What's So Bad About Deflation? Nothing, If You Own the Debt
by CHARLES HUGH SMITH
July 26, 2012
Perhaps all the assumptions about inflation being good and deflation being bad miss the key question: cui bono (to whose benefit?)
One of the most widely accepted truisms of our time is that deflation is bad: bad for debtors, bad for the indebted government, and therefore bad for the economy.
What all this overlooks is how wonderful mild deflation is for those who owe no debt but who own the debt and the income streams that flow from debt. What the "deflation is bad" argument ignores is who controls the financial and political systems, and what set of conditions benefits them.
The entire Survival+ critique is based on one simple but revealing question: cui bono--to whose benefit?
The "deflation is bad" view naively assumes the Federal government wants inflation to lower its own debt burden. But since the machinery of governance is directed not at what's good for the government, but at what's good for the financial Elites that influence policy, then the only meaningful question is: what's best for the financial Elites?
Mild inflation won't bother the Elites much as long as their leveraged returns exceed inflation by a substantial measure, but deflation is much more lucrative: why mess around with potentially volatile inflation when deflation works better?
As knowledgeable correspondent James B. recently explained, the financial Elites' are skimming their take regardless of inflation or deflation. (for more on this, see James B.'s commentary in Do the Parasitic Elite Pay Any Taxes? June 13, 2012.)
Deflation makes cash and income streams more valuable as time marches on. At a 1% rate of deflation, our cash buys more goods and services every month. As a result, a 3% yield plus the 1% deflation = 4% real return.
The reason why deflation is considered bad is that wages tend to deflate along with everything else, and so the income debtors need to pay their debts declines, making it more difficult to service the debt.
Governments are presumed to want inflation because it erodes government debt over time and boosts the income of taxpayers and thus of the government. At 5% annual inflation, the adjusted value of $100 debt decreases to $77 in five short years. In 10 years, 5% annual inflation drops the purchasing-power value of $100 debt to $60.
As wages increase with inflation, the number of hours of work needed to service the monthly debt declines. Inflation makes debts easier on the debtor and strips value away owners of the debt.
Nice if you're the debtor, extremely annoying if you own the debt. Once again we must separate the Federal government from the financial Elites who control its policies. If government spending must eventually be curtailed to pay the rising interest on exploding Federal debt, that won't bother those who own the Federal debt (bonds).
Another widely accepted truism is that the Federal government (Central State) can "print its way out of debt" by printing enough money to devalue the dollar. Devaluing the dollar and inflation are two descriptions of the same process: expanding the money supply far faster than the real economy is expanding.
But once again this is naive, as the Federal government doesn't "print money" electronically-- that privilege is held by the Federal Reserve. Does anyone seriously believe the Federal Reserve acts on behalf of the Federal government? For propaganda purposes, the stated "cover" of the Fed is to "preserve price stability" and foster full employment.
The Fed's real function, of course, is to manage monetary policy to benefit the nation's financial sector and its wealthy Elites. What happens to Federal spending and interest payments are of little interest to those setting the Fed agenda. For propaganda purposes, the Fed makes noises about "reining in deficit spending" but this is for show. The most important goal is to maintain real returns for those who own the debt of the Federal government, i.e. the mega-wealthy financial Elites and other Status Quo players.
The critical error made by the "inflation is good" camp is their assumption that wages will rise along with everything else in inflation. Alas, wages for the bottom 90% have stagnated for decades in real terms (i.e. purchasing power), and so "mild" inflation has dramatically decreased their earnings.
In a post-industrial, post-bubble economy, labor is in massive surplus, so wages are flat to down for the vast majority of workers. Inflation is actually terrible for the bottom 90%, as their wages are flat while everything else rises in cost. For those workers with modest debt loads or very low interest loans, deflation actually boosts the purchasing power of their stagnant earnings.
Deflation is a wonderful boost for those who own debt and who receive income streams from interest and principal payments. Every dollar of interest and principal buys more than it did when the loan was originated. Every dollar of cash not only buys more goods and services, it also buys more hard assets as assets tumble in deleveraging.
Some steady writedown of debt is acceptable to those who own the debt. Let's say that 1% of all the debt is written off every year due to defaults, short sales of homes, foreclosures, etc. If the yield is 3% plus 1% deflation for a real return of 4%, then a 1% reduction in principal will still leave a real yield of 3%, which can be leveraged into 10% or even 15% (at 5-to-1 leverage).
The "frog in the pot" syndrome applies. If deflation is modest, on the order of 1%-2% annually, that won't spark insurrection. If the water in the pot is heated slowly, the frog doesn't notice much except a gradual reduction in earnings and government benefits as more government revenue is funneled to debt service.
Indeed, by many measures, Japan has been in deflation for over 20 years. The slow erosion of wages has been partially offset by a decline in the cost of goods and services. Meanwhile, those who own the debt have a low-risk increase in their wealth and income, year after year. What's not to like?
Before we assume the Federal government needs inflation, we should ask who sets the policy objectives of the government. Since the super-wealthy have captured the regulatory and legislative processes, why would we think the government's actions don't align with their interests?
Since the Federal government can't "print money," it can only borrow it, then it is incapable of creating inflation, even if it wanted to. The interests of the Federal Reserve are served by propaganda about "inflation targeting," but behind the curtain mild deflation is perfectly fine with the financial Elites.
Consider this. In mild deflation, Treasury bonds increase in value as the income streams of interest gain purchasing power every year. When other assets tank--for example, stocks and real estate--the bonds can be sold and the other assets snapped up for cheap from those who have only debt to deleverage and no cash.
Deflation is only bad for those with crushing debts and no ability to borrow more. Since the Federal government (like the government of Japan) can always borrow more, those buying the debt are assured of a low-risk income stream that can then be used to buy other deflating assets.
Everyone assuming the Federal government has the power to create inflation and that inflation is "good" should examine the interests of those who control the government's policies, i.e. those who own the debt.
Put another way: here's what will be scarce: reliable income streams and liquidity.