With little economic data on the calendar, and the Fed speakers back-loaded at the Chicago Fed conference later in the week, there is time to reflect on other questions (unless, of course, the Israel/Syria back-and-forth turns into something more than the last couple of jabs have produced).
It is interesting to me that analysts and journalists truly enjoy finding comparisons between present situations and actors, except when the comparisons suggest unpleasant conclusions. This is at a time when there are really no comparable periods in history to compare to, at least with respect to major global policy initiatives!
I read comparisons between Shinzo Abe’s pressure on the Bank of Japan and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s campaign to resurrect the American economy with ever-greater monetary policy shocks. Somewhere, I saw an analyst ask “isn’t Abe taking note of the failure of U.S. monetary policy to goose the economy?” But the comparison is not apt because the two men, and the two economies, face very different challenges. Abe doesn’t need to increase consumer spending and reinvigorate the economy with monetary policy. While that might be nice, the main goal of Japanese monetary policy now is to raise the price level and the rate of inflation. They are using exactly the right tool to do so: lots of monetary easing. On the other hand, Bernanke is trying to kick-start the real economy with a monetary tool, while at least in principle avoiding an inflationary outcome. That’s like trying to hammer a nail with a fish. It might work, but it’s the wrong tool for the job. So the comparison doesn’t work: one man knows how to use his tools, the other does not.
Here is another useless comparison: “Bond Buyers See No 1994 as Bernanke Clarity Tops Greenspan.” The myth that transparency really helps markets in the long run is sort of silly: is there any sign that the crises caused by monetary policy have become less frequent since the Greenspan glasnost than they were before? I know that’s the belief, because the Fed has told us that’s the way it is. But my scorecard tells a sorry tale of bubbles and crashes since the early 1990s. It isn’t a lack of transparency that causes routs. It’s leverage, and negative gamma. Mortgage hedgers are more active now than they were in 1994, and they have larger books. Hedge funds are orders of magnitude larger. And Wall Street is smaller, and is able to provide less liquidity – partly because they are more levered (which they think is okay because of “Fed transparency”), and partly because the government doesn’t want them to take bets with the leverage they have (which, since they’re paying for failures under the current system, isn’t wholly absurd).
So will the next bond selloff not be as bad as in 1994, because the Fed will give more warning? Remember that no matter how transparent the Fed is, there is still a transition point. Somehow, the market goes from a state of thinking there will be no tightening of policy, to a state of thinking that there will be a tightening of policy. That requires a re-pricing, whether it occurs because the Fed signaled it in a speech or a statement, or because they signaled it by doing Matched Sales for the SOMA account with Fed funds already trading above target (as was the old way of telling us something had changed). There is no way to go from “not knowing” to “knowing” without a moment of realization. And when that phase change ultimately occurs, the greater leverage inherent in the market and the diminished role of market makers will cause the selloff (in my view) to very likely be more dramatic than in 1994.
One place where we cannot prevent comparisons – nor should we want to – is in the asset markets. Stocks are doing well, despite absurd valuations, because most other markets are either more-absurdly valued (e.g., Treasury bonds) or have horrible momentum that means they’re not popular right now (e.g., commodities). I have no doubt that equity performance over the next 10 years will be very uninspiring, because equity markets that start from this level of valuation never produce inspiring returns. But when people ask me what the trigger will be for a selloff, I have to shrug. There have been plenty of “reasons” for that to happen. But I think the ultimate reason is probably this: equities are perceived as the “only game in town.” I have read several articles recently that echo this one: “Bond Fund Managers are Loading Up on Stocks.” When there is some other asset class, or some other world market, that starts doing appreciably better, perhaps investors will decide to allocate away. Unfortunately, the candidates for that market are pretty few, given the general level of valuations. Could it be commodities, which is one of the few genuinely cheap markets? Or perhaps real estate, which is still only fair value but has some pretty striking momentum? I don’t know – but I am also not sitting around waiting for a “trigger event.” There may well be a selloff without such a trigger.
There has been a bunch of new data over the last couple of days, but I am afraid that all of the new stuff will not keep me from sounding like a broken record.
Consumer Confidence jumped yesterday, but more interesting is the fact that the “Jobs Hard to Get” subindex rose to the highest level since late last year, suggesting that weak jobs data isn’t entirely a one-off. Today, the ADP report was weaker-than-expected, at 119k (versus expectations for 150k) and a downward revision to last month. The Chicago Purchasing Managers’ Index on Tuesday was the weakest since 2009, but the ISM Manufacturing report today was on-target. Still, neither manufacturing index is generating much confidence that the economy is about to take off, and the early-year bump has been entirely reversed (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The Shiller Home Price Index, reported on Tuesday, was higher-than-expected at 9.3% year-on-year, rather than the 9.0% expected (and versus an 8.1% last!). What’s really interesting about this is that the recent surge in year-on-year growth has come because the usual seasonal pattern that sees prices sag in the springtime hasn’t been in evidence this year – accordingly, the year-on-year comparisons have gotten easier as prices have gone sideways rather than falling as they tend to do between August and March (see chart, source Bloomberg).
That’s interesting because such a phenomenon was also a condition of the bubble years prior to 2007 – prices generally rose steadily with only a hint of seasonality. Post-bubble, if you wanted to sell your house in February you had to offer a concession on price. Those concessions aren’t happening any more, which is a back-door confirmation of the overall price action.
As I have said before, ad nauseum, we are seeing slow and/or falling growth and firm and/or rising inflation in the pipeline, and that’s not at all inconsistent. Mainstream economists, and journalists of all stripes, seem to accept as a fundamental verity the linkage between growth and inflation, but the only minor problem with this firmly-held belief is that it ain’t so. Growth is bad, and inflation is still going to go up. In Q1, core CPI rose at a 2.1% pace, and I still think that for the full year core CPI will rise at 2.6%-3.0%.
I want to add a quick word here about a thesis that has been advanced recently. The thought is that if the abrupt housing demand is coming from investors rather than consumers, then rising housing prices might be consistent with pressure on rents. I think it’s important to clear up this confusion. Microeconomics tells us that when the price of a good goes up, the price of a substitute tends to rise as well. It is possible, if the overall price level is flat, that a phenomenon such as is described in this hypothetical could happen, with home prices rising and rents falling. But what is much more likely is that rents simply go up more slowly than home prices, so that they decline relative to home prices, rather than declining absolutely. This is, in fact, what we see historically: large increases in home prices tend to lead to increases in rents, but not of the same magnitude, and vice-versa. Whether the mechanism for this is a systematic institutional investor presence or just a large number of one-off instances of individuals renting out their second “investment” homes doesn’t really matter. Accordingly, I don’t expect to see a drastically different course carved out by the rental/home price relationship from what it has been historically. The main difference may be that the lags between home prices, inventories, rents, and so on might get screwed up somewhat, if institutional investors cause this to happen in a more organized way than the organic way in which it usually happens.
Another aside: there has also been a lot made recently, especially in commodity markets, about weak data from China. It is amazing how important it is to global commodity markets that China grows at 9% and not 8%. If I were a member of Chinese leadership, I would be trying to convince my data bureau to release slightly weak figures, since every time it does the hedge funds of the world offer large amounts of commodities as discount prices, which is just what a growing economy needs. It’s not like anyone believes the figures when they are reported to be high; I wonder why we believe it when they are reported to be low?
In addition to the data today, the Federal Reserve finished its meeting and announced no change in monetary policy for now. And there isn’t one coming for a while, either. There was no important change in the statement, although the Fed did take care to remind us that it “is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes.” [emphasis added] That’s comforting. But the simple fact is that the economy isn’t going to be booming any time soon, and the Committee isn’t going to taper its purchases unless it does because they labor under the delusion that they’re helping. Perhaps next year.
For the rest of the week, investors will be focused on Friday’s Employment Report. I am not really worried about the report being weaker-than-expected, because from everything I read it seems that the market is already anticipating something close to Armageddon (or at least, that’s how they are explaining the continued pressure on breakevens and commodities). So far, this is a routine slowdown that might be slipping into a renewed recession. Meanwhile, expectations on Friday are for Payrolls of 145k, up from 88k but down from the pace of the last year. And the ‘whisper’ number seems to be lower than that. I suspect the more likely surprise is that there is an upward revision to the 88k and the number exceeds estimates. Somehow, that will be also perceived as a negative for breakevens!
TIPS suffered today, even as nominal bonds rallied. Our Fisher yield decomposition model currently suggests that TIPS are as cheap, relative to nominals, as they have been since early September last year (when 10-year breakevens were at the same level they are at now). I am quite bullish on breakevens from here.
The core PCE deflator for March recorded a near-record 1.1%. Should we worry that deflation is taking hold?
Well, first of all you should recognize that the PCE, unlike the CPI, is frequently revised and by significant amounts. As the chart below shows, this is only a near-record because there was a massive revision that raised the 2010 low from 0.7% or so to 1.1%. We should be wary, in my opinion, to draw any strong conclusions from (and certainly wary of implementing policy based on) a data series that can have the rate of change revised by 60%.
But still, core PCE is near its lows while core CPI is not. Should we be concerned about deflation? Should the Fed?
There are a number of reasons for the difference. A persistent difference of about 0.25%-0.5% is consistent with differences in the type of formula used and other “normal” differences. The Fed favors the PCE because it has a broader representation of the economy – in that it doesn’t focus “just” on consumers – and because it adjusts more quickly as the composition of spending changes. However, if you are looking at how the costs to you the consumer change, the CPI is the index that you should be looking at.
The main reason that core PCE is currently so much lower than core CPI is that PCE has a much lower weight on housing. And, thanks to the Fed’s loose money policy, it is housing that is driving the CPI higher. The difference in housing weights currently adds 0.31% to CPI compared to PCE. The PCE makes up for this low weight in housing by having a much higher weight on medical care (about three times the CPI weight). Why the huge difference in the medical care weight?
The CPI and PCE metrics are meant to measure different things – the PCE is broader, but the CPI measures specifically expenditures by consumers. Consequently, the difference in medical care weights occurs because the CPI measures spending by consumers, while the PCE includes spending by Medicare, Medicaid, other government entities, the employer portion of health insurance, and other non-consumer payers. Which do you think is more relevant for consumers? And which do you think is a better representation of what a typical consumer spends: 42% on housing and 6% on medical care, or 26% on housing and 22% on medical care? In simple terms, do you spend more for your house, or do you spend about equal amounts on both? I suspect that for most Americans, especially those who are employed and those who are currently receiving Medicare, spending on housing is vastly higher than direct spending on medical care.
Isn’t it convenient for the Fed that right now, they can focus on a metric that is pointedly underweighting the category of expenditure that is most directly being affected by quantitative easing? This is one reason that I do not expect QE to stop any time this year.
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.
Housekeeping note: in case you missed it, here is a link to Tuesday’s article, which was not picked up through all of the “usual” syndication channels. Note that, in addition to doggerel, it contains an announcement regarding the free ‘office hours’ I am making available to readers who wish to sign up. (On the basis of the first “round,” I’ve decided to lengthen the sessions to 20 minutes but only offer three of them per week, but this may evolve further as I learn more.)
When we look back on this period of financial history, I wonder if it will not be called the “era of unintended consequences.” I can think of lots more names for the era, some of them unprintable, but this one certainly applies.
I tend to think of unregulated markets as chaotic, but fundamentally structured. They tend to be efficient, although research has demonstrated that even completely free markets can produce bubbles and negative bubbles. But I really do believe in something like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ that leads the baker to make just enough bread without being told how many loaves to make. A farmer’s market or third-world bazaar, although seemingly chaotic, still often manages to arrange itself so that most purveyors of similar goods end up in one general area. However, when someone intervenes to organize the chaos, there is often an unintended consequence. A recent example is the Fed’s low-rate policy in the mid-2000s, which was meant to respond to the equity bubble burst and the recession of the early 2000s; it also helped produce the housing bubble. Certainly, the housing bubble was not intended by the Fed, but it clearly followed partly from the easy money policies. As another example, Cyprus needed a bailout partly because their banks had been involved in helping Greece by buying Greek debt. Surely countless other examples suggest themselves.
Another example came to my attention today. As part of a presentation I am giving in a week and a half, I will be talking about the “portfolio balance channel” and how it is pushing investors to take more risk than they should, based on the absolute return expectations, because of the configuration of relative return expectations. (I wrote about this in “A Relatively Good Deal Doesn’t Mean It’s A Good Deal”, back in January). But a friend pointed out that it isn’t merely retail and professional investors who are being forced to take risky assets at bad prices because the safe assets have even worse prices: central banks are as well, according to this article in the Financial Times, entitled “Central banks move into riskier assets.” Who knew?
Central bankers are not supposed to really care about portfolio returns. They’re supposed to care mainly about return of capital rather than return on capital. That’s theory, but the reality is that central bankers want to be heroes just like anyone else, and their jobs are definitely made politically easier if they are revenue generators and not cost-centers. And that in turn made me think of the article in this month’s Financial Analysts Journal by Robert C. Merton et. al., in which they argue that “monetary and fiscal policies designed to deal with things like stimulus or consumption demand can actually have unintended consequences of some magnitude for financial stability and markets.” More interestingly, they graphically illustrate how much more connected financial institutions are now than they were prior to 2008.
And one important unintended consequence of the Fed’s efforts on the portfolio balance channel is that the connectedness is increasing, and the nonlinear exposures of central banks are increasing as well. That, in turn, suggests that rather than being meaningfully safer than we were five years ago, we may well be less safe. You could already make such an argument by pointing out that sovereign states have less room to fiscally ease in response to crisis, but add to that the fact that central banks themselves could be caught up in a crisis and be losing capital at just the moment when it is most needed. Of course, at some level a central bank that has control over its own currency – unlike those in, say, Portugal or Italy – can always print a solution. The increasing risk posture of central banks, I believe, increases the possibility of a blatant printing outcome (as opposed to the circumspect printing currently being pursued) in response to a renewed crisis.
Never before have so many fingers been crossed for the global economy. And never before has it been so necessary to cross our fingers!
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.
The Dow is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh what a beautiful morning!
Oh what a beautiful day.
It’s far too pretty for trading,
So why don’t we play golf today.
With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, it appeared as if the lovely spring day in the Northeast took its toll on market activity today. It has always been the case that good weather tended to cause trading to slow, but as trader bonuses have gradually disconnected from performance over the last few years it seems as if the pattern has been accentuated. True, there wasn’t much to trade on today…but in the past that didn’t seem to matter quite so much.
That said, I won’t stop at merely butchering show tunes as there are one or two recent stories I’d like to address from yesterday that I didn’t broach in that somewhat-lengthy article. The first is the news that President Obama’s latest tax plan includes a provision to cap IRAs at $3 million. To most of us, that’s a lot of money, although the article points out rightly that if you are a business owner who has contributed to a retirement plan as long as it has been available, it is fairly easy to get numbers above that level without needing extraordinary returns. Thrift, and compound returns, are two of the only three investing miracles that can produce great wealth with little effort (the third is rebalancing – look for my book “Only Three Miracles,” due out in roughly 2023).
But more disturbing is the fact that the White House has not said whether this $3mm level would be indexed for inflation (or, for that matter, whether it would affect defined benefit plans or Roth IRAs on which you’ve already paid taxes). If it is not indexed for inflation, then any readers of this column could be ‘capped out’ of tax-advantaged structures with sufficient inflation. And, since there is no reason that inflation could not reach scary levels, given the right circumstances, this is something that every investor should be aware of.
It is also disturbing to me, personally, that according to the story:
“The White House said in an April 5 statement that under current law ‘some wealthy individuals’ can accumulate ‘substantially more than is needed to fund reasonable levels of retirement saving.’”
Maybe I am the only person who is concerned about the use of the word “reasonable” here, as if my decision for what amount of savings I want to accumulate, rather than spend, is open to someone else’s validation of whether my savings is “reasonable.” But I suspect not. This statement isn’t part of the law, but it is part of the context under which laws are being proposed, and I think this means that we investors (including unreasonable ones, who should be spending much more and saving less, darn it) ought to be paying attention.
The other topic I want to include concerns the remarks of Chairman Bernanke yesterday at a conference in Georgia. I’ve previously pointed out in this space that selling assets from SOMA or letting those bonds run off are not feasible approaches for the Fed to take when it comes time to tighten. Apparently, the Fed now agrees, after having previously discussed (publicly) these options. Bernanke remarked in his response to audience questions that “asset sales are late in the process and not meant to be the principal tool of policy normalization” and that rather the Fed prefers to adjust the interest rate paid on excess reserves (IOER) as its main policy tool.
My main complaint about the IOER tool is that we have no idea how it is calibrated, and whether a small adjustment can cause important amounts of liquidity to be pulled back from the market. Moreover, I think this is a defensive tool – the Fed needs to keep the Excess Reserves from becoming Required Reserves by having banks expand lending too quickly. But consider the difficulty: if a bank has $1bln in excess reserves and $50mm in required reserves (for example), and increases lending by 50% so that required reserves rise to $75mm and excess reserves fall to $975mm, then by how much does the Fed need to raise IOER, currently at 25bps, to induce the bank to hold $1bln rather than $975mm in excess reserves? This is the problem – the Fed isn’t operating on the variable that they actually want to control.
The picture below is a slide from the presentation I will be delivering this month at the Inside Indexing event in Boston. Notice the relative sizes of the excess and required reserves slices. The Fed needs to take big swipes at the excess reserves piece without damaging the required reserves piece too much. This strikes me as being somewhat more challenging than the Federal Reserve currently seems to believe.
I continue to think that the best solution for the Fed, and also the one least likely to be deployed, is to raise reserve requirements to make official the unofficial policy of de-leveraging banks. By doing that, they will with one wave of the magic monetary wand cause excess reserves to vanish and they can operate again on required reserves.
Do you want to discuss any of this with me directly? Long-time readers know that I value the interaction with readers, as that feedback is the main compensation I get for writing this column. Well, I am introducing today a new way to interact with me, (and more importantly, for me to interact with you). I am offering (free) “office hours” to anyone who wants to sign up, to talk about pretty much anything in a free-form give-and-take. I’m starting with four 15-minute sessions per week, and we’ll see how it goes (of course, anyone who wants a deeper dive on an inflation topic is welcome to contact me about consulting through Enduring Investments). To sign up for my free office hours, click here and pick a date and time.
We’re going to leave behind the topic of Cyprus for a day. It does seem as if events are coming to a head, but with banks there closed until Tuesday (and the ECB lifeline in place until Monday), there will be lots of news over the next few days but most of it will be heat without light.
So, speaking of heat and light, let’s look at today’s data. Specifically, let’s look at Existing Home Sales.
While the total sales number fell just shy of the 5mm-unit level, the 4.98mm print still represented the highest number (aside from the home-buyer-tax-credit induced surge in 2009) since 2007 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The inventory of homes available for sale bounced off of 14-year lows, but remains at levels lower than any we’ve seen in over a decade.
And, near and dear to my heart, the median price of existing homes accelerated from last month (although, due to historical revisions, last month’s y/y was revised down to 10.67%) and stands at 11.34%. The January Home Price Index from FHA also came out; the 6.46% year-on-year rate of increase in that index is also the highest post-2007.
There are long lags between both of these indices and the appearance of price pressures in the Consumer Price Index, but at the moment all indicators of housing point the same direction: Owner’s Equivalent Rent should be in the 2.75% neighborhood by year-end, and could be as high as 3%. This is a key part of our forecast that core CPI should reach 2.6%-3.0% by year-end, and accelerate further in 2014.
The amazing recent run in home prices – which I suspect is driven in part by institutional investor interest in real estate – has caused existing home prices as a multiple of household income to move above levels that prevailed for the last quarter-century of the 20th century. The housing industry likes to present charts of housing affordability, which takes into account the current level of interest rates, because currently those interest rates make even the relatively high home prices look more affordable.
Yes, I said “relatively high home prices.” The median sales price of existing homes averaged 3.36x median household income from 1975 to 2000, with a relatively small range of values around that average. Even including the bubble, when the multiples reached 4.8x, the average through 2011 only rose to 3.54. As of year-end 2012, the multiple was back to approximately 3.48 and if median prices rise “only” 8% this year (remember, the current pace is 11.3% and rising) the multiple will be around 3.6x by the end of the year (see chart, source U.S. Census Bureau, National Association of Realtors, Enduring Investments).
Notice that even at the depths of the crisis, home prices were only slightly cheap by pre-2000 standards. Similarly, equity prices at the lows only reached approximately fair value by pre-2000 standards. There are two interpretations of this fact set. It could mean that the pre-2000 era valuations were too low, and that modern financial markets and structures make higher valuation multiples permanently viable. Or it could mean that the Federal Reserve continues to artificially support markets at multiples that are not likely to be sustainable in the long run. I suspect the latter point is more accurate, although I am open-minded about whether the former point might have some validity.
This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, if the idea is to let the market stair-step down to equilibrium rather than letting it crash there all at once. But I don’t see anything that suggests the Federal Reserve has the slightest idea how to value assets. I understand that they don’t want to substitute their own analysis for the market’s judgment (at least, that would be the counterargument), but that’s what they’re doing anyway – with no indication that they plan to back off anytime soon. The Fed is just more comfortable in the bubble, and afraid to leave it entirely. But don’t we have to, eventually?
The VIX returned to 14 today, which makes a bit more sense to me than the 12.7 level of yesterday. It still seems low to me, but at least there is a way for long-vol positions to actually lose.
There will be many more days ahead for the Fed, and many of them will have plenty of good news. It is a mistake to trya and read too much into one day’s economic releases. With that said, here is my attempt to do exactly that.
I tweeted the following real-time reactions (@inflation_guy) following the CPI release this morning:
- Ready for an exciting day…CPI, Claims, Philly Fed, a 30-year TIPS auction, wild commodity swings, 3 Fed Presidents…buckle up!
- Hello! Core inflation +0.3%, higher-than-expected. Look out above.
- Apparel +0.8%. Some will pooh-pooh the number on that basis, but Apparel has been trending higher for more than a year.
- To be fair, core inflation BARELY rounded up to +0.3%. But the market was looking for +0.16% or +0.17%.
- Core Services remains at +2.5% y/y, but core goods ticks up to +0.4%. The recovery of core goods has been something we’re looking for.
- Somewhat surprisingly, the +0.251% rise in core inflation did so without having a rise in Owners’ Equiv Rent. Went from 2.1% y/y to 2.08%
- Accel Inflation: Housing, Apparel, Educ/Commun, Other (54.7% of basket); Decel: Food/Bev, Transp, Med Care, Rec (45.3% of basket)
- In Transp, the drag was almost all fuel. New/used Cars, maintenance, insurance, airline fares, inter- and intracity transp all up.
- What’s amazing in the CPI today is how much it did with how little from the main driver of housing. That uptick is yet to come.
- …and, next month, headline will get upward pressure from the steep rise in gasoline, which also dampens discretionary spending.
The primary takeaway from the CPI release is this: yes, core inflation surprised a little bit on the high side. But it did so without the support of the main factor that I think will push core inflation almost certainly higher going forward: housing. Rents (both primary and OER) neither accelerated nor decelerated this month from the prior year-on-year pace. And yet, there is really no temporary factor that pushed inflation higher this month. It was fairly broad-based. Apparel stood out on the month-to-month change perspective, but here is the chart (source Bloomberg) on Apparel:
This month doesn’t appear to me as too much of a true outlier. The underlying dynamic there has simply changed.
So this month core inflation stayed at 1.9%; next month it is very likely to return to 2.0% as we are dropping off the weak February change from last year. And all of that, before the housing inflation hits the data.
Speaking of housing inflation, there is no sign yet of that abating. In today’s Existing Home Sales report, the year-on-year change in Median Existing Home Sales Prices rose to 12.61%, another post-2005 record, and the highest real price increase ever, outside of 2005. This is happening because the inventory of new homes has dropped to almost a record low – really! Sure, the chart below (source Bloomberg) ignores “shadow inventory,” but it is starting to look more like the inventory of new homes now.
Some of that is seasonal, but there’s no doubt that lower inventories are now helping the home pricing dynamic. And, as I’ve shown previously, the inventory of existing homes actually has a nice relationship with shelter inflation 1-2 years later (Source: Enduring Investments):
The current level of inventories translates into a 3.6% expected rise in CPI-Shelter over the course of 2014. So you see, we’re not only firing inflationary rounds but we’re also continuing to feed more ammunition into the gun for next year. Our model of housing inflation projects Owners’ Equivalent Rent no lower than 3% by year-end 2013. And if that happens, there is no way that overall core inflation is going to be at 2%.
Now, in addition to the bad news on prices and the news on home prices that are probably seen at the Fed as a guarded positive (after all, it means the mortgage crisis is essentially over as more borrowers will be ‘above water’ again every month hereafter), there was also a mild surprise on the high side from Initial Claims (362k versus 355k) and a bad miss on the Philly Fed index for February. This latter was expected at +1.0 after -5.8 last month; instead it dropped to -12.5. Philadelphia-area manufacturers have reported softening business conditions in three of the last four months, suggesting that December’s pop to +4.6 was the outlier. Now, there were similar one-month dips in August of 2011 and June of 2012, so we’ll have to see if it is sustained…but it is consistent with the report out of Wal-Mart and the worsening of business conditions in Europe.
Higher prices (and more coming, on the headline side, as retail gasoline prices have now risen in 35 consecutive days) and lower business activity. This is exactly the opposite of what the Fed wants. It has been a bad day at the Fed.
However, it is exactly what traditional monetarism expects: accommodative monetary policy leads to higher prices (check), and has no effect on real activity in the absence of money illusion (check). So score one point for Friedman today.
And so, what else would you expect after such a day? Bond yields are declining, inflation breakevens are narrowing, and industrial commodities (metals and energy) are sliding. As with so much else these days, that makes no sense, unless you just don’t know what’s going on. When we encounter these bouts with irrationality (or, more fairly, thick-headedness), the market can be frustrating for a long time – and the ultimate denouement can sometimes be jarring. As I said earlier in this post: buckle up!
Mild weakness in housing data (Housing Starts fell to only the second-highest level since 2008) seemed to be a sufficient excuse today to send stocks lower, but really the main culprit was gravity. We will have to see if the market corrects more than the 1.25% it dropped today, but it shouldn’t be all that surprising!
It actually looked a little bit like one of the classic “risk-off” trades we have seen in recent years. Commodities fell, especially precious metals, energy, and industrial metals while agriculture rallied. The dollar leapt to the highest level since November. Inflation breakevens declined a touch, and interest rates slipped a couple of basis points. What’s more, the VIX jumped to match its highest closing level of the year.
Searching for a new story on why commodities fell, a rumor passed along the market (memorialized by Bloomberg here) that a hedge fund was being flushed out of commodities positions. But that made little sense, unless the fund had been long energy and short agriculture – and if they had been, they would have been winning over the last several months, not blowing up! More likely, it was just gravity, which seems to operate more heavily on commodities than on stocks these days. I guess stocks are from Mars, commodities from Venus.
I think this is all part of a corrective move, but the corrections are a bit out-of-sync and that makes me nervous. In the article I wrote on January 31, I pointed out that the dollar index, 5-year inflation breakevens, and commodities were all nearing critical breakout or breakdown levels. I thought they were all about to break those levels and continue trends, but what actually happened was quite the opposite: the dollar index is up significantly (back to near the November highs, as I said), 5-year breakevens are a couple of basis points cheaper (although not much) and commodities have done what commodities have done all too often over the last year: slid to lower nominal, and even cheaper real, levels. Although I didn’t show it on January 31st, the 5y CPI, 5y forward – an important metric for the Fed – has also declined slightly from 3.09% to 3.04%.
I expect the markets to return to the levels they held at January month-end, however. The FOMC minutes out this afternoon showed that while there continue to be dissenting, hawkish voices at the Fed (notably, Esther George cast the lone dissenting voice this month – how I like this Fed President!), they continue to be completely drowned out by the doves. Again looking for an angle to explain the stock market decline – which started this morning, long before the minutes were released and probably even before they were leaked to Goldman – market headlines bleated about how the “Fed Minutes Show Debate Over Stimulus,” about how the Fed is “uneasy” over QE, and about how several officials suggested varying the pace of QE over time.
This wild and crazy debate, this uprising of the inflation hawks, produced (I note again for the record) one dissenting vote. Remember, even non-voters can participate in debate and appear in the minutes even if they don’t vote. In this case, the “several members” likely included George and Richard Fisher of Dallas (non-voter), with some chance that a third, also non-voting, member joined them (maybe Plosser?) But they are arrayed against a very dovish core of the FOMC, and the minutes contain a clear indication that the Committee prefers to err on the side of keeping accommodation too long rather than remove it too soon:
“A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs, and risks of asset purchases might well lead the Committee to taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred. Several others argued that the potential costs of reducing or ending asset purchases too soon were also significant, or that asset purchases should continue until a substantial improvement in the labor market outlook had occurred. A few participants noted examples of past instances in which policymakers had prematurely removed accommodation, with adverse effects on economic growth, employment, and price stability; they also stressed the importance of communicating the Committee’s commitment to maintaining a highly accommodative stance of policy as long as warranted by economic conditions. In this regard, a number of participants discussed the possibility of providing monetary accommodation by holding securities for a longer period than envisioned in the Committee’s exit principles, either as a supplement to, or a replacement for, asset purchases.”
I similarly wouldn’t read much into the “number of participants” asking for ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs, and risks of asset purchases. This sort of debate has been occurring in the minutes of almost every meeting since the Fed first began QE, and it would be striking if there was not any discussion of efficacy, costs and risks – especially considering that the efficacy of this unprecedented policy action has been fairly unimpressive, to be kind.
I see no reason to doubt the Fed’s word that they will keep accommodation until the Unemployment Rate improves or inflation moves enough higher to concern them. But there is certainly no concern, even among the hawks, about the current level and trajectory of inflation:
“Nearly all participants anticipated that inflation over the medium-term would run at or below the Committee’s 2 percent objective.”
Unless you’re talking about the vague concern expressed by “a few” participants about inflation over the long run:
“Participants generally saw recent price developments as consistent with their projections that inflation would remain at or below the Committee’s 2 percent objective over the medium run. There was little evidence of wage or cost pressures outside of isolated sectors, and measures of inflation expectations remained stable. However, a few participants expressed concerns that the current highly accommodative stance of monetary policy posed upside risks to inflation in the medium or longer term.”
This continues to be where the whole house of cards is vulnerable. A series of bad inflation numbers (and I am sure it would take a series, not just one or two) could alter the debate later this year. Tomorrow’s release of January CPI (Consensus: +0.1%/+0.2% ex-food-and-energy; +1.6%/+1.8% y/y) is not likely to be the first of those bad numbers, but it is coming soon. The consensus expectations are quite soft, essentially +0.05% on headline inflation (the energy spike didn’t really start until February) and +0.16% or 0.17% on core CPI.
But the housing price data are unequivocal: a large portion of the consumption basket is going to see prices rising at an accelerating rate, soon. Our models seem to suggest the inflection point could be another couple of months away, but it is dangerous to get too caught up in model minutae. The big message from the models is that the unambiguously higher home prices (in Existing Home Sales, New Home Sales, the FHA’s Home Price Index, the Case/Shiller index) are leading to higher rents (judging from surveys of apartment rents from REIS and CBRE) and this reflects higher shelter costs that will show up in core CPI within a few months. If it happens tomorrow, then stocks are vulnerable – but if not, then Martian gravity isn’t going to be enough to hold down stocks for very long.
We know that in low-gravity environments, human skeletal structure gradually weakens so that a return to normal gravity can be very dangerous for someone who has been in space for a long time. The stock market has been in space for a very long time. At some point, when “normal gravity” (in the form of a neutral Federal Reserve policy) returns, equities will have a rough transition to make. But that day isn’t yet, so while I don’t have expectations of much higher equity prices from here I also wouldn’t get too excited about looking for a 20% decline, either.
 Technical note: when looking at breakevens, and especially forward breakevens, over a long period of time, it is important to use inflation swaps whenever they are available because there are fewer idiosyncrasies with the structure of the inflation swaps curve than with the breakeven curve. As a case-in-point, while 5y inflation, 5 years forward taken from inflation swaps has fallen 5bps since January 24th, Bloomberg’s 5y, 5y BEI has dropped some 30bps over the same period, due to changes in which TIPS and nominal bonds make up that index.
 I’m kidding, sorta.