A year ago, only a very few people even mentioned the word “deflation”. Almost no one predicted or even imagined that a period of deflation might be approaching.
Today, the word “deflation” is much in the economic news. Evidence is mounting that the forces of deflation are real, significant and growing.
But, in truth, although we haven’t expressly talked about “deflation” for the past six years, deflation has been the principle focus of our government and the Federal Reserve since the onset of “Great Recession” in A.D. 2008. Preventing deflation was the primary motivation for “Quantitative Easing” (QE), printing $4 trillion in fiat currency, holding interest rates down near zero, and the Fed expanding its balance sheet to hold $4 trillion in “assets” of questionable or even “toxic” value.
Insofar as evidence of deflation currently appears to be growing, that’s also evidence the QE has failed and the “recovery” remains a fantasy.
A primer on inflation and deflation
• “Inflation” generally describes an economic state of affairs when a fiat currency is losing value and prices for most goods, service are therefore rising. I.e., if we had 50% inflation, a pound of steak that used to cost $5 would go up in price to $7.50. After 50% inflation, your dollar will only buy about two-thirds as much steak as it would when the inflation began.
Most people think only in terms of prices and don’t usually realize that inflation isn’t really “rising prices,” per se, but rather a fall in the purchasing power of their currency. We tend to think that the price changes are based on something to do with the steak, when they are primary caused by changes in the purchasing power of the dollar. We see the effect (rising prices), but generally don’t appreciate the cause (falling value of the currency).
Current evidence of inflation includes rising prices for groceries and stocks.
Inflation is great for borrowers because they can pay off their debts with “cheaper dollars,” but it’s bad news for creditors because they’re essentially robbed of part of the value of whatever principal they loaned to others. Inflation allows debtors who borrowed enough currency to buy one pound of steak, to repay their debts with enough currency to buy only two-thirds of a pound of steak. Inflation enriches borrowers and impoverishes creditors.
During periods of inflation, the public understands that prices are rising and therefore they tend to make purchases quickly before the prices rise higher. Those quick buys tend to accelerate the economy, increase employment, and enrich many businesses. Inflation accelerates the economy.
• “Deflation” is fundamentally opposite to inflation. “Deflation” describes an economic state of affairs wherein a currency gains value (purchasing power) and the prices of goods and services denominated in that currency fall. During a period of 50% deflation, a pound of steak that sold for $5 at the beginning of deflation would sell for $2.50 at the end. After 50% deflation, you can buy twice as much steak as you could before deflation.
Most people think only in terms of prices, so they equate “deflation” with falling prices rather than the increasing value/purchasing power of their currency. Again, the effect (falling prices) is obvious to most but the cause (rising value of the currency) remains generally unseen.
Deflation is good for creditors because when their loans are repaid, they’re repaid with “more expensive” dollars. But deflation robs borrowers by forcing them to repay more than they actually borrowed. Deflation compels debtors who borrowed enough currency to buy one pound of steak, to repay their debts with enough currency to buy two pounds of steak. Creditors are enriched, borrowers are impoverished.
Current evidence of deflation includes falling prices of gold, crude oil, gasoline and other commodities.
During periods of deflation, the public understands that prices are falling and therefore tend to delay making purchases, as they wait for even lower prices and better deals. Those delays result in reduced demand. The reduced demand slows the entire economy, puts people out of work, and closes many businesses. Deflation contributes to economic depression.
During periods of deflation, the public dimly understands and businessmen understand clearly, that if they borrow currency now, they’ll have to repay the loans later with “more expensive” dollars that could cause them to suffer a real loss from borrowing. Therefore, people tend to borrow less during a depression and invest less in modernizing or expanding their businesses or buying goods or services on credit.
The bottom line is that during periods of deflation, people tend to spend less and borrow less and the economy slides toward depression.
Government (normally) Hates Deflation
Government (normally) hates deflation because it signals:
- Economic depression;
- Reduced tax revenues and reduced government spending;
- Increased borrowing costs which reduce government borrowing and spending;
- Reduction in the size, power and influence of national government;
- Reduced capacity to pay, or even service, existing financial obligations like the National Debt, So-So Security and government pensions;
- Likely default on existing government debt;
- Likely collapse of the US dollar.
The US financial system came within days or even hours of a complete meltdown during the onset of the Great Recession in A.D. 2008. Such meltdown would’ve triggered a US and/or global economic depression complete with a massive dose of falling prices and deflation.
Economists argue that the Great Depression of A.D. 1929 was caused by bankers removing currency out of the economy, reducing the available money supply and thereby causing deflation.
Ben Bernanke studied the Great Depression. He picked up the nickname “Helicopter Ben” by declaring that, in the event of another Depression, he’d increase the currency supply to cause inflation, if necessary, by dispersing masses of currency to the public by throwing it from “helicopters”. He believed that dramatically increasing the money supply (inflation) could offset and defeat the deflationary forces driving an economic depression—and thereby prevent an economic collapse.
True to his declaration, after the onset of the Great Recession of A.D. 2008, Mr. Bernanke ordered the printing of an additional $4 trillion in fiat dollars to be dispersed into the US economy to inflate the currency supply and prevent deflation.
Of course, Mr. Bernanke didn’t actually throw dollars from helicopters. Instead, he chose to “disperse” that $4 trillion by giving it to banks and financial institutions that were “too big to fail” under the pretext that these banks would then disperse the funds to the public in the form of easy credit and low-interest loans.
In retrospect, Bernanke might’ve done a better job of causing-inflation/preventing-deflation if he’d used the helicopters.
Because the banks that received the $4 trillion kept most of that currency in their vaults. Most of the currency that was supposed to reach the public—and thereby cause inflation to offset deflation—never did.
This is interesting because, in retrospect, the Great Depression has been blamed on bankers who removed currency from the money supply and our current financial difficulties might be blamed on bankers who prevented (for whatever reason) the release 4 trillion in freshly-printed fiat dollars into our money supply. In both instances, the currency supply was reduced or prevented from growing. In the Great Depression, we wound up with deflation.
What are we winding up with today?
If our recent $4 trillion in QE didn’t achieve as much as it might’ve, it still achieved something.
Yahoo! Finance recently published an article entitled “Quantitative easing is finally over. Here’s what it accomplished”.
According to that article:
“With sales of homes, cars and other things plunging in late 2008, the Fed hoped cheap money would help lure skittish consumers back into the market. But quantitative easing went on far longer than just about anybody anticipated back in 2008, with the Fed ultimately amassing a massive $4 trillion portfolio of bonds.”
Why has QE lasted so long?
Because it didn’t “instantly” increase the currency supply available to the public.
Why didn’t it instantly increase the currency supply?
Because the banks that received the $4 trillion kept most of that currency in their vaults and/or invested it in foreign countries. The full, inflationary force of QE never really reached the US economy. Therefore, the forces of deflation released by the Great Recession were never fully tamed or terminated by QE.
“Here’s how a few major economic indicators changed after QE began:
- “S&P 500 stock index:up 129% since Nov. 25, 2008, the day the Fed announced its first quantitative easing effort.”
129% up since the S&P 500 hit its 751-point “bottom” in AD. 2008 is impressive. But as compared to the S&P 500 “top” (1,565 points) in A.D. 2007, today’s 2,011 high is up only 28%. That’s good, but it’s only about 4% per year, isn’t adjusted for inflation, is actually a loss, and therefore doesn’t impress.
- “Real GDP (adjusted for inflation):up 9.8%.”
In six years since the economic bottom in A.D. 2008, the inflation-adjusted GDP rose 9.8%—an average of 1.7% per year. That’s based on government economic measures and indices (which aren’t to be trusted). More, that’s still only about half of the GDP increase than might normally have been expected without the Great Recession.
1.7% is positive. It’s better than a negative GDP. But, after printing $4 trillion fiat dollars, it’s nothing to brag about.
- “Unemployment rate:down 1 percentage point.”
According to official reports, unemployment under the Great Recession rose to almost 7% and has now fallen back below 6%. That’s true—if you believe “official” governmental economic measure and indices.
But if you believe people like John Williams at ShadowStats.com, real unemployment rates have grown from roughly 5% in A.D. 2008 to roughly 23%, today. If so, $4 trillion worth of QE had no positive effect on unemployment rates.
“Those figures clearly reflect an economy that has improved since the dark days of the Great Recession—but they hardly settle the question of whether QE has been effective. It’s impossible to untangle how much of the improvement would have happened as part of the normal economic cycle and healing after a recession, and how much was directly due to Fed intervention. And some elements of the economy—especially wage growth—remain far weaker than they should.”
“The real test of QE will probably come down to inflation . . . . Fed critics have been squawking about the risk of runaway inflation since QE began, since buying vast sums of bonds does potentially put more money into circulation. But inflation hawks have been dead wrong the whole time, with inflation now so low—around 1.7%—that economists are more worried about deflation than inflation.”
Exactly. QE advocates and critics talked endlessly about “inflation”. But the real purpose of QE was to stop deflation. The “real test” of QE is not whether QE caused runaway inflation, but whether it fails to cause enough inflation to prevent the onset of deflation.
If the Fed printed $4 trillion and we nevertheless slide into deflation, QE will be shown to be an abject failure.
Deflation Reducing Corporate Profits
• MoneyNews reported (The Ticking Time Bomb of the Strong US Dollar) that:
“You’re going to hear hundreds of US multinational companies blame their profit shortfalls on the strong dollar” [deflation].
The article listed half a dozen major, multinational corporations that suffered revenue declines in the 3rd Quarter sales that are being attributed to deflation. These multinationals included: Lockheed Martin, down 2%; IBM down 3%; and, Coca-Cola which estimates that the strong [deflated] dollar will reduce its profits by 6% over the next year.
“A serious underlying revenue slowdown is running through corporate America. The common theme for all these revenue-challenged companies is a heavy dose of foreign sales. Those foreign sales are being negatively affected by a strong [deflated] US dollar. . . . Experts say a 1% move in the dollar can have a 2% impact on the earnings of the S&P 500 companies.”
As measured on the USDX, the value of the fiat dollar has risen from 79 last May to over 88, this week. That’s an 11% rise in the dollar’s purchasing power in the past six months.
If it’s true that a 1% move in the dollar can have a 2% impact on the earnings of S&P 500 companies, then the past 11% increase in the dollar’s purchasing power (deflation) could cause a 22% loss of earnings for the S&P 500 companies.
If so, deflation may soon cause a very significant decline in the S&P 500.
• Why does deflation cause US export industries have to cut prices, revenues, profits and taxes?
Because our export industries’ prices are denominated in fiat dollars.
If Japan continues to print trillions of fiat yen, it will reduce the value of the yen in relation to the dollar. Therefore, the relative value of the dollar will—like a teeter-totter—go up (deflate) on international markets. If Japan lowers the prices of Japanese products in relation to US dollars by inflating their yen, those US businesses who sell similar products have no choice but to lower their prices in terms of deflated US dollars in order to remain competitive. That means US corporate revenue, profits, taxes—and jobs—can be reduced by Japan inflating the yen.
The EU’s central bank is also planning to print more fiat euros in order to stimulate the EU economy with more inflation. If the euro is thereby inflated, the teeter-totter relationship between the euro and the fiat dollar will also cause the dollar to deflate and become more valuable.
- Deflation is bad for the US economy—it typically signals an economic depression.
- Deflation is bad for debtors—they have to repay their debts with more expensive dollars. The US government is the biggest debtor in the world.
- Thus, to allow or even cause deflation is contrary to the best interests of the economy, of debtors in general, and the US government, in particular.
So, why are we seeing evidence of deflation?
Three possible answers come to mind:
- Our government is stupid;
- The government has lost control of the economy and can’t stop deflation; or,
- The government wants to pull the plug, push the economy into a depression and possible collapse, admit that the National Debt can’t be paid and implement some sort of national currency “reset”.
•Whatever is going on right now, it can’t continue. Something’s got to break. Either deflation will be made to end, or the economy will be allowed to collapse.
Nothing screams deflation like a falling price for gold. Nothing screams inflation like a rising price for gold.
If government wants inflation—as they have for most of the past 80 years—they have allow or even cause the price of gold to rise.
On the other hand, if the government wants deflation, they must want a national and perhaps global depression and a default on the national debt. That national debt is denominated in paper debt instruments. If there’s a national/global depression, I believe those paper debt instruments will lose 80 to 90% of their purported value, and people will come running to buy gold at almost any price.
If government inflates, the price of gold must rise.
If government deflates, the value of unpayable paper debt instruments must collapse, and the price of gold must rise.
It may be a bumpy ride before we get there, but the price of gold must rise.
• Today, reports of deflation are mixed in with reports of inflation. We see the prices of some major commodities (like gold, silver, crude oil, gasoline) falling. That’s evidence of deflation.
But, we also see evidence of inflation in the rising Dow and S&P 500 and every time we go to the grocery store and see food prices up.
A year ago, we seemed to be clearly in a period of predominant inflation. Today, we see growing evidence that we might be in or approaching a period of deflation—exactly what QE was intended to prevent.
- If I see stocks and grocery prices start to fall, I’ll be convinced that:
- We are in an economic depression; and,
- QE failed to achieve its primary purpose: save us from deflation.
- If stock and grocery prices fall, I will strongly suspect that:
- Much of the national debt will soon be repudiated; and
- The fiat dollar will fail and be replaced—or at least subjected to a “reset” that causes it to suddenly lose value and suffer huge inflation.
- If stock and grocery prices fall, I will wonder if our resulting period of deflation happened because:
- The government is stupid and incompetent;
- The forces of deflation were simply too powerful for any government to resist; or,
- The government has decided to “pull the plug” and cause, or allow, deflation to become predominant and thereby intentionally collapse the economy.
Our October economy has been extraordinarily volatile (stocks plunged and then rocketed back up; gold is falling; the fiat dollar is deflating). Things are spiraling out of control. QE has failed. This volatility must either end abruptly and the economy must quickly stabilize, or something major is going to break—and soon.