Milton Friedman and the Monetarist Reflex: Can the Fed create inflation?

These are complicated times, especially when it comes to inflation.

An excess of debt, both private and public, has retarded the spending stream, resulting in sluggish economic growth. Given the Fed’s legislated commitment to prevent financial implosion and unemployment, rounds of central bank monetary responses have followed. The intuition of more money in our pockets chasing a limited supply of goods, as well as our long intellectual history of monetarism, sets off the reflex that printing results in inflation. That hasn’t appreciably happened yet, but multiple rounds of QE keep markets on edge given the teaching of Milton Friedman,

To add to the inflation paradox, last January, for the first time, the Fed committed to producing moderate inflation (2 percent) “over the long run“. However, as recently reported by David Rosenberg, inflation at the producer level was flat over the last quarter, and given the Euro recession and continued U.S. sluggishness, it appears likely that the inflation goal might not be reached. Indeed, many credible sources are forecasting long-run deflation, a la the trend in Japan.

On top of that there is the conjecture, mentioned in a recent post that in the (likely) event of an uncontrolled government deficit, the role of the central bank would be to generate actual inflation that exceeds the expected inflation premium that had been priced into interest rates. The purpose would be to reduce the real cost of government debt. This seems to suggest that the long-term Fed inflation target is to keep expectations anchored at a number the Fed hopes to exceed.

But in the longer run, while accumulating four decades of baby boomer entitlement debt, it would take one surprise after another to exceed expected and priced inflation. And each would have to be larger than the last to continuously have actual inflation exceed that which is priced by the market. This is the implied path to what is journalistically called “runaway inflation.”

The Fed inflation targeting in the long run is one thing, but the real question is whether the Fed can deliver when it so far has not.

The paradox of strong growth in the monetary base without the inflation implied by monetarism first surfaced when the first Federal Reserve balance sheet leap occurred in 2008. At the time, many people believed that a doubling of central bank money chasing a short term fixed supply of goods would bring about a doubling of the price level.

Obviously, that didnt happen. The question is why not.

First off, at that time, the commercial banking system did not have the requisite regulatory solvency (an excess of asset values relative to deposits) to expand balance sheets if they had the risk tolerance. That is, today’s excess cash reserves of $1.5 trillion held by banks and a commercial bank money supply multiplier of say 10 would normally result in $15 trillion of lending and spending. A surge in bank-financed spending could roughly double the present $15 trillion annual flow rate of GDP and, with it, inflation.

The predicted proportionality of prices to money didn’t occur, as spending not only failed to increase appreciably with more central bank base money, but fell short of the economy’s supply potential so that deflationary forces from excess capacity still exist today. (This same phenomena to monetarists would be the explanation for the decline in the velocity of money.)

So the issue of inflation depends to a large extent on the ability and willingness of commercial banks to run with the base money given to them. The most recent reading of that is not encouraging to either the growth of spending or inflation, as the graph above shows.

Despite having been given a stealth capital buildup via an essential zero cost of funding program (in addition to the TARP subsidy), the commercial bank books claim solvency, but lending contracted in the first quarter. The Keynesian notion of the liquidity trap is still alive and festering with banks pointing to a lack of borrowers and borrowers pointing to a lack of willing lenders. The problem, more than loan risk analytics, is likely behavioral. As aptly discussed by Kevin Flynn:

“For the last 50 years banks have been behaving the same way — turning a profitable sector into a credit fad and then drowning it in the name of market share, management bonuses, takeover avoidance, or whatever. Once they blow a sector up, nobody wants to hear about lending to it again for another generation of CEO management, which runs for about five to 10 years (the last thing that managers brought in to replace disgraced managers want to do is more of what got their predecessors sacked). Banks finally got around to blowing up housing, so now we have a generation of bank executives in place whose unifying feature is the determination to avoid a housing bust that won’t happen again for another 70 years or so. The Fed can’t do anything about it.”

Given these impediments to produce monetary expansion and lending through banks, there are other routes by which the Fed might reach its inflation objective. Without bank follow-through, the impact of monetary expansion is limited to the Fed’s first round of financial purchasing power. This limitation of its firepower is what turned the Fed to large scale QEs, since there would be no commercial bank follow–through: They had to do the job themselves. But since the Fed is not a commercial lender, it mainly relies on what is known as a Pigou effect — a generalized market value of wealth spreading from bonds to equities and other assets that in turn induces limited spending but not at a rate sufficient to create inflation.

Another approach to inflation (which the Fed scoffs at) is un-lovingly called helicopter money. This was the first thing done when the financial meltdown occurred, in the form of the Fed putting money more directly into the hands of spenders (as opposed to financial asset markets). That is, rather than just continuing more of the same Fed expansion, helicopter money delivers fresh spending power directly to the end user (the consumer) over the heads of the moribund banks.

Believe it or not, this was implemented in the dark days of 2008, when the Fed purchased Treasury bonds that enabled the Treasury department to mail out an equal amount of government green checks directly to spenders. It flew under the radar screen as the checks were called tax rebates, and few knew the source of the funding. However, a wider distribution of government green checks coming from the Fed or the Treasury would require a more obvious money gift that would create contentious comparisons of need. To further rule out more green checks to consumers (especially voters), the Republican Party platform is now at odds with at grossly expansionary Fed tendencies, and the Fed is not likely to expose itself to legislative constrains to its independence.

If the government wishes to depreciate its debt and consumer debt with inflation, a more likely inflation alternative would be for the Treasury Department to turn to treasury currency, the United States Note. As previously explained, the government used this tactic to pay its bills during the Civil War.

In this case, the financing of government spending is facilitated by Treasury currency printing rather than Federal Reserve printing. Treasury currency would have a greater inflationary impact as it directly finances spending in goods markets. In this case, inflation would be a fiscal byproduct rather than a central bank contrivance.

Treasury currency would be more effective as it goes over the heads of the blocked banking system and reluctant spending units, and on behalf of the taxpayers, goes directly into the spending stream when the government pays for entitlements such as Medicare. As such it is a kind of super-helicopter money delivered to the goods markets rather than the financial markets or even to the consumer to be used for debt reduction as the new currency is injected into the spending and income stream.

When political leaders are pressed to “do something, it seems that this would be the “something” that could simultaneously finance entitlement spending, reduce the size of the fiscal cliff, and reach a desired inflation target. This is a something for nothing policy solution that politicians who take the path of least resistance would find difficult to ignore–and its in the law.

What an irony.  Despite the accusations being made, the Fed in these circumstances is only able to produce inflation expectations whereas Fed generated inflation is dependent upon a generational replacement of commercial bankers.

It seems the notion of an inflationary future one way or another is still alive and ticking. Recently, inflation adjusting assets including energy pipelines, gold, income producing real estate and infrastructure are now moving up in the markets and fixed income assets are moving downward. Though the Fed has struck out on the inflation front, the bet has switched at least at the margin to the government doing “something” in the long run to ultimately reach an inflation target. Keep tuned to see how these improbable policies and events work out.

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The Bond Market Rocket and Fiscal Unsustainability Are On a Collision Path

Recently, the bond market has been in rocket mode. It has achieved liftoff and slipped the surly bonds of earth. And some believe it will keep going.  The price of the U.S. Treasury 10-year bond recently reached an all-time high, generating yields at all-time lows. Moreover, the market yield on the British perpetual bond is reportedly at a 300-year low.  Bond mania has even spread to the sovereign debt of Denmark and Singapore and others where negative yields exist.  More astonishing is the ability of France to issue short-term sovereigns with negative yields!

The U.S. has eclipsed the record interest rates that prevailed when the 1930s Depression era came to an end with the onset of World War II, as shown in the chart to the right.

To get to the previous low yields of early December 1941, the U.S. economy had experienced a decade of depression with cumulative deflation of 30 percent.  With that decade-long trend influencing expectations, the future seemed to call for more of the same.  In that environment, investors favor long-term fixed income that appreciates in real terms as a result of deflation if the long bond is successfully paid and retired despite depression circumstances.  Hence the asset category of choice in a deflationary depression is survivable high quality debt.  In the ’30s, this also included surviving corporate debt that appreciated along with Treasuries, and the AAA-Treasury spread narrowed over the depression years.

Since we presently are in an era of Federal Reserve QEs, you might suspect that the Fed was possibly behind the rising Treasury prices and lowest yields of that era.  However logical it might seem in today’s context, the Fed was nowhere to be found on the buy side of the Treasury market during the depression (something Bernanke seeks to not repeat). Indeed, the money supply declined by 30 percent over the course of the depression, so the bond market did it all on its own, without Fed support. Indeed, being in a pre-Keynesian world, the rationale or desire for manipulating the interest rate or credit conditions was not part of the Fed’s understanding of how to run a central bank.

Then as now, the private market participants price the expected risks and costs of holding a debt instrument over its life, and they require additional yield for each risk and cost they anticipate will materialize.  They generally make this assessment of risk by extrapolating previous trends or by finding a similar historical episode to benchmark the likely gains or losses in value that might take place. Today we find many forecasts (even on this blog) citing the withering force of deleveraging due to over–indebtedness, which takes down an economy and softens demand and prices for goods.  Hence, today’s natural historical model for bond pricing would seem to be the 1930s.

However, while there are similarities, there are also big differences. Today it is the government that is over–leveraged, whereas in the l930s it was the corporate debt sector which makes today’s long Treasury yields suspect.   Though the economy is weak today, we are not in a decade-long depression, and while inflation is low, it is not in a cumulative deflation.  And while the Fed held back this week, they still have a commitment to positive inflation.

The greatest difference is today’s checkmated body politic, which is unable to resolve an ultimately un-financeable Federal deficit. This week we had another episode of kicking the can down the road, with the agreement to run the debt meter another six months before facing the music. This is all in sharp contrast to a much lower government debt load and an obsession to run a balanced fiscal budget despite the depression that prevailed in the 30s.

While the growth/inflation profile is different in the two eras, it is more important to note the difference in long-term fiscal sustainability.  Somewhere during the unfolding drama there will be an unspoken need (not mentioned in legislation or treaties) for the Fed to pull a “Super Mario” Draghi — who, last week, signed up to “do whatever it takes,” which apparently meant ignoring the ECB mandate and directly supporting Spain’s bank and government debt because the market no longer will.

Indeed, in the U. S. at the outset of WWII, the Fed presented the patriotic idea of wartime bond support to the Treasury, not the other way around. Central banks are not shy in the ultimate moment of money needs.

In what should be considered a “white paper,” the Fed’s role in these dire circumstances is recently discussed by Renee Haltom and John A. Weinberg in the Richmond Fed Annual Report, 2011, titled Unsustainable Fiscal Policy: Implications for Monetary Policy. In a rare Fed admission they indicate that “a central bank can reduce the government’s debt burden by creating inflation that was not anticipated by financial markets.  Inflation allows all borrowers, the government included, to repay loans issued in nominal terms with cheaper dollars than the ones they borrowed.”

Indeed, if the Fed were to create inflation, it would not be totally unanticipated.  This is the outcome seen by many observers, including Bill Gross of PIMCO.

And Bill Gross is not alone, as the bond-buying public seems to believe little of the fiscal sustainability story.  Indeed, the flow of funds data, at least for 2011, indicates that the private sector purchased a minority of net new government debt issuance.  Hence, private investors are not the leading purchasers of U.S. Treasuries, causing the all-time depressed bond yields. The graph indicates that the Federal Reserve is buying the lion’s share of net new Federal debt, and foreign investors are in second place. That market thrust no doubt represents a flight from European sovereign exposure, which is in a more advanced state of fiscal decay at the moment.

No doubt some have bought the1930s deflationary depression story as a model outcome to justify buying and holding sovereigns, but this time around it doesn’t lead to the necessary conclusion that sovereigns will appreciate from here.  At today’s entry point of taxable low nominal yields and negative real yields, betting on both a deflationary depression with fiscal sustainability is not only a long shot but is mutually inconsistent.

A deflationary depression doesn’t generate government tax revenues to reach fiscal sustainability unless the voting public is willing to accept a substantial entitlement haircut. Moreover, if the low bond yields were to be maintained it would systemically cause defined-benefit pension plans to underperform.  They would become forced sellers of sovereign bond holding to meet payouts — as is now finally occurring with Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund.

The bond market rocket can glide for a time, perhaps years, until it collides with fiscal unsustainability. At that time it will be revealed plain enough for all to see when the private demand evaporates, much as it did with Spain this week. At that time, the U.S. Treasury is no longer a riskless debt instrument, nor is it immune from inflation.

(That being said, it leaves open the question of whether intentional inflation is bravado in the absence of bank lending, which will be addressed in a subsequent blog.)

When the market comes to understand that sovereign bond strength from a central bank is a mixed blessing — as it both purchases government bonds but also intentionally seeks to create “unanticipated” inflation —the bond market rocket is susceptible to the gravitational pull of Earth.

When that happens, there will be a large debris field for those who entered this untenable crowded trade (or stuck with it) so late in the game, supported not by the bond-buying public but only by a central bank wishing to do its patriotic duty — which includes inflation generation.

This indeed is not the 1930s.

 

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