By Bob Wood
An awful lot of attention focuses on what effects Federal Reserve policy can have on U.S. economic growth and stability. So many market players seem to sit on the edge of their seats, with fingers hovering over the buy and sell buttons. They are ready to react to whatever Chairman Ben Bernanke or some other Fed official says regarding interest rate policy.
Their actions seem to imply that Bernanke need do nothing more about soaring rates of inflation, now estimated at close to 8% by anyone willing to ignore phony statistics like â€œcoreâ€ inflation rates, than raise short-term rates enough to slow economic growth. So when those short-term rates are high enough, the theory goes, economic activity should slow, thus easing demand and the rising costs of economic inputs like raw materials.
If only Bernankeâ€™s job were that easy! It is not, since no matter what the Fed does now, it can not erase the building effects of massive credit and money growth policies put in place by his predecessor, Alan Greenspan (known in Bear circles as the greatest bubble blower of all time). And the expected falling domestic demand for commodities and other economic inputs like energy takes into consideration nothing at all about global demand, which should very well spur further price rises for those inputs.
How interesting it is that twice in the past few weeks the stock market tried to rally on news that the Fed was nearing the end of its rate-hike cycle. But both rallies failed, as did the one which began last June in reaction to Dallas Fed Governor Richard Fisher’s comments about the rate-hike cycle moving into its â€œeight inning,â€ meaning that it was just about over.
To investigate these and other topics on the domestic and world financial scene and determine how they might affect client portfolios, I spend much of my week reading. And from time to time, I like bringing those other voices to this column, since, often, they may do a far better job than I in explaining what transpires in various financial arenas. For example, why should we always be skeptical of anyone and anything coming from Wall Street and the financial media? And should that list include our political leaders? With the predicaments in which we are involved â€“ the state of the economy and two failed wars â€“ and now possibly ramping up for another war with Syria or Iran, healthy doses of skepticism are worth noting.
One of the best spokespersons in the Bear camp, regarding monetary policy and the challenges faced by the Fed, is Peter Schiff of EuroPacific Capital. We are reprinting here his recent accounting of what investors should factor into their portfolio decisions and why the Wall Street crowd is probably looking in the wrong directions, once again.
Maybe, as always, the markets know more than the individual investor or those managing mutual and hedge funds. With insights into what they might be missing now, Schiff offers the following thoughts.
Slower Growth will not Contain Inflation
By Peter Schiff
July 21, 2006
When Ben Bernanke told Congress that moderating economic growth will likely contain inflationary pressures, Wall Street responded with its biggest one-day rally in nearly two years. Unfortunately for the Wall Street party boys, the Fed Chairman is likely wrong on both counts. In the first place the U.S. economy will not merely slow, but tumble, in the coming months/years, and rather than quelling inflation’s fire, the inevitable recession will actually stoke its flames.
Bernanke’s faulty logic assumes that inflation is somehow a by-product of economic growth.
However, real economic growth emanates from increased productivity, which tends to hold prices down. Bernanke also dramatically underestimates the strength of the economic headwinds that will quash consumption and crush GDP growth. The rising costs of energy, adjustable rate mortgage payments, rents, insurance, food, and local taxes, combined with the reverse wealth effects associated with collapsing real estate prices will combine to produce a recession much worse than those seen in the last 30 years.
The argument that weaker growth will somehow cause consumer prices to rise more slowly focuses on the demand side of the price equation and ignores the supply side. Prices are a function of both supply and demand, and while slower growth, or an outright recession, would certainly reduce demand, it would also work to reduce supply. The result could well be equilibrium prices that are higher during a recession than during an expansion.
As the U.S. economy contracts, the Federal budget deficit will grow and the perceived appeal of U.S. financial assets will be lost. As a result, foreign capital will flee at precisely the time it is needed the most. This will put additional upward pressure on interest rates, further increasing mortgage rates, suppressing real estate prices and consumer spending. More importantly, it will also cause the dollar to fall, making imports more expensive and pushing up raw material prices, thereby increasing production costs for domestic manufactures as well.
As the dollar loses value relative to other currencies, foreigners will be able to outbid Americans for scarce consumer goods. As a result, fewer products will be imported into the U.S. and more of America’s domestic production will be exported. Therefore, despite the fact that financially strapped Americans will be consuming much less, they will be paying much higher prices for the privilege of doing so.
Interestingly, in response to a direct question from Congressman Ron Paul, Bernanke actually admitted that growth was unrelated to inflation. Unfortunately, the Congressman missed the opportunity to press Bernanke to explain the inconsistency between that admission and the implication in his prepared remarks that the Fed might pause in its rate hikes based solely on the expectation that a slowing economy would contain inflation.
Another interesting admission was Bernanke’s forecasts that oil prices will stay around $75 to $80 dollars per barrel for the next several years. This is tantamount to an admission that the Fed’s exclusion of energy prices from inflation measurements over the past several years was a mistake. Remember, the Fed’s long held justification for favoring “core” inflation over “headline” was the belief that high oil prices were a temporary fluke.
Bernanke went on to say that he continues to favor the “core” because the futures markets were predicting stable oil prices. This makes no sense at all. Futures markets reflect forecasts, not facts, and have had a very poor track record predicting oil prices. However, if the futures markets are correct, then why not use the actual CPI, which will reflect the stable oil prices the futures markets are forecasting.
If on the other hand the futures markets are wrong, and energy prices continue to rise, what is the justification for excluding them given the Fed’s new position that high oil prices are here to stay?
The bottom line is that the Fed’s perceived battle against inflation has already been lost, and the biggest casualty will be the American standard of living. Those who are hoping for an economic slowdown to contain inflation are in for a rude awakening. They will get a whole lot more than they bargained for when it comes to the former, and no relief whatsoever with respect to the latter.
Peter Schiff, C.E.O. and Chief Global Strategist
Euro Pacific Capital, Inc.
I believe this is the type of thinking that we must include in our financial and investment decisions. Does it make sense to you?