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Make Hay While the Sun Doesn’t Shine

February 27, 2014 14 comments

Today new Fed Chairman Janet Yellen jumped on the bandwagon in blaming the recent growth slowdown on the weather.

Here’s what I have to say about the news and the weather.

First, although it’s becoming quite passé to point this out, the weather should account for a slowdown in economic activity – but, since economists were aware of the weather (presumably), it is less clear that it should account for a surprise in the amount of slowdown we are seeing. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Citibank economic surprise index, which measures how much recent data have exceeded (positive) or fallen short (negative) of expectations. It is not a measure of growth, per se, but merely of the direction in which economists are missing. I have plotted both the US index and the Eurozone index.

cesis

Obviously, economists were far too pessimistic about the numbers in December and January (reflecting data from October to December, and data kept exceeding their estimates. But now they are over-exuberant. So it isn’t that the numbers are falling short; it’s that they’re falling short of where economists (who can presumably recognize snow) thought they would be incorporating the known weather drags. That could simply mean the weather had a worse impact on real people than the bow-tied set thought it would. Or it could mean data is weaker than it ought to be.

Second point: just because the weather was bad should not be taken as carte blanche for the economy to collapse. If the economy was really as strong as equity investors seem to think, should weather be able to derail it so easily? Yes, weather makes it harder to detect the natural rhythm of what is going on, but it wasn’t as if that was easy to begin with. The danger is, as I suggested a week and a half ago, when all news can only be neutral or good. That’s a bad sign for once the weather normalizes again and it gets impossible to shrug off bad news as easily.

Third point: was the weather as bad in Europe? Because, as you can see from the chart above, economists have also been missing on the optimistic side for European figures. To be sure, they’ve been missing by less, and the numbers surprised less on the positive side over the last couple of months, but I don’t know that the Polar Vortex ought to be affecting Italy as seriously as it is affecting Chicago.

All of which is simply to say that the weather isn’t going to be bad forever, so … make hay while the sun doesn’t shine, I guess. Stocks are flat on the year, the hard way (but commodities are +6.5%, measured by the DJ-UBS index; according to our valuation estimates, that should be the normal case over the next few years rather than the rarity it has been over the last few).

It is interesting, too, that as bad as the weather effect has been on the construction industry and sales it hasn’t really impacted the price dynamics at all. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows Existing Home Sales in white, and the year/year change in median sales prices of existing single-family homes. Sales are 14% off their highs (seasonally-adjusted, which you should take with a grain of salt due to the unseasonal weather, but notice that the decline started in August when the snow was appreciably lighter), yet prices are still rising at nearly 11% year/year.

ehsl and prices

Now, a housing bull will say that these are the opposite faces of the same coin. They would say, “because there is so little inventory available – according to the NAR, only 1.9mm homes are for sale, which is higher than last winter but otherwise the lowest since 2002 – prices are rising and fewer are being sold because of the shortage of supply.” This is certainly possible, although I wonder at where all of the ‘shadow supply’ and bank REO property got off to so quickly, especially since the pace of existing home sales (and new home sales) remain at such low fractions of the pace prior to 2007 (existing home sales is currently 64% of the peak rate in 2005; new home sales are at 34% of the 2005 peak). How do you get rid of inventory without selling it?

The housing market continues to be a conundrum, but without a doubt prices are rising. And, also without a doubt, rising home prices are beginning to push rents higher. More economists are raising their forecasts for core inflation looking forward over the next year. Of course, readers of this column know that this is old news here. Speaking of which, Enduring Investments’ Quarterly Inflation Outlook for Q1 has been published. Institutional investors and others interested in our services can register for this private report on our website by filling out the contact form and requesting access to the blog.

Finally, I want to make one observation about the complete impotence of the Republicans to respond to the Democrats’ push for a higher minimum wage. It is terribly distressing to see such bad economics from one party (in this case, the Democrats) and such utter lack of common sense responses to bad economics from the other party (in this case, the Republicans). Here is the only question that needs to be answered: if raising the minimum wage has only salutatory effects on the economy and on the working class, then why not raise it to $1000/hour? Why not $10,000 per hour? Surely, if raising the minimum wage is good, then raising it more can’t be bad. Republicans should be amending the bill to make the minimum wage $10,000/hour.

The obvious answer is that if the minimum wage was $10,000/hour, no one would hire anybody – and we all know that, and even Democrats know that, and we all know why: because there is almost no one in the country who can produce enough goods or services to be worth $10,000/hour. If you are hiring people, you have to decide whether you will get enough out of them to afford their labor and still stay in business. The answer is obvious at $10,000. But it’s the same question at $10: can this group of workers produce enough so that I can afford to pay them all $10? If not, they will not be earning $10/hour but $0/hour (or at least some of them will be). We know exactly what would happen with a $10,000/hour minimum wage, and it’s easy to demonstrate it. But the Republicans are absolutely inarticulate on this point, and on most points, and that is why they keep losing arguments where they have the stronger position.

Housekeeping Note: earlier this week I published an article on the Mt. Gox/bitcoin fiasco. If you didn’t see the note (it didn’t get out on all of the syndication channels), you can find it here.

Categories: Economy, Housing, Politics Tags:

Catching Up on the Week

January 17, 2014 4 comments

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.

6/24/2013

5.80%

8/27/2013

4.60%

10/8/2013

4.10%

12/13/2013

1.80%

1/13/2014

1.60%

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).

median and coreMoreover, 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.

whoopsOERSorry 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.

sorryfolksFor 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.

Forecasting Cold to Continue Into Summer?

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.

zc20132014If 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.

core20132014At 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.

calcore20132014The 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.

Battle Lines Drawn

October 22, 2013 4 comments

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.

dxycommod

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.

Food Fight at the Fed!

September 23, 2013 2 comments

Now, now, children! Stop fighting! This is unbecoming!

It is apparent now that the disagreements in the FOMC – while nothing new – are becoming more significant and the hurly-burly is spilling into the public eye. It is somewhat amazing to me that the Fed is allowing this argument to be conducted in public (traditionally, all remarks by Fed officials are first vetted by the Chairman’s office). Today Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher actually questioned the Fed’s credibility! This article is worth reading, and not just for the part where Fisher says that Yellen is “dead wrong on policy.” It’s also fascinating that Fisher attributed the decision to delay the taper to “a perceived ‘tenderness’” in the housing recovery.

Below is a chart (source: Enduring Investments) of the ratio of median existing home sale prices to median household income. If this is “tenderness” in a recovery, it only shows a lack of knowledge of history: this is the second highest ratio of home prices to income we have since this particular data begins…and the first highest ratio sunk the global economy for a half-decade and counting.

updatedhousing

On the other side of the fence were the New York Fed’s Bill Dudley and the Atlanta Fed’s Dennis Lockhart, who lamented that (Dudley) there has been no pickup in the economy’s “forward momentum” and asked (Lockhart) “Is America losing its economic mojo?” These questions, and the result of these questions during the recent FOMC meeting, illustrate two points. First, that the bar for removing never-before-seen levels of monetary accommodation has been raised so high that doves believe it is appropriate to keep the foot on the accelerator until growth is drastically above-average. As I illustrated back at the beginning of August, it is unreasonable to expect more than about 200,000 new jobs per month to be created by the economy. Repairing all of the damage is simply going to take time. We would all love to see 5% growth, but is the Fed’s job really to make sure that happens, or to try and manage the downside (or, as I personally believe, to merely manage the price level)?

The second point that the Fisher/Dudley/Lockhart comments illustrate is that the doves at the Fed are clearly in control. The hawks were completely unable even to get a marginal tapering, although the Fed had clearly indicated previously that such a taper was likely to happen.

It is a Dudley/Bernanke/Yellen Fed (and they have allies too!), and anyone who thinks that the Fed is abruptly going to find religion once CPI peeks above 2% is fighting against all historical indications. One need only consider the fact that the post-FOMC meeting statement pointed out a “tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months,” a clear reference to the rapid rise in interest rates that accompanied the initial talk about tapering. But if the Fed begged off on the taper partly because of the tightening of financial conditions, that is the rise in interest rates that was caused by an expectation that the taper would stop, then the argument circular, isn’t it? It’s impossible for them to stop, since any indication that they were going to stop is obviously going to cause interest rates to rise, which would be a tightening of financial conditions, which would keep them from stopping… Does anyone seriously think that a core inflation print of 2.1% would change that?

To the extent that cutting from 20 cups of coffee per day to 19 cups of coffee per day could be called a “bold step,” wouldn’t the best time to take such a “bold step” with monetary policy be when the equity markets are at their highs and real estate markets back above their long-term value anchors?

And yet, the initial enthusiasm for the stock market for the continuation of QE seems to have faded rapidly. The entire post-FOMC rally that caused such joy around the offices of CNBC last Wednesday has been erased. Interestingly, the initial spike in commodities prices has also been erased, which is more curious since commodities prices don’t depend on growth as much as they do on inflation. And 10-year inflation expectations are back around 2.25%, basically the highest level they have seen since the Q2 swoon (see chart, source Bloomberg). So, as usual, I am flummoxed by the behavior of commodities.

10ybei

I know that there is a great deal of confidence in some quarters that the Federal Reserve can keep its foot on the gas until such time as inflation actually rises to a level that concerns them. I cannot imagine the reason for such confidence when the drivers of the car are such committed doves. There are multiple problems undermining my confidence in such a possibility. There is the “Wesbury hypothesis” that the Fed will adjust its definition of what worries them about inflation – a hypothesis which, after this month’s FOMC meeting, should be even more compelling. There is the fact that there is no evidence I am aware of that the Fed was able to easily restrain inflation after it came unglued in any prior episode (and no one knows where and when and how it will come unglued). And finally, it isn’t clear to me how the Fed would go about restraining inflation anyway, given the overabundance of excess reserves and the fact that those reserves insulate any inflation process against the tender ministrations of the central bank.

One thing seems to be sure. The food fight at the Fed is not likely to end soon, and together with the dysfunction on Capitol Hill is raises the very real question of whether anything economically helpful is going to be accomplished in Washington DC this year.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

September 17, 2013 10 comments

Here is a summary of my tweets after the CPI release this morning. You can follow me @inflation_guy.

  • CPI +0.1%/+0.1% core, y/y core to 1.8%. Core only slightly weaker than expected as it rounded down to 0.1% rather than up to 0.2%.
  • Housing CPI was weak, second month in a row. Rents will eventually catch up w/ housing prices…but not yet.
  • Apparel CPI was weak after a couple of strong up months. I’ll have the whole breakdown in a bit.
  • Core was actually only 0.13%, suggesting last August’s 0.06% and this August’s number might merely be bad seasonals.
  • Market was only looking for 0.17% or so, so it’s not a HUGE miss. Still disappointing to my forecasts as upturn in rents remains overdue.
  • Core CPI now 1.766% y/y. More difficult comparison next month although still <0.2%.
  • Accelerating major grps: Apparel, Medical Care, Educ/Comm, Other (20.9%); decel: Food/Bev, Housing(!), Transp (73.1%), unch: Recreation
  • Housing deceleration actually isn’t worrisome. Primary rents were 3.0% y/y vs 2.8% last. OER was 2.23% vs 2.19% last.
  • Housing subcomponent drag was from lodging away from home, household energy, other minor pieces. So housing inflation story still intact.
  • Core services inflation unch at 2.4% y/y; core goods inflation up to 0% from -0.2%. Source of uptick: mean reversion in core goods.
  • So OER still reaches a new cycle high at 2.23%…it’s just not accelerating yet as fast as I expect it to. Lags are hard!

The initial reading of this number, as the tweet timeline above shows, was negative. The figure was weaker-than-expected, and Housing CPI decelerated from 2.26% to 2.17%. This seemed to be a painful blow to my thesis, which is that rising home prices will pass through into housing inflation (expressed in rents) and push core inflation much higher than economists currently expect.

Housing CPI is one of eight major subgroups of CPI, the other seven being Food and Beverages, Medical Care, Transportation, Apparel, Recreation, Education and Communication, and Other. Housing receives the most weight, at 41% of the consumption basket and an even heavier weight in core inflation. So, a deceleration in Housing makes it very hard for core inflation to increase, and vice-versa. If you can get the direction of Housing CPI right, then you’ll have a leg up in your medium-term inflation forecast (although it isn’t very helpful in terms of projecting month-to-month numbers, which are mostly noise). Thus, the deceleration in Housing seemed discouraging.

But on closer inspection, the main portions of Housing CPI are doing about what I expected them to do. Primary Rents (aka “Rent of primary residence”) is now above 3%, in sharp contrast to the expectations of those economists and observers who thought that active investor interest in buying vacant homes would drive up the price of housing but drive down the price of rents. Though I never thought that was likely…the substitution effect is very strong…it was a plausible enough story that it was worth considering and watching out for. But in the event, primary rents are clearly rising, and accelerating, and Owners’ Equivalent Rent is also rising although less-obviously accelerating (see Chart, source BLS).

oerprimarySo, it is much less clear upon further review that this is a terribly encouraging CPI figure. It is running behind my expectations for the pace of the acceleration, but it is clearly meeting my expectations for what should be driving inflation higher. As I say above, econometric lags are hard – they are tendencies only, and in this case the lags have been slightly longer, or the acceleration somewhat muted, from what would typically have been expected from the behavior of home prices. Some of that may be from the “investors producing too many rental units” effect, or it might simply be chance. In any event, the ultimate picture hasn’t changed. Core inflation will continue to rise for some time, and will be well above 2% and probably 3% before the Fed’s actions have any meaningful effect on slowing the increase.

Why Aren’t Delinquencies Falling Faster?

The great news today is that mortgage delinquencies dropped to their lowest level in five years. Look at the chart (source: Bloomberg)! Doesn’t it look great?

mortdelThis was actually a bit surprising to me. With the Unemployment Rate doing about what it usually does in recoveries, and the economy adding something a bit shy of 200,000 new jobs per month, and with interest rates low and housing prices rising, you would think that delinquencies would have improved much more than they have.

Pretty much all of the delinquency data looks the same way. Here is a chart of new foreclosure actions as a (seasonally-adjusted) percentage of total loans.

foreclosurestartedWhile well off its highs, this would have been a record level just a few years ago.

Is this a symptom of the “part-time America” phenomenon, in which all of these new jobs are being generated as part-time work, so that the improvement in the lot of the average worker is not paralleling the improvement in the jobs or unemployment rate numbers? (I’m not disputing that such a phenomenon exists; in fact I think it does. I am asking whether this is a symptom of that, or if there is another cause?) In any event, it isn’t a very good sign, and is one reason that even once QE ends, the Fed will endeavor to keep rates low for a very long time.

By the way, it also makes me wonder whether the celebrated move of institutional investors into the private residential real estate market is having a smaller effect than many people think it is. If there were big players looking to buy bank REO on the offered side, then wouldn’t you think banks would be accelerating foreclosures and that the delinquencies would be dropping faster (as homeowners either get into the foreclosure process, whereupon they aren’t in the delinquency stats, or get serious about becoming current)? I don’t know the answer.

.

Here is a technical point for institutional investors in inflation-indexed bonds and/or swaps – something worth watching for.

There has been much concern in some quarters recently about the coming increase in demand for high-quality collateral to back swaps under Dodd-Frank regulations.  One way this could manifest in the inflation markets is to narrow the spread between inflation “breakevens” and inflation swaps. As the chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) illustrates, the inflation swaps curve is always above the “breakeven” curve. In theory, both curves should be measuring the same thing: aggregate inflation expectations over some period.beivszcAnd, in fact, they do. But while the inflation swaps market is a relatively-pure measure of inflation expectations, breakevens have some idiosyncrasies that make them less useful for this purpose. Predominant among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that nominal Treasury bonds act in the market as if they are very, very good collateral and so often trade at “special” financing rates. That is, when you buy a Treasury bond you not only buy a stream of cash flows, but you pay a little extra for it since you can borrow against it at attractive rates sometimes (if you are an investor who does not utilize the bonds for collateral, then you are paying for this value for no reason). However, TIPS are much more likely to be “general” collateral, and to offer no special financing advantage. There is no fundamental reason for this: TIPS are Treasuries, and are just as valuable as collateral to post as margin as are nominal Treasuries. There just isn’t a deep short base, and the main owners of TIPS are inflation-linked bond funds that actively repo them out so that they are rarely in short supply. It is unusual, although no longer unprecedented, to see a TIPS issue trade special.

The consequence of this is that Treasury yields are lower than they would otherwise be, by the amount of the “specialness option,” and TIPS yields are not affected by the same phenomenon. Therefore, breakevens are lower than they would otherwise be.

If, in fact, there becomes a shortage of “good” collateral to use to post as swaps margin, one place I would expect that to show up would be in the TIPS market. I would expect that TIPS issues would begin to go on special more-frequently, and to start to behave like the good collateral they are. The consequence of that would be to cause TIPS yields to decline relative to nominal yields as they gain the “specialness option,”, and for breakevens to rise towards inflation swap levels. (As an aside, that would also cause TIPS asset swaps to richen of course).

A long time ago, I summarized this argument here,[1] and a slightly more-rigorous draft of a paper is here.[2]

As I said, this is a technical point and not something the non-institutional investor needs to worry about.


[1] I am bound to include this notice with any online use of the article: “This article was originally published in The Euromoney Derivatives & Risk Management Handbook 2008/09. For further information, please visit www.euromoney-yearbooks.com/handbooks.”

[2] Frankly, I need to update this paper and get it published, but the last time I submitted it I had one referee tell me “this is wrong” and the second referee said “this is obvious” so I decided in frustration to let it drift.

Is A Bond Rally Due?

July 29, 2013 1 comment

As we head into a very busy week of economic data, the bond market remains drippy with the 10-year yield up to 2.59%. (Just writing that makes me laugh. Who would have thought, only a few years ago, that 2.59% was a high-ish yield?)

How we got here, from the ultra-low levels of the last two years, is well-traveled territory. The Fed’s swing from “QE-infinity” to “someday, maybe, we might not buy as many bonds” helped trigger a run for the exits, and then negative convexity inflection points kept the rout going for a long time. Most lately, the threat of muni bond convexity has been looming as the next big concern.

But my message today is actually one of good cheer. The worst of the bond selloff was now more than three weeks ago, without a further low being established. In my experience, convexity-inspired selloffs typically end not with a sharp rebound but with a sideways trade as “trapped” long positions gradually work their way out and buyers start to nibble. But it remains a buyer’s market for several weeks, at least.

We are getting far enough along in that process that I suspect we have a rally due. This has nothing to do with any economic data coming up. There is enough data coming this week, from Consumer Confidence to Payrolls to GDP to the Fed statement, that both bulls and bears will be able to find something to point to. And I am not pointing to technicals, exactly. I am just saying that markets rarely move in a straight line, and even bear markets – such as the one I think we have now entered, in bonds – have nice rallies from time to time.

But here’s a reason to expect this to happen relatively soon. The chart below is a neat “seasonal heat map” chart from Bloomberg showing the monthly yield change for the last 10 years and the average monthly change on the top line.

heatmapFor a long time, I have been following the rule of thumb I learned as a mere babe in the bond market, and that’s that the best time of the year to buy bonds is the first few days of September. From at least the late 1970s until today, September until mid-October has been the strongest seasonal period of the year (not every year, but with enough consistency that you wanted to avoid being short in September). But the heat map above shows that this tendency may have shifted. The month that has seen the best average bond market performance over the last decade has been August, with yields falling an average of 22bps with rallies in 8 of the last 10 years. If we were sitting with 10-year yields at 1.59%, I would be less interested in this observation, but at 2.59% I am looking for the counter-trade.

To be sure, yields in the big picture are headed higher, not lower. But I am looking for signs that the recent selloff has over-discounted the immediate threat of ebbing Federal Reserve purchases. And I don’t expect growth to suddenly leap forward here, either.

As an aside, 10-year TIPS yields have also experienced one of their best months in August, with the other clear positive month being January. But, because nominal yields have been so strong, August has been the worst month for breakevens, with 10-year breakevens falling 10bps on average over the last ten years. No other month has seen breakevens decline as much as 6bps, on average.

Now, although I am a bond bear in the big picture, I don’t think that the housing market is doomed because interest rates will go up one or two or three percent. I am fascinated by how many analysts seem to think that unless 10-year rates are below 3%, the housing market will collapse. I argued about six weeks ago that higher mortgage rates should not impact sales of homes very much as long as the interest rate is less than the expected capital gain the homeowner expects to make on the home. (Higher rates will, however, cut fairly quickly into speculative building activity, which is much more rates-sensitive). And here is another reason not to worry too much about the housing market. A story in Bloomberg last week says that adjustable-rate mortgages are booming again, with mortgagees taking them out at the highest pace since 2008. Faced with higher rates, and a Fed with is not likely to raise short rates for a long while – as they have taken pains to keep reminding us – homebuyers have rationally decided to take the cheaper money and let the future refinancing take care of itself.

Whether that is sowing the seeds of a future debacle I will leave to other pundits to debate. From my perspective, the important point is that higher rates are not likely to slow home sales, or the recent rise in home prices, very much…unless they get a lot higher.

Babies and Bathwater

July 23, 2013 3 comments

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).

somehomeprices

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.[1]

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.

 


[1] 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.

Ben, Can I Speak With Your Mommy?

July 17, 2013 5 comments

Although the market action was restrained today, one gets the feeling that it was the heat rather than the lack of news. There were at least two events worth commenting on today.

The first was the Housing Starts figure, which at 836k (versus 960k expected) was about 13% worse than expected. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, housing starts are now about 16% below the highs hit earlier this year. And the industry, while upbeat (see the NAHB upside surprise yesterday), must be that way because of the perceived future business since the level of starts we are retreating from is only slightly above the level reached at the depths of the 1991 recession.

starts

However, this is positive news both for investors in housing and for the economy as a whole. The decline in housing starts appears to be a price response to higher interest rates (it certainly isn’t a response to a glut, as inventories are extremely low right now). It is terrific news that this is happening, because it is a rational response to higher interest rates on the part of spec builders (who are much more sensitive to financing than is the average homebuyer). On the chart below, I’ve added the 10-year Treasury yield (inverted).

starts2

Note that the correlation of levels from January 1990 to December 2006 is about -0.80: you can see the zig-zags line up pretty well, and remember this is not even mortgage rates but Treasury rates. But you can see that from 2003 to 2005 or so, Housing Starts continued to rise while interest rates were also rising.

While it’s on much less data, and clearly the intercept of the regression is very different, the correlation of these two series has resumed a fairly high inverse correlation (-0.68) since December 2008.

The growth news here isn’t particularly good, since higher rates will clearly lead to fewer housing starts. It isn’t horrible, since the construction and real estate industry is, after all, a much smaller part of the economy now than it was in the height of the bubble. But after all, that is how higher interest rates are supposed to impact growth – so it’s natural, even if the Fed may not care for the messiness of nature.

In any event, less building translates into more support for prices in the existing housing market, which is good for homeowners and financial investors. Some economists will also expect the higher home prices to ignite further economic growth, via a “wealth effect,” but I am skeptical of that in this case. In the mid-2000s, there was clearly a wealth effect from the home price boom, because the combination of higher prices and lower interest rates meant that consumers could cash out home equity to support additional spending. But in the extant case, increasing home prices are occurring in conjunction with interest rates going up. In that circumstance, there will not be very much refinancing activity (why refinance into a higher rate mortgage?). So, is the wealth effect caused by wealth per se, or by wealth that can be drawn on and spent, via refinancing? I suspect it is the latter, which means that the higher wealth will have a much lower “wealth effect” coefficient going forward and some economists, and probably the Fed, will overestimate growth as a result.

Speaking of the Fed, the other event of the day was the start of Chairman Bernanke’s final monetary policy report to the Congress – unless it turns out that he stays Chairman longer than expected, for example because no other candidate is found who can be confirmed and actually wants the job. Remember, this Chairman got to play Santa Claus; the next one gets to be Scrooge (pre-visitation).

For the most part, this was an unremarkable testimony. After being careful to ladle on the dovishness in good measure after the bond market reacted to the Fed’s declaration that QE will be ending soon (not to mention, a lot of negative convexity in the market), there was no way that Bernanke was going to be anything but quite supportive.

But one part sort of struck me because it is a major departure from the line taken by all previous Fed chairmen. In the past, the Fed was generally willing to pursue a fairly accommodative monetary policy if fiscal policy was restrictive or at least responsible. Chairman Greenspan even made that promise explicit, and public, in 1995. (See here for background on that period.) And Bernanke himself, four years ago, admonished the Congress to “demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal sustainability in the longer term.”

But Chairman Bernanke is now complaining about the effort to make mild cuts in government spending. Today he said that “fiscal policy is stunting the recovery,” and that “the risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect.”

To be clear, he is complaining about the fact that Federal expenditures over the last six months were only $1.688 trillion, compared to $1.717 trillion in the last six months of 2012. It isn’t that there has been dramatic spending restraint due to the sequester – it has been, at best, very mild (we can get a more-generous figure by comparing against the first six months of 2012, in which case spending is down from $1.851 trillion…about 1% of GDP). Revenues are up, by about $202bln with comparison against the year-ago period (about 1.25% of GDP). This is a drag, but it isn’t a 2.25% drag because this is replaced at least in part elsewhere in the economy. Indeed, revenues are up and spending is down partly because the economy is doing better. It’s called an automatic stabilizer…that’s how it works.

In any event, if the Chairman of the Fed is going to whine when very moderate fiscal conservatism causes the economy to expand at only 1-2% per year, then what chance do we ever have of balancing the budget? Who is wearing the big boy pants? Ben, can I speak with your mommy?

And, if we’re not going to even try very hard to balance the budget, what chance do we have to restrain inflation, once the tide has decisively turned? The answer is none. No chance at all, unless someone – or people generally – demand fiscal and monetary sanity be returned.

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