Monday, September 20, 2010

Hussman Weekly Market Comment: Sequential Signals

On the subject of inflation, I should emphasize that while I expect inflation pressures to be contained for several years, the impact of massive deficit spending should not be disregarded simply because Japan, with an enormously high savings rate, was able to pull off huge fiscal imbalances without an inflationary event. We may be following many of the same policies that led to stagnation in Japan, but one feature of Japan that we do not share is our savings rate. It is one thing to expand fiscal deficits in an economy with a very elevated private savings rate. In that event, the economy, though weak, has the ability to absorb the new issuance. It is another to expand fiscal deficits in an economy that does not save enough. Certainly, the past couple of years have seen a surge in the U.S. saving rate, which has absorbed new issuance of government liabilities without pressuring their value. But it is wrong to think that the ability to absorb these fiscal deficits is some sort of happy structural feature of the U.S. economy. It is not. It relies on a soaring savings rate, and without it, our heavy deficits will ultimately lead to inflationary events.

Hyperinflation is a much different story, and as I've said before, I am not in that camp. This doesn't exclude the possibility that enough policy mistakes will change that, but for now, my inflation outlook is flat for several years and then accelerating in the second half of this decade.

As Peter Bernholz notes in Monetary Regimes and Inflation (an economic study of inflation, including more than two dozen cases of hyperinflation), "The figures demonstrate clearly that deficits amounting to 40 per cent or more of expenditures cannot be maintained. They lead to high [inflation] and hyperinflations, reforms stabilizing the value of money, or in total currency substitution leading to the same results. The examples of both Germany and Bolivia suggest that at least deficits of about 30 per cent or more of gross domestic product are not maintainable since they imply hyperinflations... [In nearly all] cases of hyperinflation deficits amounting to more than 20 per cent of public expenditures are present."

At present, U.S. federal expenditures are about $5 trillion, versus about $4 trillion of revenues, and GDP of about $14.6 trillion. So the federal deficit is running at about 20% of expenditures, but less than 7% of GDP. This is not a profile that is consistent with hyperinflation, but it is also not a benign policy. Continued deficits will have substantial economic consequences once the savings rate fails to increase in an adequate amount to absorb the new issuance, and particularly if foreign central banks do not pick up the slack. We're not there for now, but it's important not to assume that the current period of stable and even deflationary price pressures is some sort of structural feature of the economy that will allow us to run deficits indefinitely.