Thursday, October 30, 2014

Will the Fed's Fear of Deflation Lead to Rampant Inflation?

The financial pages these days it is easy to see that deflation is the major worry among the world's central bankers including the U.S. Federal Reserve.  The word "deflation" also turns up in articles and interviews with financial advisers.  The price of gold is down and few financial advisers are providing advice or strategies for dealing with inflation.

While there is no question that much of the world economy, including to some extent the U.S. economy and to a much greater extent the European economies, is suffering to some degree from deflation, there is an inflation time bomb lurking just over the horizon.

While I generally don't pay much attention to the doom and gloom concerns of Glenn Beck, I did find myself in full agreement with him this past Tuesday when, on the Sean Hannity show he made reference to the trillions of dollars worth of reserves the U.S. Federal Reserve and other Central Banks have been pumping into the world's banking system since the start of today's ongoing recession.

These trillions of dollars of reserves are new money created by central banks out of thin air and deposited into the world's banks.  While digitally created deposits, this money is basically no different than the massive amounts of paper money printed by the post World War I government in Germany.  The excessive printing of money by the German government resulted in  hyperinflation which led to the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party.

One other difference between the digital funds the world's central banks have deposited into banks and the paper money printed by the post World War I German Weimar Republic is that the digital funds are not circulating but are sitting on bank balance sheets as excess reserves.  So far banks have been hanging on to these funds and not loaning them out due to fear of another financial crises in which they might need these excess reserves to remain solvent.

While central banks intent at the start of the 2007-08 financial crisis was to shore up bank reserves with the injections, subsequent central bank efforts have been an attempt to increase the amount of money in circulation by providing banks with more money to lend.  However, banks have continued to remain cautious and have kept most of this new money as reserves.

The ongoing recession that has resulted from the financial crisis at the start of President Obama's term has been due to people being a fearful as the banks about a future crisis.  Just as the banks have kept the injected funds in reserve, people have been cautious about spending and have used much of their money to pay down debt and build up savings.  This has slowed the circulation of money which has led to fewer sales of goods and services.  This slow down in economic activity has led to layoffs and a reluctance to expand and hire more workers by employers.

This slowdown in the rate of spending by consumers has led to deflation which has prolonged the 2007-08 recession. Deflation is basically a reduction in the amount of money in the economy due to people hanging on to it rather than spending it.  They standard Keynesian policy response is to try to ignite some  inflation (the opposite of deflation).

According to a report on CNBC at the start of the financial crisis, the total amount of new money the world's central banks injected into banks as reserves exceeded the total amount of money in circulation in the world economy at that time.  Since then more money has been created and injected into bank reserves.

What central banks have been trying to do is get banks to move some of this money into the economies of their nations by loaning it out.  This injection of new money into circulation would result in some inflation which would off set or cancel out the deflation and get the world's economy moving and growing again.

However, the real problem is lack of confidence by consumers and business in the Obama Administration's tax and regulatory policies and fear that these will lead to another economic downturn.  In such a climate most people are being cautious and accumulating cash by cutting spending.

Creating money and putting it into the economy via the banking system is a traditional monetary tool for stimulating an ailing economy.  Central banks can also do the reverse and pull reserves out of the banking system which results in banks having less money to loan which forces economic growth to slow when the central bankers feel inflation is accelerating at to rapid a pace.  However, using monetary policy to stimulate or slow down an economy is not an exact science and considerable economic damage is frequently the result of these efforts.

The problem today is that if peoples confidence returns and banks respond by increasing lending there is the possibility that we will go from today's current deflation to rapidly increasing inflation.  If central banks stay focused on deflation and hesitate to act quickly, rampant inflation could result.  On the other hand, if central banks hit the monetary breaks too soon and too hard, the economy could fall back into a recession. 

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