Even With a Crisis, No Deflation Coming
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the event of a banking crisis redux. While I’m not very concerned about US banks these days, there is a ‘developing situation’ in China that could well eventually lead to crisis (although the state might prevent outright collapses), and of course ongoing gnashing of teeth over Deutsche Bank’s capital situation if it is fined as heavily as some have suggested they will be.
I am not yet really worried about the banking side of things. But there are plenty of sovereign issuers who are clearly heading down unsustainable paths (not least of these is the US, especially if either of the leading Presidential candidates really implements the high-cost programs they are declaring they will), and when sovereigns tremble it is often banks that bear the direct brunt. After all, you can’t form a line outside of the sovereign to withdraw your money.
But, in a spirit of looking forward to anticipate potential crises, let us pretend we are confronting another banking crisis. The question I often hear next is, “how deflationary would it be to have another crisis when inflation is already low?”
Unpeeling the onion, there are several reasons this doesn’t concern me much. First, inflation is stable or rising in most developed nations. Yes, headline inflation is still sagging due to energy prices, but median inflation is 2.6% in the US and core inflation is 0.8% in Europe and 1.3% in the UK. To be sure, all of those are lower than they were in mid-2008. But remember that in 2009 and 2010, median (or core) inflation never got below 0.5% in the US, 0.8% in Europe, and 2.7% in the UK. Japan of course experienced deflation, but that wasn’t the fault of the crisis – as I’ve pointed out before, Japan has been in long-running deflation due to the BOJ’s inability or unwillingness to grow the money supply.
So, if the worst crisis in 100 years didn’t take core inflation negative – a major, major failure of Keynesian predictions – then I’m not aflutter about it happening this time. Heck, in 2009 and 2010 core inflation wouldn’t even have been as low as it was, had the cause of the crisis not been the bursting of the housing bubble. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Atlanta Fed’s “sticky” CPI (another way to measure the underlying inflation trend) ex-shelter. Note that in 2010, the low in this measure was about 1.25%…it was actually lower in 2014 and 2015.
But we can go further than that. One reason that inflation decelerated in 2009 and 2010 was because money velocity dropped sharply. As I’ve shown before, and argued in my book, the decline in money velocity was not particularly unusual given the decline in interest rates. That is, if you had known what was going to happen to interest rates, you would have had a very good forecast of money velocity and, hence, core inflation.
Back in 2008, I never dreamed that interest rates would go so low, or stay so low for so long. Few of us did! But the outcome, in the event, was consistent with the monetarist model while being completely inconsistent with the Keynesian model. And here’s the point, when thinking about the next crisis: interest rates are already at incredibly low levels, lower even than the 36-year downtrend channel would have them (see chart, source Bloomberg).
With the wisdom of experience, I would never be so cavalier as to say that interest rates cannot go lower from here! But in 2008, 10-year rates were around 3.80% and they’re 1.60% now (in the US, and lower elsewhere). Real rates were around 2% at the 10-year point; they are at 0% now. It is difficult to imagine how rates can have another dramatic move as they did in 2008-09.
It is important to understand, that is, just why inflation tends to fall in recessions. It is not, as the Keynesians would have it, that a growing “output gap” reduces the pressure on resources and relieves price increases. It is because slack demand for credit causes interest rates to decline, which leads to lower money velocity and hence, lower inflation. If the central bank responds in a timely manner to increase money supply growth by increasing reserves, then inflation doesn’t fall very far. In the last crisis, the Fed and other central banks added enough liquidity to ramp up M2 growth, and that kept the decline in money velocity from causing outright deflation (then, they kept adding reserves for a few more years, which led to the situation we are in now – too many reserves in the system, so that central banks no longer control the marginal dollar that goes into the money supply).
So, in the next crisis I expect central banks will add still more reserves to the pile of excess reserves, which will be meaningless but will make them feel better. Interest rates will decline, but not by as much as they did in the last crisis, and money velocity will fall. So, in a real serious crisis, inflation will decline – however, it will not decline very much.
That is the world we are now living in: higher highs to inflation on each subsequent peak, and higher lows in each subsequent trough. The vicious cycle counterpart to the virtuous cycle we have enjoyed for 35 years. This is true, I think, whether or not we get a crisis or just a garden-variety recession.
I should be clear that I think that such a crisis would be horrible for growth. That is, our current weak growth in global GDP would turn negative again, and possibly even more painful. And times would be truly bad in the stock market. But inflation will not follow, just as it didn’t follow in 2009-2010, and turn into deflation.