The Economic Expectations

Deflation and the Value of Cash Today
Deflationary expectations (let alone actual deflation) lead to liquidity traps and zero interest-rates. This means that cash balances and fixed-term deposits in banks yield no interest. But, even zero interest translates into a positive yield in conditions of deflation. Theoretically, this fact should be enough to drive most people to hold cash.
I. Deflation
Traditional economics claims that deflation actually increases the value of cash to its holder by enhancing its purchasing power in an environment of declining prices (negative growth in the average price level). Though highly intuitive, this is wrong. It is true that in a deflationary cycle, consumers are likely to delay consumption in order to enjoy lower prices later. But this precisely is what makes most asset classes – including cash – precarious and unprofitable.
Deflationary expectations (let alone actual deflation) lead to liquidity traps and zero interest-rates. This means that cash balances and fixed-term deposits in banks yield no interest. But, even zero interest translates into a positive yield in conditions of deflation. Theoretically, this fact should be enough to drive most people to hold cash.
Yet, what economists tend to overlook is transaction costs: banks charge account fees that outweigh the benefits of possessing cash even when prices are decreasing. Only in extreme deflation is cash with zero interest a profitable proposition when we take transaction costs (bank fees and charges) into account. But extreme deflation usually results in the collapse of the banking system as deleveraging and defaults set in. Cash balances and deposits evaporate together with the financial institutions that offer them.
Moreover: deflation results in gross imbalances in the economy: delayed consumption and capital investment and an increasing debt burden (in real, deflation-adjusted terms) adversely affect manufacturing, services, and employment. Government finances worsen as unemployment rises and business bankruptcies soar. Sovereign debt – another form of highly-liquid, “safe” investment – is thus rendered more default-prone in times of deflation.
Like inflation, deflation is a breakdown in the consensus over prices and their signals. As these are embodied in the currency and in other forms of debt, a prudent investor would stay away from them during periods of economic uncertainty. At the end, and contrary to the dicta of current economic orthodoxy, both deflation and inflation erode purchasing power. Thus, all asset classes suffer: equity, bonds, metals, currencies. The sole exception is agricultural land. Food is the preferred means of exchange in barter economies which are the tragic outcomes of the breakdown in the invisible market 
II. Inflation
In a series of speeches designed to defend his record, Alan Greenspan, until recently
an icon of both the new economy and stock exchange effervescence, reiterated the orthodoxy of central banking everywhere. His job, he repeated disingenuously, was confined to taming prices and ensuring monetary stability. He could not and, indeed, would not second guess the market. He consistently sidestepped the thorny issues of just how destabilizing to the economy the bursting of asset bubbles is and how his policies may have contributed to the froth.
Greenspan and his ilk seem to be fighting yesteryear's war against a long-slain monster. The obsession with price stability led to policy excesses and disinflation gave way to deflation - arguably an economic ill far more pernicious than inflation. Deflation coupled with negative savings and monstrous debt burdens can lead to prolonged periods of zero or negative growth. Moreover, in the zealous crusade waged globally against fiscal and monetary expansion - the merits and benefits of inflation have often been overlooked.
As economists are wont to point out time and again, inflation is not the inevitable outcome of growth. It merely reflects the output gap between actual and potential GDP. As long as the gap is negative - i.e., whilst the economy is drowning in spare capacity - inflation lies dormant. The gap widens if growth is anemic and below the economy's potential. Thus, growth can actually be accompanied by deflation.
Indeed, it is arguable whether inflation was subdued - in America as elsewhere - by the farsighted policies of central bankers. A better explanation might be overcapacity - both domestic and global - wrought by decades of inflation which distorted investment decisions. Excess capacity coupled with increasing competition, globalization, privatization, and deregulation - led to ferocious price wars and to consistently declining prices.
Quoted by "The Economist", Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein noted that America's industry is already in the throes of deflation. The implicit price deflator of the non-financial business sector has been -0.6 percent in the year to the end of the second quarter of 2002. Germany faces the same predicament. As oil prices surge, their inflationary shock will give way to a deflationary and recessionary aftershock.
Depending on one's point of view, this is a self-reinforcing virtuous - or vicious cycle. Consumers learn to expect lower prices - i.e., inflationary expectations fall and, with them, inflation itself. The intervention of central banks only hastened the process and now it threatens to render benign structural disinflation - malignantly deflationary.
Should the USA reflate its way out of either an impending double dip recession or deflationary anodyne growth?
It is universally accepted that inflation leads to the misallocation of economic resources by distorting the price signal. Confronted with a general rise in prices, people get confused. They are not sure whether to attribute the surging prices to a real spurt in demand, to speculation, inflation, or what. They often make the wrong decisions.
They postpone investments - or over-invest and embark on preemptive buying sprees. As Erica Groshen and Mark Schweitzer have demonstrated in an NBER working paper titled "Identifying inflation's grease and sand effects in the labour market", employers - unable to predict tomorrow's wages - hire less.
Still, the late preeminent economist James Tobin went as far as calling inflation "the grease on the wheels of the economy". What rate of inflation is desirable? The answer is: it depends on whom you ask. The European Central Bank maintains an annual target of 2 percent. Other central banks - the Bank of England, for instance - proffer an "inflation band" of between 1.5 and 2.5 percent. The Fed has been known to tolerate inflation rates of 3-4 percent.
These disparities among essentially similar economies reflect pervasive disagreements over what is being quantified by the rate of inflation and when and how it should be managed.
The sin committed by most central banks is their lack of symmetry. They signal visceral aversion to inflation - but ignore the risk of deflation altogether. As inflation subsides, disinflation seamlessly fades into deflation. People - accustomed to the deflationary bias of central banks - expect prices to continue to fall. They defer consumption. This leads to inextricable and all-pervasive recessions.
Economists in a November 2000 conference organized by the ECB argued that a continent-wide inflation rate of 0-2 percent would increase structural unemployment in Europe's arthritic labour markets by a staggering 2-4 percentage points. Akerloff-Dickens-Perry concurred in the aforementioned paper. At zero inflation, unemployment in America would go up, in the long run, by 2.6 percentage points. This adverse effect can, of course, be offset by productivity gains, as has been the case in the USA throughout the 1990's.
The new consensus is that the price for a substantial decrease in unemployment need not be a sizable rise in inflation. The level of employment at which inflation does not accelerate - the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment or NAIRU - is susceptible to government policies.
Vanishingly low inflation - bordering on deflation - also results in a "liquidity trap". The nominal interest rate cannot go below zero. But what matters are real - inflation adjusted - interest rates. If inflation is naught or less - the authorities are unable to stimulate the economy by reducing interest rates below the level of inflation.
This has been the case in Japan in the last few years and is now emerging as a problem in the USA. The Fed - having cut rates 11 times in the past 14 months and unless it is willing to expand the money supply aggressively - may be at the end of its monetary tether. The Bank of Japan has recently resorted to unvarnished and assertive monetary expansion in line with what Paul Krugman calls "credible promise to be irresponsible".
This may have led to the sharp devaluation of the yen in recent months. Inflation is exported through the domestic currency's depreciation and the lower prices of export goods and services. Inflation thus indirectly enhances exports and helps close yawning gaps in the current account. The USA with its unsustainable trade deficit and resurgent budget deficit could use some of this medicine.
But the upshots of inflation are fiscal, not merely monetary. In countries devoid of inflation accounting, nominal gains are fully taxed - though they reflect the rise in the general price level rather than any growth in income. Even where inflation accounting is introduced, inflationary profits are taxed.
Thus inflation increases the state's revenues while eroding the real value of its debts, obligations, and expenditures denominated in local currency. Inflation acts as a tax and is fiscally corrective - but without the recessionary and deflationary effects of a "real" tax.
The outcomes of inflation, ironically, resemble the economic recipe of the "Washington consensus" propagated by the likes of the rabidly anti-inflationary IMF. As a long term policy, inflation is unsustainable and would lead to cataclysmic effects. But, in the short run, as a "shock absorber" and "automatic stabilizer", low inflation may be a valuable counter-cyclical instrument.
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Inflation also improves the lot of corporate - and individual - borrowers by increasing their earnings and marginally eroding the value of their debts (and savings). It constitutes a disincentive to save and an incentive to borrow, to consume, and, alas, to speculate. "The Economist" called it "a splendid way to transfer wealth from savers to borrowers."
The connection between inflation and asset bubbles is unclear. On the one hand, some of the greatest fizz in history occurred during periods of disinflation. One is reminded of the global boom in technology shares and real estate in the 1990's. On the other hand, soaring inflation forces people to resort to hedges such as gold and realty, inflating their prices in the process. Inflation - coupled with low or negative interest rates - also tends to exacerbate perilous imbalances by encouraging excess borrowing, for instance.
Still, the absolute level of inflation may be less important than its volatility. Inflation targeting - the latest fad among central bankers - aims to curb inflationary expectations by implementing a consistent and credible anti-inflationary as well as anti-deflationary policy administered by a trusted and impartial institution, the central bank.
III. Economic Expectations

Economies revolve around and are determined by "anchors": stores of value that assume pivotal roles and lend character to transactions and economic players alike. Well into the 19 century, tangible assets such as real estate and commodities constituted the bulk of the exchanges that occurred in marketplaces, both national and global. People bought and sold land, buildings, minerals, edibles, and capital goods. These were regarded not merely as means of production but also as forms of wealth.
Inevitably, human society organized itself to facilitate such exchanges. The legal and political systems sought to support, encourage, and catalyze transactions by enhancing and enforcing property rights, by providing public goods, and by rectifying market failures.
Later on and well into the 1980s, symbolic representations of ownership of real goods and property (e.g, shares, commercial paper, collateralized bonds, forward contracts) were all the rage. By the end of this period, these surpassed the size of markets in underlying assets. Thus, the daily turnover in stocks, bonds, and currencies dwarfed the annual value added in all industries combined.
Again, Mankind adapted to this new environment. Technology catered to the needs of traders and speculators, businessmen and middlemen. Advances in telecommunications and transportation followed inexorably. The concept of intellectual property rights was introduced. A financial infrastructure emerged, replete with highly specialized institutions (e.g., central banks) and businesses (for instance, investment banks, jobbers, and private equity funds).
We are in the throes of a third wave. Instead of buying and selling assets one way (as tangibles) or the other (as symbols) - we increasingly trade in expectations (in other words, we transfer risks). The markets in derivatives (options, futures, indices, swaps, collateralized instruments, and so on) are flourishing.
Society is never far behind. Even the most conservative economic structures and institutions now strive to manage expectations. Thus, for example, rather than tackle inflation directly, central banks currently seek to subdue it by issuing inflation targets (in other words, they aim to influence public expectations regarding future inflation).
The more abstract the item traded, the less cumbersome it is and the more frictionless the exchanges in which it is swapped. The smooth transmission of information gives rise to both positive and negative outcomes: more efficient markets, on the one hand - and contagion on the other hand; less volatility on the one hand - and swifter reactions to bad news on the other hand (hence the need for market breakers); the immediate incorporation of new data in prices on the one hand - and asset bubbles on the other hand.
Hitherto, even the most arcane and abstract contract traded was somehow attached to and derived from an underlying tangible asset, no matter how remotely. But this linkage may soon be dispensed with. The future may witness the bartering of agreements that have nothing to do with real world objects or values.
In days to come, traders and speculators will be able to generate on the fly their own, custom-made, one-time, investment vehicles for each and every specific transaction. They will do so by combining "off-the-shelf", publicly traded components. Gains and losses will be determined by arbitrary rules or by reference to extraneous events. Real estate, commodities, and capital goods will revert to their original forms and functions: bare necessities to be utilized and consumed, not speculated on.
Note:  Why Recessions Happen and How to Counter Them
The fate of modern economies is determined by four types of demand: the demand for consumer goods; the demand for investment goods; the demand for money; and the demand for assets, which represent the expected utility of money (deferred money).
Periods of economic boom are characterized by a heightened demand for goods, both consumer and investment; a rising demand for assets; and low demand for actual money (low savings, low capitalization, high leverage).
Investment booms foster excesses (for instance: excess capacity) that, invariably lead to investment busts. But, economy-wide recessions are not triggered exclusively and merely by investment busts. They are the outcomes of a shift in sentiment: a rising demand for money at the expense of the demand for goods and assets.
In other words, a recession is brought about when people start to rid themselves of assets (and, in the process, deleverage); when they consume and lend less and save more; and when they invest less and hire fewer workers. A newfound predilection for cash and cash-equivalents is a surefire sign of impending and imminent economic collapse.
This etiology indicates the cure: reflation. Printing money and increasing the money supply are bound to have inflationary effects. Inflation ought to reduce the public's appetite for a depreciating currency and push individuals, firms, and banks to invest in goods and assets and reboot the economy. Government funds can also be used directly to consume and invest, although the impact of such interventions is far from certain.

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