Trading, and to some extent investing, is all about knowing when markets are moving with the wisdom of the crowds and when they’re moving with the madness of the crowds. In recent years, there has seemed to be much more madness than wisdom (a statement which can probably be generalized beyond the financial markets themselves, come to think of it). Where do we stand now?
I think a recent letter by John Hussman of Hussman Strategic Advisors, entitled “An Open Letter to the FOMC: Recognizing the Valuation Bubble In Equities,” is worth reading. Hussman is far from the only person, nor even the most august or influential investor, questioning the valuation of equities at the moment. Our own valuation models have had the projected 10-year compounded real return of equities below 3% for several years, and below 2% since late April. For a time, that may have been sustainable because of the overall low level of real rates, but since the summertime rates selloff the expected equity premium has been below 1.5% per annum, compounded – and is now below 1% (see Chart, source Enduring Investments).
Hussman shows a number of other ways of looking at the data, all of which suggest that equity prices are unsustainable in the long run. But what really caught my eye was the section “Textbook speculative features”, where he cites none other than Didier Sornette. Sornette wrote a terrific book called Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems, in which he argues that markets at increased risk of failure demonstrate certain regular characteristics. There is now a considerable literature on non-linear dynamics in complex systems, including Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen by Mark Buchanan and Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics . But Sornette’s book is one of the better balances between accessibility to the non-mathematician and utility to the financial practitioner. But Hussman is the first investor I’ve seen to publicly apply Sornette’s method to imply a point of singularity to markets in real time. While the time of ‘breakage’ of the markets cannot be assessed with any more, and probably less, confidence than one can predict a precise time that a certain material will break under load – and Hussman, it should be noted, “emphatically” does not lay out an explicit time path for prices – his assessment puts Sornette dates between mid-December and January.
Hussman, like me, is clearly of the belief that we are well beyond the wisdom of crowds, into the madness thereof.
One might reasonably ask “what could cause such a crash to happen?” My pat response is that I don’t know what will trigger such a crash, but the cause would be the extremely high valuations. The trigger and the cause are separate discussions. I can imagine a number of possibilities, including something as innocuous as a bad “catch-up” CPI print or two that produces a resurgence of taper talk or an ill-considered remark from Janet Yellen. But speculating on a specific trigger event is madness in itself. Again, the cause is valuations that imply poor equity returns over the long term; of the many paths that lead to poor long-term returns, some include really bad short-term returns and then moderate or even good returns thereafter.
I find this thought process of Hussman’s interesting because it seems consonant with another notion: that the effectiveness of QE might be approaching zero asymptotically as well. That is, if each increment of QE is producing smaller and smaller improvements in the variables of interest (depending who you are, that might mean equity prices, long-term interest rates, bank lending, unemployment, etc), then at some point the ability of QE to sustain highly speculative valuations goes away and we’re left with the coyote-running-over-the-cliff scenario. Some Fed officials have been expressing opinions about the declining efficacy of QE, and Janet Yellen comes to office on February 2nd. I suspect the market is likely to test her very early.
None of this means that stocks cannot go straight up from here for much longer. There’s absolutely nothing to keep stock prices from doubling or tripling from here, except the rationality of investors. And as Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Guessing at the date on which the crowd will toggle back from “madness” to “wisdom” is inherently difficult. What is interesting about the Sornette work, via Hussman, is that it circles a high-risk period on the calendar.
For two days in a row now, I’ve discussed other people’s views. On Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll share my own thoughts – about the possible effects of Obamacare on measured Medical Care inflation.
I guess we have to add to the list of uncomfortable comparisons to 1999’s equity mania the Twitter IPO. A widely-known company with no earnings…and no visible way to produce any revenues of note, much less earnings…went public and promptly doubled. Hedge funds which were able to get in on the IPO allocation cheered this nice kick to their performance numbers, and the backers of the now-$25bln-company are surely elated. But the rest of us have got to be thinking about Pets.com.
It was an article by Hussman Funds (ht rich t) that got me thinking more deeply about these comparisons. Although the article was referred to me partly because of the insightful comments about the Phillips Curve, which echo similar comments I have made in the past, I kept reading to the end as I usually do when trapped in a Hussman article! While there are a number of us (including Hussman, Grantham, Arnott, e.g.) who have been concerned for a while about equity market valuations since we use similar metrics, I really haven’t been terribly concerned about the possibility of an imminent and steep market decline for a while, though I think returns from these levels over the next decade will be close to flat in real terms as they were after the 1999 peak. However, Hussman had me thinking about this.
I do think that there is one key difference from 1999, and that is that not everyone is talking about stocks. That is, not yet…the Twitter IPO might get us there – on Fox Business News today a young talking head (who was no more than 10 years old in 1999) made sure that viewers were informed that anyone could buy Twitter, just by calling their broker. (Not just anyone, though, could get in at the IPO price…a point the cub reporter neglected to mention).
The counter-argument to “is this a 1999 set-up?” takes two forms. The less-sophisticated form is “nuh-uh”, although usually said in a slightly more elaborate way that implies the questioner is a mindless, not to mention soulless, Communist who isn’t getting enough loving at home. The more-sophisticated argument is worth considering, but isn’t particularly soothing to me. This hypothesis is that this isn’t 1999, it’s 1997, before the parabolic blow-off and with lots of room left to run. It wasn’t as if there was any lack of skepticism about the stock market’s levels (which, sweetly, we considered lofty at the time):
“Is it possible that there is something fundamentally new about this current period that would warrant such complacency? Yes, it is possible. Markets may have become more efficient, competition is more global, and information technology has doubtless enhanced the stability of business operations. But, regrettably, history is strewn with visions of such “new eras” that, in the end, have proven to be a mirage. In short, history counsels caution.” – Alan Greenspan, February 26th, 1997
The bubble, of course, did not pop in 1997. It popped in 1999, after Greenspan had abandoned his prior skepticism (in late 1998, as he came to believe that “I do not claim that all market behavior is a rational response to changes in the real world. But most of it must be. For, were it otherwise, the relatively stable economic environments that have been evident among the major industrial countries over the generations would not be possible”). Between 1997 and 1999, there was plenty of time for investors to make money, and as long as they realized they were taking money for the future and got out before 2000…alas, very few of them did.
But, speaking from experience, the 1997-1999 period was very lonely. While investors who gradually sold their long positions out in 1998 and 1999 did much better than the ones they were selling to, they were also very unpopular at cocktail parties. The bearish analysts were put on the street, begging for tuppence. Which, considering that most of them were in the United States, was also unsuccessful.
The 1999 bubble…and the later property bubble…also did not burst until the Fed was actually tightening policy. It is on this point that many bullish arguments depend, but it is a weak one I believe. To be sure, there is no chance that the Fed will be tightening policy any time soon. The taper is not going to happen until 2014Q2 at the earliest, and I think it will take until later in 2014, when inflation figures will become uncomfortable, before they will start pulling back on QE. Some observers believe it will be much later. A Wall Street Journal article on Wednesday detailed a recent research paper written by the head of the monetary affairs division at the Fed; it argued that it may make sense for the Fed to lower its Unemployment Rate threshold and said that “an ‘optimal’ policy might keep rates near zero as late as 2017.”
The activist Fed continues to be one of the biggest risks to the market and the economy. As a trader, I know that 90% of trading is just sitting there, waiting for the ‘fat pitch’ you can do something about. It boggles my mind that a central banker doesn’t sit around at least that much, considering that they know even less about the complexities of the global economy than I know about the complexities of the market. And, unlike the global economy, the market doesn’t fight back when I act on it.
I actually have a feeling that we won’t be worrying about those Unemployment thresholds, either the old ones or the ones proposed in that paper. As I wrote late last month, the expansion is getting a bit long in the tooth and I would not be surprised to see another recession looming in 2014. I don’t have any reason for that outlook other than the calendar, but sometimes these reasons become obvious only in hindsight.
In any event, though, I wouldn’t wait around for the Fed to be tightening. It isn’t overnight funding rates that I would worry about, but longer-term interest rates, and there has already been a warning shot fired that indicates the Fed is not wholly in control of those rates.
So, it may be too early to be out of equities. Maybe even a lot too early. But one thing I am sure of is that it isn’t too late. It is the latter condition, not the former, that is the most damaging to one’s financial position.
All the expectations for resurgent growth are running into a time problem. While the Federal Reserve continues to pump the system, hoping for that burst of energy coming out of the slump, there is really little reason to expect anything more than we have already gotten. I’ve written recently about that in the context of payroll growth and the rate of improvement in the unemployment rate. But there is also, as I say, a time problem.
The current expansion, believe it or not, is getting long in the tooth. While there have been longer expansions – the one from 1991 to 2001, fueled by a continuous decline in interest rates, a budget that was near balance or in surplus, and an asset bubble engendered by the promise of the Internet and some remarkable Wall Street pitchmen – the average postwar expansion has only been 68 months, peak to peak, or 58 months, trough to peak. According to the NBER, on which we rely to jog our memories since this was so long ago, the prior business cycle peak occurred in December 2007 and the prior trough in June 2009. So, using those average business cycle lengths, the expected date of the subsequent peak would be between August 2013 and May 2014. This latter date is especially interesting because it is approximately the current consensus on when the QE taper is expected to begin (again).
I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that getting more than an “average” expansion in the current circumstance would be a pleasant surprise indeed. With the size of government deficits, the uncertainty engendered by the morass in Congress and the rapid proliferation of regulatory overhead (both ACA-related and other), real interest rates much closer to the likely bottom than to the likely top, and continued threat of volatility in the international political economy… it is remarkable to me that we’ve even been able to squeeze out one of “average” duration.
And all it took was a few trillions!
It is well past time when it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to stop trying to push the economy faster. Blowing into the sail simply doesn’t work very well to make the boat go faster. It will only lead to hyperventilation.
So now we are in a situation in which the expansion is likely to begin to wind down, and very likely to do so at least partly provoked by the Fed’s tightening of policy (for lessening QE is, as we have seen from the interest rate response, clearly a tightening of policy). It may become very tempting for the Yellen Fed to continue QE as weakness manifests, but the problem is going to be that inflation is going to be heading higher, not lower, into the slowdown as the housing price inflation continues to percolate into rental prices and a weakening dollar helps other prices to firm as well.
We really are in a very dangerous situation equity market-wise, as a result of this timing issue. Over the next year inflation is going to rise, growth is (probably) going to slow, and equity earnings ex-finance are looking decidedly punk as a recent article by Sheraz Mian from Zacks Investment Research pointed out. Which is not to say, of course, that the stock market can’t or won’t continue to ramp higher…just that it is increasingly subject to sudden-breakage risk as the shelf it sits on gets higher and higher.
The data has started to arrive.
Tuesday’s Employment report (gosh, it seems strange to write that) was weaker-than-expected with Payrolls +148k versus expectations for +180k. As I wrote back at the beginning of August, something in the realm of 200k is about as good as you’re going to get, so we’re not very short of that…we’re just very far short of what the consensus seems to expect we’re eventually going to get. No doubt, 148k isn’t 200k, and the six-month average of 163k is the lowest of the year. But it is also not a calamity, on the growth front.
And yet, 10-year interest rates are 50bps below the highs of early September. (Real yields are actually down 60bps, which means inflation expectations have risen slightly during that period). Interest rates are down because everyone knows that the trajectory of policy, with Yellen as likely to be the next Chairman of the Fed, is going to be “lower for longer.” But why? This goes back to the observation that growth is not far short of the best that it is likely to get. The only point of “lower for longer” is to support asset markets – housing, equity, and the bond market whence our nation’s interest burden is determined – and it seems to be doing this quite well. The alternate theory is that the Fed still fears deflation, despite all evidence (and copious theory) that the risk arrow is pointing in the other direction. In neither case does the Federal Reserve come out looking particularly on top of things, but more and more we are expecting that from Washington whether the officials are elected or appointed.
I really thought at one point that the bond market was going to be where the profligate monetary policy was going to first come unglued, but I am now wondering if it isn’t that denizen of hair-trigger shooters, the foreign exchange markets. The dollar index is plumbing the lows of the last two years, although it remains considerably above the lows of 2008 and 2011. As the chart below shows, the dollar has actually left behind the commodity markets where, as we know, investors suffer from the delusion that growth is more important for the nominal price of commodities than is the overall price level. Weak-ish growth means that commodities are only weakly above its August lows, although the buck is quite a bit lower since then.
I don’t think we can learn much right now watching stocks, where investors are simply playing Icarus. We all know where it leads, but any words of warning are laughed off as they soar with Fed-induced wings. Of course they’ll turn away in time!
I think housing is interesting. Having gotten back barely to fair, or maybe just a smidge cheap, compared to incomes, housing is expensive once again. But it isn’t in bubble territory yet, at least in the sense that when it cracks it could cause the carnage it did once before.
Bonds are on tenuous footing. With the consensus currently in place that the Fed might keep QE in place more or less forever, there are a lot of ways to disappoint the status quo: Fed speakers might suddenly try to start sounding stern again and imply that QE might not last forever; inflation might continue to tick higher and make obvious the unsustainability of the current course; or growth numbers might surprise to the high side.
The barbarians are already overrunning the dollar, and I suspect only the fact that Japanese monetary policy is far worse is keeping the descent slow. But people plugged into the supply and demand for currency are probably most likely to understand what happens when too much is supplied (hint: it’s the same thing that happens to the price of corn when too much corn is supplied). For a while, monetary authorities have been chasing each other to see which could be the least respectable, but it now seems that Japan wins that race and the US is likely to place.
As the chart above shows, reasons for increasing exposure to broad-based commodity indices (especially those that do not overweight energy, as the GSCI does) continue to accumulate.
There is much more data to come, of course, but to me it seems the battle lines have been more or less drawn in this fashion.
Everyone expected markets to provide a lot of late-day volatility today, and so they did. The Fed apparently doesn’t mind surprising the market with a non-consensus outcome when that surprise gooses stocks and bonds higher. Here are some (fairly unstructured) thoughts about today’s declaration from the Fed that there will be no “taper” in its QE program yet:
- This has nothing to do with the fact that there was a minor wiggle in the Employment data, some weakness in Retail Sales, and some other disappointments this month. If that is now the standard…that the Fed plans to expand its balance sheet without bound as long as growth is not smashing the cover off the ball, then we are truly lost for QE will never, ever end. This month’s numbers were all within the normal variation for economic data, which do in fact vary even when the underlying economy is not. The old standard was “ameliorate a deep recession.” Then Greenspan turned that to “resist even a mild recession.” And now, is the standard “robust growth no matter what the long-term cost?” I don’t think so, and so I reject the notion that the failure to begin the taper has anything to do with the growth numbers.
- Similarly, the inflation numbers cannot be the reason. Core inflation is now rising, and the Fed has previously recognized that some of the decline in inflation has been due to transient effects of the sequester. Median inflation has remained steady at 2.1%, which is basically the Fed’s long-term target. The cost of 10-year deflation floors in the market are at the lowest level since they began to trade in 2009 (see chart, source Bloomberg and BGC Partners – the price is in up-front basis points). So it isn’t a lingering fear of deflation that has the Fed concerned.
- The Fed speakers over the last month have had ample opportunity to shoot down the idea that taper would start at this meeting, which has been the consensus for a long time. None of them did so, implying that the Fed was comfortable with that consensus. But something changed in the last few days, and that is that the odds-on next Fed Chairman went from being Larry Summers to being Janet Yellen, who happened to be in the meeting today. Does this change the dynamic? Absolutely, since one reason Bernanke has started thinking and talking about tapering is so as to leave as clean a slate as possible so that the next Chairman wouldn’t have to start his term by tightening (sorry, I mean “reducing accommodation”) and scaring asset markets. Once Summers withdrew his name, Yellen’s vote got automatically much more important and the urgency to start the taper much less (since Yellen doesn’t believe there are any important costs to QE). Indeed, in his post-meeting presser Bernanke noted that the “first step” on a taper is “possible this year.” That is far to the dovish side of what the Street was expecting, but consistent with the notion that Yellen’s opinion will carry a heavy weight unless someone else is appointed to the post.
- Yellen said last June that the Fed’s objective is a quick return to full employment, and that Fed action might be justified “to insure against adverse shocks [emphasis mine],” or even if the Fed concludes that the recovery “is unlikely to proceed at a satisfactory pace.” So, perhaps I need to reconsider my point #1 above. Maybe that is the standard now.
- If in fact QE has no cost, then there is no reason to ever stop it. In fact, it should be accelerated. Most Fed officials seem recently to be coming to the realization that there is highly unlikely to be a costless economic remedy, even if they are not sure what the costs are or think they can be contained. Those people clearly have no voice any more, even though it appeared that those views in the last few months were gaining currency (no pun intended, since the dollar dropped to the lowest level since February after the announcement today – a Fed that was edging however slowly to being more-hawkish than average was good for the dollar; a weak, more-dovish than average central bank will be worse for the dollar all else equal). This is pedal-to-the-metal time.
- TIPS got a lot more expensive today, with the 10-year rallying 20bps to 0.475% and breakevens up 4.5bps one day before the Treasury auctions another slug of them. The auction ought still to go well, because caution has been thrown to the wind by our beloved central bankers. This is also good for commodities, and they rose today led by precious and industrial metals. Is it good for equities? Well…
- Equity analysts are like puppies. They completely forget what happened 5 minutes ago and every experience is brand new. There is never any context. So stocks shot higher today, with the S&P gaining 1.2%, because of the dovish Fed and lower interest rates. But over the last few months, as the taper grew closer and interest rates shot higher, all equities did was move to new highs. So, higher interest rates and a (relatively) hawkish Fed doesn’t hurt stock prices, but lower interest rates and a dovish Fed helps them? This may be why the Fed thinks that buying bonds keeps interest rates low and selling bonds doesn’t raise them. It’s a strange market-based notion of a perpetual motion machine. For goodness’ sake, let’s crank interest rates down 200bps, back up 200bps, down 200bps, and keep doing that and the stock market will be at 1,000,000 before you know it. Prosperity! But in fact it is probably more like a bicycle pump. Pushing down inflates the tire, pulling up doesn’t deflate it. It seems costless. However, if you keep doing that, eventually the tire will pop.
- Speaking of the perpetual motion machine, I enjoyed this little gem from the FOMC statement:
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. Taken together, these actions should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative…
Really? It hasn’t worked recently. Lest they forget: the taper hadn’t started yet, but until today it was busy being discounted in the bond market. I don’t expect that merely continuing to buy bonds into the SOMA will push rates much lower again. We all know that this game ends, and we know how it ends. With 10-year notes at 2.70% I wouldn’t be selling them, but I also wouldn’t expect a massive rally to unfold. I would hold long positions in September and October, because those are the right months in which to hold bonds (especially with debt ceiling fight #2, Syria, Italy’s government disintegrating, and Germany’s election), but if the market gave me 2.45% to sell, I would sell.
 Note, though, that no person who has ever held the office of Fed Vice-Chairman has later been appointed to be Chairman…although Donald Kohn, since he was Vice-Chairman from 2006-2010, would also represent a departure from this same tradition. However, he was not in the room.
Yes, I understand that it is an absolute blast to be long stocks when they are ripping higher. Everyone has fun, everyone feels wealthy, and all it took was for the Fed to defer a statement on the taper plan for at least a couple of months. For equity folks, that was equivalent to sounding the “all clear” signal to keep the party going for another couple of months. Add to that great news the fact that the ISM manufacturing index unexpectedly leapt today to two-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg, below), and you have the possibility of good growth, with a supportive Fed. It isn’t that surprising that in the short term the equity folks are happy and the bond folks are a bit concerned.
But the worst threat to stocks isn’t the taper, it isn’t an incipient slowdown in China, and it isn’t the fact that margins appear to be compressing. It’s that they will, some day, face competition for investment dollars from interest rates, commodities, real estate, and all of those other things that haven’t been exciting to invest in for a while.
Ten-year interest rates at 2.70% are not an exciting investment, but they are definitely more exciting than 1.60% rates were. However, you don’t really need to think about whether marginal investment dollars will flow to bonds since rates are 110bps higher now. You know that, no matter what the yield, more investment dollars are going to be flowing to fixed income going forward.
How do we know this? We know it because the Fed isn’t going to be buying $85bln per month, at some point in the not-too-distant future. So we know that, even if the Fed doesn’t sell, the bond market will be soaking up another $85bln of investment dollars compared to what it has been doing during QE3. And those dollars will need to come from somewhere. After all, this is just the ‘portfolio balance channel’ in reverse. The Fed pushed risky markets higher by buying all the safe stuff, so as to force investors to move out the risk spectrum. By taking away the “safe” alternatives, in other words, the Fed substituted for “animal spirits” in the market. (I discussed and illustrated this back in January.)
The opposite also occurs, though. When the Fed steps out, some investors will buy those “safer” investments at the higher yields where those markets clear. Those investors will be coming out of stocks, mainly. By substituting for animal spirits, the Fed pushed the stock market higher when investors didn’t feel much like pushing it there. And, once they start to taper that policy, they need investors with real animal spirits to step in and take risky positions in stocks because they want to.
The head-scratcher for me is, why would I want to take a risky position in stocks now, when interest rates and in particular real interest rates, are higher…if I didn’t want to take that position before? Does growth suddenly look that much better?
I ought to reiterate here that I still think a bond rally is due, despite today’s shellacking in a fairly illiquid-seeming market. I will change that view if 10-year yields rise another 5-10bps, however. I frankly think that while Bernanke likely wants to take the first step towards tapering while he is still Chairman – since it’s the polite thing to do to take the riskiest step of unwinding his policy before the next Chairman is forced to do it – I doubt he wants to get so far down the tapering road that the next Chairman feels locked in to a certain course of policy. So I suspect we will not see as much tapering this year as the market expects. Investors clearly thought we would get some indication about tapering at this meeting, and we didn’t. Bond folks know we will, eventually. Equity folks also know we will, but they all think they can get out as soon as the Fed gives the signal.
The problem, of course, is that some investors won’t wait for the explicit signal. To be fair, it has been a losing trade to be early on the Fed taper story, but that just means the ultimate comeuppance is going to be worse.
There is a ton of data due out on Friday, but my attention will not be on the Payrolls figure (Consensus: 185k). It is perhaps frightening to think about this, but Payrolls in the neighborhood of 200k is about all that we can expect. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the BLS Nonfarm Payrolls statistics along with a 24-month moving average. Ignore the swings from month to month. Instead, notice that in the expansion in the mid-2000s the 2-year average never got above 200k, and even in the robust expansion of the late 1990s the average was only about 250k (and we’re not about to have a robust expansion any time soon!). So, whether you like it or not, 200k per month is about all you’re going to get.
The Unemployment Rate is expected to decline back to 7.5% after rising to 7.6% last month. And again, here, the rate of decline in the Unemployment Rate is about as fast as you’re going to get it (see chart below, source Bloomberg). In fact, if anything the decline in the ‘Rate is slightly faster than in recoveries past, although as has been well documented the unemployment rate is much higher if you discount the increased prevalence in this recovery of part-time work.
So, on growth the sad truth is that we have been waiting for economic improvement, but none is coming. This is about as good as it is likely to get, economically speaking (at least, in terms of the pace of improvement, though with time this will pull the Unemployment Rate gradually lower).
Indeed, much faster growth would likely incline the Fed to taper faster, and even to consider additional tightening measures. And much slower growth would probably dampen the rather ebullient earnings estimates of the sell-side analysts. The dividend yield is less than 2% with inflation-linked bonds paying around 0.5%. So I won’t be looking at the numbers very closely. We are already in the sweet spot. What I am going to be looking for, tomorrow and going forward, is any sign that investors are getting a sour taste.
Before I descend into the mundane discussion of economies and markets, let me first congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son. In watching the pictures of the royals leaving the hospital with their child, I was struck at the fact that when his wife passes off the child, Prince William looks as uncomfortable holding a baby as most first-time fathers are. He did, however, have more luck with the mechanics of the car seat…as, again, most new fathers do.
However, when he drives home, he won’t have to worry about the rising cost of housing, and probably doesn’t fret much about whether his child will be able to afford a comfortable life in an inflationary future. “Will my son be better off than I am?” is a question for non-royals!
I have no idea what the rents are for a Kensington Palace apartment, but I will bet they are rent-controlled. Meanwhile, housing prices in the U.S. continue to rise rapidly. Today’s announcement of the FHA Home Price Index suggested prices have risen 7.3% over the last year (the fourth month in a row over 7%), while the median price of a home in the Existing Home Sales report yesterday was 13.2% above the year-ago level (see chart).
Aside from inflation, however, where the future trajectory is clear, the performance of the economy is probably best characterized by the word “muddled” (thank you, John Mauldin). Last Thursday, the Philly Fed index was published at 19.8 – a two-year high – versus expectations for 8.0; on Monday the Chicago Fed index showed -0.13 versus expectations for flat, and today the Richmond Fed index was -11 (the second-worst since 2009) versus expectations for +9.
And, in the meantime, Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) missed earnings badly and Detroit declared bankruptcy. Apple (AAPL) is just out with earnings and pulled the old trick of “beat on current earnings, match on revenues, but guide lower for next quarter.” The current consensus for Q2 GDP (the advance estimate is due out next week) is a mere 1.3%.
With all of this, equity prices are doing well with stocks up 5.4% for the month. Bond yields are fairly flat, with 10-year yields up 4bps from the end of June, but TIPS are doing relatively well (10y real yields -14bps; 10y breakevens +18bps). And even the DJ-UBS Commodity index is +4.3%. Gold is up nearly 10%.
Three weeks do not a turn in sentiment make, but I do find it interesting that real estate, inflation breakevens, gold, and commodities generally are all enjoying a renaissance right after inflation-linked bonds and commodities were buried in late June, with large outflows especially from TIPS funds (the shares outstanding of the TIP ETF went from 183 million at year-end, to 165 million in late May, to just 139 million now). It got so bad that my company reached out to customers in late June with a thorough explanation and presentation of why we thought the market was ‘getting it wrong.” Investors were throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
To be sure, I think real yields, breakevens, and nominal yields will eventually be much higher. But if nominal yields can simply avoid breaking higher for the next few weeks, I think the stage will be set for a fixed-income rally into September and October. As I have written before, in the aftermath of a convexity event such as we have just seen, a “cool down” period of a few weeks is usually necessary to work off the bad positions induced and trapped by the market’s sudden slide. Once these positions are worked off, I think the weak economic growth and weakening corporate internals will pressure stocks lower and the stock and bond markets will get back into some semblance of what static-equilibrium types think of as “fair value” relative to one another.
Even so, I think that commodities, breakevens, and even gold might have already seen the worst of their markets. In this suspicion I have been wrong before. Money velocity in Q2 will have declined further (probably to about 1.50 from 1.53 in Q1), but I think it will be higher – or at least not much lower – in Q3. And once velocity turns, time has run out. I am reminded of an old quote from Milton Friedman, from his book Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History.
“When the helicopter starts dropping money in a steady stream – or, more generally, when the quantity of money starts unexpectedly to rise more rapidly – it takes time for people to catch on to what is happening. Initially, they let actual balances exceed long-run desired balances, partly out of inertia; partly because they may take initial price rises as a harbinger of subsequent price declines, an anticipation that raises desired balances; and partly because the initial impact of increased money balances may be on output rather than on prices, which further raises desired balances. Then, as people catch on, prices must for a time rise even more rapidly, to undo an initial increase in real balances as well as to produce a long-run decline.” (p.36)
When this happens, stocks will take a beating. But it may be the final beating in this long, drawn out, secular bear. I guess it is far too early to say that, but I recently saw two news items that I have long been waiting for. The first is that CNBC is having ratings “issues,” and it is starting to get bad enough that the producers are thinking about “tinkering with primetime.” The second, which is clearly related, is that Maria Bartriromo is thinking of leaving business news to take her inestimable talents elsewhere.
As with commodities and inflation breakevens recently, a sine qua non for the start of a new bull market of substantial magnitude – not a 100% rally from the lows, but a 100% rally above the old highs – is that everyone stops thinking that stocks are smart and exciting investments, that they are “where it’s at,” and that all the cool people are buying stocks. And I have never been able to figure out how an environment sufficiently depressing to germinate a new bull market can occur if the cheerleaders are televised 24/7. Honestly, I had just about given up. While we still need cheap valuations and rotten sentiment to start a bull market (and we are very far from both of those standards in equities), a move towards general indifference among investors would be a good start.
 As the quote marks suggest, I don’t think that they will be right when you hear people declare that “stocks now offer good value relative to bonds again.” I think the people who use the “Fed model” tend to overprice stocks generally…and they tend to be much more diligent disciples of the model when yields are falling than when they are rising. When yields rise, they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because bond yields are going to rise, while when yields are low they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because of the current level of bond yields.
Incredible to me, as well as to many others I am sure, is the fact that the words of one guy, Chairman Bernanke, who is leaving office soon, carries more weight in the market than all of the actual news that we see from day to day.
Today, France’s sovereign rating was lowered by S&P to AA+ from AAA. This is more significant than it sounds, since it means that none of the European “bailout” institutions can feasibly carry a AAA rating any more unless Germany and the Netherlands want to guarantee the whole thing. (They don’t.) In a humorous note, the French Finance Minister said that the country remains committed to restoring growth, lowering deficits, and adding jobs. Hmmm. One of these three doesn’t seem to belong in a statement about restoring the credit of the nation. How does adding jobs – stimulus, that is – help the situation? It was a strange statement.
Portugal’s situation is worsening again as President Silva is insisting on a broader “unity” government in which all parties participate in the government (and take the heat for austerity measures). Not all of the other parties agree; in particular the Socialists are demanding new elections, while declaring “we must abandon the politics of austerity, and renegotiate the terms of our adjustment programme.” In this dust-up, the more extreme elements of the political sphere in Portugal are calling for debt repudiation. Portuguese bond yields (10y) are back up to 7.35%, which is well above the 5.20% lows from May although also a far cry from the 16% levels in the teeth of the crisis early last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Philadelphia Fed President Plosser today said in a speech that the Fed should start exiting from the asset purchase program in September, and completely cease buying bonds by the end of the year. He is concerned about causing another housing boom (too late!), and thinks the costs outweigh the further benefits. He is right, and bonds took some brief grief before investors remembered that (a) he’s not the Chairman, who has the only vote that matters, and (b) he’s not even an FOMC voter this year.
None of this – not France, not Portugal, not Plosser – rattled the U.S. equity market in the slightest, because Bernanke has pledged to keep the taps running as long as possible, tapering slowly, and then maintaining easy policy for a long time. So investors are delighted to see stocks at all-time (nominal) price highs with nearly a 24 Shiller P/E. At these levels, the expected real total return for the next decade from the stock market is less than 1.75% per annum…with 10-year TIPS yielding 0.50%.
So does the continued presence of easy money from the Fed warrant exceptional risk-taking and valuation in equities? It seems to me that it does not. Removing QE is, of course, tightening relative to the baseline of current policy. Policy may remain absolutely easy, but it is going to be relatively tighter…and the direction of interest rates, not merely their level, matters to investors. Of course, Fed mouthpieces clearly want to suggest that “policy will remain accommodative.” Indeed it will, and it will also remain accommodative when the Fed Funds rate rises to 1%…and 2%…and 3% someday. But it will be less accommodative, or in other words: more restrictive.
The word-smithing by the Chairman in this regard is understandable, because the jawboning is an important part of policy for a central bank that is nearly impotent due to prior decisions. But it is absurd. Previously, investors were asked to stomach the “Perpetual Motion Machine” interpretation of policy: that buying bonds would push interest rates lower and increase economic activity, while selling them wouldn’t push rates higher or decrease activity (or prices in related markets). This latest tweak to the argument asks us to believe also that buying fewer bonds has the same (positive) effect as buying a lot of bonds!
Again, I completely understand why the Fed is trying to jawbone the markets to their way of thinking. But you can’t jawbone a bungee jump, and the inflection of policy here is the start of a bungee jump.
The risk here is that investors decide that the Fed is really going to be slow at removing accommodation (which I think is correct), but inflation is going to start to be problematic sooner than that. That sort of attitude adjustment may be closer than you think, for two reasons. First of all, the CPI report is due on Tuesday. Market expectations are for a figure lower than last month’s +0.17% rise in core inflation, and a decline in the year/year core inflation rate to +1.6% (from 1.7%) as last June’s +0.21% rolls out of the 12-month comparison. I believe there is a good chance that core comes in better than that, although it is unlikely to push the year-on-year change higher. But it could, since housing continues to accelerate and these low figures require ever-increasing drag from core goods prices. In any event, though, inflation will accelerate on a year-on-year basis in August, because the easy comparisons begin: +0.10%, +0.06%, +0.15%, +0.17%, +0.12%, and +0.12% are the monthly changes in core prices for the last six months of 2012: a 1.4% pace in aggregate. And the underlying inflation dynamics are accelerating at the same time.
The second reason that inflation expectations may begin to rise among investors soon is more pedestrian (in more ways than one): gasoline prices have recent spiked 40 cents in the futures markets, from near the lows of the year to near the highs of the year. This will pass through to retail gasoline prices over the next few weeks. If gasoline prices do not rise further from here, then no important shift in inflation perceptions will likely happen. But keep an eye on this. Enduring Investments’ sophisticated measure of “consumer inflation angst” has been at multi-decade lows for some time (see chart), but a fairly reasonable shortcut way to evaluate how consumers are feeling about inflation is to look at prices at the gas pump.
You should note that there are two spikes on this chart. One covers the move higher from March 2001 to February 2003, a period during which stocks fell 28%. The second covers May 2007 to July 2009, covering a 35% slump in prices. (There is also a minor blip from November 2010 to September 2011, a period during which the S&P only dropped 4%.)
Of course, increasing consumer inflation angst wasn’t the only thing that was happening during those periods that helped to drive stocks down. Among other things, valuations were high. Indeed, valuations were high partly because inflation angst was so low. And one ought to consider this: if stocks decline from here in concert with rising inflation expectations, we would be able to say the same thing looking back: it isn’t only rising inflation expectations, but also high valuations and plenty of bad news to go around.
So, the bond market has had another few days of riding the yo-yo. A 20-bp bond selloff on Friday (followed by a 10bp rally today) was precipitated by a stronger-than-expected Employment Report, with the actual number of jobs created exceeding estimates by 100k (including revisions to the prior two months). Interestingly, the Unemployment Rate rose, but on the whole the data was clearly better than most observers expected even if the net result is that the economy is still limping along at almost precisely the same pace it has done so for the last few years (see chart, source: Bloomberg).
And so the equity market reaction makes some sense. The jobs report was strong enough so as to alleviate (or at least salve, temporarily) fears that the economy is about to slip back into recession, while not being so strong that it could lead to a premature taper which leaves everyone gasping but unsatisfied.
The bond market, though, was routed. The bad convexity profile, combined with the poor liquidity of a trading session stranded between a holiday and a weekend, throttled fixed-income and drove rates to the highs of the move. Ten-year Treasury yields (2.74% on Friday) reached the highest levels in almost two years.
I was wrong about stocks, but right about bonds, when I said I expected the prior trends to re-assert themselves after quarter-end. Given an Employment number that missed expectations one way or the other, it was going to be hard to be right on both in the short-term.
But in the slightly longer-term, the imbalances between equities and fixed-income are building in a way they haven’t been for a long time. As the chart below shows, the rally in equities has been fueled importantly by a long decline in long-term real interest rates, from 3% to -1%, since 2008.
A further equity rally is not out of the question, of course. The real equity premium (the excess expected real return of stocks relative to TIPS) in mid-2011 was as low as it is now, and that “unattractive condition” preceded a 40% rally in the stock market over two years. The difference is that in 2011, real interest rates were low, but (we know in retrospect) were destined to go much lower. It seems unlikely – although not impossible! – that real rates are about to rally again from +0.53% to -1.00%, thereby precipitating an additional rally.
Indeed, although it may be a trick of the eye the chart above seems to suggest that equity price turns lag the turns in real yields. The regression of real yield levels versus equity levels happens to have its best fit with a lag of 19 weeks. Not to worry, however: if that’s not merely spurious, then it means you still have about a month before the big equity slide is due to begin!
Interestingly, the international backdrop is heating up again, although in prior incarnations the Arab Spring (now replaced by the Egyptian Summer) and Grexit crisis (now replaced with the Portuguese government stability crisis and …the Grexit crisis) didn’t cause any lasting damage to equities. However, it bears repeating that those crises occurred in the context of steady and significant declines in interest rates.
Calm, anyway, is inherently destabilizing. The Troika wouldn’t be pressing Greece for more concessions, or holding Portugal’s feet to the fire, if markets were going crazy. However, because markets (and especially, equity markets) are comparatively calm, it seems like a fair time for policymakers to send trial balloons aloft. Similarly, the FOMC seems oddly relaxed about the carnage in bond markets, with officials content to waggle fingers in disapprobation at market action rather than to reverse course and speak soothingly about how additional quantitative easing could be provided. I expect a one-thousand point Dow fall would change that perspective rather quickly. As parents know, it is easy to hold the line on good parenting until Junior throws a fit, and then it is so tempting to give him a lollipop to quiet him down. But, while he’s behaving, why not ask him to try broccoli today?
Wahhhhhhh! And then we’ll see whether central bank discipline is real, or merely threatened.
 This is not autobiographical. My son loves broccoli.
Numerous classic cognitive errors are on display at once in these markets. We have “overconfidence,” with large bets being made on the basis of strongly-believed models and forecasts…but these are forecasts of the dynamics of a system whose configuration is distinctly unlike anything we have seen before, even remotely. What does a “taper” do to rates? How can we know, since we have never even had QE, much less a taper, before? How aggressively does it make sense to bet on the outcome of such a transition period, given rational-sized error bars on the estimates?
We also see naïve extrapolation of trends. TIPS go down every day, it seems, for no better reason than that “core inflation is low, and the Fed is no longer going to be maintaining as loose a policy.” Ten-year TIPS yields have risen 83bps since April 25th (5y TIPS, +107bps since April 4th). Ten-year breakevens have fallen from 2.59%, within 15bps of an all-time high, on March 14th to 2.03% – the lowest since January 2012 – now. What has changed? Our model identified TIPS as cheap to Treasuries (that is, breakevens too low for the level of nominal rates) and went nearly max-long when breakevens were still at 2.30%. It is some solace that this position has fared better than a long position in TIPS, but when markets simply follow recent momentum mindlessly it can be painful.
Year-ahead core inflation is priced in the market at roughly 1.50%, despite the fact that current core inflation of 1.7% is only at this level because of persistently soggy core goods prices (and core goods are much more volatile than core services prices). Meanwhile, although core services prices remain buoyant, housing rents have not even begun to respond to the sudden boom in housing prices. To realize the core inflation priced into the 1-year inflation swap, core goods prices need to remain low and rends would need to decelerate while a shortage of owner-occupied housing drives the prices of existing homes skyward. It is possible, but it would be a very unusual economic occurrence. As I have previously written, we are maintaining our forecast for core inflation in 2012 at 2.6%-3.0%; although we may tweak that lowers if next week’s CPI is disappointing, we will not be changing it dramatically. Based on both top-down and bottom-up forecasts, we think the inflation market right now is very wrong. However, in accordance with paragraph 1, above, our 80% confidence interval for that estimate would be quite wide. Still, we feel that most errors looking out at least one year are going to be in the direction of higher inflation, not lower inflation.
Now, our forecast relies significantly on the behavior of the housing market, since shelter is the largest share of the budget for most of us. There has been a lot written recently about how the rise in rates could shatter the housing recovery. But let me explain why I don’t think that will happen.
I remember reading many years ago in “The Money Game” by Adam Smith (a pseudonym) that “you make more money with good investing decisions than with good financing decisions.” At least, I think that’s where I read it. In any event, it is true: if you are creating the next Microsoft, it makes very little difference if you finance it at 2% or at 15%, because the investment performance will completely obliterate the cost of financing. And this is why higher rates, even significantly higher rates, will not derail the housing market while prices are rising at 10%+ per annum. A home buyer is clearly happier to borrow at 3% than at 5% (tax-deductible), but if the home price is appreciating at 10% per annum (tax free, for much of it, and tax-deferred in any event) then it is a home run for the buyer either way. What hurts the housing market is when the expectation of future home price changes goes from go-go to stop-stop. And, with most consumers concerned with inflation and recent price trends in the home market, this isn’t going to change soon.
Here is an illustration of the real-world response of housing to rates. This first chart is the Mortgage Banking Association’s Refinancing index, plotted against 10-year Treasury rates (inverted). You can see that the recent rise in rates is having a significant impact on refinancing activity.
And this next chart is a chart of the MBA Purchase Index, showing activity on mortgages related to new purchases of homes. Again, the 10-year Treasury rate is inverted. You can see that there is no meaningful correlation here; if anything, purchase activity has been rising over the past year while rates have also been rising.
So, rest easy: higher interest rates are not going to meaningfully impact the housing market, unless they go much higher. Indeed, homebuyers might reasonably believe here that there is a “Bernanke put” on home prices in the same way that investors (correctly) believed there was a “Greenspan put” on stock prices. The Fed (and for that matter the state and federal governments) clearly have responded and can reasonably be expected to respond robustly to a future home price bust. So why not be long real estate here, if your downside is protected…and in any case, is limited to your home equity?
And if home prices do not decline, then rents are not going to decline, and in fact need to accelerate to keep up with the previously-seen rise in home prices. That is going to cause core inflation to rise going forward.
One final note: over the next month or two I hope to put out a few more articles like the one I wrote on June 8th about equity returns and inflation, but focusing on other asset classes such as real estate, infrastructure, commodity indices, etcetera. But in the meantime, I wanted to point out one security to keep an eye on. It is one of only two inflation-linked bonds that is traded on an exchange with a daily price and reasonable bid/offer spreads. The symbol is OSM (for Bloomberg users: you need the <CORP> key), and it is a floating-rate inflation-linked bond issued by SLM Corp with a March 2017 maturity. The problem with this security is that it is very hard to figure out what its true yield is unless you have an inflation derivatives curve, and even harder to figure out whether the issue is priced correctly given that you own SLM credit. The recent selloff has driven the real yield of this issue to (approximately) 3.40%, which is obviously much higher than is available for TIPS. The bad news is that the bond is still fairly expensive given the spread that should exist for a SLM bond, but in terms of raw real yield to maturity there are not many inflation-linked bonds out there with that yield. I am not recommending this security, but mention it as a point of information for investors who may want to check it out on their own.