Mailvox: Deflation vs inflation

JB inquires regarding the matter:

Congratulations, it looks like you’re right about deflation vs. inflation. I thought based on the historical example of other systems going belly up that inflation was always the final scenario. But your grand graphs of credit implosion are everything a rubbernecker could wish for in twisted limbs and crashed clunkers.

I’m still not clear on what’s going on, and I’d like to run a few questions by you. Credit contraction is ~ to GDP contraction, yes? So if deflation is keeping pace with reduction of goods and services, then prices should remain constant, right? Consumer goods are a subset of that. Are you predicting deflation from the consumer’s perspective, and if so, why? What I’m getting at is that even though the credit bubble’s magnitude dwarfs all other considerations, its implosion doesn’t logically necessitate consumer deflation, as far as I can understand. I guess your main reason there won’t be inflation, besides the impossible magnitude of the credit bubble, is that the Fed is private and won’t order the whirlybirds aloft. Why do you think a legal technicality like that is going to stop the Fed’s big brother, the US Federal Government? Given the trend, shouldn’t we be more surprised if any banks at all manage to remain private?

First of all, let me say that the question is far from settled. I understand the inflationary case and it is a perfectly reasonable one, albeit based on general principles that I do not believe apply in the specific case of the peculiar U.S. monetary system. I’m going to address the matter in more detail in a column and explain why I expect the debt-money supply to decrease to a certain, specific level at a minimum. However, the easiest way to achieve a basic understanding of the issue is to look at this chart which incorporates the latest Federal Reserve flow of funds account of total debt outstanding.

The red line amounts to the case for inflation. This is the Federal spending that the inflationistas assume can grow indefinitely and has, in fact, increased by $2 trillion since the third quarter of 2008. However, even this 35% increase in 18 months has not been sufficient to counterbalance the ongoing credit contraction in the household, financial, and state & local government sectors. Moreover, that Federal spending increase is now coming to an end even as the contraction in the financial sector doubles its speed and state & local spending hits the insolvency wall.

In answer to your questions, GDP contraction is not equal to debt contraction even though debt is a primary factor in sustaining GDP growth. Because GDP is disproportionately weighted towards government spending and because the G component of GDP is dependent solely upon the growth in government debt rather than overall debt, GDP can increase even in the face of overall debt contraction. But it cannot do so for long, as the chart above indicates. As far as the banks go, because they are insolvent by every meaningful accounting measure, they have already been quasi-nationalized because although their profits remain private, their losses are charged to the public.