OPEC Presents: QE4 And Deflation

Courtesy of Raúl Ilargi Meijer of Automatic Earth

NPC Thanksgiving turkeys for the President Nov 26 1929

Thinking plummeting oil prices are good for the economy is a mistake. They instead, as I said only yesterday in The Price Of Oil Exposes The True State Of The Economy point out how bad the global economy is doing. QE has been able to inflate stock prices way beyond anything remotely looking fundamental, but energy prices have now deflated instead of stocks. Something had to give at some point. Turns out, central banks weren’t able to inflate oil prices on top of everything else. Stocks and bonds are much easier to artificially inflate than commodities are.

The Fed and ECB and BOJ and PBoC may of course yet try to invest in oil, they’re easily crazy enough to try, but it will be too late even if they did. In that sense, one might argue that OPEC – or rather Saudi Arabia – has gifted us QE4, but the blessings of the ‘low oil price stimulus’ will of necessity be both mixed and short-lived. Because while the lower prices may free some money for consumers, not nearly all of the freed up ‘spending space’ will end up actually being spent. So in the end that’s a net loss as far as spending goes.

The ‘OPEC Q4? may also keep some companies from going belly up for a while longer due to falling energy costs, but the flipside is many other companies will go bust because of the lower prices, first among them energy industry firms. Moreover, as we’re already seeing, those firms’ market values are certain to plummet. And, see yesterday’s essay linked above, many of eth really large investors, banks, equity funds et al are heavily invested in oil and gas and all that comes with it. And they are about to take some major hits as well. OPEC may have gifted us QE4, but it gave us another present at the same time: deflation in overdrive.

You can’t force people to spend, not if you’re a government, not if you’re a central bank. And if you try regardless, chances are you wind up scaring people into even less spending. That’s the perfect picture of Japan right there. There’s no such thing as central bank omnipotence, and this is where that shows maybe more than anywhere else. And if you can’t force people to spend, you can’t create growth either, so that myth is thrown out with the same bathwater in one fell swoop.

Some may say and think deflation is a good thing, but I say deflation kills economies and societies. Deflation is not about lower prices, it’s about lower spending. Which will down the line lead to lower prices, but then the damage has already been done, it’s just that nobody noticed, because everyone thinks inflation and deflation are about prices, and therefore looks exclusively at prices.

It’s like a parasite can live in your body for a long time before you show symptoms of being sick, but it’s very much there the whole time. A lower gas price may sound nice, but if you don’t understand why prices fall, you risk something like that monster from Alien popping up and out.

I had started writing this when I saw a few nicely fitting articles. First, at MarketWatch, they love the notion of the stimulus effects. They even think a ‘consumer-spending explosion’ is upon us. They’re not going to like what they see. That is, not when all the numbers have gone through their third revision in 6 months or so.

OPEC Has Ushered In QE4

Welcome to the new era of QE4. As if on cue, OPEC stepped in just as monetary policy (at least the Fed’s) has dried up. Central bankers have nothing on the oil cartel that did just what everyone expected, but has still managed to crush oil prices. Protest away about the 1% getting richer and how prior QE hasn’t trickled down to those who really need it, but an oil cartel is coming to the rescue of America and others in the world right now.

It’s hard to imagine a “more wide-reaching and effective stimulus measure than to lower the cost of gas at the pump for everyone globally,” says Alpari U.K.’s Joshua Mahoney. “For this reason, we are effectively entering the era of QE4, with motorists able to allocate more of their money towards luxury items, while firms are now able to lower costs of production thus impacting the bottom line and raising profits.” 

The impact of that could be “bigger than anything that has come before,” says Mahoney, who expects that theory to be tested and proved, via sales on Black Friday and the holiday season overall. In short, a consumer-spending explosion as we race to the malls on a full tank of cheap gas. Tossing in his own two cents in the wake of that OPEC decision, legendary investor Jim Rogers says it’s a “fundamental positive for anybody who uses oil, who uses energy.” Just not great if you’re from Canada, Russia or Australia, he says. Or if you’re the ECB, fretting about price deflation. Or until it starts crushing shale producers.

Bloomberg, talking about Europe, has a less cheery tone.

Eurozone Inflation Slows as Draghi Tees Up QE Debate

Eurozone inflation slowed in November to match a five-year low, prodding the European Central Bank toward expanding its unprecedented stimulus program. Consumer prices rose 0.3% from a year earlier, the EU statistics office said today. Unemployment held at 11.5% in October [..] While the slowdown is partly related to a drop in oil prices, President Mario Draghi, who may unveil more pessimistic forecasts after a meeting of policy makers on Dec. 4, says he wants to raise inflation “as fast as possible.” [..]

“The only crumb of comfort for the ECB – and it is not much – is that November’s renewed drop in inflation was entirely due to an increased year-on-year drop in energy prices,” said Howard Archer at IHS. The data are “worrying news” for the central bank, he said. Data yesterday showed Spanish consumer prices dropped 0.5% this month from a year ago, matching the fastest rate of deflation since 2009. In Germany, Europe’s largest economy, inflation slowed to the weakest since February 2010. [..] 

Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, a long-running opponent to buying government bonds, today highlighted the positive consequence of low oil prices. “There’s a stimulant effect coming from the energy prices – it’s like a mini stimulus package,” he said in Berlin.

Sure, there’s a stimulant effect. But that’s not the only effect. While I’m happy to see Weidmann apparently willing to fight Draghi and his pixies over ECB QE programs, I would think he understands what the other effect is. And if he does, he should be far more worried than he lets on.

But then I stumbled upon a long special report by Gavin Jones for Reuters on Italy, and he does provide intelligent info on that other effect of plunging oil prices. Deflation. As I said, it eats societies alive. I cut two-thirds of the article, but there’s still plenty left to catch the heart of the topic. For anyone who doesn’t understand what deflation really is, or how it works, I think that is an excellent crash course.

Why Italy’s Stay-Home Shoppers Terrify The Eurozone

Italy is stuck in a rut of diminishing expectations. Numbed by years of wage freezes, and skeptical the government can improve their economic fortunes, Italians are hoarding what money they have and cutting back on basic purchases, from detergent to windows. Weak demand has led companies to lower prices in the hope of luring people back into shops. This summer, consumer prices in Italy fell on a year-on-year basis for the first time in a half-century ..

Falling prices eat into company profits and lead to pay cuts and job losses, further depressing demand. The result: Italy is being sucked into a deflationary spiral similar to the one that has afflicted Japan’s economy for much of the past two decades. That is the nightmare scenario that policymakers, led by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, are desperate to avoid.

The euro zone’s third-biggest economy is not alone. Deflation – or continuously falling consumer prices – is considered a risk for the whole currency bloc, and particularly countries on its southern rim. Prices have fallen for 20 months in Greece and five in Spain, for example. Both countries are suffering through deep cuts in salaries and state welfare. Yet Italy, a large economy with a huge public debt, is the country causing most worry. [..]

Like Japan, Italy has one of the world’s oldest and most rapidly aging populations – the kind of people who don’t spend. “It is young people who spend more and take risks,” says Sergio De Nardis, at thinktank Nomisma. In recent years, young people have been the hardest hit by layoffs, he says. Many have left the country to seek work elsewhere. People tend to spend more when they see a bright future. Italian confidence has steadily eroded over the past two decades … In Italy, as in Japan, the lack of economic growth has become chronic.

Underpinning economists’ worries is Italy’s biggest handicap: a huge national debt equal to 132% of national output and still growing. Rising prices make it easier for high-debt countries like Italy to pay the fixed interest rates on their bonds. And debt is usually measured as a proportion of national output, so when output grows, debt shrinks. Because output is measured in money, rising prices – inflation – boost output even if economic activity is stagnant, as in Italy. But if activity is stagnant and prices don’t rise, then the debt-to-output ratio will increase. [..]

Sebastiano Salzone, a diminutive 33-year-old from the poor southern region of Calabria, left with his wife five years ago to run the historic Cafe Fiume on Via Salaria, a traditionally busy shopping street near the center of Rome. Salzone was excited by the challenge. But after four years of grinding recession, his business is struggling to survive. “When I took over they warned me demand was weak and advised me not to raise prices. But now, I’m being forced to cut them,” he says. [..] Despite the lower prices, sales have dropped 40%, or 500 euros a day, in the last three years.

For hard-pressed individuals, low and falling prices can seem a godsend; but low prices lead to business closures, lower wages and job cuts – a lethal spiral. Since Italy entered recession in 2008 it has lost 15% of its manufacturing capacity and more than 80,000 shops and businesses. Those that remain are slashing prices in a battle to survive.

Home fixtures maker Benedetto Iaquone says people are now only changing their windows when they fall apart. To hold onto his €500,000-a-year business, Iaquone says he is cutting prices. By doing so, he is helping fuel the chain of deflation from consumers to other companies. 

In Italy’s largest supermarket chains, up to 40% of products are now sold below their recommended retail price, according to sector officials. “There is a constant erosion of our margins,” says Vege chief Santambrogio. 

What Italy would look like after a decade of Japan-style deflation is grim to imagine. It is already among the world’s most sluggish economies, with youth unemployment at 43%. As a member of a currency bloc, Rome’s options are limited [..] Italy’s budget has to follow European Union rules.

Lasting deflation would force more companies out of business, reduce already stagnant wages and raise unemployment further [..] The inevitable rise in its public debt could eventually lead to a default and a forced exit from the euro.

Many in southern Europe say the EU should abandon its strict fiscal rules and invest heavily to create jobs. They also say Germany, the region’s strongest economy, should do more to push up its own wages and prices. Mediterranean countries need to price their products lower than Germany to make up for the fact that their goods – particularly engineered products such as cars – are less attractive. But with German inflation at a mere 0.5%, maintaining a decent price difference with Germany is forcing southern European countries into outright deflation

Italy’s policymakers are trying to stop the drop. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi cut income tax in May by up to €80 a month for the country’s low earners. But so far the emergency measures have had little effect – partly because Italians don’t really believe in them. A survey by the Euromedia agency showed that, despite the €80 cut, 63% of Italians actually think taxes will rise in the medium-term. Early evidence suggests most Italians are saving the extra money in their paychecks. If so, it will be reminiscent of similar attempts to boost demand in Japan in the late 1990s. The Japanese hoarded the windfalls offered by the government rather than spending them.

That same process plays out, as we speak, in a lot more countries, both in Europe and in many other parts of the world: South America, Southeast Asia etc.

Deflation erodes societies, and it guts entire economies like so much fish. Deflation is already a given in Japan, and in most of not all of southern Europe. Where countries might have saved themselves if only they weren’t part of the eurozone.

If Italy had the lira or some other currency, it could devalue it by 20% or so and have a fighting chance. As things stand now, the only option is to keep going down and hope that another country with the same currency Italy has, i.e. Germany, finds some way to boost its own growth. And even if Germany would, at some point in the far future, what part of that would trickle down to Italy? So what’s Renzi’s answer? An €80 a month tax cut for people who paid few taxes to begin with.

Deflation is not lower prices. Deflation is people not spending, then stores lowering their prices because nobody’s buying, then companies firing their employees, and then going broke. Rinse and repeat. Less spending leads to lower prices leads to more unemployment leads to less spending power. If that is not clear, don’t worry; you’ll see so much of it you own’t be able to miss it.

And don’t think the US is immune. Most of the Black Friday and Christmas sales will be plastic, i.e. more debt, and more debt means less future spending power. Unless you have a smoothly growing economy, but that’s not going to happen when Europe, Japan and soon China will be in deflation.

And yes, oil at $50-60-70 a barrel will accelerate the process. But it won’t be the main underlying cause. Deflation was baked into the cake from the moment that large scale debt deleveraging became inevitable, and you can take any moment between the Reagan administration, which first started raising debt levels, to 2008 for that. And all the combined central bank stimulus measures will mean a whole lot more debt deleveraging on top of what there already was.

We’ll get back to this topic. A lot.

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