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Lessons from the Masters of Deflation

You can’t open a decent newspaper these days without coming across an article warning of impending deflation.  (Yes, I know.  How many people still open a decent newspaper?) Deflation, the Bizarro twin of inflation, has been a major concern for the United States since the financial crisis unfolded in 2008, and fears of a Japan-style lost decade emerged.

We’re now two years into the unfolding drama, and fear of deflation has resurged in the past few months as the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has led to a spike in the value in the dollar, a potential for weakening global demand, and the threat of a double-dip recession.  While I personally don’t believe we’ll see an extended period of deflation given the current monetary & fiscal incentives in our country (a blog post on this topic is coming), I do think a few years of borderline deflation may still occur.

From today’s Wall Street Journal:

The old bogeyman of deflation has re-emerged as a worry for the U.S. economy. Here’s something else to fret about: After studying more than a decade of deflation in Japan, economists have slowly realized they have no idea how it works.

Every time you see a piece on deflation, you find references to Japan.  This is not unexpected – Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, and it wasn’t too long ago that many highly educated people thought that it would usurp the US role as the dominant western economy.  This is really the only large-scale modern example of deflation – to find another you have to revisit the 1930s, and too many elements of our system have changed for those analogies to be completely helpful.  In fact, I see some pieces stretch back into the 1890s at times.

Unfortunately, Japan has been a wreck of an example.  They pursued massive borrowing and Keynesian stimulus, running their national debt to over 200% of GDP.  In fact, the most notable thing that they’ve achieved is setting incredible new records for the potential debt a country can take on without completely imploding.  This is similar in some ways to new records being set for over-eating.  Impressive, scary, and not something that inspires you to try it yourself.

However, if you want to understand deflation, and more importantly how to handle deflation, you need to turn to the true masters of deflation.  That’s right, living in our midst, there are huge multi-billion dollar economies that have not only survived a deflationary environment for forty years, they’ve thrived in it.

I’m talking, of course, about the children of Moore’s Law: our high tech industry.  Moore’s Law (circa 1975), loosely put, predicts that the number of circuits that you’ll be able to put in a semiconductor for a fixed cost will double every two years.  This is the equivalent of saying that the price of a circuit will drop by 50% every two years.

That’s deflation of 22.47% per year.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

But the industry has thrived, and looking at the financial structure of high tech companies, you can learn a lot about the topsy-turvy logic of deflation and how individuals can cope.

  • Debt is Bad. For decades, high tech companies have resisted the traditional financial wisdom of adding leverage to their balance sheets.  Why?  Theoretically, leverage is one of the key ingredients in Return on Equity, a primary measure of financial performance.  The answer is, when it comes to deflation, debt can kill you.In an inflationary environment, being a lender is tough.  There is a risk that inflation will eat of the gains (or more) of the interest you are charging.  If I loan you $10,000 at 5%, and inflation jumps to 8%, I’m losing 3% on the deal.   $300/year lost purchasing power is tough, but imagine that being $3B on a $100B loan portfolio.  This is because as a lender, my return is the interest rate I charge MINUS the inflation.In a deflationary environment, roles are reversed.  As a lender, I’ll lend you money at 0%!  After all, if deflation increases the value of a dollar by 3%, then I effectively make 3% on a 0% loan.  My return as a lender is the interest rate PLUS the deflation.  But the borrower has the other end of the deal.  Not only do they have to pay the interest, but they have to pay it with higher value dollars in the future.  Ouch.

    Moral of the story: In a deflationary environment, you do not want to owe debt. This is why deflationary environments lead to massive deleveraging.   You do not want to be caught holding a check denominated in low value today dollars, and forced to pay it back with higher value tomorrow dollars.
  • Don’t Buy Today What You Can Buy Tomorrow. This is something that any avid purchaser of computer equipment knows.  You pay a lot for the privilege of buying computing power today.  I guarantee you, it will be cheaper 6 months from now.  Want a 2TB hard drive?  Just wait a few months for significant discounts.  Want that Mac Mini?  It will be cheaper (or faster) in a year.  Same item, same condition, same quality – lower value in the future.  That is what deflation looks like.In a deflationary environment, on average items will cost less in dollars in the future than they do today.  So if you don’t need it now, you should wait.  In fact, you are paid to wait.  Literally.  High tech companies know this – they don’t source components until they absolutely need them to put in boxes.  High tech consumers know this.  Want to buy a 42″ LCD TV?  Wait a year, I promise you that exact same model, brand new in the box, will be a lot cheaper.This may not seem weird to you, but think about it for a second.   It’s not normal.  In order to keep the box the same price, most consumer products companies literally shrunk what they are offering you, or raise the price.   In high tech, they regularly have to double what they give you every two years, just to keep the price the same!  This is also why high tech companies are desperate to unload inventory as soon as possible… within days.  When I was at Apple, we moved our days of inventory on the books from eight week to just under two days!  Dell at the time was at six days.  Just six days of inventory!  That’s how you handle deflation.

    Moral of the story:  If you don’t absolutely need it now, wait. In inflationary environments, we buy now to avoid paying a higher price in the future.  In deflationary environments, the later you buy, the cheaper it is.  So don’t buy it unless you need to use it, immediately.

  • Success Depends on Increasing Value through Innovation. We take this for granted now in the high tech industry, but let’s face it:  high tech is unique.  If the internal combustion engine followed Moore’s law, we wouldn’t be worried about oil usage right now because we’d all be getting over 1M miles to the gallon.What people don’t realize about Moore’s Law is that it isn’t some government regulation.  There is no one handing out 2x performance every two years that high tech companies can just cash in periodically.  Literally hundreds of thousands of brilliant people, across a range of disciplines, degree programs, and commercial ventures are constantly ahead of the curve, inventing the technologies that will deliver that incredible curve.It’s a trap, in a way.  The innovation that makes the deflationary environment a fact is also the path to surviving it.  If you miss the next step on the curve, you’ll find that your products quickly are only worth half as much, and your more innovative competitor will still be collecting full price.

    This is tough to handle at an individual level.  In an inflationary environment, everyone gets some form of raise to “adjust for inflation”.  In a deflationary environment, everyone should get a pay cut to “adjust for deflation”.  However, since employees, managers, unions and even governments hate to see this happen, you tend to see layoffs instead.   It’s a vicious productivity war.  If you want earn the same paycheck next year, and deflation is running at 3%, you have to be 3% more productive to make that math work for the business.   At the company level, you need to see companies that can deliver productivity gains every year at a rate above deflation, just to tread water.

    Moral of the story:  There is no coasting in a deflationary environment, no rising tide that lifts all boats. Inflation may be an illusion of more money, but it’s an illusion that people emotionally depend on.  Deflation forces people to come to terms with a basic economic fact – if you aren’t able to make more with the same cost next year, you’ll likely be worth less next year.

I’ve obviously oversimplified a fairly complicated macroeconomic situation in the comments above.  However, I’m hoping that the insights provided will be helpful to those of you who have trouble visualizing what deflation might look like, in practice.  If there is interest, I may put together another post on what types of investments perform best in a deflationary environment.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Neelika #

    Economists are concerned that with prices always expected to fall no one will have discretionary spending. But people do line for iPhones knowing full well they will likely cost less in a year. The truth is of course somewhere in the middle but less discretionary spending is a serious concern for a tanking economy.
    The other problem is there is already so much debt out there that serious deflation would make matters really worse, both for the country and for individuals.
    We’ll see what happens! Waiting to see why you think inflation is a higher likelihood.

    August 2, 2010
  2. Carl Nash (no relation) #

    Ah but to own the best first in our consumer driven world has become a double luxury. The status of it all is enhanced. Look at the new IPhone, did anyone wait till the gliches were gone to buy? And cheaper and better next year, but I want it now!

    August 12, 2010
  3. Jack #

    Adam,
    I am very interested to hear your thoughts on investment vehicles in both deflationary and inflationary economies. Great posts on deflation and inflation. I agree with you about inflation, but had not thought too much about short term deflation.
    ~Jack

    September 8, 2010

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