Inflation and the Debt Default Paradox
With the federal government anchored down with over $14 trillion in debt and trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, somehow people are shocked that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on U.S. government debt to “Negative” from “Stable.” This is about as surprising as learning that Fat Albert is overweight or that Charlie Sheen has a substance abuse problem.
Let’s use an example. Suppose I received a pay demotion and then I went on an irresponsible around-the-world spending rampage while racking up over $1,000,000.00 in credit card debt. Should I be surprised if my 850 FICO score would be reviewed for a possible downgrade, or if credit card lenders became slightly concerned about the possibility of collecting my debt? I guess I wouldn’t be flabbergasted by their anxiety.
Debt Default Paradox?
With the recent S&P rating adjustment, pundits over the airwaves (see CNBC video) make the case that the U.S. cannot default on its debt, because the U.S. is a sovereign nation that can indefinitely issue bonds in its own currency (i.e., print money likes it’s going out of style). There is some basis to this argument if you consider the last major developed country to default was the U.S. government in 1933 when it went off the gold standard.
On the other hand, non-sovereign nations issuing foreign currencies do not have the luxury of whipping out the printing presses to save the day. The Latin America debt defaults in the 1980s and Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s are examples of foreign countries over-extending themselves with U.S. dollar-denominated debt, which subsequently led to collapsing currencies. The irresponsible fiscal policies eventually destroyed the debtors’ ability to issue bonds and ultimately repay their obligations (i.e., default).
Regardless of a country’s strength of currency or central bank, if reckless fiscal policies are instituted, governments will eventually be left to pick their own poison…default or hyperinflation. One can think of these options as a favorite dental procedure – a root canal or wisdom teeth pulled. Whether debtors get paid 50 cents on the dollar in the event of a default, or debtors receive 100 cents in hyper-inflated dollars (worth 50% less), the resulting pain feels the same – purchasing power has been dramatically reduced in either case (default or hyperinflation).
Of course, Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Bank would like investors to believe a Goldilocks scenario is possible, which is the creation of enough liquidity to stimulate the economy while maintaining low interest rates and low inflation. At the end of the day, the inflation picture boils down to simple supply and demand for money. Fervent critics of the Fed and Bernanke would have you believe the money supply is exploding, and hyperinflation is just around the corner. It’s difficult to quarrel with the printing press arguments, given the size and scale of QE1 & QE2 (Quantitative Easing), but the fact of the matter is that money supply growth has not exploded because all the liquidity created and supplied into the banking system has been sitting idle in bank vaults – financial institutions simply are not lending. Eventually this phenomenon will change as the economy continues to recover; banks adequately build their capital ratios; the housing market sustainably recovers; and confidence regarding borrower creditworthiness improves.
Scott Grannis at the California Beach Pundit makes the point that money supply as measured by M2 has shown a steady 6% increase since 1995, with no serious side-effects from QE1/QE2 yet:
In fact, Grannis states that money supply growth (+6%) has actually grown less than nominal GDP over the period (+6.7%). Money supply growth relative to GDP growth (money demand) in the end is what really matters. Take for instance an economy producing 10 widgets for $10 dollars, would have a CPI (Consumer Price Index) of $1 per widget and a money supply of $10. If the widget GDP increased by 10% to 11 widgets (10 widgets X 1.1) and the Federal Reserve increased money supply by 10% to $11, then the CPI index would remain constant at $1 per widget ($11/11 widgets). This is obviously grossly oversimplified, but it makes my point.
Gold Bugs Banking on Inflation or Collapse
Gold prices have been on a tear over the last 10 years and current fiscal and monetary policies have “gold bugs” frothing at the mouth. These irresponsible policies will no doubt have an impact on gold demand and gold prices, but many gold investors fail to acknowledge a gold supply response. Take for example Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX), which just reported stellar quarterly sales and earnings growth today (up 31% and 57%, respectively). FCX more than doubled their capital expenditures to more than $500 million in the quarter, and they are planning to double their exploration spending in fiscal 2011. Is Freeport alone in their supply expansion plans? No, and like any commodity with exploding prices, eventually higher prices get greedy capitalists to create enough supply to put a lid on price appreciation. For prior bubbles you can reference the recent housing collapse or older burstings such as the Tulip Mania of the 1600s. One of the richest billionaires on the planet, Warren Buffett, also has a few thoughts on the prospects of gold.
The recent Standard & Poor’s outlook downgrade on U.S. government debt has caught a lot of press headlines. Fears about a technical default may be overblown, but if fiscal constraint cannot be agreed upon in Congress, the alternative path to hyperinflation will feel just as painful.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in FCX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.