I was convinced last week that the stock markets, as well as the inflation markets, were underestimating the importance of the Ukrainian conflict. I thought that I had a little more time to write about that before the crisis came to a head, which turned out not to be true. However, it seems that markets are still underestimating the importance of the Ukrainian conflict.
About the best possible outcome at this point is that Putin stops with an annexation of the Russian equivalent of the Sudetenland, with the episode merely pointing out (again) the impotence of Western leaders to respond to Russian aggression but not actually damaging much besides our pride. Even in that case, to me this signals a dangerous new evolution in the development of Russia’s relationship with the West. But the worse cases are far worse.
The angry fist-shaking of the old democracies is moderately amusing; less amusing are the stupid threats being made about economic sanctions. Let us stop for a minute and review what the West imports from Russia.
According to this article from Miyanville (from early 2013), Russia is the world’s largest producer of chromium (30% of the world market), nickel (19%), and palladium (43%), and is the second-largest producer of aluminum (10%), platinum (12%), and zirconium (19%). It has the largest supply of natural gas (although we are gaining rapidly), the second largest supply of coal, and the 8th-largest endowment of crude oil. The Ukraine itself is the third largest exporter of corn and the sixth-largest exporter of wheat. Meanwhile, the top 10 exports to Russia include engines, aircraft, vehicles, meat, electronic equipment, plastics, live animals, and pharmaceuticals.
So, we are fundamentally exporting “nice to haves” while importing “must haves.” Who needs trade more?
Let me make a further, suggestive observation. I maintain that the tremendous, positive trade-off of growth and inflation (high growth, low inflation) that the U.S. has experienced since the 1990s is at least partly a story of globalization following the end of the Cold War. Over the last couple of years, I have grown fond of showing the graph of apparel prices, which shows a steady rise until the early 1990s, a decline until 2012 or so, and then what appears to be a resumption of the rise. The story with apparel is very clear – as we moved from primarily domestically-sourced apparel to almost completely overseas-sourced apparel, high-cost production was replaced by low-cost production, which dampened the price increases for American consumers. It is a very clear illustration of the “globalization dividend.”
Of course, mainstream economic theory holds that the inflation/growth tradeoff suddenly became attractive for the U.S. in 1991 or so because inflation expectations abruptly became “anchored.” Why look for a good reason, when you can simply add a dummy variable to an econometric model??
But suppose that I am right, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 played a role in the terrific growth/inflation tradeoff we have experienced since then. Incidentally, here are some data:
- Cold War (1963, immediately following the Cuban missile crisis, until the fall of the USSR): U.S. annual growth averaged 3.4% (not compounded); inflation averaged 5.4%. The DJIA rose at a compounded nominal rate of 5.6%.
- Post-Cold-War (1991-2013, including three recessions): U.S. annual average growth 2.6%; annual average inflation 2.4%. The DJIA rose at a compounded nominal rate of 7.5%.
This is not to say that globalization is about to end, or go into reverse, necessarily. It is to illustrate why we really ought to be very concerned if it appears that the Bear appears to be back in expansion mode – whether it is something we can prevent or not. And it is also to illustrate why putting a firm end to that expansion mode, rather than sacrificing global trade and cheap energy to a resurrection of the Cold War, is probably worth considering.
I still don’t think that equity investors understand the significance of what is going on in the Ukraine.
The biggest surprise of the day on Tuesday did not come from new Fed Chairman Janet Yellen, nor from the fact that she didn’t offer dovish surprises. Many observers had expected that after a mildly weak recent equity market and slightly soft Employment data, Yellen (who has historically been, admittedly, quite a dove) would hold out the chance that the “taper” may be delayed. But actually, she seemed to suggest that nothing has changed about the plan to incrementally taper Fed purchases of Treasuries and mortgages. I had thought that would be the likely outcome, and said so yesterday when I supposed “she will be reluctant to be a dove right out of the gate.”
The surprise came in the market reaction. Since there had been no other major (equity) bullish influences over the last week, I assumed that the stock market rally had been predicated on the presumption that Yellen would give some solace to the bulls. When she did not, I thought stocks would have difficulty – and on that, I was utterly wrong. Now, whether that means the market thinks Yellen is lying, or whether there is some other reason stocks are rallying, or whether they are rallying for no reason whatsoever, I haven’t a clue.
I do know though that the DJ-UBS commodity index reached its highest closing level in five months, and that commodities are still comfortably ahead of stocks in 2014 even with this latest equity rally. This rally has been driven by energy and livestock, with some precious metals improvements thrown in. So, lest we be tempted to say that the rally in commodities is confirming some underlying economic strength, reflect that industrial metals remain near 5-year lows (see chart, source Bloomberg, of the DJUBS Industrial Metals Subindex).
One of the reasons I write these articles is to get feedback from readers, who forward me all sorts of articles and observations related to inflation. Even though I have access to many of these same sources, I don’t always see every article, so it’s helpful to get a heads up this way. A case in point is the article that was on Business Insider yesterday, detailing another quirky inflation-related report from Goldman Sachs.http://www.businessinsider.com/goldman-fed-should-target-wage-growth-2014-2
Now, I really like much of what Jan Hatzius does, but on inflation the economics team at Goldman is basically adrift. It may be that the author of this article doesn’t have the correct story, but if he does then here is the basic argument from Goldman: the Fed shouldn’t target inflation or employment, but rather on wage growth, because wage growth is a better measure of the “employment gap” and will tie unemployment and inflation together better.
The reason the economists need to make this argument is because “price inflation is not very responsive to the employment gap at low levels of inflation,” which is a point I have made often and most recently in my December “re-blog” series.
But, as has happened so often with Goldman’s economists when it comes to inflation, they take a perfectly reasonable observation and draw a nonsensical conclusion from it. The obvious conclusion, given the absolute failure of the “employment gap” to forecast core price inflation over the last five years, is that the employment gap and price inflation are not particularly related. The experimental evidence of that period makes the argument that they are – which is a perversion of Phillips’ original argument, which related wages and unemployment – extremely difficult to support. Hatzius et. al. clearly now recognize this, but they draw the wrong conclusion.
There is no need to tie unemployment and inflation together …unless you are a member of the bow-tied set, and really need to calibrate parameters for the Taylor Rule. So it isn’t at all a concern that they aren’t, unless you really want your employment gap models to spit out useful forecasts. Okay, so if you can’t forecast prices, then use the same models and call it a wage forecast!
But the absurdity goes a bit farther. By suggesting that the Fed set policy on the basis of wage inflation, these economists are proposing a truly abhorrent policy of raising interest rates simply because people are making more money. Wage inflation is a good thing; end product price inflation is a bad thing. Under the Goldman rule, if wages were rising smartly but price inflation was subdued, then the Fed should tighten. But why tighten just because real wages are increasing at a solid pace? That is, after all, one of society’s goals! If the real wage increase came about because of an increase in productivity, or because of a decrease in labor supply, then it does not call for a tightening of monetary policy. In such cases, it is eminently reasonable that laborers take home a larger share of the real gains from manufacture and trade.
On the other hand, if low nominal wage growth was coupled with high price inflation, the Goldman rule would call for an easing of monetary policy…even though that would tend to increase price inflation while doing nothing for wages. In short, the Goldman rule should probably be called the Marie Antoinette rule. It will tend to beat down wage earners.
Whether or not the Goldman rule is an improvement over the Taylor Rule is not necessarily the right question either, because the Taylor Rule is not the right policy rule to begin with. Returning to the prior point: the employment gap has not demonstrated any useful predictive ability regarding inflation. Moreover, monetary policy has demonstrated almost no ability to make any impact on the unemployment rate. The correct conclusion here is a policy rule should not have an employment gap term. The Federal Reserve should be driven by prospective changes in the aggregate price level, which are in turn driven in the long run almost entirely by changes in the supply of money. So it isn’t surprising that the Goldman rule can improve on the Taylor rule – there are a huge number of rules that would do so.
Friday before a long weekend is probably the worst time in the world to publish a blog article, but other obligations having consumed me this week, Friday afternoon is all I am left with. Herewith, then, a few thoughts on the week’s events. [Note to editors at sites where this comment is syndicated. Feel free to split this article into separate articles if you wish.]
Follow the Bouncing Market
In case there was any doubt about how fervently the dip-buyers feel about how cheap the market is, and how badly they feel about the possibility of missing the only dip that the equity market will ever have, those doubts were dispelled this week when Monday’s sharp fall in stock prices was substantially reversed by Tuesday and new all-time highs reached on Wednesday. Neither selloff nor rally was precipitated by real data; Friday’s weak jobs data might plausibly have resulted in a rally (and it did, on Friday) on the theory that the Fed’s taper might be downshifted slightly, but there was no other data; on Tuesday, December Retail Sales was modestly stronger than expected but hardly worth a huge rally; on Wednesday, Empire Manufacturing was strong – but who considers that an important report to move billions of dollars around on? There were some memorable Fed quotes, chief among them of course Dallas Fed President Fisher’s observation that the Fed’s adding of liquidity has done what adding liquidity in other contexts often does, and so investors are looking at assets with “beer goggles.” It’s not a punch bowl reference, but the same basic idea. But certainly, not a reason for a sharp reversal of the Monday selloff!
The lows of Monday almost reached the highs of the first half of December, before the late-month, near volume-less updraft. Put another way, anyone who missed the second half of December and lightened up on risk before going on vacation missed the big up-move. I would guess that some of these folks were seizing on a chance to get back involved. To a manager who hasn’t seen a 5% correction since June of last year, a 1.5% correction probably feels like a huge opportunity. Unfortunately, this is characteristic of bubble markets. That doesn’t necessarily imply that today’s equity market is a bubble market that will end as all bubble markets eventually do; but it means it has at least one more characteristic of such markets: drawdowns get progressively smaller until they vanish altogether in a final melt-up that proceeds the melt-down. The table below shows the last 5 drawdowns from the highs (measuring close to close) – the ones you can see by eyeballing a chart, by the date the drawdown ended.
I mentioned last week that in equities I’d like to sell weakness. We now have some specificity to that desire: a break of this week’s lows would seem to me to be weakness sufficient to sell because it would indicate a deeper drawdown than the ones we have had, possibly breaking the pattern.
There is nothing about this week’s price action, in short, that is remotely soothing to me.
A Couple of Further Thoughts on Thursday’s CPI Data
I have written previously about why it is that you want to look at some measure of the central tendency of inflation right now other than core CPI. In a nutshell, there is one significant drag on core inflation – the deceleration in medical care CPI – which is pulling down the averages and creating the illusion of disinflation. On Thursday, the Cleveland Fed reported that Median CPI rose to 2.1%, the first 0.1% rise since February (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Moreover, as I have long been predicting, Rents are following home prices higher with (slightly longer than) the usual lag. The chart below (source Bloomberg ) shows Owners’ Equivalent Rent, which jumped from 2.37% y/y to 2.49% y/y this month. The re-acceleration, which represents the single biggest near-term threat to the continued low CPI readings, is unmistakeable.
Sorry folks, but this is just exactly what is supposed to happen. An updated reminder (source: Enduring Investments) is below. Our model had the December 2013 level for y/y OER at 2.52%…in June 2012. Okay, so the accuracy is mere luck, but the direction should not be surprising.
For the record, the same model has OER at 3.3% by December 2014, 3.4% for OER plus Primary Rents. That means if every other price in the country remains unchanged, core inflation would be at 1.4% or so at year-end just based on the weight that rents have in core inflation (of course, median inflation would then be at zero). If every other price in the country goes up at, say, 2%, then core inflation would be at 2.6%. (Our own core inflation forecast is actually slightly higher than that, because we see other upward risks to prices). And the tails, as I often say, are almost entirely to the upside.
Famous Last Words?
So, Dr. Bernanke is riding off into the sunset. In an interview at the Brookings Institution, the “Buddha of Banking,” as someone (probably himself) has dubbed the soon-to-be-former Chairman spoke with great confidence about how well everything, really, has gone so far and how he has no doubt this will continue in the future.
“The problem with Q.E.,” he said, with more than a hint of a smile, “is that it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.” “I don’t think that’s a concern and those who’ve been saying for the last five years that we’re just on the brink of hyperinflation I would point them to this morning’s C.P.I. number.” (“Reflections by America’s Buddha of Banking“, NY Times)
Smug superiority and trashing of straw men aside, no one rational ever said we were on the “brink of hyperinflation,” and in fact a fair number of economists these days say we’re on the brink of deflation – certainly, far more than say that we’re about to experience hyperinflation.
“He noted the Labor Department’s report Thursday that overall consumer prices in December were up just 1.5% from a year earlier and core prices, which strip out volatile food and energy costs, were up 1.7%. The Fed aims for an annual inflation rate of 2%.
“Such readings, he said, ‘suggest that inflation is just not really a significant risk of this policy.’“ (“Bernanke Turns Focus to Financial Bubbles, Instability”, Wall Street Journal )
And that’s simply idiotic. It’s simply ignorant to claim that the policy was a complete success when you haven’t completed the round-trip on policy yet by unwinding what you have done. It’s almost as stupid as saying you’re “100 percent” confident that anything that is being done for the first time in history will work as you believe it will. And, of course, he said that once.
I will also note that if QE doesn’t have anything to do with inflation, then why would it be deployed to stop deflation…which was one of the important purposes of QE, as discussed by Bernanke before he ever became Chairman (“Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”, 11/21/2002)? Does he know that we have an Internet and can find this stuff? And if QE is being deployed to stop deflation, doesn’t that mean you think it causes inflation?
On inflation, Bernanke said, “I think we have plenty of tools to manage interest rates and tighten monetary policy even if (the Fed’s) balance sheet stays where it is or gets bigger.” (“Bernanke downplays cost of economic stimulus”, USA Today)
No one has ever doubted that the Fed has plenty of tools, even though the efficacy of some of the historically-useful tools is in doubt because of the large balance of sterile excess reserves that stand between Fed action and the part of the money supply that matters. No, what is in question is whether they have the will to use those tools. The Fed deserves some small positive marks from beginning the taper under Bernanke’s watch, although it has wussied out by saying it wasn’t tightening (which, of course, it is). But the real question will not be answered for a while, and that is whether the FOMC has the stones to yank hard on the money supply chain when inflation and money velocity start heading higher.
It’s not hard, politically, to ease. For every one person complaining about the long-run costs, there are ten who are basking in the short-run benefits. But tightening is the opposite. This is why the punch bowl analogy of William McChesney Martin (Fed Chairman from 1951 to 1970, and remembered fondly partly because he preceded Arthur Burns and Bill Miller, who both apparently really liked punch) is so apropos. It’s no fun going the other way, and I don’t think that a wide-open Fed that discourses in public, gives frequent interviews, and stands for magazine covers has any chance of standing firm against what will become raging public opinion in short order once they begin tightening. And then it will become very apparent why it was so much better when no one knew anything about the Fed.
The question of why the Fed would withdraw QE, if there was no inflationary side effect, was answered by Bernanke – which is good, because otherwise you’d really wonder why they want to retreat from a policy that only has salutatory effects.
“Bernanke said the only genuine risk of the Fed’s bond-buying is the danger of asset bubbles as low interest rates drive investments to riskier holdings, such as stocks, real estate or junk bonds.But he added that he thinks stocks and other markets ‘seem to be within historical ranges.’” (Ibid.)
I suppose this is technically true. If you include prior bubble periods, then today’s equity market valuation is “within the historical range.” However, if you exclude the 1999 equity market bubble, it is much harder to make that argument with a straight face, at least using traditional valuation metrics. I won’t re-prosecute that case here.
So, this is perhaps Bernanke’s last public appearance, we are told. I suspect that is only true until he begins the unseemly victory lap lecture circuit as Greenspan did, or signs on with a big asset management firm, as Greenspan also did. I am afraid that this, in fact, will not be the last we hear from the Buddha of Banking. We can only hope that he takes his new moniker to heart and takes a Buddhist vow of silence.
We are a people of language. The way we talk about a thing affects how we think about it. This is something that behavioral economists are very aware of; and even more so, marketers. There is a reason that portfolio “insurance” was such a popular strategy. Language matters. When we call a market decline a “correction,” we tend to want to buy it; when we call it a “crash” or a “bear market”, we tend to want to sell it.
And so as the “arctic vortex” reaches its cold fingers down from the frozen northland, it is really hard for us to think about economic “overheating.” Even though economic overheating doesn’t lead to inflation, I really believe that it is hard for investors to worry about inflation (the “fire” in the traditional “fire versus ice” economic tightrope that central bankers walk) when it is so. Darn. Cold.
But nevertheless, we can take executive notice of certain details that may suggest, overheating or not, inflation pressures really are building. I have been writing for some time about how the recent rapid rise in housing prices was eventually going to pass through to rents, and although the lag was a couple of months longer than it has historically been, it seems to be finally happening as an article in today’s Wall Street Journal suggests. This is significant for at least two reasons. The first is that housing costs are a very large part of the consumption basket for the average consumer, so any acceleration in those prices can move the otherwise-ponderous core CPI comparatively quickly. The second reason, though, is more important. Over the last couple of years, as housing prices have improbably spiked again and inventories have declined sharply, many observers have pointed out the presence of an institutional element among home purchasers. That is to say that homes have been bought in large numbers not only by individuals, but by investors who saw an inexpensive asset (they sure solved that problem!). And some analysts reasoned that the prevalence of these investors might break the historical connection between rents and home prices, at least in the short run, in the same way that a sudden influx of pension fund money could change the relationship between equity prices and earnings (that is, P/Es).
In the long run, of course, this is unlikely, but to the extent it happens in the short run it could delay the upturn in core inflation for a long time. But recent indications, such as that article referred to above, are that this effect is not as large as some had thought. The substitution effect does work. Higher home prices do cause rents to rise as more potential buyers choose to rent instead. It is a question for econometricians in the next decade whether the institutions had a large and lasting effect, or a short and ephemeral effect, or no effect at all. But what we can begin to say with a bit more confidence is that this influx of investors did not remove the tendency of home prices and rents to move together, with a lag.
On to other matters. The market curve for inflation has remained remarkably static for a long time. It is relatively steep, and perennially seems to forecast benign inflation for the next couple of years before headline inflation becomes slightly less-benign (but still not high) a few years down the road. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the first eight years of the inflation swaps curve from today, and one year ago.
If that was the only story, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning it. But inflation swaps settle to headline CPI, like TIPS and other inflation-linked bonds do; however, a fair amount of the volatility in headline inflation comes from movements in energy. This is why policymakers and prognosticators look at core inflation. You cannot directly trade core inflation yet, but we can extract expected energy inflation (implied by other markets) from the implied headline inflation rates and derive “implied core inflation swaps” curves. And here, we find that the relatively static yield curves seen above hide a more interesting story. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows these two curves as of today, and one year ago.
At the beginning of 2013, investors has just experienced a 1.94% rise in core prices (November to November, which is the data they would have had at the time), yet anticipated that core inflation would plunge to only 1.22% in 2013. They actually got 1.72% (as of the latest report, so still Nov/Nov). Now, investors are anticipating about 1.8% over the next 12 months – I am abstracting from some lags – but expect that inflation will ultimately not rise as much as they had feared at this time last year.
Another way to look at this change is to map the implied forward core inflation rates onto the years they would apply to. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) does that.
The blue line shows the market’s forecast of core inflation as of January 7th, 2013, year by year. So investors were implicitly saying that core CPI would be 1.22% in 2013, 2.36% in 2014, 2.68% in 2015, 2.87% in 2016, and so on. One year later, the forecast (in red) for 2014 has come down to 1.80%, the forecast for 2015 has declined to 2.20%, the forecast for 2016 has dropped to 2.41%, etcetera.
Has this happened because inflation surprised to the downside in 2013? Hardly. As I just noted, the market “expected” core inflation of 1.22% in 2013 and actually got 1.72%. And yet, investors are pricing higher confidence that inflation will stay low – remaining basically unchanged in 2014 before rising very slowly thereafter – and in fact won’t seriously threaten the Fed’s core mission basically ever.
As I wrote yesterday, we need to tread carefully around consensus. Now, some investors might prefer to be non-consensus by anticipating and investing for deflation in the out years, but taking the whole of the information I look at and model I think the more dangerous break with consensus would be a more-rapid and more-extreme rise in core inflation. I do not think that this economically-cold pricing environment will continue into what is essentially a monetary summer.
Note: The following blog post originally appeared on April 4th, 2012 and is part of a continuing year-end ‘best of’ series, calling up old posts that some readers may have not seen before. I have removed some of the references to then-current market movements and otherwise cut the article down to the interesting bits. You can read the original post here.
I routinely deride economists who rely on the discredited notion that growth in excess of a nation’s productive capacity is what causes inflation – and, conversely, a surplus of productive capacity is what causes deflation. See, for example, here, here, and here. And that is just in the last month!
I want to point out that it isn’t that I don’t believe in microeconomics (where an increase in supply causes prices to fall and a decrease in supply causes prices to rise). I believe deeply in the supply-demand construct.
But the problem with applying these ideas to the macroeconomy is that people get confused with real and nominal quantities, and they think of the “productive frontier” of an economy as being one thing rather than a multi-dimensional construct.
When an economy reaches “productive capacity,” it isn’t because it has used up all of its resources. It is because it has used up the scarcest resource. Theory says that what should happen isn’t that all prices should rise, but that the price of the scarce resource should rise relative to the prices of other resources. For example, when labor is plentiful relative to capital, then what should happen is that real wages should stagnate while real margins increase – that is, because productivity is constrained by the scarce resource of capital, more of the economy’s gains should accrue to capital. And so Marx was right, in this sort of circumstance: the “industrial reserve army of the unemployed” should indeed increase the share of the economic spoils that go to the kapitalists.
And that is exactly what is happening now. In the banking crisis, the nation’s productive capacity declined because of a paucity of available capital, in particular because banks were forced to de-lever. Output declined, and after the shock adjustments the margins of corporate America rose sharply (which I recently illustrated here), near record levels from earlier in the decade of the 00s. And real wages stagnated. Be very clear on this point: it is real wages which are supposed to stagnate when labor is plentiful, not nominal wages.
Now, what should happen next in a free market system is that the real cost of capital should decline, or real wages should increase, or both, as labor is substituted for capital because of the shortage of capital. We indeed see that the real cost of capital is declining, because real rates are sharply negative out to 10 years and equities are trading at lusty multiples. But real wages are stagnating, going exactly nowhere over the last 36 months. Why is the adjustment only occurring on the capital side, with bull markets in bonds and stocks?
We can thank central bankers, and especially Dr. Bernanke and the Federal Reserve, for working assiduously to lower the cost of capital – also known as supporting the markets for capital. This has the effect, hopefully unintended, of lowering the level at which the convergence between real wages and the real cost of capital happens; and of course, it obviously also favors the existing owners of capital. By defending the owners of capital (and, among other things, refusing to let any of them go out of business), the Fed is actually helping to hold down real wages since there is no reason to substitute away from capital to labor!
But all of this happens in real space. One way that the real cost of capital and the real wage can stay low is to increase the price level, which is exactly what is happening. We call this inflation.
You can follow me @inflation_guy, or subscribe to receive these articles by email here.
Note: The following blog post originally appeared on June 14, 2012 and is part of a continuing year-end ‘best of’ series, calling up old posts that some readers may have not seen before. I have removed some of the references to then-current market movements and otherwise cut the article down to the interesting bits. You can read the original post here.
That said, there could be some signs that core CPI is flattening out. Of the eight ‘major-groups’, only Medical Care, Education & Communication, and Other saw their rates of rise accelerate (and those groups only total 18.9% of the consumption basket) while Food & Beverages, Housing, Apparel, Transportation, and Recreation (81.1%) all accelerated. However, the deceleration in Housing was entirely due to “Fuels and Utilities,” which is energy again. The Shelter subcategory accelerated a bit, and if you put that to the “accelerating” side of the ledger we end up with a 50-50 split. So perhaps this is encouraging?
The problem is that there is, as yet, no sign of deceleration in core prices overall, while money growth continues to grow apace. I spend a lot of time in this space writing about how important money growth is, and how growth doesn’t drive inflation. I recently found a simple and elegant illustration of the point, in a 1999 article from the Federal Reserve Board of Atlanta’s Economic Review entitled “Are Money Growth and Inflation Still Related?” Their conclusion is pretty straightforward:
“…substantial changes in inflation in a country are associated with changes in the growth of money relative to real income…the evidence in the charts is inconsistent with any suggestion that inflation is unrelated to the growth of money relative to real income. On the contrary, there appears to be substantial support for a positive, proportional relationship between the price level and money relative to income.”
But the power of the argument was in the charts. Out of curiosity, I updated their chart of U.S. prices (the GDP deflator) versus M2 relative to income to include the last 14 years (see Chart, sources: for M2 Friedman & Schwartz, Rasche, and St. Louis Fed, and Measuring Worth for the GDP and price series). Note the chart is logarithmic on the y-axis, and the series are scaled in such a way that you can see how they parallel each other.
That’s a pretty impressive correlation over a long period of time starting from the year the Federal Reserve was founded. When the authors produced their version of this chart, they were addressing the question of why inflation had stayed above zero even though M2/GDP had flattened out, and they noted that after a brief transition of a couple of years the latter line had resumed growing at the same pace (because it’s a logarithmic chart, the slope tells you the percentage rate of change). Obviously, this is a question of why changes in velocity happen, since any difference in slopes implies that the assumption of unchanged velocity must not hold. We’ve talked about how leverage and velocity are related before, but an important point is that the wiggles in velocity only matter if the level of inflation is pretty low.
A related point I have made is that at low levels of inflation, it is hard to disentangle growth and money effects on inflation – an observation that Fama made about thirty years ago. But at high levels of inflation, there’s no confusion. Clearly, money is far and away the most important driver of inflation at the levels of inflation we actually care about (say, above 4%!). The article contained this chart, showing the same relationship for Brazil and Chile as in the chart updated above:
That was pretty instructive, but the authors also looked across countries to see whether 5-year changes in M2/GDP was correlated with 5-year changes in inflation (GDP deflator) for two windows. In the chart below, the cluster of points around a 45-degree line indicates that if X is the rate of increase in M2/GDP for a given 5-year period, then X is also the best guess of the rate of inflation over the same 5-year period. Moreover, the further out on the line you go, the better the fit is (they left off one point on each chart which was so far out it would have made the rest of the chart a smudge – but which in each case was right on the 45-degree line).
That’s pretty powerful evidence, apparently forgotten by the current Federal Reserve. But what does it mean for us? The chart below shows non-overlapping 5-year periods since 1951 in the U.S., ending with 2011. The arrow points to where we would be for the 5-year period ending 2012, assuming M2 continues to grow for the rest of this year at 9% and the economy is able to achieve a 2% growth rate for the year.
So the Fed, in short, has gotten very lucky to date that velocity really did respond as they expected – plunging in 2008-09. Had that not happened, then instead of prices rising about 10% over the last five years, they would have risen about 37%.
Are we willing to bet that this time is not only different, but permanently different, from all of the previous experience, across dozens of countries for decades, in all sorts of monetary regimes? Like it or not, that is the bet we currently have on. To be bullish on bonds over a medium-term horizon, to be bullish on equity valuations over a medium-term horizon, to be bearish on commodities over a medium-term horizon, you have to recognize that you are stacking your chips alongside Chairman Bernanke’s chips, and making a big side bet with long odds against you.
I do not expect core inflation to begin to fall any time soon. [Editor's Note: While core inflation in fact began to decelerate in the months after this post, median inflation has basically been flat from 2.2% to just above 2.0% since then. The reason for the stark difference, I have noted in more-recent commentaries, involves large changes in some fairly small segments of CPI, most notably Medical Care, and so the median is a better measure of the central tendency of price changes. Or, put another way, a bet in June 2012 that core inflation was about to decline from 2.3% to 1.6% only won because Medical Care inflation unexpectedly plunged, while broader inflation did not. So, while I was wrong in suggesting that core inflation would not begin to fall any time soon, I wasn't as wrong as it looks like if you focus only on core inflation!]
 The reference of “money relative to income” comes from manipulation of the monetary identity, MV≡PQ. If V is constant, then P≡M/Q, which is money relative to real output, and real output equals income.
Note: The following blog post originally appeared on February 3, 2011 (with an additional reference that was referred to in a February 17, 2012 post) and is part of a continuing year-end ‘best of’ series, calling up old posts that some readers may have not seen before. I have removed some of the references to then-current market movements and otherwise cut the article down to the interesting bits. You can read the original post here.
Rising energy prices, if they rise for demand-related reasons, needn’t be a major concern. Such a price rise acts as one of the “automatic stabilizers” and, while it pushes up consumer prices, it also acts to slow the economy. This helps reduce the need for the monetary authority to meddle (not that anything has stopped them any time recently). It doesn’t need to respond to higher (demand-induced) energy prices, because those higher prices are serving the usual rationing function of higher prices vis a vis scarce resources.
But when energy prices (or, to a lesser extent, food prices) rise because of supply-side constraints – say, reduced traffic through the Suez Canal, or fewer oil workers manning the pumps in a major oil exporting region – then that’s extremely difficult for the central bank to deal with. More-costly energy will slow the economy inordinately, and higher prices also translate into higher inflation readings so that if the central bank responds to the economic slowdown they risk adding to the inflationary pressures.
One of the ways that we can restrain ourselves from getting too excited, too soon, about the upturn in employment is to reflect on the fact that surveys still indicate considerable uncertainty and pessimism among the people who are vying for those jobs (or clinging to the ones they have, hoping they don’t have to compete for those scarce openings). This is illustrated by the apparent puzzle that Unit Labor Costs (reported yesterday) remain under serious pressure and Productivity continues to rise at the same time that profit margins are already extremely fat. Rising productivity is normal early in an expansion, but the bullish economists tell us that the expansion started a year and a half ago. We’re about halfway through the duration of the average economic expansion (if you believe the bulls). And fat profit margins are not as normal early in an expansion.
Now, we don’t measure Productivity and Unit Labor Costs very well at all. Former Fed Chairman Greenspan used to say that we need 5 years of data before we can spot a change in trend, and he may be low. But it seems plausible that there remains downward pressure on wages. Call it the “industrial reserve army of the unemployed” effect. While job prospects are improving, they are apparently not improving enough yet for employed people to start pressing their corporate overlords to spread more of the profits around to the proletariat.
Fear not, however, that this restrains inflation. The evidence that wage pressures lead to price pressures (and conversely, the absence of wage pressures suggest an absence of price pressures) is basically non-existent. Let me present two quick charts that make the point simply.
The chart above (Source for data: Bloomberg) shows the relationship between the Unemployment Rate and the (contemporaneous) year-on-year rise in Average Hourly Earnings. I have divided the chart into four phases: 1975-1982 (a period which runs from roughly the end of wage-and-price controls in mid-1974 until the abandoning of the monetarist experiment near the end of 1982), a “transition period” of 1983-1984, the period of 1985-2007 (the “modern pre-crisis experience”), and a rump period of the crisis until now. Several interesting results obtain.
First of all, there should be no surprise that that the supply curve for labor has the shape it does: when the pool of available labor is low, the price of that labor rises more rapidly; when the pool of available labor is high, the price of that labor rises more slowly. Labor is like any other good or service; it gets cheaper if there’s more of it for sale! What is interesting as well is that abstracting from the “transition period,” the slopes of these two regressions are very similar: in each case, a 1% decline in the Unemployment Rate increases wage gains by about ½% per annum. Including the rump period changes the slope of the relationship slightly, but not the sign. This may well be another “transition” period leading to a permanent shift in the tradeoff of Unemployment versus wage inflation.
But clearly, then, when Unemployment is high we can safely conclude that since there are no wage pressures there should be no price pressures, right?
The second chart puts paid to that myth. It shows the same periods, but plots changes in core CPI, rather than Hourly Earnings, as a function of the Unemployment Rate. This is the famous “Phillips Curve” that postulates an inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation. The problem with this elegant and intuitive theory is that the facts, inconveniently, refuse to provide much support. [Note: the above chart is very similar to one appearing in this excellent article by economist John Cochrane, which appeared in the Fall of 2011.]
Why does it make sense that wages can be closely related to unemployment, but inflation is not? Well, labor is just one factor of production, and retail prices are not typically set on a labor-cost-plus basis but rather reflect (a) the cost of labor, (b) the cost of capital, (c) the proportion of labor to capital, and importantly (d) the rate of substitution between labor and capital. This last point is crucial, and it is important to realize that the rate of labor/capital substitution is not constant (nor even particularly stable). When capital behaves more like a substitute for labor, a plant owner can keep customer prices in check and sustain margins at the same time by deepening capital. This shows up as increased productivity, and causes the relationship between wages and end product prices to decouple. Indeed, in the second chart above the R2s for both periods is…zero!
This isn’t some discovery that no one has stumbled upon before. In a wonderful paper published in 2000, Gregory Hess and Mark Schweitzer at the Cleveland Fed wrote that
It turns out that the vast majority of the published evidence suggests that there is little reason to believe that wage inflation causes price inflation. In fact, it is more often found that price inflation causes wage inflation. Our recent research, which updates and expands on the current literature, also provides little support for the view that wage gains cause inflation. Moreover, wage inflation does a very poor job of predicting price inflation throughout the 1990s, while money growth and productivity growth sometimes do a better job. The policy conclusion to be drawn is that wage inflation, whether measured using labor compensation, wages, or unit-labor-costs growth, is not a reliable predictor of inflationary pressures. Inflation can strike unexpectedly without any evidence from the labor market.
The real mystery is why million-dollar economists, who have access to the exact same data, continue to propagate the myth that wage-push inflation exists. If it does, there is no evidence of it.
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On some level you have to respect, even admire, Ben Bernanke for his clever announcement of the taper yesterday. The Fed surprised many long-time Fed watchers who figured that a major change in policy wouldn’t happen with an outgoing Chairman in the illiquid end-of-year period when the economic backdrop is essentially the same as it was at the prior meeting. I am one of those who was surprised, and I was not planning to write an article today because I didn’t think there would be much to write about! (But do be sure to tune in for the “reblogging best-of” series, which continues through month-end).
I was fascinated at the widespread confusion about the ultimate meaning of the FOMC statement, which seemed quite clear to me. This state of confusion is itself a very good thing. When investors are confused, they tend to keep a wider margin of safety. As long-time readers know, probably the biggest complaint I have with Fed policy of the last twenty years is the movement to transparency, which has made our markets no more predictable but dramatically less safe, with more-frequent small moves and much larger tails when highly-levered investors are surprised by something – Fed policy, banking crises, hedge fund failures, etc. So if this were to kick off a new period of opacity in Federal Reserve communications, it would be terrific. But I am not hopeful on this point.
But I have to have grudging respect for the people who formed the new “communications policy.” They used a practice long used by companies who see one of their jobs being to manage the stock price (personally I agree with Buffett here and think management’s job is to manage the company value and let Mr. Market set the price, but this is no longer a widespread view at least in the money management community). A company that is reporting “disappointing” earnings will very often simultaneously “guide higher” in future earnings. It is very rare, with certain companies – and you know who you are – to have poor earnings and poor guidance. The point is to blunt the market price reaction to real news that is bad – “the company made less money for shareholders” – with squirrelly expectations that are good – “but we’ll probably make lots more money in the future!” Incredibly, this seems to work even though we all know that the positive guidance will get battered down repeatedly before the next report.
And that’s what the Fed did. And here is what the statement said:
- The Fed is going to be buying fewer Treasuries going forward. This is real. There are going to be fewer purchasers of US Treasuries than we expected there to be just a few days ago. To be sure, they didn’t pledge to continue the taper, and made it data dependent, etc…but everything the Fed does is data dependent. In all likelihood the taper will continue, but I don’t know that. What I know is this: after no move in September and October, I didn’t expect one until March. So I thought there was a 3-month fuse. Now I know the fuse has already been lit. That’s meaningful in ways we will shortly discover.
- The Fed said they expect to keep interest rates really low for a really long period of time, based on their projections of how inflation and employment will evolve over the next couple of years. This is entirely “forward guidance,” but it’s not even for next quarter. The Fed knows no more about what inflation will be in one year – and even less, growth – than they knew two months ago. So any promise along these lines should, and shall, be overtaken by events. That is, the guidance will be watered down into the next meeting if it behooves the Fed to do so. And they will tighten when they feel the need to do so, and make up the reason to do so at that time.
That’s it. That’s what the statement says. There should be no confusion here. The $10bln taper was at the hawkish end of expectations and it matters to asset markets (year end and reluctance to take profits rather than let it ride for a week may delay asset market reactions, but it matters). The “communications” were dovish but…who cares? We already knew we have a very dovish Chairman coming in next year. No surprise there, and anyway if you’re leaning on the Fed for your two-year forecasts – good luck and Godspeed.
One final note and reminder: none of this affects the inflation outlook at all. The Fed is increasing excess reserves still, and more slowly than before. The transfer of excess reserves to required reserves and to money, by the making of loans, is a decision in the hands of the banks. Not until the Fed starts operating on required reserves, years from now, with reserves be constraining on banks. Higher interest rates will help banks make loans that are more additive to value relative to the cost of equity capital, and so money growth will stay too high and velocity will rise going forward. But none of this has anything to do with the Fed, for quite some time.
What the Fed action does do is affect the market-clearing levels of assets such as stocks and bonds because of the decline in Fed buying. I would expect interest rates to rise from here, and that will eventually get the attention of equity investors.
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.
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!