While prices of commodities from corn to copper are rallying, don't assume that inflation is staging a comeback.
According to some of the most telling tea leaves in financial markets, concerns about a return of inflation, at least in North America, are misplaced.
Consider the price of gold, the hard asset seen as the ultimate hedge against rising prices. To the dismay of gold bugs, the precious metal's price has been mired for most of the past month in one of its most brutal selloffs in years, hardly a harbinger of inflation.
Or look at another critical, inflation-sensitive market, perhaps the most sophisticated and forward-looking of them all: the credit market, where institutional investors trade billions of dollars of bonds, determining the level of long-term interest rates.
Traders here haven't hit the panic button over inflation either. For countries not caught up in the sovereign debt crisis, interest rates on government debts remain near some of the lowest levels ever. If inflation were a credible threat to the future value of money, bond prices would be cratering, and interest rates rising sharply.
That's why many market watchers believe the current jitters over inflation may be a giant, economic version of a head fake. These pundits believe the chances of anything resembling the last inflationary blowout in the 1970s - when years of double-digit hikes in consumer prices created a worldwide wage-price spiral - are remote.
Some analysts are even warning that inflation should be the least of our worries. They believe the most dangerous long-term problem is the high risk of inflation's more scary opposite number - deflation.
Governments responded to the 2008 financial crisis by running huge deficits and printing money. According to the deflationists, once governments stop, the economy will weaken because of high debt levels, and the pressure on prices will wilt.
"When you proceed along this path of rising aggregate indebtedness that ultimately leads to contractions and … when you have extreme over-indebtedness and serious contractions, you get deflation," contends Lacy Hunt, economist at Hoisington Investment Management Co. in Austin, Tex.
If inflation isn't coming back, what then is happening?
Mr. Hunt, whose firm has one of the most successful track records in the bond market, believes the U.S. Federal Reserve, through its program of printing money known as quantitative easing, has caused massive flows of funds into commodities, emerging markets and other speculative investments. The quantitative easing program is set to expire in June, and Mr. Hunt doesn't think it will be renewed, suggesting the price distortions it caused will be reversed.
Another big driver behind rising commodity prices is China, where torrid growth has led to galloping increases in demand. However, Mr. Hunt says pressure is building on the government there to cool things off, in case rising food prices lead to social unrest.
"I think you've got a Chinese economy that is careening out of control," he says. One warning sign: Chinese money supply is rising at 20 per cent a year, a rate that isn't sustainable and will require economic pain to bring down. Mr. Hunt doesn't think China's monetary authorities, facing a need to curb this type of money growth, will be able to engineer a soft landing for their economy.
Mr. Hunt thinks the likely outlook is for a mild, Japanese-style deflation to take hold in the U.S. over the next few years, with consumer prices falling a percentage point or two a year. In his view, any rise in long-term interest rates resulting from misplaced fears of inflation would be a good time to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, which would benefit if his deflationary scenario comes to pass.
Even some commodity bulls, who have been coining money from their big investments in corn, wheat, and other hard assets, shrug off the threat of imminent inflation.
"If you have to say what is it that keeps you awake at night, it's not inflation," says Don Coxe, the head of Coxe Advisors LLC, a Chicago-based money management firm.
Mr. Coxe, whose expertise is in agricultural commodities, says he's "not as worried about inflation as I am about a double-dip recession."
Making him nervous are some of the persistent weaknesses in the U.S. economy. He points to the most recent S&P/ Case-Shiller Home Price Index figures, released earlier this month, that showed housing prices in nine big U.S. cities have fallen to their lowest levels since the 2007 peak.
Falling house values are a major economic downer. They cause defaults, which weaken banks and cause lending to decline. When house prices are weak, people feel poorer, so they spend less. None of this is conducive to inflation.
Mr. Coxe does think inflation could come back over the next couple of years if there isn't an economic slowdown. But if that happens, he says it will be nowhere near the problematic levels of the 1970s, when annual increases in consumer prices in Canada and the U.S. surged above 10 per cent.
For now, he believes that price increases are likely to be largely restricted to commodities. Warehouse stocks of corn and other agricultural goods have fallen to such low levels because of bad harvests and increasing demand that rising prices are almost guaranteed, he says. Commodities also benefit from the loose U.S. monetary policy being used to fight the decline in home prices and other economic ills, such as high unemployment. "The agriculture story is one of the few no-brainers that you get in the commodity business," he contends.
One of the most worried economists in Canada about inflation is Sheryl King, chief investment strategist at Merrill Lynch Canada.
Her forecast, among the gloomiest on the street, is for consumer price inflation to rise to about 4 per cent by the end of the year. While this might seem high after years of the CPI rising only around 2 per cent a year, it isn't elevated by the standards of the late 1970s. "We're not talking about double-digit inflation," she says.
Ms. King believes inflation will accelerate because the Canadian economy is closer than commonly believed to running out of slack in the labour market and in idle capacity in the business sector. In the environment she foresees, purchasing Canadian government bonds that adjust their returns for inflation would be a good bet.
Serious inflation is typically a worldwide phenomenon. While emerging markets with their booming economies have inflation problems, the U.S. remains mired in a deep funk, another reason for doubting the-return-of-inflation story.
Even Ms. King, who is worried about Canada, says she's concerned that the U.S. doesn't have enough inflation. Prices in the U.S. are barely rising, a sign the economic recovery there remains feeble and is far from going into high gear. "I just hope there will be some inflation in the United States," she says. But she's doubtful. "There is slack all over the place."
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY ABOUT INFLATION
The numbers then and now
$875 (U.S.) an ounce
Gold hit a peak in January, 1980, during the last big outburst of inflation. To merely match prices back then, when adjusted for subsequent inflation, bullion would have to rise to more than $2,300 an ounce.
12.5 per cent
1.8 per cent
Current inflation rates are a shadow of what they were when inflation was really rocking and rolling back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Inflation in Canada peaked in 1981. Last year, it was under 2 per cent.
Five-year mortgage rates
21.75 per cent
5.19 per cent
Inflation usually leads to skyrocketing interest rates. The rate back in the summer of 1981 isn't a typographical error. Rates then reached more than 20 per cent, the highest on record. Rates in December, 2010, were only 5.19 per cent.
Martin MittelstaedtReport Typo/Error
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