Friday, December 26, 2008

Spoon Full of Sugar

With a collapse of the financial market, why on earth would I care a fig about inflation? After all, aren't we in a period of massive deflation? 

Yes, we are. But as I posted earlier, deflation is easy to fix. And it can be fun. Inflation is like stopping a boom. It's unpleasant and nobody will be your friend after it's done. Just ask Carter. 

Here's a proposal. 

In order to end deflation, we have to print and spend a lot of money. We will get schools, roads, bridges, parks, all the great stuff that came out of the depression. But, we may end up with too much money and that would require a massive hike in interest rates, the very rates that are near zero now and not doing anybody any good. Unless Germany and Japan can kindly go to war with us again so we can soak up that extra cash and capacity, we will face a very painful time as we return to normal economic policies. 

I know I said there was a proposal, but hear this all out first. Why not just not print that much money in the first place? Well, the problem here is that you need to actually cause inflation and it has to be believed by everyone, especially bankers. If I have $1000 at 0% interest and pay back $1000 at the end of the year, the lender has made no money. If I borrow at 10% interest then the bank makes $100. But, if inflation is at 10%, the bank has the same equivalence of money as before. So, why should a bank want inflation? Because the bank can leverage that to a better advantage. If the bank borrows at 0% and you borrow at 5% then you pay back $50 more than you borrowed. The bank is sure you will pay it back because money in the future will be easier, not harder to get. The bank pays back $1000 and gets to keep its risk free $50. The bank is borrowing at -10% interest and you are borrowing at -5%. In other words, the Feds are paying you to borrow money. 

Now the bank only needs $100 to lend you $1000. I know, it's called fractional reserve banking and it's very weird and I personally think it is the basis for most of our economic problems throughout the last two centuries, but that is how it works. Anyway, They are in effect making 50% profit from that 5% loan. The reason they won't make the loan now is that the expectation is that deflation is running about 5% now. That means that $1000 loan that needs to be paid back at $1100 is going to cost the borrower $1155 in todays dollars. For many, that is just too much and the bank has to foreclose and cough up that money itself. So a bank loans $1000 on $100 and makes $100 or loans $1000 on $100 and loses $1155. That's an upside of +100% or a downside of -1,155% or more than 10 times the loss as there is for the gain. So the banker has to know that there will be inflation and the borrower will be able to repay the loan or at the very least, the house will be worth more in the future. 

Plus, the bank has to fold deflation into the loan so the interest rate is out of reach for many people. If I borrow $1000 at 0% and hold on for a year at -5% inflation, then I made $50 for doing nothing. If I put that in a T-bill at 2% then I make 7%. That's a nice amount of money for doing nothing! If I loan it, I'd need 12-15% to make that kind of risk/return. 

Really, the proposal

So here's the idea. What if we raise interest rates to about 5% over the next year while at the same time print lots of money? I know it sounds like it's self defeating, but here's the beauty of the idea. The hard times come during the good times and all that is needed when we are recovered is to ease off the good times. It's like deciding ahead of time who will be the designated driver. In this case, it will be the banks. Yes, those same people who got us into this in the first place. But here we are asking them to do what they are good at. They are good at being party-poopers. In fact, they are so good at it that they are preventing us from having a party right now which is why the Feds have to throw us a party instead. 

So, the Feds become the bank while the banks wring their hands and worry about their balance sheets. Eventually they will see that with inflation making loans less risky and the negative numbers on the balance sheet start looking smaller due to inflation and the T-bills starting to look less and less desirable, they will start to loan money again. 

When the designated driver looks ready to have a drink, we know it's time to end the party and go home. The banks take over more and more of their proper role in the economy and the feds do less and less. The rate is now in a position that it functions again both directions and we can return to our normal insanity. 

I believe this will prolong the time the government has to stimulate the economy, but I don't think it will prolong the overall time the Feds will have to intervene in drastic ways. I just think it will let them intervene completely on the stimulus side, and not at all on the politically disastrous kill the party side. So no politician has to face the issue of do the right thing, but commit political suicide. There is a big implication of trade and flight from the dollar, but I may mull those over in a future posts.

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