Tag: inflation

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.

Appreciating China’s Currency

China’s President Hu Jintau arrives in Washington today for a state visit, turning the spotlight once again on U.S.-China trade and China’s allegedly undervalued currency, the yuan. Not one to let such an opportunity go to waste, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is introducing legislation that would threaten to impose duties on imports from China if the yuan does not appreciate quickly.

Count me skeptical that a more expensive yuan relative to the U.S. dollar would make much of a dent in our bilateral trade deficit with China, or that it would have any positive effect on U.S. economic growth and employment. But even if those assumptions were true, the big story is how much the yuan as already appreciated against the dollar.

It has been a mantra of Sen. Schumer and other critics of U.S.-China trade that the yuan is undervalued by 15 to 40 percent. They were saying that before the 2005 appreciation, and they’re saying that now, as though nothing has changed.

Yet a lot has changed. In nominal terms, the yuan appreciated by more than 20 percent between 2005 and 2008. That’s when China relaxed its hard peg with the dollar and allowed its currency to gradually appreciate. After holding the peg steady again during the recent financial turmoil, China has again allowed it to rise another 3 percent since last June.

The nominal rate is just part of the story, however. Price levels in the United States and China determine the real exchange rate–the actual amount of goods that can be bought with each currency. A big story in China recently is its rising inflation rate, which makes Chinese goods relatively more expensive at any given exchange rate. In this way, a relatively higher inflation rate in China compared to the United States acts in the same was as a nominal increase in the exchange rate of the yuan.

When you combine the effect of rising prices in China with the higher nominal value of the yuan, you get a double boost to the real exchange rate. According to a chart on the front page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the real value of the yuan has appreciated by 50 percent since the beginning of 2005. In early 2005, 100 Chinese yuan could be exchanged for about $12; today it can be exchanged for $18 (in real, inflation adjusted dollars).

Rather than complain, Sen. Schumer and his allies should congratulate themselves on achieving their goal of a much stronger yuan and a much weaker dollar, even if we are still waiting for the tonic effect they predicted it would have on jobs and growth.

Inflation Is Here

“Faced with rising international food prices,” Steven Mufson writes in the Washington Post, “governments around the world are cooking up measures to protect domestic supplies and keep a lid on prices at home.” Instead of export bans, subsidies, and price controls, governments might better consider the role of their central banks in creating money out of thin air and causing price inflation. Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., made that point at the blog ThinkMarkets:

“Prices Soar on Crop Woes” reads the headline in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Global output of key crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat is down, and their prices are up, respectively, 94%, 51% and 80% from June lows. Today’s PPI report has wholesale prices up 1.1% in December after rising 0.8% in November. The Journal reminds us that in 2008 high food prices sparked riots around the world.

Meanwhile Fed officials tell us they don’t expect inflation.  It is not an issue of expecting inflation, but of observing it here and now.  The Fed prefers, of course, to look at “core” inflation rates, which are much lower. A former Fed colleague explained to me the central bank does so on the theory that people do not need to drive to work and can stop eating.

In our global economy, easy US monetary policy has thus far mainly affected commodity prices (including now food), real-estate in Asia and now broader price measures in Asia. It is implausible that the US would remain unaffected. Food, energy and clothing prices are all rising. I don’t think many households are presently gripped with a fear of deflation.

In the Mises/Hayek theory of economic fluctuations, the transmission of monetary shocks works through producer prices and incomes, and only later consumer prices. No measure of consumer prices, and certainly not a subset of consumer prices, is an adequate gauge of inflation.

(For another take on rising food prices, you can read the views of Paul Krugman and Lester Brown, who say that at last – at last! – we really are running into those “binding resource constraints” that Brown has been predicting for his entire life and that will finally require us to start living at Chinese levels.)

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Do Inflation Expectations Drive Consumption?

After proponents of the Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing (QE2) abandoned the argument that QE2 would spur growth by bringing down interest rates (only after rates increased), the new defense became “we intended for rates to go up all along, as a result of increased inflation expectations.”  Since few would argue for increased inflation, or expectations of such, as an end in itself, the claim was that increases in inflation expectations would drive households to consume more, which would in turn causes businesses to hire more, bringing down the unemployment rate.  But does this chain of reasoning withstand empirical scrutiny?

It turns out looking at the historical data on inflation expectations, as collected at the University of Michigan, that inflation expectations and household savings rates (the inverse of consumption rates) are positively correlated.  Now of course correlation doesn’t mean causality,but what the data suggest is that instead of consuming more when inflation expectations increase, households have actually saved more.  This positive correlation also holds for the second half of the data series, so it’s not simply the result of a downward trend in either inflation or savings.

To review, the latest argument for QE2:  increase inflation expectations, which is assumed to increase consumption, which is hoped to increase employment.  The problem I’ve had all along with this position is that the only thing we know for certain is the first part, QE2 would increase inflation expectations.  The hope that it would increase consumption and hence employment was just that:  hope.  Given the disconnect we’ve seen between consumption and unemployment over the past 18 months, the third link in that chain is also a weak one.   So what do we have at the end of the day:  certain costs with fairly speculative and uncertain benefits.  And here I was thinking that reckless speculation was the sole province of the private sector.

Economic Slack and Inflation

While listening to NPR this morning, I was subjected to yet another economist claiming that we cannot have inflation in an environment of such high economic slack.  Setting aside the fact that perhaps this economist missed the 1970s, this is a vital question to examine, because it is the foundation of so much of Bernanke and the Federal Reserve’s current thinking.  That is, the notion that inflation is always and everywhere the result of an over-heating, or excess demand, economy.

One of the measures commonly followed by the Fed, and others of the slack-restrains-inflation school, is the measure of capacity utilization rate.  Setting aside some of the problems with this measure, are increases in capacity utilization associated with increasing inflation, as would be suggested by the slack-restraint school?  It turns out not.  Since 1967, when the data series begins, the correlation between capacity utilization and inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI), has been negative.  That is, as more and more industrial and economic resources have been brought into use, inflation has actually fallen, rather than risen (as would be predicted).  A negative correlation also implies that low or falling capacity utilization does not mean low inflation.

Now what is positively correlated with inflation is the growth in the money supply.   The chart below shows annual changes in both CPI and M2.  Even just eye-balling the chart, one can see the positive correlation, which also shows up under statistical analysis. 

Another question one often hears in today’s economic discussions is what would Milton Friedman say?  I won’t claim to be able to channel Milton (or anyone else), but I do think the empirical evidence continues to support the conclusion that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

Is the Federal Reserve Heading Towards Insolvency?

A recent statement from the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, points out that both rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have dramatically altered the maturity structure of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Normally the Fed conducts monetary policy using short-term Treasury bills, which allows the Fed to avoid most interest rate risk.  In loading up its balance sheet with long-dated Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed has exposed itself to significant interest rate risk.

Recall that the yield, or interest rate, on a long term asset is inversely related to its price.  So if you’re holding a mortgage that yields 5% and rates go up to 6%, then the value of that mortgage falls below par.  The same holds for Treasury securities.  I think  it is a safe assumption that rates will be higher at some point in the future.  When they finally do rise, and if the Fed still maintains a large balance sheet of long-dated assets, those assets will suffer losses.

Of course the Fed is not subject to mark-to-market rules and can avoid admitting losses by holding these assets to maturity.  But if the Fed, at some point in the future, wants to fight inflation, the most obvious way of doing so would be to sell off assets from its balance sheet.  It is hard to see the Fed engaging in substantial open-market operations without using its long-dated assets.  But if it is to sell these assets, it will have to do so at a loss (once again, because of higher rates).

Now the Fed claims to have other avenues by which to tighten, besides open-market operations.  For instance, it can raise the interest rate on excess reserves.  But then this would further erode the value of assets on its balance sheet.  Not to mention that they have to find the money somewhere to pay these higher rates on reserves.

Ultimately the Fed can continue to pay its bills, not out of earnings from its balance sheet, but by electronically crediting the accounts of its vendors and employees, but that would also be inflationary.  The real danger, again pointed out by the Shadow Committee, is that the Fed may avoid raising rates in order to minimize the losses embedded in its balance sheet.  One of the very real dangers from QE1 and QE2 is that the Fed has exposed itself to potential losses that are correlated with any efforts to fight inflation, raising serious questions as to its willingness to fight inflation.

The ‘Consumer Spending’ Myth

Journalists talk endlessly these days about the need for more consumer spending to revive the economy, and for government programs to juice consumer spending. Economist Steven Horwitz takes on the assumption that spending is the key to economic activity:

One of the most pernicious and widespread economic fallacies is the belief that consumption is the key to a healthy economy.  We hear this idea all the time in the popular press and casual conversation, particularly during economic downturns.  People say things like, “Well, if folks would just start buying things again, the economy would pick up” or “If we could only get more money in the hands of consumers, we’d get out of this recession.”  This belief in the power of consumption is also what has guided much of economic policy in the last couple of years, with its endless stream of stimulus packages.

This belief is an inheritance of misguided Keynesian thinking. Production, not consumption, is the source of wealth.  If we want a healthy economy, we need to create the conditions under which producers can get on with the process of creating wealth for others to consume, and under which households and firms can engage in thesaving necessary to finance that production….

Putting more resources in the hands of consumers through a government stimulus package fails precisely because the wealth so transferred ultimately has to come from producers.  This is obvious when the spending is financed by taxation, but it’s equally true for deficit spending and inflation.  With deficit spending the wealth comes from producers’ purchases of government bonds.  With inflation it comes proportionately from holders of dollars (obtained through acts of production) whose purchasing power is weakened by the excess supply of money.  In neither case does government create wealth. Nor does consumption.  The new ability to consume still originates in prior acts of production.  If we want real stimulus, we need to free up producers by creating a more hospitable environment for production and not penalize the saving that finances them.