Thursday, December 18, 2014

Deflation is Taking Hold in Some Economies. Is the US Next?

In response to the 2008 financial crisis and resulting Great Recession, the Federal Reserve (followed by central banks around the world) slashed interest rates to near zero and engaged in a policy of unprecedented money printing, known as "quantitative easing."

This combination spurred concerns that inflation would accelerate, perhaps rampantly.

But that hasn't occurred — at least not yet.

The pace of inflation over the past 12 months fell to 1.3% in November and is down sharply from 2.1% just five months ago.

The Federal Reserve has a publicly stated goal of 2% annual inflation. As recently as 2011, the US inflation rate averaged 3.2%. But the rate dropped to 2.1% in 2012 and then 1.5% in 2013. The steady decline is clear.

The financial world has been cautiously watching and waiting for any indication that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next year.

However, bond guru Bill Gross says the Fed may refrain from hiking rates in 2015 due to a lack of inflation.

"Why would the Federal Reserve raise interest rates in order to slow economic growth if inflation in fact was moving lower?"

It's an excellent question; one that many of us are asking. Oil is tumbling and cheaper energy means lower inflation.

In fact, the bigger concern at the moment is deflation, which is rearing its ugly head around the world.

Delation is the continual decline in prices and assets. It is often associated with a reduction in the money supply, or credit.

While the money supply has certainly expanded in an unprecedented manner (the Fed’s balance sheet has expanded from about $850 billion to more than $4.4 trillion since the 2008 financial crisis), economic demand and consumer spending remain weak.

Though Americans have paid down much of their household debts (including car loans, credit cards, student loans and home mortgages) from 130% of disposable personal income in 2007 to 103% today, the fact remains that households still have more debt than disposable income. That is holding back spending.

Ultra low interest rates were supposed to be a temporary inducement to get households borrowing again and reverse the housing bust. But six years later, though rates remain at historic lows, mortgage lending remains weak.

The US homeownership rate fell to 64.4 percent in the third quarter, the lowest level since early 1995. First-time buyers have been kept out of the market by strict lending standards and low wages.

Weak and steadily falling inflation, plus weak demand, is raising fears of deflation.

Investopedia explains deflation this way:

"Declining prices, if they persist, generally create a vicious spiral of negatives such as falling profits, closing factories, shrinking employment and incomes, and increasing defaults on loans by companies and individuals."

Japan, most famously, has been battling deflation for two decades. The Bank of Japan had a zero interest rate policy in affect for many years, which didn't cure the problem. Then the BOJ initiated its own massive money-printing scheme last year, which has also failed.

Falling prices have hurt consumption in Japan, as consumers wait for prices to keep dropping before spending. If consumers refrain from spending long enough, it hurts corporate profits. That limits hiring and can even lead to layoffs. This vicious circle has led Japan back into recession.

There are concerns that the euro zone could be plagued by deflation in 2015. As it stands, Sweden and Spain are already grappling with its menace.

Now, some economists and analysts are concerned about the possibility of deflation arising in the US. It may not be that far-fetched, as the specter of deflation is growing globally.

Commodities — such as oil, gold and copper — have experienced serious declines this year.

The US economy has remained one of the lone bright spots on the global stage in 2014, but in a highly interconnected global economy, that could change quickly in 2015.

A lack of economic demand is a pernicious problem, which leads to a lack of consumption, fewer jobs, and a lower GDP.

Since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity (GDP), it's no surprise that this has been the weakest recovery since the Great Depression.

In fact, this is the first economic “recovery” in which median family income continues to drop. That is holding back consumer spending, which, in turn, is holding back economic growth.

Though the Great Recession is officially over, Americans are still 40% poorer today than they were in 2007, the year before the global financial crisis.

The net worth of American families — the difference between the values of their assets, including homes and investments, and liabilities — fell to $81,400 in 2013, a long way off from the $135,700 in 2007, according to a new report released this month by the nonprofit think-tank Pew Research Center in Washington, DC.

Over just the past year, incomes have barely budged. In November 2014, the average weekly wage was $853 versus $833 for November 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Falling oil prices should allow Americans to spend more of their incomes on other things, which should buoy the economy. But if broader deflation sets in, lower oil prices won't matter. In fact, falling oil prices will just add fuel to deflationary forces.

While much of the decline in oil prices has been attributed to higher supplies, demand has also fallen around the world. The International Energy Agency has cut its estimates for demand for crude five times in the past six months, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Oil is the lubricant of the global economy and a lower demand indicates a slowing economy. Demand has fallen even in the US, where motorists are driving more fuel efficient vehicles and using less gas.

However, those trends could change in the face of tumbling oil and gas prices. Americans could revert to buying bigger, less efficient vehicles.

The diminishing demand for oil, and the robust drop in prices that has ensued, is sparking deflation concerns around the world.

The bond market has taken notice, as reported by Bloomberg:

"The difference in yields between Treasury two-year notes and comparable maturity inflation-indexed securities turned negative yesterday for the first time since the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2009. The measure, known as the break-even rate, is generally seen as reflecting investors’ expectations for inflation over the life of the securities."

In other words, investors have abandoned all fears of inflation in the short term.

To be clear, the US is not in deflation at present, and it may not face it in 2015. But there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. Inflation, already below the Fed's target, is steadily declining.

The consumer price index fell by a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in November to mark the largest drop since December 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession.

The decline was driven by the sharp slide in gasoline prices. Energy costs fell for the fifth straight month, said the Labor Department, led by a 6.6% decline in the price of gasoline.

Here's the thing that really jumps out at me: If the Federal Reserve can add $4.4 trillion to the money supply in just six years — while dropping interest rates to near zero — without sparking rampant price inflation, some very powerful deflationary forces are surely working against it.

In other words, the US economy remains quite fragile as we head into 2015.

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