Monetary policy as a system of connected lakes (a post for John Hussman)

I always like reading fund manager John Hussman because he writes very well, but I feel like he’s dug himself into a bit of an intellectual rut—a situation that happens to all of us. For a number of years now Hussman has been accusing the Federal Reserve of setting off a massive bubble in equity markets. But if you ask me, his claim really doesn’t square with the observation that we haven’t seen a shred of consumer price inflation over that same time frame. Let’s explore more.

Hussman recently penned an admirable description of the hot potato effect, the process that is set off by an easing in central bank policy:

Initially, central banks focus on purchasing the highest-tier government securities (such as Treasury bonds in the case of the U.S. Federal Reserve). Central banks buy these interest-bearing securities, and pay for them by creating “base money” – currency and bank reserves. That base money takes the place of interest-bearing securities in the hands of the public, and someone then has to hold that amount of zero-interest money at every moment in time until it is actually retired by the central bank. 

Now, having traded their high-quality, interest-bearing securities to the central bank in return for zero-interest cash, a portion of those investors will simply hold the cash in the form of currency or bank deposits, but some investors will feel uncomfortable earning nothing on those holdings, and will try to pass the hot potatoes onto someone else. To do so, these investors now have to buy some other security that is lower on the ladder of credit quality, and more speculative. The sellers of those securities then get the zero-interest cash. Some of those sellers, unwilling to reach for yield in even more speculative securities, hold the cash, but some climb out to a further speculative limb. Ultimately, the process stops when yields on speculative securities have fallen low enough that investors are indifferent between holding zero-interest cash and holding low-yielding but more speculative securities. At that point, all of the new base money is passively held by somebody.

For those who didn’t bother reading the above quotes, here’s a quick summary. Start out with a market where everyone is happy with their holdings of cash and securities. New base money is suddenly introduced by the Fed. In an effort to rid themselves of the excess cash, people drive the prices of securities to a high enough level (or their yields low enough) that everyone is once again content with their portfolio of cash and securities. In other words, we get asset price inflation.

A nice way to think of this is to imagine a system of lakes connected by channels, the water level representing prices. When water is poured into one lake the system is disturbed. Water quickly flows out of the first lake through the various channels into the other lakes, the water level of each body of water rising until they are equal. The agitated water becomes stagnant again. Likewise, when the Fed creates and spends new money it quickly courses through the various asset market until the price of each security has risen to a point that all new money is willingly held.

Hussman uses the hot potato effect a lot in his writing. And while I like his description of the effect, it always seems incomplete. He’s missed how a Fed-induced asset price inflation might be conveyed to consumer goods markets.

Securities are really just promises of future consumption. By buying Google shares now, we delay consuming stuff now and push it off to some future date. So when Hussman says that easy monetary policy is driving up securities prices, we can think of this as the price of future consumption rising relative to present consumption.

Prior to the monetary expansion, investors will have already chosen whatever balance between present and future consumption feels right to them. Assuming these preferences stay the same throughout, the Fed-induced rise in future consumption prices (ie. Hussman’s asset price inflation) means that people are now getting more future consumption than they had originally bargained for. Using our lake metaphor,  the water level of the future consumption lake has risen above the present consumption lake.

Uncomfortable holding too much future consumption, people will begin to rebalance into present consumption—after all, it offers a better bang for the dollar. Consumer price inflation is stoked as everyone buy goods and services. This inflationary process stops only when yields on present consumption have fallen low enough that people are once again indifferent between future consumption and present consumption. Or, returning to our lake metaphor, water has to flow out of the future consumption lake into the present consumption lake until water levels are equal and the surface is once again calm.

Over the years, Hussman has made use of the hot potato effect to say that the stock market is in a massive bubble thanks to Fed easy monetary policy. But I don’t buy this claim. If the Fed really was causing such an enormous disturbance in securities markets, we’d have seen some sort of spillover into consumer prices as investors rebalance out of future consumption into present consumption. However, inflation in the U.S. has been well below 2% for several years now.

If the Fed is to be accused of causing an asset bubble, Hussman needs a theory to explain why people have not been arbitraging the markets for future and present consumption. Why haven’t we seen a roaring CPI? This seems like a tall order. From what I’ve read of his work, Hussman traces easy money to as early as 2009. So his theory needs to explain why Fed monetary policy could inflate asset markets for seven years without affecting goods markets.

One way to patch up the story would be to resort to the good ol’ Shadowstats trick, or the idea that there is consumer price inflation, we just don’t see it in official statistics. But that’s a weak argument, and thankfully I don’t see Hussman using it. Alternatively, maybe something is inhibiting the rebalancing process. Returning to the lake metaphor, if a network of locks are being used to connect the lakes, then the water level of one lake can rise far above the others insofar as movement between them is inhibited by a locking mechanism. Like the picture at top. Thus we might be able to get asset price inflation without consumer price inflation. But what force could possible be strong enough to hold back such a torrent? I’d love to hear. It’s possible it’s not Hussman who’s in a rut, but myself.

Until Hussman gives a decent explanation, I’ll stick to the theory that there never was a Fed-induced financial bubble in the first place. Despite what many fund managers might claim, Fed monetary policy really hasn’t been very easy, and that’s why we haven’t seen any froth develop in consumer goods markets. We need a better explanation for rising asset prices than Hussman’s irresponsible Fed theory.

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