Right now, we are in the middle of deflation. The Global Depression we are experiencing has squeezed both aggregate demand levels and aggregate asset prices as never before. Since the credit crunch of September 2008, the U.S. and world economies have been slowly circling the deflationary drain.
To counter this, the U.S. government has been running massive deficits, as it seeks to prop up aggregate demand levels by way of fiscal “stimulus” spending—the classic Keynesian move, the same old prescription since donkey’s ears.
But the stimulus, apart from being slow and inefficient, has simply not been enough to offset the fall in consumer spending.
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For its part, the Federal Reserve has been busy propping up all assets—including Treasuries—by way of “quantitative easing”.
The Fed is terrified of the U.S. economy falling into a deflationary death-spiral: Lack of liquidity, leading to lower prices, leading to unemployment, leading to lower consumption, leading to still lower prices, the entire economy grinding down to a halt. So the Fed has bought up assets of all kinds, in order to inject liquidity into the system, and buoy asset price levels so as to prevent this deflationary deep-freeze—and will continue to do so. After all, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
But this Fed policy—call it “money-printing”, call it “liquidity injections”, call it “asset price stabilisation”—has been overwhelmed by the credit contraction. Just as the Federal government has been unable to fill in the fall in aggregate demand by way of stimulus, the Fed has expanded its balance sheet from some $900 billion in the Fall of ’08, to about $2.3 trillion today—but that additional $1.4 trillion has been no match for the loss of credit. At best, the Fed has been able to alleviate the worst effects of the deflation—it certainly has not turned the deflationary environment into anything resembling inflation.
Yields are low, unemployment up, CPI numbers are down (and under some metrics, negative)—in short, everything screams “deflation”.
Therefore, the notion of talking about hyperinflation now, in this current macro-economic environment, would seem . . . well . . . crazy. Right?
Wrong: I would argue that the next step down in this world-historical Global Depression which we are experiencing will be hyperinflation.
Most people dismiss the very notion of hyperinflation occurring in the United States as something only tin-foil hatters, gold-bugs, and Right-wing survivalists drool about. In fact, most sensible people don’t even bother arguing the issue at all—everyone knows that only fools bother arguing with a bigger fool.
A minority, though—and God bless ’em—actually do go ahead and go through the motions of talking to the crazies ranting about hyperinflation. These amiable souls diligently point out that in a deflationary environment—where commodity prices are more or less stable, there are downward pressures on wages, asset prices are falling, and credit markets are shrinking—inflation is impossible. Therefore, hyperinflation is even more impossible.
This outlook seems sensible—if we fall for the trap of thinking that hyperinflation is an extension of inflation. If we think that hyperinflation is simply inflation on steroids—inflation-plus—inflation with balls—then it would seem to be the case that, in our current deflationary economic environment, hyperinflation is not simply a long way off, but flat-out ridiculous.
But hyperinflation is not an extension or amplification of inflation. Inflation and hyperinflation are two very distinct animals. They look the same—because in both cases, the currency loses its purchasing power—but they are not the same.
Inflation is when the economy overheats: It’s when an economy’s consumables (labour and commodities) are so in-demand because of economic growth, coupled with an expansionist credit environment, that the consumables rise in price. This forces all goods and services to rise in price as well, so that producers can keep up with costs. It is essentially a demand-driven phenomena.
Hyperinflation is the loss of faith in the currency. Prices rise in a hyperinflationary environment just like in an inflationary environment, but they rise not because people want more money for their labour or for commodities, but because people are trying to get out of the currency. It’s not that they want more money—they want less of the currency: So they will pay anything for a good which is not the currency.
Right now, the U.S. government is indebted to about 100% of GDP, with a yearly fiscal deficit of about 10% of GDP, and no end in sight. For its part, the Federal Reserve is purchasing Treasuries, in order to finance the fiscal shortfall, both directly (the recently unveiled QE-lite) and indirectly (through the Too Big To Fail banks). The Fed is satisfying two objectives: One, supporting the government in its efforts to maintain aggregate demand levels, and two, supporting asset prices, and thereby prevent further deflationary erosion. The Fed is calculating that either path—increase in aggregate demand levels or increase in aggregate asset values—leads to the same thing: A recovery in the economy.
This recovery is not going to happen—that’s the news we’ve been getting as of late. Amid all this hopeful talk about “avoiding a double-dip”, it turns out that we didn’t avoid a double-dip—we never really managed to claw our way out of the first dip. No matter all the stimulus, no matter all the alphabet-soup liquidity windows over the past 2 years, the inescapable fact is that the economy has been—and is headed—down.
But both the Federal government and the Federal Reserve are hell-bent on using the same old tired tools to “fix the economy”—stimulus on the one hand, liquidity injections on the other. (See my discussion of The Deficit here.)
It’s those very fixes that are pulling us closer to the edge. Why? Because the economy is in no better shape than it was in September 2008—and both the Federal Reserve and the Federal government have shot their wad. They got nothin’ left, after trillions in stimulus and trillions more in balance sheet expansion—
—but they have accomplished one thing: They have undermined Treasuries. These policies have turned Treasuries into the spit-and-baling wire of the U.S. financial system—they are literally the only things holding the whole economy together.
In other words, Treasuries are now the New and Improved Toxic Asset. Everyone knows that they are overvalued, everyone knows their yields are absurd—yet everyone tiptoes around that truth as delicately as if it were a bomb. Which is actually what it is.
One day--when nothing much is going on in the markets, but general nervousness is running like a low-grade fever (as has been the case for a while now)--there will be a commodities burp: A slight but sudden rise in the price of a necessary commodity, such as oil.
The first of the asset managers or TBTF banks who are out of Treasuries will look for a place to park their cash--obviously. Where will all this ready cash go?
By the end of that terrible day, commodites of all stripes--precious and industrial metals, oil, foodstuffs--will shoot the moon. But it will not be because ordinary citizens have lost faith in the dollar (that will happen in the days and weeks ahead)--it will happen because once Treasuries are not the sure store of value, where are all those money managers supposed to stick all these dollars? In a big old vault? Under the mattress? In euros?
Commodities: At the time of the panic, commodities will be perceived as the only sure store of value, if Treasuries are suddenly anathema to the market--just as Treasuries were perceived as the only sure store of value, once so many of the MBS's and CMBS's went sour in 2007 and 2008.
It won't be commodity ETF's, or derivatives--those will be dismissed (rightfully) as being even less safe than Treasuries. Unlike before the Fall of '08, this go-around, people will pay attention to counterparty risk. So the run on commodities will be for actual, feel-it-'cause-it's-there commodities. By the end of the day of this panic, commodities will have risen between 50% and 100%. By week's end, we're talking 150% to 250%. (My private guess is gold will be finessed, but silver will shoot up the most--to $100 an ounce within the week.)
Of course, once commodities start to balloon, that's when ordinary citizens will get their first taste of hyperinflation. They'll see it at the gas pumps.
If oil spikes from $74 to $150 in a day, and then to $300 in a matter of a week--perfectly possible, in the midst of a panic--the gallon of gasoline will go to, what: $10? $15? $20?
So what happens then? People--regular Main Street people--will be crazy to buy up commodities (heating oil, food, gasoline, whatever) and buy them now while they are still more-or-less affordable, rather than later, when that $15 gallon of gas shoots to $30 per gallon.
If everyone decides at roughly the same time to exchange one good--currency--for another good--commodities--what happens to the relative price of one and the relative value of the other? Easy: One soars, the other collapses.
When people freak out and begin panic-buying basic commodities, their ordinary financial assets--equities, bonds, etc.--will collapse: Everyone will be rushing to get cash, so as to turn around and buy commodities.
So immediately after the Treasury markets tank, equities will fall catastrophically, probably within the next few days following the Treasury panic. This collapse in equity prices will bring an equivalent burst in commodity prices--the second leg up, if you will.
This sell-off of assets in pursuit of commodities will be self-reinforcing: There won't be anything to stop it. As it spills over into the everyday economy, regular people will panic and start unloading hard assets--durable goods, cars and trucks, houses--in order to get commodities, principally heating oil, gas and foodstuffs. In other words, real-world assets will not appreciate or even hold their value, when the hyperinflation comes.
This is something hyperinflationist-sceptics never quite seem to grasp: In hyperinflation, asset prices don't skyrocket--they collapse, both nominally and in relation to consumable commodities. A $300,000 house falls to $60,000 or less, or better yet, 50 ounces of silver--because in a hyperinflationist episode, a house is worthless, whereas 50 bits of silver can actually buy you stuff you might need.