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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Surviving Deflation: First, Understand It

Deflation is more than just "falling prices." Robert Prechter explains why.

The following article is an excerpt from Elliott Wave International's free Club EWI resource, "The Guide to Understanding Deflation. Robert Prechter's Most Important Writings on Deflation."

When Does Deflation Occur?

Defining Inflation and Deflation

Webster’s says, “Inflation is an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods,” and “Deflation is a contraction in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods.” To understand inflation and deflation, we have to understand the terms money and credit.

Defining Money and Credit

Money is a socially accepted medium of exchange, value storage and final payment. A specified amount of that medium also serves as a unit of account. According to its two financial definitions, credit may be summarized as a right to access money. Credit can be held by the owner of the money, in the form of a warehouse receipt for a money deposit, which today is a checking account at a bank. Credit can also be transferred by the owner or by the owner’s custodial institution to a borrower in exchange for a fee or fees -- called interest -- as specified in a repayment contract called a bond, note, bill or just plain IOU, which is debt. In today’s economy, most credit is lent, so people often use the terms “credit” and “debt” interchangeably, as money lent by one entity is simultaneously money borrowed by another.

Price Effects of Inflation and Deflation
When the volume of money and credit rises relative to the volume of goods available, the relative value of each unit of money falls, making prices for goods generally rise. When the volume of money and credit falls relative to the volume of goods available, the relative value of each unit of money rises, making prices of goods generally fall. Though many people find it difficult to do, the proper way to conceive of these changes is that the value of units of money are rising and falling, not the values of goods. The most common misunderstanding about inflation and deflation -- echoed even by some renowned economists -- is the idea that inflation is rising prices and deflation is falling prices. General price changes, though, are simply effects.

The price effects of inflation can occur in goods, which most people recognize as relating to inflation, or in investment assets, which people do not generally recognize as relating to inflation. The inflation of the 1970s induced dramatic price rises in gold, silver and commodities. The inflation of the 1980s and 1990s induced dramatic price rises in stock certificates and real estate. This difference in effect is due to differences in the social psychology that accompanies inflation and disinflation, respectively... The price effects of deflation are simpler. They tend to occur across the board, in goods and investment assets simultaneously.

The Primary Precondition of Deflation
Deflation requires a precondition: a major societal buildup in the extension of credit (and its flip side, the assumption of debt). Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek warned of the consequences of credit expansion, as have a handful of other economists, who today are mostly ignored. Bank credit and Elliott wave expert Hamilton Bolton, in a 1957 letter, summarized his observations this way:

In reading a history of major depressions in the U.S. from 1830 on, I was impressed with the following:
(a) All were set off by a deflation of excess credit. This was the one factor in common.
(b) Sometimes the excess-of-credit situation seemed to last years before the bubble broke.
(c) Some outside event, such as a major failure, brought the thing to a head, but the signs were visible many months, and in some cases years, in advance.
(d) None was ever quite like the last, so that the public was always fooled thereby.
(e) Some panics occurred under great government surpluses of revenue (1837, for instance) and some under great government deficits.
(f) Credit is credit, whether non-self-liquidating or self-liquidating.
(g) Deflation of non-self-liquidating credit usually produces the greater slumps.

Non-self-liquidating credit is a loan that is not tied to production and tends to stay in the system. When financial institutions lend for consumer purchases such as cars, boats or homes, or for speculations such as the purchase of stock certificates, no production effort is tied to the loan. Contrary to nearly ubiquitous belief, such lending is almost always counter-productive; it adds costs to the economy, not value.

Near the end of a major expansion, few creditors expect default, which is why they lend freely to weak borrowers. Few borrowers expect their fortunes to change, which is why they borrow freely. Deflation involves a substantial amount of involuntary debt liquidation because almost no one expects deflation before it starts. ...

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