Tag: deflation

Deflation Dread Disorder

A recent piece in the Economists’ Voice by Ed Leamer, who runs the Anderson Forecast Center at UCLA (one of the better forecast shops), diagnoses a new mental illness: Deflation Dread Disorder.  Deflation Dread Disorder is characterized by an almost irrational concern over the almost zero chance of actual deflation — that is, falling prices.

Professor Leamer briefly addresses each of the usual reasons given for fearing deflation:  impact of falling prices on business profits, impact on nominal debt burdens, and concerns that consumers will delay spending due to an expectation of lower future prices.  The piece demonstrates why each of these concerns is misplaced in the current environment, and it does so in a manner easily accessible to non-economists.   As it is a very brief piece, you’re better off reading it for yourself

Fannie & China: 2 Birds, 1 Stone

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington brought renewed focus on China’s currency.  It was likely the largest point of discussion between President Obama and President Hu.  I suspect a less public, but related, issue was China looking for some certainty that America would make good on its obligations; after all, China is our largest lender.

What is often missed is the connection between these two issues:  currency and debt.  When China receives dollars for the many goods it sells us, instead of recycling those dollars into the purchase of US goods, it uses that money mostly to buy US Treasuries and Agencies (Fannie/Freddie securities).  These large Treasury/Agency purchases (foreign holdings of GSE debt are over $1 trillion) have the effect of increasing the demand for dollars and depressing that for yuan, resulting in an appreciation of the dollar relative to the yuan.  This connection exposes the hypocrisy of President Obama’s complaints about China currency manipulation - without massive US budget deficits, China would not be able to manipulate its currency to the extent it does.  If the US wants to end that manipulation, it can do so by simply reducing the outstanding supply of Treasuries and Agency debt.

Another solution, which would also do much to end the “implicit guarantees” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is to take Fannie and Freddie into a receivership, stop the US taxpayer from having to cover their losses, and shift those losses to junior creditors, which include the Chinese Central Bank.  Were the Chinese to actually suffer credit losses on their GSE debt, they would quickly start to reduce their holdings of such.  They might also cut back on Treasury holdings.  These actions would force the yuan to appreciate relative to the dollar.  And best of all, it would end the bottomless pit that Fannie and Freddie have become.  It is worth remembering that even today, under statute, the Federal government does not back the debt of Fannie and Freddie.  It is about time we also teach the Chinese a lesson about the rule of law, by actually following it ourselves. 

Of course this would increase the borrowing costs for Agencies (and maybe Treasuries), but then if China were to free float its currency, that would also reduce the demand for Treasuries/Agencies with a resulting increase in borrowing costs.  We cannot have it both ways.


I was listening to NPR in the car yesterday, when a report came on about the implications of deflation — which apparently is the latest concern regarding financial markets. The report nearly made me fall out of my seat from bewilderment and frustration.

Adam Davidson, the NPR reporter, waxed eloquent about how deflation turns normal economic and investment calculus on its head.  But his explanation was so poor that he ended up saying exactly the opposite of what he should have said.

Here’s how it went for me:

Davidson: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing investment opportunity for you. Give me $100, just a hundred, and in one year I promise it will be worth 93 bucks. We call it the deflation special.”

My reaction: No, sir! Under deflation, $100 today would increase in value to $107 (assuming your implicit rate of deflation).  Help! Stop the car! …Wait, I’m the one driving…what just happened?

Davidson: “All right, seriously, nobody is giving anybody a hundred bucks just so they can lose seven.”

My reaction: No, no, please, please take my money! I’d give you a million dollars if I had that amount. I really would!

Davidson: “That’s the opposite of an investment opportunity, which is precisely why economists and central bankers get terrified when they hear the word deflation.”

My reaction: Well, a small amount of deflation can be consistent with flexible prices. It’s only rapid spiraling deflation that we should worry about.  But the same is true about rapid spiraling inflation.

Davidson: “Technically, deflation means that the prices of all kinds of goods and services keep falling, rather than what they normally do, which is rise. And deflation means that not just one investment but all investments are worth less next year because the currency they are based on — like the U.S. dollar — is going to be worth less next year.”

My reaction: That word “technically” should be banned from his vocabulary.  Again, the confusion here arises from using the word “currency.” Deflation means lower prices tomorrow compared to today and, therefore, a higher value of each dollar.  Indeed, all debts appreciate in value in a deflationary environment.

Davidson: “Why pay money to build a new factory or buy a house or hire an employee or go to school if the payoff will be worth (less) than the money you put in?”

My reaction: Lenders would be happy to lend money for investment projects because deflation implies a higher rate of return on them. It’s the borrowers and entrepreneurs who would not want to borrow funds because deflation escalates the real value of debtors’ liabilities.

Davidson: “Deflation, once it starts, is extremely hard to stop. Which is why the Federal Reserve is doing everything it can to prevent it.  Although, all the tools used to prevent deflation, like increasing the money supply and keeping interest rates incredibly low, can cause another problem: inflation.”

My reaction: What is it that you want, man? Make up your mind!

Davidson: “Now, central bankers tend to think that they can stop inflation more easily than deflation. So given the choice, they’ll inflate.”

My reaction: Those horrible Fed officials! I always suspected they were up to no good — always ginning up inflation. Now I know why!

I wonder which economics school Davidson (and his editor) attended. My guess: none. Let’s see … what’s on the next radio channel?

Bernanke’s Part in the Housing Bubble

bernankeRecent weeks have seen a swirl of speculation over whether President Obama will or will not re-appoint Ben Bernanke to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, when his current term as Chair expires in January 2010. Almost all of the debate has centered on his actions as Chairman. This narrow focus misses an important piece: his actions, and words, as a Fed governor during the build-up of the housing bubble.

What should have been Bernanke’s greatest strength as a Fed governor and later chair, his understanding of monetary theory and his knowledge of the Great Depression, has ended up being a weakness. While correct in his analysis of the role of “debt deflation” – where the deflation increases the real burden of debts and correspondingly weakens the balance sheet of both households and businesses – in the deepening of the Great Depression; his obsession with slaying the Great White Whale of Deflation provided intellectual cover for the Fed’s ignoring and contributing to the housing bubble. Like the proverbial general, he was fighting yesterday’s battle, rather than today’s.

While core inflation was moderate and increasing at a decreasing rate between 2001 and 2005, this measure ignores the dramatic up-tick in house prices during those years. First, housing makes up the single largest expense for most households, ignoring housing, especially after one subtracts out energy and food from the definition of inflation, gives a narrow and distorted picture of inflation. Even if one were to focus solely on rents, the 2000s were an era of increasing housing costs.

Separate from the impact of housing prices on inflation is the role which housing plays as the collateral for the primary piece of household debt: a mortgage. Even were the US to suffer a bout of mild deflation and the real burden of their mortgages increased, this would likely have little impact on household balance sheets in an environment of increasing home prices.

Admittedly Bernanke was then only a “governor” and not yet Chair of the Fed, but he was the Fed’s loudest voice when it came to combating deflation and arguing for lower rates. Additionally there have been zero public acknowledgements by either Bernanke or the Fed that its policy earlier this decade contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis. Without admitting to the occasional mistake, we have no way of judging whether Bernanke has learned from any of his mistakes, and hence less likely to repeat them.

In weighing Bernanke’s record at the Fed, judgement should not solely consider his actions as Chair, but also consider his words and deeds while the housing bubble was inflating. How one responds to a impending disaster is as important as to how one helps to clean up after the disaster has struck.

Chuck Schumer Endorses Hoover Plan

On Meet the Press last Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said

Those on the hard right say, “Cut government spending, let’s go back to the old Reagan days.” Well, the last president who did this when we were in this type of situation was Herbert Hoover.  Herbert Hoover said the government should do nothing when we were in a recession, not a depression.  We did nothing and it related [sic] to a depression.

Reality check: Did President Hoover cut federal spending during the recession that became a depression? Not by a long shot.


boaz-figureSource: OMB

Federal spending was $3.1 billion (those were the days!) in 1929, the year Hoover took office and the stock market crashed. It rose modestly for two years, then shot up in 1932. It dropped a bit in nominal terms in 1933, though deflation meant that the real budget increased. Then, presumably reflecting Roosevelt’s policies, it shot up again in 1934. In real terms, the federal budget was almost twice as high after Hoover’s four years as it was when he took office.

President Bush, President Obama, and Senator Schumer are all supporting Herbert Hoover’s failed policy of increasing spending to fight recession. Let’s hope they don’t have the same results and turn a recession into a Great Depression.

Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin dissects the “Herbert Hoover did nothing” fallacy at Volokh.com.