Perry Glasser

DEFLATION, OIL PANIC, AND THE SKIDS #1

In Business, Economics, Economy, EDUCATION, Finance on January 7, 2015 at 12:59 pm

Ever aware that Dollar$ primary mission is to educate and only occasionally pontificate, let’s talk about prosperity, gloom, and deflation.

Economic activity is based on expectations. You buy your new car because you expect you will need it before the old jalopy breaks down completely; you buy health insurance because you expect you will someday, somehow, need it; you buy baseball tickets in January because you expect to go to  the game in April.

Balance means stable prices.

Balance means stable prices.

Prosperity

Shared expectations influence supply and demand, and therefore influence prices. If International Widget (IW) expects to sell many widgets in the forthcoming year, it will hasten to make more widgets, perhaps borrowing money to increase productivity. Under the expectation of prosperity, IW may hire more workers, and if long-term expectations are high, IW may even build a brand new, more efficient widget plant.  If widget demand increases even beyond IW’s ability to create supply, the widget shortage will drive the price of widgets higher. IW will respond by increasing volume and price, reap profits, pay dividends, employ yet more people, give key employees wage increases, and the Buccaneers who direct IW may pay themselves  bonuses that look like telephone numbers, including area codes. They will buy Caribbean islands or condos in Manhattan.  The spiral upward is called an inflationary spiral; rising prices are not terrifying if wages and employment keep pace.

Gloom

saupload_The-Deflationary-SpiralBut suppose IW’s best leadership expects the market for widgets is spiraling downward. Perhaps there are insurmountable problems in the supply chain. Perhaps bankers are unwilling to part with loan money for fear of never getting paid back. Rather than pay people for playing pinochle while their widget machines stand idle, 10 percent of the IW workforce is fired. The Manhattan condo market freezes, and the IW private jet makes fewer flights to the Caribbean. The price of widgets will plunge because the people who use widgets know that to meet the slowdown, IW will cut prices and hope to make up in volume what they are losing in price. The spiral down is called deflation; falling prices are not terrifying if they are gradual and do not continue for any great length of time.

The gloom and prosperity scenarios are the ordinary stuff of economic life, but Dollar$ readers only need to bear in mind that in both cases today’s economic decisions are made based on expectations of tomorrow’s conditions.

The Past

The general tone of American economic life for more than 20 years has been cautious optimism because the range of change in economic life has been modest, sure, and steady. Sure, there have been bubbles and crashes, but there is a reason that in 20 years the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen 400 percent, from roughly 4,000 to today’s levels well above 16,000. Call it the Goldilocks Economy—it’s neither too hot nor too cold, but is just right.

Home invader and thief, but she knows what she likes.

Home invader and thief, but she knows what she likes.

But America has suffered an extended deflationary spiral, a decade’s worth in the 1930s called The Great Depression. Despite interest rates at virtual zero for most of a decade, from 1992 to 2000, Japan has been in a deflationary spiral.

Playing the expectations game, in an inflationary spiral you spend or invest your money as fast as you can. After all, everything will probably be more expensive tomorrow. It’s best to buy your house, car, 100 shares of IW, or personal jet today.

But in a deflationary spiral, the expectations game makes cash King. What fool would spend a dollar today when the cost of the item tomorrow will be $.90?  But wait… suppose it will drop to $.75? Or $.60?

Where’s my Magic 8-Ball when I need it?eight_ball

What Now?

Does the slide in the price of oil herald of worldwide deflation?

Dollar$ will weigh in soon.

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