February 24, 2014

What’s Inflation? It Depends on the Definition

Posted in asset inflation, Banking, Big Banks, CPI, Federal Reserve, Inflation, investment advisor, investment banking, Markets, Nevada, Quantitative Easing, Real Estate, Robert Barone, Wall Street at 8:55 PM by Robert Barone

One of today’s economic myths is that the money that the Federal Reserve has created through its quantitative easing programs has not found its way into the money supply, and, as a result, no significant inflation has occurred.

The theory is that QE has only resulted in bank reserve creation, but little new money. Money and Banking 101 takes students through the “money multiplier” concept, where $1 of excess reserves can turn into $10 of new money if reserve requirements are 10%. Because there has been little net new bank lending since the Great Recession, the conclusion has been that there has been little money growth, and, therefore, minuscule inflation.

Those who tout this theory simply don’t understand how the money creation process works. In addition, inflation isn’t just measured by the narrowly defined and downwardly biased Consumer Price Index. Inflation means prices are rising, and, as I show below, we have plenty of that.

Money Creation

To show how the process actually works, assume that Citizen X buys $100,000 of securities from Citizen Y, and pays for it with a check drawn on X’s account at Bank XX. Citizen Y deposits the check in Bank YY. In this example, no new money has been created. An existing deposit at Bank XX was transferred to Bank YY.

Now assume that the Fed is the buyer of the $100,000 asset from Citizen Y. When Y deposits the check into his or her account at Bank YY, reserves in the banking system do rise by $100,000 as Bank YY ends up with a new deposit at the Fed.

But, also note that Citizen Y now has $100,000 in a deposit at Bank YY, a deposit that did not exist in the banking system prior to the transaction. Going back to Money and Banking 101, while the $100,000 may not be “multiplied” into $1,000,000 because the banks aren’t lending, the first step — the creation of $100,000 — did, indeed, occur.

The explosion in the assets on the Fed’s balance sheet of more than $3.3 trillion since the beginning of the QE process has resulted in the creation of at least that much new money. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the change in currency in circulation as well as demand and savings deposits at commercial banks since the start of QE has been about $4.2 trillion. Net loan growth at those institutions has been about $1.1 trillion.The $3.1 trillion difference is, as expected, close to the growth of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Asset Inflation

So, why haven’t we had inflation if the money supply has grown so much? Well, we actually have had inflation. The only place we don’t find it is in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI calculation.

But, rather than dwelling on this single measure, consider that the form that inflation — rising prices — takes very much depends on what Citizen Y does with the newly created money, and what those who receive the money from Y do with it. More concretely, the Fed purchases from the large Wall Street institutions. So, it is likely that we will find inflation if we followed the path of the newly created money from those institutions.

As I have been discussing, about 25% of the newly created money over the past five years has gone into net new lending. Where did the rest of it go? It is a pretty sure bet that, given that these are Wall Street banks, much of it went into the equity and real estate markets. Equity prices as measured by the S&P 500 have risen by 150% over the five-year period, and by 29.6% in 2013 alone. Meanwhile, real estate prices as measured by the Case-Shiller 20-City Composite rose 13.7% last year.

It is also a pretty sure bet that the newly created money found its way into the emerging markets, where interest rates have been higher and the Fed’s promise of low U.S. rates for a long period of time (known as the “carry-trade”) significantly reduced the risk of the trade.

The latest 12-month official data show that inflation in Brazil is 5.6%, in India 8.8%, in Indonesia 8.2% and in Turkey 7.8%. Of course, we are all aware that the currencies of these countries have been crushed over the past six weeks, as hedge funds and other large investors have, en masse, withdrawn their funds as the prospect of a Fed tapering has become reality, along with expected rising rates.

Despite the so-called taper, the Fed continues to create a huge amount of money each month. Currently it’s $65 billion. This money has to find a home. It appears to be more than coincidental that, despite a 5.75% mini-correction in the equity market in January, prices have once again continued their upward trek.

Conclusion

More than $3 trillion of new money has been created by the Fed. It is sloshing around and causing prices to rise in equities, real estate and, until recently, in emerging markets. The money now coming out of the EMs will find another investment, causing those asset prices to rise.

We have inflation: asset inflation. The Fed continues to create money which finds its way into the financial markets. Is it any wonder why Wall Street loves QE and hangs on every word from the Fed? If history is any guide, asset inflation will continue as long as the Fed is printing. Just think what could happen to the money supply and inflation if the banks actually start to lend again.

And what might happen to asset prices if the Fed ever started to tighten?

 

Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee. Contact Robert Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone and Andrea Knapp) are available to discuss client investment needs.  Call them at 775-284-7778.
Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.
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