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Inflation V Deflation - Which Door Do You Pick?
By: Claus Vistesen   Monday, February 28, 2011 10:47 AM
Symbols: C
unemployment and capacity utilisation might give a better indication of where inflation is headed.

The obvious question here is whether the US should care at all here about global capacity issues, but given my endorsement of Rosenberg's point noted above I obviously think they should. A central bank can argue up to a point that rising headline inflation should not be a reason for assuming a rise in underlying inflation pressures, but it is evidently obvious that as if an oil price rising to 120-150 USD (even for a short while) becomes a trigger for an even strong deflationary shock, then the original argument for low interest rates become very difficult to make.

And finally, just to make sure we get all sides of the argument we should never forget that stagflation is also looming as an increasingly likely outcome in parts of the global economy (hat tip: Global Macro Monitor).

(quote from the Economist)

Historically, the margins of retailers and manufacturers have been remarkably stable, says Carsten Stendevad of Citigroup's corporate-advisory arm. If commodity prices continue to rise, they will eventually be passed on to consumers one way or another. After years of goods getting cheaper, consumers may have to start getting used to everyday higher prices.

This highlights a crucially important issue namely, the underlying trend of inflation in the global economy. It stands to reason that if the trend of global headline inflation is up due to structural capacity issues, an increased prevalence of adverse supply shocks and low interest rates, then bouts of headline price volatility may incrementally find its way into core prices and in a deleveraging world facing the effects of a balance sheet recession it is tantamount to stagflation.


What is the take then?

If the small tour above of the informed punditry serves to set the stage for general argument what is then the important points to take away? Below I offer my suggestions.

  • The stronger the meltup the stronger the correction. This is a classic dictum in the world of finance and translated into the inflation v deflation debate it means that the stronger and longer the outbreak in commodity prices last, the larger is the risk of a deflationary correction and we are then talking about a re-run of 2008. It also raises important questions regarding the policy tools used by global central banks. Bernanke and co can hardly claim, ex post after the crash, that they were right not to react to rising headline inflation when it stands to reason that the low interest rates were the main source of the commodity melt-up in the first place (and indeed will also be the source of the next meltup a couple of years from now). In this sense, it almost amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy that as the wall of lingering inflation and stagflation rise to a zenith you also know that the time is nigh for the correction.
  • Where is the capacity? Bloomberg recently ran a number of stories pushing the story that while emerging markets were the strong performers in the immediate wake of the crisis, the fortunes were now turning to the US and developed markets. On the surface, this is undoubtedly true and a rotation out of emerging markets into developed markets remain the main consensus trade at the moment. Structurally however this masks a more fundamental question of the so-called emerging economies' ability to sustainably absorb all the excess liquidity and savings which is trying to find an outlet. The evidence from 2008 and the current melt-up suggests that while the long term story of emerging markets as the new drivers of global growth remains intact, this is not a linear process. Indeed, we are presented with some grave questions as to the collateral damage from the process of global rebalancing that is bound to take place. Some part of the immediate inflation issues could perhaps be solved by allowing a more gradual appreciation of a broad basket of EM currencies to the USD, but this then pushes the problem further towards the question of just what magnitude of external borrowing the emerging world can be expected to do to transfer growth to ailing economies in the OECD. In addition, there is a real risk that higher interest rates coupled with an open capital account would lead to an exacerbation of hot money inflows.
  • Volatility around a Trend? One of the most crucial questions to answer in this debate is whether the underlying trend of prices is one of inflation or deflation in the developed world. Based on the reaction by monetary and fiscal policy makers they squarely believe in the former. But volatility has a cost independent of the trend around which it operations. Given that we seem to be looking at a re-run of 2008 it must be factored in that the volatility and speed (and subsequent decline) of commodity prices are a problem in itself. The famous loss function which must then be metaphorically minimised is the one which plots the trade-off between the cost of recurrent flares of commodity prices and the need to act as a counter trend to the destructive forces of a balance sheet recession.

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