Deflation Threat Returns as Asset Markets Decline
By John Fraher
Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) -- As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his global colleagues fight the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, one danger is looming larger by the day: deflation.
With asset markets tumbling, commodity prices plunging the most in 50 years and banks keeping a tighter grip on credit, the ingredients for a sustained period of falling prices are coalescing. While inflation is still a concern for many policy makers only months after oil and food prices peaked, the risk is their patchwork of rescue and stimulus packages will fail, and prices will start to fall throughout the broader economy.
``The ghost of deflation could be dragged out of the closet again in coming months,'' says Joerg Kraemer, chief economist at Commerzbank AG in London.
A global recession is already looking more likely, with the credit freeze stirring memories of Japan's decade-long struggle with deflation in the 1990s. So European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and Bank of England Governor Mervyn King may be forced to follow Bernanke, whose Fed has chopped its benchmark rate by 3.25 percentage points since August 2007 to 2 percent -- its most aggressive round of easing in two decades.
The deflation scenario might go like this: Banks worldwide, stung by $588 billion in writedowns related to toxic assets -- especially mortgage-related securities -- will further reduce the flow of credit, strangling growth. That will push house prices lower, forcing additional losses and making banks even more reluctant to lend. As the credit crisis worsens, businesses will find it almost impossible to raise prices.
A `Vicious' Cycle
``A vicious deflationary cycle'' could then ensue, says Tony Tan, deputy chairman of Government of Singapore Investment Corp., a sovereign-wealth fund that oversees more than $100 billion.
Prices are already falling in parts of the world economy. Home values dropped more than 10 percent in the U.K. and in the U.S. in the past year. Oil, copper and corn drove commodities toward their biggest weekly decline since at least 1956 on Oct. 3, with the Reuters/Jefferies CRB Index of 19 raw materials tumbling 10.4 percent. The Baltic Dry Index, a measure of commodity shipping costs, has dropped 75 percent since May.
``We are certainly more worried about deflation than inflation,'' says David Owen, chief European economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Group Ltd. in London. Central bankers need to ``get rates down and keep them there for quite some time,'' he says.
Trichet said Oct. 2 that European policy makers have considered reversing their decision in July to raise their benchmark rate by a quarter point to 4.25 percent. Forty-six of the 61 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News expect the Bank of England to cut its key rate by at least a quarter point Oct. 9 from 5 percent.
The Fed has already responded to one deflationary scare this decade. With inflation approaching 1 percent in 2003, then- Chairman Alan Greenspan slashed its rate to a 45-year low of 1 percent and kept it there for a year, which its critics say helped fuel the property and credit boom that is now unraveling.
This time, the crisis is an increasingly dysfunctional banking system that may not be able to continue making loans that grease economic activity. Such a pullback, combined with slowing growth and falling asset and commodity prices, makes deflation more of a threat, Owen says.
Spooked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and other institutions, banks are restricting access to credit. The London interbank offered rate, or Libor, they charge each other for three-month loans in dollars rose to 4.33 percent on Oct, 3, the highest since January.
Not all economists share Owen's gloomy outlook. Some say Bernanke and other central bankers have learned the lessons of Japan and the Great Depression so well they will do everything necessary to head off trouble.
Former Fed Governor Lyle Gramley says that while deflation is a risk ``if we were to go into a very, very prolonged recession and nobody did anything about it,'' he is ``not worried,'' because he's confident the Fed will act ``very, very, very aggressively.''
Bernanke, who has studied the Great Depression since he was a graduate student, has said that one key reason the U.S. stock- market crash of 1929 had such severe consequences was that lenders were forced to close and the banking system was deprived of liquidity.
He has also studied Japan's ``lost decade'' of deflation, which was partly caused by a banking crisis, and has argued that its policy makers waited too long to respond to a stock-and- property price crash at the start of the 1990s. In a 2002 speech that earned him the nickname ``Helicopter Ben,'' he said governments and central banks must respond immediately to such a deflationary shock by dropping money into the banking system.
The caution of Japan's leaders -- who waited until 1999 before using taxpayers' money to bail out the banks -- cost their economy dearly. Lending shrank, unemployment more than doubled to 5.5 percent, and Japan experienced three recessions between 1990 and 2002. From 1997 to 2007, consumer prices dropped 2.2 percent. In the U.S., prices climbed 29 percent in the same period.
When credit markets started seizing up in August 2007, Bernanke set up more than $1.4 trillion in emergency borrowing for financial institutions. Today, the Fed said it's doubling emergency loans to commercial banks to as much as $900 billion.
The ECB, the Bank of Japan and other central banks have set up similar lifelines. On Oct. 3, President George W. Bush signed into law Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's $700 billion bank- rescue plan.
Commerzbank's Kraemer says the Fed might also consider further easing collateral requirements or purchases of government bonds ``as a last resort.''
Kraemer says he thinks a slowdown in inflation is more likely than deflation. The surge in commodity prices earlier this year drove inflation in the U.S., Europe and Asia to the strongest pace in at least a decade. Strategists have pointed to Paulson's rescue plan as an additional risk.
Japanese core consumer prices, which exclude fresh food, climbed 2.4 percent in August from August 2007. The U.S. core rate, which strips out food and energy, rose 2.5 percent from a year earlier.
Still, deflationary forces are mounting in the U.S. and other parts of the world economy. In Britain, the Nationwide Building Society says house prices have dropped 12.4 percent in the past year as banks restrict the supply of mortgages, putting the economy on course for its first recession since the early 1990s.
``The risk we must be careful not to underestimate is the deflationary consequences of the credit crisis,'' Bank of England Deputy Governor John Gieve said last month.
In the U.S., prices manufacturers paid for materials last month plunged the most since at least 1948, with the Institute for Supply Management's index dropping 23.5 points to 53.5 points.
The breakeven rate on U.S. 10-year Treasuries, a measure of price expectations, dropped to 1.4 percent from 2.6 percent in July. Japan is the only country whose bond market implies a lower inflation rate than the U.S. The rate represents the pace of inflation investors expect over the life of the securities.
All this is likely to make the Fed resume rate cuts, says Robert Dye, a senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
``If we're going over a cliff, we're not going to go over a cliff with a 2 percent federal funds rate,'' he says. ``What's the point of holding back?''