The Threat of Inflation

From the Trading Diary:

I received a message from a US reader suggesting I should “stay out of politics”.

I would love to stay out of politics. Frankly, I find it tiresome. Unfortunately, politics and the economy are so intertwined as to make the study of one meaningless without consideration of the other. I say “unfortunately” because a lot of the damage done to the economy is caused by the political system.

As for Donald Trump, I am a conservative but do not support him. He is not another Reagan who can lead from the center and inspire his country. If anything he is a polarizing force, more ego-driven than Nixon and just as unpredictable.

I hope I am wrong. Trump has many sound policies and has made some solid appointments to his team. Don’t believe everything you read from a hostile media. They could do a lot of good. Provided they are able to manage the elephant in the lifeboat — the destabilizing side of Trump’s nature.

Now that I have offended at least half of all US readers — slightly less than half if you listen to bleating about the majority vote — let me explain why politics and economics are so intertwined.

Apart from trade wars, which I will discuss at a later date, I see the main threat to the US economy as inflation.

Before I start, let me say that these dangers are not immediate and the present boom is likely to continue for the next 12 to 18 months. But they could quickly materialize, bringing the boom to a premature end, so it is best to keep a weather eye on them.

Inflation

Earlier this week I discussed why the inflation outlook is so important to stock market performance:

From Tim Wallace at The Sydney Morning Herald:

Nine years on from the start of the financial crisis, the US recovery may be overheating, Legal & General Investment Management economist James Carrick has warned.

He has predicted a series of interest rate hikes will tip the US into a 2018 recession.”Every recession in the US has been caused by a tightening of credit conditions,” he said, noting inflation is on the rise and the US Federal Reserve is discussing plans for higher interest rates.

Officials at the Fed have only raised interest rates cautiously, because inflation has not taken off, so they do not believe the Fed needs to take the heat out of the economy.

But economists fear the strong dollar and low global commodity prices have restricted inflation and disguised domestic price rises. Underneath this, they fear the economy is already overheating.

As a result, they expect inflation to pick up sharply this year, forcing more rapid interest rate hikes.

That could cause a recession next year, they say. In their models, the signals are that this could take place in mid-2018.

Harvard scholar Paul Schmelzing points out that inflation is starting to rear its head in both China and Germany, with producer prices rising. This may in part be a result of the falling value of the Yuan and Euro against the Dollar, resulting in higher domestic commodity prices.

The opposite, however, is true for the US, with a rising Dollar lowering import prices and acting as a headwind against inflation.

The consumer price index (CPI) is rising because of higher crude oil prices but core CPI (excluding food & energy) has remained fairly constant, around the 2.0 percent target, over the last five years.

Core CPI and CPI

So why the concern?

Well the Fed is more concerned about underlying inflation, best reflected by hourly wage rates, than the headline CPI figure.

A sharp rise in hourly earnings rates would force the Fed to respond with tighter monetary policy to take the heat out of the economy.

The chart below shows how the Fed slams on the brakes whenever average hourly earning rates grow above 3.0 percent. Each surge in hourly earnings is matched by a dip in the currency growth rate as the Fed tightens the supply of money to slow the economy and reduce inflationary pressure. And tighter monetary normally leads to recession.

Hourly Earnings Growth compared to Currency in Circulation

Two anomalies on the above chart warrant explanation. First, is the sharp upward spike in currency growth in 1999/2000 when the Fed reacted to the LTCM crisis with monetary stimulus despite high inflationary pressures. Second, is the sharp dip in 2010 when the Fed took its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the financial crisis of 2008/2009, mistaking it for a regular recession.

Hourly earnings growth is currently at 2.5 percent, so the Fed has some wiggle room and is only likely to react with tighter monetary policy when the figure reaches 3.0 percent.

Recent rate rises are more about normalizing interest rates — not taming inflation — and are not cause for alarm.

But Paul Schmelzing warns that the combination of a tight labor market and fiscal stimulus could fuel inflation and lead to a bear market in bonds similar to the 1960s.

That is exactly where Donald Trump is headed with a major infrastructure program likely to hit the ground next year. In a tightening labor market, the Fed would be forced to tighten monetary policy, slowing the economy and leading to another bear market in stocks as well as bonds.

Politics is tricky; it cuts both ways. Every time you make a choice, it has unintended consequences.

~ Stone Gossard

High public debt impedes recovery

This graph from a FRBSF paper Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises, by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan M. Taylor, perfectly illustrates how high public debt levels impede the ability of an economy to recover from a financial crisis:

Figure 3……. shows that high levels of public debt can be a considerable drag on the recovery. The figure displays the path of per capita GDP in a typical recession compared with the paths under three scenarios following a financial crisis resulting from excess growth of private credit. Each of the three scenarios corresponds to a specified level of public debt at the start of the recession. The dotted line represents a low level of debt of about 15% as a ratio to GDP; the solid line represents a medium level of debt of about 50% of GDP, which is the historical average; and the dashed line represents a high level of debt of about 85% of GDP.

Recessions and Public Debt Levels

Read more at Federal Reserve Bank San Francisco | Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz

High credit growth prolongs recessions

Research by the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco shows how high credit growth prior to a financial crisis can prolong the recession by three or more years. The graph below compares the average recovery time for a normal recession to recessions preceded by low credit growth [blue or red] and recessions preceded by high credit growth [green or orange].

Recession Recovery Time

Differences in public debt growth appear to have little impact, but public debt levels are another matter.

Read more at Federal Reserve Bank San Francisco | Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz

Recession time for Russia | The Market Monetarist

Lars Christensen at The Market Monetarist writes:

….. sharply increased geo-political tensions in relationship to Putin’s military intervention on the peninsula of Crimea has clearly shocked foreign investors who are now dumping Russian assets on large scale. Just Monday this week the Russian stock market fell in excess of 10% and some of the major bank stocks lost 20% of their value on a single day.

In response to this massive outflow the Russian central bank – foolishly in my view – hiked its key policy rate by 150bp and intervened heavily in the currency market to prop up the rouble on Monday. Some commentators have suggested that the CBR might have spent more than USD 10bn of the foreign currency reserve just on Monday. Thereby inflicting greater harm to the Russian economy than any of the planned sanctions by EU and the US against Russia.

By definition a drop in foreign currency reserve translates directly into a contraction in the money base combined with the CBR’s rate hike we this week has seen a very significant tightening of monetary conditions in Russia – something which is likely to send the Russian economy into recession (understood as one or two quarters of negative real GDP growth).

Read more at Recession time for Russia – the ultra wonkish version | The Market Monetarist.

China ‘hard landing’ could trigger Australia recession: Standard & Poor – The Economic Times

“Australia’s exposure to commodity demand from Asia, and China in particular, was a saving grace during the global recession of 2009. But by the same token it has become Australia’s Achilles’ heel,” the ratings giant [Standard & Poor’s] said.

“Particularly while mining investment remains such a large share of the Australian economy, and other sectors continue to lack growth momentum, Australia remains highly sensitive to a sharp correction in China’s economic growth.”

Read more at China ‘hard landing’ could trigger Australia recession: Standard & Poor – The Economic Times.

ECB Says Private Lending Contracted for Ninth Month in January – Bloomberg

Jana Randow at Reuters writes:

Lending to households and companies in the euro area shrank for a ninth month in January as the recession damped demand for credit.

Read more at ECB Says Private Lending Contracted for Ninth Month in January – Bloomberg.

Lakshman Achuthan’s US recession call

Sam Ro of Business Insider quotes ECRI:

So, with about a month to go before year-end, what do the hard data tell us about where we are in the business cycle? Reviewing the indicators used to officially decide U.S. recession dates, it looks like the recession began around July 2012. This is because, in retrospect, three of those four coincident indicators – the broad measures of production, income, employment and sales – saw their high points in July….. with only employment still rising.

See chart at Lakshman Achuthan's Tell-Tale Chart | Business Insider.

France to ArcelorMittal: if you don’t like losing money, get out of France – Quartz

By Simone Foxman

It’s clear that [Arnaud Montebourg, France’s Minister of Industrial Renewal] is confusing the culprit with the victim. The continued failure of European politicians to resolve the region’s debt and banking problems for good has finally caught up with companies across the euro area. Those firms that waited for a more competitive, more integrated, and more stable monetary union have been forced to cut their losses and change their strategies to survive, as politicians bicker at the bargaining table……

via France to ArcelorMittal: if you don’t like losing money, get out of France – Quartz.

The Liquidity Trap

In his 2003 paper Escaping from a Liquidity Trap and Deflation: The Foolproof Way and Others Lars E.O. Svensson describes the liquidity trap experienced by countries such as Japan and lately the US, when central bank interest rates are close to zero percent.

If the nominal interest rate is initially low, which it is when inflation and expected future inflation are low, the central bank does not have much room to lower the interest rate further. But with deflation and expectations of deflation, even a nominal interest rate of zero percent can result in a substantially positive real interest rate that is higher than the level required to stimulate the economy out of recession and deflation. Nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero, since potential lenders would then hold cash rather than lend at negative interest rates. This is the socalled “zero lower bound for interest rates.”
In particular, conventional monetary policy seems unable to provide sufficient stimulus to the economy and address recession and deflation once the zero lower bound for interest rates has been reached. The problem is that the economy is then satiated with liquidity and the private sector is effectively indifferent between holding zero-interest-rate Treasury bills and money. In this situation, standard open-market operations by the central bank to expand the monetary base by buying Treasury bills lead the private sector to hold fewer Treasury bills and more money – but this has no effect on prices and quantities in the economy. When this “liquidity trap” occurs, expanding liquidity (the monetary base) beyond the satiation point has no effect. If a combination of a liquidity trap and deflation causes the real interest rate to remain too high, the economy may sink further into a prolonged recession and deflation.

Japan economy shrinks as China dispute takes toll

Elaine Kurtenbach at USA Today writes:

Japan’s economy contracted in the latest quarter, signaling that like Europe it may already be in recession, further weighing down world growth. On an annualized basis, the world’s No. 3 economy shrank 3.5% in the July-September quarter, the government reported Monday. It was in line with gloomy forecasts after Japan’s territorial dispute with China hammered exports that were already weakened by feeble global demand……

Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani at CNBC writes that Japan’s recovery depends on global demand:

Izumi Devalier, Japan economist at HSBC in Hong Kong backed that sentiment saying Japan’s economic development over the past decade shows that it’s been extremely dependent on exports and external demand.

“Sad to say, Japan will have to wait for the overseas economies to pick up before it sees its own economy really lifted,” Devalier told CNBC.

Gary Shilling: Global Slowdown, Only Time Can Heal the Economy

Gary Shilling: If we have a consumer-led recession it will be very different to previous post-WWII recessions which were always led by the Fed.

Laffer: Increasing taxes will cause a double-dip recession

Art Laffer of Laffer Associates warns that attempts to increase taxes on the top 2% of earners will drive the economy back into recession: “They employ everyone else, invest capital and provide the economic recovery” he said.

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000101378.

The Threat From a Recession | ECRI

The Economic Cycle Research Institute, which claims a perfect recession-forecasting record, says an economic contraction is imminent. “We have not seen a slowdown where year-over-year payroll job growth has dropped this low without a recession,” ECRI states in a May report.

If, or when, the U.S. (and/or the global) economy does start to contract, commodity prices will tumble because of three factors…..

via The Threat From a Recession | News | News and Events | ECRI.

CNBC: Is the US headed for another recession?

Lakshman Achuthan of ECRI sticks to his forecast of a double-dip:

Fragile and Unbalanced in 2012 – Nouriel Roubini – Project Syndicate

The outlook for the global economy in 2012 is clear, but it isn’t pretty: recession in Europe, anemic growth at best in the United States, and a sharp slowdown in China and in most emerging-market economies.

……Adjustment of relative prices via currency movements is stalled, because surplus countries are resisting exchange-rate appreciation in favor of imposing recessionary deflation on deficit countries. The ensuing currency battles are being fought on several fronts: foreign-exchange intervention, quantitative easing, and capital controls on inflows. And, with global growth weakening further in 2012, those battles could escalate into trade wars.

via Fragile and Unbalanced in 2012 – Nouriel Roubini – Project Syndicate.

Copper Bets Flash a Warning – WSJ.com

“….Copper is telling us that while the U.S. equity markets are being priced by such frivolous things as U.S. holiday retail sales, the global economy is experiencing a deceleration in growth [that will become evident] in the first half of next year,” said Jason Schenker, president and chief economist at Prestige Economics LLC.

via Copper Bets Flash a Warning – WSJ.com.

Romer: Expectations Wallop Needed to Avert 40-Year Recovery

The Federal Reserve should set a “nominal target” for growth in the nation’s gross domestic product that is well above its current low rate for coming out of a recession, said Christina Romer, now an economics professor at the University Of California, Berkeley.“One thing I think it would do is pack a really big expectations wallop,’’ said Romer, speaking at the Super Bowl of Indexing wealth management conference here. “A new operating strategy is something that could really break through and affect people’s behavior.” Such a “new operating strategy” is needed to get the economy on the kind of course normally seen after a recession. In the first nine quarters after the 1982 version, the economy grew at an annual rate of 6.3 percent. In the first nine quarters of this edition, the rate has been 2.4 percent, barely at the nation’s historical rate of growth. And if a new approach is not taken, it could be decades before the nation is back at full employment.

via Romer: Expectations Wallop Needed to Avert 40-Year Recovery.

OECD Sounds Warning on Global Economy

The OECD now forecasts the eurozone economy to be in a six-month recession lasting through the first quarter of 2012, followed by a slow recovery that will leave the 17-nation bloc with only 0.2 percent growth next year. Despite the OECD’s warning, European markets enjoyed one of their best sessions in weeks amid hopes that radical plans were being readied for the Dec. 9 meeting of EU leaders in Brussels. The Stoxx 50 of leading European shares ended 3.6 percent higher at 2,208.89.

via OECD Sounds Warning on Global Economy.