Friday’s release of disappointing August payroll numbers should have been a jarring wake-up call warning Wall Street that the economy has been treading on thin ice. Instead the alarm clock was stuffed under the pillow and Wall Street kept sleeping. The miss was so epic in fact (the 142,000 jobs created was almost 40% below the consensus estimate) that the top analysts on Wall Street did their best to tell us that it was all just a bad dream. Mark Zandi of Moody’s reacted on Squawk Box by saying “I don’t believe this data.” The reliably optimistic Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial told Reuters the report “sure looks like a fluke, not a trend”.
But the opinions of those that really matter, the central bankers in charge of the global economy, are likely taking the report much more seriously. Given that this is just the latest in a series of moribund data releases, such caution is justified. Unfortunately very little good comes from central bank activism. Recent statements from Fed officials across the United States and recent actions from ECB president Mario Draghi reveal their growing resolve to fight too low inflation, which they believe is the biggest threat to recovery. There are many things that are contributing to the global woes. But low prices are not high on the list.
Since the markets crashed in 2008, central banks around the world have worked feverishly to push up the prices of financial assets and to keep consumer prices rising steadily. They have done so in the official belief that these outcomes are vital ingredients in the recipe for economic growth. The theory is that steady inflation creates demand by inspiring consumers to spend in advance of predictable price increases. (The flip side is that falling prices “deflation,” strangles demand by inspiring consumers to defer spending). The benefits of inflation are supposed to be compounded by rising stock and real estate prices, creating a wealth effect for the owners of those assets which subsequently trickles down to the rest of the economy. In other words, seed the economy with money and inflation and watch it grow.
Thus far the banks have been successful in creating the bubbles and keeping inflation positive, but growth has been a no show. The theory says the growth is right around the corner, but like Godot it stubbornly fails to show up. This has been a tough circle for many economists to square.
Two explanations have emerged to explain the failure. Either the model is not functioning (and higher inflation and asset bubbles don’t lead to growth) or the stimulus efforts thus far, in the form of zero percent interest rates and quantitative easing, have been too timid. So either the bankers must devise a new plan, or double down on the existing plan. You should know where this is going. The banks are about to go “all in” on inflation.
Despite their much ballyhooed “independence”, central bankers have proven that they operate hand in glove with government. They are also subject to all the same political pressures and bureaucratic paralysis. There is an unwritten law in government that when a program doesn’t produce a desired outcome, the conclusion is almost never that the program was flawed, but that it was insufficient. Hence governments continually throw good money after bad. The free market discipline of cutting losses simply does not exist in government.
This is where we are with stimulus. Six years of zero percent interest rates and trillions and trillions of new public debt have failed to restore economic health, but our conclusion is that we just haven’t given it enough time or effort. My theory is a bit different. Maybe zero percent interest rates and asset bubbles hinder rather than help a real recovery. Maybe they resurrect the zombie of a failed model and prevent something viable and lasting from gaining traction? This is a possibility that no one in power is prepared to consider.
But what if they succeed in getting the inflation, but we never get the growth? What if we are headed toward stagflation, a condition that in the late 1970s gripped the U.S. more tightly than Boogie Fever? It may come as a surprise to the new generation of economists, but high inflation and high unemployment can coexist. In fact, the two were combined in the 70s and 80s to produce “the Misery Index.” But according to today’s economic thinking, the Index should not be possible. Inflation is supposed to cause growth. If unemployment is high they say there is no demand to push up prices. But it’s the monetary expansion that pushes prices up, not the healthy job market.
The tragedy is that if the policy fails to produce real growth, as I am convinced it will, the price will be paid by those elements of society least able to bear it, the poor and the old. Inflation and stagnation mean lost purchasing power. The rich can mitigate the pain with a rising stock portfolio and more modest vacation destinations. But they won’t miss a meal. Those subsisting on meager income will be hit the hardest.
Many economists are now trying to make the case that the United States had hit on the right stimulus formula over the past few years and is now reaping the benefit of our bold monetary experimentation. They continue the argument by saying Europe and Japan were too timid to implement adequate stimulus and are now desperately playing catch up.
But this theory is false on a variety of fronts. First off, the U.S. is not recovering but decelerating. Annualized GDP in the first half of 2014 has come in at just a shade over one percent, which is lower than all of 2013, which itself was lower than 2012. The unemployment rate is down, but labor participation is at a 36-year low, and wages are stagnant. We have added more than $5 trillion in new public debt, but very little to show for it. We are not the model that other countries should be following but a cautionary tale that should be avoided.
It is also spectacularly wrong to assume that the problems in Europe and Japan can be solved by a little more inflation. Higher prices will just be a heavier burden for European and Japanese consumers, not an elixir that revitalizes their economies. The problems in Europe, Japan and the U.S. all have to do with an oppressive environment for savings, investment, and productivity that is created by artificially low interest rates, intractable budget deficits, restrictive business regulation, antagonistic labor laws, and high taxes. Since none of the governments of these countries have the political will to tackle these problems head on, they simply hope that more monetary magic will do the trick.
So as the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of Japan, and all the other banks that follow suit, push all their chips into the pot and hope that a little more inflation will save us from the abyss, we can wish them luck. It’s going to take a miracle.
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