What Could Pop The Everything Bubble?

by Charles Hugh Smith, Peak Prosperity:

I’ve long held that if a problem can be solved by creating $1 trillion out of thin air and buying a raft of assets with that $1 trillion, then central banks will solve the problem by creating the $1 trillion out of thin air—nothing could be easier.

This is the lesson of the past eight years: if a problem can be solved by creating new money and buying assets, then central banks will solve that problem.

Problem: stock market is declining. Solution: create new money and buy, buy, buy stock index funds. Problem solved! Market stops falling and quickly rebounds as “central banks have our backs.”

Problem: interest rates are inhibiting lending and growth. Solution: create a few trillion units of currency and buy enough sovereign bonds to drop interest rates to near-zero.

Problem: nobody’s left who can afford to buy the new nosebleed-priced flats that underpin China’s miracle-grow economy. Solution: create new currency, lend it to local government agencies who then buy the empty flats.

Problem: stagnant employment and deflation. Solution: create a trillion in new currency, buy a trillion in new government bonds that then fund infrastructure projects, i.e. bridges to nowhere.

And so on. Any problem that can be solved by creating a few trillion out of thin air and buying assets will be solved.  The mechanism to solve these problems—creating currency out of nothing—is like a perpetual motion machine: there are no intrinsic limits on the amount of new money that can created at near-zero interest, as the interest payments can be funded by new money.

Even better, the central bank (the Federal Reserve) buys Treasury bonds with the new currency that generate income, which is then returned to the Treasury: a perpetual-motion money machine!

The policy of creating trillions in new currency and buying trillions in assets has inflated an everything bubble, a bubble in all the asset classes being supported or purchased by central banks and their proxies.

Many observers wonder what, if anything, could pop the everything bubble.

This leads to an interesting question: what problems can’t be solved by creating another trillion and buying assets?

What Problems Can’t Be Solved by Creating Another Trillion and Buying Assets?

The past eight years have created the comforting illusion that essentially all problems in the modern era of globalized, centralized, debt-based, state-cartel capitalism in all its flavors (Chinese, Japanese, European, American, etc.) can be solved by creating as many trillions as are needed (whatever it takes) and buying assets or issuing guaranteed lines of credit with the new currency.

But there are some structural problems that can’t be solved by this mechanism. Some are primarily economic, some are primarily political-social, but all of them affect the entire system, not just the financial realm.

Inflation

We’re told that inflation—the loss of purchasing power of a currency—is near death and this greatly saddens the globe’s central bankers, who desperately need inflation to push wages higher and reduce the burden on debtors.

So let’s say, just as a thought experiment, that central banks get their much-desired inflation, but it runs hotter than their 2% annual target.  Once inflation is embedded in expectations and the supply chain, printing another trillion and using it to buy stocks, bonds, empty flats, etc. won’t make inflation go away.  Rather, the inflation in asset valuations generated by endless central bank buying if assets ends up feeding real-world inflation as all this new currency doesn’t actually produce more goods and services; it simply expands the supply of currency sloshing around the world looking for speculative yield.

The chorus of voices advocating for Universal Basic Income (UBI) is growing, and central banks will increasingly be pressured to issue new currency to fund UBI and its equivalents—what’s known as helicopter money, as the central bank issues currency that then funds deficit spending, i.e. the government dropping cash into the real economy.

Helicopter money comes in a variety of forms: debt forgiveness, negative tax rates (i.e. tax rebates to those who owe no income taxes), and cash stipends such as UBI. In every case, this helicopter money doesn’t expand the supply of goods and services; all it does is expand the funds available for consumption.

While China may be able to export deflation in goods that are tradable, that is, commoditized goods that can be made anywhere and shipped to markets elsewhere, nontradable goods and services such as local government services, housing, groceries, fast food, most healthcare services, haircuts, education, etc.—the bulk of the real economy—soar in price as the supply of money expands faster than the supply of these goods and services.

This is why inflation is already running extremely hot in nontradable sectors (which are often dominated, funded or controlled by the public sector/government), while deflation is still visible in tradable goods such as TVs, software, etc. I covered real-world inflation rates in The Burrito Index: Consumer Prices Have Soared 160% Since 2001 (August 1, 2016))

Much of the real-world inflation in sectors such as healthcare is invisible to protected classes because it’s being absorbed by employers and the government, a topic I covered in Inflation Isn't Evenly Distributed: The Protected Are Fine, the Unprotected Are Impoverished Debt-Serfs (May 25, 2017)

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