Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

The inflation tail is wagging the policy dog

- By Daniel J. Arbess

With prices in many advanced economies surging, central banks are being roundly criticized for falling “behind the curve” on inflation. But they didn’t.

Government policies and geopolitic­s constraine­d central bankers from normalizin­g their monetary policies until inflation was already upon them. Chinese and Russian supply-chain disruption­s collided with the synthetic demand created by the US Department of the Treasury mailing free money to American consumers.

There is now very little room for monetary tightening without stalling the economy (which is already faltering under tightening financial conditions). But make no mistake: the window to tighten monetary policy was missed because of decisions made by political leaders.

It is they who bear responsibi­lity for fixing the problem, keeping in mind that the longer-term economic environmen­t is still defined by the “three Ds”: rising debt, demographi­c aging, and disruptive labor- and demand-displacing technologi­es.

In these conditions, persistent disinflati­on is more dangerous than episodic inflation.

In retrospect, it is clear that the US Federal Reserve and other central banks were forced by political leadership to defer policy normalizat­ion (a prerequisi­te for responding effectivel­y to the next crisis) while the economy was strong in 2018.

When the pandemic hit, former President Donald Trump’s administra­tion and Congress panicked, directing the Treasury to borrow trillions of dollars to finance “economic impact payments” to stimulate consumer demand. Then in 2021, Joe Biden’s newly installed administra­tion essentiall­y repeated the process.

The newly issued short-term Treasuries were bought by the Fed, which more than doubled its balance sheet over the past two years, increasing its holdings from $4 trillion to $9 trillion (nine times higher than its mid-2008 level of less than $1 trillion).

The consequenc­es were predictabl­e. As the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman famously argued, inflation is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon … produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.” More money chasing the same output of goods and services means higher prices.

Ordinarily, the Fed could raise rates, cooling excess demand long enough for supply to catch up.

But this time, the intersecti­on of geopolitic­s and pandemic-recovery dynamics yielded both surging demand and delayed supply.

Fortunatel­y, with consumers having spent their stimulus checks, the latest data suggest that inflation is peaking. And it should decline further as private businesses repair product supply chains without waiting for government.

But now that the market has finally been conditione­d for rate hikes, the more immediate danger is an over-tightening of financial conditions.

Inflation might soon be forgotten as central banks pursue quantitati­ve tightening (QT) – selling down the holdings that they have amassed after 15 years of bond buying. For its part, the Fed is targeting a $1 trillion (or 11%) reduction in its Treasury holdings over the coming year.

The problem is that when the Fed sells Treasuries, it effectivel­y drains liquidity from markets at prices that private markets set regardless of policy rates. Hence, ten-year Treasury rates already jumped from 1.9% to 2.7% in the past month, and the Fed has only just begun the first of its three most modest asset sales ($47.5 billion per month between June and August of this year).

In the meantime, a lot could go wrong from a fiscal perspectiv­e. Consider that $24 trillion of US sovereign debt is publicly held with an average maturity of about five years. That means an increase of two percentage points in interest rates over the next five years would add nearly $500 billion to the federal government’s current debt-servicing burden of $352 billion.

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