Why inflation threat could lead to a 'panic taper'
The bell finally may be about to ring in the U.S. economy's long-awaited bout with inflation.
With growth indicators improving and the Federal Reserve about to ease back on its monthly stimulus program, market talk is intensifying that inflation will arrive in earnest in 2014.
In fact, even if actual inflation does not escalate, the fear of it could be enough to provide a pretty substantial shock to the system.
That's a scenario envisioned by Jim Paulsen, chief market strategist at Wells Capital Management, who sees "stronger economic growth," declining unemployment and rising factory utilization leading to "a modest rise in the U.S. inflation rate" that will produce "the first 'inflation scare/overheat/can the Fed exit fast enough' panic of the recovery."
(Read more: For Yellen, headaches are only starting)
In other words, should the market even get a whiff of inflation it could cause a chain reaction that sends the Fed reducing the pace of quantitative easing even more than the plans announced in December. The Open Markets Committee announced it would cut the $85 billion a month in QE by $10 billion.
An unruly exit would be consistent with past unwinding of aggressive Fed monetary easing, and compounded by the historic nature of the current version.
"Historically, a major change in the direction of monetary policy has seldom been completed in the controlled, linear, methodical, and calm fashion which today the Fed suggest they can accomplish," Paulsen said in a report for clients. "Rather, the reversal of an unprecedented and massively stimulative monetary policy is likely to be met with some trepidation if not outright panic."
The U.S. central bank has expanded its balance sheet past the $4 trillion mark in an effort to stimulate the economy, but most of the so-called money printing has ended up in banks' excess reserves.
As the Fed begins to reduce—or "taper" in market lingo—its monthly asset purchases of Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities, Paulsen expects that money to begin slowly finding its way into the real economy.
(Read more: Why the market could see a 17% drop in 2014)
As a forward-looking mechanism, the financial marketplace may start to anticipate inflation even if it only shows up in a muted manner.
"Consequently, the methodical and well-controlled monetary tapering which greets us here at the beginning of the year may turn to a 'panic taper' as the year progresses wreaking havoc again in the bond market, creating a volatile but essentially flat stock market and perhaps producing solid returns for commodity investors," Paulsen said.
Of course, anyone watching energy and food costs could argue that inflation has been a problem for years.
But the metrics the Fed watches—primarily the personal consumption expenditures index—have reflected inflation in the 1 percent to 2 percent range for most of the post-financial crisis era.
(Read more: Here's why the Fed's QE program has 'no effect')
That could change, though, as the ramifications of ultra-easy Fed policy become clearer.
David Rosenberg, economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, was on the right side of the inflation argument—seeing deflation instead—since the beginning of the Fed's intervention. But he now believes inflation is looming as an ever-larger threat.
In his morning note to clients Monday, Rosenberg observed:
As for consumer inflation, it may not be that far behind. No doubt there is widespread consensus that 2014 will bring on higher equity prices, sustained economic expansion, more market-friendly Fed policy AND benign inflation. Even the bond bears expect muted increases in yields just as the equity bulls are seeing restrained advances this year (as likely they should).
But the consensus on inflation is the one widely accepted view that I am concerned with. I recall all too well how the Fed lulled everyone into the deflation camp in 2003, and like Lucy pulling the football back as poor ol' Charlie Brown went for the field goal kick, the central bank was doing the unthinkable and withdrawing its monetary support in droves the following year. Instead of core inflation being in the Bernanke 'too low' zone of sub-1 percent by the end of 2004, it came in north of 2 percent instead.
I would say to expect the unexpected for 2014 in this respect...
Rosenberg concludes by referencing an inflation call drawing widespread attention from Michael Aronstein, the hedge fund manager whose assets under management have ballooned to $18 billion.
Aronstein believes the Fed instead will wait too long to withdraw stimulus, creating an inflation threat that investors are ignoring.
—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.