until 1933 and even after that the currency didn't float. The Japanese yen traded relatively flat during the 1990s. In neither case, did currency have a significant deflationary or inflationary effect, in contrast to the U.S. in 2008 where currency played an inflationary role. The U.S. dollar dropped to all time lows in late 2007 because of the Federal Reserves easy money policy. Since the U.S. imported much more than it exported, this raised import prices and had a bigger inflationary impact than it would have had otherwise.

NEXT: The Inflation Versus the Deflation Argument - Part 5

For notes related to this talk, please see, 'Inflation vs Deflation Argument' at:

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

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