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.
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.
The ink has not even dried on the US ballot papers (!) but the Market already thinks it knows what this will all mean. And then there’s Pfizer’s vaccine announcement – perhaps similarly preliminary in nature – but, hey, the Herd will always take every silver lining it can find. Some of the themes we touched upon at the end of the Summer are still in play: Japan has been attracting money, non-oil commodities are rallying, gold has lost some lustre, bond yields are creeping higher, and Value may just be topping out at last v Growth.
On the eve of what is shaping up to be a particularly momentous US election, we offer our view of what is at stake – both in the markets and out in the real world, far beyond the flickering screens of the trading room.