Deflation Remains Biggest Threat As Lofty Stock Markets Head Into 2018 – Forbes

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In the two weeks running up to the passage of the Senate’s version of the tax bill, the equity markets moved significantly depending on how any particular Republican senator intended on voting. Then, when the Senate finally passed the bill on the next business day, markets made new intra-day record highs, but then reversed course.

Given the current sky-high market valuation levels, the tax benefits are already priced in. Economist David Rosenberg examined market reaction to the five major tax bills of the last 70 years. He found that, on average, the S&P 500 rises 14.3% (median 18.9%) in the year leading up to the passage of the tax legislation. In the year following, on average, the index falls 7.5% (median 13.1%). It could be he is on to something.

Markets and Easy Money

If it has been historically easy money that has propelled the U.S. and every other major stock market to record heights over the past few years, then it is noteworthy that the last 12 moves from the world’s central banks have been tightening moves.

We know that the Fed is certain to tighten next week at its December 12-13 meeting. This, despite the fact that the Fed’s governing board is deeply divided on the outlook for interest rates and inflation. According to their own minutes, some Fed-governing members continue to hold to the academic view that the Phillips curve (i.e., inflation always rises when the unemployment rate is low) is alive and well. Under this view, inflation is just around the corner and the Fed had better be pre-emptive, lest inflation get ahead of them. The other view is that today’s economy exhibits behaviors that are significantly different from those that dominated the 60+ years of post-WWII America, and that inflation is no longer the threat it used to be. In fact, deflation may be a bigger threat, especially given the high and rising debt levels.

Markets and Fed are on Different Pages

Regular readers know that I have espoused the latter viewpoint. I have pointed out several times that the Fed has erroneously predicted 2% inflation for 66 months and continues to tell us that the low levels of inflation are “transitory.” Fed Chair-Elect Powell espoused this viewpoint in his confirmation hearing, so, there is not much hope that they Fed will back off. Some of the governors, but Yellen in particular, are also concerned about what they view as unnecessary “fiscal stimulus” from the looming tax legislation. Yellen was particularly vocal about this in her testimony to Congress the week after Thanksgiving. For the Fed hawks on the governing board, this is one more excuse to get “ahead” of the reflationary forces that the resulting deficits are likely to bring (never mind that those are several quarters if not years away).

On the other hand, there are some on the Fed’s board with the view that deflation, led by globalization, demographics, the shared economy, AI, robotics, the new retail model (Amazon), etc. is the bigger threat, but they remain a minority.