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Inflation or Deflation: Watching for Warning Signs

There's been much debate in investing circles over the last year about whether inflation or deflation represents a more likely threat to the future of the U.S. economy. With a recovery that's still tentative compared to previous recessions, measures designed to stimulate the economy or cut spending to rein in the budget deficit provoke warnings about their potential to create one or the other.

The case for inflation

As the economy has begun to recover, worries about the potential for future inflation have become widespread. The Fed has undertaken extraordinary measures to make sure there is plenty of money in circulation, but some experts worry that the increased money supply will eventually cut the dollar's purchasing power, especially if interest rates are kept at historically low levels for too long. They cite the easy availability of money as contributing to the late-1990s tech bubble and the mid-2000s housing bubble, and fear that another could be on the way.

The Federal Reserve Board's monetary policy committee maintains that inflation currently is too weak to support normal economic growth, let alone launch an inflationary spiral. However, those who see inflation in our future watch for warning signs such as increased Treasury yields, particularly on longer-term bonds. Higher yields when bonds are auctioned suggest that investors are increasingly wary of tying up their money for long periods at a fixed interest rate if they feel that inflation is going to erode the buying power of those fixed payments over time. Wholesale prices also are watched closely; higher prices at the wholesale level can be a precursor of higher prices at retail (that is, if retailers are able to pass those costs along to buyers, which is not always the case).

The case for deflation

At first blush, the falling prices that characterize deflation don't sound like such a bad thing. Who wouldn't like to be able to buy things for less than they cost now, especially when times are tough? The problem is that those falling prices can harm the economy in several ways, as Americans were reminded during the recent recession. When prices are dropping, people tend to postpone purchases, hoping to pay less in the future (consider what's happened with real estate since 2007). Delayed spending puts pressure on corporate profit margins and companies tend to cut spending themselves, creating financial difficulties for companies that rely on business spending. Cutbacks begin to ripple through the economy.

Deflation typically affects not only prices but wages; scarce jobs can lead to pay cuts even for those who stay employed. And lower incomes can start a new round of cost-cutting by both consumers and business. If this process sounds familiar, it's because for much of 2009, the U.S. experienced negative annual inflation rates for the first time since 1955.

Though consumers have loosened their purse strings in recent months, deflationistas argue that if another financial crisis were to reduce credit availability, or if high ongoing unemployment once again begins to weigh on consumers' willingness and ability to spend, the threat of deflation could return. Those concerned about the possibility of a new round of deflation at some point keep an eye on consumer spending, the state of the credit and housing markets, and the stability of banks and other financial institutions.

Seeing shades of gray

Inflation and deflation aren't necessarily an either-or proposition. It's possible to have inflation in some areas and deflation in others; anyone who has watched food prices or health-care costs increase while their paycheck stayed the same and the value of their house declined can vouch for that.

From an investing standpoint, inflation isn't black-and-white, either. Some industries and asset classes benefit from inflationary forces, while companies that are highly dependent on both commodity prices and cheap labor can be more challenged by rising prices.