Guest Post: Welcome To The Era of 'Ugly' Inflation

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Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith via Peak Prosperity,

The Siren Song of 'Beautiful Deleveraging'

In a world of rising sovereign debts and an overleveraged, over-indebted private sector, history suggests there are only three possible ways out: gradual deleveraging, defaulting on the debt, or printing enough money to inflate away the debt.

Ray Dalio recently described the characteristics of a “beautiful deleveraging” in which equal doses of austerity, write-downs, and inflation gradually lighten the load of impaired debt.  This might be called the Goldilocks Deleveraging, as the key feature of this “beautiful” solution is that each component is “not too hot, not too cold” – inflation is modest, write-downs of bad debt are gradual, and austerity is not too severe.  Given enough time, the leverage and debt are worked off without requiring any structural change to the Status Quo.

Understandably, the Status Quo has embraced this solution for the appealing reason it doesn’t change the power structure at all.  Everyone currently in charge remains in charge, and everyone who owns outsized wealth continues owning outsized wealth. Rather than falling onto the politically powerful “too big to fail” banking sector, the pain of deleveraging is spread over the entire economy.  There is no such thing as painless deleveraging, so the “solution” is to distribute the pain over hundreds of millions of people. That’s what makes it “beautiful” to the Status Quo: It doesn’t cost them either their power or their wealth.

The Status Quo in Japan has pursued this strategy for 20 years, and the Status Quo in Europe and the U.S. have pursued it for the past four years, ever since the global financial system imploded in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, the conventional view is that it’s working "beautifully".  Housing has bottomed, stocks have doubled since their March 2009 lows, households are slowly deleveraging, inflation is modest, and growth is sluggish but steady.  All we need to do, we’re told, is stay the course for a few more years, and the stage will be set for a return to the rapid growth of the bubble years.

Central Banks to the Rescue

The core mechanism of this “leave the Status Quo intact” solution is that central banks conjure money out of thin air (i.e., “print money”), which they use to then buy impaired bank debt (such as delinquent mortgages) and sovereign debt (such as the bonds of Spain, Italy and the U.S.)

This transfers impaired private-sector debt and sovereign debt to the central banks’ balance sheets, where they are safely sequestered from price discovery.  The central banks keep these questionable assets on the books at full value, and the Status Quo is happy.  The banks trade their risky impaired assets to the central bank for cash, which they can use to speculate or originate new loans, and governments can continue to run monumental deficits because the bonds they issue are purchased (i.e., “monetized”) by central banks.

Central bank balance sheets swell with phantom assets, but nobody cares, as the debt no longer burdens private banks and governments are free to borrow and spend.

It all seems too good to be true, and so skeptics ask: If this deleveraging is so 'beautiful', why are the developed economies sliding into recession?  If this deleveraging has worked so well, why are governments still running unprecedented deficits even as hiring, production, and lending all weaken?

Skeptics of the official “happy story” see plentiful evidence that the beautiful deleveraging of central-bank monetization is simply papering over the structural rot at the heart of the financial/political Status Quo – the shadow banking system, the risk-laden derivatives trade, the “fraud-is-our-business-model” mortgage securitization industry, and so on.

Somebody Has to Pay the Price

Skeptics reviewing history find few examples of painless deleveraging and many examples where over-indebtedness and central bank money-printing lead to a stark choice: Either accept high inflation as a way of inflating debts away, or renounce sovereign debt and devalue the currency.

Neither “solution” is ideal nor beautiful. Inflating away debt by depreciating the currency (via money-printing) allows debtors to pay debt with “cheaper” money, but inflation savagely erodes financial wealth.  If we earn $100,000 an hour, our $100,000 mortgage can be paid off with one hour’s labor, but our $100,000 in savings will only buy three gallons of gasoline – the same number of gallons an hour’s labor bought back when we earned $12 an hour. We can print money but not oil.

If a nation renounces its debt, everyone who owns the sovereign bonds loses some or all of their investment, and the currency loses value as global traders and investors recalibrate the value of the currency. Once the currency is devalued, imports such as oil rise steeply in cost, leaving less household income to be spent or invested.  Consumers pay the price of devaluation.

In other words, there is no painless deleveraging. The price has to be paid by someone, and so the battle behind the façade of “beautiful deleveraging” is over whom the cost will be transferred to.  

If the government absorbs all the banks’ bad debts and runs large structural deficits, the cost is transferred to the taxpayers.  If the central bank prints money in excess in order to absorb the banks’ bad debts, inflation rears its head, and everyone with savings and who earns wages pays the price via a loss of purchasing power.

Though it is dismissed as “impossible” – and it is politically impossible, as the banks have captured the machinery of governance – banks could be forced to into insolvency and their assets liquidated on the open market.  This would clear the decks of impaired debt and distribute the losses to those who owned the impaired debt: pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds, individuals, etc.  Every owner would share equitably and proportionately in the losses.

But this would upset the Status Quo’s power and wealth-sharing arrangement, and so it is dismissed as unworkable.

Beautiful and Ugly Inflation

A key mechanism in beautiful deleveraging is beautiful inflation at an annual rate of, say, 3% (gosh, isn’t that the Federal Reserve’s target?) that steals 3% from the purchasing power of the currency while depreciating debts by the same 3%.

In a decade, both the value of the debt and the currency have fallen by over 30%, but the loss of purchasing power has been so gradual that the losers – wage earners, consumers, savers, and owners of the devalued debt – don’t feel enough pain to protest.

Truly beautiful inflation combines low-interest fixed-rate debt, wage and price inflation, and a stable currency.  If wages and prices are both inflating at 10% a year, wage earners don’t feel any pain as their income rises in tandem with the cost of goods and services.  Any mismatch – say wages rise 8% a year while prices rise 10% – is slight enough that the erosion won’t trigger any political fallout. With a stable currency, imports don’t cost more, either.

Meanwhile, low-interest fixed-rate debt is being wiped out at a rapid clip. In a decade of 10% annual inflation, the debt has lost roughly two-thirds of its value.  Wages have doubled at the end of ten years, while existing mortgage payments have remained unchanged.

Debtors have an easier time servicing debt, and inflation has magically deleveraged the household.  As the value of people's old debt declines and their nominal income rises, they can afford to take on more debt.

Banks can issue new debt to the newly deleveraged households, earning fat transaction fees and securitizing the newly issued debt so that it can be offloaded to investors.

The government also benefits, as rising nominal wages push taxpayers into higher income brackets, swelling government revenues. Everybody wins.  Households get to consume more goods and services, banks get to originate more debt, and the government rakes in more tax revenues. No wonder the Status Quo is pursuing beautiful inflation.

Two things can turn beautiful inflation into ugly inflation: Wages don’t inflate along with prices and the currency depreciates as money is printed excessively. This might not matter for a nation that is a net exporter of goods and services.  But for nations that import essentials such as oil and grain, this is a catastrophe, as wages are flat while the cost of imported energy and food skyrocket.  Households have less money to spend, and servicing debt becomes increasingly burdensome.

This is ugly inflation: Household incomes decline in real terms, the rising cost of essentials squeezes discretionary spending, and servicing debt becomes more difficult. Households not only cannot afford new debt; many have to default on debt just to survive.  Bank lending falters and defaults rise, eroding banks’ solvency. As household incomes stagnate, government tax revenues decline as well.

In ugly inflation, everybody loses.

Welcome to the United States of Ugly Inflation.  Real household income (i.e., adjusted for official inflation) has declined 8% since 2007; the cost of oil, medical care and higher education has climbed; and government revenues have stagnated even as demand for government services has increased.

As a result, the entire beautiful deleveraging scenario is at risk. Austerity carries a high political cost, and central bank printing appears to be fueling ugly inflation. Behind the “happy story” façade, falling incomes mean that household deleveraging is an illusion, along with bank solvency. 

What else is at work here?  Where is this leading? Possibly to destinations many reading this may not expect.

In Part II: Why the U.S. Dollar, Counterintuitively, May Strengthen from Here, we explore several key (and under-appreciated) mechanisms. Reality rarely unfolds in a tidy linear progression (if A > than B > than C) and usually involves more factors than we think to put into our forecasting models. There are several key market influences (e.g., the price of oil) and non-market influences (e.g., sovereign interests) capable of constraining central banks' ability to print money. And as a result, the currency devaluation that many see as being baked into the cake may not materialize.

Click here to read Part II of this report (free executive summary; paid enrollment required for full access).

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Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:03 | 2840248 Yen Cross
Yen Cross's picture

Warren Buffet, "prodigy"?

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:03 | 2840253 nmewn
nmewn's picture

Obama voter.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:06 | 2840263 exi1ed0ne
exi1ed0ne's picture

Corzone's cellmate.  (crosses fingers)

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:13 | 2840280 francis_sawyer
francis_sawyer's picture

In a case of... 'The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly', it never helps to be THE UGLY dude...

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:27 | 2840315 Zap Powerz
Zap Powerz's picture

Nah, Tuco did a'ight in that movie (except for always having a noose around his neck).  It was the bad guy who died.  But in today's bassackward, fucked up world, the good guys are the bad guys and the bad guys are the good guys.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:37 | 2840340 killallthefiat
killallthefiat's picture

Could we please have a gratuitous shot of a GB Packers cheerleader here?  I came for the pic.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:51 | 2840363 krispkritter
krispkritter's picture

Someone just posted this, have at it!

http://www.failedhumor.com/images/upload/12284335809486049gom.jpg

(The Good, The Bad, and the Flashers)

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:02 | 2840387 nmewn
nmewn's picture

Thank you.

You know what always freaks em out?...just tell em real boobies don't "glow" under a blacklight, try it some time, just to screw with em ;-)

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:12 | 2840408 krispkritter
krispkritter's picture

'just to screw with'em' Gladly! 

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 10:55 | 2841468 Thomas
Thomas's picture

"beautiful deleveraging" is a boiled frog

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:03 | 2840389 Precious
Precious's picture

Just another night at 7-11.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 20:05 | 2840527 lakecity55
lakecity55's picture

They didn't make those.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 21:36 | 2840733 Mr.Bigfoot
Mr.Bigfoot's picture

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez...
....the Ugly

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 02:32 | 2841175 Ying-Yang
Ying-Yang's picture

Can we allocate some of our taxes to pay for a facelift for our ugly debt? /s

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 00:02 | 2841043 AgShaman
AgShaman's picture

Not a bad gig really. Chasin' around for some gold nugees for a few days.

Pays well....no matter what century.

Plus...the runnin' thru the graveyard with some good music

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNGe7iK1O-4&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:16 | 2840281 nmewn
nmewn's picture

Not as long as he keeps raising the buckage for O'Barry...

http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/jon-corzine-still-bundling-obama_640493.html?nopager=1

The law only applies to the "common folk"".

But to the authors point about wages keeping pace with devaluation...er, um, inflation...

http://news.investors.com/092512-626958-household-income-down-82-under-president-obama.aspx

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:16 | 2840284 LMAOLORI
Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:21 | 2840300 nmewn
nmewn's picture

Hey!!!...some of my best friends are old hippies ;-)

I guess it was different regionally (on the hippy thing). Most of mine are fiscal conservatives but socially they are moderate...they don't bogart the joint...lol.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:34 | 2840330 LMAOLORI
LMAOLORI's picture

 

 

lol I don't bogart the joint either just making an observation as to whether he was an obama voter he looks the part and Hippy came to mind as a descriptive term.  Your friends don't dress like that do they Big Eyes.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:35 | 2840334 TheFourthStooge-ing
TheFourthStooge-ing's picture

A friend with weed is a friend indeed.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:51 | 2840366 nmewn
nmewn's picture

Oh yes.

Only a few more years until I retire, you can cut the hair off the freak but you can't cut the freak from the flag...the kiddies will never get that ;-)

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:09 | 2840397 LMAOLORI
LMAOLORI's picture

 

 

A friend without weed is a friend in need.

You didn't Bogart that Joint someone else Bogarted that Joint 

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 20:03 | 2840526 lakecity55
lakecity55's picture

You didn't roll that joint.

And I'm breaking in line.

-Choom Boy

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:22 | 2840301 kito
kito's picture

@nmewn....actually an obama voter would have perfect pearly whites..........medicaid pays well for dental..................

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:43 | 2840347 nmewn
nmewn's picture

I thought about that after I said it...lol...helluva a world we live in.

It'd be real easy to capitulate to the evil that is nanny statism wouldn't it? But then I'd be addicted to the states buying my sleeping pills for me because I couldn't sleep with myself. Then, its off to state provided "counseling" sessions to find my "inner self"...seems like a vicious cycle of circle jerk to me, with me as the pivot man.

I think I'll just pay for services rendered and not take the stroll through statist hell ;-)

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:00 | 2840382 Dr. Engali
Dr. Engali's picture

Come on nmewn give into the machine. Uncle Sam will take care of all your needs. Just close your eyes and succumb to the sweet embrace of the nanny state.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:22 | 2840430 nmewn
nmewn's picture

Its what they're after Doc, I know it and you know it, it keeps them as being seen as "needed".

Sun, 09/30/2012 - 04:15 | 2842765 Just Ice
Just Ice's picture

Then, like present day elder Greeks and Spaniards, there is simply no one to turn to or count on, including yourself, when your socialist State caretaker has run out of other people's money to provide.  How many of those elderly folks had suicide as part and parcel of their individual retirement plans or their resolution for health and well being during old age?  Individuals, counting on themselves for their own needs, and taking responsibility for same early in life, is absolutely the way to go.

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 09:48 | 2841386 jekyll island
jekyll island's picture

WTF is beautiful inflation?  Is that like saying cancer is beautiful because it clears out the old and genetically susceptible?  Inflation is a TAX on the wealth of the nation.  I guess old Charles Nelson-Riley likes taxes, pay your "fair share" and all that.  

Sun, 09/30/2012 - 04:30 | 2842774 Just Ice
Just Ice's picture

Exactly.  No such thing as "beautiful" inflation.  The notion that everyone wins under the proposed "beautiful" inflation scenario is absolutely ridiculous.  Savers and fixed income folks who are not receiving compounded interest and/or COLA increases that also keep them ahead of the rate of inflation are losers as are the investors or creditors who hold the fixed debt instruments.

Plans to inflate away debt are just theft schemes of burdening persons, other than those entities that took on the risk, with payment of the losses and costs.  Being  deceptive about it cannot make it beautiful.    

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 10:54 | 2841466 slaughterer
slaughterer's picture

I think I saw that guy in the photo in Punta Gorda, FL with a roll of duck tape and a can of Bud Lite.  

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:08 | 2840267 Binko
Binko's picture

Yeah wonderful! Sounds like "beautiful deleveraging" for the wealthy but "big fat screw up the ass deleveraging" for everybody else.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 23:41 | 2841000 Arnold Ziffel
Arnold Ziffel's picture

"beautfiul deleveraging"

Oxymoron of the decade.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 23:45 | 2841007 RiverRoad
RiverRoad's picture

Yeah, it only works if you're one of the beautiful people like Ray is.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:14 | 2840268 falak pema
falak pema's picture

hey thats a Zh memba!

The libertarian typa!

bootiful deleveraging that sounds terribly sensual; like red sails in the sunset!  

What a way to lose your front teeth! 

thats ugly deleveraging.

A shark once got deleveraged, it ended up all shrunk and marinated in a tin box; then they called it a red herring! 

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:10 | 2840269 alexanderstollznow
alexanderstollznow's picture

gosh, it must be so annoying for authors like this, that there hasnt actually been any inflation to "inflate away the debt".  he may like to call on imagery from Goldilocks; i prefer to think of The Kings New Clothes.  all these twits running around for the last 4 years terrified of hyperinflation and currency collapse, and, darn it, it just wont happen.

not with $2.2tr of QE already.

but now, $40bn per month of QE is suddenly going to turn the US into depression era germany.

and commenters on this blog have the audacity to talk about "sheeple".  what a joke.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:18 | 2840288 akak
akak's picture

I would say "open your eyes", but open eyes do little good for someone with a closed mind (or terminal stupidity).

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:23 | 2840305 Yen Cross
Yen Cross's picture

 May I make a "suggestion"?   Perhaps, your drive for perfection has "obscured" your original intensions?/

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:28 | 2840317 akak
akak's picture

You may very well be correct.

My ability to suffer fools, and foolishness, continually diminishes as I get older (or as the world goes ever deeper into insanity and Hell).

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:43 | 2840348 Yen Cross
Yen Cross's picture

 Does that mean you are "submitting yourself" , to a world of Chaos? I thought you were a man of conscience?

  Intuitive, and full of Ideas?  I like " LEADERS akak". Do you fit that  [ Film/Velum]?

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 18:52 | 2840372 kito
kito's picture

the world according to akak.....i shall hope that his intolerance..... arrogance.....his venomous nature...his vitroil... will not be emblematic of the post collapse mindset.....................

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:02 | 2840377 akak
akak's picture

I have long ago lost hope that the blinkered and stubborn close-mindedness, and outright insanity, of those such as yourself --- the teeming and gullible masses yearning to be led and ruled --- will not be even more as emblematic of the future as they are already of the present.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:05 | 2840392 kito
kito's picture

you need to expand your vocabulary.....im seeing blinkered too often in your posts...try provincial, perhaps? or myopic, or perhaps self aggrandizement????....oh wait, that last one would apply to you....................... 

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:11 | 2840402 Dr. Engali
Dr. Engali's picture

Friday night fights. I'm gonna grab a beer.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:22 | 2840429 kito
kito's picture

doc, are you anywhere near the three floyds brewery? arguably the greatest microbrew in the country...........

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:29 | 2840441 Dr. Engali
Dr. Engali's picture

No I'm about as far away from there as you can get. I'm on the complete opposite end of the state.

It looks like Akak just went from a fight to a brawl.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:12 | 2840407 akak
akak's picture

If the blinkers fit ....

 

(and they do)

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:16 | 2840416 kito
kito's picture

im betting akak grew up with no love........................

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 19:29 | 2840447 akak
akak's picture

And I am betting that your mother smoked and drank during her pregnancy .....

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 21:33 | 2840723 kito
kito's picture

wow, i take a few hours off and we have devolved into mother jokes............

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