Inflation or deflation?

One of the big arguments raging in markets is whether we face inflation or deflation going forward. This is an extremely complex subject, and I don’t believe anyone really knows, with certainty, which will happen. I certainly don’t. My educated guess is that we’ll experience deflation in the short run and then inflation in the long run.

I believe this issue is clouded because the terms “inflation” and “deflation” are used to refer to two entirely different, but related, things in reality.

One is what I’ll refer to as monetary inflation and deflation. Monetary inflation and deflation is caused when the supply of money grows faster or slower than the economy. When money is created faster than the economy grows, all things equal, then inflation results. When money is created slower than the economy grows, all things equal, then deflation results.

The second kind is what I’ll refer to as credit based inflation and deflation. Credit based inflation or deflation is caused by the creation or retraction of credit. This is very similar to monetary inflation in that banks can create money equivalents when they advance credit to borrowers using the money they gather from demand depositors (that’s your checking account–it’s lent out to borrowers). When credit money is created faster than the economy grows, you get credit based inflation, and when credit money is destroyed through bad loans or banking regulation, you get credit based deflation.

Credit inflation and deflation require more explanation, so stick with me for a little bit. Credit inflation creates an artificial demand that flows into whatever sector is popular–housing in the mid 2000’s. Credit deflation occurs when the credit expansion collapses because asset prices collapse without an ever-increasing supply of more credit–welcome to the 2007 and 2008 residential real estate bust. Credit deflation is very ugly because using borrowed money to buy a product and then finding out you can’t pay back what you borrowed creates a real decline in growth. Borrowing $100 and paying back $90, when done in the aggregate, leads to negative economic growth. No fun.

If you’re lost at this point, you’re not alone. Like I said before, this subject is complex and it doesn’t seem like anyone has a firm grasp on this overly abstract subject.

I don’t think you’ll find any conventional economists or investors using the terms I’ve used above. It’s my nomenclature and it’s based on my extensive reading and experience on the subject.

Things get very difficult to grasp because when the Fed creates money in the monetary inflation sense, it also causes banks to create credit based inflation as well. This was easy to see in the Dot Com bubble of the late 1990’s and the housing bubble of the early and mid 2000’s. In both cases, inflation didn’t show up in the conventional measures (like the consumer price index), but it was easy to see in assets prices–technology stocks in the first case and residential real estate in the second.

With that framework in mind, let me explain where I think we are now and where I think things will go. I think the monetary inflation that was unleashed to fight the Dot Com collapse created a credit inflation that went, predominantly, into residential real estate in the early and mid 2000’s. Because these loans went bad, meaning people in aggregate borrowed $100 only to find out they invested in something that was worth less than $100, we are experiencing credit based deflation.

The Federal Reserve is trying to fight that credit based deflation by using monetary inflation. This keeps prices from spiraling down, in theory, but it doesn’t make the original credit based borrowing justified. What you see, in the short term, is a credit based deflation in relative equilibrium with monetary inflation, keeping prices, as a whole, from falling.

The problem is that printing money–monetary inflation–doesn’t really solve the problem. When someone invests money and doesn’t get all their money back, then you have insolvency instead of a lack of liquidity (a lack of money to lend or spend). What needs to happen is people need to spend less than they make to replenish the capital that was lost in bad investments made with credit based money. That takes time.

When that capital is replenished and growth continues, the Fed will have to use monetary deflation–taking money out of the system–to prevent inflation. I’m not sure if you can see where this is going, but the Fed has an almost impossible task. It has to print just the right amount of money to make up for credit based deflation–and no one knows exactly what that number is–and then they have to take the exact right amount of money back out of the system when the credit based deflation ends and becomes inflation again. I think that’s a super-human task that no mere mortal can perform (not even Ben “Helicopter” Bernanke).

Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is this: the banks made a bunch of bad loans at the behest of politicians trying to bring prosperity through collusion, and then those loans went bad. Now the Fed is printing money to make up for the bad loans, but the banks aren’t lending that money out, yet, because they need to rebuild their money to make up for loan losses. When those losses are made up for and the banks start lending again, the Fed has to bring all that printed money back out of the system.

In the short run, I think the Fed isn’t printing enough money to make up for loan losses because it’s under-estimating how many bad loans were made. That’s why I think we will be experiencing deflation over the short term.

Eventually, though, due to higher saving rates (consumers have gone from saving less than 0% of their income 2 years ago to saving almost 6% of their income now), capital will be rebuilt and banks will start lending. This will not be entirely clear at the time, and the Fed (facing a lot of political pressure from the President and Congress) will not want to pull money from the system until they are sure the economy is going again. The Fed will almost certainly wait too long and not pull the money out fast enough, which will lead to inflation.

In my opinion, this will be the highest inflation we will have seen since the 1970’s. The Fed will get on the ball, eventually (like it did in the early 1980’s), and that will probably cause another nasty recession (like it did in the early 1980’s).

The result, in my humble opinion, will be deflation over the next few years and then high inflation.

Next week, I’ll address how to invest under these scenarios and why this could be an unbelievably good time to make money when everyone else is losing theirs.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.