04 December 2010

Inflation and Deflation: US Money Supply Figures - We're Not In Kansas Anymore Toto

Here are the latest Money Supply Figures from the St. Louis Fed.

I start with the narrowest measure, the Monetary Base and widen out to M2 which is the broadest measure of US money supply currently available, with MZM serving a similar function for the short term.

Previously I have commented on the 'shadow M3' figures done by a few enterprising fellows. As you may recall the Fed stopped publishing M3 a few years back. M3 itself was not the issue but rather the Fed chose to stop reporting a key component of M3 called 'eurodollars' or US dollars held offshore in Europe or anywhere else.  The rationale was that it was too expensive to obtain this data. There are those who found this to be a bit disingenuous for a non profit seeking organization that operates on a cost plus budget.

Those who are attempting to estimate M3 gather what actual remaining data  they can, and estimate eurodollars by  'modeling' them based on trends and correlations as they were in place when the Fed stopped reporting.

As I cautioned before from my own work in the BIS currency reports, there were huge flows of dollars into Europe during what I called the eurodollar short squeezes. The problem with BIS however is that their reporting lags by almost nine months, so the figures are never really current.

I suspect that as these figures unfold we will see that the Fed has created and made available large amounts of dollars that were presented to European institutions, and that this money is not being captured in any of the existing money supply figures, except perhaps the Monetary Base, and that estimates of M3 are likely to the low side because of this change in trend of eurodollars.

So what does all this mean, what is the important 'takeaway?'  It means that deflation is not occurring at the moment because the Fed has taken those actions which it said it would do, plain and simple.  On the other hand there is some inflation appearing but nothing notable with the exception of health care, service fees particularly financial, and a few hard assets. This could start changing even in the face of slack aggregate demand, but not in the face of another significant economic collapse such as in Europe or China. 

And unfortunately recent evidence suggests strongly that the Fed has been misrepresenting what it has done in the financial crisis.  This is unfortunate because it suggests that not only other things were misrepresented, but that there is an ongoing coverup of what has been done, and likely what is being done today.    Coverups tend to feed on themselves, and provoke other new abuses of the public trust.  Also it calls into question all that a private and guarded institution has said in the past based on their reputation.  I do not think people fully realize the implications of this yet. 

In this stage of the Currency War we seem to be in something like the phase of WW II called the 'Phoney War' that occurred between September 1939 and May 1940.   But it does seem to be heating up.

Those who wish deflation to occur badly enough will find it where they will, whether it be in M3 estimates or credit figures. I find it highly ironic that when estimated M3 recently seemed to be showing deflation it was embraced by a particular chatboard site who previously had forbidden its mention when it had showed inflation some years ago. Further, credit is not money. Credit is a source of money creation as is the Fed's balance sheet. The Fed's Balance Sheet is not 'money' per se. It is a source of money creation.

It should also be remembered at this point that a fiat currency is backed by the economy of a country and its official cashflows (primarily taxes) as well as its reserves. As a country's GDP and cashflow deteriorates the soundness of its currency can deteriorate even if the nominal levels of money remain unchanged. I think we are seeing quite a bit of this today.  This deterioration in the backing of a currency is no different from a devaluation in its effect.

Can deflation occur? Absolutely. Give me control of the Fed and I will give you a rip snorting deflation by raising the overnight rate to 20 percent and calling in the reserves so to speak.

But one cannot deal in possibilities when investing, merely safeguard or hedge against them based on the estimates of probability. Well, you can deal in possibilities, but this is largely a means of self-deception, a means of continuing to embrace a theory or investment strategy that has been proven incorrect when it is too difficult to give it up and admit your error.  That difficultly may arise from practical matters, but it is my experience that it is normally attributable to stubbornness, or pride, and sometimes even corruption.
"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." John Kenneth Galbraith
Obviously gold and silver and some other things have been rallying smartly for the past ten years in response to the decisions made by the Fed and the US government of both political parties, whether they will admit it or not. When this changes, when the dilution of the currency stops and begins to recover to strength, then I would think it appropriate to change my own particular investment strategy, which is hedged against the unexpected even now. But not until then.  I do not expect inflation to obtain serious traction until foreign governments start rejecting the dollar in size, or the velocity of money begins to obtain some traction in the real economy.   The Fed assures us that they will act to control the spread of inflation when the time comes. But for now the banks appear overstuffed with cheap liquidity, something I like to call hot money.

This type of abundantly cheap, hot money tends to seek higher beta or risk, often in the form of equities and dodgy financial schemes and investments, rather than productive lending.  As the CEO of a Fortune 500 was heard to observe in private, having paid an absolutely eyebrow raising sum for another company in the heady time of the tech bubble, "Yes I paid a high price, but my currency (company stock) is cheap."  He was willing to take an outsized risk because he believed that his overvalued currency was going to become worth a lot less.  He just did not realize at the time that it would eventually become nearly worthless. It did and he was sacked.  I think the analogy to Ben and his Fed, and the way in which they are throwing dollars around, to private and especially to foreign banks,  is quite analogous.  The looting will continue until the value of the overpriced stock is depleted.  That Wall Street will be taking about 8 percent of the total short money supply as its bonuses this year speaks volumes about the value of the dollar and its future.

I saw this coming in 2001 but have to admit I was terribly wrong on timing in 2004, having underestimated the Fed's willingness to obtain international banking cooperation, primarily from Japan the UK and Europe, to generate a massive housing bubble. I will not make that mistake again I hope.

And if you have been wrong in your assumptions or assessment, it is never a shameful thing to admit it, gather yourself together, and go forward from there, because all this indicates is that you have received new information and that you accept it, which is the high mark of intellect and objective science.

Even the mighty Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has recently expressed his disillusionment with Mr. Obama's Hooverism, Freezing Out Hope.
"What’s even more puzzling is the apparent indifference of the Obama team to the effect of such gestures on their supporters. ... Mr. Obama almost seems as if he’s trying, systematically,... to convince the people who put him where he is that they made an embarrassing mistake."
Contrast this with his earlier chastisement of those who were already recognizing that Barry the reformer was either an ineffective nincompoop or an establishment shill.
"Look, Obama didn’t pose as a Nation-type progressive, then turn on his allies after the race was won. Throughout the campaign he was slightly less progressive than Hillary Clinton on domestic issues — and more than slightly on health care. If people like Ms. [Naomi] Klein are shocked, shocked that he isn’t the candidate of their fantasies, they have nobody but themselves to blame." Paul Krugman, NYT June 16, 2008
I am not going to get into the relative merits of one course of public policy decision or another here. My point rather is to demonstrate once again that with a fiat currency the matter of inflation or deflation, within a range of exogenous constraints, is a public policy decision tied intimately into the form of government that one holds as its objective and the nature of the society that you wish to encourage.

I do not wish to single out Krugman with the tautological indictment of being human. He almost appears as a Diogenes, a beacon of objectivity, compared to his ideological counterparts. Too often economists cloak themselves in the robes of a quantitative and objective science, with such canards as the efficient markets hypothesis, supply side economics, the inefficiency of regulation versus unregulated markets, and bailoutism as hard facts, when they are nothing more than arguments in favor of one set of government policies or another.

And far too often they are doing it for pay it appears, which is intellectual dishonesty, malpractice if you will, that is inexcusable and contemptible, one of the reasons why economics is considered by some a disgraced, although not irredeemable, profession these days.  But since these fellows are generally associated with the 'greed is good' school, which elevates the ends above all else, once ought to expect to hide the silverware, whiskey and women when they come to town.

Many things are possible, but not all things are equally probable. As Walter Bagehot famously observed, 'Life is a school of probability.'

For a nation that is a net debtor, deflation is tantamount to suicide. But other nations, most recently Germany in the past century, committed a form of national suicide in service to hubris, and an elite few, and a mistaken understanding of what constitutes a civil society and what it means to be human. They are certainly not the only society to have done this, and I would not presume that they are the only people who will have fallen prey to this self-destruction in the future.

So there is some precedent for disaster. Germany was certainly not the only society to have done this, given the examples of China, Russia, Japan, and Italy, and I would not presume that they are the only people who will fall prey to this self-destruction as well. Having high ideals or having previously suffered oppression is no guarantee of future goodness. Rather it is the attitude of yourself in relation to the 'other.' That is the whole of the law.

Indeed, such a temptation to dehumanisation is tailor made for a generation raised on the notion of their natural goodness, accepting themselves as they are, rejecting and tearing down any external standards of goodness and worth in other people. They see no need to change and work together, but rather to give in, to wallow, in their basest and most selfish impulses, self-centeredness, the greed-is-good meme of the me generation, in a time of general apostasy to all but the lowest form of our self. Class War and the Decline of the West

The madness of crowds seems to have been all the rage in the twentieth century, and what I see now are people who are more technically proficient, more cunning, more skilled in the ways of mass deception and intrigue, but alas, perhaps not more compassionate and wise, and understanding of what it means to be human, truly content with themselves, and simply happy.

So bear these things in mind and protect yourselves as best you can despite the temptations and deceptions of our all too human frailties. It will not be easy, but it was not easy for our parents or grandparents, and theirs and those before them, because it never is. That is the nature of this world.  And even the once triumphant West at some point must learn to pull together again, or founder in a new season of infamy.
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Eph 6:12