Monday, June 14, 2010

Inflation Insights From Chris Pavese and Dian Chu

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

The inflation versus deflation debate is the hottest economic topic of our era. While real world events will eventually resolve the argument, for the moment readers might want to take a look at some just released articles on the topic by Christopher Pavese and Dian L. Chu.

In essence, where someone lies on the inflation/deflation debate depends on what data they look at, how long their view of history is, their reliance on basic principals versus economic models, and how much they rely on practical market signs versus abstract theory. We could also add to this how much someone believes the economics numbers published by the world's governments and whether or not they have a vested interest in promoting an establishment viewpoint. Economists who work for a government or large financial institution are paid to generally see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Independent advisors, newsletter writers, and bloggers on the other hand need to strive to be accurate or they lose their clients or audience. There is no government bailout waiting in the wings for them if they screw up. Although it is not 100% the case, the inflation argument tends to be put forward by the independents and the deflation argument by establishment interests.

Christopher Pavese in his article "Why Most Western Economies Are Veering Toward Hyperinflation" relies on the work of Peter Bernholz and his seminal book, “Monetary Regimes and Inflation”.  Bernholz analyzed 2000 years of inflation history and concluded that countries with deficits in excess of 40% of expenditures risk hyperinflation. The number is currently 42% for the U.S. Those who look at inflation from a broad historical lens invariably conclude a huge inflation outbreak is on the horizon. The deflationists on the other hand tend to only look at the theories used to explain how inflation developed in the U.S. during the 1970s.  This is too narrow a time frame and geographic scope from which to create any broad conclusions. Furthermore, many of the common explanations for 1970s inflation are fanciful and were developed to mask the U.S. government's role in its development.

Dian L. Chu takes a more observational and short-term approach in her article "Deflation? Try A Tale Of Two Inflations". She describes current conditions as biflation, a state where some prices can go up substantially while other don't change or even go down. Ms. Chu specifically cites that U.S. core PPI for crude materials (excluding food and energy), shot up 60% year-over-year in April. She thinks that the biggest risk of inflation is in energy products and chemical feedstocks. In her longer-term outlook (after 2012), she maintains hyperinflation is a bigger risk in China and India, while stagflation is a bigger risk in the U.S. and Europe. While Chris Pavese is more negative on the U.S. inflation outlook, he doesn't foresee a big inflation outbreak in the immediate future either.

Chu does mention in passing the possibility of sudden hyperinflation. This idea was proposed recently by newsletter writer Harry Schultz, but without any details of how it could occur. I myself independently developed the explanation of why this is a possibility and how current conditions in the U.S. are appropriate for a major reversal from very low inflation to very high inflation in a short period of time.  This doesn't mean that this is imminent however.

Regardless of the time frame of inflation, stagflation and 1970s levels of inflation no longer represent a stable state for the U.S. economy. We can have very low inflation or very high inflation for a long time. The middle can take place, but it can't last. Our national debt is now so high, that 1970s interest rates would mean that all of our tax receipts would be needed to make interest payments and there would be no money left to run the government. Long before we got to that level, we would be creating so much new 'money' that it would devalue the dollar and this would necessitate printing even more to make up for the loss in value. A self-feeding cycle would begin and this would make some extremely high level of inflation inevitable. We may   already be at the early stages of just such a cycle.

Disclosure: None

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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