John Williams: A Hyper-Inflationary Great Depression Is Coming
Source: Ellis Martin and Karen Roche of The Gold Report (4/30/10)
ShadowStats' John Williams has done his math and believes his numbers tell the truth. He explains why the U.S. is in a depression and why a "Hyper-Inflationary Great Depression" is now unavoidable. John also shares why he selects gold as a metal for asset conversion in this exclusive interview with The Gold Report.
John Williams: The hyper-inflationary portion largely will be unique to the U.S. If the U.S. falls into a great depression, there's no way the rest of the world cannot have some negative economic impact.
TGR: How will the United States' decreased economic power impact global economies? Will the rest of the world survive?
JW: People will find to their happy surprise that they'll be able to survive. Most businesses are pretty creative. The thing is, the U.S. economic activity accounts for roughly half that of the globe. There's no way that the U.S. economy can turn down severely without there being an equivalent, at least a parallel downturn outside the U.S. with its major trading partners.
When I talk about a great depression in the United States, it is coincident with a hyper-inflation. We're already in the deepest and longest economic contraction seen since the Great Depression. If you look at the timing as set by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is the arbiter of U.S. recessions, as to whether or not we have one, they've refused to call an end to this one, so far. But assuming you called an end to it back in the middle of 2009, it would still be the longest recession seen since the first down-leg of the Great Depression.
In terms of depth, year-to-year decline in the gross domestic product, or GDP, as reported in the third quarter of 2009, was the steepest annual decline ever reported in that series, which goes back to the late '40s on a quarterly basis. Other than for the shutdown of war production at the end of World War II, which usually is not counted as a normal business cycle, the full annual decline in 2009 GDP was the deepest since the Great Depression. There's strong evidence that we're going to see an intensified downturn ahead, but it won't become a great depression until a hyper-inflation kicks in. That is because hyper-inflation will be very disruptive to the normal flow of commerce and will take you to really low levels of activity that we haven't seen probably in the history of the Republic.
Let me define what I mean by depression and great depression, because there's no formal definition out there that matches the common expectation. Before World War II, economic downturns commonly were referred to as depressions. If you drew a graph of the level of activity in a depression over time, it would show a dip in the economy, and you'd go down and then up. The down part was referred to as recession and the up part as recovery. The Great Depression was one that was so severe that in the post-World War II era, those looking at economic cycles tried to come up with a euphemism for "depression." They didn't want to create the image of or remind people of the 1930s. Basically, they called economic downturns recessions, and most people think of a depression now as a severe recession.
I've talked with people in the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Bureau of Economic Research in terms of developing a formal depression definition. The traditional definition of recession—that of two consecutive quarters of inflation-adjusted contraction in GDP—still is a solid one, despite recent refinements. Although there's no official consensus on this, generally, a depression would be considered a recession where peak-to-trough contraction in the economy was more than 10%; a great depression would be a recession where the peak-to-trough contraction was more than 25%.
We're borderline depression in terms of where we're going to be here before I think the hyper-inflation kicks in. You've certainly seen depression-like numbers in things such as retail sales, industrial production and new orders for durable goods, where you're down more than 10% from peak-to-trough. In terms of housing, you're down more than 75%, and that certainly would be in the great depression category. With hyper-inflation, you have disruption to the normal flow of commerce and that will slow things down very remarkably from where we are now.
TGR: After a period of recession, isn't inflation considered a good sign?
JW: There are a couple of things that drive inflation. The one that you're describing is the relatively happy event where strong economic demand is exceeding production, and that's pushing prices higher, as well as interest rates. That's a relatively healthy circumstance. You can also have inflation, which is driven by factors other than strong economic activity. That's what we've been seeing in the last couple of years. It's been largely dominated by swings in oil prices. That hasn't been due really to oil demand, as much as it has been due to the value of the U.S. dollar. Oil is denominated in U.S. dollars. Big swings in the U.S. dollar get reflected in oil pricing. If the dollar weakens, oil rises. That's what you saw if you go back to the 1973-1975 recession, for example. That was an inflationary recession.
Indeed, the counterpart to what you were suggesting earlier about the strong demand and higher inflation is that usually in a recession you see low inflation. The '73 to '75 experience, however, was an inflationary recession because of the problem with oil prices. That's what we were seeing early in this cycle, where a weakening dollar rallied oil prices, and then the dollar reversed sharply and oil prices collapsed. We have passed through a brief period of shallow year-to-year deflation in the consumer price index, but, as oil prices bottomed out and headed higher since the end of 2009, we're now seeing higher inflation, again.
I'm looking at hyper-inflation, which is a rather drastic forecast. This has been in place as an ultimate fate for the system for a number of years. Back in the '70s, the then Big 10 accounting firms got together and approached the government and said, "Hey guys, you know you need to keep your books the way a big corporation does. You're the largest financial operator on earth." The government then, as well as today, operates on a cash basis with no accrual accounting and such. Yet, over a period of 30 years, the accountants and government put together generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, accounting for the federal government and introduced formal financial statements on that basis in 2002, which supplement the annual cash-based accounting.
If you look at those GAAP-based statements and include in the deficit the year-to-year change in the net present value of the unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare, what you'll find is that the annual operating shortfall is running between $4 and $5 trillion; not $500 billion as we saw before the crisis or the $1.4 trillion that they announced for fiscal 2009. Now to put that into perspective, if the government wanted to balance its deficit on a GAAP basis for a year, and it seized all personal income and corporate profits, taxing everything 100%, it would still be in deficit. It can't raise taxes enough to contain this. On the other side, if it cut all government spending except for Social Security and Medicare, it still would be in deficit. With no political will to contain the spending, eventually the government meets its obligations by revving up the currency printing press.
TGR: With all this new paper money coming into the system, wouldn't we see a bigger bubble than we've ever seen prior to a hyper-inflationary great depression?
JW: No, in fact, it's a very unusual circumstance that we have now. Put yourself in Mr. Bernanke's situation—he had to prevent a collapse of the banking system. He was afraid of a severe deflation as was seen in the Great Depression, when a lot of banks went out of business. The depositors lost funds and the money supply just collapsed. He wanted to prevent a collapse of the money supply and keep the depository institutions afloat. Generally, that has happened. The FDIC expanded its coverage and everything that had to be done to keep the system from imploding was done. The effects eventually will be inflationary.
In the process, what Mr. Bernanke did was to expand the monetary base extraordinarily, more than doubling it over a period of a year. The monetary base is money currently in circulation plus bank reserves. If you go back to before September 2008, the bank reserves were in the $50 to $60 billion range. Where the currency was maybe $800 billion, we've gone over $2 trillion in total reserves. Most of that is in excess reserves and not required reserves that banks have to keep to support their deposits. Normally banks would take their excess reserves and lend them out into the regular stream of commerce, and in doing so, that would create money supply. Instead they're leaving the excess reserves on deposit with the Fed. Money supply and credit are now generally contracting. We're going to see an intensified downturn in the near future. I specialize in looking at leading indicators that have very successful track records in terms of predicting economic or financial turns. One such indicator is the broad money supply.
Whenever the broad money supply–adjusted for inflation–has turned negative year over year, the economy has gone into recession, or if it already was in a recession, the downturn intensified. It's happened four times before now, in modern reporting. You saw it in the terrible downturn of '73 to '75, the early '80s and again in the early '90s. In December of 2009, annual growth in real M3 turned negative. It's now at a record low in terms of decline, down more than 6% year over year. What that suggests is that in the immediate future you're going to see renewed downturn in economic activity.
In all the prior instances that I mentioned, this event led recessions, except for '73 to '75. That's when you had the oil spike and a recession that came from that. When the money supply turned down in that recession, the economy accelerated in its decline. We're going to see something along those lines, now, with about a six-month lead time. You're going to have negative economic growth this year. The implications for that are extraordinary, because the projections on the federal budget deficit, a number of the state deficits, and the solvency and stress tests for the banking system all were structured assuming positive economic growth in the 2% to 3% range for 2010. Instead it's going to be negative. Many states are going to be in greater difficulty than they thought. Most likely, you're going to have federal bailouts there. The banks are going to have more troubles. All this means more government support, more government spending, greater deficits and greater funding needs for the U.S. Treasury. We have a global market that already is increasingly reluctant to hold the dollars and U.S. Treasuries.
TGR: The U.S. dollar is still the reserve currency, and it's holding its value while the euro struggles. Wouldn't decoupling precede hyper-inflation?
JW: I don't know if it will decouple from being the reserve currency formally, but it will de facto. The reserve status is the reason the dollar didn't collapse per se a year and a half ago during the September '08 panic. The movement is already afoot, however, to try to relegate the dollar to some status other than a reserve currency. For example, OPEC purportedly is looking to price oil in something other than U.S. dollars. The pressure is there to change the status.
Again, if you start to see a great depreciation of the U.S. currency or a tremendous increase in lack of confidence in the soundness of the government's fiscal condition, there is a problem. You mentioned Greece, for example. The sovereign solvency issues there are minuscule compared to what we have with the United States, which is the elephant in the bathtub. The markets know it's there. The central bankers know it's there. Again, with the downturn in the economy, all the issues are going to be brought to a head. As they come to a head, there will be that effort to dump the dollar. I would expect that, indeed, it will be decoupled from its reserve status, although it could follow after the fact as opposed to before the fact.
TGR: Major economic indicators suggest significant improvement; even the IMF has stated that we've averted a global depression. What are you seeing that these governing bodies are not?
JW: What I'm using is a leading indicator of economic activity: year-to-year change in inflation-adjusted broad money supply. We're now seeing a very sharp year-over-year decline, which has not been seen since the 1990 recession. This indicator does not work always in the upside; it doesn't necessarily give you a signal for a rising economy. It is, however, basic. If you strangle liquidity you can always contract an economy. Deliberately or not, liquidity's being strangled. You're seeing very sharp declines in consumer credit, commercial and industrial loans and commercial paper outstanding.
You are getting happy news from governments, central banks, financial markets, Wall Street analysts and the popular media, which does tend to cater to Wall Street. Such is standard practice. Happy news is what sells and you don't want to discourage people. The Obama administration, interestingly, started talking-down the economy when it wanted to get its stimulus package in place. As soon as that was done, it started talking-up the economy. Everything was just fine and dandy again. This is the most extraordinary downturn most people living today have ever seen. In terms of modern economic reporting, which basically started after World War II, we've never had a downturn as long or as severe. Perversely, the extreme nature of the downturn actually has warped recent reporting of seasonally-adjusted data to the upside.
TGR: Earlier you mentioned that business around the world will survive in the event of a depression. Aren't there sustainable businesses in the U.S. as well? Won't an influx of printed currency and green-tech job creation offer some value? At some point, doesn't stimulus money become real cash producing real goods? Surely the economy would be viable at some level?
JW: Not without income growth. There's nothing there that you've described to me that is growing, aside from inflation. To have sustainable growth in the economy, you have to income growth, net of inflation. That is not happening, and there is nothing in existing government stimulus that will cause real income growth.
Beyond income issues, the problem with the hyper-inflation is that very quickly the use of cash will cease. Let me contrast our circumstance here with a very popularly followed hyper-inflation case that's now run its course in Zimbabwe. There you had probably the worst hyper-inflation that anyone's ever seen. After devaluation upon devaluation, they successively lopped the zeros off the bills. If you took a $2 bill that they first issued back in the '80s and then tried to come up with the equivalent of a $2 bill in the last form of the currency, it would be very difficult to do because it was so worthless. If you put a pile of those together to equal the original $2 bill, it would actually stretch from the earth to the Andromeda Galaxy. We're talking light years. There are not enough trees on earth to print them. Yet the Zimbabwe economy survived and functioned. They had a lot of problems, but they operated. The reason they functioned was because they had a back-up system, which was a black market in U.S. dollars. People switched out of the Zimbabwe dollar to U.S. dollars. They could live with that. In the U.S., we don't have a back-up system.
TGR: You mentioned in a recent interview with CNN that you're recommending individuals move into both cash and gold. With the euro and the dollar in jeopardy, where does that leave us?
JW: I don't like the euro. I don't think that's going to hold together, and I've thought so for some time. If it should break up and you have a new German currency, a new mark or something like that might be a strong one option. At the moment I like the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar and the Swiss franc. For anyone living in the United States, rather than looking at the short-term volatility in the markets and trying to make money off of that, this is the time to batten down the hatches and to look to preserve your wealth and assets.
In terms of preserving the purchasing power of your assets, the best thing I can think of is physical gold. That's worked over the millennia. I'm not per se a gold bug. It just happens to be a circumstance in which it's the cleanest asset around for that. You don't need to put all your assets into gold, but hold some. Hold some silver. I'd look to get some assets out of the U.S. dollar and look to get some assets out of the U.S. When I say outside of the U.S. dollar, again, I look at the Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, Swiss franc in particular. I think they will tend to do particularly well, whereas the U.S. dollar is going to become effectively worthless.
As the dollar breaks down, you'll also likely see disruptions in supply chains, including shipments of food to grocery stores. People should consider maintaining stockpiles of basic goods needed for living, much as they would for a natural disaster. I sit on the Hayward fault in California. I have a supply of goods and basic necessities in case something terrible happens—natural or man-made—that will carry me for a couple of months. It may take that long for a barter system to evolve, which I think is what you're going to end up with; at least until a new currency system is reorganized and you get a government that's able to bring its fiscal house into order. No currency system in the U.S. is going to work unless the fiscal conditions that drove it into oblivion are also addressed.
On a global basis, where the dollar is the world's reserve currency, 80% of currency transactions involve the U.S. dollar. There's going to have to be an overhaul of the global currency system. To gain credibility with the public, the powers that be likely will design a system that has some kind of a tie to gold, but that's purely speculative.
TGR: From a personal investment point of view, you emphasized that this is a time to conserve assets, including gold and other currencies. How else can investors protect themselves?
JW: I like physical gold and silver. I look to gold as a primary hedge. If you can come out of this holding gold, you'll be in a position where you'll be able to take advantage of some extraordinary investment opportunities that will follow. With inflation, real estate is usually a pretty good bet. It tends to hold its value over time. There may be periods of illiquidity, though, and it's not portable. Neither of those limitations is an issue with gold. Maybe gold will become the black market to support U.S. economic activity. It certainly would be the area that people will try to transfer their assets to as time goes along.
You see people now as gold gets to a new high saying, "Oh my goodness, I bought at $200, and I can sell out at $1,100 making a good profit." What people don't realize is that they haven't made a real profit. What they've done is retained the purchasing power of the dollars that they invested in gold, and they've lost proportionately the purchasing power of the amounts left in dollar-denominated paper assets over the same time. Gold is a long-term wealth preserver. Again, where many people are used to an investment environment where they can buy a stock, make a quick profit and then sell, with gold you need to hold on for the long haul as an insurance policy, not as a quick investment.
TGR: Thank you very much for your time.
Walter J. "John" Williams was born in 1949. He received an A.B. in Economics, cum laude, from Dartmouth College in 1971, and was awarded a M.B.A. from Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business Administration in 1972, where he was named an Edward Tuck Scholar. During his career as a consulting economist, John has worked with individuals as well as Fortune 500 companies. For more than 25 years he has been a private consulting economist and a specialist in government economic reporting. His analysis and commentary have been featured widely in the popular media both in the U.S. and globally. Mr. Williams provides insight and analysis on his website, www.shadowstats.com.
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