Ugly CPI

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or (if you’re already following me on Twitter or seeing this elsewhere) subscribe to direct email of my free articles here.

  • Complete shocker of a CPI figure. Core at +0.01%, barely needed any rounding to get to 0.0. Y/y falls to 1.73%. Awful.
  • Zero chance the Fed does anything today, anyway. The doves just need to point to one number and they win.
  • Stocks ought to LOVE this.
  • Core services dropped to 2.5% y/y from 2.6% and core goods to -0.4% from -0.3%.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/bev. That’s all. 14.9% of basket. Everything else decelerating.
  • I just don’t see, anecdotally, a sudden change in the pricing dynamics in the economy. That’s why this is shocking to me.
  • Primary rents to 3.18% from 3.28%. Owners’ Equiv to 2.68% from 2.72%. Both in contravention of every indicator of market tightness.
  • Apparel goes to 0.0% from +0.3% y/y. That’s where you can see a dollar effect, since apparel is mostly manufactured outside US.
  • Airline fares -2.7% versus -0.2% y/y last month and +4.7% three months ago. It’s only 0.74% of the basket but big moves like that add up.
  • Medical care: 2.09% versus 2.61% y/y. Now THAT is where the surprise comes in. Plunge in ‘hospital and related services.’ to 3.8% vs 5.5%.
  • …we (and everyone else!) expect medical care to bounce back from the sequester-inspired break last year. I still think it will.
  • core inflation ex-housing at 0.91% y/y, lowest since August 2004. Yes, one decade.
  • core inflation ex-housing is now closer to deflation than during the deflation scare. In late 2010 it got to 1.08% y/y.
  • Needless to say our inflation-angst indicator remains at really really low levels.
  • Interestingly, the proportion of CPI subindices w y/y changes more than 2 std dev >0 (measuring broad deflation risk) still high at 38%.
  • To sum up. Awful CPI nbr. Housing dip is temporary & will continue to keep core from declining much. Suspect a lot of this is one-off.
  • …but I thought the same thing last month.
  • Neil Diamond said some days are diamonds, some days are stones. If you run an inflation-focused investment mgr, this is a stone day.
  • Interestingly, Median CPI was unchanged at 2.2% this month. I’d thought it fell too much last month so this makes sense.

I am still breathing heavily after this truly shocking number. This sort of inflation figure, outside of a crisis or post-crisis recovery, is essentially unprecedented. Lower prints happened once in 2010, once in 2008, three times in 2003, and once in 1999. But otherwise, basically not since the 1960s.

The really amazing figure is the core-ex-Housing number of 0.91% y/y. A chart of that (source: Enduring Investments) is below.

corexshelter

There are interesting similarities between the current situation and late 2003, which is the last time that ex-housing inflation flirted with deflation. Between late 2000 and June 2003, money velocity fell 11%, in concert with generally weakening money growth. Velocity fell primarily because of a sharp decline in interest rates from 6% on the 5y note to around 2.25%. The circumstances are similar now: 5y interest rates declined from around 5% to 0.5% from 2006 through mid-2013, accompanied by a 24% decline in money velocity. And voilá, we have weakness in core inflation ex-housing.

The important differences now, though, are twofold. The first is that the absolute levels of money velocity, and of interest rates, are much lower and very unlikely to fall much further – indeed, money velocity is lower than it “should” be for this level of interest rates. And the second is that there is an enormous supply of inert reserves in the system which will be difficult to remove once inflation begins to rise again. The Fed began to increase interest rates in 2004, which helped increase money velocity (and hence, inflation) while it also caused M2 growth to decline to below 4% y/y. Core inflation rose to 3%, but the Fed was basically in control. Today, however, the Fed has no direct control over the money supply because any reserves they remove will be drawn from the “excess” reserves held by banks. This will make it difficult to increase overnight rates except by fiat (and increasing them by setting a floor rate will merely cause money velocity to rise while having no effect on the money supply). So the ‘potential inflation energy’ is much higher than it was in 2003. As an aside, in 2004 I was quite vocal in my opinions that inflation was not about to run away on the upside, which is another key difference!

If you are a tactical inflation trader, today’s CPI figure should make you despise inflation-linked bonds for a few weeks. But they have already taken quite a drubbing this month, with 10-year breakevens falling from 2.27% to 2.08% as I type. It’s okay to watch them fall, tactically, especially if nominal bonds generally rally. But strategically, not much has changed about the inflationary backdrop. I don’t expect airline fares to continue to drop. I don’t expect Medical Care inflation, which has a strong upward bias due to base effects, to plunge further but to return to the 3%-4% range over the next 6-12 months. And Housing inflation slowed slightly this month but remains on course to continue to rise. So, if you are considering your inflation allocations, this is a good time to increase them while markets are dismissive of any possibility of higher prices.

Without a doubt, today’s number – especially following another weak CPI print last month – is a head-scratcher. But there aren’t a lot of downside inflation risks at the moment. Our forecast had been for core (or median) inflation to reach 2.6%-3.0% in 2014. I would say that core CPI isn’t going to get to that level this year with 4 prints left, and even median CPI (which is a better measure right now of the central tendency of inflation, thanks to the aforementioned base effects in medical care, and remained at 2.2% this month) is going to have a harder time reaching that target. I’d lower and narrow the target range for 2014 median inflation to 2.5%-2.8% based on today’s data.

Meteorologists and Defenseless Receivers

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

The stock market really seemed to “want” to get to 2000 on the S&P. I hope it was worth it. Now as real yields seem to be moving higher once again (see chart below, source Bloomberg) – in direct contravention, it should be noted, of the usual seasonal trend which anticipates bond rallies in September and October – and the Fed is essentially fully ‘tapered’, market valuations are again going to be a topic of conversation as we head into Q4 just a few weeks from now.

realyields

To use an American football analogy, the stock market right now is in an extended position like a wide receiver reaching for a high pass, but with no rules in place to prevent the hitting of a defenseless receiver. This kind of stretch is what can get a player laid up for a while.

Now, it has been this way for a long time. And, like many other value investors, I have been wary of valuations for a long time. I want to make a distinction, though, between certain value investors and others. There are some who believe that the more a market gets overvalued, the more dramatic the ensuing fall must be. These folks get more and more animated and exercised the longer that the market crash doesn’t happened. I think that they have a point – a market which is 100% overvalued is in more perilous position than one which is a mere 50% overvalued. But we really must keep in mind the limits of our knowledge about the market. That is, while we can say the market is x% overvalued with respect to the Shiller PE or whatever our favorite metric is, and we can say that it is becoming more overextended than it previously was, we do not know where true fair value lies.

That is to say that it may be – I don’t think it is, but it’s possible – that when stocks are at a 20 Shiller PE (versus a long-term average of 16) they are not 25% overvalued but actually at fair value. Therefore, when they go to a 24 PE, they are more overvalued but instead of 50% overvalued they are only 25% overvalued because true fair value is, in this example, at 20. What this means is that knowing the Shiller PE went from 20 to 24 has no particular implications for the size of the eventual market break, because we don’t actually know that 16 really represents fair value. That’s an assumption, and an untestable assumption at that.

Now, we need assumptions. There is no way to keep from making assumptions in financial markets, and we do it every day. I happen to think that the notion that a 16 Shiller PE is roughly fair value is probably a good assumption. But my point is that when you’re talking about how much more overvalued a market is than it was previously, with the implication that the ensuing break ought to be larger, you need to remember that we are only guessing at fair value. Always. This is why you won’t catch me saying that I think the S&P will drop eventually to some specific figure, unless I’m eyeballing a chart or something. In my mind, my job is to talk about the probabilities of winning or losing and the expected value of those wagers. That is, harking back to the old Kelly Criterion thinking– we try to assess our edge and odds but we always have to remember we can’t know either for certain.

Bringing this back to inflation (it is, after all, CPI week): even though we can’t state with certainty what the odds of a particular outcome actually are, we can state what probability the market is placing on certain outcomes. In inflation space, we can look at the options market to infer the probability that market participants place on the odds of a certain inflation rate being realized over a certain time period (n.b. the market currently only offers options on headline inflation, which is somewhat less interesting than options on core inflation, but we can extract the latter information using other techniques. For this exercise, however, we are focusing on headline inflation.)

What the inflation options market tells us is that over the next year, market participants see only about an 18% chance that headline inflation will be above 2.25% (that is, roughly the Fed’s target, applied to CPI). This is despite the fact that headline inflation is already at 2%, and median inflation is at 2.2%. So the market is overwhelmingly of the opinion that inflation declines, or at least rises no further, from here. You can buy a one-year, 2.5% inflation cap for about 5-7bps, depending who you ask. That’s really amazing to me.

Looking out a few years (see table below, source Enduring Investments), we see that the market prices roughly a 50-50 chance of inflation being above the Fed’s target starting about three years from now (September 2016-September 2017, approximately), and for each year thereafter. But how long are the tails? The inflation caplet market says that there is no better than a 24% chance that any of the next 10 years sees inflation above 4%. We are not talking about core inflation, but headline inflation – so we are implicitly saying that there will be no spikes in gasoline, as well as no general rise in core inflation, in any year over the next decade. That strikes me as … optimistic, especially since our view is that core inflation will be well above 3% for calendar 2015.

Probability that inflation is above
in year 2.25% 3.00% 4.00% 5.00% 6.00%
1 18% 5% 3% 1% 0%
2 41% 19% 8% 3% 1%
3 46% 25% 11% 5% 3%
4 50% 31% 15% 7% 4%
5 52% 35% 18% 10% 6%
6 50% 35% 19% 11% 7%
7 50% 36% 21% 13% 8%
8 49% 37% 22% 14% 9%
9 48% 37% 23% 15% 10%
10 47% 37% 24% 16% 11%

What is especially interesting about this table is that the historical record says that high inflation is both more probable than we think, and that inflation tails tend to be much longer than we think. Over the last 100 years (since the Fed was founded, essentially), headline inflation has been above 4% fully 31% of the time. And the conditional probability that inflation was over 10%, given that it was over 4%, was 32%. In other words, once inflation exceeds 4%, there is a 1 in 3 chance, historically, that it goes above 10%.

Cautions remain the same as above: we cannot know the true probability of the event, either a priori or even in retrospect when the occurrence will be either probability=1 (it happened) or probability=0 (it didn’t). This is why it is so hard to evaluate meteorologists, and economists, after the fact! But in my view, the market is remarkably sanguine about the prospects for an inflation accident. To be fair, it has been sanguine…and correct…for a long time. But I think it is no longer a good bet for that streak to continue.

Enter the Draghi

September 4, 2014 6 comments

While we wait for our Employment Report tomorrow, there is plenty of excitement overseas.

The dollar continued to strengthen today, with the dollar index reaching the highest level since the middle of last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).

dollarindex

As with the rest of the dollar’s strengthening move, it was really not any of our own doing. The dollar is simply, and I suspect very temporarily, the best house in a bad neighborhood right now. In the UK, the Scots are about to vote for independence, or not, but it will be a close vote regardless. In Japan, the Yen is weakening again as the Bank of Japan continues to ease and Kuroda continues to jawbone against his currency.

In Europe this morning, the ECB surprised many observers by cutting its benchmark rate to the low, low rate of just 5 basis points (0.05%), and lowered the deposit rate to -0.2%…meaning that if a bank wants to leave money sitting at the ECB, it is forced to pay the ECB to hold it. A negative deposit rate is akin to the Fed setting interest on excess reserves at a negative figure, something that makes great sense if the point of quantitative easing is to get money into the economy. In the Fed’s case, it turns out that the real point was to de-lever the banks forcibly, so it didn’t care that the reserves were sitting inert, but in the ECB’s case they would really like to see inflation higher (core inflation for the whole Eurozone is under 1%) so it is important that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank is reflected in actual currency in circulation.

Right now, the negative deposit rate isn’t so important since the ECB holds negligible deposits. But the negative deposit rate was step one; step two is to gin up the quantitative easing again. ECB President Draghi had promised several months ago to do so with ‘targeted LTRO’, and today he delivered by saying that the ECB has decided to begin TLTRO in October. The ECB will “purchase a broad portfolio of simple and transparent securities” even though some observers have noted that there aren’t a lot of asset-backed securities in the market to buy (but trust Wall Street on this: if there is a buyer of a few hundred billion Euros’ worth of such securities, those securities will be issued. Wall Street isn’t good at everything, but they’re darn good at finding ways to satisfy a motivated, huge buyer. (See “subprime MBS”).

This is significant, as I said it was when Draghi first mentioned this back in June. It is significant if they follow through, and at least at this point it appears they mean to do so. Now, Europe still needs to fight against the dampening effect on money velocity that lower interest rates are having, but at least they recognize the need to get M2 money growth above the 2.7% y/y rate it is at presently (which is, itself, above the 1.9% rate of the year ended April). Money growth in Europe is currently the lowest in the world, and – surprise! – deflation is the biggest threat in Europe. Go figure.

How does this affect inflation in the US?

Changes in the global money supply contributes to a global inflation process that underpins inflation rates around the world. The best way to think about the fluctuations in exchange rates, with respect to inflation, is that they allocate global inflation between countries (or, alternatively, you can think of inflation as being “global” plus “idiosyncratic”, where a country’s idiosyncratic inflationary or disinflationary policies affect the domestic inflation rate and the exchange rate with other countries). So, the ECB’s aggressive easing (when it happens) will have two main effects. First, it will tend to push up average inflation globally compared to what it would otherwise have been. Second, it will tend to weaken the Euro and strengthen the dollar so that inflation in Europe should rise relative to US inflation – all else being equal, which of course it is not.

With respect to this latter effect, I need to take pains to point out that it is a small effect, or rather than the relative movements in the currency need to be a lot bigger to be worth worrying about. A stronger dollar, in short, is not going to put much pressure on US inflation to be lower. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows a proxy we use for core commodities inflation, ex-medical, against the broad trade-weighted dollar lagged 9 months.

eimodelcorecomm

You can see that core commodities respond broadly to the dollar’s strength or weakness. A 5% rise (decline) in the dollar causes, nine months later, a 1% decline (rise) in core commodities inflation, ex-medical care commodities. Core ex-medical care commodities represents about 18% of the consumption basket, and the dollar’s effect outside of that part of the basket is indeterminate at best, so we can say that a 5% rise in the dollar causes inflation to decline about 0.18%.

In short, don’t waste a lot of time worrying that the 4% rise in the dollar this year will lead to deflation any time soon. Against that 18% of the consumption basket, we have 57% of the basket (core services) inflating at 2.6%, and over half of that consists of primary and owners’ equivalent rents, which are rising at 3.3% and 2.7% respectively and have a lot of upward momentum. Unless the dollar shoots dramatically higher, it should not affect overall prices very much.

Back to School!

September 3, 2014 2 comments

Back to school! It is the beginning of September, post-Labor Day, and students everywhere are back to school.

It is the time of year when investors, too, tend to be schooled – as bond markets tend to strengthen and equity markets to weaken (relative to the overall drift). It doesn’t happen every year, but the tendency in fixed income markets is strong enough that, as a rule, I demand much stronger reasons to sell bonds in September and October than during the rest of the year.

This year, we appear to be in for a special treat. We all get to learn new acronyms, like ISIS, and Americans are learning where Ukraine is on a map of the world. What fun.

Monetary policymakers tend to be resistant to further lessons, since after all they have had so many years of book learning that, darn it, they should know enough by now! And yet – there is so much about economics and monetary policy that we just don’t know; so much that isn’t knowable; and so much that we know with great confidence but just isn’t so.

However, I have been delighted to find that recently, the subject of money velocity has been appearing more frequently in policy circles. To a monetarist, velocity is one of a very small handful of things that matter, and its absence from discussions among the learned has been a terrible sign that monetarism was not merely in retreat, but almost extinct. And yet, the predictions of monetarism have been borne out time and time again (that is, the actual predictions, not the idea that printing money causes economic growth – a prediction that presupposes a high degree of money illusion is at work), while the predictions of Keynesian economists have only worked once the parameters are revised post-hoc to fit the crisis. Increased money supply growth got Japan out of its deflationary spiral – as predicted. None of the Keynesian solutions deployed over the last two decades have worked, but the first attempt at serious money-printing worked. (Although it remains to be seen if the BOJ will keep its pedal to the metal; it certainly hasn’t yet “doubled the money supply” as it had pledged to do).

High money growth – that is, transactional money and not inert reserves – always accompanies high inflation. For a time, money growth may be offset by declining money velocity, but we also know quite a bit about what causes money velocity to move. Last year I cited a rare paper by a central banker (Samuel Reynard at the Swiss National Bank) that really had insight on these almost-forgotten tenets of monetarism. And this year, I am delighted to note that some economists at the St. Louis Fed have published a brief note entitled “What Does Money Velocity Tell Us about Low Inflation in the U.S.?” While the authors, Yi Wen and Maria Arias, mistakenly focus on the velocity of base money, and thus reach an incorrect conclusion that individuals are “hoarding” money (when it in fact is sitting in bank reserves, untouched), it is nevertheless the right topic and the right question, and that’s most of the battle.

I have previously shown the chart of interest rates and money velocity, so let me show it again.

m2andrates

This is important, because it’s the single biggest risk to a significant inflation accident. While the low vacancy rate and the rapid growth in housing prices will continue to push rents higher, bringing median and/or core inflation above 3% by early next year, we can live with 3%. The risk for much worse inflation is all tied to a rebound in monetary velocity. It bears repeating. From 2008 to 2013, money growth was rapid but declining money velocity (tied to interest rate declines, mainly) restrained inflation. If money growth remains at the same level but money velocity merely stabilizes, it is consistent with inflation of 3%-4%. But if money velocity reverses even a part of its post-crisis decline, then inflation could move appreciably higher. Since Q2 of 2008, the velocity of M2 has fallen at a 3.76% annualized rate; were that to reverse, with the same money supply growth, then the 3-4% inflation becomes 6.75%-7.75% inflation, which I think we would all agree is a bad thing.

Now, the unfortunate thing is that models of velocity that incorporate interest rates and certain other factors already indicate that money velocity should be rising. The chart below shows our proprietary model of money velocity; as you can see, since mid-2013 there has been a large and growing gap between what the model implies and where money velocity has actually been recorded. This might well mean that the model is wrong. But we should also take it as indicating the risk of a rise in velocity is real, whether it is a 1% or 2% rise per year, or a 15% snap-back over a shorter period of time.

eimodelvel

As I always admonish, that’s a big picture concern, and not something to trade tomorrow. I would be gradually accumulating positions in inflation swaps, caps, breakevens, and broad commodity indices. There is time before people start to get really concerned. But to my mind, what is interesting is that the central bankers are now at least starting to reconsider velocity.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets today. You can follow me @inflation_guy.

  • Weak cpi: 0.1%, core +0.1%. Unrounded core was +0.096, so it rounded UP to 0.1%. Y/y core stayed at 1.9% but just barely: 1.85%.
  • That’s a real surprise since virtually all signs had been for higher core going forward. Breakdown will be interesting.
  • Core svcs y/y slipped to 2.6%; core goods fell further to -0.3%. Leading indicators on both still point higher though.
  • Accel major groups: Food/Bev, Housing (56.3%). Decel: Apparel, Transp, Recreation, Other (29%). Unch: Med Care, Educ/Comm (14.7%)
  • Primary Rents 3.28% from 3.15%. OER 2.72% from 2.64%. No danger of inflation declining while these are rising strongly.
  • Dramatic fall in airline fares: from 5.34% y/y to -0.25%.
  • Airline fares are only 0.74% of the basket but that took 0.04% from headline and 0.05% from core.
  • Big move in one item suggests median CPI won’t fall, though I haven’t yet done the math. In any event, number not as weak as I thought.
  • Medicinal drugs 3.12% from 3.00%. Med equip/supplies 0.2% from -1.08%. Much of this is unwind of sequester effect last yr.
  • Easy comparison next month means core will be back to 1.9% in August, chance of 2.0%. It needs to converge with median!
  • I think Median CPI might actually accelerate today from 2.3%, based on my rough calculations.

The initial headline was a bit of a shock, as it looked very weak. But as I looked deeper into the numbers, it didn’t seem nearly as weak as I had first thought. To be sure, this is not a strong report, but the seeming weakness came largely from one component. The most-important components (and the ones with the most inertia) are the housing pieces, and those are moving strongly ahead.

When I did my calculations of the median CPI (I don’t do it the same way as the Cleveland Fed does it), I came up with a decent rise over last month’s figure. That is to say that most categories continue to see accelerating inflation. We will see if the Cleveland Fed agrees, but an uptick in the median CPI (which was 2.3%, unchanged, last month) would go a long way towards removing any sense that this was actually a weak figure.

When In Doubt, Add a Parameter

With heavy travel over the last week and looming over the next couple of weeks, I figured that I really ought to get an article out before everyone forgets that I write a blog.

It isn’t that there is a dearth of topics. I have so much to talk about that I am brimming over; however, between the usual press of our Quarterly Inflation Outlook (which comes out after the CPI number this month) and the press of business-seeking activity, it has been difficult to put virtual pen to virtual paper.

Here is a great example. The New York Fed blog routinely gives me great material, both positive and negative. They’ve just published an article entitled “Inflation in the Great Recession and New Keynesian Models” with a followup article called “Why Didn’t Inflation Collapse in the Great Recession?” The pair of articles could just as easily be entitled, “When Your Model Doesn’t Work, Add a Parameter.”

I have said on a number of occasions that the credit crisis was a great test of the fundamental Keynesian hypothesis that inflation is caused by growth relative to potential output. And, in the event, that hypothesis was shown to be as bankrupt as Countrywide. I have always liked the way I summed up the state of the argument in 2012:

“The upshot is that we’ve just come off the biggest recession in 80 years, and inflation barely slowed. In fact, if you remove the effects of the bubble unwind in housing, it didn’t slow at all. If growth causes inflation, and if recessions are by definition deflationary, then we should have seen a decline in core prices.”

Here is the chart that accompanies that assertion:

gdpcoreinflation

Now, this doesn’t mean that the monetarists are right, but it assuredly means that the Keynesians are wrong. It is far too much, though, to ask for the peaceful surrender of this view. Instead, the Keynesians (or “New Keynesians” if you prefer) first recalibrated their models, like Goldman did in 2012. (Note, incidentally, that their re-calibrated model called for sharply declining core inflation starting from the moment they published that prediction, converging on 1.4% or so in 2013. In actuality, Median CPI basically went sideways from 2011 until recently. Core inflation declined, but only because of the one-off effect of the sequester, which I don’t imagine is what Goldman was forecasting).

What the NY Fed authors have done is to postulate that the real problem with New Keynesian models is that slack isn’t measured right, but rather that “the present value of expected future marginal costs is the more meaningful way of measuring slack.” It is a wonderful thing to be able to live in a world of models populated with unobservable variables that just happen to take on the right values to make the theory work. Even if, from time to time, one needs to re-calibrate when the model’s predictions don’t work out.

For the rest of us, the fact that monetarist models predicted that inflation would not plunge in the crisis, and have consistently given predictions wholly consistent with subsequent outcomes – without requiring re-parameterization – is a pretty strong argument that it’s likely to be closer to the right way to look at the world…even if it doesn’t give us as much to do.

Fed Gearing Up to Stand Down

July 30, 2014 8 comments

I guess it’s something about strong growth numbers and a tightening central bank that bonds just don’t like so much. Ten-year Treasury yields rose about 9bps today, under pressure from the realization that higher growth and higher inflation, which is historically a pretty bad cocktail for bonds, is being offset less and less by extraordinary Federal Reserve bond buying. Yields recently had fallen as the Q1 numbers doused the idea that the economic recovery will continue without incident, and as the global political and security situation deteriorated (maybe we will just say it became “less tranquil”). Nominal 10 year yields had dipped below 2.50%, and TIPS yields had reached 0.20% again. It didn’t hurt that so many were leaning on the bear case for bonds and were tortured the further bonds rallied.

Stocks, evidently, didn’t get the message that higher interest rates are more likely, going forward, than lower interest rates. They didn’t get the message that the Fed is going to be less accommodative. They didn’t even get the message that the Fed sees the “likelihood of inflation running persistently below 2 percent has diminished somewhat.” The equity markets ended flat. Sure, it has not been another banner month for the stock jockeys, but with earnings up a tepid 6% or so year/year the market is up nearly 17% so…yes, you did the math right: P/E multiples keep expanding!

My personal theory is that stocks are doing so well because Greenspan thinks they’re expensive. In an interview today on Bloomberg Television, Greenspan said that “somewhere along the line we will get a significant correction.” Historically speaking, the former Chairman’s ability to call a top has been something less than spectacular. After he questioned whether the market might be under the influence of ‘irrational exuberance,’ the market continued to rally for quite some time. Now, he wasn’t alone in being surprised by that, but he also threw in the towel on that view and was full-throatedly bullish through the latter stages of the 1990s equity bubble. So, perhaps, investors are just fading his view. Although to be fair, he did say that he didn’t think equities are “grossly overpriced,” lest anyone think that the guy who could never see a bubble might have actually seen one.

Make no mistake, there is no question that stocks are overvalued by every meaningful metric that has historical support for its predictive power. That does not mean (as we have all learned over the past few years) that the market will decline tomorrow, but it does ensure that future real returns will be punk over a reasonably-long investment horizon.

It will certainly be interesting to see how long markets can remain levitated when the Fed’s buying ceases completely. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that these valuation levels have persisted even this long, especially in the face of rising global tensions and rising inflation. I am a little less surprised that commodities have corrected so much this month after what was a steady but uninspiring move higher over the first 1-2 quarters of 2014. Commodities are simply a reviled asset class at the moment (which makes me love them all the more).

Do not mistake the Fed’s statement (that at the margin the chance of inflation less than 2% is slightly less likely) for hawkishness. And don’t read hawkishness into the mild dissent by Plosser, who merely wanted to remove the reference to time in the description of when raising rates will be appropriate. Chicago Fed President Evans was the guy who originally wanted to “parameterize” the decision to tighten by putting numbers on the unemployment rate and inflation levels that would be tolerable to the Fed (the “Evans Rule”)…levels which the economy subsequently blasted through without any indication that the Fed cared. But Evans himself recently said that “it’s not a catastrophe to overshoot inflation by some amount.” Fed officials are walking back the standards for what constitutes worrisome inflation, in the same way that they walked back the standards for what constitutes too-low an unemployment rate.

This is a good point at which to recall the “Wesbury Map,” which laid out the excuses the Fed can be expected to make when inflation starts being problematic. Wesbury had this list:

  1. Higher inflation is due to commodities, and core inflation remains tame.
  2. Higher core inflation due to housing is just due to housing prices bouncing back to normal, and that’s temporary.
  3. It’s not actual inflation that matters, but what the Fed projects it to be.
  4. It’s okay for inflation to run a little above 2% for a while because it was under that level for so long.
  5. Increasing price pressures are due to something temporary like a weaker dollar or a temporary increase in money velocity or the multiplier.
  6. Well, 3-4% inflation isn’t that bad for the economy, anyway.

I think the order of these excuses can change, but they’re all excuses we can expect to hear trotted out. Charles Evans should have just shouted “FOUR!” Instead, what he actually said was

“Even a 2.4 percent inflation rate, if it’s reasonably well controlled, and the rest of the economy is doing ok, and then policy is being adjusted in order to keep that within a, under a 2.5 percent range — I think that can work out.”

That makes sense. 2.4% is okay, as long as they limit it to 2.5%. That’s awfully fine control, considering that they don’t normally even have the direction right.

Now, although the Evans speech was a couple of weeks ago I want to point out something else that he said, because it is a dangerous error in the making. He argued that inflation isn’t worrisome unless it is tied to wage inflation. I have pointed out before that wages don’t lead inflation; this is a pernicious myth. It is difficult to demonstrate that with econometrics because the data is very noisy, but it is easy to demonstrate another way. If wages led inflation, then we would surely all love inflation, because our buying power would be expanding when inflation increased (since our wages would have already increased prior to inflation increasing). We know, viscerally, that this is not true.

But economists, evidently, do not. The question below is from a great paper by Bob Shiller called “Why Do People Dislike Inflation” (Shiller, Robert, “Why Do People Dislike Inflation?”, NBER Working Paper #5539, April 1996. ©1996 by Robert J. Shiller. Available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w5539). This is a survey question and response, with the economist-given answer separated out from the answer given by real people.

shillerQ

Economists go with the classic answer that inflation is bad mainly because of “menu costs” and other frictions. But almost everyone else knows that inflation makes us poorer, and that very fact implies that wages follow inflation rather than lead.

Put another way: if Evans is going to be calm about inflation until wage inflation is above 3.5%, then we can expect CPI inflation to be streaking towards 4% before he gets antsy about tightening. Maybe this is why the stock market is so exuberant: although the Fed has tightened by removing the extra QE3, a further tightening is evidently a very long way off.

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