Greenspan knows inflation?

Suddenly, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan knows inflation. In fact, he now sees inflation as a real danger. Greenspan discussed a variety of economic topics with a crew from CNBC. I was quite intrigued, and VERY surprised, at his commentary on inflation and even gold. It is as if retirement has brought on an inflationary epiphany. Stepping away from the printing presses of currency has delivered some remarkable clarity…somehow.

Here are some highlights that were of most interest to me (bold emphasis mine):

  1. Inflation premiums are building up in the “out years”, but none of these indicators (TIPS, out year treasury yields) will tell you when inflation is about to take hold, and certainly not when the bond markets are going to move.
  2. In 1979, 10-year treasuries were yielding 9% and all the indicators told prognosticators that yields had peaked because the U.S. was not an inflationary economy – over the next 4-5 months, yields went up 400 basis points.
  3. Greenspan has always been somewhat skeptical of the output gap – the stagflation of the 1970s proved that “it is not an infallible indicator.”
  4. The general assumption about measures of core inflation is that food and energy fluctuate, but have no trend. That is incorrect.
    1. Rising incomes have shifted diets toward more protein, requiring more wheat crops while at the same time we are running out of arable land. This will create a long-term uptrend in food prices.
    2. Concerns over the security of oil supplies will also put oil prices on an upward trend.
    3. Over the counter derivatives (futures) have encouraged more storage of oil above ground in developed nations, providing a buffer. Otherwise, oil would be even higher right now.

Greenspan’s commentary on gold perhaps hearkened back to his pre-Fed days when he wrote “Gold and Economic Freedom” back in 1966. The quotes below come from CNBC’s transcript of the larger interview. He made these comments after pointing out that both the euro and the U.S. dollar are flawed fiat currencies (imagine what could have happened in currency markets if Greenspan made such an observation while he was Chairman!).

“What the price of gold is saying, is that there elements within the marketplace that feel very uncomfortable with respect to what is going on generally, and its not an accident that you’re finding that central banks are going in to buy gold and one of the reasons is gold is historically one of the rare media of exchange that doesn’t require any collateral or backing, counter signatures, gold is universally acceptable as a means of payment.”

“I’m not saying we can or should go back on the gold standard, that would be extremely difficult, and it would require such cast changes that this society has made no indication that it wants to do that, but I do think to get a sense of the stability of the system, watching the price of gold is not too bad.”

The overall discussion begged the obvious questions on monetary policy. It is not clear to me whether Greenspan’s characterization of existing inflationary pressures compels any changes, especially given these underlying forces are out of the Fed’s control.

http://plus.cnbc.com/rssvideosearch/action/player/id/1828868683/code/cnbcplayershare

Disclosure: author is long TIP and TBT

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