The markets didn’t reveal anything very telling yesterday. The Dow rose 52 points. The dollar held steady. Oil remained near its all time record of $123. And gold went up $10.
So far, things have worked out more or less as we expected. The “war” between inflation and deflation has produced plenty of noise and casualties…but no decisive victory.
We guessed that the Fed would be far more interested in fighting a deflationary recession than in fighting an inflationary boom. America’s central bankers see their mission in three parts – to protect the value of the dollar…to protect the banks…and finally to make sure that all politicians are re-elected and all Fed governors are reappointed. This last part of their mission leads them to ignore the first part. In order to help the career prospects of politicians and their Fed appointees, the latter must try to keep the economy moving forward – even to its own destruction. In the present context, that means holding off badly needed corrections. Consumers, government and business are all deep in debt. But none of them are going to cut back on spending unless they have to. A correction would force the issue; so, it is to be avoided at all costs. And the most direct and immediate cost is what is supposed to be the Fed’s number one priority…the U.S. dollar.
We guessed that inflation would push up commodity, oil, gold and consumer prices…more than it would help the real economy and stock prices. That seems to have happened too. Commodities, oil and gold have all soared. The economy, meanwhile, is growing more slowly than the population. And stocks rallied and retreated – and ended up about where they were 10 years ago.
But what about the kind of inflation people worry about? What about consumer price inflation? How come consumer prices have not gone up more?
Give it time…dear reader…give it time.
This week, both the Bank of England (BOE) and the European Central Bank (ECB) decided that it was more important to fight inflation than it was to try to boost economic activity. Both left their key lending rates where they have been – at 5% for England, 4% for Europe – or two to two-and-a-half times the Fed’s rate. Naturally, each of the 7 rate cuts in the United States made the U.S. dollar less attractive; who wants to hold a deposit in dollars paying 2% when he can shift his money to euros and earn twice as much?
Speculators saw the trend coming and sold the dollar down below $1.60 per euro – and sent gold over $1,000. Then, they saw what looked like the end of the line for this trend too. The Fed only has 200 basis points left. And it has warned that there may not be any more cuts coming soon. The dollar strengthened. Currently, it is at $1.53 per euro. Gold also retreated…and yesterday stood at $882
Meanwhile, Claude Trichet, head of the ECB warns that we may be in for a “rather protracted period of high inflation.” The BOE also says it has to try to keep a lid on inflation. The Daily Mail came out with one of its shocker stories two days ago, saying inflation had so raised the cost of necessities in Britain that the average household now has less discretionary spending money than it had 17 years ago. In effect, the typical family is poorer than it was in 1991.
We have not seen comparable numbers for the United States, but we suspect they will show the same thing: that by the time a family has finished paying for food, fuel and medical care it has less money left over than it had before Bill Clinton’s first term. Why? Because inflation is doing its work – it is reducing Americans’ real wealth.
But so far, it has come in like a black cat at midnight…on paws so silent hardly anyone has noticed. The U.S. government even claims it is not there at all. “Core” inflation is still under control, say the feds.
What was amazing about the last 20 years was that the dollar-based monetary system worked as well as it did. You would have thought – and we did think – that once the link with gold was severed in 1971, there would be no stopping inflation. Instead, inflation went down…to levels that hadn’t been seen since Eisenhower. Why? Because there were so many things holding consumer prices down – 2 billion new workers in the labor pool, Wal-Mart’s Everyday Low Prices, just-in-time inventory systems, computers, globalization, deregulation, and the rise of modern capitalism worldwide. But now, the benefits from those trends seem to have reached their limits.
Labor rates are going up rapidly in China and India. Commodities are soaring…governments are re-regulating…modern capitalism has been weakened by its own excesses…and inventories are at 40-year lows.
Inflation – like everything else in the financial markets – has been globalized. And soon, inflation will come in – not as a little kitty, but as a mean panther…
Markets and Money