The incessant debate of whether the economy is inflating or deflating suffers from a vocabulary problem. This is as it must be since some (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke) discuss deflation as falling prices of stuff while others concentrate on the debt deflation of an overleveraged economy. The latter is what matters.Go read the whole post on The Big Picture blog site.
This debate often fails to address the important question of “what does it matter to me?” What matters most is the changing relationship of prices. For a worker who pays $3 instead of $2 for eggs, “inflation” is his greatest worry. If, at the same time, the worker receives a 20% pay cut, there may be many causes, and it is at least symptomatic of “deflation.”
The “inflation” and “deflation” debates (at least, in the major media) are of limited interest when they take an either/or approach. In fact – back to “what does it matter to me?” – both conditions are present and moving towards a chaotic conclusion. This should be expected when the Main Street economy is appended to a financial economy, which by its nature (and high-frequency trading) is more unstable than a production economy. Since money-printing is still ascendant, more violent changes in price relationships are certain.
The Bernanke, Geithner, and Summers economy (that is, the economy of the United States) is following the historical script to hyperinflation, total war or social disintegration. In War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the prelude, those halcyon days in Old Moscow: “in those brightly colored rooms – with the music, flowers, dances, the Emperor, and tables set for eighty … The mirrors on the landing reflected ladies in white, pale-blue and pink dresses, with diamonds and pearls … In the first hall were the nobility and gentry in their uniforms … In the noblemen’s hall was an incessant movement and buzz of voices.”
Today, still ignorant of the debt deflation that plagues the deleveraging economy, Bernanke gabs before senators of a fanciful world, akin to a shell-shocked survivor raving before the Muscovite cognoscenti of the great Russian victory at Austerlitz. The beautiful people find this reconstruction most pleasing, so choose to trust it. (This is also a simplified version of how the most (not best) educated Americans – who dominate government, the media, think tanks, Wall Street, universities and wherever else they bray – came to ignore Alan Greenspan’s grave deficiencies and to deify him.)
Alas, those who were surest of their own invincibility were the least prepared for Napoleon’s invasion. Tolstoy wrote of simultaneous inflations and deflations, vast redistributions of wealth, sometimes accumulated over generations, lost in a matter of hours: “Prices that day indicated the state of affairs. The price of weapons, of gold, of carts and horses kept rising, but the value of paper money and city articles kept falling … Peasant horses [ed. note: a humble breed] were fetching five hundred rubles each [ed. note: a life savings] and furniture, mirrors and bronzes were being given away for nothing.”
Currently, inflation is present in the money supply, price of gold, and the U.S. stock and bond markets. These are old themes here, so will be held in abeyance to discuss an acute deflationary threat. That is income. It is falling and prices are rising.
David Rosenberg, economist at Gluskin, Sheff, an investment advisory firm in Canada, calculates that “private incomes” (non-government jobs and transfers) in the United States have fallen from $8.7 trillion in the third quarter of 2008 to $8.2 trillion in April 2010. Americans lived beyond their incomes for years. The main source of overconsumption was consumer credit which fell at an annualized rate of 3.75% in the second quarter of 2010. This demonstrates ingenuity on the consumers’ part given that “the big six issuers have trimmed total credit available to their customers by 25 percent, partly by shrinking credit lines and not renewing expired cards,” according to an analyst at Credit Suisse.
Over 40 million Americans used food stamps in May 2010, more than one-eighth of the population. According to Bill King (The King Report), U.S. government anti-poverty spending has risen 89% since 2000 – from $342 billion to $647 billion. This includes such programs as Medicaid grants, food assistance, housing vouchers, and child nutrition programs. Unemployment benefits have been extended several times in the past two years, to 99 weeks at present. The Labor Department estimates that 1.4 million workers have been unemployed for at least that amount of time. Nearly 46% of the country’s 14.6 million unemployed have been without a job for more than six months. Despite the fevered attempts to put money into hands of Americans, there were more house foreclosures in the second quarter of 2010 – 269,962 – than ever before. That was a 38% rise from the second quarter of 2009.
Reduced circumstances will grow more acute as prices continue to rise. The U.S. government contends prices are not rising. Count Rostov could do a better job. Almost anyone who pays health insurance premiums (health costs are 16% of the economy but only 4% of the consumer price index).
Sunday, August 15, 2010
The Obama "Financial" Team
Here's a bit from a review of the book Panderer for Power: The True Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession by Frederick Sheehan. I've bolded the part that caught my eye.