Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Deflation, Inflation, Reflation

While I suppose I should be writing ponderous sentences about the importance of inauguration day, the fact is that it will be many hours before we can judge Barack Obama's speech and on a perfect day to bury bad news there is a great deal of bad news.

The latest inflation numbers, although above expectations still show a sharp fall and the trend is now firmly downwards. the problem is that the trend is so firmly downwards that it looks pretty likely that there will be several months of deflation later in the year. Such deflation is a measure of the scale of the bust which is now only beginning to afflict the wider economy. Depression 2.0 will be long and deep. Those confidently forecasting recovery in 2010 may simply be whistling in the dark.

Deflation is incredibly damaging to peoples well being: it undermines the whole economic mechanism because the time value of money becomes negative. Governments will do almost anything to avoid it. What the British government now seems that it will have to do is take on the liabilities of the Banking system directly. The renewed instability in the financial markets reflects the fact that the government- as Vince Cable predicted- has already lost the bulk of the first £37 billion. Nationalisation of RBS seems all but certain and the UK will need to take on a substantial open ended liability.

Of course the UK is not alone- despite the negative comments coming from such figures as Jim Rogers: "the UK is finished". Spain, Greece, Italy, and several other Eurozone economies are facing the need to take on giant sums of debt in order to stabilise their positions. Ireland has even warned that with out support from the other Eurozone economies (i.e. Germany) it may have to default. Dublin has now had to nationalise all of its top three banks.

It now seems quite clear that governments, in order to stave off the hard place of deflation will instead steer their economies onto the rocks of inflation. Inflation will reduce the level of indebtedness to manageable levels. That it will also destroy the savings sector is simply collateral damage- since after the 1970s, Governments believe that they can deal far more easily with the consequences of inflation than deflation.

Debouching the value of money is nevertheless a gigantic failure of any government. The consequences may be far more problematic than policymakers now think. In my opinion it would be the final nail in the coffin of Sterling and may compel British entry into the Euro on highly unfavourable terms- if we are lucky.

Yet the counter argument is that if all governments follow an inflationary policy at the same time, then the relative damage may not be so bad. Nevertheless there is a money beyond control of governments: gold.

Mr. Obama does not have so much room for manoeuvre, and the price of gold will demonstrate the level of confidence that investors are still prepared to show towards the greenback- and every other vandalised and inflated currency.

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