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Fed Gearing Up to Stand Down

July 30, 2014 8 comments

I guess it’s something about strong growth numbers and a tightening central bank that bonds just don’t like so much. Ten-year Treasury yields rose about 9bps today, under pressure from the realization that higher growth and higher inflation, which is historically a pretty bad cocktail for bonds, is being offset less and less by extraordinary Federal Reserve bond buying. Yields recently had fallen as the Q1 numbers doused the idea that the economic recovery will continue without incident, and as the global political and security situation deteriorated (maybe we will just say it became “less tranquil”). Nominal 10 year yields had dipped below 2.50%, and TIPS yields had reached 0.20% again. It didn’t hurt that so many were leaning on the bear case for bonds and were tortured the further bonds rallied.

Stocks, evidently, didn’t get the message that higher interest rates are more likely, going forward, than lower interest rates. They didn’t get the message that the Fed is going to be less accommodative. They didn’t even get the message that the Fed sees the “likelihood of inflation running persistently below 2 percent has diminished somewhat.” The equity markets ended flat. Sure, it has not been another banner month for the stock jockeys, but with earnings up a tepid 6% or so year/year the market is up nearly 17% so…yes, you did the math right: P/E multiples keep expanding!

My personal theory is that stocks are doing so well because Greenspan thinks they’re expensive. In an interview today on Bloomberg Television, Greenspan said that “somewhere along the line we will get a significant correction.” Historically speaking, the former Chairman’s ability to call a top has been something less than spectacular. After he questioned whether the market might be under the influence of ‘irrational exuberance,’ the market continued to rally for quite some time. Now, he wasn’t alone in being surprised by that, but he also threw in the towel on that view and was full-throatedly bullish through the latter stages of the 1990s equity bubble. So, perhaps, investors are just fading his view. Although to be fair, he did say that he didn’t think equities are “grossly overpriced,” lest anyone think that the guy who could never see a bubble might have actually seen one.

Make no mistake, there is no question that stocks are overvalued by every meaningful metric that has historical support for its predictive power. That does not mean (as we have all learned over the past few years) that the market will decline tomorrow, but it does ensure that future real returns will be punk over a reasonably-long investment horizon.

It will certainly be interesting to see how long markets can remain levitated when the Fed’s buying ceases completely. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that these valuation levels have persisted even this long, especially in the face of rising global tensions and rising inflation. I am a little less surprised that commodities have corrected so much this month after what was a steady but uninspiring move higher over the first 1-2 quarters of 2014. Commodities are simply a reviled asset class at the moment (which makes me love them all the more).

Do not mistake the Fed’s statement (that at the margin the chance of inflation less than 2% is slightly less likely) for hawkishness. And don’t read hawkishness into the mild dissent by Plosser, who merely wanted to remove the reference to time in the description of when raising rates will be appropriate. Chicago Fed President Evans was the guy who originally wanted to “parameterize” the decision to tighten by putting numbers on the unemployment rate and inflation levels that would be tolerable to the Fed (the “Evans Rule”)…levels which the economy subsequently blasted through without any indication that the Fed cared. But Evans himself recently said that “it’s not a catastrophe to overshoot inflation by some amount.” Fed officials are walking back the standards for what constitutes worrisome inflation, in the same way that they walked back the standards for what constitutes too-low an unemployment rate.

This is a good point at which to recall the “Wesbury Map,” which laid out the excuses the Fed can be expected to make when inflation starts being problematic. Wesbury had this list:

  1. Higher inflation is due to commodities, and core inflation remains tame.
  2. Higher core inflation due to housing is just due to housing prices bouncing back to normal, and that’s temporary.
  3. It’s not actual inflation that matters, but what the Fed projects it to be.
  4. It’s okay for inflation to run a little above 2% for a while because it was under that level for so long.
  5. Increasing price pressures are due to something temporary like a weaker dollar or a temporary increase in money velocity or the multiplier.
  6. Well, 3-4% inflation isn’t that bad for the economy, anyway.

I think the order of these excuses can change, but they’re all excuses we can expect to hear trotted out. Charles Evans should have just shouted “FOUR!” Instead, what he actually said was

“Even a 2.4 percent inflation rate, if it’s reasonably well controlled, and the rest of the economy is doing ok, and then policy is being adjusted in order to keep that within a, under a 2.5 percent range — I think that can work out.”

That makes sense. 2.4% is okay, as long as they limit it to 2.5%. That’s awfully fine control, considering that they don’t normally even have the direction right.

Now, although the Evans speech was a couple of weeks ago I want to point out something else that he said, because it is a dangerous error in the making. He argued that inflation isn’t worrisome unless it is tied to wage inflation. I have pointed out before that wages don’t lead inflation; this is a pernicious myth. It is difficult to demonstrate that with econometrics because the data is very noisy, but it is easy to demonstrate another way. If wages led inflation, then we would surely all love inflation, because our buying power would be expanding when inflation increased (since our wages would have already increased prior to inflation increasing). We know, viscerally, that this is not true.

But economists, evidently, do not. The question below is from a great paper by Bob Shiller called “Why Do People Dislike Inflation” (Shiller, Robert, “Why Do People Dislike Inflation?”, NBER Working Paper #5539, April 1996. ©1996 by Robert J. Shiller. Available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w5539). This is a survey question and response, with the economist-given answer separated out from the answer given by real people.

shillerQ

Economists go with the classic answer that inflation is bad mainly because of “menu costs” and other frictions. But almost everyone else knows that inflation makes us poorer, and that very fact implies that wages follow inflation rather than lead.

Put another way: if Evans is going to be calm about inflation until wage inflation is above 3.5%, then we can expect CPI inflation to be streaking towards 4% before he gets antsy about tightening. Maybe this is why the stock market is so exuberant: although the Fed has tightened by removing the extra QE3, a further tightening is evidently a very long way off.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

July 15, 2014 1 comment

So, the Fed’s tightening is almost done.

Chairman Yellen informed Congress that a “high degree” of easing is needed given the slack in the labor market. This is in keeping with the Fed’s ongoing thematic presentation of “tapering is not tightening,” but of course tapering is indeed tightening. Call it “easing less” if you like, but going from “providing lots of liquidity” to “providing less liquidity” to “providing no added liquidity” is tightening.

I would argue that providing no added liquidity – which is where the Fed is headed, with the taper due to be completed in the autumn – is neutral policy, not an easy policy. But the Fed, like many observers, confuses the level of interest rates with the degree of accommodation. That is confusing a price (the interest rate) with a flow, but it seems not to bother them very much. (I explain the distinction, which is crucial to monetary policymaking, in this article.)

Now, whatever the Chairman thinks she’s saying, what she means is that the Fed isn’t going to be raising interest rates soon. This is partly because the main tool they had been planning to use, the reverse repo facility, isn’t as simple a solution as they believed at first. This isn’t terribly surprising; as I (and others) have been pointing out in presentations and articles for a while it isn’t trivially easy to drain $2 trillion in reverse repo transactions, even if you can do $2 billion with ease. The pattern is familiar, and should be mildly discomfiting:

  • At first, the Fed thought to unwind the massive purchases of Treasuries by simply selling them. The original argument was that the Fed pushed rates lower by buying Treasuries, but selling them wouldn’t raise interest rates. This sort of perpetual motion machine never made much sense, and at some point it became clear that if the Treasury started to unwind the SOMA portfolio securities and rates rose, it would likely not be sufficient to drain all of the excess reserves, since the average selling price would most likely be lower than the average purchase price.
  • The Fed then thought to just let the securities in the SOMA roll off. Then someone noticed that because of the TWIST program, the Fed doesn’t own many short-dated Treasuries, so that letting QE gradually drain itself would take more than a decade.
  • No problem; we’ll just conduct massive reverse repo operations to drain a couple trillion dollars from the system. The link above shows that the Fed’s newly discovered skepticism on that matter; the website Sober Look recently had a good article on the topic as well.

None of this is surprising to people who actually have market experience; unfortunately, over the last decade or so the level of actual market expertise at the Federal Reserve has dropped significantly so they are re-discovering these things the hard way. Now, the focus is on interest on excess reserves (IOER) as the main tool for raising rates eventually.

All of this confusion is one reason that the Fed will move only slowly to ‘normalize’ interest rates. They’re simply not sure how they’ll do it. The problem with IOER is that we have no idea how sensitive the level of reserves it to the amount of interest paid on reserves…since we have never done this before. But to the Fed, that’s no problem because they don’t seem to care about reserves – they only care about the level of interest rates, which at the end of the day don’t matter nearly as much as the growth rate of the money supply.

And so US and UK money supply growth rates are both in the 6-7% range, and interestingly median inflation in the US recently accelerated to 2.3% while core inflation in the UK surprised everyone today by rising to 1.9% (as of April). Commercial bank credit growth in the US over the last 13 weeks has risen at a 10.4% pace, the highest rate since early 2008 (see chart, source Federal Reserve).

quarterlycorpcred

Slowing QE has not, evidently, slowed money supply growth, and this is one reason the Fed insists that tapering is not tightening. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Fed is right, but that they are wrong twice: first, tapering is tightening. Second, changing the pace of addition to reserves does not matter for growth in the money supply (and, hence, inflation) when there are enormous piles of inert reserves already. Picture a huge urn filled with coffee. The spigot at the bottom controls the pace at which coffee leaves the urn, and adding more coffee to the top of the urn has essentially no effect.

So money supply growth, and corporate loan growth, is currently not under control of the Fed in any way. Interest rates are under their control, but interest rates don’t cause changes in the money supply but rather the other way around. Here is another analogy: a robust harvest of corn pushes corn prices lower, but if the government officially sets the price of corn very low it does not cause a robust harvest of corn. This is exactly what the Fed is trying to do if they attempt to control the money supply by changing interest rates.

It actually is worse than this. Raising interest rates will tend to increase money velocity, a relationship which has held very well for the last two decades. I have written about this quite a bit in the past (see for one example this article from last September), but I – like many monetary economists – have often struggled with the fact that there was a regime shift in the early 1990s which messes up the beauty of this fit (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

regimeshift

We have recently resolved much of this problem in our own modeling. The following chart uses three (unstated here, but included in our quarterly inflation outlook to clients) inputs to model M2 velocity, and the regime shift is largely absent. Suffice to say that with a model that makes sense and fits a much wider range of history, we are even more confident now that any Fed move to hike interest rates, rather than to drain reserves, would be a mistake.

velo3inputs

The bottom line is that it is good news that Yellen is not planning to hike interest rates soon. It is bad news that she is not planning to drain reserves any time soon. But the Fed is perilously close to making its big policy error of this cycle. Stay tuned.

Plight of the Fed Model

A very common refrain among stock market bulls these days – and an objection some made to my remarks yesterday that markets are still not making sense – is that the low level of interest rates warrants a high multiple, since future earnings are being discounted at a lower interest rate.

My usual response, and the response from far more educated people than me, like Cliff Asness who published “Fight the Fed Model” back in 2003, is that low interest rates explain high multiples, but they do not justify high multiples. High multiples have always historically been followed – whether explained by low interest rates or not – by poor returns, so it does no good to say “multiples are high because rates are low.” Either way, when multiples are high you are supposed to disinvest.

But I thought it would also be useful, for people who are not as familiar with the argument and only familiar with the sound bite, to see the actual data behind the proposition. So, below, I have a chart of year-end Shiller P/E ratios, since 1900, plotted against year-end 10-year nominal interest rates.

nomvsshiller

Note that it is generally true that lower nominal interest rates are associated with higher multiples, although it is far more clear that higher nominal interest rates are associated with lower multiples, whether we are talking about the long tail to the right (obviously from the early 1980s) or the smaller tail in the middle that dates from around 1920 (when 5% was thought to be a pretty high interest rate). But, either way, the current multiples represent high valuations whether you compare them to high-rate periods or low-rate periods. The exception is clearly from the late 1990s, when the long downtrend in interest rates helped spark a bubble, and incidentally spurred the first widespread discussion/excuse of the so-called “Fed model.” If you take out that bubble, and you take out the 1980s high-rates tail, then there is left just a cloud of points although there does seem to be some mild slope to it from lower-right to upper-left.

But in short, the data is hardly crystal clear in suggesting that low interest rates can explain these multiples, never mind justify them.

More interesting is what you get if you compare P/E ratios to real rates. Because equities are real assets, you should technically use a real discount rate. Since real economic growth in earnings should be reflected in higher real interest rates generally, only the incremental real growth in earnings should be discounted into higher values today. This eliminates, in other words, some of the ‘money illusion’ aspect of the behavior of equity multiples.

I haven’t seen a chart like this before, probably because the history of real interest rates in the U.S. only dates to 1997. However, using a model developed by Enduring Investments (and used as part of one of our investment strategies), we can translate those historical nominal rates into the real rates we would have expected to see, and that allows us to produce this chart of year-end Shiller P/E ratios, since 1900, plotted against year-end 10-year real interest rates – using Enduring’s model until 1997, and actual 10-year real interest rates thereafter.

realvsshiller

I find this picture much more interesting, because there seems to be almost no directionality to it at all. The ‘tail’ at upper right comes from the late 1990s, when again we had the equity bubble but we also had real rates that were higher than at equilibrium since the Treasury’s TIPS program was still new and TIPS were very cheap. But other than that tail, there is simply no trend. The r-squared is 0.02 and the slope of the regression line is not statistically different from zero.

And, in that context, we can again see more clearly that the current point is simply at the high end of the cloud of historical points. The low level of real interest rates – actually quite a bit higher than they were last year – is of no help whatsoever.

None of that should be particularly surprising, except for the buy-and-hope crowd. But I thought it constructive to show the charts for your amusement and/or edification.

Dog Bites Man: Markets Still Not Making Sense

July 7, 2014 5 comments

The Employment number these days is sometimes less interesting than the response of the markets to the number over the ensuing few days. That may or may not be the case here. Thursday’s Employment report was stronger than expected, although right in line with the sorts of numbers we have had, and should expect to have, in the middle of an expansion.

12mpayrolls

As the chart illustrates, we have been running at about the rate of 200k per month for the last several years, averaged over a full year. I first pointed out last year that this is about the maximum pace our economy is likely to be able to sustain, although in the bubble-fueled expansion of the late 1990s the average got up to around 280k. So Thursday’s 288k is likely to be either revised lower, or followed by some weaker figures going forward, but is fairly unlikely to be followed by stronger numbers.

This is why the lament about the weak job growth is so interesting. It isn’t really very weak at all, historically. It’s merely that people (that is, economists and politicians) were anticipating that the horrible recession would be followed by an awe-inspiring expansion.

The fact that it has not been is itself informative, although you are unlikely to see economists drawing the interesting conclusion here. That’s because they don’t really understand the question, which is “is U.S. growth unit root?” To remember why this really matters, look back at my article from 2010: “The Root of the Problem.” Quoting from that article:

“what is important to understand is this: if economic output is not unit root but is rather trend-stationary, then over time the economy will tend to return to the trend level of output. If economic output is unit root, then a shock to the economy such as we have experienced will not naturally be followed by a return to the prior level of output.”

In other words, if growth is unit root, then we should expect that expansions should be roughly as robust when they follow economic collapses as when they follow mild downturns. And that is exactly what we are seeing in the steady but uninspiring job growth, and the steady if not-unusual return to normalcy in the Unemployment Rate (once we adjust for the participation rate). So, the data seem to suggest that growth is approximately unit root, which matters because among other things it makes any Keynesian prescriptions problematic – if there is no such thing as “trend growth” then the whole notion of an output gap gets weird. A gap? A gap to what?

Now, it is still interesting to look at how markets reacted. Bonds initially sold off, as would be expected if the Fed cared about the Unemployment Rate or the output gap being closed, but then rallied as (presumably) investors discounted the idea that the Federal Reserve is going to move pre-emptively to restrain inflation in this cycle. Equities, on the other hand, had a knee-jerk selloff on that idea (less Fed accommodation) but then rallied the rest of the day on Thursday before retracing a good part of that gain today. It is unclear to me just what news can actually be better than what is already impounded in stock prices. If the answer is “not very darn much,” then the natural reaction should be for the market to tend to react negatively to news even if it continues to drift higher in the absence of news. But that is counterfactual to what happened on Thursday/Monday. I don’t like to read too much into any day’s trading, but that is interesting.

Commodities were roughly unchanged on Thursday, but fell back strongly today. Well, a 1.2% decline in the Bloomberg Commodity Index (formerly the DJ-UBS Commodity Index) isn’t exactly a rout, but since commodities have been slowly rallying for a while this represents the worst selloff since March. The 5-day selloff in commodities, a lusty 2.4%, is the worst since January. Yes, commodities have been rallying, and yet the year-to-date change in the Bloomberg Commodity Index is only 2% more than the rise in M2 over the same period (5.5% versus 3.5%), which means the terribly oversold condition of commodities – especially when compared to other real assets – has only barely begun to be corrected.

I do not really understand why the mild concern over inflation that developed recently after three alarming CPI reports in a row has vanished so suddenly. We can see it in the commodity decline, and the recent rise in implied core inflation that I have documented recently (see “Awareness of Inflation, But No Fear Yet”) has largely reversed: currently, implied 1 year core inflation is only 2.15%, which is lower than current median inflation – implying that the central tendency of inflation will actually decline from current levels.

I don’t see any reason for such sanguinity. Money supply growth remains around 7%, and y/y credit growth is back around 5%. I am not a Keynesian, and I believe that growth doesn’t matter (much) for inflation, but the recent tightening of labor markets should make a Keynesian believe that inflation is closer, not further away! If one is inclined to give credit in advance to the Federal Reserve, and assume that the Committee will move pre-emptively to restrain inflation – and if you are assuming that core inflation will be lower in a year from where it (or median inflation, which is currently a better measure of “core” inflation) is now, you must be assuming preemption – then I suppose you might think that 2.15% core is roughly the right level.

But even there, one would have to assume that policy could affect inflation instantly. Inflation has momentum, and it takes time for policy – even once implemented, of which there is no sign yet – to have an effect on the trajectory of inflation. Maybe there can be an argument that 2-year forward or 3-year forward core inflation might be restrained by a pre-emptive Fed. But I can’t see that argument for year-ahead inflation.

Of course, markets don’t always have to make sense. We have certainly learned this in spades over the last decade! I suppose that saying markets aren’t making a lot of sense right now is merely a headline of the “dog bites man” variety. The real shocker, the “man bites dog” headline, would be if they started making sense again.

The Fed’s “Own Goal”

June 18, 2014 2 comments

As we wait to see whether the Fed slants its statement ever-so-slightly to the hawkish side or ever-so-slightly to the dovish side (not to mention whether Chairman Yellen repeats her blunt performance in the presser), it is probably worth a few moments to think about what the Fed ought to do.

Yesterday’s inflation figures, viewed in isolation, might be perceived as a one-off bad figure. I pointed out yesterday some reasons that this would be an unfortunate error. Keep in mind that anything the Fed does to address monetary policy will take some time to impact an economic process with momentum. That is to say that even if the Fed tightened today, core inflation over 3% is probably still going to happen. The real question is how high inflation goes, and how long it stays there. There is no longer any question about whether inflation is rising. (This has actually been true for a while, but people who were focused on core rather than median and didn’t look at the particulars of inflation, as well as those who focus on the “output gap” as preventing any possibility of inflation, have been able to ignore the signs for a while).

As an aside, the “output gap” crowd – who expected deflation in 2009-10, and didn’t get it, and now expect disinflation, but aren’t getting it – aren’t defeated yet. They’ll simply re-define the gap to fit the data, I am sure. When you get to choose your own observations and change the model to fit the observations, science is easy.

What concerns me about the Fed’s next steps here, and the state of the debate, is that the Federal Reserve seems overly focused on the level of interest rates, and how to adjust them, and not on the level of reserves or controlling the transactional money supply. For example, recently the IMF published a paper arguing that central banks should raise the long-term inflation target from 2% to 4% because with a 2% target it is too easy to get deflation and have interest rates pinned at zero, leaving the central bank powerless to stop deflation. It seems not to matter to the author that Japan only recently proved that it is money, and not interest rates, that matter when they were able to get out of deflation with an aggressive QE. And, after all, “Helicopter” Ben made the point years ago that deflation is easy to prevent if only the Fed prints money.

So the cult of interest rate manipulation concerns me. Another, and more influential, example (because after all, no one really believes the central bank will start targeting 4% inflation) is in the publication recently of “Monetary Policy with Abundant Liquidity: A New Operating Framework for the Federal Reserve,” co-authored by Brian Sack and Joseph Gagnon. Dr. Sack used to be head of the Fed’s Open Markets Desk, so his opinions have some weight in the institution. In this policy brief, he and his co-author suggest ways that the Fed could raise rates even without reducing the amount of excess reserves in the system. Their approach would, indeed, succeed in moving interest rates. But the proposal, in the authors’ words, “appropriately ignores the quantity of money.”

Considering that it is the quantity of money, not its price, that impacts inflation – as hundreds of years of monetary history have proven beyond any educated doubt – this is a frightening view. We are always looking for where the next policy error will come from; this is certainly a strong candidate.

There is a crucial misunderstanding here, and it is unfortunately a fundamental tenet of the interest rate cult. Interest rates are not the cause of money supply changes, but the result of them. The way the Fed operates tends to cause this confusion, because the Fed seems to adjust interest rates. But that is not in fact what happens. The Desk actually adjusts the level of reserves in the system, and reads the interest rate as an indication of whether reserves are at the right level (or at least, this was the way it used to be done, before the “environment of abundant liquidity”). The confusion has gradually developed, and the institution has contributed to the confusion by gradually altering its policy statements to obfuscate what is actually going on. The domestic policy directive of February 1989 said in part:

“In the implementation of policy for the immediate future, the Committee seeks to maintain the existing degree of pressure on reserve positions…somewhat greater reserve restraint would, or slightly lesser reserve restraint might, be acceptable in the intermeeting period. The contemplated reserve conditions are expected to be consistent with growth of M2 and M3 over the period from December through March at annual rates of about 2 and 3½ percent, respectively.”

Notice that the main focus here is how pressure on reserves leads to money supply growth. By 1994, the Fed was drawing the line to interest rates more explicitly. The press release following the February 4th, 1994 meeting said in part:

“Chairman Alan Greenspan announced today that the Federal Open Market Committee decided to increase slightly the degree of pressure on reserve positions. The action is expected to be associated with a small increase in short-term money market interest rates.”

The Federal Reserve eventually stopped talking about “reserve positions,” although that continued to be how interest rates were managed in fact. Here is what the Fed was saying in January 2007:

“The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 5-1/4 percent.”

Now, of course, the Fed not only sets the current level of interest rates but also gives us an expected path.

But again, even when the Fed was talking about the interest rate target, the Fed actually managed interest rates by managing reserves. By doing large system repos or matched sales, the supply of reserves was managed with respect to what the Fed thought the demand for reserves (which is unobservable in real time) was. If the resulting interest rate was too low or too high, then they added or subtracted to the supply reserves. And thus we get to the point that is crucial for understanding how monetary policy is conducted: the interest rate is a measurement of the pressure on reserves.

Interest rates, in other words, are like a thermometer that measures the temperature in the body. The doctor plies his trade on a feverish patient with an eye on the thermometer. He can’t see the microbes and antibodies, but the thermometer tells him (her) if he (she) is winning. In exactly the same way, the level of short-term interest rates tells the Fed if they have too many reserves or too few. But suppose the doctor lost sight of the real purpose of treatment? Suppose the doctor said “wow, this would be so much easier if I just put a little dial on the thermometer so that I could control the reading directly! Then I could just set it to the right temperature and I would be done.” We would all recognize that doctor as a quack, and the patient would probably die.

This approach, though, is what the Sack/Gagnon paper proposes. We want to control the temperature, so let’s introduce a thermometer that allows us to control the temperature! But this is wrong, because it is the reserve position that is critical to control; it is that which is out of control at the moment due to the presence of copious excess reserves; and the fact that the Fed can simply set the interest rate is irrelevant. (Why do we need a Fed? Why not have Congress set the legal interest rate at the “appropriate level” so that the Fed doesn’t even need to do open market operations?)

The Sack/Gagnon plan will clearly permit the movement of interest rates to wherever the Fed wants them to be. But it will not solve the root problem, which is that the level of required reserves is essentially out of the Fed’s control – which means the size of the money supply is out of its control as well. Excess reserves will continue to leak into transactional money, and inflation will continue to rise. Here is your error. The Fed is about to score an “own goal.”

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

June 17, 2014 7 comments

Following is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy!

  • Well, I hate to say I told you so, but…increase in core CPI biggest since Aug 2011. +0.3%, y/y up to 2.0% from 1.8%.
  • Let the economist ***-covering begin.
  • Core services +2.7%, core goods still -0.2%. In other words, plenty of room for core to continue to rise as core goods mean-reverts.
  • (RT from Bloomberg Markets): Consumer Price Inflation By Category http://read.bi/U60bLJ   pic.twitter.com/R2ufMjVRRM
  • Major groups accel: Food/Bev, Housing, Apparel, Transp, Med Care, Other (87.1%) Decel: Recreation (5.8%) Unch: Educ/Comm (7.1%)
  • w/i housing, OER only ticked up slightly, same with primary rents. But lodging away from home soared.
  • y/y core was 1.956% to 3 decimals, so it only just barely rounded higher. m/m was 0.258%, also just rounding up.
  • OER at 2.64% y/y is lagging behind my model again. Should be at 3% by year-end.
  • Fully 70% of lower-level categories in the CPI accelerated last month. That’s actually UP from April’s very broad acceleration.
  • That acceleration breadth is one of the things that told you this month we wouldn’t retrace. This looks more like an inflation process.
  • 63% of categories are seeing price increases more than 2%. Half are rising faster than 2.5%.
  • Back of the envelope says Median CPI ought to accelerate again from 2.2%. But the Cleveland Fed doesn’t do it the same way I do.
  • All 5 major subcomponents of Medical Care accelerated. Drugs 2.7% from 1.7%, equip -0.6% from -1.4%, prof svs 1.9% from 1.5%>>>
  • >>>Hospital & related svcs 5.8% from 5.5%, and Health insurance to -0.1% from -0.2%. Of course this is expected base effects.
  • Always funny that Educ & Communication are together as they have nothing in common. Educ 3.4% from 3.3%; Comm -0.24% from -0.18%.

This was potentially a watershed CPI report. There are several things that will tend to reduce the sense of alarm in official (and unofficial) circles, however. The overall level of core CPI, only just reaching 2%, will mean that this report generates less alarm than if the same report had happened with core at 2.5% or 3%. But that’s a mistake, since core CPI is only as low as 2% because of one-off effects – the same one-off effects I have been talking about for a year, and which virtually guaranteed that core CPI would rise this year toward Median CPI. Median CPI is at 2.2% (for April; it will likely be at least 2.3% y/y from this month but the report isn’t out until mid-day-ish). I continue to think that core and median CPI are making a run at 3% this calendar year.

The fact that OER and Primary Rents didn’t accelerate, combined with the fact that the housing market appears to be softening, will also reduce policymaker palpitations. But this too is wrong – although housing activity is softening, housing prices are only softening at the margin so far. Central bankers will make the error, as they so often do, of thinking about the microeconomic fact that diminishing demand should lower market-clearing prices. That is only true, sadly, if the value of the pricing unit is not changing. Relative prices in housing can ebb, but as long as there is too much money, housing prices will continue to rise. Remember, the spike in housing prices began with a huge overhang of supply…something else that the simple microeconomic model says shouldn’t happen!

Policymakers will be pleased that inflation expectations remain “contained,” meaning that breakevens and inflation swaps are not rising rapidly (although they are up somewhat today, as one would expect). Even this, though, is somewhat of an illusion. Inflation swaps and breakevens measure headline inflation expectations, but under the surface expectations for core inflation are rising. The chart below shows a time-series of 1-year (black) and 5-year (green) expectations for core inflation, extracted from inflation markets. Year-ahead core CPI expectations have risen from 1.7% to 2.2% in just the last two and a half months, while 5-year core inflation expectations are back to 2.4% (and will be above it today). This is not panic territory, and in any event I don’t believe inflation expectations really anchor inflation, but it is moving in the “wrong” direction.

corefromcrude

But the biggest red flag in all of this is not the size of the increase, and not even the fact that the monthly acceleration has increased for three months in a row while economists keep looking for mean-reversion (which we are getting, but they just have the wrong mean). The biggest red flag is the diffusion of inflation accelerations across big swaths of products and services. Always before there have been a few categories leading the way. When those categories were very large, like Housing, it helped to forecast inflation – well, it helped some of us – but it wasn’t as alarming. Inflation is a process by which the general price level increases, though, and that means that in an inflationary episode we should see most prices rising, and we should see those increases accelerating across many categories. That is exactly what we are seeing now.

In my mind, this is the worst inflation report in years, largely because there aren’t just one or two things to pin it on. Many prices are going up.

They Came to Play

I am generally reluctant to call anything a “game changer,” because in a complex global economy with intricately interdependent markets it takes something truly special to change everything. However, I am tempted to attach that appellation to the ECB’s historic action this morning. It probably does not “change the game” per se, but it is very significant.

Feeble money growth in the Eurozone has been a big concern of mine for a while (and I mentioned it as recently as Monday). In our Quarterly Inflation Outlook back in February, we wrote:

“The new best candidate for having a lost decade, now, becomes Europe, as it sports the lowest M2 growth among major economic blocs… It frankly is shocking to us that money supply growth has been so weak and the central bank so lethargic towards this fact even with Draghi at the controls. It was generally thought that Draghi’s election posed a great risk to price stability in Europe… but in the other direction from what the Eurozone is now confronting. There have been murmurings about the possibility of the ECB instituting negative deposit rates and other aggressive stimulations of the money supply, but in the meantime money growth is slipping to well below where it needs to be to stabilize prices. Europe, in our view, is the biggest counterweight to global inflationary dynamics, which is good for the world but bad for Europe.”

All of that changed, in one fell swoop, today. The ECB’s actions were unprecedented, and largely unexpected. First, and somewhat expected, was the body’s decision to implement a negative deposit rate for bank reserves held at the ECB.  This is akin to the Fed incorporating a negative rate for Interest on Excess Reserves (IOER). What it does is to actually penalize banks for holding excess reserves.

There are two ways for a bank to shed excess reserves. The first way is to sell the reserves to another bank in the interbank market. This doesn’t change anything about the aggregate amount of excess reserves; it just moves those reserves around. In the process, it will push market interest rates negative (since a bank should be willing to take any interest rate that is less negative than what the ECB is charging) and probably increase retail banking fees at the margin (since there is otherwise no way to charge depositors a negative rate). This will weaken banks, but doesn’t increase money growth. The second way a bank can shed excess reserves is to lend money, which increases the reserves it is required to hold and therefore changes the reserves from excess to required. A bank is incentivized to make marginally riskier loans (which lowers its margins due to increased credit losses) because there is a small advantage to using up “expensive” reserves. This also will weaken banks. But, more importantly, it will stimulate money growth and that is what the ECB is aiming for.

If that was all the ECB had done, though, it would not be terribly significant. The utilization of the ECB’s deposit facility is only about €29bln at this writing, which is already near the lowest level since the crisis began (see chart, source Bloomberg).

ECBdepo

But the ECB did not stop there. At the press conference after the formal announcement, Draghi unveiled a package of €400bln in “targeted” LTRO, which means that if banks lend the money they acquire through the LTRO then the term of the loan is four years; otherwise it must be paid back in two years.[1] Even more important, the central bank suspended the sterilization of LTRO. “Sterilization” is when the bank soaks up the reserves created by the LTRO. As long as the ECB was sterilizing its quantitative easing, it could not have any impact. It is similar, but more extreme, to what the Fed did in instituting IOER to restrain banks from actually using the reserves created by QE. It never made much sense, but in the ECB’s case there was evidently some concern that doing QE without sterilization was not permitted under the institution’s charter.

Apparently, those concerns have been resolved. But QE without sterilization is meaningful. The ECB is thus not only doing quantitative easing, but is actively taking steps to make sure that the liquidity being added to the system is flushed, rather than leaked, into the transactional money supply.

If the ECB actually follows through on these pledges, then we can expect a rapid turn-around in the region’s money growth, and before long a turn higher in the region’s inflation readings. And, perhaps, not merely for the region: the chart below (source: Bloomberg, Enduring Investments) shows the correlation between core CPI in the US and the average increase in US and Eurozone M2. Currently US M2 is growing at better than 7% over the last year, while Eurozone M2 is 1.9%. Increasing the pace of M2 growth in Europe might well help push US inflation higher – not that it needed any help, as it is already swinging higher.

europlusus

The renewed determination of the ECB to push prices higher should as a result be good not only for European inflation swaps (10-year inflation swaps were up 2-3bps today, but have a long way to go before they are back to normal levels – see chart, source Bloomberg), but also for US inflation swaps (which were up 1-2bps today).

euroinfl10

Finally, if it is true that central bank generosity is what has been underpinning global asset markets, an aggressive ECB might give a bit more life to global equities. Perhaps one more leg. But then again, perhaps not – and when the piper’s tune is over, it could be brutal. It is currently quite dangerous to be dancing to that piper. For my money, I’d rather be long breakevens.


[1] This is interesting for lots of reasons, but one of them is that the ECB will measure (if I understand correctly) the net lending of the institution, so if that contracts then the loan will be called. But there are lots of reasons for an institution to decrease lending. Some of them, such as a generally weak economic environment or a weak balance sheet of the bank, would be exacerbated by an unwelcome “call” of the loan by the ECB. In the former case it would exacerbate a weak economic situation; in the latter it could accelerate a bank collapse. I may not understand the conditions for the call, but if my understanding is correct then this is a curious wrinkle.

Growling Dogs Sometimes Bite

I think it’s really interesting that suddenly, we are hearing from both hawks and doves on the Federal Reserve that the Fed is starting to worry whether some “complacency” has snuck into the market.

No kidding?

It is sort of a strange claim, since a really important part of QE and about how it was supposed to work was through the “portfolio balance channel.” In a nutshell, the idea of the portfolio balance channel is that if the Fed removes sufficient of the “safe” securities from the market, then people will be forced to buy riskier securities. Thus, the Fed was intentionally trying to substitute for animal spirits. And they were successful at it, which I illustrated in this post more than a year ago.  So now, the Fed is surprised that the riskier asset classes are getting very expensive?

It is sometimes hard to keep track of all of the Fed’s arguments, since they seem to shift as frequently as necessary to make them appear to be on the right side of the data. Honestly, it’s a little bit like the way politicians work the “spin” cycle. The portfolio balance channel was good, and a goal of policy; now it’s surprising. You need to take good notes to keep this stuff straight.

That being said, it is not usually a coincidence when three Fed officials use nearly the same words in consecutive speeches, particularly when those three Fed officials include both hawks (Fisher, George) and doves (Dudley). The difference here is that Fisher and George are probably making this argument because they’d like to see the Fed pull back on the reins a bit, while Dudley probably doesn’t intend to do anything about the fear of complacency other than talk about it.

What does this mean?

  1. I am not the only person who is worried about not being worried (see my article from Monday).
  2. At least some people at the Fed are concerned that they have gone too far. This isn’t really news; the only news would be if that’s starting to be a majority opinion.
  3. At least some people at the Fed think that policymakers should be trying to ‘talk down’ markets.

Why do I include the third point? Because, if the Fed really was planning to do anything about it, they would just do it. Talking about complacency might cause some people to decrease their risky-market bets, but putting Treasuries back on the street and taking in cash would force the de-risking to happen. Call it the portfolio “rebalance” channel. No doubt, there is plenty of fear at the Fed about the possibility that the complacency might break suddenly in a sloppy, discontinuous way, but there are a couple of decades of experience with the lack of success of FOMC “open mouth policy.” Does the phrase “irrational exuberance” mean anything to you? Did Greenspan’s utterance of that phrase in December 1996 affect in any way the trajectory of the over-complacent equity market? Nope.

Ironically, I think what really galls the Fed is that market measures of policy rate expectations over the next few years imply a lower trajectory than the Fed feels they have laid out as their road map. The Committee, it seems doesn’t mind surprising the market on the dovish side but is wary of surprising them on the hawkish side. I predict that, if the short end of the rates curve steepens just a little bit, Fed officials will stop worrying so much about “complacency” even if stocks continue to ramp up.

In any case, it is worth listening when the Fed starts talking with one voice. There are lots of other reasons to be the first person to shed complacency, but here is a new one: whether it’s a bona fide signal or just central banker bluster, there is a new tone coming from Fed speakers. Beware of dogs that growl; sometimes they bite.

Worried About Not Being Worried

June 2, 2014 4 comments

I am beginning to worry about my own complacency. As a person who has been a participant in the fixed-income markets for a long time, I have become quite naturally a very cautious investor. Such caution is a quintessentially fixed-income mindset (although you might not guess that from the way bond people behaved in the run-up to the global financial crisis) – as a bond investor, you are essentially in the position of someone who is short options: taking in small amounts on a regular basis, with an occasional large loss when the credit defaults. A bond investor can greatly improve his performance in the long run relative to an index by merely avoiding the blow-ups. Miss the Enron moment, and you pick up a lot of relative performance. (The same is true of equities, but there is much more upside to being an optimist. The stock market selects for optimists, the bond market for pessimists.)

This is a lesson that many high-yield investors today, chasing near-term carry, seem to have forgotten. But my purpose here isn’t to bash those involved in the global reach for yield. I am merely pointing out that this is how I tend to think. I am always looking for the next disaster that hangs a portfolio with a big negative number. As Prince Humperdinck said in The Princess Bride, “I always think everything could be a trap – which is why I’m still alive.”

And I am starting to worry about my own complacency. I don’t get the feeling that we’re gearing up for Round 2 of the global financial crisis. Something bad, perhaps, but not catastrophic.

To be sure, there are a large number of potential pitfalls facing investors today, and I think market volatilities underestimate their probabilities substantially. We are facing an inflection in policy from the ECB this week, with analysts expecting a substantial additional easing action (and it is overdue, with money growth in Europe down to a feeble 1.9% y/y, near the worst levels of the post-crisis period – see chart, source Bloomberg). Absent a major change in policy, liquidity on the continent is going to become increasingly dear with possible ramifications for the real economy as well as the asset economy.

EUM2

The Federal Reserve is facing a more-serious policy inflection point, with no agreement amongst FOMC members (as far as I can tell) about how to transition from the end of QE to the eventual tightening. I’ve pointed out before – while many Fed officials were whistling Dixie about how easy it would be to reverse policy – that there is no proven method for raising interest rates with the vast quantity of excess reserves sitting inert on bank balance sheets. Moreover, raising interest rates isn’t the key…restraining money growth is. The key point for markets is simply that there is no plan in place that removes these reserves, which means that interest rates are not likely to respond to Fed desires to see them rise. And, if the Fed uses a brute-force method of raising the interest paid on excess reserves, then rates may rise but we don’t know what will happen to the relative quantities of required and excess reserves (and it is the level of required reserves that actually matter for inflation). It is a thorny problem, and one which the markets aren’t giving enough credit regarding the difficulty thereof.

Valuation levels are high across the board (with the exception of commodity indices). They’re doubly high in stocks, with high multiples on earnings that are themselves high with respect to revenues. And yes, this concerns me. I expect more volatility ahead, and perhaps serious volatility. But the fact that I am just saying “perhaps,” when all of my experience and models say “there is no escape without some bad stuff happening,” means that I am being infected – relative to my usual caution – by the general complacency.

In other words, I am worried that I am not worried enough.

The interesting thing is that equity bulls said during the entire march higher that “it doesn’t matter what the fundamentals are, the Fed is pushing the market higher and spreads tighter.” I still don’t believe that was an inevitable outcome to the Fed’s QE, but the fact is that people believed it and they were correct: that was enough to keep the market going higher. I can’t be comfortable going along with the crowd in that circumstance, but in retrospect it would have been better to abandon the models, throw caution to the wind, and ride along with the fun. And perhaps this regret is one reason for my developing complacency.

But that way lies madness, since the problem is not the ride but the getting out when the ride is over. The Fed is no longer providing QE (or, in any event, QE will shortly end altogether). So what’s the excuse now? It seems to me that everyone is still riding on the fun train, and just watching carefully to see if anyone jumps off. I think the market rally is on very tenuous footing, because if faith in the market’s liquidity goes away, the value anchor is very far from these levels. Yet, part of me is skeptical that a market which hasn’t corrected in more than two years can actually return to those value anchors. I should know better, because the bond-market mindset reminds me that market gains are generally linear while market losses are discontinuous, sloppy, and non-linear. Especially, I ought to be thinking, when market liquidity is so poor thanks to the government’s assault on market makers over the last few years.

I keep wondering if there is one more pulse higher in stocks coming, one more decline in commodities before they begin to catch up with money growth and inflation, one more rally in bonds before they begin to discount a higher inflation path. And this is very possible, because while I worry about my own developing complacency most investors are not concerned about their own.

Complacency or no, insurance is cheap. The low current level of implied volatilities in almost every asset class makes portfolio protection worthwhile, even if it costs a bit of performance to acquire that protection.

The Boredom Always Ends

After fairly boring trading through the first half of the month, the equity market has shot to new highs over the last few sessions. Could it be mere boredom on the part of investors, who are seeking more excitement?

Stocks have been expensive for a while, with Shiller P/Es near 25, yet the battle cry among bulls has been “but look, the trailing P/E is still low.” Although the trailing P/E recently has incorporated earnings that represented unusually high margins (see chart, source Bloomberg), the “see no evil” crowd brushed that complaint aside. But now, the trailing P/E ratio of the S&P 500 is at 17.6, and at 18.7 before the write-off of “extraordinary items” (which, while extraordinary for any given company in a given year, are not extraordinary for the index of a whole, which always has some of these write-offs).

marginsSo it isn’t as if the equity market is now rising because earnings have been rising and prices are just catching up. The trailing P/E is now at a level slightly higher than it was prior to the 2007 top, and on par with the levels of the Go-Go Sixties prior to the malaise of the 1970s (see chart, source Bloomberg). Let us not forget that earnings quality isn’t what it once was, either. And again: I am not a fan of a 1-year trailing P/E; I am merely pointing out that even this bullish argument is going away.

histpespxTo be sure, trailing P/Es aren’t at the pre-crash levels of 1987 or 1999 – but, again, let us recall that margins are at cyclical highs, so that if we look at the S&P price/sales ratio, we again get a disturbing view that has equity valuations higher than at any time other than the 1999 bubble run-up. (See chart, source Bloomberg – note that Bloomberg history for this series only goes back to 1990.)

pricesales

Now, some observers will draw exaggerated offense to the notion that stocks might be priced for somewhat poor forward returns, and insist that the recent rally in bonds means that the ratio of the “Earnings yield” to bond yields is merely being maintained. Aside from the fact that this “Fed model” is explanatory rather than predictive (that is, it helps explain why prices are high, while not suggesting they will remain high…and indeed, rather suggesting the opposite as future returns are inversely correlated with the P/E of the starting point of the holding period), we also can’t give credit for the equity rally to the bond market rally this year from 3% 10-year yields to 2.50% yields without simultaneously asking why investors didn’t sell stocks when yields rose from 1.70% to 3% last year.

Admittedly, I was probably saying roughly the same thing at this point last year. Sour grapes? No, it just concerns the question of investing rules versus trading rules. In other words: I’m not telling you how to vote; I’m telling you how to weigh. Nothing has changed valuation-wise since last year, other than the fact that the market as a whole is growing more expensive.

On the “good news” front, corporate credit growth has been re-accelerating again. This is somewhat of a sine qua non for faster economic growth. We had seen decent credit growth in 2011 and into 2012, but when QE3 kicked off loan activity had ebbed. But now quarterly growth in commercial credit is nearing a 10% annual rate (see chart, source Board of Governors), something that hasn’t happened since the beginning of 2008 – other than for a brief spike around the crisis itself.

commbkquart

While this is good news, it is not unmitigated good news considering that the Federal Reserve as yet has no viable plan for exiting QE before all of those horses leave the barn. One of the biggest concerns, in terms of a risk of unpleasant surprise, is that few seem to be giving the inflation risk much thought, either in markets where 10-year inflation swaps float in the middle of the 2.40%-2.60% range they have occupied for the last twelve months, or in policymaker circles. This is on my mind today because I was reading an article published on the BLS website entitled “One hundred years of price change: the Consumer Price Index and the American inflation experience” and ran across this passage:

“Why the return of inflation when it seemed to be guarded against and feared? One possibility is a change in the perspective of policymakers. Some have argued that inflation was tempered in the 1950s by a Federal Reserve that, believing that inflation would reduce unemployment in the short term but increase it in the long term, was willing to contract the economy to prevent inflation from growing. By the 1960s, however, the notion of the Phillips curve, a straightforward tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, ruled the day. Citing the curve, policymakers believed that unemployment could be permanently reduced by accepting higher inflation. This view led to expansionary monetary and fiscal policies that in turn led to booming growth, but also inflationary pressures. However much policymakers professed to fear inflation, the policies they pursued seemed to reflect other priorities. The federal government ran deficits throughout the 1960s, with steadily increasing deficits starting in 1966.

Aside from the dates, it strikes me that this paragraph could have been written today. The Phillips Curve, now “augmented,” is still a key tool in the Fed economist’s toolkit even as responsible control of the money supply is deemed passé. As for accepting higher inflation the FOMC changed its inflation target a couple of years ago to be 2% on the PCE, which was implicitly a bump higher from the previous 2% CPI target since PCE is normally 0.3% or so below CPI, and various officials have mooted the idea of letting price increases exceed that rate “for a time” since expectations are well-grounded. And then, of course, you have economists like Krugman arguing for a higher inflation target. Not that we ought to pay any attention to Krugman, but somebody invited him to speak at that conference and that suggests he still has credibility somewhere.

I must say that I don’t believe in an end to history, in which a permanent and pleasant equilibrium exists in capital markets and economies, which both can continue to expand at a reasonable pace with low and fairly stable inflation and interest rates and generous profit margins. If I did believe in such a thing, then I might think that we had arrived; and then perhaps I would see equity multiples and bond yields as reasonable and sustainable. But I do not, because I have already lived through three periods where the VIX was in the 10-12 range: in the 1990s, in 2005-2007, and in 2013-2014. The first two periods produced very exciting finishes. The boredom always ends, and usually abruptly.

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