Dorothea Lange Negro woman who has never been out of Mississippi July 1936
Looks I have to return to the deflation topic. I’m a bit hesitant about it, because the discussion always gets distorted by varying definitions and a whole bunch of semi-religious issues. The Automatic Earth has for many years said that an immense bout of deflation is inevitable because of global debt levels, and it’s all only gotten a lot worse since we first said that. Our governments and central banks have ‘fought’ deflation with more debt, and that was always the stupidest idea in human history. Or at least, most of us were stupid for believing it would work, or was even intended to.
Just so we don’t get into yet more confusion, i probably need to explain that the debt deflation we’re talking about here is not some subdivision like consumer inflation or price inflation or cookie inflation, those are just hollow and meaningless terms. Debt deflation is deflation caused by too much debt, and the deleveraging it must and will lead to. Deflation does not equal falling prices, those are merely an effect of it.
The reason this matters is that when you equate inflation and deflation with rising or falling prices, you’re not going to be able to know when you actually have deflation. Because prices can rise for all sorts of reasons. Inflation/deflation is the money/credit supply in an economy multiplied by the speed at which money is spent in that economy, the velocity of money.
It should be obvious that prices for some items can still rise, certainly initially, when deflation sets in. Producers that see less sales can try to raise prices for their remaining buyers. Basic necessities will always be needed. Governments can raise taxes. Rising/falling prices tell us only part of the story, and with a considerable time delay.
Ergo: rising/falling prices are a lagging factor, and if you look at them only, you will have missed the point where deflation has set in. What follows, obviously, is that you can’t measure deflation by looking at consumer prices (CPI) or production prices (PPI) numbers. You’d be way behind the curve. CPI and PPI tell you something, but they don’t tell what causes falling or rising prices. And that is a valuable thing to know.
I see even John Mauldin in this week’s The Last Argument of Central Banks talk about ‘good deflation’, but that doesn’t exist any more than cookie inflation, sorry, John. Prices for some items may fall due to innovation etc. while an economy booms, but if you call that deflation, you’ll miss what’s really deflation when it arrives.
Deflation is always bad. It either occurs when money/credit is so short that people can not get their hands on it no matter how hard and productive they work, and how much demand there is for their products, or it occurs when people are too poor, too much in debt or too reluctant to part with what they have.
In a deflation, people spend only what they absolutely must, provided even that they can afford to, which leads to large swaths of an economy being liquidated. Falling prices lead to falling wages lead to ever further falling prices lead to factory closings lead to more people who can’t afford to spend which leads to closings which leads to less spending which leads to faling prices etc. This continues until the debt has been deleveraged. Governments will lose tax revenue and raise taxes, but soon enough they will in quick succession disband and be replaced, rinse and repeat until even essential services can no longer be provided.
Until recently, a shrinking money/credit supply was very clearly not in the cards. Central banks have gone absolutely nuts in their stimulus plans, and this has artificially kept price levels up somewhat, though far less than they, and scores of ‘experts’ had hoped and expected. Now that game, too, is up. Japan went crazier than ever the other day out of fear that falling oil prices would sink consumer spending even more, but the US Fed has cut QE. That is an admission it has failed to do what it officially was supposed to, not the sign of triumph it’s made out to be, as in ‘the economy is doing so well, it doesn’t need our support anymore’.
Central banks have spent like maniacs, and consumer spending only keeps falling. Just ask Japan. And while you’re at it, ask them how entrenched deflation can become even in an economy that still has the benefit of growing world market to sell its products in. We won’t have any such benefit. The world has stopped growing, and there’s no massaging of numbers left strong enough to hide it. Not that it won’t be tried. As I said earlier this week, we now live in a world built on debt and propaganda.
Since QE and other ‘plans’ never reached the real economy, most nations’ money supplies have also either fallen or at best remained stagnant. We have the perfect set-up for deflation, and we therefore have deflation. It hasn’t reached the US yet, though we should be careful with that because the numbers being reported are notoriously flaky. But it has reached Europe and Asia. Which means the US is only a matter of time. And people, reluctantly, start taking notice. Steve Hochberg and Pete Kendall penned the following for Bob Prechter’s Elliott Wave:
According to the latest figures, deflation is now perched on China’s doorstep. In September, China’s consumer price index was up 1.6%, but its producer price index fell 1.8%. The CPI increase was its lowest since 2010. [..] in September, demand for electric power, a “bellwether for China economic activity,” fell 8.4% from the prior month, the second straight monthly decline.
“Deflation is the real risk in China,” stated the chief economist at a Hong Kong bank. In Europe, deflation is no longer a possible risk; it’s reality. In September, eleven of fifteen European Union members experienced lower goods prices, and the latest quarter-over-quarter Eurozone growth in real GDP is zero.
With Alice-in-Wonderland naiveté, U.S. financial media place the United States outside the risk of global deflation. Headlines talk of “Mild Inflation” and insist that the U.S. will gain “From Good Deflation.” On October 14, Bloomberg reported that consumer spending is strong enough “to steer the U.S. economy safely through the shoals of deteriorating global growth and the turbulent financial markets.” In early September, we stated that it was only a matter of time before economic weakness and deflation (which will be anything but good) jump the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and arrive in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, real wages for full-time employees averaged $790 a week in the third quarter, about $1 less than in the third quarter of 2007. “There’s been no net gain for workers since 1999.” In recent months, spending has been uneven. Retail sales fell 0.3% in September. Most economists are baffled: “one of the great mysteries is why the U.S. has lacked inflation despite all the money being pumped into the economy.” A study by the St. Louis Fed finds that the answer is “a dramatic increase in the private sector’s willingness to hoard money instead of spend it.”
Note: the ‘hoarding meme’ is habitually used by economists, re: Bernanke and his Chinese savings glut, to point out situations which are more often than not characterized by people being too poor to spend, not sitting on anything at all. For economists, if people don’t spend, it must be because they save, never because they’re poor. I kid you not.
For years now, the Fed along with most economists have anticipated the imminent return of inflation, but it continues stubbornly subdued. This long-term chart above of the CPI shows a succession of lower highs since the early 1980s, as inflation turned into disinflation, which is on the cusp of leading to outright deflation. Some argue that the CPI is rigged to show milder levels of inflation, but the bottom graph shows the same steady move toward the zero line in the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index, an alternate inflation measure favored by the U.S. Fed.
When outright deflation hits, recognition of it will play an important role. Once its presence becomes widely observed, investors and the debt markets will belatedly take defensive action. Eventually, notes Conquer the Crash, “default and fear of default exacerbate the trend as it causes creditors to reduce lending. A downward ‘spiral’ begins feeding on pessimism just as the previous boom fed on optimism.”
Moving from theory to practice, we end up with our old friend Ambrose. Though he confuses inflation and consumer prices, and thinks they’re one and the same thing, he does have useful numbers:
Deflation is becoming lodged in all the economic strongholds of East Asia. It is happening faster and going deeper than almost anybody expected just months ago, and is likely to find its way to Europe through currency warfare in short order. Factory gate prices are falling in China, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and Singapore. Some 82% of the items in the producer price basket are deflating in China. The figures is 90% in Thailand, and 97% in Singapore.
These include machinery, telecommunications, and electrical equipment, as well as commodities. Chetan Ahya from Morgan Stanley says deflationary forces are “getting entrenched” across much of Asia. This risks a “rapid worsening of the debt dynamic” for a string of countries that allowed their debt ratios to reach record highs during the era of Fed largesse. Debt levels for the region as a whole (ex-Japan) have jumped from 147% to 207% of GDP in six years.
These countries face a Sisyphean Task. They are trying to deleverage, but the slowdown in nominal GDP caused by falling inflation is always one step ahead of them. “Debt to GDP has risen despite these efforts,” he said. If this sounds familiar, it should be. It is exactly what is happening in Italy, France, the Netherlands, and much of the eurozone. Data from Nomura show that the composite PPI index for the whole of emerging Asia – including India – turned negative in September.
China itself is now one shock away from a deflation trap. Chinese PPI has been negative for 32 months as the economy grapples with overcapacity in everything from steel, cement, glass, chemicals, and shipbuilding, to solar panels. It dropped to minus 2.2% in October. The sheer scale of over-investment is epic.
The country funnelled $5 trillion into new plant and fixed capital last year – as much as Europe and the US combined – even after the Communist Party vowed to clear away excess capacity in its Third Plenum reforms. Old habits die hard. Consumer prices are starting to track factory prices with a long delay. Headline inflation dropped to 1.6% in October. This is so far below the 3.5% target of the People’s Bank of China that it looks increasingly like a policy mistake. Core inflation is down to 1.4%.
China has flirted with deflation before: during its banking crisis in the late 1990s, and again during the West’s dotcom recession from 2001-2002. Both episodes proved manageable. This time the level of debt is greater by orders of magnitude, with a large chunk in trusts, wealth products, and other parts of the shadow banking nexus, and a further $1.2 trillion in “carry trade” loans from Hong Kong.
Standard Chartered thinks total debt has reached 250% of GDP. This is roughly $26 trillion, the same size as the US and Japanese commercial banking systems put together, and therefore a headache for us all. Larry Brainard from Trusted Sources says China is sliding towards a European debt-compound trap. “It’s arithmetic.Deflation will kill you if you’re leveraged. It is just a question of how quickly. We don’t know how big the problem is because China is playing a game of three-card Monte and moving the debt to different buckets,” he said.
Asia is not yet in a full-blown currency war, but no country can stand idly by as neighbours dump toxic deflationary waste on their front lawn. Korea has threatened to force down the won, pari passu with the yen. The central bank of Taiwan has been intervening. These skirmishes are happening in a region of festering grievances and territorial disputes, with no Nato-style security structure – or for that matter EU-style soft governance – to damp down fires.
[Chinese] purchases of foreign bonds have dropped to zero, down from $35bn a month at the start of the year. The yuan has appreciated 22% against the yen since June, and 50% since mid-2012. It is up 12% against the euro since the early summer. China is in effect strapped to the rocketing dollar through its quasi-peg, increasingly a torture machine.
George Magnus from UBS says this cannot continue. “What is happening in the property market is the tip of the iceberg for the whole economy. China will have to resort to monetary reflation over the winter, and I think this will include a lower yuan. We are heading into a currency war,” he said.
We have the debt. And we recognize it. Still, the line politics and media feed us is that more debt can be a good thing, that we need more debt in order to attain what they like to call ‘escape velocity’ from the financial crisis caused by that same debt. Oil on fire.
We have the propaganda. We don’t always recognize it for what it is, but the, that’s the idea, isn’t it? It’s to make people think that things are not really what they really are. That we need to spend more public funds on saving banks, not saving people, or else armageddon. There’s hardly a news story left today that is not to an extent phrased by propaganda.
And now we have deflation. Which is not the falling prices, though they are a – delayed – symptom. Still, other symptoms are as valid, as nobody is spending. Mass unemployment in southern Europe is a symptom. West Texas oil at $74 dollars today is one. The Chinese economy, allegedly still growing at $7.5%, but at 250% debt-to-GDP, is another. Throw in 207% debt-to-GDP debt levels across southeast Asia.
With deflation becoming a daily topic in our propagandistic media, despite the fact that governments and central banks are vehemently allergic to it (for good reasons), rest assured that we are entering a next phase of the crisis. Just not one that they would like you to think we are. When debt starts being deleveraged for real, deflation cannot be avoided. And debt must be deleveraged, we can’t sit on it till Kingdom Come and keep adding more while we’re at it. That was never in the cards. And we’ve accumulated too much of it to ever outgrow it. We simply can’t sell or make enough iPhones to accomplish that. Or eat enough burgers, hard as we try.
Our world, our life, has been built on debt and propaganda for many years. They have kept us from noticing how poorly we are doing. But now a third element has entered the foundation of our societies, and it’s set to eat away at everything that has – barely – kept the entire edifice from crumbling apart. Deflation.
It’s time to check where your basic needs will come from when it becomes first harder and them impossible to obtain them from the sources you have been used to. And please, get out of debt. Debt during deflation is a cruel and unforgiving mistress. Think of deflation as a biblical plague.