I was recently contacted by Steve Patterson, host of a podcast titled ‘Two Beers With Steve‘, which I added to my blog roll. Steve informed me of a recent podcast featuring Dr. Chris Martenson discussing inflation vs. deflation.
This is an excellent interview and Mr. Martenson is very knowledgeable on the subject. He has his own website, www.ChrisMartenson.com, which I added to my blog under market links and he answers some very tough questions on the inflation/ deflation debate. Again, click here to go directly to the podcast and take the time to listen carefully to the entire interview.
Readers of my blog know this is a topic that I have covered in many posts. I agree with Absolute Return Partners who in their July letter, state: “The most important investment decision you will have to make this year and possibly for years to come is whether to structure your portfolio for deflation or inflation.”
Last week, the WSJ reported that Treasurys Up On Decent Demand For 30-Yr Bond Auction,Weak Data:
Treasury prices rose Thursday afternoon on a strong 30-year bond auction following a bout of U.S. data that damped optimism on a quick turnaround in the economy.
Long-dated Treasurys led the gains as they benefited the most from the successful 30-year bond sale with a record size of $15 billion. Treasurys have been well-bid so far this week, with the 10-year note’s yield falling more than 25 basis points from the week’s peak set on Monday.
Traders said part of the buying Thursday afternoon was a result of the 30-year auction turning out better than expected. Many market participants who had put bets on further declines in bond prices, known as shorts, were caught off-guard and had to buy back Treasurys to cover the shorts on the heels of the auction.
Demand on long-dated Treasurys also picked up after the Federal Reserve reassured investors Wednesday afternoon that inflation pressure remained subdued in the near term. Inflation erodes bonds’ fixed interest payments over time, and the longer the maturity, the bigger the potential losses due to a rise in consumer prices.
The 30-year bond auction wrapped up this week’s $75 billion Treasury note and bond supply. The $37 billion three-year note supply Tuesday enticed strong demand, while the $23 billion 10-year note auction Wednesday was less well-received, mainly because it came less than two hours before the outcome of the Federal Reserve’s monetary-policy meeting.
A proxy of foreign demand, including demand from foreign central banks, was strong throughout all three auctions. That should be a relief to the U.S. government as it is selling record amounts of debt this year to finance programs to get the economy back on track. So far, Treasury auctions have managed to entice investors even as the sizes of the auctions have steadily increased.
“It is a relief to get through another round of supply,” said Chris Ahrens, head of U.S. interest rate strategy at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Conn. Ahrens said with debt supply still sluggish in the private credit market following the financial crisis, Treasury auctions still drew demand despite the increasing size of the auctions.
In recent trading, the two-year note’s price was up 1/32 at 99 25/32 to yield 1.12%, the 10-year note was up 25/32 to 100 3/32 to yield 3.61%, and the 30-year bond was up 1 5/32 at 96 21/32 to yield 4.45%. Bond yields move inversely to prices.
The 30-year bond auction came in at a yield of 4.541%, matching the when-issued paper just before the auction. The bid-to-cover ratio, a main gauge of demand on the auction, was 2.54, compared with 2.36 for the previous auction in July, which was a reopening issue for the June auction, and the average of 2.31 from the past eight auctions.
The indirect bid – demand from domestic and foreign institutions, including foreign central banks – for the 30-year bond auction was 48.05%, compared with 50.2% from the previous auction in July and the average of 35.8% for the last eight auctions.
“This auction was a good capping stone to an overall smooth August refunding. The appetite for 30Y duration was impressive,” said George Goncalves, head of fixed-income rates strategy at Cantor Fitzgerald in New York.
With this week’s supply out of the way and no supply until the end of the month, Goncalves said longer-dated maturities should be “the best performing sectors on the curve as seasonals carry us to higher prices and lower yields.”
In economic data, the Labor Department reported initial claims for jobless benefits rose by 4,000 to 558,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ended Aug. 8. The four-week average of new claims, which aims to smooth volatility in the data, rose by 8,500 to 565,000 – the highest since July 18.
Retail sales last month dropped 0.1%, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires forecast a 0.8% increase in July retail sales. June sales rose 0.8%, revised up from an originally reported 0.6% increase.
So if inflation is in the offing down the road, why is the appetite for 30-year U.S. bonds so strong? They have zero inflation protection. A recent Bloomberg article notes the following:
U.S. government securities have handed investors a loss of 4.3 percent so far this year, according to Merrill Lynch & Co.’s U.S. Treasury Master index, versus a 17 percent return for stocks on the MSCI World Index. U.S. debt has declined amid record government borrowing as investors seek higher yields than those available from government debt.
The difference between rates on 10-year notes and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, which reflects the outlook among traders for consumer prices, was 1.73 percentage points, the least in a week. The five-year average is 2.20 percentage points.
The Treasury sold $75 billion of 3-, 10-, and 30-year debt this week, the largest so-called quarterly refunding to date. President Barack Obama has pushed the nation’s marketable debt to an unprecedented $6.78 trillion. The U.S. budget deficit reached a record $1.27 trillion for the first 10 months of the fiscal year, the government said this week.
The Fed has more than doubled the size of its balance sheet in the past 12 months to $2.02 trillion by purchasing Treasuries and other securities to thaw credit markets that froze last year. Policy makers decided this week to let a $300 billion program to buy long-term Treasuries expire in October, even as they pledged to keep interest rates near a record low for an “extended period.”
The 10-year note yield surged 37 basis points last week, the most since March 2003, after better-than-forecast employment, home-sales and manufacturing data.
Yields indicate other parts of the credit markets are normalizing.
The London interbank offered rate, or Libor, for three- month dollar loans fell to a record low 0.43 percent. Libor is about 18 basis points more than the upper end of the Fed’s target rate for overnight loans, narrowing from last year’s high of 3.32 percentage points in October.
The spread between what banks and the Treasury pay to borrow money for three months, the so-called TED spread, was 0.26 percentage point, close to the least since March 2007.
The Libor-OIS spread was 24 basis points today. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in a June 2008 interview he wouldn’t consider credit markets back to “normal” until the spread narrowed past the 25 basis-point level.
U.S. 30-year fixed mortgage rates declined to 5.38 percent yesterday from this year’s high of 5.74 percent in June. They were as low as 4.85 percent in April, according to Bankrate.com in North Palm Beach, Florida.
In late July, Bloomberg reported that BlackRock Inc. is buying index- linked bonds in the U.S. and the U.K., betting record-low interest rates and a flood of money into the economies through central-bank asset purchases will fuel inflation:
The company favors U.S. Treasury Inflation Protected Securities with maturities of 10 years or more, and U.K. index- linked gilts due between five and 10 years, said Brian Weinstein, a fund manager based in New York. It’s avoiding euro- region inflation bonds, anticipating the European Central Bank will act to stem any signs of price acceleration. BlackRock, the largest publicly traded U.S. money manager, oversees $1.37 trillion, with $18 billion in index-linked assets.
“Central banks are injecting money until they find the right amount to get the economy growing again,” Weinstein said in an interview. “They might have a hard time pulling it back. The market is overinvested in short-term protection and underinvested in the nuts and bolts of inflation, which is the long end.”
TIPS are the only long-term U.S. government securities to post gains in the worst year for the country’s debt since at least 1978. They handed investors 3.85 percent, while nominal Treasuries slumped 4.87 percent, according to Merrill Lynch & Co. indexes.
So-called U.K. linkers posted a quarterly return ahead of the country’s nominal bonds for the first time in a year in the three months through June, gaining 2.93 percent, compared with a loss of 1.84 percent in the January-March period.
Right now, I would say the conventional wisdom is that that it’s only a matter of time before inflation rears its ugly head. As I have written in the past, I am not convinced that there is a bubble in bonds. Moreover, I agree with Henry Liu that liquidity is drowning the meaning of inflation. And let’s not forget the excellent commentaries from Hoisington Investment Management who in their second quarter outlook noted the following:
Investments in long term Treasury securities are motivated by inflationary expectations. If fixed income investors believe inflation is headed lower, they will invest in long-dated securities, while they will invest in Treasury bills, or inflation protected securities if they believe inflation is headed higher.
In the normal recessions since 1950, the low in inflation was, on average, 29 months after a complete economic recovery was underway, and bond yields moved in a similar fashion. If this recession were normal, then the low in inflation would be in late 2011, at which time investors would begin to consider shortening the maturity of their Treasury portfolios.
However, because of our highly-indebted circumstances and the movement of private sector resources to the public sector, the trough in inflation will be moved out, meaning that the low in Treasury bond yields is a distant event.
The path there will be bumpy, as it was in the U.S. from 1929 to 1941 and in Japan from 1989 to 2008. Presently the 10-year yield in Japan stands at 1.3%. Ultimately, our yield level may be similar to that of the Japanese.
I also note what is going on in the rest of the world where Japan producer prices slide a record 8.5% amid slump and where Europe and US still at risk from deflation trap:
Consumer prices in America slipped by 2.1pc in the year to July, according to official data released yesterday. It coincided with Eurostat figures showing that the eurozone’s consumer price index dropped by 0.7pc in the past year, compared with deflation of 0.1pc in June.
The figures underline concerns that despite the sharp rebound in a variety of economic indicators, and despite news that France and Germany have both now pulled out of recession, the threat posed by deflation has not yet been extinguished. Indeed, the fall in consumer prices over the past year in the US represents the biggest such drop since January 1950, and means that the country has now been in deflation for eight months.
Gabriel Stein, of Lombard Street Research, said: “Ultimately, US consumer prices will not rise on a sustained basis until the negative output gap has closed and a positive output gap opened instead. At some stage, this will happen. But not for some time.”
The price figures, which showed that despite the annual fall prices were flat on the month, coincided with data showing that US consumers’ confidence has slid yet further amid worries about the state of the jobs market and wages.
The University of Michigan consumer sentiment barometer dropped from 66 points to 63.2 this month – the lowest since March, from 66 in July. The measure reached a three-decade low of 55.3 in November. The Labor Department said its consumer price index was unchanged from June as forecast, and dropped by 2.1pc – the most in six decades – from July 2008. Economists had expected the index to rise to around 69.
Chris Rupkey, of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, said: “If consumers are lacking confidence, then they will not be able to help us spend our way out of this long, dark recession. Households are still concerned about the jobs outlook, and certainly, Fed policy is also gearing off of the labour markets as no Fed has lifted interest rates while the unemployment rate is rising.”
However, there was brighter news from the manufacturing sector, as separate figures showed that industrial production rose for the first time in nine months. Output rose by 0.5pc last month, following a 0.4pc fall in June. The White House’s so-called “cash-for-clunkers” incentive scheme to encourage homeowners to replace their old cars with new models is also thought to have helped.
This brings me to some concluding remarks. The Fed is not going to raise interests rates for a very long time. They will err on the side of inflation because they’d rather this outcome than a protracted period of debt deflation. All the indications are that the global economy has bottomed but this will be the weakest recovery ever and the risks of a W-recovery are high.
That brings me to my final point. Who is buying 30-year Treasury bonds? In that podcast, Chris Martenson said that anyone buying these bonds “deserves what is going to happen to them” and his suspicion is that investors are buying them and hedging inflation risk through credit-default swaps. If that is true, then Mr. Martenson is right, a sudden move in interest rates – say because of a currency crisis – can easily give rise to another systemic crisis in high risk derivatives.
[Note: That end-game is also deflationary! I also wonder if any Canadian pension funds are buying 30-year bonds and hedging inflation risk through the CDS market…YIKES!].
But there is another reason why bonds are being bought. While most global funds are betting on stock market beta to deal with their underfunded status, other more mature plans are buying bonds as they move towards the final end game of offloading pension liabilities and the winding-up of pension schemes.
Importantly, the global pension crisis is highly deflationary and yet very few commentators are discussing this!!!
One thing is for sure, despite stimulative monetary and fiscal stimulus, as well as massive quantitative easing, the world has yet to avoid the deflation trap. Get ready for a hell of a bumpy ride ahead.
Is avoiding a "deflation trap" even a good idea? Is that another word for just blowing up another bubble?
The link (correlation) between money supply and prices is very close to 1. BUT that is because money supply has really been "supplied" in the past. An increase in short term liquidity does NOT breed inflation when long term yields are low because it is actual consumption and "real" investment lending that eventually fuels inflation due to too many paper bills chasing goods and services exchange.
That is not going to happen since too many consumers and small businesses are either outright insolvent or maxed out and all need to deleverage for many years to come. The deflationary forces will be with us for at least 4 years (and that is optimistic).
ED: yes, we need to avoid deflation because deflation would mean HIGHER real indebtedness and God knows we don't need that… what we need is an indirect "massive default" via higher inflation to wash the debt away and speed up the process of deleveraging… and hope that if this actually happens (I doubt it), we will collectively LEARN from the whole experience: excessive debt-financed growth binges are not good!
PascalBMontreal: You are assuming a great deal, in contradiction to historical evidence, when you claim that deflation would lead to higher real indebtedness. It would be accompanied by a wave of defaults, which has the salutary effect of sticking the imprudent creditors (including the evil corporatist mega-banks) with the losses from their poor investment decisions. The United States emerged from the Great Depression, a highly deflationary period, with a lower level of indebtedness. Obviously, the experience of the 30s is not something anyone wants to repeat, but the claim that economic pain can be avoided through stimulus and inflation is still more assumption than proven fact, Paul Krugman's claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
Reducing indebtedness through inflation does not conjure away the losses that need to be taken, it simply shifts them onto the backs of savers.
The problem with the inflation/deflation debate is semantics. One person's definition is not anothers.
Sometimes folks use price deflation as in producer prices and consumer index. But when looked in those terms we see many items inflating from taxes, health premiums, tuition costs, bank fees and home and liability insurance.
Other times they use monetary aggregates and credit. Here again we see total credit market debt rising on the back of an explosive growth in government debt while consumer credit is contracting.
The bottom line is that governments will keep reflating credit the more the economy and bank asset quality deflates. Currency debasement is the policy to counter any economic and financial difficulty.
Currency debasement is the policy to counter any economic and financial difficulty.
Currency debasement sounds like a great policy to create economic and financial difficulty.
"yes, we need to avoid deflation because deflation would mean HIGHER real indebtedness and God knows we don't need that."
Who is 'we'?
Speaking selfishly, this is not the case for me. I have no debt, and am invested entirely in cash or equivalent. I have been a saver, and I would benefit greatly from deflation.
Andrew Bissell says:
"Reducing indebtedness through inflation does not conjure away the losses that need to be taken, it simply shifts them onto the backs of savers."
Even considering the wider context of the US economy, we are still making a decision about who to reward and who to punish, and if 'we' were being honest about it, we'd always represent it that way.
Given the epic amounts of moral hazard in the system, I can't see any long-term good coming of trying to debase our way out of things. We won't fix anything, and the problem will recur later.
Inflation is the increase in the money supply and credit. The Fed has increased the money supply, but Americans as a whole have lost an enormous amount of wealth and the banks are greatly restricting consumers and small businesses access to credit.
The banks are raising interests rates on credit cards just to cover all the newly unemployed that are defaulting on their credit card debt. The average person is $8000 in credit card debt with the average person making about $40,000. His debt to income ratio is 20%. It would take either dramatic change in spending habits to pay it off or he could default. With banks raising the interest rates to 15, 25, 30%, I'm confident that a lot of debt holders will walk away rather than pay for all those people who already defaulting on their debt.
And when they do default and destroy their credit, they will have to change their habits anyway. Being no longer able to depend on easy credit, they will have to start saving for emergencies, big purchases or security.
I don't see inflation in the near future and inflation may come but it won't be as bad as people think. It's be worse than the 1970's inflation, but not Zimbabwe hyperinflation.
You have raised the issue of pension funds purchasing treasury bonds to match pension liabilities. I have seen much commentary about the pension shortfalls, but little analysis of the gap between expected earning rates on assets and stated earnings expectations for FASB purposes. Pension funds are still projecting that they can earn 8 percent or more on their assets. Pension fund managers have to find long-lived assets to match their long term liabilities. How does matching a 4.5% percent 30 year treasury security help the pension funding problem as their is still as shortfall.
The situation is even worse when you think about other traditional pension fund favorites such as shopping centers, office buildings etc. Do you really want to be investing in these CRE assets as they are about to go over a cliff.
Corporations, many of which are in the Fortune 500, who either have active or frozen plans are going to have a difficult time finding appropriate investments in this climate to match funding requirements. The shortfall can only result to a hit to earnings and add to deflation.
Further, what do this do to insurance companies who have written long life annuities with underlying guaranteed rates of 5, 6 or 7 percent. How does an insurance company meet these past pension like promises without taking extraordinary risk?
I would like Yves or Leo to comment
This may seem an idiotic question- please forgive me if it is- but is it possible to have a currency collapse within a deflation trap?
Does not a disruptive decline in the value of a currency- whether intentional via debasement or as a result of a massive loss of confidence in a currency- immediately result in an increase in the costs of goods/services for those holding that currency?
If the Powers That Be (Fed, Treasury, et al) actively WANTED to debase the dollar enough (in their Keynesian view) to minimize or avoid a deflationary depression- would they even be able to? Really?
I'm perpetually vexed by the Inflation/Deflation debate. But I walk away from most articles and debates finding myself wondering if the Inflationist argument simply assumes The Powers-That-Be have a capacity/will that the Deflationists deny- the power to debase the currency enough to wipe-away or at least significantly diminish the debts that would otherwise bring about the ruinous deflationary conditions.
Is such a thing even possible? (Putting aside the question of whether it is, to some, desirable…)
Sorry if this is dumb.
Clear as mud. Why bother? You have no idea. Just present the data and we'll form our own opinions.
"Indirect Bidder" changed in June. The Fed grew its balance sheet Treasuries by $23B last week. Treasury auctioned off $75B. I do not believe Treasury demand is as strong as advertised.
You have got to be kidding!
The who dollar system is based upon confidence.
The Fed can buy all the treasuries it wants without anyone knowing who the actual buyer is.
Now, considering the system is on the brink, and the FEd is capable of "printing confidence" without anyone knowing……what do you think it would do?? Especially if the Fed knew that lack of confindence could send the world economy into the abyss?
One last thing. 90% of "Economists" believe the deflation story and 80% of the general public believes it too. THAT SHOULD TELL YOU SOMETHING RIGHT THERE.
I had a friend who could not decide whether he was an introvert or and extrovert so he just said he was a vert.
In the same vein, we can be certain we are going to have flation – and lots of it!
You wrote that: "One last thing. 90% of "Economists" believe the deflation story and 80% of the general public believes it too. THAT SHOULD TELL YOU SOMETHING RIGHT THERE."
I would say that most economists are in the inflation camp and if the Fed was the only major buyer of Treasurys, this would erode confidence, not instill it. Obviously other central banks and many pension funds are still buying U.S. bonds.
The Author is basically stating the Fed has found a way that can make us all rich without cost.
Our Federal Government can now spend all the money it needs, send welfare checks, unemployment checks to more and more people and guess what? Each dollar they create out of thin air increases in value as the years go by.
Well gee whiz! Why do we even need to worry about unemployment? If high unemployment will result in deflation, especially since deflation can be good. Those who have saved money can buy more goods and services with the same money and the unemployed who lose their jobs will not only have their debts discharged via bankruptcy but they will continue to spend spend spend the money the government sends.
The Author portrays a win win situation!!!!
Unless he is wrong that is.
Of course if the Fed was the buyer of Treasuries it would erode confidence!
Please reread the post. They have the ability to buy anonomously and you can bet they are taking advantage of that ability.
In the podcast, Mr. Martenson said that he believes the Fed can avoid deflation by printing money at will. I do not believe this because they will erode the little confidence that is left in the dollar and besides, people are so indebted that all they will do is pay down debts.
The structural forces of deflation are pervasive and global. It will take years to get out of this mess.
No-and that's a good thing for everybody except deficit spending governments.
Andrew and Anonymous: I am also a "saver" and would benefit from deflation. I am talking in broader terms. The GD ended with a lower level of leverage due to 15 years of private deleveraging (which would have taken LESS time with higher inflation), which you might want to to have now, but I would not go for a 2nd GD. Now indeed, it is ABSOLUTELY a question of WHO bares the cost of adjustment. I totally agree on that. The issue is that there is NO talk of real, profound, institutional reform (i.e. Big Finance) or of discussion of the even deeper and fundamental issues of "consume now and pay later" popular culture that has been accelerating in the past decade.
SO. GIVEN that nobody wants to talk about all these truly fundamental issues, the only way to at least accelerate the deleveraging process which is obviously required is to wash away the aggregate debt via inflation. It is NOT ideal. It penalizes people like me. But on a macro scale and given the superficiality of policy discussions and defensive posturing, this is the "solution" that is left. It is higher inflation or eternal deleveraging with everything that comes with it: weak consumers "temporarily" raplaced by huge govt spending, banks in trouble backed by never ending bailouts (again we can argue about the need for these bailouts, but it is not to be discussed because that is the path that seems to have prevailed in Washington!). Inflation or stagnation. Those are the 2 options. TRhe problem is that I am not sure inflation will ever materialize!
At present we are seeing some deflation. Unfortunately, not nearly enough! We have Trillions of bad paper to extinguish and we are still throwing gasoline on the fire. How can the fire go out if we keep feeding fuel to it?
In the short run we face deflation; BUT longer term we will have a serious inflation problem. IMO the resolution is pay down debt and spend much less than we earn. If the proces takes 10 or 20 years, so be it. We got here in just under 50.
I think a lot of commentators here are missing the point.
If you are an investor, the key question is not whether inflation is good or whether deflation is good; rather, the question to ask is whether anyone can stop deflation.
If you think deflation can be stopped, then you should be betting on inflation (since the government and everyone else will try their best to avoid deflation).
I lean towards deflation (hopefully mild deflation) because I believe in the free market and think the outcome is outside the hands of anyone. Governments and others can only cushion the blow but can't stop it.
Sobaz: "One last thing. 90% of "Economists" believe the deflation story and 80% of the general public believes it too. THAT SHOULD TELL YOU SOMETHING RIGHT THERE."
hmm… are you sure about that? If anything, the consensus is heavily towards inflation. Hardly anyone is betting on deflation. If you don't believe me, just look at commodities or stock prices.
Anonymous: "This may seem an idiotic question- please forgive me if it is- but is it possible to have a currency collapse within a deflation trap?"
I'm just a newbie so take it for what it's worth…
My opinion is that the currency that credit is denominated in, will have a hard time collapsing. Debt deflation essentially creates a shortage of the currency so it is bullish for the currency. This is why deflationists are almost always bullish on the US$ (and the Yen). Everyone out there, through US$-denominated debt, is synthetically short the US$.
Having said that, the currency can decline somewhat based on central bank actions. For instance, the Japanese Central Bank has with some success managed to weaken their currency over the decade. Similarly, FDR de-valued the US$ against gold in 1933 so the US$ did decline somewhat (however, the US$ was still strong and some only consider 1929-1932 to be truly deflationary.)
"Does not a disruptive decline in the value of a currency- whether intentional via debasement or as a result of a massive loss of confidence in a currency- immediately result in an increase in the costs of goods/services for those holding that currency?"
Loss of confidence, which amounts to holders selling off the currency, will weaken the currency. That's basic supply and demand. But the question is whether the shortage of the currency caused by wealth destruction causes the currency to stay strong in the medium to long term.
"If the Powers That Be (Fed, Treasury, et al) actively WANTED to debase the dollar enough (in their Keynesian view) to minimize or avoid a deflationary depression- would they even be able to? "
This is the key question! I think most who believe in high inflation believe that governments can print their way out of deflation. Many in the deflation camp do not think that is possible. I think you have to come up with the answer on your own…
That cds comment is really scary , but then I wonder: which party would be these selling cds's.. ?!
@sobmaz One last thing. 90% of "Economists" believe the deflation story and 80% of the general public believes it too. THAT SHOULD TELL YOU SOMETHING RIGHT THERE.
I think you are mistaken. Could you provide some evidence? I see exactly the opposite – the vast majority are in the inflation camp. They will probably be right, eventually, but might get crushed by the trajectory…