‘Fish gotta swim
‘Birds gotta fly
‘Rain gotta fall
‘And it’s gotta go somewhere’
Bill Bonner, with apologies to the writers of Show Boat
When you see someone setting fire to a federal building, shouldn’t you say something?
And what if the matches and gas can are in your own hands?
The Federal Reserve printed up nearly 5 trillion brand-spanking new dollars between August 2019 and today.
Surely, there must have been at least one alert economist among the 1,000 PhDs on the Fed’s payroll who noticed that they were about to cause the whole economy to go up in flames.
But what was he thinking? Was he thinking at all?
This was classic monetary inflation on an unprecedented scale. Never before had any government ‘printed’ so much money in such a short period of time.
But nowhere in the history of the economics profession is there an instance where such prodigious effort on the part of the money printers led to genuine prosperity.
Instead, many centuries of history show us that monetary inflation leads to price inflation…which then leads to bubbles and busts…confusion…and finger-pointing.
And if it’s not stopped, it can lead to hyperinflation, depression, hunger, poverty, riots, and revolution.
The finger-pointing was on display on the front page of The Wall Street Journal yesterday, with the headline ‘President Calls for Inquiry Into Price of Gas’:
‘Biden, in letter, alleges wrongdoing by energy firms.’
There will be a lot more finger-pointing…as the real culprits try to divert attention from themselves.
But shouldn’t our aforementioned PhD have asked the obvious question back when it started?
‘Uh…Chairman Powell…I hate to be a Debbie Downer…but we’re, like, pumping US$5 trillion into the economy. That’s, like, nearly a quarter of annual GDP.’
‘Uh…what is supposed to happen? I mean, isn’t it likely to cause some…well…distortions?’
Fish gotta swim. And dollars gotta buy something. And therein hangs the answer to the one question Fed economists should have asked…
…along with another they should be asking now.
Supply chain disruptions were relatively unknown back in March 2020, when the spree of money printing began in earnest. Now, they’re as common as strip malls.
How they came to be?
When the offices, restaurants, and bars closed, people turned to their home computers…found that they had stimmy money from the feds in their accounts…and determined to spend it.
Some ordered consumer goods. But since the US doesn’t make much anymore, these had to be shipped from the other side of the world.
And in a few months, the ships were backing up in the harbours…docks were stacked with containers…and trucks laboured night and day to deliver them to every Middlesex, village, and town in the country.
Hence, the ‘supply chain disruptions’.
It seems so obvious, now. Shouldn’t our man at the Fed have seen it coming?
Then, shipping rates soared. Trucking costs, too.
And so did prices on some items that were in short supply…as well as on other items that were plentiful. Milk…eggs….bacon…gasoline…houses.
The supply of houses doesn’t change much, month to month. But by September of this year, new house prices in the US were up 18% over the year before. And as prices bubble up…so do mortgage rates, a deadly combination for new homeowners.
Prices for investment assets also caught a bid. Zombie companies, meme stocks, NFTs, cryptos, options — people who didn’t know an option from a hole in the ground a year ago are now seasoned ‘day traders’.
Tesla, Inc [NASDAQ:TSLA] has doubled since this time last year. Grant’s Interest Rate Observer tells us that on 5 November, the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of the S&P 500 went over 40 for the first time in 21 years.
And at the beginning of the month, Grant’s reported that there were some 528 special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) with blank cheques, looking for acquisitions.
Wasn’t that also completely predictable? After all, the money had to go somewhere.
Shouldn’t our man at the Fed have said something?
Perhaps less foreseeable…but with so much liquidity weeping from the clouds, many people just decided to stay home permanently.
In what came to be known as the Great Resignation, some 4.4 million workers went AWOL, in September alone.
And then businesses, eager to meet the increased demand, found they had to pay higher wages and benefits to keep their workers happy. Our friend David Stockman tells us that the latest Employment Cost Index figures show labour costs rising at a 6% annualised rate.
Compensating workers is the number one expense of US industry. So, any rise in labour costs is important…and must be passed along.
It is also the most ‘sticky’ of cost increases. Prices for raw materials may go up and down, but once an employee gets a raise, it is hard to take it back; there’s nothing ‘transitory’ about it.
Benefit of hindsight
And thus, it was that prices rose…not for any mysterious reason, but for an obvious one — people were buying stuff.
But not with real money that they earned (which would have increased the supply of goods and services as well as the demand for them). They were spending fake money delivered unto them by the Fed.
It would have taken years of advanced study…and perhaps at least a master’s degree in economics…not to see it coming.
And so we’ll prompt our PhD friend at the Fed. Here’s a question to put to your comrades now:
‘Well, what did you expect?’
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