Everyone has “ah-ha” moments, when something that was murky in one’s mind becomes crystal clear. It could be about a relationship or a career changing event. When such moments occur, things are never the same.
Recent ‘ah-ha’ moments
In the first few years of this century, when home prices were rapidly rising, few recognized that the trend couldn’t last unless either incomes kept up with prices or interest rates continued to fall. From 2000 to 2006, while incomes rose 2 percent, home prices rose 100 percent. Lesson learned?
From July ’82 to August, ’00, the S&P 500 rose 1,400 percent while GDP, a proxy for economic output, rose 305 percent. Of course, the “ah-ha” moment came in 2000, when the stock market began giving back nearly half of its value over the next two years. A similar scenario was repeated from the 2002 lows to the 2007 highs. Lesson relearned?
From these experiences, it would be rational to conclude that rapid growth in the nominal value of assets that is not matched by a similar expansion in the economic fundamentals is simply not sustainable. It is called a “bubble.” Given the popping of several such bubbles since the turn of the century, it should be logical to conclude that we have learned to recognize such phenomena.
Recognizing current bubbles
In the first quarter of 2013, real disposable personal income continued its long-term decline, a trend that began in the ’70s and accelerated around the financial meltdown and housing bubble pop of the Great Recession.
According to official government data, real average weekly earnings (using the CPI as the deflator) have fallen 18 percent since their peak in the early ’70s. Yet, despite the fact that the consumer, representing 70 percent of the economy, is still struggling, the S&P 500 rose 10 percent in the first quarter, and through the end of May is up 14 percent for the year. (Ah-ha!)
It is clear that the stock market is being driven by the Fed’s quantitative easing (QE) policies. The Fed has injected liquidity by buying huge quantities of treasury and mortgage backed securities, and, so far, that liquidity has simply chased stock prices. Is it any wonder that the stock market falls when there is any indication that QE will be scaled back?
QE’s unintended consequences
The consequences of QE are much deeper than a correction, even a significant correction, in equity prices. The following is Milton Friedman’s famous tautology (meaning it is always true by definition).
This says that the money supply (M) times its velocity (V) (the number of times money changes hands) must equal the number of physical goods bought that year (Q) times the average price paid for those goods (P). It stands to reason that if M*V grows faster than Q, then P must rise.
Since the recession and the beginning of QE, the Fed nearly has quadrupled the size of its balance sheet (from $848 billion in August 2008 to $3.0 trillion in April, and growing at $85 billion per month). The Fed’s balance sheet translates directly into bank reserves, and when banks have excess reserves, they can loan those reserves out.
Of course, when they do, the money supply grows. There is growing evidence today that consumer deleveraging has ended. Bank loans and commercial paper outstanding are up significantly, as is credit card debt. At the same time, state and local governments spending is once again increasing (just look at the budget recently passed in the Nevada Legislature). During the past year, the monetary base (currency + excess bank reserves) has risen by 18 percent. And, more importantly, M1 (currency + checking account balances) is up 12 percent.
Are we approaching another ‘ah-ha’ moment?
Bernanke himself knows that inflation appears with long and variable lags. He and co-authors published a paper in 1999 that concluded there are long and variable lags between inflation-causing policies and the inflation itself.
Q is growing at less than 2 percent; M is growing at a double-digit rate. Consumer deleveraging is ending and state and local government spending is rising. This means that velocity (V) has stopped falling. Despite the current consensus among economists and market participants who say inflation is nonexistent, when M*V rises faster than Q, P has to rise! (Ah-ha!)
The Fed is targeting inflation and the unemployment rate, both lagging economic indicators. By the time inflation shows up in these laggards, it will be well ingrained.
Worse, Bernanke, Yellen and other Fed governors have embraced the belief that some inflation (2 percent-plus) is desirable even after fighting it for years. I fear the Fed will actually praise the early onset of inflation, which will limit any negative reaction to it by both the Fed and the market.
As we learned in the ’70s and ’80s, once inflation becomes ingrained, it is awfully difficult to shake (three years of double-digit interest rates), especially in an economy with growth problems. Inflation destroys the value of your investments. The cost of protection today is cheap.
Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee. Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone, Andrea Knapp, Matt Marcewicz and Marvin Grulli) are available to discuss client investment needs.
Call them at 775-284-7778.
Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.