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.
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?
With the latest CBO estimates for the US Federal budget for August just in, we are again in a position to take stock of the scale of the burden which the COVID-19 lockdowns and more general restrictions have imposed upon the nation’s finances. It does not make for happy reading.
On April 13th, a financial pundit with a wide media following made the following (loosely transcribed) proposition about US banking stocks: Banks won’t rally because rates -long and short- are too low; Japan is our marker – banks there falling while their US/EZ peers rose pre-GFC and have not made any ground since; vis-à-vis their EZ peers, US bank returns have long been anomalous, ergo their out-performance won’t be repeated. We demur in the main.
With many commodity prices touching multi-year lows and with mounting fears for real estate valuations and car-lease residuals, numerous commentators seem convinced that ours is now a deflationary future. QE failed to raise CPI by anywhere near what the spin promised, they say, partly because it was ‘unsupported’ by fiscal policy. Therefore, if we don’t get Roosevelt, we’ll get Brüning, they conclude, and, meanwhile, we need the Fed to cut rates below zero, said one prominent pundit on April 5th. We replied:-
As governments took ever more drastic action to close markets and confine people to their homes, the question loomed of how to mitigate some of the worst consequences of this self-imposed state of siege. A Twitter thread of March 10th offered up some initial thoughts, here lightly edited.