Inflation Monster Captured!
Well, it’s official. The inflation monster has been caught – or so says the European Central Bank. Whiskey and Gunpowder’s Mike Shedlock explains…
Wealth and poverty…
Are smart people richer?
What makes one group of people rich and another poor? How come North America is so much richer than Central America? Why, in the 18th and 19th centuries, were Europe and America able to race ahead of the rest of the world? Is America still getting richer, or has the trend peaked out…with the country now on the downward slope, relative to other nations?
So many questions, so little time. We are on vacation; we promise not to write very much.
We took a drive to Masaya yesterday. We were appalled. Roads have never been very good in this part of the world, but the road between Masaya and Granada is even worse than we remembered it. Every 20 feet or so there is a pothole so large and so deep it could be turned into a tourist attraction. Little boys take shovels and fill them in with dirt, and then stand beside the road with their hands out, waiting for a tip. The dirt soon washes out or blows away, and the road is worse than ever.
Our car shook, rattled, and rolled along, barely able to do more than 30 miles an hour even on the best patches of roadway. Every jolt seemed to loosen bolts and bend metal. Along the road, we saw several cars and busses broken down. It is a wonder that any of them get through in one piece.
“It would be so easy to give this economy a major boost,” said Elizabeth. “All you’d have to do is build a decent road.”
“Well, yes, but they must have thought of that, ” was our weak reply.
And yet, it was as if they didn’t notice. Bumper to bumper traffic, not to mention thousands of people on bicycles or on foot, use the road. It is a main drag between two of Nicaragua’s main cities. The cost of not fixing the road must be enormous: wear and tear…time…repairs. Who could miss the fact that the bad road was an impediment to wealth?
Nicaragua seems to be dividing into two societies. On the coast, (mostly) gringos are building beautiful houses and living in the lap of luxury. Back in the interior, life is as rough as the roads.
One simple explanation for why some people are rich and others are not is making its way around the Internet. Smart people are richer, is the gist of it. Countries with higher I.Q.s have higher levels of wealth. We don’t know how rigorously this idea has been studied. Not very…is our guess. The Chinese, for example, are said to have high I.Q.s. When they move to America, they usually prosper, but in China, they are among the world’s poorest people. And the Nicaraguans are no dumber than the gringos whose lawns they cut and whose tables they set.
But the I.Q. explanation has an appeal. If you can do well on an I.Q. test, you can probably also do well on other tests of modern, rationalist, materialist life…including making money. Besides, it makes rich people feel superior. If they’re so rich, they tell themselves, they must be smart.
So, go figure. We leave the subject, for now, to go jump in the ocean.
More news Aussie Joel and The Rude Awakening…
James Boric, reporting from blustery Baltimore:
“Squirrels, like good small-cap companies, are nimble, efficient and adaptable. They are quick to avoid danger…And if they do get in trouble, they can outrun their larger predators or quickly change directions.”
Bill Bonner, back from his ocean swim with more views…
*** “Thank you for contacting me regarding fiscal responsibility and tax reform. I appreciate hearing from you, and I noted your suggestion to read the book Empire of Debt,” writes Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, to DR reader Jon Carnes.
“I agree with you that our debt is extremely troubling, and I am disturbed that some in Washington seem to regard the debt as a mere inconvenience rather than the actual threat it represents. Over the last four years, the country has experienced the worst fiscal reversal in history, which is not a temporary deficit due to the economic slowdown or the costs on the war on terrorism…
“The budget surpluses that we achieved in the late 1990s and early 2000 resulted from a strong economy and some hard choices by President Clinton and Congress.
“I supported these budgets, but I have been unable to support the recent budgets, awash in red ink. These deals have eroded our country’s surplus and its economic security. Please be assured that I take this issue very seriously and will continue to fight for a renewed commitment to fiscal responsibility.”
We’re not sure what we’re going to do with them yet. But some of the speeches we’re hearing from the floor of the Senate this week even sound like legislators are reading the book. Heh,heh.
*** Gold has dropped below $500. Will the correction take it down further? We don’t know. Our buying target is still $475, but we would be tempted to buy at any price below $500.
*** “How do I look?”
After many months in the mists of London, we pale Northern Europeans are putting on bathing suits. We are often surprised by what we see.
When a man’s wife asks for an opinion, he has to be careful. He must emphasize the positive…without drifting so far into fantasy that he loses credibility.
“You look great dear. You defy nature. Each year, you seem to grow younger and more beautiful. Soon, I fear, the Gods will be so jealous of me they will poke out my eyes so that I will no longer be able to enjoy the sight of you.”
“That’s plenty, dear.”
I am pleased to report that the inflation monster has been captured and placed in a jar.
This stunning announcement, as well as an accompanying video detailing the highlights, was made by the European Central Bank, in cooperation with the national central banks of the euro area. Along with the announcement, the ECB has produced an information kit on inflation entitled “Price stability: why is it important for you?” It is targeted at young teenagers and teachers in all the official languages of the European Union. Here’s proof:
Even though it is entertaining, it sure flops as an educational tool unless of course the goal is self-serving propaganda by the ECB, for the ECB.
Unfortunately, the video does not explain that the real source of inflation is printing of money by the central bank itself. Nor does it explain why 2% is such a good inflation target. Finally it does not explain how prices across the board can be contained by broad brushed practices like setting of short-term interest rates.
Those things were not explained simply because they cannot be explained:
Inflation Video: Targeting Prices
Why should inflation be targeted at 2%, not 1% or 3%? Why should any inflation be targeted at all? Even if it were for some reason smart to target prices, can prices really be measured accurately? What do central banks do to overcome lag effects of monetary tightening and loosening? Is this just blind faith that “we know neutral when we see it?”
The problem, of course, is targeting prices in the first place. Sometimes, money flows into houses and stock and bonds, instead of goods and services. Sometimes, productivity improvements mask inflation. Sometimes falling commodity prices mask inflation. Of course, I am talking about “real inflation” as measured by increases in money supply, as opposed to hedonically adjusted price inflation, as seen through the eyes of central bankers.
The last paragraph is exactly what made a fool out of Greenspan. In the mid-to-late-1990s, “real inflation” (a rampant increase in money supply) was masked by productivity improvements, falling oil prices, and falling prices of goods from Asia. Greenspan called it a “productivity miracle.” It was a “miracle,” indeed. Rampant increases in money supply fueled the 2000 stock market bubble and spawned nonsensical talk about “new paradigms.” Then, in the sheer “after-the-bubble-pops” panic adjustments that he likes to make, Greenspan refused to allow a recession to run its course. Instead, he slashed interest rates to 1%, fueling the biggest housing bubble the world has ever seen. Here we are three short years later, now facing a “new paradigm” in housing, with debt levels far worse at both consumer and governmental levels.
Inflation Video: 2% Cannot Work
Greenspan will soon be gone, and Bernanke is next to bat, waiting in the on-deck circle. Like the ECB, Bernanke wants to set price inflation targets of 2%. I have some advice for him: It simply cannot work.
With all the hedonic adjustments, with all the nonsense about core versus noncore inflation, with all the imputed economics, with all the understating of medical costs, and with enormous discrepancies between rental costs and housing ownership costs, there is not a person on this Earth who could possibly know 2% price increases if they hit them smack in the face.
Compounding the problem for these so called “inflation fighters” is energy costs. One reason energy costs are rising is Peak Oil. Another reason oil costs are high is geopolitical tensions. A third reason energy prices are high is supply disruptions. Finally, oil and natural gas demand are relatively inelastic. As prices go up, people more or less have to pay. To maintain a CPI price target of 2%, central banks might have to raise interest rates to unreasonably high levels if energy prices are included in their measurements. That clearly would be bad policy. The root problem, of course, is assuming it is wise to target prices, rather than money supply, in the first place.
I almost forgot to mention that the ECB claims to have “the deflation monster” bottled up as well. I guess we will see, but I think they are hopelessly wrong. The ECB points out “deflation monster” problems when, in fact, deflation is both a blessing as well as the natural state of affairs.
Rising productivity is “price deflationary”: More goods are produced faster by fewer people. Prices naturally decline as a result. Look at how few farmers today produce more grain than 100 times as many farmers did not that long ago. Corn prices fell to 1943 levels a couple weeks ago. Is that a problem? For whom? It’s only a problem because the United States’ and Europe’s central banks blow countless billions of dollars every year on price crop supports. It is a total waste of money.
Bear in mind that China is actually losing textile jobs. The enquiring mind might be asking to whom? The answer might be shocking: to no one. Fewer workers are needed to turn out the same amount of goods. That is one of the reasons this protectionist talk you hear right now out of Congress is total nonsense. Those jobs simply are not coming back, ever. Cranking up money supply in an attempt to create jobs lost by productivity improvements and outsourcing can only result in asset bubbles and/or increased overcapacity. Besides, who does not like lower prices on goods and services?
If deflation is such a good thing, why do central banks fear it? One answer is because deflation is debt’s worst enemy. If asset prices and wages fall, people cannot possibly ever pay back what they owe. Banks and credit card companies don’t seem to like that state of affairs. Is that a problem with deflation? No, that is a problem created by reckless lending, easy credit, and the endless cheerleading on CNBC every time consumer spending rises and people sink heavier into debt.
The second answer is because inflation benefits those who receive money first. The government and banks are at the very top of the list. The former benefits via automatic tax increases not indexed to inflation (especially property taxes), the latter simply because banks are first in line to receive money from the Fed at rates no one else sees. By the time lending standards drop so that the masses have access to credit, the boom is well under way. By the time credit is granted to anyone that can fog a mirror, the boom is nearly over. Those buying assets late in the game will eventually be crushed by those selling assets who got in early. Simply put, inflation eventually becomes a moral hazard.
Inflation Video: The Pivot Point
We are now at or close to the pivot point. The pivot point (or tipping point, if you prefer) is when consumers cannot or will not take on any more debt and/or corporations simply are unwilling or unable to extend more credit. I have been writing about various tipping points for some time now, and we seem to be hitting those tipping points simultaneously in many areas: jobs, housing, consumer spending, and credit expansion.
The malinvestments of the have-it-now, me-too ownership society are about to be unwound. We are where we are because central banks have printed ever-expanding amounts of money to prevent normal business cycles, to satisfy politicians wanting to waste more taxpayer money with silly projects, and to foolishly fight deflation. The only thing the central banks have accomplished is putting off the inevitable deflationary credit crunch, while making it worse along the way.
There are many who think true deflation (decrease in money supply) cannot happen under a fiat system. I disagree, but perhaps the point is moot. Money supply itself actually never contracted in Japan. Instead, it grew very slowly for quite some time. However, bank credit outstanding contracted for 60 months in a row. Clearly, there was a credit contraction. How did money supply still manage to grow? Fiscal deficits were ramped up immensely, roads to nowhere were built, and the Bank of Japan monetized all of it.
In addition, money velocity plummeted. The net effect of the credit contraction on prices was clearly what one would nowadays call “deflationary.” Prices across a broad range of assets and goods and services fell. Indeed, practically everything fell but government bonds. People were amazed at the alleged “bond bubble” as well as the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) of the BOJ. However, a 1% interest rate on a 10-year bond makes sense when prices fall 2.5% annually. The real yield is, obviously, far higher than 1%. Perhaps a practical way to think of deflation under a fiat system is the destruction of credit/debt that exceeds growth in money supply.
Regardless of social and economic differences, I fully expect the United States to follow in the footsteps of Japan. Although a central bank might be able to sustain a certain amount of inflation by resorting to extreme measures, it cannot stop a credit contraction in the private sector. Nor will a central bank bail out consumers at the expense of themselves and other creditors. The Fed, like the BOJ, will stop short of destroying itself and its power.
Life would be so much simpler if central banks everywhere would stop trying to micromanage both prices and economic cycles. Quite simply, they are trying to achieve nirvana when nirvana cannot possibly be measured, nor can nirvana be achieved in the first place with the policies they have in place.
Yes, we will still have economic cycles if central banks do those things, but the cyclical peaks and valleys would not be as exaggerated as they are now. It seems as if we have learned nothing from the Great Depression or the more recent experience of Japan. I fear we may get a second chance.
Mike Shedlock ~ “Mish”
for The Daily Reckoning
December 22, 2005
Michael Shedlock (Mish) worked in the financial services industry for 20 years at some of the top institutions in the country including Harris Bank, the Bank of Montreal, Bank One, First National Bank of Chicago, and First Data Corp. Mish runs one of the more popular stock boards on the Motley Fool, Investment Analysis Clubs / Mishedlo and one of the more popular boards on Silicon Investor, Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis. You can see more of Mish’s writing on his blog also entitled Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis.
He is also a new contributor to Whiskey and Gunpowder, a free e-newsletter, from Dan Denning and Byron King (among others) that covers resources, oil, geopolitics, military history, geology and personal freedom.