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.
This essay attempts a review of the economics – and the prevailing economic thinking – which have brought us to our present pass of high-leverage and heavy debt-dependence. It helps set the backdrop for an in-depth look at markets which will follow shortly…
The Johnson government’s approach to COVID19 has been a toxic mix of contradiction, vacillation, and jackbooted authoritarianism. There seems no exit strategy and no end to the spiralling cost. We take a critical look at the impact on the budget impact and discuss what it means for inflation.
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!
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:-
A noted [monetary extremist] resident at GMU’s Mercatus Center fretted on March 20th that Japan’s efforts during 2001-06 to have the central bank finance deficits ‘didn’t work’ – i.e., they failed to ignite meaningful levels of wealth-sapping inflation. The reason? As our sage tells us, was that there was ‘no commitment… to a permanent expansion of the monetary base’ as expounded in the ratiocinations of that dark genius of modern central bank theorising, Michael Woodford. We replied:-