A Deflation Story

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
– Edward Gibbon

Warren Buffett famously says that people do not make money by betting against the US economy. But two years ago we decided to take a chance.

“We are short the United States of America,” we announced from the comfort and safety of our headquarters in London. “Sell its stocks. Sell its bonds. Sell its money. Sell its real estate. Sell the equity. Sell the debt. Sell everything.”

What we saw was an over-stretched empire getting ready to snap. But we were also allowing ourselves to be lazy. Rather than deconstruct the capital structure of the world’s largest economy, we decided to sell the whole damned thing.

All Hell broke loose in September 2008. Since then, US stocks have gone down about a third. Real estate too. Unemployment has doubled. Consumer prices are going down at the fastest rate since the ’50s. And the economy is in the worse recession since WWII.

Meanwhile, Americans’ per capita wealth has fallen from $172,000 in September from $212,000 two years earlier. And the UN reports that the quality of life in America has gone down too…from #5 on its list in 2000, it fell to #13 in 2007. No doubt it is below #20 now.

Buffett has lost billions betting on the US economy while our gold positions are handily up; gold was the most profitable major asset over the last ten years.

So you see, we were right; America was a sell two years ago.

And now it is the dollar that is falling. It’s gone down 12% in the last six months – a huge move for a major currency.

“Asia tries to slow dollar fall,” is the lead story in today’s Financial Times.

Today, a buck and forty-seven cents will buy you only 1 euro. Ten years ago, you could have gotten a euro for less than a single dollar. A falling dollar makes imports more expensive, say analysts…raising the cost of living in the homeland. But you wouldn’t know it from walking around on the streets of Miami or Las Vegas. You can get a house at 50% off its price three years ago. As for the breakfast special – for less than 3 euros you can get enough food to kill a Pakistani.

By European standards, America is cheap.

“Europeans again interested in Florida houses,” says a headline in The New York Times.

House prices are down 30% to 50%. The dollar is down about a third too. That makes the United States a bargain.

But is the United States of America about to become even cheaper?

One thing we were wrong about when we issued our ‘sell America’ call two years ago was US debt. Treasury bonds have resisted the general downward trend of things with the stars and stripes on them. Bonds have not gone down; they’ve gone up.

Private households are buying them for their retirements. Banks are buying them for risk-free profits. Speculators are buying them in anticipation of deflation.

David Rosenberg:

“The big story yesterday was the further massive $12 billion decline in outstanding consumer debt in August – the consensus was looking for an $8 billion contraction. This was the seventh month of debt retrenchment in a row. In other words, the tidal wave of the credit collapse continues unabated, and this is the primary reason why bond yields are still in a fundamental downtrend.

“Over the past year, consumers have run down their debt by a record $113 billion (and this does not include mortgages). This is an absolutely epic shift in household attitudes towards credit and discretionary spending.”

Americans are saving. And they’re buying US Treasury bonds. (More below…) But how safe is their money? Is it a good idea to buy US debt now?

On Wednesday, Latvia tried to raise a trivial amount of money. It offered $17 million worth of 6-month bonds. How likely is it that Latvia will default before Easter? We don’t know, but investors judged it not worth the risk. Not only did the bond auction failed, it failed with no bids.

That’s what happens when lenders lose faith in a government. They refuse to lend it money – except at high rates of interest. But the high rates of interest work like a noose on the neck of a cattle rustler. They block the vital flow of oxygen – not to mention breaking his neck.

Note that the US federal government is still functioning like an empire at the peak of its power. The Pentagon is still rustling up trouble all over the world – at a cost of trillions. US government employees are growing more numerous and richer – with twice the annual incomes of the private sector. And the Obama Administration – apparently unaware that the total unfunded debts and obligations of the federal government have soared to nearly $120 trillion – is considering new ways to get rid of cash.

Remarkably, investors still lend the US government money – asking only 4% annual yield on a 30-year loan. As for 91-day money, they practically give that to the feds for free; it sports only a yield of 0.066%.

This will surely be a point of puzzlement for the financial historian of the next century. It is certainly a point of puzzlement for us.

Yesterday, gold hit a new record at $1057. Doesn’t gold go up when inflation rates rise? And don’t bonds go down when inflation goes up?

So why are people buying bonds with such puny yields?

There is a lot of whispering in this market. Gold is trying to tell us something. Bonds are trying to tell us something. The dollar seems to have something on its mind too. Stocks are just babbling.

If gold is trying to signal that inflation is coming, the bond market is not paying attention. Bonds seem to be saying that it is deflation we should be worried about; but the stock market doesn’t seem to hear.

And there’s the dollar. The greenback is in the same choir with stocks and gold, as near as we can tell. They all seem to be chanting about inflation coming back.

But what if they’re all wrong?

Just look at what is going on in Washington, if you can bear it.

The feds have a budget that anticipates inflation and growth. Spending is supposed to remain flat until 2013. Tax receipts, which are no higher today than they were 10 years ago, are supposed to rise, gradually filling in the Grand Canyon of deficits. The number crunchers think we’re headed back to the Reagan years – when the tough-love policies of the Volcker Fed squeezed out inflation and created a real boom. Then, tax revenues rose 9% per year between 1984 and 1989.

How likely is that today? Not very. Instead, what is likely to unfold is a deflation story. Instead of staying flat, federal expenses are likely to rise as one failed stimulus gives way to another failed stimulus. Then, instead of going up, tax revenues will go down…digging an even grander canyon between out-go and income.

Then, or long before, there will be a panic out of bonds, the dollar, stocks – practically everything. Everything goes down!

At this point, the US will be in about the same situation as the Roman Empire as it approached retirement. Expenses kept rising. Rome had to pay the Blackwater-type military contractors of the era…in addition to keeping Roman mobs supplied with food stamps and unemployment benefits…while its tax base fell. Gradually, the empire lost the ability to defend itself.

When Edward Gibbon began his history of Rome’s decline and fall, Roman real estate had probably been in a bear market for at least 1300 years. Rome’s population fell from over a million to under 20,000. Politically, Italy had broken apart more than 1,000 years before Gibbon was born, and it wouldn’t be put back together again until nearly 100 years after he was dead.

It’s far too early to write the story of America’s decline and fall. That job will fall to some future historian, perhaps seated on the ruins of the Lincoln Memorial, wondering how people made such a mess of things.

Our guess is that he will come to the same conclusion we have: Stocks? Bonds? The dollar? Investors should have sold them all!

The Daily Reckoning