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?
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.
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.
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It’s not just the leaves that often turn when the year begins, with gathering pace, to slip towards its chilly end. Markets often do, too.
Given this backdrop, the sell-off in the Nasdaq – in the marvelled-at ‘Growth’ stocks, in the FAANGs, and in Tesla – comes at a moment which is particularly intriguing for reasons which go far beyond whatever coup SoftBank may or may not have attempted and whether those irritating Lockdown Livermores have finally gotten their comeuppance.
While politicians anxiously check the shifting weather-vanes of public opinion and scientists squabble over facts as well as interpretations, central banks are resolutely doing what they do best – wildly exceeding their briefs and trying to drown all problems in a flood of newly-created money. As ever, the underconsumptionists worry that a lack of demand will usher in deflation, in spite of all such efforts. Some of us, however, worry more about what it will do to supply. Here, we explain why.
On March 15th, the Eurozone branch of the Throw-more-money-at-it lobby were making themselves heard, calling for the ECB to run the printing presses for a limited (author pulls down lower eyelid with index finger) period as a supplement to the to the €120 billion in extra security purchases already made to that point. [NB total ‘assistance’ to April 17th had reached to €275bln in RP, €148bln in securities, and €126bln in FX swaps for a total of €550bln in five short weeks].We responded:-