What’s it going to be—inflation or deflation? Everyone has her own opinion and there’s a good case to be made for either outcome. Governments have been printing money for some time now. According to the recent investment letter from Francis Chou, money printing is growing at an annualized rate of 7.2 percent. Extra low interest rates are causing asset bubbles in real estate and some equities. Fair-to-middling companies with decent dividend yields are in high demand, jacking up their share prices accordingly. Some government bonds carry a negative yield, or, in other words, you pay to invest in them.
On the other hand, you don’t have to be an economist to see that global growth is ticking down. China’s ghost cities, Canada’s woeful oil and gas sector, Brazil’s fiascos, India’s dubious GDP metrics. The U.S. is growing but ever so gingerly. The world is a different place than it was in 2007. It will take some time to absorb the excess supply of commodities. And, then there’s the aging demographics in North America and Europe that could potentially put the brakes on business start-ups, spending and investing. When the inflation rate is less than zero, hello deflation. Deflation is accompanied by high unemployment levels, low prices, and reduced private investment and government spending. Once a region dips into deflation it’s like swimming in a sea of molasses. Japan floundered for a decade.
At a recent lunch hosted by Burgundy Asset Management, I cornered one of their investment honchos and posed the inflation/deflation question. He felt that deflation is the bigger short-term risk. However, others say that, longer term, inflation is not out of the question to absorb all that printed money. (Longer term can mean a decade or more away.)
In his annual letter to shareholders, Chou recounts Sir Winston Churchill’s skirmish with MP Bessie Braddock. During one of Churchill’s benders, Braddock told him, “Winston, you are drunk, and, what’s more, you are disgustingly drunk.” Upon which Churchill replied, “My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”