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.
We ended the summer by saying that – barring another disastrous, COVID19-inspired, mass governmental embargo on everyday economic activity – the miners, makers, movers, and merchants of the things we need to run our lives when we are not scrolling through Instagram or pretending to pay attention to a yet another pointless Zoom conference would begin to make up ground lost in lockdown to the providers of such diversions. State interference would henceforth take other, more chronic forms of hindrance: tending deliberately to boost demand while making its satisfaction progressively more difficult. So far – broadly speaking – so good.
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.
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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.
As is by now widely reported, China stocks have been on something of a tear in the past few weeks, with the CSI300, for example, up by around 20% in that time. The usual suspects have been at work as the PBOC has encouraged a renewed money flood into being and those desperate for an income – and possibly with little else to do, at present – are enticed back into what is merely the latest in the nation’s rolling series of mania and speculative booms.
Thanks very much to my old friend, Steve Sedgwick at Squawk Box Europe for the chat this morning. We looked at Growth v Value, the US v ROW, we touched on bonds and borrowing, money supply, inflation, lockdown, commodities & gold – all in under 10 minutes!