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Europe and Deflation Paranoia – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Europe and Deflation Paranoia – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
April 30, 2014

There is a current incessant flow of articles warning us of the certain economic calamity if deflation is allowed to show its nose for even the briefest period of time. This ogre of deflation, we are told, must be defeated with the printing presses at all costs. Of course, the real objective of this fear mongering is to enable continued national-government theft through debasement. Every dollar printed is a government tax on cash balances.

There are two main sources of deflation. The first comes from a general increase in the amount of goods and services available. In this type of deflation, a reduction in costs, in a competitive environment, leads to lower prices. The high technology sector has thrived in this type of deflation for decades as technical progress (e.g., the effect of Moore’s Law) has powered innovations and computing power at ever-decreasing costs. The same was true for most industries during much of the nineteenth century, as the living standard increased considerably. Every man benefited from the increase in real wages resulting from lower prices.

The second source of deflation is from a reduction in the money supply that comes from an increase in the desire of the public or banking sectors to hold cash (i.e., hoarding).[1] An uncomplicated example will make this point clearer. Suppose we have 10 pencils and $10. Only at an equilibrium price of $1 will there be no excess output or excess money.

Suppose the production cost of a pencil is 80 cents. The rate of return is 25 percent. Now suppose people hoard $5 and stuff money in their mattress instead of saving it. The price of a pencil will be cut in half, falling from $1 to 50 cents, since we now have a money supply of $5 chasing 10 pencils. If input prices also fall to 40 cents per pencil then there is no problem since the rate of return is still 25 percent. In this example, a drop in output prices forced an adjustment in input prices.

The Keynesian fear is that input prices will not adjust fast enough to a drop in output prices so that the economy will fall into a deflation-depression spiral. The Keynesian-monetarist solution is to have the government print $5 to avoid this deflation.

Yet, this money creation is distortive and will cause a misallocation of resources since the new money will not be spent in the same areas or proportions as the money that is now being “hoarded” (as defined by Keynesians). Furthermore, even if the government could find the right areas or proportions, it would still lead to misallocations, since the hoarding reflects a desire to realign relative prices closer to what society really wants to be produced. The printing of money may actually increase the desire to hold cash, as we see today. Holding cash may be the preferred choice over consumption or investment (savings) when relative and absolute prices have been distorted by the printing press.

Of course, no one is really asking the critical questions. Why does holding more cash change the money supply, and why did the public and banks decide to increase their cash holdings in the first place?[2] Without fractional reserve banking, neither the public nor the banks could significantly change the money supply by holding more cash, nor could banks extend credit faster than slow-moving savings. The boom and ensuing malinvestments would be a thing of the past and, thus, so would the desire to hold more cash during the bust phase of the business cycle. If central banks are really concerned about this type of deflation, they should be addressing the cause — fractional reserve banking — and not the result. Telling a drunk that he can avoid the hangover by drinking even more whiskey is simply making the situation worse.[3] The real solution is to have him stop drinking.

According to the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi,

The second drawback of low inflation … is that it makes the adjustment of imbalances much more difficult. It is one thing to have to adjust relative prices with an inflation rate which is around 2%, another thing is to adjust relative prices with an inflation rate which is around 0.5%. That means that the change in certain prices, in order to readjust, will have to become negative. And you know that prices and wages have a certain nominal rigidity which makes these adjustments more complex.

Draghi is confusing the first source of deflation with the second. The recent low inflation in the Euro zone can be attributed primarily to a strengthening of the Euro, and a drop in food and energy prices.

Economists at the Bundesbank must be quietly seething. They are obviously not blind to the ECB’s excuses to indirectly monetize the southern bloc’s debt. Draghi’s “whatever it takes” comment gave southern bloc countries extra time. Yet, little has been done to reign in the size of bloated public sectors. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise and higher taxes in southern bloc countries have caused an even greater contraction of the private sector. Many banks in southern Europe are technically bankrupt. Non-performing loans in Italy have gone from about 5.8 percent in 2007 to over 15 percent today. And, the situation is getting worse.

Greece recently placed a five-year bond at under 5 percent which was eight times oversubscribed. This highlights the degree to which the financial sector in Europe is now dependent on the “Draghi put.” As elsewhere in the world, interest rates in Europe are totally distorted and no longer serve the critical function of allocating resources according to society’s time preference of consumption, or even reflect any real risk of default.

The ECB will likely impose negative rates shortly but will discover, as the Fed and others did before it, that you can bring a horse to water but cannot make him drink. QE will then be on the table, but unlike the Fed, the ECB is limited in the choice of assets it can purchase since direct purchase of Euro government bonds violates the German constitution. One day, Germany and the southern bloc countries, including France, will clash on what is the appropriate role of monetary policy.

Germany would be wise to plan, today, for a possible Euro exit.


[1] Keynesians view holding cash, and even holding savings in banks as “hoarding,” but properly understood, only the equivalent of stuffing money in a mattress is hoarding.

[2] Fractional-reserve lending is inflationary, thus contributing to inflationary booms. In turn, banks hold more cash when they fear a confidence crisis, which is also a result of the boom.

[3] Since inflationary fractional-reserve lending is a source of the problem, additional lending of the same sort is not the solution.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Where Is the Inflation? – Article by Mark Thornton

Where Is the Inflation? – Article by Mark Thornton

The New Renaissance Hat
Mark Thornton
January 30, 2013

Critics of the Austrian School of economics have been throwing barbs at Austrians like Robert Murphy because there is very little inflation in the economy. Of course, these critics are speaking about the mainstream concept of the price level as measured by the Consumer Price Index (i.e., CPI).

Let us ignore the problems with the concept of the price level and all the technical problems with CPI. Let us further ignore the fact that this has little to do with the Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT), as the critics would like to suggest. The basic notion that more money, i.e., inflation, causes higher prices, i.e., price inflation, is not a uniquely Austrian view. It is a very old and commonly held view by professional economists and is presented in nearly every textbook that I have examined.

This common view is often labeled the quantity theory of money. Only economists with a Mercantilist or Keynesian ideology even challenge this view. However, only Austrians can explain the current dilemma: why hasn’t the massive money printing by the central banks of the world resulted in higher prices.

Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises, Benjamin Anderson, and F.A. Hayek saw that commodity prices were stable in the 1920s, but that other prices in the structure of production indicated problems related to the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. Mises, in particular, warned that Fisher’s “stable dollar” policy, employed at the Fed, was going to result in severe ramifications. Absent the Fed’s easy money policies of the Roaring Twenties, prices would have fallen throughout that decade.

So let’s look at the prices that most economists ignore and see what we find. There are some obvious prices to look at like oil. Mainstream economists really do not like looking at oil prices, they want them taken out of CPI along with food prices, Ben Bernanke says that oil prices have nothing to do with monetary policy and that oil prices are governed by other factors.

As an Austrian economist, I would speculate that in a free market economy, with no central bank, that the price of oil would be stable. I would further speculate, that in the actual economy with a central bank, that the price of oil would be unstable, and that oil prices would reflect monetary policy in a manner informed by ABCT.

That is, artificially low interest rates generated by the Fed would encourage entrepreneurs to start new investment projects. This in turn would stimulate the demand for oil (where supply is relatively inelastic) leading to higher oil prices. As these entrepreneurs would have to pay higher prices for oil, gasoline, and energy (and many other inputs) and as their customers cut back on demand for the entrepreneurs’ goods (in order to pay higher gasoline prices), some of their new investment projects turn from profitable to unprofitable. Therefore, you should see oil prices rise in a boom and fall during the bust. That is pretty much how things work as shown below.

As you can see, the price of oil was very stable when we were on the pseudo Gold Standard. The data also shows dramatic instability during the fiat paper dollar standard (post-1971). Furthermore, in general, the price of oil moves roughly as Austrians would suggest, although monetary policy is not the sole determinant of oil prices, and obviously there is no stable numerical relationship between the two variables.

Another commodity that is noteworthy for its high price is gold. The price of gold also rises in the boom, and falls during the bust. However, since the last recession officially ended in 2009, the price of gold has actually doubled. The Fed’s zero interest rate policy has made the opportunity cost of gold extraordinarily low. The Fed’s massive monetary pumping has created an enormous upside in the price of gold. No surprise here.

Actually, commodity prices increased across the board. The Producer Price Index for commodities shows a similar pattern to oil and gold. The PPI-Commodities was more stable during the pseudo Gold Standard with more volatility during the post-1971 fiat paper standard. The index tends to spike before a recession and then recede during and after the recession. However, the PPI-Commodity Index has returned to all-time record levels.

High prices seem to be the norm. The US stock and bond markets are at, or near, all-time highs. Agricultural land in the US is at all time highs. The Contemporary Art market in New York is booming with record sales and high prices. The real estate markets in Manhattan and Washington, DC, are both at all-time highs as the Austrians would predict. That is, after all, where the money is being created, and the place where much of it is injected into the economy.

This doesn’t even consider what prices would be like if the Fed and world central banks had not acted as they did. Housing prices would be lower, commodity prices would be lower, CPI and PPI would be running negative. Low-income families would have seen a surge in their standard of living. Savers would get a decent return on their savings.

Of course, the stock market and the bond market would also see significantly lower prices. Bank stocks would collapse and the bad banks would close. Finance, hedge funds, and investment banks would have collapsed. Manhattan real estate would be in the tank. The market for fund managers, hedge fund operators, and bankers would evaporate.

In other words, what the Fed chose to do ended up making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. If they had not embarked on the most extreme and unorthodox monetary policy in memory, the poor would have experienced a relative rise in their standard of living and the rich would have experienced a collective decrease in their standard of living.

There are other major reasons why consumer prices have not risen in tandem with the money supply in the dramatic fashion of oil, gold, stocks and bonds. It would seem that the inflationary and Keynesian policies followed by the US, Europe, China, and Japan have resulted in an economic and financial environment where bankers are afraid to lend, entrepreneurs are afraid to invest, and where everyone is afraid of the currencies with which they are forced to endure.

In other words, the reason why price inflation predictions failed to materialize is that Keynesian policy prescriptions like bailouts, stimulus packages, and massive monetary inflation have failed to work and have indeed helped wreck the economy.

Mark Thornton is a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and is the book-review editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is the author of The Economics of Prohibition, coauthor of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, and the editor of The Quotable Mises, The Bastiat Collection, and An Essay on Economic Theory. Send him mail. See Mark Thornton’s article archives.

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