New year, new hidden danger...?
ALTHOUGH Ben Bernanke's Fed has kept interest rates close to zero, inflation hasn't been a big problem since the 2008 financial crisis, writes Martin Hutchinson for Money Morning.
Despite what many observers have expected, inflation has remained quite tame.
However in 2013, that may be about to change. One factor that might cause a surge in inflation is the fiscal cliff.
That's because Bernanke is already buying $1 trillion of Treasury and housing agency bonds each year ($85 billion per month) against a budget deficit that is about the same level. That means the inflow of funds to the economy from the Fed and the outflow of money to fund the government's spending are about balanced.
However, if we go over the fiscal cliff the Federal deficit immediately falls to about $300 billion per annum. At that point, Bernanke would be injecting an extra $700 billion a year into the economy - which would have a corresponding inflationary effect.
But that's only part of the inflationary story.
Central banks around the world are also expanding their money supply. China has become more expansive, the European Central Bank is buying bonds of the continent's dodgier governments and Britain like the United States is monetizing nearly all the debt it creates to fund its budget deficit.
The big change in 2013 is now in Japan, where the new Abe government has told the Bank of Japan it wants much more buying of government bonds, to push the inflation rate up to 2%.
And just as Bernanke's money creation increases inflation internationally, Japan's new monetary push creation will likely increase inflation here in the United States.
In this case, the excess money creation will get transmitted to inflation mostly through commodity prices.
The Thomson Reuters/Jeffries CRB Continuous Commodity Index closed recently at just over 300, about double its value ten years ago. And after a period of weakness in 2011-12, the index has recently showed renewed strength.
Now I admit, doubling in ten years may not sound very impressive, but that's a rate of increase of 7% per annum. It only follows that if the basic elements of everything we consume are increasing in price at 7% per annum, then impossible to believe prices overall will rise by only 2% in the future.
In one respect, we've been lucky when it comes to natural gas prices. Thanks to new "fracking" techniques the US natural gas prices have been cut in half over in the last four years.
This has given both consumers and producers a boost, and kept inflation down. But the bad news is that natural gas prices appear to have bottomed out around April 2012, and are now well above their low. Going into 2013, higher natural gas prices may well be inflationary as well on the commodities side.
An additional factor tending to increase inflation is the tendency of official statistics to under-report it. This has not gone as far as in Argentina, where real inflation runs around 30% while official figures report inflation of 10%. Still, the official US price indexes have since 1996 been distorted by "hedonic" prices, which adjusts prices downwards for the supposed "hedonic" advantage of chip capacity and speed enhancements in the tech sector. The effect of this appears to be about 1% a year, and it can be adjusted for.
However, a second fudge is about to be introduced. It's the "chain weighted" price indexes that both political sides have agreed to use to calculate social security and other payments.
The problem with chain weighting is that it assumes that consumers change their consumption patterns optimally according to price movements. In practice, actual human consumers cannot do this because they do not know in advance what relative price movements are coming. If they did it would be the equivalent of a ballplayer batting 1.000.
Here's why. ..
Consider an economy with two substitutable products-call them widgets and grommets. Initially both have the same price, but everyone buys widgets, which are slightly superior.
Then let's assume the price of widgets doubles in year 1. Everyone may switch to grommets, but these have not increased in price, and so the chain-weighted price index remains static.
Then in year 2, let's say the price of grommets doubles while that of widgets remains at the new higher level - so everyone switches back to widgets. But since these have not risen in price in year 2, the chain-weighted price index again remains constant.
Chain-weighting is a nothing more than a government fiddle.
The bottom line is that there's a substantial chance of a sudden upsurge in inflation in 2013, though the government statistics may reflect it only very grudgingly.
That will increase the costs of everything we buy, whatever the official statistics say.
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