Don’t Fear This Stock Market Boogeyman…Inflation!
Once upon a time, parents told their children scary stories at bedtime to get them to behave.
Mine wielded Maurice Sendak’s incomparable Where the Wild Things Are (although I found it more exciting than frightening).
What scary stories does the stock market tell politicians to get them to behave?
Inflation is coming! It could already be under the bed!
The Titans of Wall Street act like inflation is a grave danger to Main Street. “It devalues savings and wages,” they say. “It undermines growth by devaluing future earnings,” they say. “It discourages investment,” they say.
In my YouTube video on Friday, I explained why governments are periodically tempted to let inflation run wild to deal with their debt.
This isn’t one of those times. But Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe are going to tell you otherwise.
They’re gearing up to tell scary stories about inflation … because they want to stop politicians in Washington from doing things that might benefit Main Street for once.
Here’s why you shouldn’t believe them.
A Generation Without Inflation
Rich people hate inflation because it undermines their wealth. Today’s extreme wealth inequality amplifies those anti-inflation voices.
They reserve their greatest horror for increased government spending.
They’re not really worried about federal deficits. Their reaction to the Trump tax cuts of 2017 made that clear. (Speaking of, check this out before you file your 2021 tax returns.)
But start talking about big spending plans — like those of President-elect Joe Biden — and the anti-inflation army prepares for war.
The fear is that central banks will raise interest rates to compensate for inflation caused by increased government spending. That will decrease the attractiveness of stocks relative to bonds. It will also reduce the future value of companies’ earnings, making their price-to-earnings ratios even more outrageous than they already are.
That will lead to slower growth of stock valuations — or even a market correction.
And that could result in a big hit to the wealth of the very top of society, where most stock ownership is concentrated.
That’s why, ever since U.S. inflation hit double digits in the 1970s, the titans of finance have continually warned about inflation, especially when the government talks about spending money.
But after peaking at around 15% in the late 1970s, consumer inflation has steadily declined. For the last decade it has rarely exceeded 2%. Here’s why:
- Increasing income inequality means more money is concentrated in the hands of the rich, where it’s saved or invested, not spent on goods and services, where it could cause inflation.
- The combination of digital technologies, slower economic growth and uncompetitive markets means U.S. companies don’t invest as much in physical goods as they did in the 20th century. That reduces inflationary pressure.
- The decline of labor unions and the substitution of technology for labor means wage growth has stagnated since the 1970s. Prior to that, wages were one of the primary sources of inflation.
- Globalization and the rise of Chinese manufacturing has made the supply of physical consumer goods almost limitless. That keeps prices in check.
Thanks to these structural factors, recurrent fears of inflation over the last 30 years have seemed increasingly silly.
The Boogeyman Is Coming … but Will He Stay?
Nevertheless, as I explained on Friday, expect inflation in 2021.
But don’t fear it. It might be good for you.
Here’s how Wall Street will try to scare you … and why you should ignore them:
- The price of many goods and services collapsed between March and May last year as the economy shut down. As it rebounds, prices will rise again. But because they will be measured against the baseline of one year ago, year-on-year inflation will seem extraordinarily high for several months starting in March. Airfares could rise by 16.3%. The price of women’s dresses will rise by nearly 18%. But both of those reflect deep discounting by companies in the spring of 2020. Compared to prices in January and February that year, those prices will only be up about 2%.
- Many industries will suddenly face a burst of pent-up demand. People who have been working from home in their pajamas for a year will go looking for new work clothes. And for service industries such as restaurants, the pandemic decimated supply. Both could lead to increasing prices.
- Thanks to federal stimulus payments and a pullback in spending, Americans saved $1.56 trillion more from March through November last year than they did during the same time in 2019. If people start spending that money all at once, companies will rush to increase supply capacity by investing in factories, stores and hiring more workers. That will lead to a spike in inflation.
All those things will probably happen. But none of them will be due to underlying changes in the drivers of inflation.
That won’t stop Wall Street naysayers from trying to scare you anyway.
Just ignore them.
The Great Reflation
So, what would it take to increase inflation permanently, in the way I described on Friday? And should you worry about it?
Recent history provides the answer.
As recently as 2017 and 2018, bond markets expected annual inflation to exceed 2%:
Modest increases in wages, as unemployment fell to historic lows, drove that expectation. But instead of raising interest rates in anticipation of inflation, as it had done in 2016, the Federal Reserve stuck to its guns.
It argued that rising wages and low unemployment were a good thing, because it meant that after years of stagnation, ordinary Americans were beginning to benefit from the economy.
Once the bond market got used to that idea, inflation expectations declined again during 2019.
The case for federal stimulus in 2021 is based on the same logic.
Thanks to the pandemic, the economy is in a deep hole. There’s plenty of underused capacity. Pumping money into the economy to stimulate demand would aim to absorb all that excess capacity, until prices began to rise on their own steam. That would put money into Main Street pockets.
But something else would also happen.
With unemployment so low, employers would lose leverage over their workers. Employees could freely move from job to job, forcing bosses to compete to keep them.
That’s the real boogeyman under the bed giving Wall Street and America’s employer’s nightmares. Warnings of inflation are just a cover for that.
As investors, we should welcome anything that pushes the economy toward stronger employment and higher wages. After all, the stock market can’t sustain high prices if Americans can’t afford to buy things.
They’re going to try to scare you about government spending anyway. But you don’t need to worry. For now, it’s going to be good for everyone.
Editor, The Bauman Letter
P.S. Something else that is proving to be good for everyone is my colleague, Clint Lee’s, newest trading service, Flashpoint Fortunes. See why here.
An economist by training, I grew up in the U.S. but emigrated to South Africa in the mid-1980s where I became deeply involved in the development and implementation of post-apartheid economic and urbanization policy. During the 90s and 2000s, I was a consultant to a variety of entities, including African and European governments and the United Nations.