The $ 64 trillion question right now is “inflation versus deflation.” Which one of them are we going to get? There are logical arguments on both sides of the divide.
Those who expect inflation point to the trillions of dollars pumped into the system. (And in fact the European Central Bank upped the ante even further this week, with a record $ 620-odd billion worth of liquidity flooded into euro-zone money markets.) It’s said that this ocean of cash will have to be mopped up at some point, and the central banks won’t be able to do it fast enough.
In contrast, those who see deflation point to a collapse in credit and sharp downward lurch in wages. They argue that the vicious contraction in global output – the economic equivalent of a massive heart attack – has taken the all-important “money multiplier” effect and thrown it into reverse gear. When deflationists survey the pocked and cratered landscape, they see an aftermath of destruction far more epic than the few trillions being tossed into the gaping hole.
In the long run, your humble editor plants his feet squarely in the inflation camp. It seems clear we will reach the inflation destination by one of two roads. Either the global economy comes roaring back with a vengeance, or the crushing weight of debt (perhaps further weighted by a second banking crisis) spurs mass-monetization of government debt – the “printing of dollars with which to buy bonds,” a phrase which by now may be tattooed on some of your brains.
A Perplexing Idea
The inflation camp endorsement comes with a small caveat and a large disagreement.
The small caveat has to do with timing. It just isn’t clear when rip-roaring inflation will come. We are already seeing upward price pressure in food and gasoline, for example, but that is matched by distinct downward pressure in wages (as the deflationists point out).
For inflation to really be considered “rip-roaring” (to pick a phrase), it should be eliciting angry headlines in the local paper, rather than just angry grumbles from cranky finance types. We aren’t there yet. When will we get there? Very hard to say. Two months, six months, 16 months… all we can do is wait and see.
The large disagreement has to do with a strange idea being passed around. Perhaps you are familiar with this idea and can help me puzzle it out.
The gist of it goes like this. When rip-roaring inflation comes back, some folks say, it will usher in a new era of sky-high interest rates.
As a result of rampant inflation, long-term interest rates could rise to the double-digit level of the early 1980s, these folks say… and maybe even higher. Therefore, the big play is to short the heck out of Treasury bonds (which fall as interest rates rise), which can be done by purchasing an inverse bond ETF like TBT.
I have heard (or read) this double-digit interest rate argument multiple times now. In one or two cases it has come from very smart people.
That’s why I’m confused (and maybe you can help). The prospect of double-digit interest rates just makes no sense to me. That, in turn, makes it hard for me to get excited about shorting bonds.
An Economy Killer
The trouble, as I see it, is that sufficiently high interest rates, let alone double-digit ones, are an economy killer.
Over the past decade, long rates have not gone much higher than 6.5%. And that was only for a very brief window of time as the year 1999 passed into the year 2000, before the dot-com bubble had well and truly burst.
Since then, long rates have trickled down and down, even as consumer leverage (via mortgages and home equity loans and credit cards) went up and up. Now, as we know all too well, the U.S. economy (and the U.S. consumer in particular) is saddled with a groaning amount of debt. Every uptick in rates makes that debt burden heavier. When long-term interest rates rise, mortgages get more expensive. Hopeless financial situations become even more hopeless. Credit card delinquencies – which just hit a new record level by the way – become even more delinquent.
The point is, an economy burdened with debt is like a thin, frail man with a 250-pound Saint Bernard sitting on his chest. Sending interest rates higher is like weighing down the Saint Bernard with saddlebags full of cement. It becomes all too easy to crush the poor man’s lungs and rib cage entirely.
Good Old Von Mises
That leads to something else that puzzles me. We in the publishing world – or at least the Agora family’s rather large corner of that world – fancy ourselves students of Austrian economics. (On thinking hard to come up with a fellow editor who calls himself Keynesian, I’m drawing a total blank.)
In regards to the Austrian school, I hate to once again play on an old tune I’ve been whistling since 2005. But it seems appropriate to (gulp) once again share the words of Ludwig Von Mises here:
There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom expansion brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.
The “Von Mises prophecy” – my term for the above paragraph, as these words essentially predict the grand thing that is unfolding before us now – essentially offers a forced choice.
When a government has taken the easy-money boom into dangerous territory, they can either swear off the juice while there is still time to repent… or they can wait until it’s too late, at which point a “final and total catastrophe of the currency system” is the end result.
What does this have to do with double-digit interest rates, you ask? Well, if Von Mises were here, I think he would point out that it is already too late for double-digit interest rates. They are too much of an economy killer now.
We might have been able to stand them, say, six or seven years ago, had Alan Greenspan embraced a program of painful austerity rather than doubled down in the creation of a new housing bubble.
But as it stands now, we are too far down the path. We have passed through Von Mises’ “sooner” and wound up at the point of “later,” in which the only long-run option becomes monetizing the debt.
Monetizing the debt is the means by which the “final and total catastrophe” comes about… and ironically, it comes as a desperate, last-ditch attempt on the part of the central bank to avoid double-digit interest rates. The progression goes something like this:
* The debt burden becomes too great, and Treasury bonds go into freefall of their own accord.
* This freefall threatens to send interest rates skyward – to 5%, 6%, beyond.
* The Federal Reserve, recognizing that high interest rates are an economy killer at this stage, finds that its panoply of options has been reduced to one. To head off the onslaught of high interest rates, it must buy bonds in great quantity. And it must buy those bonds in great quantity with printed dollars.
* This forced exchange – the exchange of bonds for printed dollars – is the process by which double-digit interest rates are avoided… and also the process by which the Von Mises prophecy comes true, as the integrity of the currency in question becomes thoroughly, utterly and definitively destroyed.
This all seems pretty clear to me. Von Mises laid out the final trade-off, and we only need look around to see how weak and fragile the global economy is (let alone that of the United States).
One Other Way, But…
There is one other, improbable but feasible route by which we could wind up with double-digit rates. If the global economy (and the U.S. economy) comes roaring back so hard, and so fast, that all of a sudden the world were strong enough to handle double-digit rates again, then the central bankers could sit back and let rates soar.
But a scenario like that would be one in which the price of oil is on its way back to $ 200, the price of base metals and grains are on their way to tripling, and emerging market equities are on their way into the stratosphere. In such a raging bull world, would one really give a fig about shorting bonds? I hardly think that was the scenario that the double-digit meisters had in mind…
What do you think? Am I missing something in being not too excited about the short bond trade, or does the logic add up? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org. (And by the way, we’ll get back round two of the mafia tales next week.)