Deflation is more than just “falling prices.”
The following article is an excerpt from Elliott Wave International’s free Club EWI resource, “The Guide to Understanding Deflation. Robert Prechter’s Most Important Writings on Deflation.”
The Primary Precondition of Deflation
Deflation requires a precondition: a major societal buildup in the extension of credit. Bank credit and Elliott wave expert Hamilton Bolton, in a 1957 letter, summarized his observations this way: “In reading a history of major depressions in the U.S. from 1830 on, I was impressed with the following: (a) All were set off by a deflation of excess credit. This was the one factor in common.”
“The Fed Will Stop Deflation”
I am tired of hearing people insist that the Fed can expand credit all it wants. Sometimes an analogy clarifies a subject, so let’s try one.
It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing Jaguar automobiles and providing them to as many people as possible. To facilitate that goal, it begins operating Jaguar plants all over the country, subsidizing production with tax money. To everyone’s delight, it offers these luxury cars for sale at 50 percent off the old price. People flock to the showrooms and buy. Later, sales slow down, so the government cuts the price in half again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so it lowers the price to $900 each. People return to the stores to buy two or three, or half a dozen. Why not? Look how cheap they are! Buyers give Jaguars to their kids and park an extra one on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in Jaguars. Alas, sales slow again, and the government panics. It must move more Jaguars, or, according to its theory — ironically now made fact — the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay their taxes so the government can keep producing more Jaguars. If Jaguars stop moving, the economy will stop. So the government begins giving Jaguars away. A few more cars move out of the showrooms, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more Jaguars. They don’t care if they’re free. They can’t find a use for them. Production of Jaguars ceases. It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of Jaguars. Tax collections collapse, the factories close, and unemployment soars. The economy is wrecked. People can’t afford to buy gasoline, so many of the Jaguars rust away to worthlessness. The number of Jaguars — at best — returns to the level it was before the program began.
The same thing can happen with credit.
It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing credit and providing it to as many people as possible. To facilitate that goal, it begins operating credit-production plants all over the country, called Federal Reserve Banks. To everyone’s delight, these banks offer the credit for sale at below market rates. People flock to the banks and buy. Later, sales slow down, so the banks cut the price again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so they lower the price to one percent. People return to the banks to buy even more credit. Why not? Look how cheap it is! Borrowers use credit to buy houses, boats and an extra Jaguar to park out on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in credit. Alas, sales slow again, and the banks panic. They must move more credit, or, according to its theory — ironically now made fact — the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay the interest on their debt to the banks so the banks can keep offering more credit. If credit stops moving, the economy will stop. So the banks begin giving credit away, at zero percent interest. A few more loans move through the tellers’ windows, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more credit. They don’t care if it’s free. They can’t find a use for it. Production of credit ceases. It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of credit. Interest payments collapse, banks close, and unemployment soars. The economy is wrecked. People can’t afford to pay interest on their debts, so many bonds deteriorate to worthlessness. The value of credit — at best — returns to the level it was before the program began.
There is still time to prepare if deflation is indeed in our future.
“Fed’s Bullard Raises Specter of Japanese-Style Deflation,” read a July 29 Washington Post headline.
When the St. Louis Fed Chief speaks, people listen. Now that deflation — something that EWI’s president Robert Prechter has been warning about for several years — is making mainstream news headlines, is it too late to prepare?
It’s not too late.
There are still steps you can take if deflation is indeed in our future. The first step is to understand what it is. So we’ve put together a special, free, 60-page Club EWI resource, “The Guide to Understanding Deflation: Robert Prechter’s most important warnings about deflation.” Enjoy this quick excerpt. (For details on how to read this important report free, look below.)
When Does Deflation Occur?
By Robert Prechter
To understand inflation and deflation, we have to understand the terms money and credit.
Money is a socially accepted medium of exchange, value storage and final payment; credit may be summarized as a right to access money. In today’s economy, most credit is lent, so people often use the terms “credit” and “debt” interchangeably, as money lent by one entity is simultaneously money borrowed by another.
Deflation requires a precondition: a major societal buildup in the extension of credit (and its flip side, the assumption of debt). Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek warned of the consequences of credit expansion, as have a handful of other economists, who today are mostly ignored. Bank credit and Elliott wave expert Hamilton Bolton, in a 1957 letter, summarized his observations this way:
In reading a history of major depressions in the U.S. from 1830 on, I was impressed with the following:
(a) All were set off by a deflation of excess credit. This was the one factor in common.
(b) Sometimes the excess-of-credit situation seemed to last years before the bubble broke.
(c) Some outside event, such as a major failure, brought the thing to a head, but the signs were visible many months, and in some cases years, in advance.
(d) None was ever quite like the last, so that the public was always fooled thereby.
(e) Some panics occurred under great government surpluses of revenue (1837, for instance) and some under great government deficits.
Near the end of a major expansion, few creditors expect default, which is why they lend freely to weak borrowers. Few borrowers expect their fortunes to change, which is why they borrow freely. The psychological aspect of deflation and depression cannot be overstated. …
- What Makes Deflation Likely Today?
- How Big a Deflation?
- Why Falling Interest Rates in This Environment Will Be Bearish
- Myth: “Deflation Will Cause a Run on the Dollar, Which Will Make Prices Rise”
- Myth: “Debt Is Not as High as It Seems”
- Myth: “War Will Bail Out the Economy”
- Myth: “The Fed Will Stop Deflation”
10 Things You Should and Should Not Do During Deflation
February 10, 2009
This article is part of a syndicated series about deflation from market analyst Robert Prechter, the world’s foremost expert on and proponent of the deflationary scenario. For more on deflation and how you can survive it, download Prechter’s FREE 60-page Deflation Survival eBook, part of Prechter’s NEW Deflation Survival Guide.
The following article was adapted from Robert Prechter’s NEW Deflation Survival eBook, a free 60-page compilation of Prechter’s most important teachings and warnings about deflation.
By Robert Prechter, CMT
1) Should you invest in real estate?
Short Answer: NO
Long Answer: The worst thing about real estate is its lack of liquidity during a bear market. At least in the stock market, when your stock is down 60 percent and you realize you’ve made a horrendous mistake, you can call your broker and get out (unless you’re a mutual fund, insurance company or other institution with millions of shares, in which case, you’re stuck). With real estate, you can’t pick up the phone and sell. You need to find a buyer for your house in order to sell it. In a depression, buyers just go away. Mom and Pop move in with the kids, or the kids move in with Mom and Pop. People start living in their offices or moving their offices into their living quarters. Businesses close down. In time, there is a massive glut of real estate.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 16
2) Should you prepare for a change in politics?
Short Answer: YES
Long Answer: At some point during a financial crisis, money flows typically become a political issue. You should keep a sharp eye on political trends in your home country. In severe economic times, governments have been known to ban foreign investment, demand capital repatriation, outlaw money transfers abroad, close banks, freeze bank accounts, restrict or seize private pensions, raise taxes, fix prices and impose currency exchange values. They have been known to use force to change the course of who gets hurt and who is spared, which means that the prudent are punished and the thriftless are rewarded, reversing the result from what it would be according to who deserves to be spared or get hurt. In extreme cases, such as when authoritarians assume power, they simply appropriate or take de facto control of your property.
You cannot anticipate every possible law, regulation or political event that will be implemented to thwart your attempt at safety, liquidity and solvency. This is why you must plan ahead and pay attention. As you do, think about these issues so that when political forces troll for victims, you are legally outside the scope of the dragnet.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 27
3) Should you invest in commercial bonds?
Short Answer: NO
Long Answer: If there is one bit of conventional wisdom that we hear repeatedly with respect to investing for a deflationary depression, it is that long-term bonds are the best possible investment. This assertion is wrong. Any bond issued by a borrower who cannot pay goes to zero in a depression. In the Great Depression, bonds of many companies, municipalities and foreign governments were crushed. They became wallpaper as their issuers went bankrupt and defaulted. Bonds of suspect issuers also went way down, at least for a time. Understand that in a crash, no one knows its depth, and almost everyone becomes afraid. That makes investors sell bonds of any issuers that they fear could default. Even when people trust the bonds they own, they are sometimes forced to sell them to raise cash to live on. For this reason, even the safest bonds can go down, at least temporarily, as AAA bonds did in 1931 and 1932.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 15
4) Should you take precautions if you run a business?
Short Answer: YES
Long Answer: Avoid long-term employment contracts with employees. Try to locate in a state with “at-will” employment laws. Red tape and legal impediments to firing could bankrupt your company in a financial crunch, thus putting everyone in your company out of work.
If you run a business that normally carries a large business inventory (such as an auto or boat dealership), try to reduce it. If your business requires certain manufactured specialty items that may be hard to obtain in a depression, stock up.
If you are an employer, start making plans for what you will do if the company’s cash flow declines and you have to cut expenditures. Would it be best to fire certain people? Would it be better to adjust all salaries downward an equal percentage so that you can keep everyone employed?
Finally, plan how you will take advantage of the next major bottom in the economy. Positioning your company properly at that time could ensure success for decades to come.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 30
5) Should you invest in collectibles?
Short Answer: NO
Long Answer: Collecting for investment purposes is almost always foolish. Never buy anything marketed as a collectible. The chances of losing money when collectibility is priced into an item are huge. Usually, collecting trends are fads. They might be short-run or long-run fads, but they eventually dissolve.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 17
6) Should you do anything with respect to your employment?
Short Answer: YES
Long Answer: If you have no special reason to believe that the company you work for will prosper so much in a contracting economy that its stock will rise in a bear market, then cash out any stock or stock options that your company has issued to you (or that you bought on your own).
If your remuneration is tied to the same company’s fortunes in the form of stock or stock options, try to convert it to a liquid income stream. Make sure you get paid actual money for your labor.
If you have a choice of employment, try to think about which job will best weather the coming financial and economic storm. Then go get it.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 31
7) Should you speculate in stocks?
Short Answer: NO
Long Answer: Perhaps the number one precaution to take at the start of a deflationary crash is to make sure that your investment capital is not invested “long” in stocks, stock mutual funds, stock index futures, stock options or any other equity-based investment or speculation. That advice alone should be worth the time you [spend to read Conquer the Crash].
In 2000 and 2001, countless Internet stocks fell from $50 or $100 a share to near zero in a matter of months. In 2001, Enron went from $85 to pennies a share in less than a year. These are the early casualties of debt, leverage and incautious speculation.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 20
8) Should you call in loans and pay off your debt?
Short Answer: YES
Long Answer: Have you lent money to friends, relatives or co-workers? The odds of collecting any of these debts are usually slim to none, but if you can prod your personal debtors into paying you back before they get further strapped for cash, it will not only help you but it will also give you some additional wherewithal to help those very same people if they become destitute later.
If at all possible, remain or become debt-free. Being debt-free means that you are freer, period. You don’t have to sweat credit card payments. You don’t have to sweat home or auto repossession or loss of your business. You don’t have to work 6 percent more, or 10 percent more, or 18 percent more just to stay even.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 29
9) Should you invest in commodities, such as crude oil?
Short Answer: Mostly NO
Long Answer: Pay particular attention to what happened in 1929-1932, the three years of intense deflation in which the stock market crashed. As you can see, commodities crashed, too.
You can get rich being short commodity futures in a deflationary crash. This is a player’s game, though, and I am not about to urge a typical investor to follow that course. If you are a seasoned commodity trader, avoid the long side and use rallies to sell short. Make sure that your broker keeps your liquid funds in T-bills or an equally safe medium.
There can be exceptions to the broad trend. A commodity can rise against the trend on a war, a war scare, a shortage or a disruption of transport. Oil is an example of a commodity with that type of risk. This commodity should have nowhere to go but down during a depression.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 21
10) Should you invest in cash?
Short Answer: YES
Long Answer: For those among the public who have recently become concerned that being fully invested in one stock or stock fund is not risk-free, the analysts’ battle cry is “diversification.” They recommend having your assets spread out in numerous different stocks, numerous different stock funds and/or numerous different (foreign) stock markets. Advocates of junk bonds likewise counsel prospective investors that having lots of different issues will reduce risk.
This “strategy” is bogus. Why invest in anything unless you have a strong opinion about where it’s going and a game plan for when to get out? Diversification is gospel today because investment assets of so many kinds have gone up for so long, but the future is another matter. Owning an array of investments is financial suicide during deflation. They all go down, and the logistics of getting out of them can be a nightmare. There can be weird exceptions to this rule, such as gold in the early 1930s when the government fixed the price, or perhaps some commodity that is crucial in a war, but otherwise, all assets go down in price during deflation except one: cash.
– Conquer the Crash, Chapter 18
For more on deflation, download Prechter’s FREE 60-page Deflation Survival eBook or browse various deflation topics like those below at www.elliottwave.com/deflation.