There was a great deal of excitement about today’s Employment Report. The S&P rallied 1.1%, erasing the month-to-date losses at a stroke. And for what? Nonfarm Payrolls were reported at 203k with a net +8k upward revision to the prior months, versus expectations for 185k. That’s a miss that is easily within the standard error. The 6-month average stayed at about 180k and the 12-month average at about 190k. The 3-month average reached 193k, but that is lower than it was in Q1 of this year so no great shakes there.
True, the Unemployment Rate dropped from 7.3% to 7.0%, reversing the unexpected uptick from last month as the labor force participation rate rebounded. Economists were always suspicious of that steep drop in the participation rate, and some bounce was expected (pushing the Unemployment Rate down). But so what? As the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, this is just another step in a long, steady, slow improvement.
I think the reasoning must be something like this: the economy is stronger than we thought, by a little, yet this doesn’t change much about the timing of the taper. Unemployment is 7%, and core PCE is 1.1%. Neither one is close to the Evans Rule targets, so there’s plenty of time (at least, if you are a committed dove like is Yellen). They’re looking for reasons to be slow on tapering, not to accelerate it. At least, this is why equity investors were excited. Perhaps. It does not, though, change my own views in any way – the economy is moving along at roughly the pace that is now normal, adding jobs at a pace that is about what we should expect in the thick of an expansion. The expansion is still growing long in the tooth. But forecasting growth is no longer nearly as important as forecasting the Fed, and that seems fairly easy right now: mo’ money is mo’ better. Stocks are nearing an ugly disconnect, I think – but not today.
I seem to regularly take a lot of heat in the comments section of this column for several things. Some readers take me to task for covering up for The Man and his CPI Conspiracy. I won’t address that here, but on December 18th I’ll be running a combination of two old blog posts that explain why CPI isn’t a made-up number, and why most people perceive inflation as being higher than it actually is. The other major complaint is that I have been “calling for inflation forever” and that I am somehow an unrequited inflation-phobe.
I want to refute that specifically. The people who say that are sometimes confusing me with someone else, and that’s okay. But sometimes they make an assumption that since my Twitter handle is @inflation_guy, because I traded inflation derivatives on Wall Street and was the designer and market maker of the CPI futures contract that launched in 2004, and because I run a specialty investment management firm with a core focus on inflation, I must always be super bullish on inflation.
In fact, people who have followed my comments off-line and on-line for the last decade know that is very far from the truth. In fact, when I was an inflation swaps trader the dealer I worked for often got exasperated because I routinely told clients that I did not expect inflation to head higher very soon because of the huge overhang of private debt. “How can you expect us to sell inflation products,” they asked, “if you keep telling everyone there is no inflation?” My rejoinder: “If we are only selling these products when inflation goes up, we only have a business half the time, or whenever we can convince the client that inflation is going up. But these products almost always reduce risk, since almost every client has a natural exposure to inflation going up, and although they have systematically profited over the last two decades from a bet they didn’t know they were making, that cannot continue forever. That’s the reason people should buy inflation products: to reduce risk.”
So, for many years I was exactly the opposite of what I am sometimes accused nowadays of being: although I didn’t worry about deflation very much, I certainly wasn’t worried about runaway inflation.
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
It was clear that the Fed’s actions in 2008 were going to change things in a big way, but it is interesting that my models anticipated that inflation would continue to decline into 2010 and bottom in Q3 or early Q4 (which is what I said here among other places). It is from that point that I began to diverge with Wall Street opinion (again – since the consensus expected inflation in the middle 2000s while I did not). I published what I think is a helpful time series of my 12-month-ahead model forecasts in early 2012, contrasting it with a chart from Goldman.
So now, let me update the model chart with a forecast for the next twelve months. Before I do, note that in the chart I have substituted Median CPI for Core CPI, for the reasons I have written about for a while now: Core CPI is being dragged down by several one-off movements, most notably in Medical Care, and so Median CPI is currently a better measure of the true central tendency of inflation.
The black line is the actual Median CPI. The red line is the average of the other two models depicted as green and blue lines. The blue line is quite similar to the model I have been using for a very long time; it uses a couple of macro variables including a role for private indebtedness. The green line is something I introduced only in the last few years; it models shelter separately from the ex-shelter components because we have a pretty decent idea of what drives shelter inflation. Frankly, I like that model better, which is why my firm’s forecast for 2014 is for core (or median) inflation to be 3%-3.6%. The model says 3%, and I believe the tails are on the high side.
But the real purpose of my presenting that chart, and the aforementioned discussion, is to defend myself against the calumny that I am a perpetual bull on inflation. Nothing could be further from the truth. From 2004-2010, if I was bullish on inflation at all it was only a “trading opinion” based on market prices. It is only since then that I have been loudly bullish on inflation. And, even then, while I will tell you why inflation could have extremely long tails on the upside, you will not find me forecasting 8%. Nor claiming that inflation really is somewhere that I said it would be, because I don’t like the numbers the BLS is reporting.
I have said in the past, and reiterate now, that one of the main reasons I write this column is mainly to hear reasoned counterarguments to my theses. I think I get sucked far too often into debates with unreasoned or unreasonable counterarguments, not to mention ad hominem attacks.
It goes with the territory of writing a public blog, I suppose. At some level it doesn’t matter much, because I wouldn’t have been on Wall Street for two decades if I bruised easily. But on the other hand, I have a right to self-defense and I have now exercised that right with respect to this particular charge!
 A quote variously attributed to Keynes, Samuelson, and others…and apropos here.
 Incidentally, note that our firm forecast may differ from the model forecast based on our discretionary reading of the model and other factors. In the last two years, the naked model has handily whupped our discretionary forecast.
I haven’t seen anything of note written about the probable effect of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) on Medical Care CPI. This is probably because the calculation of Medical Care inflation in the CPI is confusing to many and because the direct effects of the ACA are still speculative at this point. But this is a potentially dangerous oversight since Medical Care is 7.2% of the CPI, and is after all the part that has recently been dragging Core CPI and Core PCE lower because of its unusual weakness.
Even if one cannot fathom the details, we know that the ACA will add volatility to the measurement of medical care inflation, and with measured medical care inflation so low presently, relative to historical trends, this implies mostly upside risk to prices. The following chart (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the rolling annual increase in Medical Care CPI, along with core CPI.
The most generous interpretation of this chart is that the ACA was already having an impact on holding down medical care prices prior to its implementation, although this ignores the known effect of the sequester on medical care inflation outturns: the sequester slowed Medicare payments to providers, and this had the effect of lowering measured medical care inflation temporarily. Another cavalierly optimistic interpretation might be to suggest the possibility that the secular outperformance of medical care inflation relative to broad inflation is coming to an end.
While the actual economic effect of the ACA will only be determined over a long period of time as the actual rules and the free market response become more clear, I think that the effects of the ACA on the measurement of medical care inflation, at least for several years, will have the effect of pushing medical care inflation higher. The reasons for this are less about the question of whether disrupting the private insurance industry and price system is likely to create overall gains in efficiency in delivering health care, and hence lower prices (I doubt it), and more about the somewhat arcane way that medical care costs are accounted for in the Consumer Price Index.
Accounting for changes in the cost of medical care is a very challenging problem for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that changes in medical care prices, like all price changes, reflect both inflation and the possible change in the quality of the delivered product. A mundane example of this problem outside of medical care is when the size of a candy bar increases 20% and the price of the bar rises 25%. Clearly, in such a case there isn’t 25% inflation in the cost of a candy bar, because the consumer is getting 20% more candy in the bargain. That is a simple quality adjustment, and the BLS regularly makes these changes (more often, of course, the candy bar shrinks so that the quality adjustment increases measured inflation rather than the other way around!). More problematic and controversial are when the quality change is more subjective, such as when a car adds chrome wheel rims or a disk drive doubles in size, or when the BLS makes changes for the aging of the housing stock. Nevertheless, the BLS has sophisticated models for making these adjustments with the least amount of subjective evaluation possible.
How, though, does one measure the improvement in the quality of medical care when the whole course of treatment for a given condition may change? The service being provided, after all, isn’t “one MRI image” but “improved leg function as the result of surgery done with the benefit of improved MRI imaging.” This is a continued challenge for the BLS and one that the Bureau has spent many resources researching over the last few years.
So one problem that the BLS faces is that the price index does not necessarily measure quality improvements well. Another problem is that the Consumer Price Index is supposed to measure costs to consumers, and few consumers pay directly for their medical care but rather for insurance; moreover, the government itself pays for much medical care through Medicare and other programs which have no direct cost (at least, in a direct financial sense as opposed to an economic sense) to the consumer of medical care. For many consumers, too, their employer picks up part of the cost of insurance.
The BLS therefore measures medical care not by looking at the cost of insurance but by looking at what insurance companies pay for the medical care on behalf of the consumers, and then separately accounting for the insurance company profit as a different consumer item. Government purchases of health care are entirely outside of the consumer price index since the government is not a “consumer!” The employer-paid portion of health care insurance is also excluded since a company is also not a consumer.
So what does this mean for the effects of the ACA on the cost of medical care? I can see several likely effects:
- Because the BLS measures the prices being paid by insurance companies to doctors, rather than insurance costs, the sharp increases in insurance costs due to the transition to the health care exchanges dictated by the ACA may not be immediately reflected in the price index for medical care. However, it is also possible that doctors and hospitals may take advantage of the confusion by changing their prices at this time and blaming the increase on the increased burdens of the ACA. Prescription drugs, too, may see price increases for this reason. The outcome of this part of the transition is probably indeterminate on medical care inflation in the short term, but it clearly increases the range of possible outcomes. If provider price increases happen quickly even though new insurance policies will only gradually be taken, then medical care inflation might increase quickly in the short run. But the opposite might also happen, so that consumers face higher insurance costs but medical care inflation does not reflect this.
- Much more problematic is a composition effect that will affect the relative health of the patients that doctors will be treating, almost immediately. Many Americans have just lost their private health insurance. Faced with this, consumers who are relatively healthy are likely to decrease their doctor visits relative to comparatively unhealthy patients because of the increased out-of-pocket cost of going to a doctor. Unhealthy patients have less of an option to decrease consumption of medical care in response to higher costs, and indeed some very unhealthy patients have seen their costs decline due to the ACA (which was, after all, the point: not affordable care for all, but affordable care for those who were finding health care very expensive partly because they needed a lot of it). Because the BLS measures health care costs at the provider level, this could increase measured health care inflation quickly because of increased utilization of more-expensive treatment options.
- The fact that the BLS only considers the employee-paid part of company health care plans also has very interesting implications under the chaotic transition to the ACA. When an employer pays less of the premium for a corporate plan, the employee pays a higher price (and feels inflation) even if the overall premium doesn’t change. But this increases the weight of Medical Care in the consumer’s consumption basket, so that the 7.2% weight in the CPI will increase, and probably substantially, over the next couple of years. Consider the previous chart, illustrating that medical care inflation has outstripped broader inflation indices for at least the last three or four decades. To the extent this continues, a higher weight of medical care implies a higher overall level of inflation.
- In general, the ACA creates uncertainty among service providers in the health care industry. A typical reaction of suppliers facing uncertainty in any industry is to raise prices in order to increase the margin for error (in much the same way that asset prices tend to be lower when investors feel less safe and thus must build a margin of safety into the bid price). While not strictly inflation since the cushion would not increase each year, it would tend to increase measured inflation over the medium term.
It is very difficult to evaluate the size and timing of each of these effects, but it is important to note that while some of the effects are indeterminate (such as #1 above), there are no effects I can discern that would tend to decrease measured inflation of medical care. Consequently, I expect that Medical Care inflation – which has been, I have previously mentioned, a key source of the weakness in core inflation compared to median inflation – is likely to rise appreciably over the next year. Note that this is likely to be the case even if the ACA actually succeeds in lowering the aggregate economic cost of healthcare (about which fact I are skeptical) because the way the BLS measures medical care inflation is likely to cause increases in this index.
Trading, and to some extent investing, is all about knowing when markets are moving with the wisdom of the crowds and when they’re moving with the madness of the crowds. In recent years, there has seemed to be much more madness than wisdom (a statement which can probably be generalized beyond the financial markets themselves, come to think of it). Where do we stand now?
I think a recent letter by John Hussman of Hussman Strategic Advisors, entitled “An Open Letter to the FOMC: Recognizing the Valuation Bubble In Equities,” is worth reading. Hussman is far from the only person, nor even the most august or influential investor, questioning the valuation of equities at the moment. Our own valuation models have had the projected 10-year compounded real return of equities below 3% for several years, and below 2% since late April. For a time, that may have been sustainable because of the overall low level of real rates, but since the summertime rates selloff the expected equity premium has been below 1.5% per annum, compounded – and is now below 1% (see Chart, source Enduring Investments).
Hussman shows a number of other ways of looking at the data, all of which suggest that equity prices are unsustainable in the long run. But what really caught my eye was the section “Textbook speculative features”, where he cites none other than Didier Sornette. Sornette wrote a terrific book called Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems, in which he argues that markets at increased risk of failure demonstrate certain regular characteristics. There is now a considerable literature on non-linear dynamics in complex systems, including Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen by Mark Buchanan and Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics . But Sornette’s book is one of the better balances between accessibility to the non-mathematician and utility to the financial practitioner. But Hussman is the first investor I’ve seen to publicly apply Sornette’s method to imply a point of singularity to markets in real time. While the time of ‘breakage’ of the markets cannot be assessed with any more, and probably less, confidence than one can predict a precise time that a certain material will break under load – and Hussman, it should be noted, “emphatically” does not lay out an explicit time path for prices – his assessment puts Sornette dates between mid-December and January.
Hussman, like me, is clearly of the belief that we are well beyond the wisdom of crowds, into the madness thereof.
One might reasonably ask “what could cause such a crash to happen?” My pat response is that I don’t know what will trigger such a crash, but the cause would be the extremely high valuations. The trigger and the cause are separate discussions. I can imagine a number of possibilities, including something as innocuous as a bad “catch-up” CPI print or two that produces a resurgence of taper talk or an ill-considered remark from Janet Yellen. But speculating on a specific trigger event is madness in itself. Again, the cause is valuations that imply poor equity returns over the long term; of the many paths that lead to poor long-term returns, some include really bad short-term returns and then moderate or even good returns thereafter.
I find this thought process of Hussman’s interesting because it seems consonant with another notion: that the effectiveness of QE might be approaching zero asymptotically as well. That is, if each increment of QE is producing smaller and smaller improvements in the variables of interest (depending who you are, that might mean equity prices, long-term interest rates, bank lending, unemployment, etc), then at some point the ability of QE to sustain highly speculative valuations goes away and we’re left with the coyote-running-over-the-cliff scenario. Some Fed officials have been expressing opinions about the declining efficacy of QE, and Janet Yellen comes to office on February 2nd. I suspect the market is likely to test her very early.
None of this means that stocks cannot go straight up from here for much longer. There’s absolutely nothing to keep stock prices from doubling or tripling from here, except the rationality of investors. And as Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Guessing at the date on which the crowd will toggle back from “madness” to “wisdom” is inherently difficult. What is interesting about the Sornette work, via Hussman, is that it circles a high-risk period on the calendar.
For two days in a row now, I’ve discussed other people’s views. On Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll share my own thoughts – about the possible effects of Obamacare on measured Medical Care inflation.
Before getting into today’s column, let me first describe my plan of attack for the month of December. I plan to have several comments this week and next week, culminating in my annual “Portfolio Projections” piece at the end of next week. Then, for the last two weeks of the month, I plan to ‘re-blog’ some of my best articles from the last four years (editing out the current events, which will no longer be topical of course). Included in that list is an article on long-run returns to equities, one on Yellen’s defense of large-scale asset purchases, an article on the Phillips Curve, one on why CPI isn’t a bogus construct of a vast governmental conspiracy, and so on. Because I don’t expect some of the places where this column is ‘syndicated’ to post the re-blogs, you should consider going to the source site to sign up for these posts.
With that housekeeping complete, I want to turn today to a scholarly article I recently stumbled on which is worth a read even once you have read my synopsis and comments. The article, written one year ago by Samuel Reynard of the Swiss National Bank, is entitled “Assessing Potential Inflation Consequences of QE after Financial Crises.” It appears to be unpublished except as a working paper, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising since it is so decidedly clear-eyed and takes the consensus view of QE to task.
What I love about this article is that Reynard’s view is remarkably consonant with my own – the only example I can come up with of a reasonably-placed central banker espousing such commonsensical views (Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed gets an honorable mention though), backed with quantitative data and clear reasoning. Here is the paper’s abstract:
“Financial crises have been followed by different inflation paths which are related to monetary policy and money creation by the banking sector during those crises. Accounting for equilibrium changes and non-linearity issues, the empirical relationship between money and subsequent inflation developments has remained stable and similar in crisis and normal times. This analysis can explain why the financial crisis in Argentina in the early 2000s was followed by increasing inflation, whereas Japan experienced deflation in the 1990s and 2000s despite quantitative easing. Current quantitative easing policies should lead to increasing and persistent inflation over the next years.”
In the introduction, the author directly tackles current central bank orthodoxy: “It is usually argued that it is sufficient to monitor inflation expectations, and that central banks can avoid accelerating inflation by quickly withdrawing reserves (or by increasing the interest rate payed on reserves) once inflation expectations start rising. The monetary analysis of this paper however shows that there has never been a situation of excess broad money (created by the banking system) which has not been followed by increasing inflation, and that the increase in inflation occurs after several years lags.”
Reynard starts with the quantity theory of money (MV≡PQ), which I have discussed at length in this column. Regular readers will know that I am careful to distinguish transactional money from base money – as does Reynard – and that the sole reason inflation has not accelerated is that money velocity has declined. This decline is not due to the financial crisis directly, but as I have shown before it is due to the decline in interest rates. This makes monetary policy problematic, since an increase in interest rates which in ordinary times (that is, when there isn’t a couple trillion of excess reserves) would cause M2 to decelerate and dampen inflation will also cause money velocity to rise – offsetting to some extent the effects of the rising interest rates on the money supply. (Among other things, this effect tends to help cause monetary policy to overshoot on both sides). Reynard’s insightful way around this problem is to “model equilibrium velocity as a function of interest rate to reflect changes in inflation environments.” That is, the monetary equation substitutes an interest rate variable, based on a long-run equilibrium relationship with velocity, for velocity itself. In Reynard’s words,
“Thus the observed money level is adjusted…by the interest rate times the estimated semi-elasticity of money demand to account for the fact that, for example in a long-lasting disinflationary environment when inflation and interest rate decrease, the corresponding increase in money demand reflecting the decline in opportunity cost is not inflationary: the price level does not increase with the money level given that equilibrium velocity decreases.”
This is exactly right, and it is exceedingly rare that a central banker has that sort of insight – which is one of the reasons we are in this mess with no obvious way out. Reynard then uses his model to examine several historical cases of post-crisis monetary and inflationary history: Switzerland, Japan, Argentina and the 1930s U.S. He finds that there are downward rigidities to the price level that cause inflation to resist turning negative (or to fall below about 1.5% in the U.S.), but that when there is excess liquidity the link between liquidity and inflation is very tight with a lag of a couple of years. Reynard’s opinion is that it is this non-linearity around price stability that has caused prior studies to conclude there is no important link between money and inflation. As Fama observed back in the early 1980s, and I observe pretty much daily to the point that it is now a prohibited topic at the dinner table, when inflation is very low there is a lot of noise in the money-inflation relationship that makes it difficult to find the signal. But the money-inflation connection at higher levels of inflation and money, and over longer periods of time, is irrefutable.
In the last section of the paper, the author assesses the effects of current QE (through November 2012) on future inflation in the U.S. His conclusion is that “Excess liquidity has always been followed by persistent increases in inflation. Current quantitative easing policies should lead to increasing and persistent inflation over the next years.” The chart accompanying this statement is reproduced below.
As you can see, the model suggests inflation of 3-4% in 2013 and 5% in late 2014. While clearly inflation in 2013 has been lower than suggested by the chart, this isn’t supposed to be a trading model. I suspect that if get 3-4% in 2014 and 5%+ in 2015 (our forecast is for 3.0%-3.6% on core inflation in 2014 and 3.3%-4.8% in 2015), the issue of whether Reynard was essentially correct will not be in question!
There is a blog post on the site of the New York Fed might be significant. The title of the post is “Has the Fed Stabilized the Price Level?” In the post, the authors take up the question of price level targeting. This, in itself, is worth noting because the debate about whether the Fed should target the inflation rate (trying to hit 2% on the PCE deflator every year) or the price level (trying to average 2% over the next 10 years, say) has been ebbing and flowing for the last few years but during and after the crisis has generally taken a back seat to more pressing issues like “how can we buy a couple trillion dollars’ worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities without impairing market function?” Back at the end of 2010, I wrote a blog post about the fact that price-level targeting is gaining currency (no pun intended) at the Fed.
The authors start by noting that the Fed has been incredibly successful, as it turns out, at hitting the 2% target on inflation. Like most authors who address this subject, they choose a historical period where that happens to be the case and draw a nice exponential curve that happens to fit nicely since, after all, they chose a period during which low and stable inflation was the norm. They then proceed, as most establishment economists do, to give the Fed most if not all of the credit for maintaining inflation low and stable even though any fair real-time analysis of the history – see, for example, my book which, incidentally, makes a fine Christmas gift – must conclude that this was partly a lucky break.
What is interesting and potentially significant, though, is where the authors focus on the deviation from that trend. Although drawing the line the way they originally drew it suggests that the Fed has successfully targeted long-term price-level growth almost exactly, they then re-draw the line based on an arbitrary start date of January 2006 (this happens to be the beginning of Bernanke’s tenure, but since the price level in 2006 has nothing to do with actions he took in 2006, that date is purely arbitrary). The significance is that when drawn from that date, the price level appears too low:
“While the price level has remained remarkably close to its 2 percent trend line since the early 1990s, the total PCE deflator has been below this trend line since 2009 with a 1.4 percent gap in July 2013; the core index displays an even larger gap.”
Hmmm. At this point, one suspects that the authors may be adjusting the lens to reach the conclusion they want. They proceed to ask whether the Fed is, or should be, aiming to stabilize inflation (at 2% on PCE, about 2.25% on CPI) or the price level, and suggest (remember, the authors are at the Fed) that quantitatively speaking the Fed’s policy has worked out to be essentially price-level targeting whatever they called it. The big moment comes:
“Moreover, while the FOMC has stated its policy strategy in terms of an inflation rate and not the price level, it is interesting to note that there is a technical equivalence between the Fed’s “longer-run inflation goal” of 2 percent and price-level targeting. As such, if the FOMC’s past behavior continues, it is reasonable to expect inflation temporarily higher than 2 percent so that the price level will return to its long-run trend line.”
Whether or not the Fed actually chooses, or should choose, price-level targeting or rate targeting is a debate for a future day although the link to my blog post above shows it is also a debate for a past day! The interesting thing about the NY Fed blog post, though, is that the price-level argument is being used to support the notion that inflation somewhat above the target is not only acceptable but actually desirable. This may be merely an academic discussion, but take note of it just in case.
The equity melt-up continues, with the S&P 500 now up more than 25% year-to-date in a period of stagnant growth and an environment of declining market liquidity. The catalysts for the latest leg up were the comments and testimony by Fed Chairman-nominee Janet Yellen, whose confirmation hearings began today.
Her comments should alleviate any fear that Yellen will be anything other than the most dovish Fed Chairman in decades. Ordinarily, potential central bankers take advantage of confirmation hearings to burnish their monetarist and hawkish credentials, in much the same way that Presidential candidates always seem to try and campaign as moderates. It makes sense to do so, since the credibility of a central bank has long been considered to be related to its dedication to the philosophy that low and stable prices promote the best long-term growth/inflation tradeoff. Sadly, that no longer appears to be the case, and Janet Yellen should easily be confirmed despite some very scary remarks in both the scripted and the unscripted part of her hearing.
In her prepared remarks, Yellen commented that “A strong recovery will ultimately enable the Fed to reduce its monetary accommodation and reliance on unconventional policy tools such as asset purchases.” Given half a chance to repeat the tried-and-true mantra (which Greenspan used repeatedly) about the Fed balancing its growth and inflation responsibilities by focusing on inflation since growth in the long run is maximized then inflation is low and stable…Yellen focused on growth as not only the primary but virtually the only objective of the FOMC. As with Bernanke, the standard which has been set will be maintained: we now use extraordinary monetary tools until we not only get a recovery, but a strong recovery. My, have the goalposts moved quite a lot since Volcker!
That means that QE may indeed last forever, since QE may be one of the reasons that the recovery is not strong (notice that no country which has employed QE so far…or ever, as far as I know…has enjoyed a strong recovery). In a very direct sense, then, Yellen has declared that the beatings will continue until morale improves. And I always thought that was just a saying!
I would call that borderline insanity, but I am no longer sure it is borderline.
Among other points, Yellen noted that the Fed is intent on avoiding deflation. In this, they are likely to be successful just as I am likely to be successful in keeping alligators from roosting on my rooftop. So far, there is no sign of it happening, hooray! I must be doing something right!
Yellen also remarked that the Fed might still consider cutting the interest it pays on banks’ excess reserves, or IOER. The effect of this would be to release, all at once, some large but unknown quantity of sterile reserves into the transactional money supply. If there was any question that she is more dovish than Bernanke, there it is. It was never clear why the Fed was pursuing such a policy – flood the market with liquidity, and then pay the banks to not lend the money – unless the point was merely to reliquify the banks. It is as if the Fed shipped sealed crates of money to banks and then paid them rent for keeping the boxes in their safes, closed. If you’re going to do QE, this is at least a less-damaging way to do it although it raises the question of what you do when you need the boxes back. Yellen, on the other hand, is open to the idea of telling the banks that the Fed won’t pay them any longer to keep those boxes unopened, and instead will ship them crowbars. This only makes sense if you really do believe that money causes growth, but has nothing to do with inflation.
The future Fed Chairman also declared that the Fed has tools to avert emergence of asset bubble. Of course, no one really doubts that they have the tools; the question is whether they know how and when to use the tools. And, to bring this to current events, the question is no longer whether they can avert the emergence of an asset bubble, but whether they can deflate the one they have already re-inflated in stocks, and an emerging one in property! Oh, wait, she’s at the Federal Reserve…which means she won’t realize these are bubbles until after the bubble pops, and then will say that no one could have known.
Now, it may be that the U.S. is merely nominating Dr. Yellen in self-defense, to keep the dollar from becoming too strong or something. Last week’s surprise rate cut from the ECB, and the interesting interview by Peter Praet of the ECB in which he opens the door for asset purchases (which interview is ably summarized and dissected by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard here), keeps the heat on the Fed to remain the most accommodative of the major central banks.
At least the ECB had a reasonable argument that there was room for them to paint the least attractive house on the block. Europe is the only one of the four major economies (I exclude China since quality data is “iffy” at best) where central-tendency measures of inflation are declining (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
And that is, of course, not unrelated to the fact that the ECB is the only one of the four major central banks to be presiding over low and declining money supply gowth (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
There is of course little desire in the establishment to do so. The equity market continues to spiral higher, making the parties louder and longer. It is fun while it lasts, and changing to a bartender with a more-generous pour might extend the good times slightly longer.
It is no fun being the designated driver, but the good news is that I will be the one without the pounding headache tomorrow.
[Hmmm...erratum and thanks to JC for catching it. The S&P is "only" up 25.6% YTD (my Bloomberg terminal decided that it wants to default to the return in Canadian dollars). So originally the first paragraph had "32%" rather than 25%. Corrected!]
I guess we have to add to the list of uncomfortable comparisons to 1999’s equity mania the Twitter IPO. A widely-known company with no earnings…and no visible way to produce any revenues of note, much less earnings…went public and promptly doubled. Hedge funds which were able to get in on the IPO allocation cheered this nice kick to their performance numbers, and the backers of the now-$25bln-company are surely elated. But the rest of us have got to be thinking about Pets.com.
It was an article by Hussman Funds (ht rich t) that got me thinking more deeply about these comparisons. Although the article was referred to me partly because of the insightful comments about the Phillips Curve, which echo similar comments I have made in the past, I kept reading to the end as I usually do when trapped in a Hussman article! While there are a number of us (including Hussman, Grantham, Arnott, e.g.) who have been concerned for a while about equity market valuations since we use similar metrics, I really haven’t been terribly concerned about the possibility of an imminent and steep market decline for a while, though I think returns from these levels over the next decade will be close to flat in real terms as they were after the 1999 peak. However, Hussman had me thinking about this.
I do think that there is one key difference from 1999, and that is that not everyone is talking about stocks. That is, not yet…the Twitter IPO might get us there – on Fox Business News today a young talking head (who was no more than 10 years old in 1999) made sure that viewers were informed that anyone could buy Twitter, just by calling their broker. (Not just anyone, though, could get in at the IPO price…a point the cub reporter neglected to mention).
The counter-argument to “is this a 1999 set-up?” takes two forms. The less-sophisticated form is “nuh-uh”, although usually said in a slightly more elaborate way that implies the questioner is a mindless, not to mention soulless, Communist who isn’t getting enough loving at home. The more-sophisticated argument is worth considering, but isn’t particularly soothing to me. This hypothesis is that this isn’t 1999, it’s 1997, before the parabolic blow-off and with lots of room left to run. It wasn’t as if there was any lack of skepticism about the stock market’s levels (which, sweetly, we considered lofty at the time):
“Is it possible that there is something fundamentally new about this current period that would warrant such complacency? Yes, it is possible. Markets may have become more efficient, competition is more global, and information technology has doubtless enhanced the stability of business operations. But, regrettably, history is strewn with visions of such “new eras” that, in the end, have proven to be a mirage. In short, history counsels caution.” – Alan Greenspan, February 26th, 1997
The bubble, of course, did not pop in 1997. It popped in 1999, after Greenspan had abandoned his prior skepticism (in late 1998, as he came to believe that “I do not claim that all market behavior is a rational response to changes in the real world. But most of it must be. For, were it otherwise, the relatively stable economic environments that have been evident among the major industrial countries over the generations would not be possible”). Between 1997 and 1999, there was plenty of time for investors to make money, and as long as they realized they were taking money for the future and got out before 2000…alas, very few of them did.
But, speaking from experience, the 1997-1999 period was very lonely. While investors who gradually sold their long positions out in 1998 and 1999 did much better than the ones they were selling to, they were also very unpopular at cocktail parties. The bearish analysts were put on the street, begging for tuppence. Which, considering that most of them were in the United States, was also unsuccessful.
The 1999 bubble…and the later property bubble…also did not burst until the Fed was actually tightening policy. It is on this point that many bullish arguments depend, but it is a weak one I believe. To be sure, there is no chance that the Fed will be tightening policy any time soon. The taper is not going to happen until 2014Q2 at the earliest, and I think it will take until later in 2014, when inflation figures will become uncomfortable, before they will start pulling back on QE. Some observers believe it will be much later. A Wall Street Journal article on Wednesday detailed a recent research paper written by the head of the monetary affairs division at the Fed; it argued that it may make sense for the Fed to lower its Unemployment Rate threshold and said that “an ‘optimal’ policy might keep rates near zero as late as 2017.”
The activist Fed continues to be one of the biggest risks to the market and the economy. As a trader, I know that 90% of trading is just sitting there, waiting for the ‘fat pitch’ you can do something about. It boggles my mind that a central banker doesn’t sit around at least that much, considering that they know even less about the complexities of the global economy than I know about the complexities of the market. And, unlike the global economy, the market doesn’t fight back when I act on it.
I actually have a feeling that we won’t be worrying about those Unemployment thresholds, either the old ones or the ones proposed in that paper. As I wrote late last month, the expansion is getting a bit long in the tooth and I would not be surprised to see another recession looming in 2014. I don’t have any reason for that outlook other than the calendar, but sometimes these reasons become obvious only in hindsight.
In any event, though, I wouldn’t wait around for the Fed to be tightening. It isn’t overnight funding rates that I would worry about, but longer-term interest rates, and there has already been a warning shot fired that indicates the Fed is not wholly in control of those rates.
So, it may be too early to be out of equities. Maybe even a lot too early. But one thing I am sure of is that it isn’t too late. It is the latter condition, not the former, that is the most damaging to one’s financial position.
Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy. And, given where all of this seems to be going…you ought to.
- Core inflation only up 0.122%. But housing continues to accelerate! Apparel -0.5% this month.
- Core dips slightly to 1.734% from 1.766% y/y. At odds with our forecast, due to the continued weakness in core goods.
- Still think core ends 2013 over 2%, but depends on core commodities coming up some. Our housing forecast looks good.
- Primary Rents stays at 3%, OER at 2.2%.
- Medical Care 2.4% y/y from 2.3%. And that’s with “health insurance” falling to 2.5% from 2.9%. Obviously, that’s all pre-ACA.
- Accel Major groups: Medical Care (7.2%). Decel: Apparel, Recreation, Educ/COmm (16.3%). Everything else sideways.
- This really IS mostly about the apparel decline. Bad back-to-school adjustment probably.
- I think given apparel, what we know will happen in medical care, and the housing stuff…next month may be over 0.3% on core.
This has all the signs of one of those numbers (and we’re seeing a lot of them this month) that should be averaged with next month’s number because of data collection quirks. Actually, we probably ought to average September, October, and November data together to get a “before, during, and after” average around the government shutdown. The apparel decline hit women’s apparel, men’s apparel, and girls’ apparel, but boys’ apparel inflation accelerated. Medical care prices re-accelerated slightly, as I think is destined to happen because the current run-rate is significantly due to the effect of the sequester on Medicare reimbursements, but we can already see that the “insurance” category is going to be accelerating markedly in the next few months because of the large number of cancellations and re-policying that is going on around the implementation of Obamacare. While direct consumer purchase of insurance and/or medical care is just a small part of overall inflation, a big jump will still be felt in the overall data.
The key conundrum continues to be the softness in core goods, but as I’ve argued previously the biggest part of the effect is from the very low readings from medicinal drugs and medical equipment – both of which accelerated this month. If the apparel reading really is a quirk, then core inflation is going to start heading higher with alacrity now. All of the “interesting” parts of it already are.
In one of those “what could possibly go wrong with that plan” moments – which are becoming all too frequent these days – the New York Times this weekend reported that there is “growing concern inside and outside the Fed that inflation is not rising fast enough.”
At some level, this is not exactly new thinking. For decades, economists have argued that “price stability” really means inflation of something just slightly over 0%, because it is assumed to be quite hard to get out of a deflationary spiral. in my view, that’s silly, because simply adding a zero to the currency in everyone’s pocket is a guaranteed way to get out of deflation. It may be that since nudging inflation higher is harder than kicking it higher, the costs of mild deflation are higher than the costs of mild inflation, but I think the jury is out on that question since it isn’t something we have ever experienced. But in any event, this is the reason that inflation in the neighborhood of 2%, rather than 0%, has been the Fed’s implicit or explicit target for a long time.
To the extent that discussion stays academic, it’s not worrisome. Navel-gazing is an occupational hazard of being a professional economist, after all. But now, there are louder and more frequent voices arguing that 2% is too low a target. To see how urgent a problem this is, I submit the following chart, which shows median CPI, along with a horizontal line at 2.25% (roughly equivalent to a 2% target on PCE). Wow, I can see the reason for panic. We are nearly 0.2% below that! And we got within 0.6% of deflation in 2010, in the aftermath of the worst credit crisis in almost 100 years.
I am all for the idea that mild inflation serves to lubricate the gears of commerce, but we should remember that when the CFO of Costco says he likes rising inflation because in that circumstance “the retailer is generally able to expand its profit margins,” that’s good for the equity market perhaps but not as good for the consumer!
It always amazes me how sketchy is the understanding of inflation in a capital markets context by members of the Fed. In the aforementioned article, Chicago Fed President Evans is quoted saying “If inflation is lower than expected, then debt financing is more burdensome than borrowers expected. Problems of debt overhang become that much worse for the economy.” This is absolutely true, but almost completely irrelevant in the current context. Inflation has been lower than a priori expectations since about 1980, which is why a long-nominal-bond position has routinely outperformed inflation. But currently, as the chart below illustrates, 10-year inflation breakevens are at 2.19%. Fully 72% of all 10-year periods since 1914 have seen compounded inflation above that level.
Ten-year inflation swaps, a better measure of inflation expectations, are at 2.52%, which still doesn’t sound like a horrible bet for borrowers. If inflation comes in above 2.52%, the borrower of 10-year fixed-rate money wins; if it comes in below 2.52%, the borrower loses. This is one reason that it is so rare to see corporations issue inflation-indexed debt…they like that bet.
Finally, the article explains that higher inflation allows workers to get higher wages, and gives the example of teachers in Anchorage, Alaska, who just agreed to a contract giving them 1% pay increases for each of the next three years. Since inflation is likely to be above that, the article says, they will be probably receiving a pay cut in real terms. This is absolutely true. (It is also the exact opposite position of the debtor, in that the teachers will do better in real terms if deflation actually happened. Sometimes I just wish the authors of these articles would be consistent.) But this circumstance certainly isn’t helped by inflation; since wage increases tend to trail inflation, real wages tend to lag in inflationary upticks.
None of this represents deep insight from this author. It merely represents that I have at least a rudimentary understanding of how inflation works, and a respect for the damage which inflation can cause to economies, workers, and savers. The fact that this is increasingly rare these days is probably cyclical, and unfortunately is probably a minimum condition for setting up this next inflation debacle. In that context, and with more Federal Reserve economists openly musing about needing to target higher inflation, does 2.19% breakeven sound like a bad deal?
All the expectations for resurgent growth are running into a time problem. While the Federal Reserve continues to pump the system, hoping for that burst of energy coming out of the slump, there is really little reason to expect anything more than we have already gotten. I’ve written recently about that in the context of payroll growth and the rate of improvement in the unemployment rate. But there is also, as I say, a time problem.
The current expansion, believe it or not, is getting long in the tooth. While there have been longer expansions – the one from 1991 to 2001, fueled by a continuous decline in interest rates, a budget that was near balance or in surplus, and an asset bubble engendered by the promise of the Internet and some remarkable Wall Street pitchmen – the average postwar expansion has only been 68 months, peak to peak, or 58 months, trough to peak. According to the NBER, on which we rely to jog our memories since this was so long ago, the prior business cycle peak occurred in December 2007 and the prior trough in June 2009. So, using those average business cycle lengths, the expected date of the subsequent peak would be between August 2013 and May 2014. This latter date is especially interesting because it is approximately the current consensus on when the QE taper is expected to begin (again).
I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that getting more than an “average” expansion in the current circumstance would be a pleasant surprise indeed. With the size of government deficits, the uncertainty engendered by the morass in Congress and the rapid proliferation of regulatory overhead (both ACA-related and other), real interest rates much closer to the likely bottom than to the likely top, and continued threat of volatility in the international political economy… it is remarkable to me that we’ve even been able to squeeze out one of “average” duration.
And all it took was a few trillions!
It is well past time when it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to stop trying to push the economy faster. Blowing into the sail simply doesn’t work very well to make the boat go faster. It will only lead to hyperventilation.
So now we are in a situation in which the expansion is likely to begin to wind down, and very likely to do so at least partly provoked by the Fed’s tightening of policy (for lessening QE is, as we have seen from the interest rate response, clearly a tightening of policy). It may become very tempting for the Yellen Fed to continue QE as weakness manifests, but the problem is going to be that inflation is going to be heading higher, not lower, into the slowdown as the housing price inflation continues to percolate into rental prices and a weakening dollar helps other prices to firm as well.
We really are in a very dangerous situation equity market-wise, as a result of this timing issue. Over the next year inflation is going to rise, growth is (probably) going to slow, and equity earnings ex-finance are looking decidedly punk as a recent article by Sheraz Mian from Zacks Investment Research pointed out. Which is not to say, of course, that the stock market can’t or won’t continue to ramp higher…just that it is increasingly subject to sudden-breakage risk as the shelf it sits on gets higher and higher.