Not Your Father's Deflation
Among those rational enough
to perceive the looming economic downturn, a heated debate has
arisen that centers on whether the slowdown will be accompanied
by inflation or deflation.
However there are several key differences between then and now, which argue against the classic deflationary scenario. In particular, the Fed's ability to pump liquidity into the market in the 1930's was limited by the gold backing requirements on U.S. currency. No such limitations exist today. This distinction is critical. When credit was destroyed after the Crash of 1929, the Fed was not able to simply replace it out of thin air. Today however, the Fed will likely print as much money as necessary to prevent nominal prices from collapsing. In fact, in the infamous speech that spawned his "helicopter" sobriquet, Ben Bernanke explained how the printing press can be used to stop deflation dead in its tracks.
To fully understand the way inflation and deflation affect prices, we need to differentiate between assets, such as stocks and real estate, and consumer goods, such as shoes and potato chips. If we measure prices in gold, as we did during the 1930's, both asset and consumer goods prices will fall, with the former falling faster than the latter. So in that sense the deflationist are correct. However, in terms of today's paper dollars, this outcome is completely impossible. During deflation, money gains value, so prices naturally fall as fewer monetary units are required to buy a given quantity of goods. In the coming deflation, real money (gold) will gain considerable value, so prices will therefore fall sharply in gold terms. Paper dollars however, which have no intrinsic value at all, will lose value, not only as the Fed increases their supply, but as global demand for the currency implodes.
The way I see it there are only two possible scenarios. The more benign outcome would we be one where asset prices fall, even in terms of paper dollars, but consumer goods prices continue to rise. This would be the stagflation scenario. The more catastrophic scenario is one where asset prices hold steady or even resume their ascent, while consumer goods prices rise even faster. This of course is the hyper-inflation scenario, and is the worst possible outcome. I see no possible scenario where consumer goods prices fall in term of paper dollars.
Many mistakenly believe that
when the U.S. economy falls into recession, reduced domestic
demand will lead to falling consumer prices. However, what is
often overlooked is the fact that as the dollar loses value,
the rising relative values of foreign currencies will increase
consumer demand abroad. As fewer foreign-made products are imported
and more domestic-made products are exported, the result will
be far fewer products available for Americans to consume. So
even if the domestic money supply were to contract, the supply
of goods for sale would contract even faster. Shrinking supply
will be a major factor in pushing consumer prices higher in America.
The real risk of course is that the Fed gets more aggressive as it realizes that the additional credit it is supplying is not flowing where it wants. If the Fed drops enough money from helicopters it will eventually reverse the nominal declines in asset prices. Unfortunately, that road leads to hyper-inflation and disaster. No matter what, even if the Fed succeeds in propping up nominal asset prices, they can do nothing to sustain their real values. Consumer goods prices will always rise faster, leaving the owners of those assets poorer no matter how high their nominal values climb.
The big problem politically is that hyper-inflation may superficially appear to be the lesser evil. If asset prices are allowed to collapse, ownership of those assets will pass to our creditors. If instead we repay our debts with debased currency, we retain ownership of our assets and shift the losses to our creditors. Since American debtors can vote in U.S. elections and foreign creditors can not, the choice seems obvious. Of course there are some American creditors as well, but since they comprise such a small percentage of the electorate, my guess is that their losses will be seen as acceptable collateral damage.
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Mr. Schiff is one of
the few non-biased investment advisors (not committed solely to
the short side of the market) to have correctly called the current
bear market before it began and to have positioned his clients
accordingly. As a result of his accurate forecasts on the U.S.
stock market, commodities, gold and the dollar, he is becoming
increasingly more renowned. He has been quoted in many of the
nation's leading newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal,
Barron's, Investor's Business Daily, The Financial Times, The
New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The
Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald, The
San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The
Arizona Republic, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Christian
Science Monitor, and has appeared on CNBC, CNNfn., and Bloomberg.
In addition, his views are frequently quoted locally in the Orange