A quick scan of recent financial headlines would suggest that the Western World is on the verge of a major contraction in prices. One commentator after another argues that deflation is the great risk to global economies and markets.
Ironically, the current period of relatively low inflation is the flipside of the overvaluation in global bond and equity markets. More specifically, there is a bubble of confidence in all asset classes. This bubble of confidence is supporting not only debt and equity markets, but supporting the value of the major fiat currencies. It is this overconfidence in money that is keeping a lid on the price level in the major Western economies and helping to drive the price of commodities (and gold in particular) to new lows.
The Federal Reserve’s unprecedented actions since the 2008 crisis have led to a surge in confidence regarding the long-term economic prospects of the United States (and thereby the long-term prospects of the world economy). The notion that the United States is steaming ahead and will pull the rest of the world with it is a common theme in current financial market commentary.
This surge in confidence regarding the long-term outlook has permeated global asset markets. Government bond prices have soared (particularly in the European periphery ex-Greece) and this has fed a search for yield in corporate debt. Prospective risk-adjusted, nominal returns on a broad portfolio of global government and corporate debt are close to 0%. (You don’t have to have many positions go wrong in a global fixed income portfolio with an ex-ante 2-2.5% headline yield for the ex-post yield to be 0%).
Furthermore, as prospective fixed interest returns have collapsed, investors have chased global equities higher and higher to the point where prospective ten-year nominal returns on the US equity market are also close to 0%. (See John Hussman’s commentary for an excellent discussion of this issue replete with long-term valuation charts).
More interestingly, this surge in confidence has supported the market value of fiat money, the denominator of every “money price” in the economy and thereby suppressed prices as stated in money terms. Despite the massive increase in the US monetary base, the market value of the US Dollar has been supported by a surge in confidence regarding the long-term prospects of the US economy.
Why has the US Dollar seemingly ignored the massive increase in the monetary base? And why has the market value of the US Dollar been so sensitive to a surge in market confidence regarding the long-term economic future of the United States? The answer to both questions is that money is a long-duration, proportional claim on the output of society.
The theory developed in The Money Enigma, the first paper in The Enigma Series, is that money is a long-duration, proportional claim on the future output of society. In essence, what this means is that the value of money today depends upon expectations of what the ratio of real output to base money will be over the next 20-30 years. The ratio of output/money as it stands today is somewhat irrelevant to the value of money. What matters is the expected path of that ratio over the next 20-30 years.
Let’s break down this concept into its two main components.
- Money is a long-duration asset
If an asset is described as being a long-duration asset, then all this means is that a large part of the current value of the asset is tied up in benefits that should be received from that asset in the distant future. For example, a 30-year government bond is a long-duration asset because the principal repayment on that bond is not due for 30 years and the interest payments are spread out over the next three decades.
Money is a long-duration asset because its current market value depends largely upon benefits that will be received from spending that money in the distant future. More specifically, in a state of intertemporal equilibrium, we are indifferent between spending the marginal unit of money demanded now, in 5 years from now or in 20 years from now. (If this were not the case then the economy would not be in a state of intertemporal equilibrium). This somewhat complicated notion is explored at length in The Velocity Enigma, the final paper in The Enigma Series. Fortunately, there is a simpler way to think about this issue. The value of money depends upon a chain of expected future values.
When I buy a product from you and give you money in exchange, you expect that the money I give you should have a similar purchasing power (a similar market value) when you spend it. When you spend the money, the next person accepts it because they believe it will have a similar future purchasing power. This process continues all the way down a chain of thousands of people.
Therefore, if the market suddenly decides that money will have less value in some distant future period, then that will have an immediate impact on the current value of money.
Conversely, if the market is optimistic in regards to the future of money, then that confidence will support the current value of money, even if the monetary authority has recently created a lot more money (does this sound familiar?).
The point is that money is a long-duration asset and its value today depends upon future expectations. But future expectations of what? This brings us to the second part of the earlier statement.
- Money is a proportional claim on the output of society
Money is a financial instrument. This means that money derives its value contractually. More specifically, money is a special-form equity instrument issued by society (money is a legal liability of government, but an economic liability of society) and money represents a proportional claim on the future output of society. The view of The Enigma Series is that an implied-in-fact contract exists between the issuer of money (society) and the holders of money (again, society) that recognizes money as a proportional claim on the future output of that society.
Money is much like a share of common stock. One share of common stock is a proportional claim on the future cash flows of a company. If the number of claims rises (the number of shares on issue rises), then all else equal, the value of each claim falls. Similarly, if the expected future cash flows of the company fall, then the value of each proportional claim on those cash flows falls (the current value of each share falls).
Money is a proportional claim on the future output of society. If the number of claims rises (the monetary base increases), then all else equal, the value of each claim will fall. However, if the expected future output of society rises, then this will increase the value of the proportional claim on that future output (the value of money rises).
In summary, money is a claim on the future output of society and the current market value of money depends upon expectations of the long-term path of the “real output/base money ratio”.
So, how does a surge in confidence regarding the future prospects of a country impact the value of the currency issued by that currency? Clearly, such confidence will support the market value of that currency.
The near-term path of the “output/money” ratio is fairly irrelevant to the value of money. If the market expects the monetary base to decline over the next ten years and economic output to continue to grow strongly over that period, then that confidence is enough to support the value of money and, conversely, keep a lid on inflation.
However, there is a risk.
If confidence in the future prospects of the US collapse, then we would naturally expect the bond and equity markets to suffer. However, such a collapse in confidence will also impact the market value of the US Dollar.
As discussed in last week’s post, every price is a relative expression of the market value of two goods. If the market value of money suddenly declines, then, all else remaining equal, the price of all goods, in money terms, will rise sharply.
The markets are not prepared for this eventuality. But the prospect of a sudden and severe increase in the rate of inflation is a far more likely than a return of 1930s-style deflation. All it will take is one pin that pops the bubble of confidence that currently permeates all global asset markets.