Two Inflationary Tail Risks For US Investors
Third Quarter Outlook
Please consider the Hoisington Quarterly Review and Outlook for the third quarter of 2020.
Lacy Hunt starts off with conditions central banks must meet to stimulate the economy.
- The Fed must be able to control the monetary base by increasing its liabilities
- The Fed’s power to stimulate economic conditions is a stable relationship between the monetary base and the money supply, M2.
- The velocity of money (V) must be stable, although not constant. If V is stable, then changes in M2 will control swings in nominal GDP.
- The Fed must have wide latitude to lower the short-term policy interest rate. It had been long recognized that if short-term rates approached the zero bound, monetary capabilities would be diminished.
Monetary Base and Velocity Discussion
The Fed can of course increase the monetary base at will.
Regarding Velocity, Hunt's statement "If V is stable, then changes in M2 will control swings in nominal GDP," is accurate, by definition.
V = GDP / M2
However, velocity has no life of its own. It is a result, not a cause. The Fed cannot control velocity now, nor could it ever.
Velocity can rise of fall with rising or falling prices or rising or falling GDP.
For discussion, please see If the Velocity of Money Picks Up Will Inflation Soar?
Latitude to Cut Rates
Point 4 is the key. The Fed has no latitude to cut rates.
Unlike the ECB, the Fed is even aware of this. They are fearful of cutting rates below the ELB "Effective Lower Bound"
ELB is the point at which further cuts are detrimental in the long run.
- June 4, 2019: Powell Ready to Cut Rates to "Effective Lower Bound" via "Conventional" Policy
- September 25, 2019: In Search of the Effective Lower Bound
- September 22, 2019: ECB's New Interest Rate Policy "As Long As It Takes" Huge Failure Already
A Fed study in November of 2019 on Effective Lower Bound Risk confirmed what I had to say in the above links.
In an empirically rich model calibrated to match key features of the U.S. economy, we find that the tail risk induced by the ELB causes inflation to undershoot the target rate of 2 percent by as much as 50 basis points at the economy's risky steady state. Our model suggests that achieving the inflation target may be more difficult now than before the Great Recession.
I was not aware of the Fed study on the ELB until now. It came up when I searched for my ELB discussion to add to what Lacy had to say.
Five Negative Impacts of ECB's Negative Rates
- Negative rates further weakened already weak European banking system by charging them interest on excess reserves.
- Negative rates kept zombie companies alive at the expense of productive ones.
- Negative rates destroyed bank profits.
- Negative rates added to unproductive long term debt.
- Negative rates increased speculation.
As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, the Fed slowly recapitalized US banks by paying them interest on excess reserves, the ECB weakened them.
The Fed can see that negative interest rates in Europe and Japan were counterproductive.
Thus, I highly doubt the Fed takes interest rates below zero. However, the Fed may make other huge policy errors.
Only One Condition the Fed Can Control
Currently, of these four conditions, only the first one prevails, and it is the least important of the four. The Fed can control the monetary base by increasing its liabilities (bank reserves). The three other, and far more critical, conditions are no longer present due to the extreme over-indebtedness of the U.S. economy.
Thus, monetary policy is left with one-sided capabilities i.e., they can restrain economic activity by reducing reserves and raising rates, but they are not capable of stimulating economic activity to any significant degree.
Indeed, the risk is that the Fed has already overshot the ELB as that rate is somewhat above zero.
It certainly is not less than zero as evidenced by the miserable results obtained by the ECB and Bank of Japan.
What about inflation risks?
With that question, let's once again turn back to Lacy.
Inflation Tail Risks
We identify two tail risks for long term Treasury investors: (1) a huge new debt financed fiscal package and (2) a major change in the Fed’s modus operandi. The first risk would change the short-run trajectory of the economy. This better growth, although short lived, could place transitory upward pressure on interest rates in a fashion that has been experienced many times. Over the longer run, disinflation would prevail and the downward trend in Treasury yields would resume.
The second risk would bring a rising inflationary dynamic into the picture, potentially becoming much more consequential. As this dissatisfaction intensifies, either de jure or de facto, the Federal Reserve’s liabilities could be made legal tender, or a medium of exchange. Already, the Fed has taken actions that appear to exceed the limits of the Federal Reserve Act under the exigent circumstances clause, but so far, they are still lending and not directly funding the expenditures of the government in any meaningful way. But some advocate making the Fed’s liabilities spendable and a few central banks have already moved in this direction. If the Fed's liabilities were made a medium of exchange, the inflation rate would rise and inflationary expectations would move ahead of actual inflation. In due course, Gresham’s law could be triggered as individuals move to hold commodities that can be consumed or traded for consumable items. This would result in a massive decline in productivity, thus real growth and the standard of living would fall as inflation escalates.
As long as the federal government’s policy prescription is ever higher levels of debt, the path toward disinflation will hold and long Treasury bonds will be the preferred area of the curve. The continuing shift in economic conditions over the past forty years has necessitated several dramatic changes in our yield curve positioning. That flexibility remains constant.
Looking for Inflation in All the Wrong Places
Those are very important paragraphs by Lacy. They explain why inflation has not picked up as most economists including the Fed expected.
There is inflation of course, and huge amounts of it. But the Fed is looking for inflation in all the wrong places.
Inflation exists in asset prices of stocks and junk bonds. Speculation is rampant. Robinhood has turned millions of millennials into day traders who are now convinced that stock prices only go up.
Meanwhile the economic bubbles keep expanding and when they bust we will see a deflationary credit bust that the Fed ought to fear instead of the CPI deflation which the Fed foolishly does fear.
Economic Challenge to Keynesians
Of all the widely believed but patently false economic beliefs is the absurd notion that falling consumer prices are bad for the economy and something must be done about them.
My Challenge to Keynesians “Prove Rising Prices Provide an Overall Economic Benefit” has gone unanswered.
BIS Deflation Study
The BIS did a historical study and found routine deflation was not any problem at all.
“Deflation may actually boost output. Lower prices increase real incomes and wealth. And they may also make export goods more competitive,” stated the BIS study.
For a discussion of the BIS study, please see Historical Perspective on CPI Deflations: How Damaging are They?
Central banks are fighting a deflation boogie man that does not even exist, creating a debt deflation monster in the process.
The tail risk is the Fed goes too far down the rabbit hole unleashing a different kind of monster.