Thu Dec 13, 2007 2:21pm EST
By Steven C. Johnson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Inflation is shaping up to be a serious threat to financial markets and the world economy next year and the timing couldn't be worse, money managers at the Reuters Investment 2008 Outlook Summit said.
Even as prices rise, a severe global credit squeeze has prompted major central banks to flood the banking system with more money than at any time since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
With that much money sloshing around, many fear high prices will push the world into a prolonged period of sluggish growth, with the U.S. economy in particular vulnerable to a rerun of 1970s-style stagflation.
"We're trying to deal with two polar opposite problems here," said Robert Kowit, an international bond fund manager with Federated Investors. "I would say (stagflation) is an increasing concern for most investors."
Stagflation, a combination of stagnation and inflation, describes periods of rising prices coupled with stalled growth.
In the 1970s, things got so bad that the United States had trouble finding buyers for its bonds, sparking a dollar crisis that saw asset prices fall and real interest rates spike.
Kowit said a rerun of that scenario is a top concern heading into 2008. Economists predict falling home prices and the credit crunch will more than halve the U.S. growth rate to 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter. Some see recession ahead.
Interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve have also accelerated the dollar's six-year decline, sending it to a record low against the euro and potentially raising prices for already indebted U.S. consumers.
"When we talk about what a dollar crisis looks like, at least in my experience, it's been accompanied by a stagflationary environment," Kowit said.
A FLOOD OF MONEY
Fighting inflation has grown more complicated since August, when a rash of U.S. subprime mortgage defaults hit investors who had bought those loans. Lenders then cut off credit to customers because investors stopped buying the debt that banks use to finance home loans.
But efforts to get credit flowing again through infusions of capital will make inflation problems even worse, said Jim Grant, editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer.
A group of major central banks, including the Fed, joined forces this week to make it easier for banks to borrow and lend money. The Fed said it would hold two auctions through a new funding facility of $20 billion each.
"The risk is that by intervening to facilitate transactions to prevent so-called fire sales, the central banks of the world are actually not so surreptitiously inflating the global money supply in order to lift all asset values, including the ones that are most dubious," Grant said.
But some say the dangers of a seized-up credit market are large enough to justify aggressive action from central banks.
Bill Gross, chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Management Co., the world's biggest bond fund known as Pimco, said he expects the Fed to cut benchmark interest rates to 3 percent from their current 4.25 percent.
While that runs the risk of reinflating the sort of asset bubbles in housing and stocks that led to the credit crisis, Gross said it's a risk the central bank has to take.
"I do think the Fed has to pump as much air into the system to put a floor under housing and give the potential for the finance-based economy -- banks, primarily -- to build up their capital," he said.
HOT EMERGING MARKETS
Rising prices are a danger outside the United States as well, especially in booming emerging markets with undervalued currencies and rapid rates of growth.
Grant said Middle East oil exporters are facing "horrific rates of inflation" because their currencies are tied to a weakening dollar.
Inflation in Saudi Arabia in October hit its highest level since at least 1995, with the government raising subsidies to curb discontent over prices and the central bank facing more pressure to cut rates to defend a dollar peg.
In the developed world, central banks in Norway and Switzerland have been forced to hike interest rates this week, while European Central Bank officials have said the bank's 2008 inflation forecast of 2.5 percent may understate upside risks.
China reported that inflation in the 12 months to November shot to an 11-year high, and Grant said officials there exacerbate the problem when they buy up incoming dollars in order to keep the yuan from rising too quickly and undermining Chinese exports.
"The system of printing money with which to buy dollars is entering a time of crisis, and it's an inflationary crisis. That is terrible news for the world," Grant said.