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A Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy, or see the twitter scroll on the right side of the page here :

  • CPI +0.2%/+0.2%, above expectations.
  • Core actually 0.204%, almost a full tenth above the implicit rounding in the forecasts. y/y at 1.66%, rounding up to 1.7%.
  • Perfect, just after the Fed starts publicly fretting about deflation. Those guys are funny.
  • Core services up to 2.3%; core goods still at -0.3% although that’s up from last month. If that number ever mean-reverts (and it will).
  • Accel major groups: Food/Bev, Housing, Apparel, Transp (76%). Decel: Med Care (8%). Unch: Rec, Educ/Commun/Other
  • Med Care inflation decelerated to 2.17% from 2.26%, so not a big drop. But Housing rose to 2.8% from 2.45%!
  • In housing: OER 2.61% from 2.51%, Primary rents 2.88% from 2.82% (all what we have been saying). Lodging away from home 3.3% from 1.8%.
  • Core ex-housing 0.9% from 0.8% – still very low. The rise in core will be driven by housing, but the rest will come along.
  • Our OER model had 2.62% as the y/y forecast this month; actual was 2.61%. Model says we’ll be at 3.1% on OER at least by year-end.
  • Median CPI won’t be out for a while but there’s a decent chance it ticks back up to 2.1%, based on my back-of-the-envelope.

It is worth pointing out that it was not particularly difficult to forecast that housing inflation would accelerate, and continue to accelerate, for a while. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) is something I’ve been running for more than a year.


A simple blend of just these three components suggests a 3.3% rise in Owners’ Equivalent Rent by the end of the year (our more-detailed model has it at 3.1%, so consider that the forecast range), with primary rents a few tenths above that. If all of the other core components inflate at just 1.2%, overall core would be above 2%.

The other components of core include Medical Care, which has been held down by unusual factors for the last year but has recently been rising again. It includes Apparel, which is only rising at 0.5%. It includes airfares, which have been declining at a 4% rate over the last year, and automobiles, which are unchanged over the last year. In short, there is a lot of upside in the non-housing core elements.

Categories: CPI, Forecast Tags:

Seasonal Adjustment and Springtime Inflation

April 14, 2014 1 comment

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will report the CPI index (along with endless other data) for March. Currently, the consensus estimate calls for +0.1%, and +0.1% ex-food-and-energy. This release will generate the usual irritation among conspiracy theorists who believe the government is monkeying with the inflation numbers for their own nefarious ends. I have previously explained why it is that inflation tends to feel faster than it actually is, and I have regularly debunked the claim by certain conspiracy-minded individuals that inflation has been running about 5% faster than the “official” mark since the early 1980s.[1] However, today I want to point out another reason that right now we will have a tendency to recognize that inflation is not rising at 0.1% per month, and that involves the issue of seasonal adjustment.

The point of seasonal adjustment is to remove regular, cyclical influences so that we can see if the underlying trend is doing anything interesting. Consider temperature. Is it particularly helpful for you as a meteorologist to know that the average temperature in April has been higher than the average temperature in January? Of course not, because we know that April is always warmer than January. Hence, with temperature we ask whether April was warmer than a typical April.

Closer to the point, consider gasoline. The national average gasoline price has risen in 61 of the last 66 days, as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) illustrates.


Yes, if you’re noticing that gasoline prices have been rising you are not alone, and it is not an illusion! But should we worry about this rapid acceleration in gasoline? Does this necessarily presage spiraling inflation? Bloomberg offers an easy way to look at the seasonality question (we formerly had to do this by hand). The following chart shows the change in gasoline prices (in cents) since December 31st for each of the last four years, for the 5-year average (the heavy, yellow line) and for this year (the white line).


You can see that the rise from late January into April is not only normal, but the scale of the increase is just about the same this year as for the prior four years – what was unusual was that prices didn’t start rising until February.

Now, this particular seasonal pattern is important to inflation-watchers and TIPS traders because the volatility of gasoline prices is an important part of volatility in the overall price dynamic. In fact, it is important enough that if I take the average line from the gasoline chart above and overlay it with the official CPI seasonal adjustment factors from the BLS, you can see the ghost of the former in the latter (see chart, source Enduring Investments).


Now, the seasonal adjustment factors for the CPI as a whole are less dramatic (closer to 1, in the chart above, if you look at the right-hand scale compared to the left-hand scale) than are the factors for gasoline, but that makes sense since gasoline is only a small part – albeit a really important part – of the consumption basket of the average consumer. And the BLS methodology is a lot more sophisticated than the simple average-of-the-last-x-years approach I have taken here. But this should be good enough for you to grasp the intuition.

What this means is that when the BLS reports tomorrow that gasoline prices didn’t add anything to overall inflation in March, you should recognize that that does not mean that gasoline prices didn’t rise in March. It means that they didn’t rise significantly more or less than the average factor the BLS is assuming. Most of all, it doesn’t mean that the BLS is monkeying with the data to make it seem lower. The product of the seasonal adjustment factors is (approximately) 1.0, which means that what the BLS takes away in the springtime, to report inflation numbers lower than would be anticipated given a raw sampling of store prices, they will give back in the late fall and winter, and report inflation numbers higher than would be anticipated given a cursory glance of store shelves. What is left, hopefully, is a more-unbiased view of what is happening with the price level generally.

Where you can see this effect most clearly is in the difference between the seasonally-adjusted number that is reported and the rise in the NSA figure that is used to adjust inflation-indexed bonds like TIPS. While the consensus calls for a +0.1% rise in headline CPI, the forecasts expect the NSA CPI (the price level) to rise from 234.781 to 236.017, which is a rise of +0.5%. So yes – if it feels like inflation is suddenly rising at a 6% annualized pace, that is because it is. But fear not, because that will slow down later in the year. Probably.


[1] The summary of that argument: we know that wages have increased roughly 142% since the early 1980s – average hourly earnings was $8.45 in April 1984 and is $20.47 now, and this “feels about right” to most people. Against this, the CPI has risen 128%, meaning that our standard of living “should” have improved a little bit since then, but not much (although any individual may be doing somewhat better or worse). But if prices instead of rising at 2.8%/year had risen at 7.8%/year, prices in aggregate would have risen 851% versus a 142% increase in wages, and we would all be living in absolute squalor compared to our parents. This is offensively and obviously wrong.

Categories: CPI, Good One, Theory Tags: , ,

As They Do, Not As They Say

Over the past week or two we have seen and heard from the Fed (in the minutes released on Wednesday), the ECB (after their April 3rd meeting), the BOJ (after their April 7th meeting), and the Bank of England (today). Having heard from the “big four,” I think it’s very interesting to compare what they seem to be indicating they will do to what they probably ought to do. (I am actually going to neglect the BOE, since their situation is quite complex at the moment and probably too much for a reasonable-length article).

In the US, the latest surprise – for some people – was the dovish tenor of the FOMC minutes when they were released yesterday. I shake my head in wonder at anyone who has managed to convince themselves that Chairman Yellen is a closet hawk even after years of evidence to the contrary (not least being the fact that she was nominated at all – not since Volcker has any Fed chief with remotely hawkish credentials been nominated to the Chairman’s position). After the FOMC meeting itself, a few weeks ago, TIPS had been clobbered and some (although not me) attributed that to the hawkish tone of the statement and the fact that Yellen had mentioned offhand that a lengthy period of low rates after QE has ended might be something like six months. The Fed is not hawkish at this point in its history; this is not to say that it does not have hawkish members but on the whole it is a dovish institution and I maintain that the Fed will likely tighten too late, and too little. For now, the Fed seems to be trying to make clear that they are concerned about low inflation and not likely to step on the brakes any more than they have.

What ought the Fed to be doing right now? The Fed ought to be tightening. Though growth is not robust, “robust” growth cannot be the standard demanded before starting a tightening of monetary policy, especially when there are tremendous excess reserves. The monetary policy car has no traction with such huge reserves, and the Fed needs to start trying to get control so that when it is time to steer, it can do so. Moreover, with disinflation fears waxing – incredibly – at the FOMC, inflation is in fact heading higher. Median inflation should approach or exceed 3% this year, despite the Fed’s belief that it will be well below 2% for a very long time. In a few months, the fear of disinflation and deflation will seem quaint.

No increase in policy rates is going to be coming any time soon. The Fed will continue to tighten very slowly, by winding down QE and then possibly starting to mop up some of the trillions in extra liquidity. That’s a sine qua non to rates going up, unless the Fed decides to establish a floor with the interest rate on excess reserves and to ship big boxes of money to Wall Street. But the interesting part will be when the Fed starts to mop up that liquidity either by outright bond sales (unlikely) or by some sort of massive reverse repo operation. It will get interesting because this classic tightening maneuver won’t be met with rising short rates – making it clear even to non-Fed-watchers that the Fed has no control over short rates at the moment. Again, I seriously doubt that the Fed will move with alacrity towards a tighter policy, and as it is they are at least a couple of years behind. But even if they do continue to tighten it will take years, not months, for the system to approach a normal state of liquidity.

The ECB talks like it is ready to ease further. ECB President Draghi was perceived as extremely bullish at his post-meeting presser last week, and recently there has been more chatter about negative deposit rates or other ways to increase the money supply.

And they need to do it. Disinflation, and possibly even deflation, actually probably is the threat in Europe, because the ECB has allowed money growth to slow back to the too-slow range that characterized the post-credit-crisis period (see chart, source ECB).


This obvious failure to keep money growth up is one reason for the strength of the Euro since 2012 – while the Fed talks about tightening, but does so in a way that only a dove could love, the ECB talks about easing, but does so in a way that can only appeal to hawks. Currency traders can smell it – European monetary policy may be as poorly managed as US monetary policy is, but holders of a currency prefer when the central bank is printing 2% more every year, rather than 6-8% as in the US. (Which would you prefer, a 2% dilution of your equity ownership, or an 8% dilution?)

The problem for the ECB is that their legal structures have been set up so that, at least officially, they don’t have the same tools for QE that other central banks have. Theoretically, they are prohibited from purchasing government bonds without sterilizing the intervention since that would mean effectively financing member governments. What ought the ECB to do? Well, I suppose it ought to follow its charter, but in a perfect world it is the ECB, and not the BOE or Fed, which would be doing QE. I suppose it will not surprise any reader to discover that I am a cynic, and I suspect that the ECB will at some point conclude that ceasing to sterilize the OMT bond portfolio is somehow allowed, even though practically speaking that would be the same as buying new government bonds without sterilization. We have already found out that in a pinch, the Federal Reserve is willing to be moderately “flexible” when it comes to its legal mandates. It would not surprise me a bit to see the ECB take a similar step. I suspect this will not happen in the next few months, since core European inflation for the year ended February has risen to 1.0% after being as low at 0.7% at year-end, but if that figure doesn’t continue to rise – and there’s no reason I can see that it should – then the ECB may test its flexibility later this year.

In Japan, the Bank of Japan has lifted core inflation to 0.8%, and it will continue to rise. Money supply growth is over 4% y/y, but only just barely. I believe that in Japan, what they profess to want and what they actually will act to secure are one and the same: increased QE, in increasing amounts, until everyone realizes that they are serious, the Yen declines markedly, and deflation is finally banished from the nation.

So in the race for weaker currencies, I suspect Japan will eventually win, with the US placing second and Europe having – annoyingly for its central bank, who would like a weaker currency to spur growth – the strongest unit.

Categories: ECB, Federal Reserve, Japan Tags:


April 7, 2014 1 comment

Is there anything different about the current downturn in stocks, already two whole days old?

It is difficult to get terribly concerned about this latest setback when in one sense it is right on schedule. The modest down-swings have occurred at such regular intervals that the chart of the VIX looks quite a bit like an EKG (see chart, source Bloomberg).


A rise in the VIX to the 19-21 zone happens approximately quarterly, with minor peaks at the same intervals. Eerie, ain’t it?

So is there anything particularly ominous about the current pullback? There is no clear catalyst – I am reading that the selloff is being “led” by tech shares, but the tech-heavy indices look to me as though they have fallen similarly (adjusted for the fact that they have higher vol to begin with. The S&P is down around 3%, and the NDX is down 4.6% over the same period. To be sure, the NDX’s recent peak wasn’t a new high for the year, and it has penetrated the 100-day moving average on the downside, but it doesn’t look unusual to me.

Nor do the economic data look very different to me. The Payrolls number on Friday was in line with expectations, and beat it comfortably when including the upward revisions to the prior two months. The generation of 200k new jobs is not exciting, but it is pretty standard for a normal expansion. My main concern had been that the “hours worked” figure in the employment report had plunged last month, but it rebounded this month and assuaged my concerns (although Q1 growth is probably still going to be low when it is reported later this month, it will be reasonably explained away by the weather).

Two things are different now from previous setbacks, but one is positive and one is negative. They are related, but one is somewhat bullish for the economy and the other is somewhat bearish for risky assets.

We will start with the negative, because it segues nicely into the positive. It is nothing new, of course, to point out that the Fed is tapering, and will be steadily continuing to taper over the next several meetings. Despite the well-orchestrated chorus of “tapering is not tightening,” such Fed action clearly is a “negative loosening” of policy – if you don’t want to call that tightening, then invent a new language, but in English it is tightening.

Now, I never want to short sell the notion that President Clinton taught us all, including market denizens, that if you say something ridiculous often enough, it comes to be regarded as the truth. At times, the market meme clearly has kept the market moving upward even though rational analysis argued for a different outcome. For example, in the early part of the equity bear market that started in 2000, the market meme was that this was a “corporate governance” crisis or a “tech selloff”, when in fact it was a broad-based and deep bear market. In the more-recent credit crisis, it started off as a “subprime” crisis even though it was clearly much more, from the beginning.

So I am loathe to bet about how long markets can run on air before the market meme falters. The challenge, obviously, is being able to distinguish between times when the market meme is correct; when the market meme is incorrect, but harmless; and when the market meme is incorrect, and obfuscating a deeper, more dangerous reality.

“Tapering is not tightening” is one of those thoughts that, while not as serious as “this is a corporate governance problem” or “this is about subprime,” is also clearly mistaken, and possibly dangerous. The reason it might actually be dangerous is because the effect of tightening doesn’t happen because people are thinking about it. Monetary policy doesn’t act primarily through the medium of confidence, any more than gravity does. And, just as gravity is still acting on those aboard the “Vomit Comet,” monetary tightening still acts to diminish liquidity (or, more precisely, the growth rate of liquidity) even when it appears to be doing nothing special at the moment.

The eventual effect of diminished liquidity is to push asset prices lower, and (ironically) also may be to push money velocity higher since velocity is correlated with interest rates.

Now, don’t be overly alarmed, because even as Fed liquidity provision is slowing down there is no sign that transactional money growth is about to slow. Indeed (and here is the positive difference), commercial bank credit has begun to rise again after remaining nearly static for approximately a year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). (As an aside, I corrected the pre-2010 part of this chart to reflect the effect of recategorizations of credit as of March 2010 that caused a jump in the official series).


If you look carefully at this chart, by the way, you will see something curious. Notice that during QE2, as the monetary base rose commercial bank credit stagnated – and then began to rise as soon as the Fed stopped buying Treasuries. It rose steadily during late 2011 and for most of 2012. Then, commercial bank credit began to flatline as soon as the Fed began to buy Treasuries again (recall that QE3 started with mortgages for a few months before the Fed added Treasuries to the purchase order), and began to climb again at just about the same time that the taper began in December.

I don’t have any idea why these two series should be related in this way. I am unsure why expanding the monetary base would “crowd out” commercial bank credit in any way. Perhaps the Fed began QE because they forecast that commercial bank credit would flatline (in QE1, credit was obviously in decline), so the causality runs the other way…although that gives a lot of credit to forecasters who have not exhibited much ability to forecast anything else. But regardless of the reason, the fact that bank credit is expanding again – at an 8% annualized pace over the last quarter, the highest rate since 2008 – is positive for markets.

Of course, an expansion and/or a market rally built on an expansion of credit is not entirely healthy in itself, as to some extent it is borrowing from the future. But if credit can expand moderately, rather than rapidly, then the “gravity” of the situation might be somewhat less dire for markets. Yes, I still believe stocks are overvalued and have been avoiding them in preference to commodities (the DJ-UBS is 7.3% ahead in that race, this year), but we can all hope to avoid a repeat of recent calamities.

The problem with that cheerful conclusion is that it depends so much on the effective prosecution of monetary policy not just from the Federal Reserve but from other monetary policymakers around the world. I will have more to say on that, later this week.

Tempest in a Microsecond

April 1, 2014 3 comments

News flash! High-frequency trading (HFT) is happening!

The “60 Minutes” piece on HFT that aired this weekend ensured that now, finally, everyone has heard of HFT. Even “60 Minutes” has now heard of it, four years after the Flash Crash and more than a decade after it began. Apparently the FBI is now suddenly concerned over this “latest blemish.”

Again, this is hardly new. Here is the record of Google search activity of the term “high frequency trading.”


So why is it that, for years, most of the world knew about HFT and yet no one did anything about it?? According to author Michael Lewis, the stock market is rigged! There should be an uproar (at least, there should be if you are selling a book). Why has there been no uproar previously?

To put it simply: this is a crime where it isn’t clear anyone is being hurt, Lewis’s panicky declaration notwithstanding. Except, that is, other high-frequency traders, who have fought over the tiny fractions of a penny so hard that the incidence of HFT is actually in decline. Let’s be clear about what HFT is, because there seems to be some misunderstanding (one commentator I saw summarized it as “the big banks buy the stock and then the retail investor buys it 5%-10% higher.” This would be a problem, if that’s what was happening. But it isn’t. The high frequency traders are playing for fractions of a penny. And the person they are stepping in front of may be your buy order, or it may be the offer you just bought from – if you ever see fills like $20.5999 when the offer was $20.60, then you were injured to the tune of minus 1/100 of a cent per share. The whole notion of HFT is to be in and out of a position in milliseconds, which basically limits expected profits to a fraction of the bid/offer. And when there are lots of high frequency traders crossing signals? Then the bid/offer narrows. That’s not a loss to you – it’s a gain.

High frequency traders aren’t just buying and pushing markets up. They are buying and selling nearly-instantly, scalping fractions of pennies. From all that we know, they have no net effect on prices. Indeed, from all that we know, both the beneficial aspects and the negative aspects remain unproven (see “What Do We Know About High Frequency Trading?” from Charles Jones of the Columbia Business School.

So, if you’re being ripped off, it’s far more likely that you’re being ripped off by commissions than that you’re being ripped off by the robots.

But let’s suppose that the robots do push prices up 5% higher than they would otherwise be. Either that’s the right price to pay…in which case they made the market more efficient by pushing it nearer to fair value…or it’s the wrong price to pay, in which case the only way they win is by selling it to someone who pays too much. If that’s you, then the robots aren’t the problem – you are. Stop giving them a greater fool to sell to, and they will lose money.

Now, this is all good advertising for another concept, which needs to be stated often to individual investors but probably could be said in a nicer way than “you’re getting ripped off by robots”: yes, the market is full of very, very smart people. And yet, on average returns cannot be above-average! This means that if you don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA and you buy it anyway, then you can be sure you will still own it, or be still buying it, when the smart guys decide it is time to sell it to you. They don’t have to have inside information to beat you – they just have to know more than you about the company, about valuations, about how it should be valued, and so on. This is why I very rarely buy individual equities. I am an expert in some things, but I don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA. I am the sucker at that table.

Long-time readers will know that I am no apologist for Wall Street. I spent plenty of time on that side of the phone, and I have seen the warts even though I also know that there are lots of good, honest people in the business. The biggest problems with Wall Street are (a) those good, honest people aren’t always fully competent, (b) the big banks are too big, so that when you get weak competence and very weak oversight combined with occasional dishonesty, there can be serious damage done, (c) there is not a strong enough culture at many firms of “client first;” although that doesn’t mean the culture is “me first,” it means the client’s needs sometimes are forgotten, and finally (d) the Street is not particularly creative when it comes to new product development.

And I don’t really like the algo traders and the movement of the business to have more robots in charge. But look, this trend (not necessarily HFT but automated trading) is what you get when you start regulating the heck out of the humans. Which do you want? Kill the robots, and you need more of those dastardly humans. Remove the humans, and those lightning-quick robots might trade in front of you. Choose. In both cases, you will be victimized less if you (a) trade large and liquid indices, not individual equities, and (b) trade infrequently.

The far bigger problem in my mind is the opacity, still, of bond trading and the very large bid/offer spreads that retail investors pay to buy or sell ordinary Treasury bonds that trade in large size – often billions – on tiny fractions of 1% of price. Think of it: in equities, with or without HFT you will get a better price for a 100-lot than for a 1,000,000-lot. But in bonds, you will get a vastly better price for a billion than for a thousand. Now that is where a retail investor should get angry.

A Curve Ball

I saw a story on MarketWatch on Monday which declared that the “Treasurys most sensitive to rising interest rates” had been ditched by investors while those investors instead were “gobbling up longer-term securities,” causing the curve to reach its flattest level since 2009. I thought that was interesting, since an inverted yield curve is a valuable indicator of potential recession.[1]

However, the MarketWatch article concerns the slope between the 5-year and 30-year Treasuries (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Ordinarily, I watch the 2y-10y spread rather than the 5y-30y spread, because the 2-year rate is more responsive to near-term adjustments in Fed policy and the 10y note is more liquid than the 30y bond. And that spread hasn’t done anything of particular note (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Obviously, the charts look similar, and as you can tell in both cases a flat or inverted curve is a precursor to recession. But I think in this case it may well make sense to look at the 5y-30y spread, as MarketWatch implicitly suggests. The 2-year note, which normally responds rapidly to changes in Fed policy, may not do so as much in this cycle because when the Fed starts to attempt to increase overnight interest rates, it is going to find it difficult to do. The 2-year note, which ordinarily impounds the expected tightening of monetary policy, must now also incorporate the fact that with trillions of dollars in excess reserves, overnight rates cannot be easily increased by the Fed except by increasing interest on excess reserves (IOER). Accordingly, as the Fed continues to tighten policy – first, by decreasing QE3 and then by trying to mop up the excess reserves – short rates themselves may not rise.

That is, people waiting for a curve inversion of 3m bills or 2-year notes to 10-year notes to signal the next recession are going to be late in reacting. The curve cannot invert, at least from 3-month or 2-year Treasuries to longer Treasuries, when the Fed is pinning short rates at zero. But it is possible that the curve could invert from 5-year notes, and I will be paying more attention than usual to that possibility now.

Along with yesterday’s article I should have included the following chart (source: Bloomberg).


This is a chart of the Mortgage Bankers’ Association Purchase index, and it illustrates that mortgage origination activity for the purpose of purchasing, rather than refinancing, a home has remained quite low ever since the bubble initially burst. This speaks again to my point from that article: the Fed’s purchases of MBS did not result in a surge in home-buying activity. There has been plenty of refi business, but the Fed didn’t need to buy MBS to cause an uptick in refi activity – they only needed to force interest rates generally lower (I concede that, early on, they were concerned about the MBS basis, but that hasn’t been an issue for several years).

But refinancing doesn’t increase home prices. New buying activity does, and the data seem to suggest that the marginal price here is being set by the cash buyer, whom the Fed’s MBS purchase program did nothing to help.

So the Fed’s buying of MBS did not do what it said it would do. In the event, all that it did was to remove risky securities from the market so that investors seeking risk were pushed into riskier securities (read: stocks). Was that its true purpose? Who knows…but what I am sure of is that the Fed didn’t do this for the avowed purpose of causing the one result they actually got: reducing negative convexity in the market.

And, in general, I find it disingenuous that the Fed claims credit for one clearly-unintended consequence, while disavowing all of the other unintended consequences, many of which haven’t yet been seen since the policy hasn’t ended.


[1]However, be clear on this: an inverted yield curve, specifically from the 3-month bill to the 10-year note, is highly predictive of a recession. But the opposite is not true. That is, you do not need an inverted curve to get a recession.

We’re the Government, and We’re Here to Help

March 24, 2014 1 comment

Today’s article will be brief (some might say blessedly so). The topic is the publication of an article on the NY Fed’s blog entitled “Convexity Event Risks in a Rising Interest Rate Environment.”

Long-time readers may recall that I wrote an article last year, with 10-year notes at 2.12%, called “Bonds and the ‘Convexity Trade’,” in which I commented that “the bond market is very vulnerable to a convexity trade to higher yields…the recent move to new high yields for the last 12 months could trigger such a phenomenon. If it does, then we will see 10-year note rates above 3% in fairly short order.” Within a few weeks, 10-year note yields hit 2.60% and eventually topped out at 3%.

Now, the Fed tells me that this selloff was “more gradual and therefore inconsistent with a sell-off driven primarily by convexity hedging.” I suppose in a way I can agree. The sell-off was primarily driven by the fact that the Fed had abused the hell out of the bond market and pushed it to unsustainable levels. But I don’t think that’s what they’re saying.

Indeed, the Fed is actually claiming credit for the fact that the selloff was only 140bps. You see, the reason that we didn’t get a convexity-based selloff – or at least, we only got the one, and not the one I was really concerned about, on a push over 3% – is because the Fed had bought so many mortgage-backed securities that there weren’t enough current-coupon MBS left to cause a debacle!

How wonderfully serendipitous it is that even the most egregious failures of the Federal Reserve turn out to benefit society in heretofore unexpected ways. You will recall that one of the main reasons given by the Federal Reserve to purchase mortgages in the first place was to help unfreeze the mortgage market, and to provoke additional mortgage origination. In that, it evidently failed, for if it had succeeded then the total amount of negative convexity in public hands would not have changed very dramatically. In fact, it would have been worse since the new origination would have been current coupons and replacing higher coupons.

The real reason that the convexity-spurred selloff wasn’t worse isn’t because the Fed had taken all of the current coupon MBS out of the market, but because the Fed continued to buy even in the move to higher yields. A negative-convexity selloff has two parts: the increased demand for hedging, and the decreased supply of counterparties to take the other side as the ball gets rolling. In this case, one big buyer remained, which emboldened dealers who knew they wouldn’t be stuck “holding the bag.” That is the reason that the selloff was “only” 140bps and not worse.

However, the observation that the Fed’s policy was a failure, as it did not stimulate vast amounts of new mortgage activity, remains. It is true that there is less negative convexity in the mortgage market than there would otherwise have been in the absence of Fed buying. But that’s an indictment, not exoneration.

Ex-Communication Policy

March 19, 2014 6 comments

Well, I guess it would be hard to have a clearer sign that investors are over their skis than to have the Fed drop the portion of their communique that was most-binding – in a move that was fully anticipated by almost everyone and telegraphed ahead of time by NY Fed President Dudley – and watch markets decline anyway.

To be sure, the stock market didn’t exactly plunge, but bonds took a serious hit and TIPS were smacked even worse. TIPS were mainly under pressure because there is an auction scheduled for tomorrow and it was dangerous to set up prior to the Fed meeting, not because there was something secretly hawkish about the Fed’s statement. Indeed, they took pains to say that “a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy remains appropriate,” and apparently they desire for policy to remain highly accommodative for longer relative to the unemployment threshold than they had previously expressed.

The next Fed tightening (let us pretend for a moment that the taper is not a tightening – it obviously is, but let’s pretend that we’re only talking about overnight interest rates) was never tied to a calendar, and it would be ridiculous to do so. But it seems that maybe some investors had fallen in love with the idea that the Fed would keep rates at zero throughout 2015 regardless of how strong or how weak the economy was at that time, so that when the Fed’s members projected that rates might reach 1% by the end of 2015 – be still, my heart! – these investors had a conniption.

Now, I fully expect the Fed to tighten too little, and too late. I also expect that economic growth will be sufficiently weak that we won’t see interest rates rise in 2015 despite inflation readings that will be borderline problematic at that time. But that view is predicated on my view of the economy and my assessment of the FOMC members’ spines, not on something they said. You should largely ignore any Fed communication unless it regards the very next meeting. They don’t know any better than you do what the economy is going to be doing by then. If they did, they would only need one meeting a year rather than eight. Focus on what the economy is likely to be doing, and you’ll probably be right more often than they are.

Arguably, this was not the right theory when the Fed was simply pinning rates far from the free-market level, but as the Fed’s boot comes off the market’s throat we can start acting like investors again rather than a blind, sycophantic robot army of CNBC-watching stock-buying machines.

Now, I said above that “the stock market didn’t exactly plunge,” and that is true. On the statement, it dropped a mere 0.3% or so. The market later set back as much as 1%, with bonds taking additional damage, when Chairman Yellen said that “considerable period” (as in “a considerable period between the end of QE and the first rate increase) might mean six months.

Does that tell you anything about the staying power of equity investors, that a nuance of six months rather than, say, nine or twelve months of low rates, causes the market to spill 1%? There are a lot of people in the market today who don’t look to own companies, but rather look to rent them. And a short-term rental, at that, and even then only because they are renting them with money borrowed cheaply. For the market’s exquisite rally to unravel, we don’t need the Fed to actually raise rates; we need markets to begin to discount higher rates. And this, they seem to be doing. Watch carefully if 10-year TIPS rates get back above 0.80% – the December peak – and look for higher ground if those real yields exceed 1%. We’re at 0.60% right now.

Stocks will probably bounce over the next few days as Fed speakers try and downplay the importance of the statement and of Yellen’s press conference remarks (rhetorical question: how effective is a communication strategy if you have to re-explain what you were communicating)? If they do not bounce, that ought also to be taken as a bad sign. Of course, I continue to believe that there are many more paths leading to bad outcomes for equities (and bonds!) than there are paths leading to good outcomes. Meanwhile, commodity markets were roughly unchanged in aggregate today…

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

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

  • Core CPI +0.12%, a bit lower than expected.
  • Core 1.56% y/y
  • Both core services and core goods decelerated, to 2.2% y/y and -0.4% y/y. This is highly surprising and at odds with leading indicators.
  • Accelerating groups: Food/Bev, Housing, Med Care (63.9%). Decel: Apparel, Transp,Recreation, Educ/Comm (32.7%). “Other” unch
  • Primary rents fell to 2.82% y/y from 2.88%, OER 2.51% from 2.52%.
  • Primary rents probably fell mainly because of the rise in gas prices, which implies the non-energy rent portion is lower.
  • …but that obviously won’t persist. It’s significantly a function of the cold winter. Primary rents will be well into the 3s soon.
  • Household energy was 0.7% y/y at this time last year; now it’s 5.5%. Again, that slows the increase in primary rents
  • Medical Care moved higher again, slowly reversing the sequester-induced decline from last yr. Drugs +1.86% y/y from 0.91% last month.
  • Core ex-housing leaked lower again, to only 0.84% y/y. Lowest since 2004. If you want to worry about deflation, go ahead. I don’t.
  • The Enduring Inflation Angst Index rose to -0.51%, highest since Nov 2011 (but still really low).

I must admit to some mild frustration. Our call for higher primary rents and owners’ equivalent rents has finally been shown to be correct, as these two large components of consumption have been heading higher over the last few months (the lag was 3-4 months longer than is typical). But core inflation, despite this, has stubbornly refused to rise, as a smattering of small-but-important categories – largely in the core goods part of CPI – are weighing on the overall number.

It is also almost comically frustrating that some of the drag on core CPI is happening because of the recent rise in Natural Gas prices, which has increased the imputed energy component of primary rents. As a reminder, the BLS takes a survey of actual rents, but since utilities are often included in rental agreements the BLS subtracts out the changing value of that benefit that the renter gets. So, if your rent last December was $1,000, and your utilities were $100, and your rent this month is still $1,000 but utilities are $125, then the BLS recognizes that you are really paying $25 less for rent. Obviously, this only changes where price increases show up – in this example, overall housing inflation would be zero, but the BLS would show an increase in “Household Energy” of 25% and a decline in “Rent of Primary Residence” of 2.78% (which is -$25/$900). But “Household Energy” is a non-core component, while “Rent of Primary Residence” is a core component…suggesting that core inflation declined.

There isn’t much we can do about this. It’s clearly the right way to do the accounting, but because utility costs vary much more than rental costs it induces extra volatility into the rental series. However, eventually what will happen is either (a) household energy prices will decline again, causing primary rents to recover the drag, or (b) landlords will increase rents to capture what they see as a permanent increase in utilities prices. So, in the long run, this doesn’t impact the case for higher rents and OER – but in the short run, it’s frustrating because it’s hard to explain!

Now, core inflation outside of housing is also stagnant, and that’s surprising to me. Apparel prices have flatlined after increasing robustly in 2011 and 2012 and maintaining some momentum into mid-2013. Ditto for new cars. Both of those series I have expected to re-accelerate, and they have not. They, along with medical care commodities, are the biggest chunks of core goods in the CPI, which is why that series continues to droop. However, medical care commodities – which was driven lower in 2013 due to the effect of the sequester on Medicare payments – is starting to return to its prior level as that effect drops out (see chart, source BLS).


We will see in a few hours what happens to median inflation. My back of the envelope calculation on the median suggests median CPI might actually rise this month in reverse of last month.

The China Syndrome

The last month or two has provided a wonderful illustration of why a diversified commodity index is a better investment than an investment in any given commodity. Since mid-February, April Lean Hogs has rallied 23%. Since late January, May Wheat is up 23%. March Coffee is up 80%. Gold is up 9%. But Crude Oil is 6% off its highs. Copper is 12% off its highs (8% since Thursday). April Nat Gas was up 42% from November through late February, but has lost 10% since then.

This is great if you happened to be 100% in Coffee, and bad if you happened to be heavy into copper or RIO or BHP. But this sort of volatility and non-correlation is exactly where much of the return to commodity indices, over the long run, comes from. Later this month, commodity indices will sell coffee and buy copper, systematically buying low and selling high. This phenomenon is worth on average a couple of points of return per year.

Most commentators seem to be focusing on the precipitous decline in copper prices, supposedly because “Doc Copper” is supposed to be a good leading indicator of economic growth. But in this case, the behavior of copper is mostly due to quasi-panic over China’s recently flagging growth figures. Although China is not the only consumer of copper (although sometimes you might think so, from the news coverage), prices are set at the margin and if there was an actual recession in China as opposed to a modest slowdown, then this would push copper prices lower.

But that would be terrific for Europe and the U.S., because it would mean cheaper copper for us. Similarly, decreasing Chinese growth would relax some pressure on energy prices, which would also be a boon for the Western world. I think people forget that one of the key reasons the “Asian Contagion” from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis never happened (U.S. growth “bottomed” at 4.1% in mid-1998 – a level it hasn’t reached since 2004) was not because of Federal Reserve action (from March 1997 until August 1998, the Fed Funds target never budged from 5.5%) but because commodity prices plunged from 1997 into 1999. The DJ-UBS index fell from around 128 one month before the Thai baht collapsed to 75 in the first quarter of 1999 (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Even worse (or better, depending on your perspective) was the decline in energy. Crude oil dropped 55%, from the $25 area at the beginning of 1997 to $11 by late 1998. That remains the lowest real price of U.S. oil recorded since 1946 (see chart, source Enduring Investments using data from Dow Jones and the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

wtirealIt may be impolitic to say so, but probably the single best thing that could happen to U.S. growth would be for Chinese growth to slow, pushing the price of important commodity prices lower. As a nation, we consume far more commodities than we produce, so lower input prices is a net positive.

However, I suspect this is much ado about nothing. Chinese growth, even if it slows, is likely to remain plenty hot enough to keep commodity prices from falling very much, even in real terms. Real commodity prices have been falling steadily since 2011 (which is why all of the talk about the “end of the commodity supercycle” a year ago was so humorous) until early this year, even while the amount of currency in circulation has steadily increased. It certainly seems to me as if we have priced commodities fairly conservatively, and they can probably withstand a growth slowdown in China as long as the country doesn’t enter a bona fide crisis.


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