Thursday, November 20, 2008

Here Come the Seventies

The U.S. cannot cut its interest rates much more or it will end up at zero.

US interest rate falls to 1 per cent

Which means that the U.S. is no longer facing infaltion but the very real recessionary spiral of deflation. The very thing that created the crisis of the Seventies.

Deflation now tops policy-makers' hit list
Globe and Mail, Canada - These are some of the disquieting signs that the once-distant spectre of deflation is looming larger on the horizon, now that economies around the world .
..Deflation: A Primer New York Times
Deflation is the new bogey word as crunch sends prices tumbling Times Online
Deflation worries send Dow below 8000 Washington Times

When your house is burning, there is no sense fretting over painting the fence. With the U.S. economy mired in what will likely be a recession of historic proportions—and an outright depression in some industries—it would be foolish to get too worked up over future inflation concerns. Oracle-of-the-moment Nouriel Roubini, in his column, forecast the following for next year:
“The advanced economies will face
stag-deflation (stagnation/recession and deflation) rather than stagflation, as the slack in goods, labor and commodity markets will lead advanced economies’ inflation rates to become below 1% by 2009.”

Remember those wheelbarrows of cash Germans had to use to buy things after WWI watch for Americans to roll out the barrow.

Deflation is considered a problem in a modern economy because of the potential of a deflationary spiral and its association with the Great Depression, although not all episodes of deflation correspond to periods of poor economic growth historically.

And true to form the Austrians celebrate deflation as one of the great things about the Great Depression.

Now we get to the crux of the matter: the Great Depression. The assumption is that falling prices somehow caused the economy to crumble. In fact, it was the after-effects of the boom combined with massive government intervention that caused the depression. The only silver lining in the entire period of the 1930s was precisely the falling prices that made the dollar count for more. Falling prices (a falling cost of living) are what Murray Rothbard has described as the "great advantage" of recessions. If you can imagine the Great Depression without falling prices, you have conjured up an image that is far worse than the reality.
As Rothbard has said, "rather than a problem to be dreaded and combatted, falling prices through increased production is a wonderful long-run tendency of untrammelled capitalism. The trend of the Industrial Revolution in the West was falling prices, which spread an increased standard of living to every person; falling costs, which maintained general profitability of business; and stable monetary wage rates—which reflected steadily increasing real wages in terms of purchasing power. This is a process to be hailed and welcomed rather than to be stamped out."

Now with deflation rising on the horizon as Bush bails out the financial market this prediction from the CATO Institute holds a warning for the future.

The Bush Legacy: Deflation or Inflation?
by Steve H. Hanke
Steve H. Hanke is a Professor of Applied Economics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
Added to on September 24, 2008

Economists of the Austrian school of economics term this type of debt deflation a "secondary deflation". If the forces of a secondary deflation are strong enough, a central bank's liquidity injections are rendered ineffective by what amounts to private sector sterilization. When people expect prices to fall, their demand for cash increases and soaks up central bank liquidity injections. This phenomenon characterized Japan's economy during most of the 1990s.
But what if the Federal reserve--fearing a secondary deflation, as they feared (incorrectly) a mild deflation in late 2002--pushed the Fed funds rate lower (now it's 2%) and turned on the inflation switch by monetizing more debt? Given the growing mountain of government debt, there is virtually an unlimited potential. It's a scenario worth thinking about.

And that future is here and now.

This week's cover story in The Economist makes it more or less official. Deflation, not inflation, is now the greatest concern for the world economy. Over the past year, producer prices have fallen throughout the advanced world; consumer prices have been falling for the last 6 months in France and Germany; in Japan wages have actually fallen 4 percent over the past year. Until the recent crisis prices were falling in Brazil; they continue to fall in China and Hong Kong; they will probably soon be falling in a number of other developing countries.
So far, none of these price declines looks anything like the massive deflation that accompanied the Great Depression. But the appearance of deflation as a widespread problem is disturbing, not only because of its immediate economic implications, but because until recently most economists - myself included - regarded sustained deflation as a fundamentally implausible prospect, something that should not be a concern.

The point is that deflation should - or so we thought - be easy to prevent: just print more money. And printing money is normally a pleasant experience for governments. In fact, the idea that governments have a hard time keeping their hands off the printing press has long been a staple of political economy; dozens of theoretical papers have argued that the temptation to engage in excessive money creation causes an inherent inflationary bias in fiat-money economies. It is largely to combat that presumed bias that most of the world has accepted the notion that monetary policy should be conducted by an independent central bank, insulated from political influence - and has written into the charters of those central banks that they should seek price stability as their main, often only, goal.

And since we are being nostalgic here is the theme song to the CTV series Here Comes the Seventies....

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