Monday, October 27, 2008

Roubini on deflation

My working theory has been that the current crisis will produce several years of deflation or at least disinflation, along with low rates, followed by higher inflation in the medium term.  The Fed's liquidity programs are not themselves inflationary (they are not, as is so often claimed, printing money, or at least not the kind that they can't unprint later).  However, ultimately somone has to pay for all this bailing out, and it will either be through higher taxes, lower spending, inflation, or all three.  An independent central bank would not allow the govenment to inflate its way out of debt; we have proven repeatedly in the last year(s) that we no longer have an independent central bank.

But enough of my thinking.  Roubini has the other side of the debate, arguing that the Fed will never let inflation happend, and instead, if need be, will push us into a double-dip recession to return to price stability.  I think he's wrong, but he's worth reading.

Finally, while in the short run a global recession will be associated with deflationary forces shouldn’t we worry about rising inflation in the middle run? This argument that the financial crisis will eventually lead to inflation is based on the view that governments will be tempted to monetize the fiscal costs of bailing out the financial system and that this sharp growth in the monetary base will eventually cause high inflation. In a variant of the same argument some argue that – as the US and other economies face debt deflation – it would make sense to reduce the debt burden of borrowers (households and now governments taking on their balance sheet the losses of the private sector) by wiping out the real value of such nominal debt with inflation.

So should we worry that this financial crisis and its fiscal costs will eventually lead to higher inflation? The answer to this complex question is: likely not.

First of all, the massive injection of liquidity in the financial system – literally trillions of dollars in the last few months – is not inflationary as it accommodating the demand for liquidity that the current financial crisis and investors’ panic has triggered. Thus, once the panic recede and this excess demand for liquidity shrink central banks can and will mop up all this excess liquidity that was created in the short run to satisfy the demand for liquidity and prevent a spike in interest rates.

Second, the fiscal costs of bailing out financial institutions would eventually lead to inflation if the increased budget deficits associated with this bailout were to be monetized as opposed to being financed with a larger stock of public debt. As long as such deficits are financed with debt – rather than by running the printing presses – such fiscal costs will not be inflationary as taxes will have to be increased over the next few decades and/or government spending reduced to service this large increase in the stock of public debt.

Third, wouldn’t central banks be tempted to monetize these fiscal costs - rather than allow a mushrooming of public debt – and thus wipe out with inflation these fiscal costs of bailing out lenders/investors and borrowers? Not likely in my view: even a relatively dovish Bernanke Fed cannot afford to let the inflation expectations genie out of the bottle via a monetization of the fiscal bailout costs; it cannot afford/be tempted to do that because if the inflation genie gets out of the bottle (with inflation rising from the low single digits to the high single digits or even into the double digits) the rise in inflation expectations will eventually force a nasty and severely recessionary Volcker-style monetary policy tightening to bring back the inflation expectation genie into the bottle. And such Volcker-style disinflation would cause an ugly recession. Indeed, central banks have spent the last 20 years trying to establish and maintain their low inflation credibility; thus destroying such credibility as a way to reduce the direct costs of the fiscal bailout would be highly corrosive and destructive of the inflation credibility that they have worked so hard to achieve and maintain.

Fourth, inflation can reduce the real value of debts as long as it is unexpected and as long as debt is in the form of long-term nominal fixed rate liabilities. The trouble is that an attempt to increase inflation would not be unexpected and thus investors would write debt contracts to hedge themselves against such a risk if monetization of the fiscal deficits does occur. Also, in the US economy a lot of debts – of the government, of the banks, of the households – are not long term nominal fixed rate liabilities. They are rather shorter term, variable rates debts. Thus, a rise in inflation in an attempt to wipe out debt liabilities would lead to a rapid re-pricing of such shorter term, variable rate debt. And thus expected inflation would not succeed in reducing the part of the debts that are now of the long term nominal fixed rate form. I.e. you can fool all of the people some of the time (unexpected inflation) and some of the people all of the time (those with long term nominal fixed rate claims) but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Thus, trying to inflict a capital levy on creditors and trying to provide a debt relief to debtors may not work as a lot of short term or variable rate debt will rapidly reprice to reflect the higher expected inflation.

In conclusion, a sharp slack in goods, labor and commodity markets will lead to global deflationary trends over the next year. And the fiscal costs of bailing out borrowers and/or lenders/investors will not be inflationary as central banks will not be willing to incur the high costs of very high inflation as a way to reduce the real value of debt burdens of governments and distressed borrowers. The costs of rising expected and actual inflation will be much higher than the benefits of using the inflation/seignorage tax to pay for the fiscal costs of cleaning up the mess that this most severe financial crisis has created. As long – as likely – as these fiscal costs are financed with public debt rather than with a monetization of these deficits inflation will not be a problem either in the short run or over the medium run.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Actually, it was structured by pigs

From NC:
In a hearing today before the House Oversight Committee, the credit rating agencies are being portrayed as profit-hungry institutions that would give any deal their blessing for the right price.

Case in point: this instant message exchange between two unidentified Standard & Poor's officials about a mortgage-backed security deal on 4/5/2007:

Official #1: Btw (by the way) that deal is ridiculous.

Official #2: I know right...model def (definitely) does not capture half the risk.

Official #1: We should not be rating it.

Official #2: We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Continuing on with our regularly scheduled progam

Keynes quote (via Krugman):
Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.