Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inflation or Deflation?

I remember watching Wall Street Week with the late Louis Rukeyser in the late 1970s and early 1980s during another alarming economic period, with talk of South American style inflation reaching the U.S. and the mindset that goes along with that fear, people buying gold, eschewing long term US Treasuries which were yielding around 15%. It seemed each and every week investors were waiting for reports on the “money supply” with any large increase reinforcing the then prevailing view. In retrospect, how much simpler and more benign economic matters seemed then.

Now money supply measurements are not even discussed. Instead, we wait with baited breath for the Fed’s latest interest rate decision, endeavoring to parse the Federal Open Market Committee’s statements, comparing them with prior statements for clues as to what the future holds.

Today seems to be the inverse of those days with US Treasuries yielding nearly nothing, and the fear of deflation driving investor psychology, leaving few alternatives to us average folk not of CNBC’s fast money crowd. By the Fed’s decision to reinvest its portfolio of maturing mortgages in U.S. Treasury debt, rather than shrinking its balance sheet, it has embarked on a method of monetizing debt. Normally this would ring the inflation bells but not in this economic environment where spending is a higher priority than reducing debt or saving. Deflation is a state of mind that once it takes hold becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, particularly in the wake of the economic turmoil and bailouts of the financial sector of the last few years, with high unemployment and state and local government fiscal problems, leaving the Fed with few remaining options. And, unlike inflation, we have little experience with it other than the 1930s and Japan’s ongoing battle with it since the early 1990’s.

As reflected by CD rates of nearly zero, it is an investment environment where one has two choices, take risk (which is being encouraged by the government’s actions) or put your savings under a mattress (which, in a deflationary environment produces a positive return without risk). Inflation or deflation? One has to wonder what the Fed knows that we don’t. It is a conundrum for the saver. Bring back the good old days of Wall Street Week!