Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thoughts on Credit Bubbles, Crises and Deflation

This is an excerpt from a speech by James Grant to the New York Federal Reserve Bank on March 12, 2012. He is one of the most astute monetary analysts and the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer since 1983. The “Dudley” referred to in the speech is William C. Dudley, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. “Draghi” is Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank.

Deflation is a derangement of debt, a symptom of which is falling prices. In a credit crisis, when inventories become unfinanceable, merchandise is thrown on the market and prices fall. That's deflation.

What deflation is not is a drop in prices caused by a technology-enhanced decline in the costs of production. That's called progress. Between 1875 and 1896, according to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, the American price level subsided at the average rate of 1.7% a year. And why not? As technology was advancing, costs were tumbling.

Long before Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase "creative destruction," the American economist David A. Wells, writing in 1889, was explaining the consequences of disruptive innovation. "In the last analysis," Wells proposes, "it will appear that there is no such thing as fixed capital; there is nothing useful that is very old except the precious metals, and life consists in the conversion of forces. The only capital which is of permanent value is immaterial—the experience of generations and the development of science."

Much the same sentiments, and much the same circumstances, apply today, but with a difference. Digital technology and a globalized labor force have brought down production costs. But, the central bankers declare, prices must not fall. On the contrary, they must rise by 2% a year. To engineer this up-creep, the Bernankes, the Kings, the Draghis—and yes, sadly, even the Dudleys—of the world monetize assets and push down interest rates. They do this to conquer deflation.

But note, please, that the suppression of interest rates and the conjuring of liquidity set in motion waves of speculative lending and borrowing. This artificially induced activity serves to lift the prices of a favored class of asset—houses, for instance, or Mitt Romney's portfolio of leveraged companies.

And when the central bank-financed bubble bursts, credit contracts, leveraged businesses teeter, inventories are liquidated and prices weaken. In short, a process is set in motion resembling a real deflation, which then calls forth a new bout of monetary intervention. By trying to forestall an imagined deflation, the Federal Reserve comes perilously close to instigating the real thing.