Nicole Foss takes on John Williams: Deflation it is

There’s an interesting interview at The Energy Report with John Williams of Shadow Stats ( John Williams: Times That Try Our Souls ), which I wanted to discuss because, while there are many aspects are we would agree with, there are other glaring differences with how The Automatic Earth sees the future unfold. It is worth looking at the article in some depth in order to find the source of the disparities.

Mr Williams’ prediction is hyperinflation, although, like us, he is predicting a great depression. One major distinction between TAE’s view and that of many inflationists is the definition of inflation. It is clear from the interview that Mr. Williams’ definition is increasing prices. Readers of The Automatic Earth will know that our definition is a monetary one – an increase in the supply of money, credit and velocity thereof relative to available goods and services. We have consistently pointed out that using a price definition of inflation removes all the explanatory and predictive value from the concept. Prices changes are lagging indicators of changes in the money supply, complicated by other factors, both globally and locally. For instance, global wage arbitrage has been a major factor driving prices down in recent years, despite a tremendous credit expansion.

Prices do not tell a story by themselves. It is necessary to assess price drivers in order to understand what is unfolding. It is then necessary to adjust prices for changes in the money supply in order to see what is happening to prices in real terms, as opposed to merely nominal terms. Prices in real terms show what is happening to affordability, as it is not price by itself that matters, but price relative to how much money one has in one’s pocket.

Despite his call for an inflationary future, Mr Williams lays out the case for deflation, as defined in monetary terms:

JW: “If you strangle liquidity you always contract an economy and deliberately or not, liquidity is being strangled, resulting in sharp declines in consumer credit, commercial and industrial loans….. ”

“…..We’re still seeing contractions in liquidity, and that’s adjusted for inflation. In real terms, M3 money supply is down almost 8% year-over-year.”

Williams also points out that the actions of the FED so far are not having an inflationary effect:

“The banks are not lending. The money the Fed put into the system in terms of buying mortgage-backed securities from the banks and trying to help bank liquidity ended up back with the Fed as excess reserves. We have well over $1 trillion there; had the banks loaned that money in the normal stream of commerce, it would have added more than $10 trillion to the broad money supply, which otherwise is up around $14 trillion. That certainly would have had some inflationary impact if not in terms of actual business activity. You can’t always get the economy to grow by pushing money into it. Sometimes it’s like pushing on a string.

It is indeed pushing on a string. Trying to stuff more credit into a system that is already choking on it will do nothing to increase the money supply in circulation. It cannot -even possibly- be inflationary. We are already in monetary contraction, as Williams has noted, and the contraction of credit makes the situation considerably worse than it appears from traditional money supply measures. Contraction is being aggravated by a fall in the velocity of money, as people, companies and banks hang on to what cash they have.

In a deflation, real interest rates are always higher than nominal rates. The real rate is the nominal rate minus inflation, and when inflation is negative, the numbers are added rather than subtracted. Even zero in nominal terms is not low enough to make the real rate sufficiently low to reignite borrowing and lending.

This is the liquidity trap, and governments are thoroughly caught in it already.

There is no chance that the money injected by the Fed will find its way into the real economy, and no chance that it will ignite a wage/price spiral in an era of credit contraction and rising unemployment. Employees will have no pricing power at all under such circumstances, which means that wages will fall rather than rise. Prices will also fall, as the withdrawal of credit will remove price support across the board. However, even as prices fall, affordability will be getting worse, because purchasing power will be falling faster than price.

People typically understand that inflation can make things less affordable over time, but deflation can do so much more quickly and much more comprehensively. The scenario that Williams describes is one of the effects of deflation, with real prices shooting up and everything becoming  dramatically less affordable in a very short space of time.

We agree with Williams as to the prospects for the real economy in the near term:

“I expect an accelerating pace of downturn in the next couple of months. The numbers will turn sharply worse….

….By then we’ll find the consensus pretty much in the camp that we’re in a double-dip recession. The popular press will describe it as a double dip, but we never had a recovery. Actually, this is just a very protracted, very deep downturn that has had a pattern of falling off a cliff, bottoming out, having a little bit of bump due to stimulus and then turning down again. Sort of shaped like the path of a novice skier going down a jump for the first time. Speeding sharply down the hill, he goes up in the air and starts spinning wildly as he tries to figure out which end is up with his skis. Then he takes a pretty bad tumble. We’re beginning to spin in the air.”

We also agree with Williams as to the nature of the problem – credit expansion – and his observation that credit availability is decreasing:

“Most of the growth we’d seen in the last decade prior to this downturn was due to debt expansion. The debt structures have pretty much been put through the wringer and consumers are not expanding credit, generally because it’s not available to them. Absent debt expansion and/or significant growth in income, no way can the consumer expand personal consumption.”

Without the ability to expand consumption, there is no price support even at current levels, let alone a chance for prices to rise.  Credit expansions are based on Ponzi dynamics – the creation of multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of underlying real wealth pie, as opposed to cutting the pie into a larger number of smaller pieces as currency inflation would do. The Ponzi nature of credit expansion is the determining factor in the ultimate fate of all bubbles.

Like many inflationists, Williams describes a deflationary scenario, but then says that governments will simply print currency:

“But in this crazy, almost perverse circumstance, the renewed weakness to a large extent will help push us into higher inflation….The only option left going forward is for the government eventually to print the money for the obligations it cannot otherwise cover, which sets up a hyperinflation.”

This projection does not recognize the power of the bond market, which is much greater than that of governments. Any government attempting to print actual currency is going to find that the bond market sends its interest rates through the roof in very short order.

Governments do not set interest rates. 

They merely choose a rate to defend. If that rate is radically different from what the bond market thinks appropriate, then the government will bankrupt itself very quickly.

If the bond markets raise interest rates even marginally, while so many governments are very vulnerable to any increase at all, the result will be a tsunami of debt default, which is deflation by definition.

Again, as with most inflationists, Williams supposes that governments have the power to prevent extremely negative outcomes:

“Irrespective of the politics of big government spending, quantitative easing, renewed bailing out of banks, whatever is involved, I’d argue that the government still will do whatever it takes to prevent a systemic collapse….

….The federal government isn’t going to let California or New York or Illinois collapse. Those are threats to the systemic survival. They’re also going to spend a lot more to support people on unemployment.”

Governments do not have the power that people imagine them to have. They cannot overcome the power of the collective, when that power is focused like a laser beam in one direction. Governments are going to find that the number of claims on their resources skyrockets, even as their tax receipts fall dramatically and their ability to borrow is curtailed by rising interest rates as a reflection of rising sovereign debt risk. Debt-junkie governments will be caught in a liquidity trap until the power of the international debt financing model is finally broken, as it will eventually be.

However, this does not happen overnight. Until it does, the power of governments to print will be sharply limited. We would expect this to remain the case through the era of deleveraging, which should last for several years. While inflation may be a long term threat once the power of the bond market is broken, that threat lies much further down the line. It is deflation that is today’s threat, and deflation that people must prepare for right now.

We agree with Williams’ diagnosis that a depression is imminent, but not his hyperinflationary rationale for it:

“I’ve been talking about an economic recession, but we are headed for something far worse. I define a depression as a 10% peak-to-trough contraction in the economy. In terms of the broad economy, we’re not down 10% in GDP yet. So while we’re not formally in depression, we’re certainly seeing it in a number of indicators and I think we’ll be in a depression, with GDP down 10%, in the near future.

A contraction greater than 25% peak-to-trough puts you in a great depression. That is what I envision, but we’ll be taken there by hyperinflation and a resultant cessation of normal commerce.”

Wiliams has a very different view than The Automatic Earth has of the relatively near-term prospects for the US dollar:

“We’re getting extraordinary protestations from other central banks about the U.S. finances, its solvency, risk of the dollar. Before the current crisis you never would have heard any central banker making such comments. As this breaks, it’s going to be obvious that the U.S. is moving to debase its dollar.

It’ll have no option to do otherwise. I would fully expect some foreign holders looking to dump the Treasuries. With the dollar plunging, the Treasury won’t be able to get the funding that it needs from a practical standpoint in the open markets.

The Fed will come in to salvage that situation, becoming the lender of last resort to the Treasury—literally monetizing the Treasury debt. The Fed might have a couple different ways to address the dollar situation, from raising interest rates to direct intervention, slapping on currency controls. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to go. But you’ll have an environment that’s effectively creating a perfect storm for the U.S. dollar.”

The Automatic Earth says that the value of the dollar will increase sharply in the short term – over the next year or two – on a combination of a knee-jerk flight to safety into the global reserve currency and the deflation of dollar denominated debt. Both of these factors will create a demand for dollars, which should act to increase their value relative to other currencies for a period of time. We are not arguing that the dollar is a long term bet – far from it in fact. All fiat currencies eventually die, but now is not that time.

We have argued that people need to hold liquidity during the period of deleveraging, as the risks to cash will be lower than most other wealth preservation strategies. At the point when they can afford to do so without debt, which will depend on how much money they have to begin with, they need to move into hard goods. In doing so, they will prepare for an eventual bottom, at which point inflation should be a genuine threat. People need to be fully liquid at tops and fully invested (in hard goods in this case) at bottoms. In doing so they will be doing the exact opposite of the larger human herd, which is always the best prescription for success.

Williams holds a commonly-held view of the direction of oil prices, and their ‘inflationary’ impact (in price terms):

“Heavy dollar selling will be exceptionally inflationary. Oil prices will spike in response to the weakness in the dollar. Oil is a primary commodity that drives consumer inflation; that’s how you can have inflation in a recession. The traditional wisdom is that strong demand against limited supply causes inflation, but you can also have inflation due to commodity price distortions, which is what we had back in ’73 and what we’ve seen over the last year or so.”

This is at odds with The Automatic Earth’s view of where oil prices are heading in the short term. Our prediction is that falling demand (where demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for) will lead to falling prices, but that more rapidly falling purchasing power (due to the collapse of the credit that represents over 95% of the money supply) will ensure that lower future prices will be less affordable than higher current ones.

We are predicting lower prices for oil initially, but are expecting demand collapse to set up a supply collapse down the road due to lack of investment in exploration, development and maintenance of existing infrastructure.

The financial crisis thus takes the pressure off in energy terms initially, at the cost of aggravating energy crises significantly in the longer term. Supply collapse will lead to skyrocketing prices in an era of tight money, when most people have very little purchasing power. It will also greatly increase the odds of a resource grab by governments seeking the ultimate source of liquid hegemonic power. Oil can be expected to lose fungibility, and ordinary people may be priced out of the market for fossil fuels entirely.

Williams offers a prescription for preparation that we would take issue with in a number of important respects:

“Hold some gold, silver, precious metals. I’m talking physical possession. Preferably coins because coins, sovereign coins, are recognized as such. They don’t have liquidity issues. Having some assets outside the U.S., and certainly some assets outside the U.S. dollar, is a good thing. I like the Australian dollar, the Canadian dollar, the Swiss franc in particular. They won’t suffer the same hyperinflation in Australia, Canada and Switzerland as we do in the U.S., so those currencies will tend to act as ways of preserving wealth. Over time real estate is a traditional store of wealth, but it’s not portable and sometimes it’s not liquid.”

While (physical) precious metals have been money for thousands of years, and can be expected to hold their value over the long term, they are not ideal for those who are not exceptionally wealthy, i.e. those who can sit on them for perhaps 20 years without having to rely on the value they represent.

Those who would be forced to sell – into the ultimate buyers market of the coming years of deleveraging – would have been better off holding the cash that most will be seeking in the not too distant future.

Governments are very likely to seek to control assets as valuable as precious metals, as they did during the depression. Ownership could be banned and precious metals could be confiscated. It can be as challenging being too close to a source of great value as it is being too close to the centre of power in difficult times. It can mean constantly having to watch your back and never being able to trust anyone. Our view at TAE is that there are many things you could own which will serve you much better than precious metals.

We would agree with Williams’ suggestion as to what kind of supplies to hold in order to have some control over the essentials of your own existence:

Most importantly, build up a store of supplies, more than you would normally consume over a couple of months, particularly food and water, canned goods. Having those goods can save your life in a number of ways. You’d have food to eat, and if you have extra you can use it to barter.

I met a guy who’d been through hyperinflation and found for purposes of the barter system those airline-size bottles of high-quality scotch proved quite valuable. Buy things that you would otherwise consume and rotate your inventory. Don’t go out buying all sorts of things you’ll never use. Keep what makes sense to you and your circumstances. Make sure you have things that are stable. Not too perishable.

While he suggests this as a hedge against inflation, we suggest it as a hedge against general economic disruption. Deflation is very likely to lead to a collapse of global trade, as letters of credit dry up and protectionism leads to retaliation-inspiring and -inspired import tariffs and trade wars. As we have a trade system built on long and vulnerable just-in-time supply lines, supply disruption under such circumstances is very likely. Holding one’s own supplies of certain goods, along with liquidity, is therefore a good idea.

We have a great deal of respect for John Williams and what he has achieved with Shadow Stats, but it is always important to assess the foundation of people’s predictions. Williams does not appear to accord sufficient significance to the role of credit and the effect of its evaporation during a Ponzi implosion. He also, in our view, chronically over-estimates the power of governments to control the way that events unfold. Outcomes are possible, indeed probable, that no one would choose. We simply do not have that choice to make. We will be at the mercy of the underlying logic of the system we have built during the expansion years, and that logic leads directly to a deflationary depression.

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