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.
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.
Before I descend into the mundane discussion of economies and markets, let me first congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son. In watching the pictures of the royals leaving the hospital with their child, I was struck at the fact that when his wife passes off the child, Prince William looks as uncomfortable holding a baby as most first-time fathers are. He did, however, have more luck with the mechanics of the car seat…as, again, most new fathers do.
However, when he drives home, he won’t have to worry about the rising cost of housing, and probably doesn’t fret much about whether his child will be able to afford a comfortable life in an inflationary future. “Will my son be better off than I am?” is a question for non-royals!
I have no idea what the rents are for a Kensington Palace apartment, but I will bet they are rent-controlled. Meanwhile, housing prices in the U.S. continue to rise rapidly. Today’s announcement of the FHA Home Price Index suggested prices have risen 7.3% over the last year (the fourth month in a row over 7%), while the median price of a home in the Existing Home Sales report yesterday was 13.2% above the year-ago level (see chart).
Aside from inflation, however, where the future trajectory is clear, the performance of the economy is probably best characterized by the word “muddled” (thank you, John Mauldin). Last Thursday, the Philly Fed index was published at 19.8 – a two-year high – versus expectations for 8.0; on Monday the Chicago Fed index showed -0.13 versus expectations for flat, and today the Richmond Fed index was -11 (the second-worst since 2009) versus expectations for +9.
And, in the meantime, Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) missed earnings badly and Detroit declared bankruptcy. Apple (AAPL) is just out with earnings and pulled the old trick of “beat on current earnings, match on revenues, but guide lower for next quarter.” The current consensus for Q2 GDP (the advance estimate is due out next week) is a mere 1.3%.
With all of this, equity prices are doing well with stocks up 5.4% for the month. Bond yields are fairly flat, with 10-year yields up 4bps from the end of June, but TIPS are doing relatively well (10y real yields -14bps; 10y breakevens +18bps). And even the DJ-UBS Commodity index is +4.3%. Gold is up nearly 10%.
Three weeks do not a turn in sentiment make, but I do find it interesting that real estate, inflation breakevens, gold, and commodities generally are all enjoying a renaissance right after inflation-linked bonds and commodities were buried in late June, with large outflows especially from TIPS funds (the shares outstanding of the TIP ETF went from 183 million at year-end, to 165 million in late May, to just 139 million now). It got so bad that my company reached out to customers in late June with a thorough explanation and presentation of why we thought the market was ‘getting it wrong.” Investors were throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
To be sure, I think real yields, breakevens, and nominal yields will eventually be much higher. But if nominal yields can simply avoid breaking higher for the next few weeks, I think the stage will be set for a fixed-income rally into September and October. As I have written before, in the aftermath of a convexity event such as we have just seen, a “cool down” period of a few weeks is usually necessary to work off the bad positions induced and trapped by the market’s sudden slide. Once these positions are worked off, I think the weak economic growth and weakening corporate internals will pressure stocks lower and the stock and bond markets will get back into some semblance of what static-equilibrium types think of as “fair value” relative to one another.
Even so, I think that commodities, breakevens, and even gold might have already seen the worst of their markets. In this suspicion I have been wrong before. Money velocity in Q2 will have declined further (probably to about 1.50 from 1.53 in Q1), but I think it will be higher – or at least not much lower – in Q3. And once velocity turns, time has run out. I am reminded of an old quote from Milton Friedman, from his book Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History.
“When the helicopter starts dropping money in a steady stream – or, more generally, when the quantity of money starts unexpectedly to rise more rapidly – it takes time for people to catch on to what is happening. Initially, they let actual balances exceed long-run desired balances, partly out of inertia; partly because they may take initial price rises as a harbinger of subsequent price declines, an anticipation that raises desired balances; and partly because the initial impact of increased money balances may be on output rather than on prices, which further raises desired balances. Then, as people catch on, prices must for a time rise even more rapidly, to undo an initial increase in real balances as well as to produce a long-run decline.” (p.36)
When this happens, stocks will take a beating. But it may be the final beating in this long, drawn out, secular bear. I guess it is far too early to say that, but I recently saw two news items that I have long been waiting for. The first is that CNBC is having ratings “issues,” and it is starting to get bad enough that the producers are thinking about “tinkering with primetime.” The second, which is clearly related, is that Maria Bartriromo is thinking of leaving business news to take her inestimable talents elsewhere.
As with commodities and inflation breakevens recently, a sine qua non for the start of a new bull market of substantial magnitude – not a 100% rally from the lows, but a 100% rally above the old highs – is that everyone stops thinking that stocks are smart and exciting investments, that they are “where it’s at,” and that all the cool people are buying stocks. And I have never been able to figure out how an environment sufficiently depressing to germinate a new bull market can occur if the cheerleaders are televised 24/7. Honestly, I had just about given up. While we still need cheap valuations and rotten sentiment to start a bull market (and we are very far from both of those standards in equities), a move towards general indifference among investors would be a good start.
 As the quote marks suggest, I don’t think that they will be right when you hear people declare that “stocks now offer good value relative to bonds again.” I think the people who use the “Fed model” tend to overprice stocks generally…and they tend to be much more diligent disciples of the model when yields are falling than when they are rising. When yields rise, they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because bond yields are going to rise, while when yields are low they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because of the current level of bond yields.
In our business, one must be very careful of confirmation bias of course (as well as all of the other assorted biases that can adversely affect one’s decision-making processes). And so I want to be very careful about reading too much into today’s CPI report. That being said, there were some hints and glimmers that the main components of inflation are starting to look more perky.
Headline (“all items”) inflation rose in June to 1.75% y/y, with core inflation 1.64%. About 20% of the weights in the major groups accelerated on a year-on-year basis; about 20% declined, and 60% were roughly flat. However, two thirds of the “unchanged” weight was in Housing, which moved from 2.219% to 2.249% y/y…but the devil is in the details. Owner’s Equivalent Rent, which is fully 24% of the overall CPI and about one-third of core CPI, rose from 2.13% to 2.21%, reaching its highest rate of change since November 2008. Primary Rents (that is, if you are a renter rather than a homeowner) rose from 2.83% to 2.89%, which is also a post-crisis high. Since much of my near-term expectations for an acceleration in inflation in the 2nd half of the year relies on the pass-through of home price dynamics into rentals, this is something I am paying attention to.
This is what I expected. But can I reject a null hypothesis that core inflation is, in fact, in an extended downtrend – that perhaps housing prices are artificially inflated by investor demand and will not pass through to rents, and the deflation in core goods (led by Medicare-induced declines in Medical Care) will continue? I cannot reject that null hypothesis, despite the fact that the NAHB index today surprised with a leap to 57, its highest since 2006 (see chart, source Bloomberg, below). It may be, although I don’t think it is, that the demand is for houses, rather than housing and thus the price spike might not pass into rents. So, while my thesis remains consistent with the data, the real test will be over the next several months. The disinflationists fear a further deceleration in year-on-year inflation, while I maintain that it will begin to rise from here. I still think core inflation will be 2.5%-2.8% by year-end 2013.
In fact, I think there is roughly an even chance that core inflation will round to 1.8% next month (versus 1.6% this month), although the 0.2% jump will be more dramatic than the underlying unrounded figures. The following month, it will hit 1.9%. That is still not the “danger zone” for the Fed, but it will quiet the doves somewhat.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI remained at 2.1%, the lowest level since 2011. The Median CPI continues to raise its hand and say “hello? Don’t forget about me!” If anyone is terribly concerned about imminent deflation, they should reflect on the fact that the Median CPI is telling us the low core readings are happening because a few categories have been very weak, but that there is no general weakness in prices.
Although I maintain that the process of inflation will not be particular impacted by what the Fed does from here – and, if what they do causes interest rates to rise, then they could unintentionally accelerate the process – the direction of the markets will be. And not, I think, in a good way. We saw today what happens when an inflation number came in fairly close to expectations: stocks down, bonds flat, inflation-linked bonds up, and commodities up. Now, imagine that CPI surprises on the high side next month?
Speaking of the fact that commodities have had (so far at least) their best month in a while, there was a very interesting blog entry posted today at the “macroblog” of the Atlanta Fed. The authors of the post examined whether commodity price increases and decreases affect core inflation in a meaningful way. Of course, the simple answer is that it’s not supposed to, because after all that’s what the BLS is trying to do by extracting food and energy (and doing that across all categories where explicit or implicit food and energy costs are found, such as in things like primary rents). But, of course, it’s not that simple, and what these authors found is that when commodity prices are increasing, then businesses tend to try and pass on these cost increases – and they respond positively to a survey question asking them about that – and it tends to show up in core inflation. But, if commodity prices are decreasing, then businesses tend to try and hold the line on prices, and take bigger profit margins. And that, also, shows up in the data.
To the extent this is true, it means that commodity volatility itself has inflationary implications even if there is no net movement in commodity prices over some period. That is because it acts like a ratchet: when commodity prices go up, core inflation tends to edge up, but when commodity prices go down, core inflation tends not to edge down. Higher volatility, by itself, implies higher inflation (as well, as I have pointed out, as increasing the perception of higher volatility: see my article in Business Economics here and my quick explanation of the main points here). It’s a very interesting observation these authors make, and one I have not heard before.
Imagine an island on which magic trees grow. These trees, as it turns out, are exactly like the trees everywhere else, except for three things. First, these trees never die. Second, the trees always grow to exactly 100 feet tall eventually. And third, to pass time on this boring island the villagers place bets on which specific trees in a given acre of land (on which all trees were planted at the same time) will grow the fastest over the next ten years.
Right after an acre is planted, there is much activity that can only be termed purely speculative. Without any obvious difference in the first shoots, the villagers place their bets based on which of the tree-market brokers tells the best story about a particular tree. These brokers do tend to change their minds frequently, however, so it turns out that there is rapid trading.
After a few years, some trees have clearly started to grow faster than other trees. Villagers tend to invest more on these trees that have “momentum.” And this trend continues, because the further in the lead a given tree is over its rivals, the more momentum it clearly has. There is, however, a class of investors who like to invest in the smaller trees, since the bet is on the rate of growth over time, and these investors think that the smaller trees are likely to revert to the mean (indeed, because all of these magic trees end up at the same height, they are correct on average).
The villagers who “own” the taller trees are generally happy, since their trees are “in the lead.” They don’t much care for the villagers who “own” the smaller trees, because they think these folk are just negative ninnies. The value-villagers are fairly confident, though, because they understand the math; and many of them are dismissive of the momentum-villagers and call them “lemmings.”
The odd thing is that both of these “investors” have their time in the sun. Early on in a tree’s growth pattern, the ones quickly out of the gate do tend to grow more rapidly. Consequently, momentum is a viable strategy. But the bigger the lead gets for these trees, the worse the bet becomes that the rate of growth will continue. Once the tree reaches 99 feet, for example, there are not many ways that it can beat a 20-foot tree going forward (remember – all of these magic trees always grow to be exactly 100 feet in time). And yet, the momentum-villagers remain true to their investment style, saying “the 20-foot tree must just be sick. And it can’t get as much sun because the 99-foot tree is shading it. The 99-foot tree may only grow 1 foot over the next ten years, but the 20-foot tree might not grow at all.” And, after all, it is fun to have your bet on the biggest tree in the forest. However, the value-villagers almost always win that bet.
This allegory isn’t really about growth versus value in equity investing. It is about asset class performance and, more specifically, the performance of equities versus commodities. There is a significant amount of history to suggest that over long periods of time, the average growth rate of equities and the average growth rate of commodity indices is approximately equal. This happens because the basic sources of both asset classes are fairly steady: aggregate economic growth, in the case of equities, and collateral return plus rebalancing effect, plus some other smaller sources of return, in commodities. So regardless of what you think about equities or commodities, in general when equities are dramatically outperforming commodities, you should be selling them to buy commodities, and vice-versa. But that isn’t how most investors bet. Most investors make up a story about why the tree is stunted, and will never grow, will never catch up, and then turn to bet on the tall tree.
It is a mistake.
It is a mistake, though, that the Street actively encourages because where the broker makes his money is on frenzy. Rallying markets tend to produce more volume and excitement, and that means more money for the broker. This is especially true when the market is equities, since there isn’t much underwriting of commodities to be done but there is quite a lot of underwriting of new equity issues.
Frankly, this over-exuberant cheerleading sometimes results in lies being disseminated to investors. Consider the following snapshot of a Bloomberg page describing the characteristics, including the P/E ratio, of the Russell 2000 index. You will see it says the Price/Earnings ratio is about 18.41. We all know that means that if you pay $18.41, you will get a set of stocks that will have $1 in earnings, collectively. Right?
Well, the following chart is also from Bloomberg, and you get it if you type RTY<Index>FA<GO>. What it says is that the Price/Earnings Ratio is actually 54.86, which means that your $18.41 actually only gets you $0.33 of earnings! What’s going on here? Well, the next line shows you that what Bloomberg considers the “real” P/E ratio – important enough to have on the front page – is really the Price/Earnings ratio if we only count the positive earnings.
So, that $18.41 does in fact get us $1 in earnings. Wall Street doesn’t want us to focus on the fact that it also gets us $0.67 in losses, so that the net is only $0.33. Because surely, those losses were one-time events, and obviously all 2000 companies will make money next year, right?
It may be that stocks are a great bargain here, and that multiples will expand further, the economy will surge in a way we haven’t seen in a decade or two, in an environment of tame inflation but ample liquidity. If that is the case, then equity investors will win over the next five years because they’re betting on the trees that have grown the most in the last two years. But in all other cases, commodity indices should grow faster than stocks as both revert to their long-term growth rates.
I wonder how quickly all of the calls of “deflation!” will turn into calls of “hyperinflation!”
After gold was pummeled $200 in two days on April 12th and 15th, there was a proliferation of commentators who suddenly declared that inflation fears were in full flight. Although the decline in inflation swaps to that point was mainly attributable to the decline in energy prices (subsequently, some air has indeed come out of implied core inflation, but still there is no deceleration in inflation, much less deflation, priced in), the chorus of “I told you so’s” was deafening and many were encouraging Chairman Bernanke and other central bankers to take a victory lap. After the disastrous 5-year TIPS auction on April 18th I could almost hear Darth Vader saying “strike down the 5-year breakeven and the journey to a deflationary mindset will be complete.”
Well, not so fast. Since that point, gold has recovered about $100 in rallying six out of the last eight sessions. The 5-year breakeven has recovered from 1.94% to 2.15% (although to be fair about half of that was due to the roll). The 10-year breakeven also bounced 14bps, and is back above 2.40%. Today, every commodity in the DJ-UBS index, with the exception of Coffee, rallied.
Why? What has changed over the last week and a half? Nothing important; if anything, the data has been weaker than the data preceding the washout. And that fact, I continue to think, is a fact the salience of which remains ungrasped by central bankers. Unless it’s by sheer coincidence, global growth simply isn’t going to explode upward while incentive structures are so bad and governments consume such a large part of the economy. And as long as growth doesn’t explode higher, central banks will keep easing, because – despite almost five years of contrary evidence – they think it helps growth. I believe the only way that global QE stops is if central banks come to understand that they aren’t doing any good on growth, and are doing much harm on inflation, though with a lag.
I am not terribly optimistic that such a eureka moment is nigh, especially when the economics community is so subject to confirmation bias that a technical washout in gold can provoke hosannas.
An April 12 article in the Washington Post highlighted recent research that indicates a one-percentage point increase in unemployment makes us feel four times as bad as a one-percentage point increase in inflation. This is not particularly surprising, at some level, although I greatly suspect that the results are non-linear – but I am not shocked that it feels worse to see people lose their jobs (or to lose one’s own job) than to absorb slightly higher price increases.
But the article goes on to argue that “Such findings could have significant implications for monetary policy, which until the most recent recession has primarily been concerned with controlling inflation. But now some central banks are speaking of allowing inflation to rise or stay slightly above their usual targets in hopes of bringing down unemployment.” The idea the article is proposing is that it is incorrect to balance evenly the (inherently conflicting) mandates the Fed is tasked with to seek lower inflation and lower unemployment; they should favor, according to this argument, lower unemployment.
There are several flaws in this argument, but I believe it is likely that the Fed more or less agrees with the sentiment.
One flaw is that the damage to inflation comes in the compounding. If unemployment is 6% now and 6% next year, there has been no change. But if inflation is 6% this year and 6% next year, then prices are up 12.4%. And if it’s for three years, it’s 19.1%. How many years of that 1% compounding inflation do you trade for 1% incremental change in unemployment?
A bigger flaw, in my view, is that central banks don’t have any important control over the unemployment rate, while they have important control over inflation. It may also be the case that a 1% rise in background radiation levels makes people feel even worse than a 1% rise in unemployment, but that doesn’t mean the Fed should target radiation levels!
Moreover, even if you think the Fed can affect growth, it is still true that for big moves in these numbers (because we really don’t care so much about 1% inflation change or 1% unemployment change, after all) the central bank’s power to cause harm is clearly much larger in inflation. It is possible to get 101% inflation, and in fact many central banks have done so. No central bank has ever managed to produce 101% unemployment.
I doubt that commodities and breakevens will go higher in a straight line from here. And every time there is a break lower, the deflationists will call for the surrender of the monetarists. But I do wonder if this latest break is the worst we will see until there is at least some sign that QE is going to end.
The sine qua non for a disaster is that no one is worrying about the disaster. Earthquakes are less damaging in Tokyo than the same earthquake would be in New York, because in Tokyo buildings are designed to be earthquake-resistant. This is also true in markets; if investors are guarded about purchasing equities because of all the bad things that can happen, then prices of equities will be very low and it will be difficult to effect a true crash in such a circumstance.
The opposite doesn’t necessarily follow in the physical world (if you don’t prepare for an earthquake, it doesn’t increase…so far as we know…the probability of it happening), but it occasionally does in the financial world. I pointed out in January the work by Arnott and Wu which indicates that a company which enjoys “top dog status” in terms of having the greatest market capitalization in its sector tends to underperform the average company in the market by 5% per year for a decade. This is largely because investors in such companies are not prepared for adverse surprises, so that any such surprises tend to be taken poorly. Similarly, problems in Cyprus had an outsized effect on markets because (remarkably) no one was prepared for there to be problems in Cyprus that the rest of the Eurozone wouldn’t simply write a check to cover.
By this standard, inflation is growing more dangerous by the day, as more and more investors and pundits start talking – incredibly – about deflation. St. Louis Federal Reserve President Bullard today told an audience at the Hyman Minsky Conference in New York that it is “too early” to worry about deflation. That statement must hit most readers of this column as hysterically funny, given how many readers typically complain that the CPI is far lower than their personal experience of inflation. Bullard also noted that he favors an increase in the pace of QE if inflation falls further. Since core inflation is currently at 1.9%, Bullard is essentially putting a floor on inflation near where we once thought the ceiling was.
I read somewhere today that the recent declines in copper and gold are “signs of deflation.” I disagree. At best, they are signs of fears of deflation, right? But even that, I don’t buy. While breakevens in the TIPS market have declined recently, they are still not particularly low by any historical standard (see chart of 10y BEI, source Bloomberg). Moreover, a not-insignificant part of that decline represents a direct response to energy’s retracement and isn’t a reaction to a softer opinion about core inflation.
In fact, the core inflation implied by the 1-year inflation swap, once energy is extracted, is above the current level of core inflation and near the highs that have been seen since early 2011 (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
So I suspect, rather, that the causality runs the other way: the decline in copper and gold has caused an increase in chatter and vocal concern about deflation. But the people who are investing directly on whether deflation will happen aren’t seeing it. This is somewhat comforting, as it’s the people with actual money (rather than pundits and economists) who determine whether their institutions are ready.
Now, to the extent that the increased chatter actually leads to renewed relaxation in inflation expectations (ex-energy), it sets the stage for worse damage when it inevitably happens. Inflation, like earthquakes, is more injurious when societal institutions have not prepared for it. Median inflation in the U.S. over the last decade is about 2.5%. But in South Africa, it is 5.7%. In the U.S., a 5.7% inflation rate would cause major havoc, but South Africans would be amused at that since they deal every day with that pace of price change (as did Americans, in the 1980s). In Turkey, median inflation has been about 9.5%, but there again the society has adapted to it. To the extent that there is any fear in the U.S. about inflation rising to 5% or to 10%, institutions will prepare for it, and they will eventually learn to deal with it. It’s the shift to that new reality that can be especially painful.
The rest of the week has only minor economic data releases, with the Philly Fed report on Thursday (Consensus: 3.0 vs 2.0 last) the most important of them. A few Fed speakers will be on the tape. But the real market concern is concern in the market: the VIX has risen to 16.5 after having receded slightly on Tuesday; the dollar today retraced all of Tuesday’s decline and then some. Gold and commodities have not fallen further after the washout on Monday, but neither have they rejected the lower levels and rallied back. The S&P has support at 1540 or so but below that level there could be a substantial further fall. All of these markets have potential for important moves, and in the meantime there is the potential for renewed headlines out of Cyprus where there is consternation over the new demands from the EU. The trader in me would guess (stress: guess) at further weakness in equities, an attempt made by energy markets to hold near these levels, a halting rally into resting sell orders in precious metals markets, steady nominal bond markets but with some rebound higher in long breakevens. But here are the problems: (1) these are all connected – so I could easily miss on every one of these guesses; (2) any big move will affect sentiment on the others, so that there are copious feedback loops; (3) much of what happens will depend on the next quantum of news to hit the screens, and (4) Wall Street is less and less in a position to take risk and maintain orderly markets, as it has in the past. We might even simply tread water into the weekend and take our volatility on Monday. But I’m fairly convinced that more volatility is coming before markets calm down again.
But that’s not a problem, if you’re prepared for it!
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Five years into the biggest money-printing exercise of all time, and commodities are (incredibly) approaching the status of being universally loathed. On Friday, gold provided a great illustration of one reason I always say that investors should have a position in diversified commodity indices. A Goldman Sachs report released a couple of days ago (with gold 20% off the highs) suggested that prices may have further to fall; more important to Friday’s rout, though, was the increase in the European assessment of how much more money Cyprus will have to raise for itself (€6bln, or about 35-40% of annual Cypriot GDP) to complete the bailout, and the speculation that Cypriot gold reserves will have to be sold.
Add to this the fact that Friday’s economic data was weak with ex-Auto Retail Sales -0.4% and the Michigan Confidence figure showing a surprising drop. Clearly, investors believe this to be a death knell for inflation (as opposed to the “death bell” – I’m not sure what that is – that Citigroup says has been sounded for the commodity supercycle).
But all of the data, and the European sovereign crisis, apparently does support rapidly rising home prices and equities at disturbing multiples of 10-year earnings!
Considering that commodities have been around far longer than equities, bonds, or even money itself, it is incredible how little understanding there is about them.
One misunderstanding, and key to understanding the current situation, is not peculiar to commodities. It is simply the common confusion of nominal and real quantities. In a nutshell, the change in any good’s nominal price over time consists of two things: a real price change, and a change in the price that recognizes that the value of the currency unit measuring stick has changed – that is, inflation. We’re familiar with this construction in the form of the Fisher equation, which tells us that nominal yields represent the combination of a real return that is the cost of money plus a premium (or, less frequently, a discount) for the expected change in the price level over the holding period. But that construction applies to all price changes.
So if the price of your ham sandwich rises 3% this year, is there a bull market in ham sandwiches? Well, in all likelihood not – it’s just that the overall price level is rising by roughly that amount. What about if the price of the ham sandwich rises by only 1%, because ham is becoming cheaper? Then we would say that there was a 2% decline in the real price of the ham sandwich, plus 3% inflation.
Now, if prices instead rose 15%, the ham sandwich in this latter scenario would not still be only rising in price by 1%. It would likely rise by 13% or so: the 15% inflation, minus the 2% decline in the real price of a ham sandwich. Even if a ham sandwich glut was forcing a 10% decline in real prices, the nominal price of a ham sandwich would still be rising in that case.
So, when groups trumpet the “end of the commodity cycle,” they seem to be confused. It is possible that they are saying that real commodity prices should decline over time, but I wonder whether their clients would be awed by that prediction since it has been the norm for hundreds of years. Moreover, if they were referring to real prices, then if CPI goes up 10% and commodity prices go up 5%, they will be right – but clients might not see it the same way.
But I don’t think that’s what they are saying. If it is, then those groups are also a bit late to the party – commodity indices, which include additional sources of return, have underperformed inflation by 28% since 2004 and are down about half from the 2008 highs. Frankly, in the chart below (Source: Bloomberg), which shows the DJ-UBS commodity index divided by the NSA CPI, I don’t see anything which looks like an up-leg of a supercycle, except perhaps the doubling from 2003-2008. Is a 100% gain over five years a “supercycle”?
Now, in the SP-GSCI, which has a much greater weight in energy, it looks plausibly like a “supercycle,” as prices tripled in real terms off the lows in 1999 (see Chart, source Bloomberg), and admittedly the chart looks a little feeble at the moment. But that difference is, as I just suggested, mostly due to energy. And if you think the energy supercycle has ended…just short energy, don’t paint all commodities with the ugly brush!
And, by the way, it seems like a pretty wimpy supercycle if the peak in real terms doesn’t even approach the earlier peak.
In nominal terms, all of these charts look different, with the downswings being dampened and the upswings accentuated, because of inflation. But that’s certainly not the right way to look at commodities (or any asset) over time. We don’t care about the nominal return. We care about the real return. And viewed through a real return lens, commodities are much closer to being really cheap than to being really rich!
Obviously, I disagree with all of these groups when it comes to commodities generally. About gold I have no firmly-held opinion about its valuation at the moment, but commodities generally we see as cheap – in fact, we expect triple the real returns from investing in commodities indices over the next ten years compared to equity investing. This is a function of both the very rich absolute valuations of equities and the very cheap absolute valuations of commodities indices.
Moreover, if inflation does in fact accelerate – something which has nothing to do with the weak Michigan or Retail Sales numbers – then commodities will also have terrific nominal returns while equities might well have negative nominal returns.
Markets have been surprisingly quiet over the last few days. Some of that, no doubt, is due to the NCAA basketball tournament, to the Good Friday/Easter Monday holiday in the U.S. and in Europe, and to baseball’s Opening Day.
We also had Japanese year-end and the end of Q1 in the U.S., and to the extent that the last week has brought any market moves of interest at least a portion of that can be put on the account of the calendar. On Thursday, the S&P set a record month-end close, although a higher intraday print was established in October of 2007. But while news accounts attributed the almost-record to an “easing of Cyprus fears,” it is much more likely that it was due to the normal (and well-known) quarter-end “mark ‘em up” machinations of less-scrupulous fund managers in illiquid market conditions.
In a similar vein, the quirk of having the quarter end on a Thursday three days before the calendar turns helped exaggerate a massive move in grains, especially corn, on a mildly bearish crop report. Those who are invested in commodities for tactical reasons are being flushed because they’re tired of waiting, as an article in today’s Wall Street Journal made clear. The investors who are leaving do not have comfort in the asset class because they don’t understand the drivers of the asset class; the result is that they become performance chasers. So, when crop reports suggest that the real price of corn should fall a little bit, investors slash nominal prices 10% in ‘get me out’ orders.
But as I said, these investors don’t understand the fundamental drivers of the asset class. The article cited above regarded the breakdown of the correlation between commodity indices and equity indices as something sinister, saying that the correlation is at its lowest level since 2008 and suggesting that this means that one of the two markets is wrong. As it turns out, though, the correlation of stocks and commodities is a relatively new phenomenon. Over the last 5 years, the correlation of monthly changes in the DJ-UBS index and the S&P is 0.61. However, for the 17 years prior to that, the correlation was 0.04 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
For the GSCI commodity index, the last-5-years correlation is 0.65, but for the 38 years prior to that (the GSCI has a longer history) the correlation was -0.02. In short, there is no reason to read a whole lot into the recent decoupling of stocks and commodities, except that it may suggest the hot money is finally leaving commodities. The correlation breakdown is also a good thing for anyone who believes – as I do – that stocks are overvalued. And, since a good portion of commodities’ long-run return comes from a rebalancing effect that is larger when the inter-commodity correlations are lower, this is more good news.
The choppy melt-up in stocks on Thursday was partially reversed by the new-quarter blues today, but all of this is mere detail. Over the last week, while authorities in Europe have encouraged investors to put the Cyprus issue to bed additional details have emerged that deserve mentioning. For example, it turns out that the larger depositors (over €100,000) investors in one of the Cypriot banks will not get a 10% haircut, or a 20% haircut, but something close to a 100% haircut – 37.5% of the deposit balance in excess of 100k will be converted to equity in the bankrupt bank. There are some reports that certain deposits belonging to “EU funds” will be exempt from the haircut. There are of course the stories that capital controls implemented in Cyprus were ignored in non-Cyprus branches of Cypriot banks, and one Cypriot newspaper is claiming that relatives of the president withdrew substantial funds from Laiki bank just before the bank was shut down.
While the worst of the immediate crisis has surely passed, it seems madness to me to pretend that it never happened or that it will have no knock-on effects. For that matter, it seems madness to conclude that since the knock-on effects were not immediate, that no such effects exist. On the other hand, when events are no longer going bang-bang-bang in rapid succession, it is reasonable to ask “whose move is it?” Will bank deposits begin to flee from periphery countries, or wait to see what assurances European officials give? Are central bankers already injecting liquidity into shaky banks, or are they waiting for the invitation from the banks in-country? Are investors reducing risk and diversifying away from European assets, or are they waiting to see if other investors do so first? All of these actions entail costs, and so there is a natural desire of every party to delay action…but to not delay action so long as to cause those costs to rise substantially.
As a trader, my inclination is to hit a bid and get out, and not worry about the bid/offer spread or those other costs. But I am not dealing with billions of Euros when I do that. Still, the insight is that when bad things might happen, the here-and-now transactions costs are usually a poor reason not to seek protection. This is why T-Bills over the last couple of years have occasionally had negative nominal yields (see the chart of 3-month T-bill yields below, source Bloomberg). Yes, it’s clearly dumb to pay $1.01 now to receive $1 in the future. But is it dumber than the alternatives?