The Coming Global Stag-Deflation (Stagnation/Recession plus Deflation)

The Coming Global Stag-Deflation (Stagnation/Recession plus Deflation)“, Nouriel Roubini, RGE Monitor, 25 October 2008 — A more optimistic forecast than my own, but an A-team economist.  Reposted in full with permission.

His conclusion

In conclusion, a sharp slack in goods, labor and commodity markets will lead to global deflationary trends over the next year. And the fiscal costs of bailing out borrowers and/or lenders/investors will not be inflationary as central banks will not be willing to incur the high costs of very high inflation as a way to reduce the real value of debt burdens of governments and distressed borrowers. The costs of rising expected and actual inflation will be much higher than the benefits of using the inflation/seignorage tax to pay for the fiscal costs of cleaning up the mess that this most severe financial crisis has created. As long – as likely – as these fiscal costs are financed with public debt rather than with a monetization of these deficits inflation will not be a problem either in the short run or over the medium run.

His essay in full

Last January – at a time when the consensus was starting to worry about rising global inflation – I wrote a piece titled Will the U.S. Recession be Associated with Deflation or Inflation (i.e. Stagflation)? On the Risks of “Stag-deflation” rather than “Stagflation” where I argued that the US and other economies would soon have to worry about price deflation rather than price inflation.

As I put it at that time last January:

… the S-word (stagflation that implies growth recession cum high and rising inflation) has recently returned in the markets and analysts’ debate as inflation has been rising in many advanced and emerging markets economies. This rise in inflation together with the now unavoidable US recession, the risk of a recession in a number of other economies (especially in Europe) and the likelihood of a sharp global economic slowdown has lead to concerns that the risks of stagflation may be rising.

Should we thus worry about US and global stagflation? This note will argue that such worries are not warranted as a US hard landing followed by a global economic slowdown represents a negative global demand shock that will lead to lower global growth and lower global inflation. To get stagflation one needs a large negative global supply-side shock that, as argued below, is not likely to occur in the near future. Thus the coming US recession and global economic slowdown will be accompanied by a reduction – rather than an increase – in inflationary pressures. As in 2001-2003 inflation may become the last of the worries of the Fed and one may actually start hearing again concerns about global deflation rather than inflation.

Let me elaborate next why…

…unlike a true negative supply side shock – that reduces growth while increasing inflation – a US recession followed by a global economic slowdown is a negative demand shock that has the effect of reducing US and global growth while at the same time reducing US and global inflationary pressures. Specifically such a negative demand shock will reduce inflation and across the world because of a variety of channels.

Four factors driving dis-inflation

First, a US hard landing will lead to a reduction in aggregate demand relative to the aggregate supply as a glut of housing, consumer durables, autos and, soon enough, other goods and service takes places. Such reduction in aggregate demand tends to reduce inflationary pressures as firms lose pricing power and then to cut prices to stave off the fall in demand and the rising stock of inventories of unsold goods. These deflationary pressures are already clear in housing where prices as falling and in the auto sector where the glut of automobiles is leading to price discounts and other price incentives. Obviously, inflation tends to fall in recession led by a fall in aggregate demand.

Second, during US recessions you observe a significant slack in labor markets: job losses and the rise in the unemployment rate lead to a slowdown in nominal wage growth that reduces labor costs and unit labor cost, thus reducing wage and price inflationary pressured in the economy.

Third, the same slack of aggregate demand and slack in labor markets will occur around the world as long as the negative US demand shock is transmitted – through trade, financial, exchange rate and confidence channels – to other countries leading to a slowdown in growth in other countries (the recoupling rather than decoupling phenomenon). The reduction in global aggregate demand – relative to the global supply of goods and service – will lead to a reduction in inflationary pressures.

Fourth, during any US hard landing and global economic slowdown driven by a negative demand shock the US and global demand for oil, gas, energy and other commodities tends to fall leading to a sharp fall in the price of all commodities. A US hard landing followed by a European, Chinese and Asian slowdown will lead to a much lower demand for commodities pushing down their price. The fall in prices tends to be sharp because – in the short run – the supply of commodities tends to be inelastic; thus any fall in demand leads to a greater fall in price – given an inelastic supply curve – to clear the commodity prices. And indeed in recent weeks the rising probability of a US hard landing has already lead to a fall in such prices: for example oil prices that had flirted with a $100 a barrel level are now down to a price closer to $90; or the Baltic Dry Freight index – that measures the cost of shipping dry commodities across the globe and that had spike for most of 2007 given the high demand and the limited supply of such ships – is now sharply down by over 20% relative to its peak in the fall of 2007. Similar downward pressure in prices is now starting to show up in other commodities.

Note that a cyclical drop in commodity prices – led by a US hard landing and global economic slowdown – does not mean that commodity prices will remained depressed over the middle term once this global growth slowdown is past. If in the medium term the supply response to high prices is modest while the medium-long term demand for commodities remains high once the US and global economy return to their potential growth rates commodity prices could indeed resume their upward trend.

But in a cyclical horizon of 12 to 18 months a US hard landing and global economic slowdown would lead to a sharp fall in commodity prices. Note that even in the case of oil that is the commodity with the weakest supply response to prices – as the investments in new production in a bunch of unstable petro-states (Nigeria, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq and even Russia) are limited – a cyclical global slowdown could lead to a very sharp fall in oil prices. Indeed while oil today is closer to the $90-100 range in the last 12 months oil prices drifted downward at some point close to a $50-60 range even before a US hard landing and global slowdown had occurred. Thus, one cannot rule out that in such a hard landing scenario oil prices could drift to a price close to $60.

The four factors discussed above suggest that – conditional on the negative global demand shock (US hard landing and global economic slowdown) materializing even the risks of stagflation-lite are exaggerated; rather US and global inflationary force would sharply diminish in this scenario and, if anything, concerns about deflation may reemerge again.

This is not a far fetched scenario as one looks back at what happened in the 2000-2003 cycle. Until 2000 the Fed was worried about the economy overheating and rising inflation risk. But once the economy spinned into a recession in 2001 US and global inflationary pressures diminished and by 2002 the great scare became one of US and global deflation rather than inflation. Indeed the Fed aggressively cut the Fed Funds rate all the way to 1% and Ben Bernanke – then only a Fed governor – wrote speeches about using heterodox policy instruments to fight the risk of deflation once and if the Fed Funds rate were to reach its nominal floor of zero percent.

Low or negative growth, but little risk of deflation

Today, following a US hard landing and a global economic slowdown, the risks of outright deflation would be lower than in the 2001-2003 episode because of various factors: US inflation starts higher than in 2001; the Fed needs to worry about a disorderly fall of the US dollar that may increase inflationary pressures; the rise and persistence of growth rates in Chindia and other emerging market economies implies that – even if such economies likely recouple to the US hard landing – a global growth slowdown will not turn into an outright global recession that would be truly deflationary. Still, while the scenario outlined here – US recession and global slowdown – may not lead to outright deflationary pressures it would certainly lead to a slowdown of US and global inflation.

The fact that the most likely scenario in the global economy in 2008 is one of a negative global demand shock is the one that is priced by bond markets: if investors were really worried about a rise in US and global inflation – or about true stagflationary shocks – the yield on long term government bonds would have not fallen as sharply as it has since last summer. With US 10 year Treasury yield now well below 4% and sharply falling in the last few weeks it is hard to see a bond market that is worried about global inflation or global stagflation. And while until recently commodity prices pointed to the other directions, recent weakness in oil prices, the cost of shipping commodities and the price of some other commodities also signals that commodity markets are now pricing the risk of a US recession and the risk that – with a lag – a US recession will lead to a broader global economic slowdown.

So in conclusion “stag-deflation” (i.e. low growth or recession with falling inflation rates and possible deflationary pressures) is more likely than “stagflation” (low growth or recession with rising inflation rates) if a US hard landing materializes and leads – as likely – to a slowdown in global demand and growth.

So last January I argued that four major forces would lead to a risk of deflation (or stag-deflation where a recession would be associated with deflationary forces) rather than the inflation risk that at that time – and for most of 2008 – mainstream analysts worried about: slack in goods markets, re-coupling of the rest of the world with the US recession, slack in labor markets, and a sharp fall in commodity price following such US and global contraction would reduce inflationary forces and lead to deflationary forces in the global economy.

How have such predictions fared over time? And will the US and global economy soon face sharp deflationary pressures? The answer deflation and stag-deflation will in six months become the main concern of policy authorities. Let me now explain in more detail why…

First, what has happened in the last few months?

The US has entered a severe recession that is already leading to deflationary forces in sectors where supply vastly exceeds demand (housing, consumer durables, motor vehicles, etc.) while now aggregate demand is sharply falling below aggregate supply; the unemployment rate is sharply up while employment has been falling for 10 months in a row; and commodity prices are sharply down – about 30% from their July peak – in the last three months and likely to fall much more in the next few months as the advanced economies recession is becoming global. So both in the US and in other advanced economies we are clearly headed towards a collapse of headline and core inflation.

Is there any doubt about this ongoing inflation capitulation and the beginning of sharp deflationary forces? Take the current views of the economic research group at JP Morgan; this group was in 2007-2008 the leading voice arguing about the risks of rising global inflation, about the associated risks of a global growth reflation and arguing that policy rates would be sharply increased in 2008-2009.

This week instead this JP Morgan research group published its latest global economic outlook arguing that we are headed towards a global recession, negative global inflation and sharply lower policy rates in the US and advanced economies (a 180 degree turn from its previous position). As written in the most recent JP Morgan Global Data Watch:

“A bad week in hell”

Increasingly, the signs point to a deep and synchronized global recession. Today’s reported slide in UK 3Q08 GDP is expected to be followed by contractions in the United States (next week), the Euro area, and Japan-confirming that the global downturn began last quarter. More troubling is the additional loss of momentum at quarter end, combined with collapsing October survey readings. These developments appear to be part of a negative loop in which economic and financial weakness are feeding on each other, making the prospects for growth in the coming months decidedly grim. Once again we have taken an axe to near-term growth forecasts for the developed world and will likely follow up with additional downward revisions for emerging market economies in the coming weeks. Already, our forecasts suggest that global GDP will contract at a near 1% annual rate in 4Q08 and 1Q09.

It is still too early to accurately gauge the depth of the downturn, as the outlook depends on how well policy actions contain the financial crisis. From a US perspective, our current forecasts place the contraction in GDP somewhere between the last two mild recessions and the deep contractions of 1973-75 and 1981-82. This picture masks the degree to which the pain of the current downturn is falling on households. From the perspective of wealth losses and declines in real consumption, the current recession is likely to prove more severe than any of the previous ten in the post World War II era (see Special report: How deep is the ocean? Gauging US recession contours). For Western Europe, the current downturn is currently projected to look similar to the one in the early 1990s-the last episode in which regional GDP contracted…

Inflation and real policy rates to go negative

With part of this year’s slide in global growth linked to an inflation shock, the recent collapse in global commodity prices should be seen as an important factor cushioning the downturn. In the six months through August 2008, global consumer prices rose at a 5.6% annual rate, prompting stagnation in real consumption across the globe. Based on recent moves in the price of oil and other commodities, it is likely that the coming six months will see headline inflation dip below zero. While this swing will be a plus for consumers across the globe, it is also a development that will promote a significant growth rotation towards the G3 and Emerging Asian economies that were hurt most severely by this negative shock. In the developed world, this backdrop of contracting GDP, collapsing inflation, and financial market stress opens the door to a powerful monetary policy response.

So the leading supporters of the view that the global economy risked rising inflation, rising growth reflation and sharply higher policy rates to fight this inflation are now predicting a global recession, global deflation and sharply falling policy rates. What a difference a year makes!

Any further doubt that we are headed towards a global deflation or – better – a global stag-deflation? Aggregate demand is now collapsing in the US and advanced economies and sharply decelerating in emerging markets; there is a huge excess capacity for the production of manufactured goods in the global economy as the massive and excessive capex spending in China and Asia (Chinese real investment is now close to 50% of GDP) has created an excess supply of goods that will remain unsold as global aggregate demand falls; commodity prices are in free fall with oil prices alone down over 50% from their July peak (and the Baltic Freight Index – the best measure of international shipping costs – is 90% from its peak in May); while labor market slack is sharply growing in the US and rising in Europe and other advanced economies.

What are financial markets telling us about the risks of stag-deflation?

First, yields on 10 year Treasury bonds fell by about 50bps since October 14th getting close to their previous 2008 lows; also two-year Treasury yield have fallen by about l50bps in the last month.

Second, gold prices – a typical hedge against rising global inflation – are now sharply falling. Finally, and more importantly, yields on TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) due in five years or less have now become higher than yields on conventional Treasuries of similar maturity. The difference between yields on five-year Treasuries and five-year TIPS, known as the breakeven rate, fell to minus 0.43 percentage points; this is a record. Since the difference between the conventional Treasuries and TIPS is a proxy for expected inflation the TIPS market is now signaling that investors expect inflation to be negative over the next five years as a severe recession is ahead of us.

So goods markets, labor markets, commodity markets, financial markets and bond markets are all sending the same message: stagnation/recession and deflation (or stag-deflation) is ahead of us in the US and global economy.

So, don’t be surprised if six months from now the Fed and other central banks in advanced economies will start to worry – as they did in 2002-03 after the 2001 recession – about deflation rather than inflation. In those years where the US experienced a deflation scare Bernanke wrote several pieces explaining how the US could resort to very unorthodox policy actions to prevent a deflation and a liquidity trap like the one experienced by Japan in the 1990s. Those writings may have to be soon carefully read and studied again as the US and global economy faces its worst recession in decades and as deflationary forces envelop the US and other advanced economies.

Finally, while in the short run a global recession will be associated with deflationary forces shouldn’t we worry about rising inflation in the middle run? This argument that the financial crisis will eventually lead to inflation is based on the view that governments will be tempted to monetize the fiscal costs of bailing out the financial system and that this sharp growth in the monetary base will eventually cause high inflation. In a variant of the same argument some argue that – as the US and other economies face debt deflation – it would make sense to reduce the debt burden of borrowers (households and now governments taking on their balance sheet the losses of the private sector) by wiping out the real value of such nominal debt with inflation.

Danger of inflation

So should we worry that this financial crisis and its fiscal costs will eventually lead to higher inflation? The answer to this complex question is: likely not.

First of all, the massive injection of liquidity in the financial system – literally trillions of dollars in the last few months – is not inflationary as it accommodating the demand for liquidity that the current financial crisis and investors’ panic has triggered. Thus, once the panic recede and this excess demand for liquidity shrink central banks can and will mop up all this excess liquidity that was created in the short run to satisfy the demand for liquidity and prevent a spike in interest rates.

Second, the fiscal costs of bailing out financial institutions would eventually lead to inflation if the increased budget deficits associated with this bailout were to be monetized as opposed to being financed with a larger stock of public debt. As long as such deficits are financed with debt – rather than by running the printing presses – such fiscal costs will not be inflationary as taxes will have to be increased over the next few decades and/or government spending reduced to service this large increase in the stock of public debt.

Third, wouldn’t central banks be tempted to monetize these fiscal costs – rather than allow a mushrooming of public debt – and thus wipe out with inflation these fiscal costs of bailing out lenders/investors and borrowers? Not likely in my view: even a relatively dovish Bernanke Fed cannot afford to let the inflation expectations genie out of the bottle via a monetization of the fiscal bailout costs; it cannot afford/be tempted to do that because if the inflation genie gets out of the bottle (with inflation rising from the low single digits to the high single digits or even into the double digits) the rise in inflation expectations will eventually force a nasty and severely recessionary Volcker-style monetary policy tightening to bring back the inflation expectation genie into the bottle. And such Volcker-style disinflation would cause an ugly recession. Indeed, central banks have spent the last 20 years trying to establish and maintain their low inflation credibility; thus destroying such credibility as a way to reduce the direct costs of the fiscal bailout would be highly corrosive and destructive of the inflation credibility that they have worked so hard to achieve and maintain.

Fourth, inflation can reduce the real value of debts as long as it is unexpected and as long as debt is in the form of long-term nominal fixed rate liabilities. The trouble is that an attempt to increase inflation would not be unexpected and thus investors would write debt contracts to hedge themselves against such a risk if monetization of the fiscal deficits does occur. Also, in the US economy a lot of debts – of the government, of the banks, of the households – are not long term nominal fixed rate liabilities. They are rather shorter term, variable rates debts.

Thus, a rise in inflation in an attempt to wipe out debt liabilities would lead to a rapid re-pricing of such shorter term, variable rate debt. And thus expected inflation would not succeed in reducing the part of the debts that are now of the long term nominal fixed rate form. I.e. you can fool all of the people some of the time (unexpected inflation) and some of the people all of the time (those with long term nominal fixed rate claims) but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Thus, trying to inflict a capital levy on creditors and trying to provide a debt relief to debtors may not work as a lot of short term or variable rate debt will rapidly reprice to reflect the higher expected inflation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a sharp slack in goods, labor and commodity markets will lead to global deflationary trends over the next year. And the fiscal costs of bailing out borrowers and/or lenders/investors will not be inflationary as central banks will not be willing to incur the high costs of very high inflation as a way to reduce the real value of debt burdens of governments and distressed borrowers. The costs of rising expected and actual inflation will be much higher than the benefits of using the inflation/seignorage tax to pay for the fiscal costs of cleaning up the mess that this most severe financial crisis has created. As long – as likely – as these fiscal costs are financed with public debt rather than with a monetization of these deficits inflation will not be a problem either in the short run or over the medium run.

{end of Professor Roubini’s article}

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from other sources

For an “Economics 101″ textbook chapter on Inflation and Deflation:  Oxford University Press’ Economics Course Companion.

Ben S. Bernanke on deflation

  1. Deflation: Making Sure ‘It’ Doesn’t Happen Here“, speech on 21 November 2002
  2. Conducting Monetary Policy at Very Low Short-Term Interest Rates“, co-author Vincent R. Reinhart (Director, Division of Monetary Affairs), 14 January 2004
  3. Monetary Policy Alternatives at the Zero Bound:  An Empirical Assessment“, co-authors Vincent R. Reinhart (Governor, FRB) and Brian P. Sack (Macroeconomic Advisers), 9 September 2004

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Key posts about the financial crisis

  1. A solution to our financial crisis, 25 September 2008
  2. A picture of the post-WWII debt supercycle, 26 September 2008
  3. America has changed. Why do so many foreigners see this, but so few Americans?, 1 October 2008
  4. A sitrep on the financial crisis: why has the treatment been so slow, so small?, 8 October 2008
  5. The new President will need new solutions for the economic crisis, 9 October 2008
  6. Forecasting the results of this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
  7. Forecasting the results of this financial crisis – part II, a new economy for America, 14 October 2008

6 thoughts on “The Coming Global Stag-Deflation (Stagnation/Recession plus Deflation)

  1. A cogent analysis as usual from Roubini. The problem with using debt to finance the massive liquidity injection required is that deflation will create a vicious cycle in which the more you pay down what you owe, the more you owe. I.e., the real buying value of what you owe will rise over time, as Irving Fisher pointed out long ago.

    So we’re stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea — monetizing the debt will produce stagflation, which is brutal for people on fixed incomes but good those with long-term fixed-interest-rate debts like college loans or mortgages; however, financing the liquidity injection with debt will punish people who have been prudent and paid off their homes or who have paid off their college loans or who largely finance their businesses with revolving lines of credit rather than long-term instruments like bonds or long-term loans. These people will watch the value of their assets (home, the buying power of their college degree, the income from their debt-free business) drop as deflation kicks in.

    The other risk involves getting stuck in a Japan-style liquidity trap. We’re already seeing U.S. banks hoard the bailout cash instead of lending it out. So simply injecting liquidity into the system doesn’t seem to be alleviating the credit crunch. The Baltic dry index has plummeted by 90% since July and I’ve been seeing high-end electronics importants (flat-screen TVs, laptops, digital cameras) disappearing from the local big box stores because the standstill in global shipping is drying up the inventory supply chain. Ship owners are ordering container ships to anchor in port and wait because letters of credit are too hard to come by.

    Krugman and others have suggested a rerun of the Roosevelt 1937 ultimatum: if banks don’t loan, they get shut down. Britain is way ahead of us on this one. One important condition of the British bailout of their banks was that their banks would have to continue to make loans. Once again, American economists are far behind the curve. This is dismaying. We shouldn’t constantly be playing catch-up. At some point, as the engine of the global economy, America is going to have to get ahead of the curve if we hope to turn this economic collapse around permanently.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have discussed most of these point in other posts.

    * Debt Deflation — as described by Fisher, Tobin, and Bernanke.
    * Banks’ use of the governments capital — Acquisitions and executive paychecks, not loans.

    “monetizing the debt will produce stagflation”

    Not necessarily, and certainly not now. Monetary expansion produces inflation only at full employment and high capacity utilization — hardly what we have today. Of course, draining the excess money away during a recovery will be difficult if not impossible. But inflation is a known and curable condition, unlike deflation (which is lethal for a high-debt economy like ours).

    More serious are the dangers of a liquidity trap and hitting the zero-rate boundary. Neither has a good solution in current theory, so we will — like Japan before us — try massive fiscal and monetary expansion and hope for either success or some new inspiration. We need a new Keynes!

  2. “As long as such deficits are financed with debt – rather than by running the printing presses – such fiscal costs will not be inflationary as taxes will have to be increased over the next few decades and/or government spending reduced to service this large increase in the stock of public debt.”i

    Will Americans may finally learn that taxes are not a disease (to be “relieved” from) but a necessity for maintaining a strong social fabric on which the economy is based?
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Also, this is a question of timing. Increasing aggregate taxes during a recession — or a depression — only hurts the economy, according to standard Keynesian math (which I believe few economists dispute). Hoover’s massive tax increase in 1932 and Japan’s tax increases during the 1990’s provide confirmation of this.

  3. “Such fiscal costs will not be inflationary as taxes will have to be increased over the next few decades and/or government spending reduced to service this large increase in the stock of public debt.”

    Right, Dr. N., like the increased taxes and/or reduced government spending of the last few decades.

  4. Global crisis could take high out of cocaine use-UN

    The global financial crisis may have ravaged the world economy but the U.N.’s top anti-crime official said on Tuesday one benefit could be to make cocaine less affordable for many wealthy European drug users.

    But Antonio Maria Costa said in an interview he feared the crisis could reduce donor aid to poor West African states struggling to stop their seaboard becoming a “Coke Coast”.

    Costa said that while it was too early to evaluate the effect of the global banking crisis on world crime trends, it was certain to have an impact on supply and demand aspects of the international illegal drugs trade.

  5. I don’t pretend to understand high finance and global economics though I do try to keep up. Roubini’s article above seems well reasoned, deeply informed and intelligent.

    Interesting how Henry Liu, another excellent global-financial-economic-political analyst comes to the opposite conclusion even though he too called much of what is now transpiring years before it happened. He is arguing that because of current USG ‘state capitalist’ policies, hyperinflation is absolutely certain.

    We shall soon see who is right, but in either cases the differences between them highlight how uncertain ‘reality’ actually is!

    “A sharp decline in assets prices [forecast by Roubini above] will unavoidably spell widespread bankruptcy for many financially overextended companies and individuals. This will constrict demand temporarily to delay inflation effects but hyperinflation will result as certainly as the sun will rise because modern democracies cannot allow deflation to cause widespread bankruptcy even in a debt bubble. In January 2006 (see Of debt, deflation and rotten apples, Asia Times Online, January 11, 2006) I wrote (Central banks fear deflation more than inflation): “Although Greenspan never openly acknowledges it, his great fear is not inflation, but deflation, which is toxic in a debt-driven economy. ‘Price stability’ is a term that increasingly refers to anti-deflationary objectives, to keep prices up rather than down.”

    [Conclusion:]
    “The approach adopted by the Bush administration is not designed to rescue a collapsing global economy from total meltdown but to resurrect free market capitalism from ideological bankruptcy with state capitalism.”

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/JJ30Dj06.html

Leave a Reply