Category Archives: Inflation & The Dollar

Universal Basic Income

The left continues to be fascinated with the idea of re-distribution. It believes that the whole notion of some people being paid more than others is fundamentally unfair, that they must have had some advantage – skin color, parents, brains, whatever – which was just a matter of luck. “You didn’t build that,” as Obama famously said.

So the latest brainchild of this idea is the notion of a monthly check from the government that is sufficient to provide a comfortable lifestyle regardless of whether or not the recipient chooses to work.

A single program that replaced the myriad of transfer payment programs, from welfare through Social Security, would save an enormous amount of administration costs at all levels of government and help to pay for the program. The “poverty trap” would be eliminated as the payment could be “universal” that is, not means tested. Minimum wage laws would need to be abolished, of course, since the “living wage” would be redundant. Might not work, but there seems to be some potential anyway.

But that is not what is proposed. In general, it seems that this would be yet another program which would be funded by even more government borrowing. This, it is claimed, would “grow the economy by $2 trillion.” Please.

There are only two ways to grow the economy. One of these is to increase labor utilization, the number of hours worked in a given period. The other is to increase the productivity of that labor, that is the amount of output produced for each hour of labor. That’s it.

Existing programs already provide a major disincentive for work – the “poverty trap.” This would add another. Productivity is improved by investment – in technology, skills, infrastructure, etc. More spending on consumption would not help this, but would certainly provide more inflation, which would act to deter investment. If you want to see the outcome of this kinf of program, just check the news from Venezuela.



That Which Is Not Seen

Alhambra Partners

After tax, corporate profits are still slightly less in Q2 2017 than in Q4 2014, and barely more (+3.4%) than in Q1 2012 five years ago.

SocGen’s Albert Edwards:

Our Ice Age thesis has always called for US and European 10 year bond yields to converge with Japan. We still expect that to happen, with the downward crash in US yields likely to be particularly shocking. There is mounting evidence that underlying US CPI inflation has already slid into outright deflation in exactly the same way that Japan did seven years after its credit bubble burst. Hence we repeat our call for US 10y bond yields to ultimately converge with Japan and Germany at around minus 1%.

In short, stocks are grossly overvalued and Treasury bonds are similarly undervalued. Not news, of course, just some confirmation bias.


I was able to find the March 2002 Big Mac price for the US, $2.49.

Using the BLS calculator, it “should” be $3.38 in 2017, instead it is $5.06. So while CPI-U inflation for the period was 2.06% annually,  BMI (Big Mac Index) inflation was 4.84% annually.

So basically if you didn’t make 5% a year after tax, you weren’t keeping up. Scary.

Consumer Prices

Everybody has a bias when it comes to measuring price inflation. Reports like the Devonshire one come out quite frequently, usually complaining that the government indexes understate inflation. They all say, well the numbers don’t reflect reality. The problem is, they don’t know what reality is any more than the government does. My reality and the next person’s are completely different because we buy different things. Cheap loans have allowed universities to raise prices in an outrageous fashion – but our kids have long since graduated so it doesn’t affect me, although anyone putting kids through college is being eviscerated. Consumers react to prices. Technology changes. Quality changes. Fashions change. And so on. All these things make any index pretty much useless, except for making political arguments. So one has to ask, in the famous words of Ms. Clinton – “What difference does it make?”

If you ask someone in Venezuela right now, of course, you would get an expletive for an answer. There is massive consumer price inflation because there are not enough consumer goods to meet demand, and so people are going hungry and without toilet paper. They are driving up prices, trying to outbid one another to compete for what little supply there is. But even in that desperate situation, there is no agreement on what consumer prices actually are, even by disinterested parties. The only way to fix the problem in Venezuela is to get goods back on the shelves. If the Venezuelan government can do that, then consumer prices will reflect the value of the bolivar and general world price levels.

There’s your clue. If you want to measure consumer prices, it is easy. Just use the Big Mac, as the Economist does. It works. 2016 USA Big Mac price inflation was 2.6%. Venezuela Big Mac prices in bolivars:

July 2014: 75

December 2014: 245

July 2015: 485

December 2015: 940

December 2016: 3550

Looks like a pretty decent metric. It tells you what you need to know – there’s a big problem.

But the economy does not run on Big Macs, and I’m interested in the inputs, not the outputs so much. And those are labor and energy. Nothing else much matters.


I’m holding to my opinion that CADUSD will see 0.65 before 1.00, and here’s a little confirmation bias.

I’m Yelling Timber! CAD’s Going Down!

In addition to the collapse of the housing bubble, commodity prices, especially energy, are going to take a hit. And that could be right now – it looks like the oil longs – the hedgies – are already getting nervous about OPEC’s ability and/or willingness to sacrifice their cash flows in order to bolster the oil price.

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

The boyz pulled out all the stops today, including a spectacular VIX slam, to squeeze the shorts. This travesty of a market responded as usual. However, what is unusual and interesting is that crude oil is not participating in the bullish euphoria. At least so far today, 3pm, it has extended yesterday’s losses as OPEC jawboning has failed to generate any enthusiasm.

Inventories continue to set new records as OPEC production cuts are offset by weaker demand from a slowing economy. My suspicion is that it will be a  serious sell-off in crude that triggers the next major stock market decline.


Markets are all excited because Trump declared that the dollar is “too strong” and Ms Yellen is “not toast.” Not crumpet either, I would say, and Trump clearly knows his crumpet.


There is much noise that the Fed will raise interest rates to combat “inflation.”

Over the last year to the end of February, wages are up 2.8% (nominal). The price of oil, as a metric for energy prices, is up 32%.

Guess what is driving “inflation.”

The Saudis are still pumping as hard as they can, but justifying it on the grounds that they are storing the above-quota output, not selling it internationally. It seems to me that a tank in Saudi and a tank in Oklahoma are pretty much fungible, except that we at least think we know how much is in the Oklahoma tanks.

The bottom line is that global inventories of oil are continuing to expand to new records, more or less on a daily basis. The EIA is forecasting that US shale is set to expand production by 109k barrels from March to April, rising from 4.853mmbpd to 4.962mmbpd, and offsetting OPEC’s entire February production cut.

At some point we are going to see a reaction and that will be the end of “inflation.” For a while, anyway.

Going Out On A Limb

I think the end of this bubble is beginning, as yields spike and the dollar soars:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The economy is not strong. There are 100+ million adults not working (“not in the labor force”) out of a total population of 325 million, to say nothing of the myriad of government employees who are employed, but not contributing any value to the economy.

Consumption is being sustained by debt, both private borrowing and government money-printing. By January 2009, the United States had accumulated $10.6 trillion in debt. The gross national debt – just federal government debt – stands at $19.7 trillion as of the end of FY2016. Spending is on a pace to add another $2.4 trillion this fiscal year (2017), surpassing $21 trillion by next September. Krugman applauds, and of course this is Obama, not Trump. Yet.

Debt-funded consumption in excess of income has crowded out savings and therefore investment. As investment has declined, so, logically enough, productivity growth has fallen (see previous post). Simultaneously, government has been growing, making a lethal cocktail for real household disposable incomes, which have been declining for years. Pensioners who think they are in good shape are not noticing that defined-benefit pension funds are already starting to cut benefits and many, especially state and local government funds, are woefully under-funded. Social Security is in negative cash flow, and drawing on the general tax revenue pot to make up the difference. The stock market is ludicrously over-valued and promises zero or negative returns to pension funds for years to come. As Margaret Thatcher notably said “Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them.”

Powerful deflationary forces are being unleashed. The world is awash in oil and efforts to keep the price up will eventually fail. OPEC in aggregate will not cut supply because its governments (as well as the non-OPEC ones) depend on the flow of oil money to stay in power. I expect oil to reach the lower $20s if not below. Most of the world is engaged in a race to the bottom, cutting interest rates to devalue their currencies and boost exports. They are therefore exporting deflation to the US. I expect to see CAD in the 0.60s and the EUR in the 0.80s. Consumer price inflation in the US appears comparatively strong due to the inclusion of OER¹ in the CPI, which is not done elsewhere, and due to the uncontrolled rise in healthcare and education prices, funded by government subsidies and debt. These prices end up being a form of taxation by the 0.01%, who are on the receiving end. The protest vote in the US election should be no surprise.

OER, a completely fictional number to start with, is high as a result of low interest rates financing housing bubbles. These will end as badly as the previous lot. I choose not to be a homeowner, largely because I don’t want to face a huge capital loss.

In short, the economy is a Potemkin village. Things are not as they are made out to be. Even a fractional increase in rates may trigger a deflationary crisis, especially considering the shortage of dollar liquidity outside the US.

¹ OER, Owner’s Equivalent Rent, is weighted about 25% of the CPI basket. It is estimated by a telephone survey of selected homeowners, asking them how much they think it would cost to rent their a property like theirs.It has nothing to do with what it actually costs them to own and live in their properties.  I am not kidding. Now do you think CPI means anything?

The Black Hole

Here is a prime example of the kind of nonsense that passes for economic wisdom at the Jackson Hole meeting.

In a lunch address by Princeton University economist Christopher Sims, policymakers were told that it may take a massive program, large enough even to shock taxpayers into a different, inflationary view of the future.

“Fiscal expansion can replace ineffective monetary policy at the zero lower bound,” Sims said. “It requires deficits aimed at, and conditioned on, generating inflation. The deficits must be seen as financed by future inflation, not future taxes or spending cuts.”

Ever hear of Abenomics, Mr Sims? Oh I know, not large enough. Please.

I think it is obvious that you can’t finance anything with inflation. Latin America has been trying that for years, with disaster after disaster ensuing. Right now I am looking at a framed Zimbabwean hundred trillion dollar bill. This obsession with creating inflation, obviously intended to devalue the enormous pile of debt that Keynesian policies have created, is possibly the most dangerous and ludicrous aspect of the madness that has seized mainstream economists.

It is a perpetual search for the magic bullet that will resolve the economic failure of liberal socialism, which is playing out around the world. Economists seem to believe that just because the Keynesian free lunch has failed to materialize doesn’t mean that it can’t be teased out by some manipulative action. Sorry folks, it is just a mirage. It will always be out of reach because it does not exist.

Information is lost in both Jackson Holes and black holes.