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.
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?
The data has started to arrive.
Tuesday’s Employment report (gosh, it seems strange to write that) was weaker-than-expected with Payrolls +148k versus expectations for +180k. As I wrote back at the beginning of August, something in the realm of 200k is about as good as you’re going to get, so we’re not very short of that…we’re just very far short of what the consensus seems to expect we’re eventually going to get. No doubt, 148k isn’t 200k, and the six-month average of 163k is the lowest of the year. But it is also not a calamity, on the growth front.
And yet, 10-year interest rates are 50bps below the highs of early September. (Real yields are actually down 60bps, which means inflation expectations have risen slightly during that period). Interest rates are down because everyone knows that the trajectory of policy, with Yellen as likely to be the next Chairman of the Fed, is going to be “lower for longer.” But why? This goes back to the observation that growth is not far short of the best that it is likely to get. The only point of “lower for longer” is to support asset markets – housing, equity, and the bond market whence our nation’s interest burden is determined – and it seems to be doing this quite well. The alternate theory is that the Fed still fears deflation, despite all evidence (and copious theory) that the risk arrow is pointing in the other direction. In neither case does the Federal Reserve come out looking particularly on top of things, but more and more we are expecting that from Washington whether the officials are elected or appointed.
I really thought at one point that the bond market was going to be where the profligate monetary policy was going to first come unglued, but I am now wondering if it isn’t that denizen of hair-trigger shooters, the foreign exchange markets. The dollar index is plumbing the lows of the last two years, although it remains considerably above the lows of 2008 and 2011. As the chart below shows, the dollar has actually left behind the commodity markets where, as we know, investors suffer from the delusion that growth is more important for the nominal price of commodities than is the overall price level. Weak-ish growth means that commodities are only weakly above its August lows, although the buck is quite a bit lower since then.
I don’t think we can learn much right now watching stocks, where investors are simply playing Icarus. We all know where it leads, but any words of warning are laughed off as they soar with Fed-induced wings. Of course they’ll turn away in time!
I think housing is interesting. Having gotten back barely to fair, or maybe just a smidge cheap, compared to incomes, housing is expensive once again. But it isn’t in bubble territory yet, at least in the sense that when it cracks it could cause the carnage it did once before.
Bonds are on tenuous footing. With the consensus currently in place that the Fed might keep QE in place more or less forever, there are a lot of ways to disappoint the status quo: Fed speakers might suddenly try to start sounding stern again and imply that QE might not last forever; inflation might continue to tick higher and make obvious the unsustainability of the current course; or growth numbers might surprise to the high side.
The barbarians are already overrunning the dollar, and I suspect only the fact that Japanese monetary policy is far worse is keeping the descent slow. But people plugged into the supply and demand for currency are probably most likely to understand what happens when too much is supplied (hint: it’s the same thing that happens to the price of corn when too much corn is supplied). For a while, monetary authorities have been chasing each other to see which could be the least respectable, but it now seems that Japan wins that race and the US is likely to place.
As the chart above shows, reasons for increasing exposure to broad-based commodity indices (especially those that do not overweight energy, as the GSCI does) continue to accumulate.
There is much more data to come, of course, but to me it seems the battle lines have been more or less drawn in this fashion.
Everyone expected markets to provide a lot of late-day volatility today, and so they did. The Fed apparently doesn’t mind surprising the market with a non-consensus outcome when that surprise gooses stocks and bonds higher. Here are some (fairly unstructured) thoughts about today’s declaration from the Fed that there will be no “taper” in its QE program yet:
- This has nothing to do with the fact that there was a minor wiggle in the Employment data, some weakness in Retail Sales, and some other disappointments this month. If that is now the standard…that the Fed plans to expand its balance sheet without bound as long as growth is not smashing the cover off the ball, then we are truly lost for QE will never, ever end. This month’s numbers were all within the normal variation for economic data, which do in fact vary even when the underlying economy is not. The old standard was “ameliorate a deep recession.” Then Greenspan turned that to “resist even a mild recession.” And now, is the standard “robust growth no matter what the long-term cost?” I don’t think so, and so I reject the notion that the failure to begin the taper has anything to do with the growth numbers.
- Similarly, the inflation numbers cannot be the reason. Core inflation is now rising, and the Fed has previously recognized that some of the decline in inflation has been due to transient effects of the sequester. Median inflation has remained steady at 2.1%, which is basically the Fed’s long-term target. The cost of 10-year deflation floors in the market are at the lowest level since they began to trade in 2009 (see chart, source Bloomberg and BGC Partners – the price is in up-front basis points). So it isn’t a lingering fear of deflation that has the Fed concerned.
- The Fed speakers over the last month have had ample opportunity to shoot down the idea that taper would start at this meeting, which has been the consensus for a long time. None of them did so, implying that the Fed was comfortable with that consensus. But something changed in the last few days, and that is that the odds-on next Fed Chairman went from being Larry Summers to being Janet Yellen, who happened to be in the meeting today. Does this change the dynamic? Absolutely, since one reason Bernanke has started thinking and talking about tapering is so as to leave as clean a slate as possible so that the next Chairman wouldn’t have to start his term by tightening (sorry, I mean “reducing accommodation”) and scaring asset markets. Once Summers withdrew his name, Yellen’s vote got automatically much more important and the urgency to start the taper much less (since Yellen doesn’t believe there are any important costs to QE). Indeed, in his post-meeting presser Bernanke noted that the “first step” on a taper is “possible this year.” That is far to the dovish side of what the Street was expecting, but consistent with the notion that Yellen’s opinion will carry a heavy weight unless someone else is appointed to the post.
- Yellen said last June that the Fed’s objective is a quick return to full employment, and that Fed action might be justified “to insure against adverse shocks [emphasis mine],” or even if the Fed concludes that the recovery “is unlikely to proceed at a satisfactory pace.” So, perhaps I need to reconsider my point #1 above. Maybe that is the standard now.
- If in fact QE has no cost, then there is no reason to ever stop it. In fact, it should be accelerated. Most Fed officials seem recently to be coming to the realization that there is highly unlikely to be a costless economic remedy, even if they are not sure what the costs are or think they can be contained. Those people clearly have no voice any more, even though it appeared that those views in the last few months were gaining currency (no pun intended, since the dollar dropped to the lowest level since February after the announcement today – a Fed that was edging however slowly to being more-hawkish than average was good for the dollar; a weak, more-dovish than average central bank will be worse for the dollar all else equal). This is pedal-to-the-metal time.
- TIPS got a lot more expensive today, with the 10-year rallying 20bps to 0.475% and breakevens up 4.5bps one day before the Treasury auctions another slug of them. The auction ought still to go well, because caution has been thrown to the wind by our beloved central bankers. This is also good for commodities, and they rose today led by precious and industrial metals. Is it good for equities? Well…
- Equity analysts are like puppies. They completely forget what happened 5 minutes ago and every experience is brand new. There is never any context. So stocks shot higher today, with the S&P gaining 1.2%, because of the dovish Fed and lower interest rates. But over the last few months, as the taper grew closer and interest rates shot higher, all equities did was move to new highs. So, higher interest rates and a (relatively) hawkish Fed doesn’t hurt stock prices, but lower interest rates and a dovish Fed helps them? This may be why the Fed thinks that buying bonds keeps interest rates low and selling bonds doesn’t raise them. It’s a strange market-based notion of a perpetual motion machine. For goodness’ sake, let’s crank interest rates down 200bps, back up 200bps, down 200bps, and keep doing that and the stock market will be at 1,000,000 before you know it. Prosperity! But in fact it is probably more like a bicycle pump. Pushing down inflates the tire, pulling up doesn’t deflate it. It seems costless. However, if you keep doing that, eventually the tire will pop.
- Speaking of the perpetual motion machine, I enjoyed this little gem from the FOMC statement:
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. Taken together, these actions should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative…
Really? It hasn’t worked recently. Lest they forget: the taper hadn’t started yet, but until today it was busy being discounted in the bond market. I don’t expect that merely continuing to buy bonds into the SOMA will push rates much lower again. We all know that this game ends, and we know how it ends. With 10-year notes at 2.70% I wouldn’t be selling them, but I also wouldn’t expect a massive rally to unfold. I would hold long positions in September and October, because those are the right months in which to hold bonds (especially with debt ceiling fight #2, Syria, Italy’s government disintegrating, and Germany’s election), but if the market gave me 2.45% to sell, I would sell.
 Note, though, that no person who has ever held the office of Fed Vice-Chairman has later been appointed to be Chairman…although Donald Kohn, since he was Vice-Chairman from 2006-2010, would also represent a departure from this same tradition. However, he was not in the room.
What is the significance of the fact that Verizon on Wednesday managed to sell $49bln in bonds without any kind of hiccup?
Obviously, it means that the corporate market is doing okay, that investors who are starved for good spreads like the attractive spread the bonds were priced at, and that there is reasonable confidence in the marketplace that Verizon can succeed even as a much more-leveraged company. All are good things.
But here is another thing to think about. My friend Peter Tchir, who writes the excellent T-Report, noted this morning that “Investors weren’t selling other bonds to buy Verizon.” That is, a fair amount of the money may well have been coming out of cash to go into the Verizon bonds.
Why does this matter? Remember that the velocity of money is the inverse of the demand for real cash balances. That is, when everyone is holding cash, the velocity of money is low; when no one wants to hold cash, the velocity of money is high. I have shown the chart below (source: Enduring Investments) before and argued that higher interest rates will tend to increase velocity by decreasing the demand for real cash balances. At least, that usually is what happens.
What would a turn higher in velocity look like? Well, I think it may well look something like this. “I no longer have to reach as much for yield and take all the risk I had to in March to get a 3% yield. So it’s time to invest some of this cash.”
Now, the ultimate flows get a little confusing, because cash is neither created nor destroyed in this transaction. Cash is transferred to Verizon from investors; Verizon then transfers that to Vodafone investors, who perhaps put it back in the bank for no net change. But if those investors in turn say “I don’t want those cash balances, either,” and then go invest or lend it or spend it, then you’re starting to see how money velocity is increasing. The money essentially becomes a kind of financial “hot potato” now, moving more rapidly from investor to investor, from consumer to vendor, and so on. The volume of transactions rises, which increases prices and output as explained by the MV≡PQ monetarist credo.
And that is how higher rates can produce more inflation.
We are seeing other strange things, too, that could be consistent with this explanation. Another great blog, “Sober Look,” observed last week that 30-year jumbo mortgage loan rates have fallen below conforming mortgage loan rates. Their explanation of the phenomenon is worth reading, but note this part: “Flush with deposits, banks have access to extraordinarily cheap capital and are seeking to earn more interest income.” Yet this has been true for some time. What has changed is that interest rates are now higher, increasing the opportunity cost of cash in both nominal and real terms.
This doesn’t automatically mean that money velocity is increasing; it may just be an interesting bond sale and unusual market activity in jumbo mortgages. But it is worth thinking about, because as I note in that article linked to above, even a modest rise in money velocity could produce an aggressive response from inflation.
Here are my post-Employment tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Pretty weak NFP number since the payrolls figure (169k) plus revisions (-74k) is way worse than forecast. Decline in rate irrelevant.
- Actually think Fed spent so much time talking about starting taper that they may do it anyway, but have an excuse now to delay.
- Nothing like a weak NFP number to help the beleaguered bond market. Bounce may temporary but in Sep you don’t wanna fade rallies.
- I don’t watch it much, but avg hrly earns at 2.2% is highest since brief pop to 2.3% in mid-2011. Y do people hate TIPS here?
So 10-year note yields broke above 3% overnight, the highest level since 2011. More importantly, 10-year real yields had been approaching 1% (reaching 0.93% overnight) as fear-of-taper has investors quite reasonably fleeing fixed-income.
I said above that I don’t look much at average hourly earnings. This is because the evidence is that wages follow prices, rather than prices following wages in a mythical “wage-push” inflation. Moreover, we can intuit that this is the case because if wages led inflation, we would really like inflation since we would tend to see our wages increase before inflation did…we would be doing better all the time, rather than worse. In fact, we know intuitively that is wrong.
With that giant caveat, it is worth pointing out that average hourly earnings are above median CPI (which right now is a better measure of the central tendency of inflation because of the large one-off effects in medical care) by the most they have been since 2011 (see chart below, source Bloomberg).
The unemployment rate declined, but only because the Participation Rate plumbed a new post-Carter low at 63.2%. You have to go back to July 1978 to find participation rates this low, and back then there were a lot fewer women in the workforce.
All in all, this is a pretty ugly employment report, but the FOMC has carefully lined up its doves and even gotten a few hawks to say that tapering ought to begin this month. I suspect it is still likely that they start down that path, but probably the first steps are fairly small. Still, given how far rates have risen and the possibility that this will lead to some “taper: off” talk, and given the strong seasonal tendency for rates to decline in September and early October, I would not want to fade a bond market rally.
It didn’t seem when dawn broke in New York today as if the stock market would spend some time during this first post-summer session fighting to record a positive mark on the close. The S&P opened up 1% higher, partly because Chinese economic data was modestly stronger-than-expected, but mostly because hot money types sought to use the thin overnight session to try and create the impression that returning investors were flocking to buy “these cheap levels.”
But whatever the proximate cause of the overnight rally, it was met immediately with selling and three hours later the indices were flirting with unchanged on the day before a late charge produced a +0.4% finish for the S&P. I don’t think the turnaround had anything to do with the fact that Israel fired ballistic missiles into the Mediterranean as a test of anti-ballistic-missile technology last night – that information was known when we walked in, although there was some confusion about whether the U.S. was involved or not and whether it was supposed to be secret or not.
Indeed, the whole U.S. market seems far more interested in whether the Employment number this Friday is 160k or 180k than whether the U.S. or Israel attacks Syria, prompting a response from Iran and/or Syria on Israel and generally provoking the situation in the Middle East like a Mentos candy dropped into Diet Coke. This is why 10-year notes were down on the day, despite the fact that the terribly low float outside the Fed means any flight to quality could be explosive.
The odds of a flight to quality may be low, but the expected payoff is (probability of event) * (value given that event happens), the latter of which is quite high. This is one reason I would be more comfortable being cautiously long bonds at this point. I guess the counterargument is that any taper will have a disproportionate effect on the sectors with less float, but I would think that should be mostly priced in by now. Well, perhaps the Syrian conflict is priced in as well…after all, little is likely to happen very soon, unless Congress acts quickly to validate the President’s request for authorization of military action. The President doesn’t seem to be looking for a quick answer and would probably like the whole issue to just go away, so probably the most likely event is still that nothing happens in Syria that impacts U.S. interests very much.
But do keep in mind that the part of the value of a particular strategy that comes from a particular state of the world is, as I said above, (probability of the state of the world) * (value given that state of the world happens). For many financial options, the value of the option is determined not by the likely or median outcome, or even the distribution of likelihood of outcomes around the strike price of the option, but rather the outcomes in the tail, where there is very low likelihood and very high value. These are all “unlikely” events, in the sense that their independent probabilities are less than 50% and in most cases markedly less:
- a hot war in the Middle East,
- an abrupt taper from the Fed, or a decision from the Fed to increase purchases,
- Merkel’s party loses the vote and is unable to form a pro-Euro coalition,
- the Yen suddenly collapses,
- the US borrowing ceiling isn’t extended without fierce brinkmanship (in mid-October, the US won’t be able to pay for everything it wants to pay for, although it will still have plenty to make debt service and entitlement payments and so is not in even remote danger of an actual default unless the Treasury simply refuses to direct its ample revenues to debt service),
- …and others.
How does your asset allocation perform under each of these scenarios? Are there tails you have unhedged? If so, then you are doing what hedge funds have been doing for the last couple of decades: selling implicit options, earning a better return today as long as a bad event doesn’t hit. In hedge fund land, we talk about being short implied credit or liquidity options, but even retail investors have this sort of position on. What happens to your portfolio if oil goes to $200, or the US suddenly drops into recession, or the Euro breaks up over the weekend? What about if inflation goes from 2% to 6%? (Interesting fact: over the last 100 years, inflation accelerated by at least 4% from one year to the next fully 10% of the time. And the probability that inflation is over 10%, given that it is over 4.5%, is 37%…so in other words, the inflation tails are very long).
Don’t ask me for answers about what you should do in these cases – my purpose in these articles is not to distribute free answers to intricate questions that depend on your personal situation. My purpose is to present the question, and the question is, have you thought about how your portfolio will perform in the case of unlikely events?
If not, spend some time doing so. My fundamental belief is that a 70% or 80% equity position is almost never the right answer for any investor. If you are sufficiently wealthy that you could lose that 80% and have it not affect your lifestyle, either now or in the future, then you truly can plan for the long haul and ignore such risks (although even then I would not ignore valuations because you can add to your long-term returns by paying attention to them). For everyone else, “long term” is probably 10 years or less, and severe impairment of the portfolio does not admit to a certain 10-year cure. Just ask the people who had most of their retirement assets in Enron, or for that matter in the NASDAQ circa March 2000.
Watch your tail. The next month or two will be interesting.
 Technically, this is only true if all of the enumerated states of the world are distinct. To the extent that they are not, a covariance structure comes into play…for our purposes you can think of each separate event as creating option value, but you can’t simply sum those values.
Equity market bulls are a tenacious bunch. In August, with increasing tensions in the Middle East – Egypt and, this time, Syria – along with uncertainty over the future course of monetary policy and steadily rising interest rates, the S&P 500 has lost all of 2.8% after hitting a new all-time high early in the month. Investors who focus purely on the price charts and on the behavior of the indices should be delighted in how stocks have performed with this bad news and fairly weak earnings.
Of course, it should be noted that stocks have still not reached the 2007 highs, much less the 2000 highs, in real terms (see chart, source Bloomberg: this is just the S&P 500 divided by the CPI index). This isn’t to belittle the rally, which has roughly doubled the value of equity investments, in real terms, since the bottom. But it should remind us that this is not a secular bull market, yet, even though we have reached new nominal highs.
As we step away from the pure equity focus, though, the picture grows progressively uglier. After a period of stability in late June through early August, interest rates have begun to rise again. The 10-year note is at 2.76% (but last week approached 2.90%). The 10-year TIPS is at 0.65% after challenging 0.80%. The further selloff makes the consolidation in July look like just a pause in the middle of an otherwise-steady uptrend in yields. We were at 1.60% as recently as May! This selloff has been unusual, but then we all know that it’s because yields shouldn’t have been that low in the first place. Some of this selloff is merely returning from a ridiculously expensive position. (With all that being said, I must admit that after this kind of selloff, I would want to be taking a shot from the long side as we move into September).
Commodities are higher, with the DJ-UBS index comfortably above the 100-day moving average for the first time this year (see chart, source Bloomberg). And this isn’t merely a reflection of energy prices moving higher, because spot crude oil at $108.80 is actually back within the range it has held since early July: $104-$109. Over the last month, grains are 4% higher, livestock 2.5% higher, precious metals 10% higher, industrial metals 5% higher. So this movement in commodities has been fairly broad-based (the softs are down), even with the dollar treading water over that period.
So, while stocks are merely bent, not broken, at this stage, I’d prefer to own bonds – even nominal bonds – to them at these levels, and of course I still like commodities. I do think there is a halfway decent chance that the stock market could transition from bent to broken in the next month.
Both commodities and inflation-linked bonds did poorly today, though, at least partly because an article in the Wall Street Journal today (by Jon Hilsenrath) suggested that Yellen is “playing down her chances of getting the job,” and that therefore Summers is the front-runner.
It is probably safe to say that Summers is less-dovish than is Yellen, although we don’t know much about his monetary policy views since he seems to have few of them. We do know that he sees “few harmful side effects” from QE, which should be automatically disqualifying (almost as automatically disqualifying as being a super-intelligent academic economist should be). With either of these candidates – and it seems as if these really are the only two, since no one else has been mooted in the press – we are going to get a very dovish central banker by almost any historical standard. Central bankers have known for decades about the perils of quantitative easing…that’s why they didn’t do it in the recession of the early 1980s, or the recession of the early 1990s, or the recession of the early 2000s. Each of those recessions was plenty deep enough to warrant quantitative easing if there are few harmful side effects. But we know there are harmful side effects. So if Summers thinks there aren’t any, this just means that he is very current with the “new” wave of monetary thinking and too dismissive of the old, time-tested views (which is, after all, one of the weaknesses you can expect from a ‘brilliant academic’ who has already proven himself unable to manage one institution filled with other brilliant academics).
Now, I find it personally distressing that the market is so concerned with who the Fed Chairman will be. It shouldn’t matter that much, and here is something to reflect on: it wouldn’t matter so much if monetary policy were as straightforward and as much of a science as central bankers are trying to convince us that it is. The fact that the market thinks it matters (as do I) is all the evidence you need that it does matter, and that central banking is more art than science. And you can guess what I think about most modern art too, by the way.
In the context of the fact that the Fed itself appears to be pretty much broken, not bent, I guess I take solace in another thought: given the quantity of “excess reserves” in the system, the Fed can’t do much, positive or negative, for a while. The die has been cast, and it won’t really matter who takes the Chairman’s crown from Bernanke unless that person has a brilliant way to hit the delete key and make those reserves vanish. Otherwise, those reserves are going to press on the transactional money supply, and continue to push inflation higher over the medium term.
I am disinclined to take victory laps when most people are losing money, but the recovery in commodities prices over the last week at the same time that bond and equity prices are both declining is a taste of success for my view that has been rare enough lately. That is, of course, the burden that a contrarian investor bears: to be wrong when everyone else is having fun, and to be right when no one wants to go out and celebrate. In fact, if you find yourself sharing your successes too often with other people who are having the same successes, I would submit you should be wary.
It is worth noting that the commodities rally has not been led by energy, despite the terrible violence in Egypt which threatens, again, to ignite a spark in the region. Today, the rise in commodities was led by gold and grains; yesterday by cows and copper (well, livestock and industrials).
I don’t think that this is because of a sudden epiphany about inflation. In fact, although breakevens have been recovering from the oversold condition in June (more on that in a moment), the inflation data today did nothing to persuade inflation investors that more protection is needed. I gave some thoughts about the CPI report earlier today in this post, but suffice it to say that it was not an upside surprise. (And yet, there are starting to appear more-frequent smart articles on inflation risks. I commend this article by Allan Meltzer to you as being unusually clear-eyed.)
And commodities are not moving higher because of renewed enthusiasm about growth, I don’t think. Today economic bell cow Wal-Mart cut its profit forecast because higher taxes are causing shoppers to be more conservative (perhaps in more ways that one). And, while today’s Initial Claims figure was good news (320k versus expectations for 335k), weakness was seen in Industrial Production (flat, with downward revisions, versus expectations for +0.3%) and both Empire Manufacturing and Philly Fed came in slightly weaker than expectations. None of this is apocalyptic, but neither is it cause for elation about domestic or global growth prospects.
While the nascent commodity rally makes me personally feel warm and fuzzy, the more-momentous move is in what is happening to interest rates. And here I need to recognize that until very recently, I thought that bonds would follow the typical pattern of a convexity-exacerbated selloff: after a rapid decline, the market would consolidate for a few weeks and then recover once the overhang had cleared. I’ve seen it aplenty in the past, and that was the model I was operating on.
But I believe rates are heading higher. Although the overhang from the prior convexity selloff has probably been distributed, there is a new problem as illustrated by the news today about Bridgewater’s “All Weather” fund. The All-Weather Fund is an example of a “risk parity” strategy in which, in simplified form, “low-volatility” strategies are levered up to have the same natural volatility as “high volatility” strategies. The problem is that levering up an asset class with a poor risk-adjusted return, as fixed-income is now, doesn’t improve returns or risks of the portfolio at large. The -8% return of the AWF in Q2 illustrates that point, and makes clear to anyone who bought the great marketing of “risk parity” strategies that they probably have much more rate risk than they want (although according to the Bloomberg article linked to above, Bridgewater “hadn’t fully grasped the interest-rate sensitivity” of being long 70% of net assets in inflation-linked bonds and another 48% in nominal bonds. I do hope that’s a mis-quote).
The unwinding of some of that rate risk (Bloomberg called the panicky dumping of a relatively cheap asset class, TIPS, into the teeth of a retail and convexity-led selloff “patching” the risk) helped TIPS bellyflop in May and June, and to the extent that institutional investors wake up and reduce their levered long bets on fixed income we might see lower prices much sooner than I expected across the entire spectrum of fixed-income. Indeed, without the Fed or highly levered buyers, it’s not entirely clear what the fair clearing price might be for the Treasury’s debt. I was at one time optimistic that we would get a bounce to lower yields after a period of consolidation, but this news is potentially a game-changer. Although the seasonal patterns favor buying bonds in August and early September, the potential downside is much worse than the potential upside.