Sunday, 29 August 2010

Threat of a double-dip deflation

What’s happening in the US, euro zone and Japan points to a hard slog ahead.

MORE than a year ago (on May 9) I wrote in this column – “Deflation is not an option”, worried as the world was then of the possible coming to pass of the worse-case scenario, and that “the brutal truth is, less-worse is not recovery. The world is not out of the woods yet …”

But by late September, things had begun to brighten up. The Pittsburgh G-20 Summit pronounced triumphantly that the vast global stimuli “had worked” – indeed, it rescued the world from the knife’s edge of the most severe recession since the Great “D”.

What a difference a year makes. In May this year, I wrote “PIIGS can’t fly: the Greek tragedy”, brought about by Greece’s insolvency spreading ripple effects all over the euro zone. Overall, the Greece debacle casts a long shadow over market sentiment which has since become dormant, as of now. But many risks still remain.

Double-dip talk amidst unusual uncertainty

It is amazing how fast things do change. My column in mid-June –“In for a bumpy ride: perhaps even a double-dip?” reflected the fragility of the evolving situation. In the face of a weakening economy, premature tightening raises the risk of a relapse into recession.

Markets have since moved with greater volatility, essentially nervous about fiscal deterioration in US and many euro zone nations, and a darkening growth outlook outside Germany. Any upheaval there raises further the risk of a double-dip.

Indeed, Wall Street has since become increasingly convinced fiscal tightening by UK and euro zone nations and recent lack of confidence in US have dramatically shifted global macroeconomics for the worse. I hear many leading fund managers are already acting to re-position their funds for a double-dip recession – just in case. Some have even started to aggressively de-risk their portfolios.

How real is the risk of a double-dip? For sure, recovery has lost momentum. Second quarter (Q2) GDP growth in the US is lacklustre at 2.4% annual pace, down from 3.7% in Q1, and below expectations. Key components exports and consumption contributed less to growth than in Q1.

In the 12 months since the onset of recession, the economy grew just 2.3%. In contrast, during the equivalent period after the ’81-’82 recession, output rose 5.6%. It is clear the initial boost to demand from inventory build-up has faded.

The housing bust still casts a long shadow. US home sales fell 27.2% in July to a 15-year low. Households are saving more to work off debts. Worse, firms fearful of the future are preferring to squeeze yet more output from existing employees.

So, unemployment is stuck at 9.5%, even though US corporates are flush with cash. Yet, bank credit is scarce. Bankers have turned risk-adverse. All these stand in the way of a wholesome recovery. Little wonder businesses are reluctant to hire with such “unusual uncertainty” as Fed chairman Bernanke puts it.

No doubt, the risk of double-dip has since increased. So much so the Fed recently made a U-turn to counter a weakening US recovery by resuming quantitative easing (dubbed QE2) through re-investing cash from nearly US$1.3 trillion of maturing mortgage-linked debt.

By buying new debt, the Fed pushes bond prices up and long-term interest rates down (since bond yields move inversely to prices). This way, it increases money supply and stimulates growth as credit eases. The message to the market is clear - the Fed will do everything and anything to put a back-stop on the risk of a double-dip!

But, as Professor N. Roubini aptly describes it, “whatever letter of the alphabet the US economic performance ultimately resembles, what is coming will feel like a recession.”

According to Prof M. Boskin of Stanford, double-dip downturns are technically more the rule than the exception. The US ’01 recession was one brief, mild double-dip. Within the current recession, there is already a “double-dip”: a dip at the start of ’08, some growth, another long deep dip, then renewed growth.
Another dip is still possible – it will represent a triple-dip. But not yet an outright second recession which is what most are concerned. In Europe, in the early ‘80s, UK, Japan, Germany and Italy all had double-dips.

History suggests economies seldom grow out of recessions continuously, without occasional subsequent falls. Dips – double, triple and even quadruple – have been part of the US recessionary experience since WWII. So, it should not be surprising to see another decline in growth before sustained stronger growth emerges.

I note the Fed has become concerned over the long time it will take the US to achieve full recovery (and restore the eight million odd jobs lost since the onset of recession) as economic growth turned more sluggish. In addition, the downside risk of a double-dip recession and a deflationary spiral has since increased. Fears of deflation on the back of a still faltering inflation and worries about the return of recession is now flavour of the month.

Deflation is poorly understood

What is deflation? Why worry about it? Deflation refers to persistent and sustained falls in prices. It is usually associated with the Great Depression and its cause – a sharp drop in demand. With it, incomes, consumer prices and asset prices fall. Interest rates move towards zero.

But the cost to borrowers in servicing doesn’t fall, sucking live out of the economy and pushing prices further down. This bad situation gets worse. In 1932, US consumer prices fell 10%; between ’29 and ’33, they fell 27%.

The most recent experience is in Japan but it pales in comparison. Rather than being deep, destructive and concentrated in a few years, Japanese deflation is a mild, drawn-out affair. Consumer prices faltered for 15 years, but never by more than 2% a year. It has been a morass but not a destructive downward spiral.

Why? Economics don’t have a way to rationalise steady multi-year flat deflation. Japan remains a puzzle because its problems persisted for so long. Some turn to the psychology of households and businesses for the answer – if people believe prices will fall, they act to create the environment that becomes self-fulfilling.
Government plays a role through intervention to keep the economy from going through the floor. Other explanations include consumers who are aging and thus, more inclined to save for old age instead of spend.

But deflation is not all bad. For some, falling prices are good because incomes and assets can buy more. Such “good deflation” occurred in US in 1870-95 in the face of strong economic growth, during a period of rising productivity and technological innovation.

Falling electronic goods prices are a modern-day example of good deflation. However, deflation has its bad side – falling prices are associated with falling wages, rising unemployment and falling asset prices. In the US in the ‘30s and more recently in Japan, deflation reflected economic collapse and rising unemployment made worse by high debt and falling asset prices. This delays spending and weakens economic activity.

In today’s environment of high household and public debt, deflation raises the real value of debt in the face of falling asset prices and declining incomes and public revenues. To the extent households and government attempt to reduce their debt burden by cutting spending and selling assets, a “debt deflation” spiral can set in, and so will a double-dip recession.

With “core” inflation (i.e. excluding fuel and food) now below 1% in the US, euro zone and Japan and headline inflation falling again, it is little wonder deflation worries have re-surfaced. The key to inflation outlook lies in capacity utilisation.

Historically, inflation falls or remains weak when business capacity utilisation is well below normal (as in ’08-09 recession). The bottomline is simple: as long as recovery in the US, euro zone and Japan remains anaemic and excess capacity in industry and labour markets remains high, inflation will likely fall further.

If major developed nations return to recession, the risk of deflation will rise. As a general rule, deflation favours cash and government bonds over equities, property and corporate bonds, as well as defensive shares like utility stocks. It’s now clear more aggressive QE2 and sticky service prices are being relied upon to break the back of possible sustained deflation. But with oodles of global spare capacity, I see risks favouring deflation rather than a return bout of inflation.

Concern but not panic

Make no mistake, the threat of deflation is taken seriously on Wall Street. Bond fund heavyweights like El-Erien (who manages US$1 trillion plus in assets) bet US has a 25% chance of falling into deflation. Put it this way: if I told you that my kid has chicken pox and there is a 1 in 4 chance of passing it on, would you allow your kid to come over and play?

To many, the US faces a serious risk of falling into deflation. As slowdown takes hold, consumer prices fell 0.1% in June after falling 0.2% the month before. Growing increasingly wary of deflation (which eats into corporate profits and raises real borrowing costs), many fund managers are prompted to hedge against stock falls, while buying interest-bearing assets.Indeed, it has altered behaviour by encouraging firms to accumulate cash, unthinkable a year ago. Investors pile onto public bonds where fixed interest payments provide good returns when prices and stocks are falling. Investors are positioned well ahead of the Fed.

This surge in bonds has pushed yields to multi-year lows. Ten-year US Treasuries yield dropped to a 20-month low of 2.418% in late August, while its 2-year yield marked an all time low of 0.498%. I think there is still room down; yields are still too high. After all, the yield on 10-year Treasuries is still 1.7 percentage points higher than the Japanese. In euro zone (considered to be more prone to deflation than the US) the gap is still 1.5 percentage points. As I see it, bond investors are slow to catch on, as Japanese were when deflation began. Since late 1992, average Japanese inflation was negative 0.1%, but it took six years for yields on 10-year bonds to move from 5% to less than 2%. Today, it’s 0.9%. The question remains: are US bonds selling at too high a price? Only time will tell.

Biflation

The risk of deflation varies between regions. Japan is already in deflation. The risk is highest in the euro zone because recent fiscal tightening and hard-line approach to monetary easing imply rising risk of a faltering economy. In contrast big nations in Asia (notably China and India) have had strong growth with less spare capacity, and hence higher inflation; the risk of deflation is much less.

That’s the real world where biflation exists, i.e. where deflation and inflation co-exist in different parts of the world. It even exists in different parts of the same economy: rising prices for globally traded commodities and falling prices for homes and autos bought with credit domestically.

As I see it, the anxiety about a double-dip deflation is well founded. The Fed has sent the right signal – one of concern but not panic. It is unclear more stimulus will create more jobs, suggesting unemployment may have deeper roots. What’s happening in the US, euro zone and Japan point to a hard slog ahead. Asia seems able to hold itself. But clearly, its ability to decouple from the developed world has still to be fully tested. Much interdependency remains.

Yet, not so long ago, the US was confidently moving forward and the euro zone the laggard. The dollar was riding high as investors fled from Euro’s debt crisis. Within months, the roles were reversed, with Asia still squeezed in the middle – but confident and kicking. This underlines the critical point for public policy: the economic fortunes of the US, Europe and Asia are as tightly bound as ever.

B the Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching & promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email:
starbizweek@thestar.com.my.

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