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.
The sell-off in Treasuries is causing a few conniptions and simultaneously provoking a spate of bearish comments. The higher the markets go without some sort of correction or consolidation, the riskier they get, but we don’t think bonds, per se, are yet enough to trigger a reversal
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.
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?
Bond yields have started to creep higher – and curves to flex steeper – as the market begins to fret that the willing fiscal subservience of the central bank can only presage a coming inflation. With bond volatility still reasonably cheap, now might be the time to take cognisance of this.
If we compare like with like, we find that the semi-mythical ‘equity risk premium’ may not be quite the yardstick it’s made out to be. In fact, the right sort of bonds have proven every bit as rewarding as stock, over the years and it’s cheap to bet they might do so again