What’s the nuclear option? It’s the Zimbabwe Solution…pioneered by Gideon Gono, head of Zimbabwe’s central bank…and recently proposed for the US by Harvard professors Rogoff and Mankiw. And they’re not the only ones.
Of course, there is no need to exaggerate. The facts are outrageous enough. So, let’s calmly look at what has happened so far…and where it is likely to lead.
As you know, the battle between inflation and deflation is going badly for the feds. Deflation is winning. And yesterday, the Eastern Front collapsed.
Germany announced that consumer prices are now 0.1% lower than they were a year ago. Germany is in outright deflation. The rest of Europe is probably not far behind.
In America, the trend is probably in the same direction. The money supply – M1 – grew at an 18% rate over the last 6 months. But taking just the last 3 months, the rate of growth has fallen to only 1.8%.
Meanwhile, the US Treasury is borrowing hundreds of billions’ of dollars in order to close the gap between what the US spends and what it receives in taxes. Even if the Chinese are willing to fund that borrowing in the very short term, it just pushes forward the inevitable daywhen the list of willing lenders is shorter than the list of US Treasury bonds to be sold.
When that happens, the Chinese can bend over and kiss their reserves goodbye. Because there is no way the US government is going to forego spending money just to protect foreign bondholders. Instead, to raise money, it is going to turn to its very own bond buyer of last resort – the Fed.
The Fed will “monetize the debt” – by buying Treasury debt and converting it to dollars in circulation. At least, that’s the plan. The risk is that it will cause consumer price inflation. Everyone is aware of the risk. Few doubt that it would happen.
But that’s where Gono, Rogoff, Mankiw and many others, come in.
Caroline Baum reports:
“Harvard University’s Ken Rogoff and Greg Mankiw think more is better when it comes to inflation.
“Rogoff said he advocates 6 percent inflation ‘for at least a couple of years.’ That would alleviate the strain deflation imposes on debtors, including the U.S. government, who have to pay back their loans in appreciated dollars.
“In the Middle Ages, they threw people who failed to repay their debts into debtors’ prisons. Today debtors are rewarded with all kinds of government perks. Look how far we’ve come!
“Borrowers took out mortgages they couldn’t qualify for to buy homes they couldn’t afford. When the housing market collapsed, they were rewarded with government-subsidized mortgage modifications and, in some cases, partial forgiveness on their loan balances. And now, under Rogoff’s 6 percent solution, debtors would see more of their burden lifted.
“And we, the savers, get screwed again.
“And who says the Fed can orchestrate 6 percent inflation and not let it get out of hand? You know what would happen to those well-anchored inflation expectations: Ahoy, matey, it’s out to sea with you.
“‘Trying to manage a slight increase in the rate of inflation in a discretionary way is not practical,’ says Marvin Goodfriend, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh.
“Mankiw didn’t specify his preferred inflation rate in the Bloomberg story. He was too busy to give me an interview, directing me instead to his New York Times column from last month where he proposed the idea of negative interest rates: not negative real rates, adjusted for inflation; negative nominal rates.
“The idea is ‘to make holding money less attractive’ so people will spend it.”
Needless to say, we can’t wait to see what happens. The Chinese already seem to think that holding dollars is less attractive than it used to be. But Geithner and Bernanke assured Wen Jiabao that his money was safe. We wonder what he’ll do when he realizes they played him for a fool.
Until next time,
for Markets and Money