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Krugman
Inflation Propaganda Exposed
Posted by Peter Schiff on 01/09/2013 at 12:57 PM

Economists who hold the popular view that expanding the money supply will provide the best medicine for our ailing economy dismiss the inflationary concerns of monetary hawks, like me, by pointing to the supposedly low inflation that has occurred during the current period of rampant Fed activism. In a recent blog post aimed specifically at me, Paul Krugman noted that the sub 2.5% increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past few years are all that is needed to prove me wrong. In fact, Krugman and others have even suggested that the CPI itself overstates inflation and that the Fed would be better able to help the economy if less strict methodologies were used. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the CPI is essentially meaningless as it woefully under reports rising prices.

Magazines and newspapers provide a good case in point. The truth has not been exposed through the economic reporting that these outlets provide, but in the prices that are permanently fixed to their covers. For instance, from 1999 to 2002 the Bureau of Labor Statistic's (BLS) "Newspaper and Magazine Index" (a component of the CPI) increased by 37.1%. But a perusal of the cover prices of the 10 most popular newspapers and magazines (WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People, NY Times, USA Today, and the LA Times) over the same time frame showed an average cover price increase of 131.5% (3.5 times faster than the BLS' stats). This is not even in the same ballpark.

Some defenders of the BLS may conclude that prices were held down by the availability of free online news content or the convenience of digital delivery. But that is beside the point. Prior to the digital age, the BLS could have claimed that newspaper costs were held down by public libraries that provided free access. It's also true that online publications deliver less value on some fronts. Not only do many people enjoy the tactile process of reading physical newspapers or magazines, but they offer the secondary value in helping to kindle fires, housebreak puppies, pack dishes, and line birdcages.  

Another stunning example is found in health insurance costs, which is a major line item for most families. According to the BLS we can all breathe easy on that front because their "Health Insurance Index" increased a mere 4.3% (total) in the four years between 2008 and 2012.  Interestingly, over the same time, the Kaiser Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance showed that the cost of family health insurance rose 24.2% (5.5 times faster). But even if the BLS had reported higher costs, it wouldn't have made much of a difference in the CPI itself. Believe it or not, health insurance costs are assigned a weighting of less than one percent of the overall CPI. In contrast, the Kaiser Survey revealed that in 2012 the average total cost for family health insurance coverage was $15,745, or almost one third of the median family income.

If the BLS could be so blatantly wrong in reporting the prices of newspapers and health insurance, should we believe that they are more accurate on all other sectors? If the inaccuracy of these two components were consistent with the rest of the CPI's components, inflation could now be reported in double-digits!

Even more egregious than the manner in which prices are currently reported is the way that CPI methods have been changed over the years to insure that most increases are factored out.  Since the 1970's, the CPI formula has changed so thoroughly that it bears scant resemblance to the one used during the "malaise days" of the Carter years. Main stream economists dismiss criticism of the changes as tin hat conspiracy theories. But given the huge stakes involved, it's hard to believe that institutional bias plays no role. Government statisticians are responsible for coming up with the formulas, and their bosses catch huge breaks if the inflation numbers come in low. Human behavior is always influenced by such incentives. 

The newer CPI methodologies are designed to report not just on price movements, but on spending patterns, consumer choices, substitution bias, and product changes. In other words, the metrics have been altered to track not so much the cost of things, but the cost of living (or more accurately, the cost of surviving). But if you simply focus on price, especially on those staple commodity goods and services that haven't radically changed in quality over the years, the under reporting of inflation becomes more apparent.

As reported in our Global Investor Newsletter, we selected BLS price changes for twenty everyday goods and services over two separate ten-year periods, and then compared those changes to the reported changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the same period. (The twenty items we selected are: eggs, new cars, milk, gasoline, bread, rent of primary residence, coffee, dental services, potatoes, electricity, sugar, airline tickets, butter, store bought beer, apples, public transportation, cereal, tires, beef, and prescription drugs.)

We know that people do not spend equal amounts on the above items, and we know their share of income devoted to them has changed over the decades. But as we are only interested in how these prices have changed relative to the CPI, those issues don't really matter. We chose to look at the period between 1970 and 1980 and then again between 2002 and 2012, because these time frames both had big deficits and loose monetary policy, and they straddle the time in which the most significant changes to the CPI methodology took effect. And while the CPI rose much faster in the 1970's, the degree to which the prices of our 20 items outpaced the CPI was much higher more recently.

Between 1970 and 1980 the officially reported CPI rose a whopping 112%, and prices of our basket of goods and services rose by 117%, just 5% faster. In contrast between 2002 and 2012 the CPI rose just 27.5%, but our basket increased by 44.3%, a rate that was 61% faster. And remember, this is using the BLS' own price data, which we have already shown can grossly under-estimate the true rate of increase. The difference can be explained by how CPI is weighted and mixed. The formula used in the 1970's effectively captured the price movements of our twenty everyday products. But in the last ten years it has been quite a different story.

If these price changes in our experiments had been fully captured, CPI could currently be high enough to severely restrict Fed action to stimulate the economy. Instead, the Fed is operating as if inflation is extremely low. As a result, they are making a huge policy mistake that will come back to haunt us. During the last decade the Fed spent many years denying the existence of a housing bubble, even as a mountain of evidence piled up to the contrary. That error caused the Fed to hold interest rates too low for too long, blowing more air into the bubble and imposing enormous negative consequences on the economy. The Fed, now similarly blind to the inflation threat, is repeating its mistake, only this time the negative consequences will be even more dire.

Apart from the statistical problems that hide inflation, there are also macroeconomic factors that have helped keep prices down despite the quantitative easing. Massive U.S. trade deficits and foreign central bank dollar accumulation mean that much of the printed money winds up in foreign bank vaults, not U.S. shopping centers. As foreign consumer goods flow in, and dollars flow out, a lid is kept on domestic prices. In effect, our inflation is exported as foreign central banks monetize our deficits and recycle their surpluses into U.S. Treasuries. The demand has pushed down bond yields which has allowed the U.S. government to borrow inexpensively. Of course, when the flows reverse, bond prices will fall, yields will climb, and a tidal wave of dollars will wash up on American shores, drowning consumers in a sea of inflation.   

Unlike Krugman and the Keynesians, I would argue that it is impossible to create something from nothing. I believe that printing a dollar diminishes the value of all existing dollars by an aggregate amount equal to the purchasing power of the new dollar. The other side takes the position that the new money creates tangible economic growth and  that real economic value can therefore be created by putting zeroes onto a piece of paper. I think that those making such absurd claims should bear the burden of proof. For more on the interesting topic of hidden inflation, see my video that I just posted.

 

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show.

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Tags:  CPIfederal reserveinflationKrugman
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Keynesians Jump the Gun on Inflation
Posted by Peter Schiff on 02/14/2012 at 6:24 PM

Advocates of government stimulus are running victory laps on recent developments that appear to vindicate their strategy. In particular, Paul Krugman compares the sluggish growth in Europe to the somewhat-less-sluggish growth in the US to prove that stimulus was more effective than austerity. Other economists are using government inflation measures to defend Fed Chairman Bernanke's easy-money policy. The only problem is, they're calling the race before the finish line is even in sight.

 

As usual, Paul Krugman overlooks basic economics (which, despite his Nobel Prize, is a science about which Mr. Krugman really knows very little). The reason stimulus is so politically popular is that it appears to work in the short-term. However, appearances can often be deceiving, as they are right now in the US. Stimulus merely numbs the pain of economic contraction, as the underlying trauma gets worse. Austerity might slow an economy down, but at least the wounds are able to heal. America has chosen the former and Europe the latter, albeit not quite as large a dose as needed. The fact that in the short-run Europe is suffering more than the US does not vindicate Washington's approach. On the contrary, this is exactly what is to be expected.

 

What we're seeing is like a race where each runner has a broken ankle. One has a coach who tells him to pace himself and not worry so much about winning this one, while the other coach gives his runner a shot of painkillers and tells him to give it all he's got. Of course, early in the race, the doped-up runner is going to be flying down the track like nothing's wrong, while the other runner might be limping at half his normal speed. However, when the drugs wear off, the sprinter is liable to collapse from pain, leaving the better-coached runner to limp across the finish line. 

 

The true test is not the immediate effects of stimulus or austerity, but the long-term results. For that reason, Krugman's conclusions are meaningless. The apparent success of stimulus simply results from spending more borrowed money on government programs and consumption. But don't we all agree now that this is exactly what caused the financial crisis in the first place?

 

As far as inflation is concerned, a vindication of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is equally premature. First of all, it's not that Quantitative Easing will lead to inflation; it's that QE is inflation. Secondly, there is a lag between QE and rising consumer prices, so the jury is still out as to how high consumer prices will ultimately rise as a result of current and past Fed policy mistakes.

 

But even more fundamentally, it is absurd to look solely at government price measures, which are built to understate inflation, and conclude that QE has not already produced an elevated cost-of-living. For example, the 2.4% rise in the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) Index in 2011 is more of an indictment of the accuracy of the index than a vindication of Bernanke. In fact, of all the ways the government purports to measure inflation, the PCE is perhaps the most meaningless, as it relies on built-in mechanisms like goods substitution to hide a lower standard of living. As an example of how this works, imagine you are used to eating farm-fresh butter but have to switch to cheaper but also less-healthy margarine from a factory; the PCE would say you are no worse off. That's exactly why the Fed chooses to use this uncommon metric.

 

Mark Gertler, an economics professor at New York University, argues that even the Consumer Price Index, which rose at a more vigorous 3.2% in 2011, proves Bernanke's critics wrong. According to Gertler, the CPI has risen at an average annual rate of 2.4% thus far under Bernanke's tenure, significantly less than the 3.1% average under Alan Greenspan, and the 6.3% under Paul Volcker.  However, Gertler overlooks two key points. First, the methodology used to calculate the CPI was much different during the Volcker era. If we still calculated the CPI the way we did then, the numbers would be much higher for both Greenspan and Bernanke. Second, given the huge economic contraction that has taken place under Bernanke, consumer prices should have fallen - significantly. The fact that they rose anyway indicates tremendous inflation.

 

Of course, the Fed's ability to stimulate the economy with inflation only works as long as bondholders remain ignorant of its plan. For now, the seemingly hopeful news reports are giving the Fed cover to keep stimulating. As long as the market remains convinced there is no inflation, the Fed can continue to create it. However, once the effects are so pronounced that even the PCE can no longer hide them, the Fed will be in a real bind.

 

Think of our two runners again. Even after the race is over, the fellow who chose to dope up likely injured himself even further. He might have even ended his career. So, the early dash and the cheer of the crowd in that one race was clearly not worth the many years of misery he would incur in the future.

 

Regardless of what the triumphant Keynesians would have you believe, my analysis continues to be that the current combination of monetary and fiscal stimulus is driving us toward disaster. Instead of a real recovery, the US will experience an inflationary depression. Europe, on the other hand, will suffer much less, precisely because it was not seduced by the short-term appeal of stimulus.



Tags:  Ben BernankeinflationKeynesianKrugman
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Pentonomics - Krugman's War Cry Won't Avert Depression
Posted by Michael Pento on 08/16/2011 at 8:09 AM

Paul Krugman sounded the war cry this Sunday on Fareed Zakaria's program Global Public Square. After all, he asserted, only spending equivalent to another World War could lead us back to prosperity. That, and a healthy dose of inflation.

 

Krugman argued that inflation would address our debt problem by reducing our bill in current dollar terms and that the Second World War was a giant stimulus plan that actually worked. Thankfully, he added the refrain, "Hopefully we don't need a world war to get there," but I sensed a tinge of regret in his voice. After all, the Keynesian economist's favorite pastime is seeing people waste their lives digging holes in the ground or sacrifice their lives in war. Both acts create economic growth according to the topsy-turvy logic of men like Krugman.

 

The truth is that wars are a miserable misallocation of capital and usually leave financial ruin in their wake. The US did not boom in the '50s because we fought World War II, but because we resoundingly won. It was the byproduct of having an unscathed manufacturing base, solid infrastructure, an intact military, most of the world's gold, and the only reserve currency.

 

The logical implication of Krugman's arguments remains that working in productive employment is not at all necessary. If this is true, why not have people just save gas and stay home? The government could simply borrow and/or print money and send it to foreign countries that are dumb enough to produce goods and services for US consumption. Christina Romer, former Chair to Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, also sided with Krugman in a commentary posted in Sunday's New York Times finance section. In it, she pontificated on the lessons to be learned from the Great Depression, saying: "It would be a mistake to respond by reducing the deficit more sharply in the near-term. That would almost surely condemn us to a repeat of the 1937 downturn." This misdirection demonstrates her lack of understanding of what causes economic depressions in the first place.

 

The cause of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Great Recession beginning in December 2007 were one and the same - an over-leveraged economy. Easy money provided by the banking system eventually brings debt in the economy to an unsustainable level. At that point, the only real and viable solution is for the public and private sectors to undergo a protracted period of deleveraging. The ensuing depression is, in actuality, the healing process at work, and is marked by the selling of assets and the paying down of debt. Unfortunately, our politicians today are focused on fighting the natural healing process of deleveraging by promoting the accumulation of even more debt.

 

During this latest economic contraction, the Federal Reserve has taken interest rates to near 0% for the past 2 ¾ years, and it has just promised to keep them there for an additional 2 years! Meanwhile, the Obama administration is leveraging up the public sector to record levels in an effort to re-leverage the private sector. The government's philosophy is tantamount to sticking a frostbitten man in the freezer so he won't have to suffer the pain associated with the thawing of his extremities.

 

During the Great Depression, real GDP plummeted 32%. The Great Recession, through which we are still struggling, began in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But, in contrast to the 1930s, GDP during this recession shrank only 3.6% from the fourth quarter of 2007 through its low point in the second quarter of 2009.

 

The contraction in GDP during the Great Depression was the direct result of consumers paying down debt and selling off assets. Household debt as a percentage of GDP reached nearly 100% in 1929. To put that number in perspective, household debt did not go back above 50% of GDP until 1985. And it was not until the first quarter of 2009 that household debt once again approached the 1929 level.

 

Between the start of the Great Depression and the end of World War II, household debt fell from 100% to just above 20% of GDP. Getting there was a painful process, but such de-leveraging was the only real cure for an economy swimming in debt. Thanks to government efforts to carry on our debt-fueled consumption binge, during today's Great Recession, household debt has barely contracted at all - it has only been reduced to 90% of GDP as of Q1 '11.

 

To make matters even worse, during this current crisis our government's response has been to dramatically increase its own borrowing. At the start of the Great Depression, gross national debt was 16% of GDP. It peaked just below 44% when the Depression ended. While the national debt did increase significantly during that period, it was still relatively benign compared to other Western governments. The US entered this current Great Recession with gross national debt equal to 65% of GDP. It has since exploded to 98% of GDP!

 

US federal debt did rise dramatically during World War II, topping out at 120% of GDP in 1946. But consumer debt plunged concurrently. So, while Washington was adding debt to fight and win a global war, households were taking the necessary steps to ensure their balance sheets were well prepared for the aftermath of the battle.

 

Today, for the first time in our history, gross national debt and household debt are both at least 90% of GDP.

 

Mr. Krugman and his allies believe that we can grow our way out of this recession like we have in the past few. Unfortunately, we're dealing with a completely different animal. In every past recession, the government, under the guidance of Keynesians, decided to put off deleveraging in return for artificial growth. Well, that tab has come due.

 

Since these economists keep trying to spend like it's World War III, we are moving inexorably closer to causing Great Depression II. If policymakers and mainstream economists fail to understand that the progenitor of a depression is debt, they will also be unable to provide a genuine solution. Instead, by pushing public debt past the point of our creditors' willingness to lend, they may ensure that this next Great Depression will be accompanied by runaway inflation. If history is any guide, this is a truly lethal combination.



Tags:  economyGreat DepressionKrugmanNew York Times
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Rising Rates Reveal Debt Reality
Posted by Michael Pento on 12/30/2010 at 7:50 PM

The Fed's lucky streak of luring bond investors with low interest rates may be drawing to a close. Nevertheless, the extended period of low borrowing costs has bred a new breed of investor. To the bulls and bears, we can now add the ostriches – those who bury their heads in the sand of declining debt service ratios while refusing to face up to intractable levels of total US government debt. If these ostriches were to actually look at the numbers, they would realize that it is their investments which are made of sand.

As the issuer of the world’s reserve currency, the US government has enjoyed the benefits of low interest rates despite its inflationary practices. When we run a trade deficit with a country like China, they have a strong incentive to 'recycle' the deficit back into our dollars and Treasuries. This practice has hidden what would otherwise be much higher borrowing costs and much lower purchasing power for the dollar. This artificial price signal allows people like Paul Krugman to claim that the Obama Administration’s stimulus programs should be much larger. Because our yawning fiscal deficits have not driven bond yields significantly higher, he sees no reason to curtail spending. Krugman wants to spend like its World War III, and then has the nerve to call those worried about the budget mindless zombies! 

Krugman is just one partisan Democrat shouting at mirrors, but the misunderstanding has struck the right-wing as well. Last week, in a debate with me on CNBC’s The Kudlow Report, Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust Advisors and writer for The American Spectator, claimed that our $9.3 trillion national debt is of little consequence because our GDP is a far greater. However, he failed to note that our $14.7 trillion of GDP only yields about $2.2 trillion in revenue for the Treasury. To fully access that entire GDP, the government would have to raise all tax brackets to 100% without producing any reduction in output or decrease in revenue. This is, of course, preposterous. As was demonstrated in the 1970s, even small increases in marginal tax rates have a substantial negative impact on output. A healthier appraisal would center on the fact that our publicly traded debt is now 422% of our annual tax revenue. 

Wesbury did mention that if the government could not raise revenue to pay off the bonds, it could simply monetize the debt with few significant consequences. Apparently, paying back one's creditors in worthless paper is not technically "default" to an economist.

So neither Krugman nor Wesbury, both intelligent, highly educated economists, see our current course leading to imminent crisis. Unfortunately, both have been led astray by the low debt service ratio which has masked our economy's underlying insolvency. To see through the haze, you have to look at the numbers behind this so-called “deleveraging consumer” and then look at the debt of the nation.

The data point most utilized by those who espouse the idea of a healthy consumer is the household debt service ratio (DSR), a metric that relates debt payments to disposable personal income. This figure peaked at 13.96% in the third quarter of 2007; it has since dropped by 15%, to 11.89%. It is hard to see this as a significant amount of deleveraging, especially when looking at longer term trends. But it gets worse! Most of that modest decline is simply a function of lower interest rates, which have made debt easier to bear. Total household debt has gone down much less. This figure peaked at $13.92 trillion in Q1 2008, and has since declined only 3.5% to $13.42 trillion. How’s that for deleveraging?! 

It's also worth noting that back in the first quarter of 2008, most homeowners were sitting on a pile of home equity to offset that debt. Today, most of the equity has vanished, yet the debt still remains.

When looking at the national debt, the situation is even more depressing. At the end of 2006, total debt held by the public was $4.9 trillion. According to the Treasury Department, the average interest rate paid on that debt was 4.9%. Therefore, the annualized interest payment at that time was $240 billion. At the end of 2010, our publicly traded debt has increased to $9.3 trillion, but the average interest rate on that debt has plummeted to just 2.3%. So, despite an 87% increase in debt in just a 4-year time span, the annualized debt service payment actually fell 11% to $213 billion. Krugman and Wesbury look at this and see progress.

Meanwhile, the average maturity on our debt has declined to 5.5 years. Compare that with the UK's gilts, which average about 14 years, or even to Greece's bonds, which average about 8 years. Falling interest rates and reduced durations have merely given the illusion of solvency to the US as compared to these other ailing sovereigns.

By 2015, our publicly traded debt is projected to be at least $15 trillion. Even if interest rates simply revert to their average level – not a stretch, given surging commodity prices and endless Fed money printing – the debt service expense could easily reach over $1 trillion, or about 50% of all federal revenue collected today. Just imagine what would happen if rates were to rise to the level of Greece, nearly 12% on a 10-year note, as opposed to our current 10-year yield of just 3.5%. I bet Athens, Georgia wouldn't look much better than its namesake. Don’t forget: as interest rates rise, GDP growth slows, sending the debt-to-GDP ratio even higher.

Earlier this year, it wasn’t the nominal level of debt that suddenly sent euroland into insolvency, but rather a spike in debt service payments. Right now, the US national debt is the biggest subprime ARM of all time. Much like homeowners who thought they could afford a mortgage that was 10 times their annual incomes, Messrs. Krugman and Wesbury are blinded by deceptively low current rates of interest. These ostriches won't poke their heads up to see the writing on the wall: low rates and quantitative easing cannot coexist for long. As rates continue to rise, the reality of US insolvency will be revealed.

-Michael Pento



Tags:  bondsChinadebtFedinflationKrugman
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Irrational exuberance, Krugman the Zombie, Gold non-bubble
Posted by Staff on 12/21/2010 at 5:26 PM
Peter comments on Irrational exuberance, Krugman the Zombie, gold

Tags:  exuberancegoldIrrationalKrugman
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Spending, Krugman, 60 Minutes, SchiffRadio.com
Posted by Staff on 11/01/2010 at 3:53 PM
Schiff talks about spending, Krugman, 60 Minutes, and SchiffRadio.com

Tags:  KrugmanSchiffRadio
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