The final quarter is often one of instant reinforcement of both winners and losers. How will it go this time, once the Fed has thrown the knucklebones? Will Evergrande’s partly politically-inspired demise be smoothly handled – if only in a manner that satisfies Xi’s insatiable lust for power? Will the Vaccine Wars further undermine social harmony and hinder economic progress? How will the burgeoning energy crisis – bastard child of misguided climate polcies – play out as winter approaches? All will be revealed in due course.
Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon, signed Executive Order 11615 and with it sundered the last remaining links between the US dollar and gold. Half a century on and many of the lessons of that sorry episode have been sadly forgotten while central banks now hold themselves accountable to no standard save that of their own swelling hubris. Can we really avoid the evils of inflation in such a world?
Most people associate ‘inflation’ with rising prices, but the disease goes much deeper than that. Inflation is a phenomenon wherein money becomes so abundant it disrupts relative price formation and hence interferes with the vital transmission of information about the state of the countless interactions of supply and demand, plenty and scarcity, which take place on the market. As the fever rises, mistakes accumulate, conflicts intensify, timings clash, finances become stretched, and coherence is lost. A rising price is one thing. Prices -plural- rising at varying speeds and in an ever less predictable manner is a much more dangerous pathology.
An uneasy calm has descended on the markets since the end of the first quarter put a stop to the heavy liquidation in bonds and some gained the sense that commodities were perhaps a little overcooked. The rebalancing and retracements those two entailed could yet run further, but we very much doubt that we’ve seen the last of the inflationary wave.
Though a lot of hot money was poured into the trade in the last quarter of 2020, there is still much reluctance on the part of economists – always prone to a spot of Under-consumption fallacy – to wholly embrace the idea that prices are beginning to rise and that the path ahead is likely to be an inflationary one. That path will inevitably not be smooth, nor its ascent uninterrupted, but it is hard to see where we slow the climb or take a different turning – or even that sufficient will exists to choose that alternative were it ever to come up on our satnav.
Inflation, Milton Friedman famously said, is a monetary phenomenon. But it is also one given the readiest of outlets through recourse to what we call ‘fiscal’ policy – i.e., by spendthrift governments borrowing money created at their call and forced into the system by means of warfare, welfare, contracting, cronyism, bureaucratic expansion and plain old boondogglery. Arguably, this is where we find ourselves today, in a world where supply is no longer likely to meet demand as abundantly and as effortlessly as has been the case these past twenty years.
China’s ports are humming, its exports booming to the point that it is causing evident stress in maritime trade. Freight rates are soaring and dockside space is becoming limited, threatening production and raising costs across the board. Despite the macro strength – and the vote of confidence this has received from forex and equity markets – the last few weeks have been testing ones in credit. Once more the nation’s vast superstructure of debt has creaked and groaned – but just about held firm, once more. One of these fine days…
Markets seem happy for now to focus on the carrot of a vaccine while ignoring the stick of the further severe restrictions to life and liberty being implemented while we await its delivery. Whether or not it offers a release from bondage, the state’s rediscovered taste for authoritarianism will, however, take some good time to dispel, while its corollary – the move toward taking an ever greater role amid the wreckage of the private economy – is being pursued with relish. Whatever the sloganizing, this is very unlikely to Build anything Back Better – only dearer and scarcer.
This essay attempts a review of the economics – and the prevailing economic thinking – which have brought us to our present pass of high-leverage and heavy debt-dependence. It helps set the backdrop for an in-depth look at markets which will follow shortly…
While stocks have generally tended to offer better returns than Treasuries, it has not all been plain sailing for equity investors. Intriguingly, the last 50 years’ ups and downs share more than a few similarities with the first half of the last century. Could that uncanny resemblance continue to hold henceforward?