Archive for February, 2009

Can price inflation occur in the midst of debt deflation?

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Right now, major economies like the US and UK are undergoing debt deflation. Large swathes of Europe is also going through this malaise. According to Professor Steve Keen, Australia, with its debt levels in the 3rd position behind US and UK, will suffer the same fate soon. Indeed, in the month of December 2008, Australia’s credit growth turned negative. Year-on-year credit growth in the second half of 2008 was decelerating. This is a worrying sign for Australia because as we explained before in Will Australia?s own pump-priming work?,

According to Professor Steve Keen, Australians? increased debt last year added $250 billion in spending into the economy. Currently, Australia?s credit growth is decelerating very rapidly. Should credit growth stagnate (or worse still, contract), this $250 billion (or more) in spending will go up in smoke.

So, there is plenty of scope for de-leveraging in the Australian economy, which will lead to debt deflation. Under such a scenario, asset prices will fall. As the theory goes, consumer prices should follow as well.

But is it possible for price inflation to rise in the midst of debt deflation? We were thinking of that possibility in What will happen if RBA cuts to zero?. The most likely culprit to blame for such a disturbing scenario will be the trashing of the Australian dollar. Debt deflation theory says that such a scenario is impossible. But there is a real-life example that shows that this can happen- Iceland. Today, Iceland is suffering sky-rocketing unemployment as well as price inflation. From the Icelandic central bank’s web site, you can see their price inflation rate has gone to the moon at 18.6% in January 2009.

How can both debt deflation and price inflation be possible? As someone in Professor Steve Keen’s blog site asked,

I?m wondering about what?s happening to Iceland now and going forward. When no one has a job, no one has savings and no one can sell a single thing. Everyone has no money. If no one has money, no one can buy things. If no one can buy things the shops must drop price further and further. This is monetary deflation and price deflation. More businesses fail and unemployment continues to rise. Where does the future inflation come from?

So, how can we explain Iceland?

Well, under the conventional demand-supply equilibrium model, prices should come down. But in this case, the system is out of equilibrium and cannot return to equilibrium. If there?s no money to buy imported things, it does not mean that the prices must come down. What will happen is (1) demand destruction and/or (2) the seller goes out of business (and contributes to higher unemployment). The remaining few sellers that survive will most likely sell to the richer Icelanders who can cough out the higher prices.

Furthermore, as we explained with an example in What will happen if RBA cuts to zero?, even locally produced goods can rise in price too.

Can this happen to Australia? Fingers crossed. The inflation part depends on the Aussie dollar.

3 Months ago: your vote on what will happen by today

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Three months ago, the global financial market saw fear, panic and volatility at extreme levels. According to some quantitative measures, such levels of fear were unprecedented (e.g. worse then the infamous 1987 crash). At that time, Marc Faber made the contrarian call that there will be a big rally within 3 months (see Marc Faber: Asset Markets May Rebound Within 3 Months).

Indeed, for the US stock market, there was a rally. But it quickly fizzled out before drifting down. Today, the Dow Jones and S&P 500 is threatening to breach the November 2008 lows. For the Australian market, it was range bound. But similar to the US market, the November 2008 line is also threatened. Commodity prices were hardly changed, while precious metals are the only ones still outperforming the rest of the market.

Back then, we asked you, our readers, on what you believed would happen to the market in 3 months time. Today, 3 months had passed. How did all your predictions go? Take a look at what you voted here. It looks like the majority was wrong- the market behaviour of the past 3 months could be best described as “range-bound.”

Why are nothing-yielding US Treasuries so popular?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

One of the thing that confounds us is the fact that short-term US government bonds are yielding almost nothing. A 10-year US Treasury bonds yields a measly 2.79% while a 30-year bond yields 3.57%.

There are two common explanations for such a curious phenomena:

  1. It’s a flight to ‘safety’
  2. The market is pricing in price deflation in the US

With the US printing money and its government fallen in trillions of dollars worth of debt (see How is the US going to repay its national debt?), why are investors still pouring money into government bonds that are pretty close to junk?

Isn’t it obvious that the ridiculously low long-term US Treasury bonds is in a bubble? Marc Faber once said, “It’s time to short US government bonds, BIG TIME!”

Well, we have found a very good explanation for that. Remember in Bernanke ticking off another inflation trick- buying Treasury securities, we said that Ben Bernanke was suggesting that the Fed buys up US Treasury bonds? Basically, the Fed is creating money out of thin air to prop up the prices of these bonds. Therefore, what is there to fear if bond yields are ridiculously priced?

With that in mind, even mainstream investment analysts are recommending such junk government bonds. In Treasuries still strong: Merill Lynch, it reported that

Stephen Corry, Merrill Lynch, chief investment strategist for global wealth management, believes that the US Federal Reserve cannot allow Treasury yields to climb much higher than its current levels of around 2.6 per cent.

Consequently, we are seeing the weird situation whereby both gold and US Treasuries are going strong. Our bet is that gold will win eventually.

Can the idea of retirement continue?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The global financial crisis (GFC) had brought many cans of worms for governments. One of them is the idea of funding your retirement through superannuation. The idea of retirement is relatively new in the entire history of human civilisation. Up till a 120 years ago, it is either you work till you drop or your children will look after you when you are too old to work. It was the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who introduced the idea of old-age social insurance program in 1889. Initially, the retirement age was set at 70. However, since life expectancy at that time was well below that, it was pretty much work-till-you-drop. You can imagine how cheap that program was for the government.

As the decades went by, people lived longer and longer. As a result, the public cost of old-age social insurance grew more and more prohibitive for governments. With the introduction of defined contribution schemes, the risk of funding retirement was transferred from the state/employer to the individual. That went well until…

With the financial panic of 2008, the retirement savings (actually, the word ‘savings’ is conceptually wrong- see The myth of financial asset ?investments? as savings) of many people were decimated because of major losses suffered by their superannuation funds in the stock markets. Some people had to contemplate postponing their retirement and returning to the workforce. To make matters worse for these people, they had to do so at a time when the whole world is facing a synchronised recession (or maybe even a depression) when jobs are becoming more scarce.

This put a very big question mark on the idea of compulsory superannuation. In June 2007, as we wrote Epic, unprecedented inflation, when the world was experiencing a synchronised boom in all asset classes in all regions of the earth, it seemed like a good idea. Today, with synchronised price deflation in most asset classes (except gold and US Treasury bonds) in all regions of the earth, does it mean that the whole idea of the superannuation system is a mistake?

With deflation, the tide turns and we all know who had been swimming naked. The problem is, it turned out that most people are swimming naked! It turned out that many of the ‘assets’ that we hold are not reliable store of wealth after all. Most of these assets are in the form of paper (financial) assets. From what was happening overseas, even physical, tangible and fixed assets (e.g. property) are suspect. In other words, there was a divergence between the nominal price of these ‘assets’  and the economic value of their underlying businesses and usefulness. What greased that divergence? The answer is, inflation of credit. In the days, months and years ahead, governments will try to inflate the supply of money and credit while the free market will wake up to the extent of the divergence between the price and value.

We suspect that for this current cohort of working people, the idea of retirement planning will be radically changed. Perhaps cultivation of relationships and friendships, networking with people of specific skills, reconciliation and sacrifice of independence will gain more prominence in your plans for retirement?

If you save, government will wage economic war on you

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

In this economic climate of uncertainty, governments all over the world have to be seen to be doing something. The problem is, by doing ‘something,’ they are actually making the problem worse (see Are government interventions the first steps towards corruption & inefficiencies? and Supplying never-ending drugs till stagflation). In particular, they fear debt deflation because it is the more immediate threat. It is this fear that led Helicopter Ben (i.e. Ben Bernanke) to subscribe to the Zimbabwean school of economic thought (see Bernankeism and hyper-inflation) in the Keynesian belief that forcing people to spend and consume is the way to go. If printing money are the answers to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), then Zimbabwe will be the richest and most prosperous nation in the world. Indeed, judging by the number of billionaires, in that country, it must be so! When you see Zimbabwe’s central banker praising the central banks of US and UK (see Zimbabwe?s central banker in praise of Fed), you know something is very wrong with the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.

As we said before in “Government?s contradictory messages,”

Without the liquidation of mal-investments and restoration of the structural imbalances that is brought about by deflation, applying bigger and bigger stimulus packages will only function in similar ways to drugs- more and more for less and less effect. The reason why Keynesian reflationary pump-priming worked during the Great Depression was that it was applied after the cleansing effects of the deflation had done its work. But today, in reaction to the financial crisis, governments all over the world are doing so before the purge of fire. As a result, the much-needed economic correction that the economy had to have will not happen.

Thus, whether you are currently in debt or not, if you intend to save money, the government will be very keen to discourage you from doing so by undermining and debasing the currency in which your savings are based on. As we said in “When real interest rates is below zero, why save money in bank?

 … if we disregard the doctored statistics of the official figures, real interest rates are negative!

That is why governments all over the world are sending so many mixed messages to the effect that an average person do not know whether he/she is meant to spend or to save (see Government?s contradictory messages). A very simple way to resolve this paradox (sarcastically) is to think of it this way: save while everyone else is committing financial suicide by spending willy nilly.

What if you are a saver who simply does not wish to spend, invest, borrow or speculate? If you believe that the government will fight this war against debt deflation by marching our credit-based economy towards a Zimbabwean-style economy (see Recipe for hyperinflation), you will be forced to make very difficult choices. For such a saver, the best case scenario for your savings will be severe price deflation in an environment of zero-interest rates in a properly functioning banking system (while still employed/business earning positive cash-flow). But if you are pessimistic about this best-case scenario happening, then you will be forced to ‘speculate.’

As the government and RBA try to erode your savings by taxing them and pushing down interest rates to below price inflation (even perhaps to zero), what can you do? Good question.

Let’s take a look at the US. Currently, short-term US Treasury bonds are yielding almost nothing. At one point, their yield even became negative! In that case, what will be the difference between a nothing-yielding government bond and gold? As we said before in “Is gold an investment?“, gold is

a boring, inert metal that does not have much pragmatic use and does not pay dividends, income or interests, it is completely unfit for ?investment.?

That probably explains why we are seeing, at least for now, US Treasury bonds and gold moving upwards together. Traditionally, they move in opposite directions. Today, this inverse relationship seems to have decoupled.

Therefore, the risk/reward profile has come to the point that savers who have spare cash may want to consider transforming part of their savings from cash to gold.

P.S. Use the government’s free stimulus cash to buy gold. 😉

When real interest rates is below zero, why save money in bank?

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

In “What will happen if RBA cuts to zero?,” we described the situation whereby interest rates in many countries are moving towards zero i.e. Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP). In Australia, the interest rates are currently at 3.25%. There are talk in the financial market that more cuts are on the way.

Price inflation, on the other hand, is 3.7% for the year to December 2008- that is, according to the official CPI figures. As late as October last year, the official price inflation was running at 5%. But as we wrote in “What is your personal price inflation rate?,”

Inflation is also running high in the rest of the Western world. Worse still, many of the official measurements of inflation run counter to personal experiences.

As we quoted Ludwig von Mises in How much can we trust the price indices (e.g. CPI)?,

If she [a judicious housewife] ?measures? the changes for her personal appreciation by taking the prices of only two or three commodities as a yardstick, she is no less ?scientific? and no more arbitrary than the sophisticated mathematicians in choosing their methods for the manipulation of the data of the market.

Talking to some people from the US, we learnt that despite having an official falling inflation rate (based on CPI), people feel that things are still very expensive.

In other words, if we disregard the doctored statistics of the official figures, real interest rates are negative!

In Australia, interests from savings are taxed. This means that after tax, putting money in the bank is a losing proposition. If excessive debt is the cause of the global financial crisis (GFC), then this means that the solution is to slim down, cut down on debt and start saving. But if savers are punished with negative real interest rates, then the very poison (that caused the crisis in the first place) is used as the medicine. If a doctor do this, then he/she will be charged with criminal negligence. Yet, with interest rates in Australia projecting to fall further, the econocrats are doing this!

For foreigners, the solution is very simple- just pull your capital out of Australia. After all, who on earth will want to lend money below the rate of price inflation? If the government is really concerned about the foreign banks pulling out of Australia (and further tightening the local credit market), then wouldn’t falling interest rates worsen the situation? It has come to the point that even our local banks are murmuring about further cutting their lending rates to match RBA’s projected rate cuts. If the banks are politically pressured to cut their mortgage rate, then they will have to: (1) draw blood from elsewhere- see Canberra is destroying jobs or (2) ration capital.

For the hard-working Aussie savers, what are their options? We will look more into it in the next article. Keep in tune!

Is gold transitioning to become money?

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

In response to our previous article (What will happen if RBA cuts to zero?), one of our readers asked,

Hi, This article concludes with a disturbing scenario. Asset price deflation with consumer price inflation. Gold is as asset class, how will it fare in this scenario? It seems that gold is starting its transition back to being money, what would it take for that transition to happen, do you think its under way or likely?

Firstly, for those who are new to this publication, we would first refer you to this guide, Why should you invest in gold?. It contains quite a number of useful articles for you to understand gold. We recommend you to read them first.

Now, back to our reader’s questions. The first one is, how will gold fare in times of debt deflation, foreign capital flight and price inflation? Let us go through each asset class one by one:

  1. Property is definitely a loser because it is highly geared asset class. Since business and personal solvencies will be threatened en masse in a debt deflation, highly geared assets will be falling rapidly in prices. Rising price inflation of inelastic non-discretionary goods will worsen the solvency situation of many.
  2. Stocks are unlikely to well in a sick economy.
  3. The same goes for debt securities.
  4. Assuming that more and more foreigners are holding Commonwealth Government bonds (thanks to the growing budget deficit from the bigger and bigger ‘stimulus’ packages), they will become increasingly nervous of the falling Aussie dollar. Thus, a sell-off in government bonds cannot be ruled out. This implies foreigners’ fear of sovereign debt default.
  5. As foreign capital flees Australia (due to the deteriorating economic situation), a banking crisis cannot be ruled out. It’s one thing for the government to guarantee bank deposits but another to actually implement the guarantee. How much can cash at bank be trusted? Perhaps the government will ‘guarantee’ bank deposits and at the same time, put in capital controls (e.g. restrict foreign capital from fleeing, limit the amount of cash that can be withdrawn, etc)?

As you can see, this disturbing scenario is one in which there are no textbooks to refer to. The government will be making rapid-fire decisions in real-time. Thus, all our projections here are guesstimates and speculations. But one thing is certain: uncertainty and unpredictability will rule the day. As a result, physical gold (and silver) is the only asset class that can give you a sense of security. In such a day, the nominal price of gold is irrelevant.

Next, our reader asked: Is gold starting its transition back to being money?

We do not know the answer to this question. But we are sure the government will be hell-bent in preventing it from happening as long as it remains strong. The qualifier in bold is a very important one that you should take note. Hitler once said that the gold standard is not needed because the state will be so strong that such a standard is unnecessary (we do not know whether this is true or not, but history buffs may want to dig out the reference for that). Also, Marco Polo was astounded that the authority of the Khan could turn paper into something that was as good as gold and silver, on pain of death. In the US in the 1930s, gold ownership became illegal. Hence, a strong government is anti-thesis to gold being money. Conversely, if the government is weak, gold stands a much better chance of functioning as money.

What will happen if RBA cuts to zero?

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

In the United States, the Federal Reserve had set the interest rates to almost zero. In the United Kingdom, interest rates have reached 1%. Japan had cut her interest back to almost zero again. Canada’s interest rates have reached 1%. In Europe, it’s 2%. All over the world, central bankers are busily firing their interest rates guns to fight this global recession. Already, Japan and the United States had already ran out of ammunition.

As for Australia, the goods news is that our Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) still has some ammunition remaining after cutting its rates to a low of 3.25%. The bad news is that Australia is about to enter recession, possibly a very severe one (see Realisation of hard landing ahead for Australia). So, what if Australia’s RBA runs out of ammunition too?

If Australia’s interest rates ever reach zero (as Professor Steve Keen believes it will by 2010), it will happen in the context of a hard landing or even a depression. It will be a time of debt deflation, which as we said in Aussie household debt not as bad as it seems?,

A severe downturn to the Australian economy may or may not be statistically likely, but given the level of unprecedented leverage, you can be sure the impact will not be small. Be sure to understand the concept of Black Swans (see Failure to understand Black Swan leads to fallacious thinking).

Chances are, such economic malaise will drag on for many years, similar in length to Japan’s lost decade. For investors, this will be a very trying time. The key thing for investors and savers to watch out for is the Aussie dollar. As we explained before in Can falling interest rates and rising mortgage rate come together?,

A large fraction of Australia?s borrowed money is sourced from overseas through the ?shadow? banking system. In other words, there are not enough domestic deposits to fund all the needed credit (e.g. home loans) in this country.

As a result, there is a great potential for a complication that we described in Another complication in RBA?s interest rate cut,

Today, we will talk about another issue that can complicate matters for the RBA- the pullout of foreign capital.

When debt deflation takes hold of Australia, the RBA can easily run out of ammunition. In the absence of government intervention, credit will be extremely scarce in Australia. Our guess is that in such a scenario, foreign capital will flee out of Australia, leading to another fall in the Aussie dollar. The only mitigation against our dollar in such a scenario will be to the extent that the Australian government opens up our mining and resource assets to predatory foreign sovereign wealth fund (read: China).

Everything else being equal (we will talk about the not-being-equal scenario further down), a falling dollar will be, as we described in Falling currency and inflation,

Now, we will look at the context of Australia, which is another import-dependent country. A rapid depreciation of the Aussie dollar will result in rising price inflation for the same reasons stated above.

Now, imagine the food that you eat everyday. Most of them are produced in Australia. A falling Aussie dollar implies that foreigners will have greater purchasing power for Australian-made food. Assuming that the market is still free, that means that Australians will have to compete with foreigners for our own food. Also, since Australia is hardly self-sufficient in manufactured goods, a falling Aussie dollar will imply falling purchasing power for the many imported things that we enjoy today.

What if we combine debt deflation with falling Aussie dollar? In that case, there will be massive aggregate demand destruction in the economy. Basically, this means a very drastic drop in the standards of living for many.

We shudder to think of the implication of this. We wonder whether there can be a scenario whereby there is a combination of (1) crashing asset prices (due to debt deflation) and (2) rising inflation for price inelastic consumer staples (due to the depreciating Aussie dollar)? If such an mishap eventuates, even savers have to worry about the return of their savings!

Jamming on brakes and accelerator simultaneously

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

A few years ago, we were chatting with our friends on the topic of personal finance and investments. Back then, it was a global financial bull market in which the savings (made compulsory by law in the form of superannuation) of millions of Australians were ploughed into ‘assets.’ Our friend’s attitude is that she will leave it all to the ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ to invest her savings and would not want to bother herself with it. The prevailing thinking was that, as we described in The myth of financial asset ?investments? as savings (in February 2007),

… there are some who argued that if we include financial asset ?investments? such as home equity, pension and managed investment funds, stocks and so on, the savings rate is actually positive.

As we elucidated in that article, we had strong reservations on this fallacious idea. In essence, many people’s savings were (and still are) thrown into chasing prices of intangible financial assets, which hardly result in real capital formation. By chasing and bidding prices upwards, it gave rise to the illusion that ‘wealth’ had increased when in actual fact, there were no corresponding accumulation in capital goods (see The myth of financial asset ?investments? as savings to understand the meaning of capital goods). The global financial crisis (GFC) is a correction to this grand illusion.

Think about it: Why is it that after the years of ‘prosperity’ (economic boom) the state of infrastructure is so poor and neglected that governments today have to spend billions in nation building to ‘stimulate’ the economy? After all these years of boom in ‘asset’ prices, wealth and prosperity, is that what our nation (including the US, UK and Australia) has to show for?

Where had all the money gone to?

Once you understand the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (see What causes economic booms and busts?), you will be able to see that limited resources in the economy are being mal-invested into wasteful and unproductive use. So, this bust is the period when mal-investments are in the process of liquidation (e.g. deflation in asset prices). Very unfortunately, governments are hell-bent in preventing this liquidation process and at the same time, trying to redirect resources into urgently needed area via central planning.

The governments’ actions are akin to jamming on the brakes and accelerator simultaneously. No prize for guessing what will happen to the car.

Should you follow Buffett and be greedy now?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

One of our readers, in response to yesterday’s article (Future is bleak for conventional investing), said

Mr Contrarian, you?re stating to sound like mainstream press.
It may soon be time to turn contrarian on the Contrarian Investor.

As Warren Buffet pointed out: ?Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.?

Today, we cannot resist poking another fun at this Buffett cliché (“Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful”). Two years ago, we were very fearful when others are greedy. Today, others are fearful and we have not yet turned greedy. So, are we turning mainstream?

First, for those extreme Buffett devotees (we do not know whether this particular reader is one) who like to quote this cliché religiously, there are something they fail to understand about being contrarian- there is a difference between a contrarian and a reverse conformist. A reverse conformist blindly takes the opposite position of the crowd indiscriminately. The moment the crowd turns fearful, a reverse conformist immediately flips to greed. A contrarian, on the other hand, is someone who is prepared to take an opposite position at the right time. As we said in What is this publication all about?,

… if you want to achieve excellence in your investment endeavours, you have to be prepared, from time to time, to go against the prevailing market trend with strong convictions.

Second, being contrarian does not merely mean taking an opposite direction from the crowd on the same road. Sometimes it means taking a different road. Some Buffett devotees who adhere to this cliché religiously can only think in terms of investing in stocks (listed securities) of public businesses. In other words, they can only think of investments in the context of a financial market. In reality, stocks is only one road of the many roads available to the investor. That’s why we said in yesterday’s article that

For others, it may mean investing outside the financial system. For some people, they may no longer see it appropriate to call it ?investing.?

Our point in yesterday’s article is that to be a successful investor, one has to look beyond the conventional realm of the financial markets in today’s economic climate.

Third, some of these extreme Buffett devotees fail to see there is one major difference between them and Warren Buffett- he has the big money and influence to cut deals in order to acquire entire businesses outright. Many of these businesses are private ones and inaccessible from the stock market. Most investors, on the other hand, can only access publicly listed businesses from the financial markets. That in itself puts most investors at a severe disadvantage. Think about this: If you own a fantastic private business that fulfils the Buffett criteria, would you want to turn it public (especially in today’s economic climate) and subject your business under legal and institutional straits jacket and put it under the watchful public eye? If you are to turn your private business into a public business, will you ensure that you will get the better deal than the public? This is something that the Chinese Sovereign Wealth Fund had to learn the hard way when it purchased Blackstone.

Next, we may trust that Buffett to be a better businessman than us. But does that automatically mean that he has a good understanding of the macroeconomic environment? In fact, Buffett is a lousy economist. The biggest mistake a Buffett devotee can make is to believe that Buffett is good at everything and believes that his circle of competency is greater than it actually is.

Next, some Buffett devotees fail to see that he has a blind spot- Warren Buffett is an American patriot who has a biased view in favour of America.

Finally, take note of this: Warren Buffett has never experienced the Great Depression for himself. Neither has he experienced hyperinflation of Weimar Germany. All his life, he lives in America as an American. Today’s America is at a turning point and there’s no guarantee that it will return to the America that Buffett experienced all his life. As we said before in Listening to ?wise? heads can be dangerous,

The point is, no matter how experienced a ?wise? head is, his experience is still confined to either (1) a specific market or (2) a slice of time in history. That is, all the experience that a ?wise? head has is still limited in the bigger scheme of things. Therefore, to stop thinking and extrapolate blindly from this limited perspective into the general is a dangerous trap to base one?s investment decisions on.

For all you know, the panic of 2008 may be the event that becomes the undoing of Warren Buffett’s reputation as an investor.