Are the Inflation Fears Justified?

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). US consumer prices climbed faster than expected in May and stock markets around the world have cracked with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing all the ground it gained so far this year.

U.S consumer prices climbed faster than expected in May, further fanning investor fears over inflation. Stock markets around the world have cracked sharply lower the past few weeks, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing all the ground it had gained so far this year. Japan's stock market is down 11% on the year; gold has had its biggest slide in a decade and a half; and many emerging markets are wobbling. After Wednesday's Consumer Price Index report from the Labor Department, which showed a 0.4 percent increase in prices for May (core inflation, which excludes food and energy, rose 0.3 percent), the stock market made a comeback. But with future interest rate hikes now starting to be priced into the market, investor fears that central bankers around the world will go overboard and continue to drive rates higher is set to furuther spook markets. This is no trading correction that investors have to absorb. The real risk of a jarring bear market has emerged.

But while the trauma that inflation created for investors in the 1970s is still close to the surface, the sudden frenzy is misplaced. Powerful forces in the world economy continue to keep prices largely in check.

Over the past decade, inflation has been a minor threat compared with brutal deflationary shocks. They started with the collapse of the Mexican peso in the mid-1990s. In 1997, much of eastern Asia's flourishing economy was leveled. Next were Russia, Turkey and Argentina; Brazil teetered on the brink. By early 2001, Silicon Valley, the pride of the U.S. economy, was crashing, while entire sectors of the so-called New Economy disintegrated.

The tech wreck may be over, but it has left a legacy of low prices. Tech companies had to dump on the market everything from fiberoptic networks to computer chips, as desperate investors struggled to raise cash. That slashed telecommunication costs at the very moment that emerging markets were producing a skilled and hungry generation of information workers. Result? The offshore outsourcing revolution and downward pressure on global production costs that keeps inflation under control. Equally powerful are the ultra-low-cost emerging-market manufacturing bases, led by China. With more than 1 billion people set to enter the urban labor markets of China, India, Brazil and Indonesia in the next 20 years, all those pressures on prices will only intensify.

More immediate forces are also at work to keep prices from surging. Despite some wishful thinking, growth in Europe is slowing, not accelerating. A large part of U.S. growth has been driven by booming real estate prices. But in the past two years, the Fed has increased rates 16 times, so real estate-driven consumption is yesterday's news. Tomorrow's story will be the sharp fall in U.S. growth as consumers face higher mortgage costs. That dynamic could become particularly nasty, given the record level of U.S. household debt, government deficit and unequaled current-account shortfall.

Investors are often caught flat-footed when markets slide. In 2001-02, deflation was the fear of the day, but few investors at the time saw the opportunity in commodities, which were going for a fraction of today's prices. Today investors are obsessed with inflation, while government and top-tier corporate bonds are shunned.

That should be telling us something. What is it? In the past few years, the central banks of Japan, the U.S. and Europe have cut interest rates so aggressively that the real cost of borrowing fell to, effectively, below zero. That spurred extraordinary amounts of debt financing by governments and corporations. But now, as the global credit cycle tightens, some of the marginal investments will quickly become unsustainable. If central bankers keep raising interest rates, deeper cracks would open in the world economy.

What is really troubling markets is not inflation. It is the fear that central banks may have tightened too much, and will tighten further. If that happens, the recent market shock would be merely the precursor to a still more dramatic quake.

Kenneth Courtis is an adviser to global investment funds, governments and corporations and former vice chariman of Goldman Sachs Asia