Saturday, May 29, 2010

>The Great Reflation: The Mother of all Financial Experiments

Chuck Prince, the former CEO of Citigroup, who presided over the bank’s collapse, famously remarked in July 2007 that "as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” Shortly after, the music stopped, the financial system broke, and Citigroup and other financial behemoths went under.

To rescue the economy and financial system from near‐total meltdown, the government created
an unprecedented package of bailouts, stimulus, free money and massive fiscal deficits. It succeeded, and a 1930s style debt deflation and depression were aborted. Liquidity, on a vast scale was unleashed into the financial system, demonstrating, once again, the power of such flows to drive up the prices of stocks, commodities and other risky assets.

In The Great Reflation we focus on how the authorities pumped air back into the balloon, and
got the music playing again. Investors and banks, including Citigroup, are back out on the dance floor. However, just because the system was saved, doesn’t mean it has been fixed.

Why do we say that the system isn’t fixed? The major theme running through The Great Reflation is that we have been living through a multi‐decade period of money and credit inflation that started back in the 1960s when the post‐World War II global monetary system (Bretton Woods) began to break down. The Great Reflation is about this inflation and the consequences of the Act II, which is now unfolding.

The Engine of Inflation
Inflation is the biggest enemy of investors in the long run. However, in the short term, inflation
in its early stages is often a wonderful elixir, greasing the wheels of the economy and causing riskier assets like stocks, commodities and corporate bonds to levitate. Euphoria tends to build as people get richer. But, it is important to understand that inflation is an undue expansion of money and credit. It can have the effect of raising the prices of things we consume or the prices of assets that we own or want to buy. But those are the symptoms of inflation that, if extreme, tell us that a bust is coming. In the case of rising consumer prices, the central bank ultimately has to raise interest rates and curtail credit. Recession follows. Or, if asset prices rise on the back of credit expansion, debt servicing ultimately becomes unbearable and asset prices—the collateral—start to fall, but debt levels are fixed in the short term. When people can’t service or repay debt, panics and crashes follow, and the risk of a debt deflation and depression rises dramatically.

Too much debt and falling asset prices caused the depression of the 1930s and almost another
one in 2008‐2009. One Important reason that debt rose to such extremes, both in 1929 and 2007 was that the monetary system had a built‐in inflationary bias. In the 1920s, it was called the gold exchange standard, whereby countries held both gold and currencies in their reserves. In the post‐1971 world, it was called the floating dollar standard or Bretton Woods II. Countries held mainly dollars in their reserves. As a result, the U.S. could inflate at will and foreign countries had to buy the excess dollars on the foreign exchange market if they wanted to prevent their currency from rising. In a world of low and falling price inflation, as was the case after 1982, almost all countries want a cheap currency.

To read the full report: THE GREAT REFLATION