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Will falling commodity prices cause deflation?

By Colin Twiggs
December 3rd, 2014 1:00 a.m. ET (5:00 p:m AEDT)

Advice herein is provided for the general information of readers and does not have regard to any particular person's investment objectives, financial situation or needs. Accordingly, no reader should act on the basis of any information contained herein without first having consulted a suitably qualified financial advisor.



Some readers expressed concern about falling commodity prices, especially crude oil, and whether this will cause global deflation. This confuses the cause with the symptom.

Crude

Falling prices are largely benign except where caused by a contraction of the money supply. Commodity prices may fall when there is an excess of supply over demand, but this is soon absorbed by changes in consumer behavior. Discretionary spending will rise in response to the savings, so that aggregate demand is unaffected.

A contraction in the money supply, however, is far more serious. Slow growth in the monetary base (below growth of real GDP) results in less money chasing the same goods, driving down prices. Supply and demand in this case are unchanged, but prices fall because of a contraction in the money supply. Wages, however, are sticky and do not fall in line with prices, leading to falling profits, cuts in production and job layoffs. Falling income from lower profits and fewer jobs leads to a contraction in aggregate demand, causing further cuts to production and income.

Contraction of the money supply also places pressure on banks to reduce lending. This danger was highlighted by Irving Fisher in the 1930s. Contracting credit reduces not only new investment but forces existing borrowers to liquidate some of their assets, mainly stocks and property. The surge of selling, and limited availability of credit, drives down asset prices. A feedback loop results, with falling asset prices prompting banks to further contract lending — in turn causing more price falls. That is the central bankers' equivalent of a perfect storm. The graph below shows how close we came in 2009 to a deflationary spiral.

Working Monetary Base

Slow growth in the monetary base caused a sharp contraction in bank lending (below zero) in 2009. Only prompt action by the Fed averted a 1930's-style collapse of the financial system.

The Fed indicated in October that it will curtail QE and no longer expand its balance sheet to support money supply growth. Should we expect another contraction of the money supply as in 2008?

The answer is: NO. When we look at the graph of the Fed balance sheet below, we can see that total asset growth [red] is slowing. But bank deposits at the Fed — excess reserves that earn interest at 0.25% p.a. — are slowing at an even faster rate. That means that the actual amount of money flowing into the banking system is not contracting, but increasing.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

The following graph shows a net growth rate (of Total Assets minus Excess Reserves on Deposit) of more than 20 percent. Expect growth to slow over time, but the Fed can adjust the interest rate payable on excess reserves to ensure that it remains positive.

Fed Total Assets minus Excess Reserves

Deflation is a far bigger problem for the Euro. After a "whatever it takes" surge in 2012, the ECB attempted to contract its balance sheet far too soon — withdrawing treatment before the patient had fully recovered. They also do not have excess reserves on deposit, like the Fed, which could soften the impact.

ECB Total Assets

The result has been faltering economic growth and price levels falling dangerously close to deflation.

ECB Total Assets

The ECB appears to have recognized its error, indicating that it will expand its balance sheet if necessary to avert a monetary contraction. If they learn from their past mistakes, the ECB should be able to avoid any threat of deflation.

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