Inflation: defining and identifying it

Ilargy 2011 automatic earth

The fact that there’s all that zombie money around (or zombie credit, to be precise) leads many to believe the US witnesses inflation. Not true.

Inflation is not the same as rising prices. Prices can rise for many reasons:

  1. Scarcity
  2. Speculation
  3. Real inflation

It’s important to be able to identify which of these causes is in play.

If you call all price rises inflation, you lose the ability to distinguish between the causes, which means you lose a crucial analytical tool.

The media has force-fed the incorrect definition of inflation to the masses, and there are plenty of people who say rising prices is all they care about, not monetary theory. However, a clear view of causation is essential when it comes to defining your reaction to rising or falling prices, and prices that rise because of scarcity demand a totally different set of actions than those that do because of a rise in total supply of money and credit, combined with velocity of money, which is what inflation truly is.

The present, incorrect and force-fed “meaning” of inflation as all price rises no matter what their cause is, is relatively new. Rising prices used to be referred to as “(currency) devaluation”. Not perfect, but way better than what we have now, where terms like “monetary inflation”, “price inflation”, “consumer inflation”, “energy inflation” all the way down to “cookie inflation” fill the media.

Why is the distinction between the definitions important? Because today in the US both the money/credit supply and the velocity of money are falling (deflation), while some prices are rising, in particular those of food and energy. And no, you can’t have deflation in one sector and inflation in the other. That really turns the whole debate into obscure nonsense. It’s important that we can determine that if prices rise in times of deflation, the cause for those price rises might be something other than inflation.

In today’s world, that something else is speculation. But not of the ordinary kind. What we have right now is zombie money speculation. The same unrecognized losses in the financial system that our governments cover up with criminally negligent accounting non-standards cause prices of oil and food to rise, since that’s where the zombie money -inevitably- ends up. And it’s not just the banks that invest zombie money, it’s all of us.

If banks had been forced to reveal their losses, the hammering of home prices would have been huge. Since this did not happen, a lot of people are still sitting pretty in their homes, which are way more overvalued -in free market terms- than just about anyone is ready to recognize. Also, if banks had revealed their losses, unemployment rates would have been far higher than they are today.

I know what many are thinking: maybe it’s not such a bad idea to cover up those losses. But you’re not seeing the whole picture. First, the cover-up has enabled the banks to access your money in order to pay down their debts. And second, zombie money is not the same as real money, as something that has been earned by adding real value. Zombie money is not real.

I read a piece at Zero Hedge the other day by a group that calls themselves the NIA, for National Inflation Association. But they don’t even know what inflation means. Hence their slogan: “Preparing Americans for Hyperinflation”. Hey, if you can’t define inflation, chances are you’ll miss the truth on hyperinflation too. Look, the US depends for its money and credit supply on international bond markets. Whenever Bernanke turns on his so-called “printing press”, which in actual fact is an “additional credit” press, it’s not as if free money is created. There‘s interest to be paid on all of it. And while interest rates may be low right now, it’s not Bernanke who sets those rates, try as he might to make you think so.

If and when the bond markets decide that the risk on US debt rises enough -or too much-, they will decide what the interest rate is, not Bernanke, and not Geithner. Obviously, with every dollar printed, risk assessments will rise, and the outcome is inevitable: less appetite for US debt (don’t forget that there’s plenty zombie money in the bond markets too), and higher rates. And only if and when the US no longer has access to international markets does the option of hyperinflation come into play.

I may be quite negative on the prospects for the US economy, but a full separation from global debt markets is a while away yet, and that means the prospect of hyperinflation is as well.

Preparing for hyperinflation is not just useless at this point in time, it’s also damaging in that it makes people blind to the real problem: deflation. And before we get to hyperinflation, if we ever do, deflation will cause so much pain and grief and unrest and death, that the very thought of hyperinflation will come to be seen as a highly delusional non-issue.

So how long will the zombie money last? Can it last as long as Bernanke and Geithner and Obama and Dimon want it to? No, in fact, they’re fighting a lost battle against time itself.

The zombie money has to disappear, and it will. It all starts and ends with US and European real estate, the biggest investment of those of us living on Main Street, by far. US home prices have now fallen for 53 consecutive months, despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy up and guarantee near 100% of all mortgages, and despite the fact that the Fed has purchased huge swaths of the securities allegedly backed by these mortgages.

All those trillions “worth” of your money haven’t been able to prevent that. And no amount of additional trillions will. Foreclosures are setting brand new records across the country, even as banks are ever more nervous about their paperwork, and their balance sheets. It doesn’t matter how much money Washington throws at the issue, other than it’ll make you a whole lot poorer, for you’ll never see it back.

A further deterioration in home prices can’t be prevented. Fannie and Freddie can’t buy 101% of mortgages; they’re buying close to a 100% right now and prices still fall. Wal-Mart greeters, burger flippers and the rest of the great unwashed will not be allowed back into the housing market. There are over 10 million homes on the market, and perhaps twice that if you count all foreclosed properties that banks sit on (and the millions they won’t foreclose on), plus all those that people would like to sell but can’t lest they go underwater. And the pool of potential buyers has shrunk with a vengeance since the 2005-6 “heydays”. Huge increase in supply, huge decrease in demand; e all know where this will go.

Now, take Fannie and Freddie out of this picture. What do you see? They’ll be taken out in some way, and at some time. I know what I see: the housing and mortgage situation in the US has turned into what I’ve always called the “Bulgaria model”, where you guarantee the mortgage on your neighbor’s home, and he guarantees yours; anything goes as long as it’s not the free market your politicians and media tell you about. And we know what happened to Bulgaria in the end, don’t we?

I’m all for a society, a government, that takes care of the weakest in its midst. I’m all against a government that props up the strongest in its midst, in this case the bankers with bonuses larger in one year than the weaker among us can make in a lifetime, the same bankers who lost more money in bad wagers than the entire country can cough up, and still be economically viable. We’re fast becoming zombie societies.

Food prices

Let’s start with the news that the Tunisian president has fled his country, and the military’s taken over, according to Al Jazeera. Mass protests are ongoing in Morocco and Algeria. The riots in Tunisia are not all about food prices, but they were certainly a substantial factor. And more, much more, of the same is on the horizon, in many different places.

The consequence of the zombie money is is that it is driving up food prices to levels where millions of people around the world will go hungry, and will revolt as a result of that. Wall Street and the bankers have long realized that they can’t maintain their velvet “God’s work” thrones just by robbing Americans of all they’re worth. Their losses are far too great. They need to have access to everyone’s wealth all over the world.

And since oil and food are traded on international commodity markets, and they have gotten hold of all the money America is worth, and then some, they can play these markets as much as they want, whether it’s wheat or natural gas or gold. People like to claim that gold will rise as the US dollar becomes worth less, but they forget that it’s zombie money that has been buying gold, and that has thus lifted gold prices. Once daylight comes and the zombies are gone, there’s only one way left to go for gold prices too.

What we know for sure is that the zombie money we elected to have flow through our financial systems is going to kill a lot of people this year.

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