At this week’s hearing on Capitol Hill, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke demonstrated a lack of understanding about what causes inflation. His comments reflected a belief that GDP growth causes inflation.
But true economic growth is production-driven, and adds to the supply of goods and services in the economy. True economic growth is not inflationary. Rather, inflation is driven by runaway government deficits and bloated central bank balance sheets. And right now, we have plenty of both. So we have every reason to expect the CPI, even with all of its window-dressing shenanigans, to soar past 2% in short order.
I’m surprised at how complacent the stock market remains in the face of obvious pressure building on the CPI. If the Fed doesn’t react to a rising CPI by tightening policy, Treasury yields will keep soaring, and inflationary psychology will take root among most producers. If the Fed does react by ending QE and raising short-term rates, it doesn’t require much imagination to guess what would happen to a stock market that’s running entirely on fuel from the Fed. Either of these potential scenarios is bad for stocks. The only scenario that argues for further rallies in stocks is if – miraculously – even with unprecedented money printing and deficits worldwide, the CPI doesn’t continue rising.
A rising CPI will give more ammunition to the growing chorus of Fed critics in Congress. At this week’s hearing, when questioned about the building pressure on consumer prices, Bernanke answered that it would be easy to stop this trend by reversing his policies. But you know he’s terrified at the prospect of tightening. He’s an academic with his head in the sand.
When asked about the impact of QE2 on global food prices, Bernanke responded that the destabilizing spikes are due to weather and rapid growth in demand for grains in emerging markets. What a lame excuse! As an admirer of Milton Friedman, he must know that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” Inflation isn’t a “weather phenomenon.”
Without forever-growing money supplies, price spikes in one set of goods, like food, would be offset by price declines in more discretionary goods. But in today’s world, demand isn’t limited to what one can produce and save; it’s boosted further by what one can get from government handouts and what one can borrow at the Fed window at 0%.
Yet after all the experiences of recent years (including the early 2008 experience in oil and grains), Bernanke is still oblivious to the consequences of debasing the world’s reserve currency. In his view, if the world doesn’t conform to his personal Phillips Curve and output gap models, there must be something wrong with the world, not his models.
Bernanke has the intellect to understand the negative consequences of the Fed’s radical policies, but he simply chooses to ignore them or rationalize them away. By pushing on the monetary accelerator last fall (rather than wait for another “deflation scare”), Bernanke is going to undermine public support for the Fed. As a result, Bernanke gambled that he could spark a stock market rally. He indeed sparked a rally, starting last August – one that looks very long in the tooth.
But the fact remains that there is no direct “transmission mechanism” from the Fed’s balance sheet to the stock market. Speculators have to have a very specific, benign perspective on Fed policy in order for Fed policy to impact stocks. Today’s misplaced faith in the omniscience of the Fed will soon fade, and when it does, the market will return to intrinsic value very rapidly. The day trading robots and speculators counting on a “Bernanke put” will all look to sell at the same time, and patient investors won’t look to buy until prices fall much closer to intrinsic value. Using the most robust, back-tested historical valuation models, the best estimates of fair value for the S&P 500 that I’ve seen is somewhere in the range of 800-1,000 – 25% to 40% below current levels.
At times like these, it is often constructive to contemplate probable outcomes – to thoughtfully consider the likely winners and losers that soaring food prices will create. The shares of Ag equipment guys and fertilizer companies have been soaring. For example, the shares of Deere and Caterpillar have both more than tripled since Chairmen Ben announced his very first QE program on March 18, 2009. Fertilizer company stocks like Potash and Mosaic have also been on a tear. All these companies are on the receiving side of rising food prices – more or less.
But what about those companies who are on the paying side? Food producers and processors of all types are struggling to accommodate soaring food costs into their business models…and their share prices are showing the strain. Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, Kellogg, General Mills and Safeway have all turned in conspicuously poor stock market performances during the last several months.
I recently issued a bearish call on another likely victim of rising food prices. This company is subject to many of the same food price stresses that have been buffeting the companies cited above. Yet, for reasons that are not completely intuitive, the shares of this particular company continue to trend higher. Nevertheless, I suspect rising food costs will put the breaks on this uptrend and cause the stock to reverse course.
This company is facing serious fundamental stresses that will cause similar problems for individuals as well. Inflation is here, folks…whether we like it or not. No use in complaining. Better to prepare.
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Editor’s Notes: Dan Amoss, CFA, is managing editor for Strategic Short Report. Dan joined Agora Financial from Investment Counselors of Maryland, investment adviser for one of the top small-cap value mutual funds over the past 15 years.