I haven’t seen anything of note written about the probable effect of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) on Medical Care CPI. This is probably because the calculation of Medical Care inflation in the CPI is confusing to many and because the direct effects of the ACA are still speculative at this point. But this is a potentially dangerous oversight since Medical Care is 7.2% of the CPI, and is after all the part that has recently been dragging Core CPI and Core PCE lower because of its unusual weakness.
Even if one cannot fathom the details, we know that the ACA will add volatility to the measurement of medical care inflation, and with measured medical care inflation so low presently, relative to historical trends, this implies mostly upside risk to prices. The following chart (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the rolling annual increase in Medical Care CPI, along with core CPI.
The most generous interpretation of this chart is that the ACA was already having an impact on holding down medical care prices prior to its implementation, although this ignores the known effect of the sequester on medical care inflation outturns: the sequester slowed Medicare payments to providers, and this had the effect of lowering measured medical care inflation temporarily. Another cavalierly optimistic interpretation might be to suggest the possibility that the secular outperformance of medical care inflation relative to broad inflation is coming to an end.
While the actual economic effect of the ACA will only be determined over a long period of time as the actual rules and the free market response become more clear, I think that the effects of the ACA on the measurement of medical care inflation, at least for several years, will have the effect of pushing medical care inflation higher. The reasons for this are less about the question of whether disrupting the private insurance industry and price system is likely to create overall gains in efficiency in delivering health care, and hence lower prices (I doubt it), and more about the somewhat arcane way that medical care costs are accounted for in the Consumer Price Index.
Accounting for changes in the cost of medical care is a very challenging problem for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that changes in medical care prices, like all price changes, reflect both inflation and the possible change in the quality of the delivered product. A mundane example of this problem outside of medical care is when the size of a candy bar increases 20% and the price of the bar rises 25%. Clearly, in such a case there isn’t 25% inflation in the cost of a candy bar, because the consumer is getting 20% more candy in the bargain. That is a simple quality adjustment, and the BLS regularly makes these changes (more often, of course, the candy bar shrinks so that the quality adjustment increases measured inflation rather than the other way around!). More problematic and controversial are when the quality change is more subjective, such as when a car adds chrome wheel rims or a disk drive doubles in size, or when the BLS makes changes for the aging of the housing stock. Nevertheless, the BLS has sophisticated models for making these adjustments with the least amount of subjective evaluation possible.
How, though, does one measure the improvement in the quality of medical care when the whole course of treatment for a given condition may change? The service being provided, after all, isn’t “one MRI image” but “improved leg function as the result of surgery done with the benefit of improved MRI imaging.” This is a continued challenge for the BLS and one that the Bureau has spent many resources researching over the last few years.
So one problem that the BLS faces is that the price index does not necessarily measure quality improvements well. Another problem is that the Consumer Price Index is supposed to measure costs to consumers, and few consumers pay directly for their medical care but rather for insurance; moreover, the government itself pays for much medical care through Medicare and other programs which have no direct cost (at least, in a direct financial sense as opposed to an economic sense) to the consumer of medical care. For many consumers, too, their employer picks up part of the cost of insurance.
The BLS therefore measures medical care not by looking at the cost of insurance but by looking at what insurance companies pay for the medical care on behalf of the consumers, and then separately accounting for the insurance company profit as a different consumer item. Government purchases of health care are entirely outside of the consumer price index since the government is not a “consumer!” The employer-paid portion of health care insurance is also excluded since a company is also not a consumer.
So what does this mean for the effects of the ACA on the cost of medical care? I can see several likely effects:
- Because the BLS measures the prices being paid by insurance companies to doctors, rather than insurance costs, the sharp increases in insurance costs due to the transition to the health care exchanges dictated by the ACA may not be immediately reflected in the price index for medical care. However, it is also possible that doctors and hospitals may take advantage of the confusion by changing their prices at this time and blaming the increase on the increased burdens of the ACA. Prescription drugs, too, may see price increases for this reason. The outcome of this part of the transition is probably indeterminate on medical care inflation in the short term, but it clearly increases the range of possible outcomes. If provider price increases happen quickly even though new insurance policies will only gradually be taken, then medical care inflation might increase quickly in the short run. But the opposite might also happen, so that consumers face higher insurance costs but medical care inflation does not reflect this.
- Much more problematic is a composition effect that will affect the relative health of the patients that doctors will be treating, almost immediately. Many Americans have just lost their private health insurance. Faced with this, consumers who are relatively healthy are likely to decrease their doctor visits relative to comparatively unhealthy patients because of the increased out-of-pocket cost of going to a doctor. Unhealthy patients have less of an option to decrease consumption of medical care in response to higher costs, and indeed some very unhealthy patients have seen their costs decline due to the ACA (which was, after all, the point: not affordable care for all, but affordable care for those who were finding health care very expensive partly because they needed a lot of it). Because the BLS measures health care costs at the provider level, this could increase measured health care inflation quickly because of increased utilization of more-expensive treatment options.
- The fact that the BLS only considers the employee-paid part of company health care plans also has very interesting implications under the chaotic transition to the ACA. When an employer pays less of the premium for a corporate plan, the employee pays a higher price (and feels inflation) even if the overall premium doesn’t change. But this increases the weight of Medical Care in the consumer’s consumption basket, so that the 7.2% weight in the CPI will increase, and probably substantially, over the next couple of years. Consider the previous chart, illustrating that medical care inflation has outstripped broader inflation indices for at least the last three or four decades. To the extent this continues, a higher weight of medical care implies a higher overall level of inflation.
- In general, the ACA creates uncertainty among service providers in the health care industry. A typical reaction of suppliers facing uncertainty in any industry is to raise prices in order to increase the margin for error (in much the same way that asset prices tend to be lower when investors feel less safe and thus must build a margin of safety into the bid price). While not strictly inflation since the cushion would not increase each year, it would tend to increase measured inflation over the medium term.
It is very difficult to evaluate the size and timing of each of these effects, but it is important to note that while some of the effects are indeterminate (such as #1 above), there are no effects I can discern that would tend to decrease measured inflation of medical care. Consequently, I expect that Medical Care inflation – which has been, I have previously mentioned, a key source of the weakness in core inflation compared to median inflation – is likely to rise appreciably over the next year. Note that this is likely to be the case even if the ACA actually succeeds in lowering the aggregate economic cost of healthcare (about which fact I are skeptical) because the way the BLS measures medical care inflation is likely to cause increases in this index.
Before getting into today’s column, let me first describe my plan of attack for the month of December. I plan to have several comments this week and next week, culminating in my annual “Portfolio Projections” piece at the end of next week. Then, for the last two weeks of the month, I plan to ‘re-blog’ some of my best articles from the last four years (editing out the current events, which will no longer be topical of course). Included in that list is an article on long-run returns to equities, one on Yellen’s defense of large-scale asset purchases, an article on the Phillips Curve, one on why CPI isn’t a bogus construct of a vast governmental conspiracy, and so on. Because I don’t expect some of the places where this column is ‘syndicated’ to post the re-blogs, you should consider going to the source site to sign up for these posts.
With that housekeeping complete, I want to turn today to a scholarly article I recently stumbled on which is worth a read even once you have read my synopsis and comments. The article, written one year ago by Samuel Reynard of the Swiss National Bank, is entitled “Assessing Potential Inflation Consequences of QE after Financial Crises.” It appears to be unpublished except as a working paper, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising since it is so decidedly clear-eyed and takes the consensus view of QE to task.
What I love about this article is that Reynard’s view is remarkably consonant with my own – the only example I can come up with of a reasonably-placed central banker espousing such commonsensical views (Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed gets an honorable mention though), backed with quantitative data and clear reasoning. Here is the paper’s abstract:
“Financial crises have been followed by different inflation paths which are related to monetary policy and money creation by the banking sector during those crises. Accounting for equilibrium changes and non-linearity issues, the empirical relationship between money and subsequent inflation developments has remained stable and similar in crisis and normal times. This analysis can explain why the financial crisis in Argentina in the early 2000s was followed by increasing inflation, whereas Japan experienced deflation in the 1990s and 2000s despite quantitative easing. Current quantitative easing policies should lead to increasing and persistent inflation over the next years.”
In the introduction, the author directly tackles current central bank orthodoxy: “It is usually argued that it is sufficient to monitor inflation expectations, and that central banks can avoid accelerating inflation by quickly withdrawing reserves (or by increasing the interest rate payed on reserves) once inflation expectations start rising. The monetary analysis of this paper however shows that there has never been a situation of excess broad money (created by the banking system) which has not been followed by increasing inflation, and that the increase in inflation occurs after several years lags.”
Reynard starts with the quantity theory of money (MV≡PQ), which I have discussed at length in this column. Regular readers will know that I am careful to distinguish transactional money from base money – as does Reynard – and that the sole reason inflation has not accelerated is that money velocity has declined. This decline is not due to the financial crisis directly, but as I have shown before it is due to the decline in interest rates. This makes monetary policy problematic, since an increase in interest rates which in ordinary times (that is, when there isn’t a couple trillion of excess reserves) would cause M2 to decelerate and dampen inflation will also cause money velocity to rise – offsetting to some extent the effects of the rising interest rates on the money supply. (Among other things, this effect tends to help cause monetary policy to overshoot on both sides). Reynard’s insightful way around this problem is to “model equilibrium velocity as a function of interest rate to reflect changes in inflation environments.” That is, the monetary equation substitutes an interest rate variable, based on a long-run equilibrium relationship with velocity, for velocity itself. In Reynard’s words,
“Thus the observed money level is adjusted…by the interest rate times the estimated semi-elasticity of money demand to account for the fact that, for example in a long-lasting disinflationary environment when inflation and interest rate decrease, the corresponding increase in money demand reflecting the decline in opportunity cost is not inflationary: the price level does not increase with the money level given that equilibrium velocity decreases.”
This is exactly right, and it is exceedingly rare that a central banker has that sort of insight – which is one of the reasons we are in this mess with no obvious way out. Reynard then uses his model to examine several historical cases of post-crisis monetary and inflationary history: Switzerland, Japan, Argentina and the 1930s U.S. He finds that there are downward rigidities to the price level that cause inflation to resist turning negative (or to fall below about 1.5% in the U.S.), but that when there is excess liquidity the link between liquidity and inflation is very tight with a lag of a couple of years. Reynard’s opinion is that it is this non-linearity around price stability that has caused prior studies to conclude there is no important link between money and inflation. As Fama observed back in the early 1980s, and I observe pretty much daily to the point that it is now a prohibited topic at the dinner table, when inflation is very low there is a lot of noise in the money-inflation relationship that makes it difficult to find the signal. But the money-inflation connection at higher levels of inflation and money, and over longer periods of time, is irrefutable.
In the last section of the paper, the author assesses the effects of current QE (through November 2012) on future inflation in the U.S. His conclusion is that “Excess liquidity has always been followed by persistent increases in inflation. Current quantitative easing policies should lead to increasing and persistent inflation over the next years.” The chart accompanying this statement is reproduced below.
As you can see, the model suggests inflation of 3-4% in 2013 and 5% in late 2014. While clearly inflation in 2013 has been lower than suggested by the chart, this isn’t supposed to be a trading model. I suspect that if get 3-4% in 2014 and 5%+ in 2015 (our forecast is for 3.0%-3.6% on core inflation in 2014 and 3.3%-4.8% in 2015), the issue of whether Reynard was essentially correct will not be in question!
There is a blog post on the site of the New York Fed might be significant. The title of the post is “Has the Fed Stabilized the Price Level?” In the post, the authors take up the question of price level targeting. This, in itself, is worth noting because the debate about whether the Fed should target the inflation rate (trying to hit 2% on the PCE deflator every year) or the price level (trying to average 2% over the next 10 years, say) has been ebbing and flowing for the last few years but during and after the crisis has generally taken a back seat to more pressing issues like “how can we buy a couple trillion dollars’ worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities without impairing market function?” Back at the end of 2010, I wrote a blog post about the fact that price-level targeting is gaining currency (no pun intended) at the Fed.
The authors start by noting that the Fed has been incredibly successful, as it turns out, at hitting the 2% target on inflation. Like most authors who address this subject, they choose a historical period where that happens to be the case and draw a nice exponential curve that happens to fit nicely since, after all, they chose a period during which low and stable inflation was the norm. They then proceed, as most establishment economists do, to give the Fed most if not all of the credit for maintaining inflation low and stable even though any fair real-time analysis of the history – see, for example, my book which, incidentally, makes a fine Christmas gift – must conclude that this was partly a lucky break.
What is interesting and potentially significant, though, is where the authors focus on the deviation from that trend. Although drawing the line the way they originally drew it suggests that the Fed has successfully targeted long-term price-level growth almost exactly, they then re-draw the line based on an arbitrary start date of January 2006 (this happens to be the beginning of Bernanke’s tenure, but since the price level in 2006 has nothing to do with actions he took in 2006, that date is purely arbitrary). The significance is that when drawn from that date, the price level appears too low:
“While the price level has remained remarkably close to its 2 percent trend line since the early 1990s, the total PCE deflator has been below this trend line since 2009 with a 1.4 percent gap in July 2013; the core index displays an even larger gap.”
Hmmm. At this point, one suspects that the authors may be adjusting the lens to reach the conclusion they want. They proceed to ask whether the Fed is, or should be, aiming to stabilize inflation (at 2% on PCE, about 2.25% on CPI) or the price level, and suggest (remember, the authors are at the Fed) that quantitatively speaking the Fed’s policy has worked out to be essentially price-level targeting whatever they called it. The big moment comes:
“Moreover, while the FOMC has stated its policy strategy in terms of an inflation rate and not the price level, it is interesting to note that there is a technical equivalence between the Fed’s “longer-run inflation goal” of 2 percent and price-level targeting. As such, if the FOMC’s past behavior continues, it is reasonable to expect inflation temporarily higher than 2 percent so that the price level will return to its long-run trend line.”
Whether or not the Fed actually chooses, or should choose, price-level targeting or rate targeting is a debate for a future day although the link to my blog post above shows it is also a debate for a past day! The interesting thing about the NY Fed blog post, though, is that the price-level argument is being used to support the notion that inflation somewhat above the target is not only acceptable but actually desirable. This may be merely an academic discussion, but take note of it just in case.
In one of those “what could possibly go wrong with that plan” moments – which are becoming all too frequent these days – the New York Times this weekend reported that there is “growing concern inside and outside the Fed that inflation is not rising fast enough.”
At some level, this is not exactly new thinking. For decades, economists have argued that “price stability” really means inflation of something just slightly over 0%, because it is assumed to be quite hard to get out of a deflationary spiral. in my view, that’s silly, because simply adding a zero to the currency in everyone’s pocket is a guaranteed way to get out of deflation. It may be that since nudging inflation higher is harder than kicking it higher, the costs of mild deflation are higher than the costs of mild inflation, but I think the jury is out on that question since it isn’t something we have ever experienced. But in any event, this is the reason that inflation in the neighborhood of 2%, rather than 0%, has been the Fed’s implicit or explicit target for a long time.
To the extent that discussion stays academic, it’s not worrisome. Navel-gazing is an occupational hazard of being a professional economist, after all. But now, there are louder and more frequent voices arguing that 2% is too low a target. To see how urgent a problem this is, I submit the following chart, which shows median CPI, along with a horizontal line at 2.25% (roughly equivalent to a 2% target on PCE). Wow, I can see the reason for panic. We are nearly 0.2% below that! And we got within 0.6% of deflation in 2010, in the aftermath of the worst credit crisis in almost 100 years.
I am all for the idea that mild inflation serves to lubricate the gears of commerce, but we should remember that when the CFO of Costco says he likes rising inflation because in that circumstance “the retailer is generally able to expand its profit margins,” that’s good for the equity market perhaps but not as good for the consumer!
It always amazes me how sketchy is the understanding of inflation in a capital markets context by members of the Fed. In the aforementioned article, Chicago Fed President Evans is quoted saying “If inflation is lower than expected, then debt financing is more burdensome than borrowers expected. Problems of debt overhang become that much worse for the economy.” This is absolutely true, but almost completely irrelevant in the current context. Inflation has been lower than a priori expectations since about 1980, which is why a long-nominal-bond position has routinely outperformed inflation. But currently, as the chart below illustrates, 10-year inflation breakevens are at 2.19%. Fully 72% of all 10-year periods since 1914 have seen compounded inflation above that level.
Ten-year inflation swaps, a better measure of inflation expectations, are at 2.52%, which still doesn’t sound like a horrible bet for borrowers. If inflation comes in above 2.52%, the borrower of 10-year fixed-rate money wins; if it comes in below 2.52%, the borrower loses. This is one reason that it is so rare to see corporations issue inflation-indexed debt…they like that bet.
Finally, the article explains that higher inflation allows workers to get higher wages, and gives the example of teachers in Anchorage, Alaska, who just agreed to a contract giving them 1% pay increases for each of the next three years. Since inflation is likely to be above that, the article says, they will be probably receiving a pay cut in real terms. This is absolutely true. (It is also the exact opposite position of the debtor, in that the teachers will do better in real terms if deflation actually happened. Sometimes I just wish the authors of these articles would be consistent.) But this circumstance certainly isn’t helped by inflation; since wage increases tend to trail inflation, real wages tend to lag in inflationary upticks.
None of this represents deep insight from this author. It merely represents that I have at least a rudimentary understanding of how inflation works, and a respect for the damage which inflation can cause to economies, workers, and savers. The fact that this is increasingly rare these days is probably cyclical, and unfortunately is probably a minimum condition for setting up this next inflation debacle. In that context, and with more Federal Reserve economists openly musing about needing to target higher inflation, does 2.19% breakeven sound like a bad deal?
I haven’t written recently because it is hard to figure out what to do here. Market action at this point seemingly has little to do with fundamentals, and isn’t even in “risk on/risk off” mode because no one seems to be sure how the government shutdown affects risk (the debt ceiling debate is another issue, which I will discuss later).
I often get comments to the effect that “political uncertainty is a fact of life,” or “the Fed always manipulates markets,” implying that we cannot simply refuse to invest because markets aren’t trading cleanly off of economic fundamentals (which don’t directly translate into market action even in the best of times anyway). This is true, but I always hearken back to the notion that uncertainty implies a smaller bet size (a long time ago I wrote an article in which I discussed the implications of the Kelly Criterion for thinking about how one invests). When the economic signals are clear but the market isn’t pricing them properly, then you have a great edge and the market is giving you good odds, and most of your chips should be on the table. When the economic signals aren’t clear, or when stochastic political events are likely to overwhelm them, then your bet should be small because your edge is lower even if you are getting good odds.
In this case, of course, no matter what market you are talking about it isn’t at all clear how the debate (perhaps calling it a “debate” is generous) about the continuing resolution to fund government operations, the ACA, and the debt ceiling will be resolved.
We can speculate about what various outcomes might mean to the markets, but even here our analysis is fraught with uncertainty. Would an extended shutdown be good for equity markets because it would imply a greater chance of lower ACA costs and a lengthier period of Fed quantitative easing? Or would it be bad because of the short-term impact on growth as government spending is delayed? Would bonds rally because there would be no incremental supply, or sell off because of the implied risk of default? A lengthy government closure might be bad for the dollar because it implies more monetary ease, but might be good because it represents “fiscal discipline” (admittedly, in this case it’s discipline in the fetishistic sense rather than in the self-control sense). The only thing I am certain about is the uncertainty, and that spells a smaller bet.
Retail investors are especially at a disadvantage, because of the huge amount of misinformation that is out there about likely scenarios and the results of various outcomes. This misinformation is often unwittingly disseminated by media outlets, but I suspect it is rarely unwittingly initiated by the original sources.
For example, a recent New York Times blog was pretty good at discussing the possible outcomes, but flunked on at least one aspect when it stated what would happen to the economy as a result of a federal default. I don’t mean to pick on the Times here, and in general it is a good article. But at one point the writer said that a default could cause a spike in Treasury yields (likely true), but then continued “The price tag on a huge range of other debt products is benchmarked to the cost of Treasuries. That means a spike in the federal government’s borrowing costs would translate into pricier mortgages, car loans and corporate borrowing costs.”
Well, that’s wrong. It’s not offensively wrong, but it’s wrong (and I’m pointing it out partly as an example of how even simple stuff is confused right now). The interest rate on any nominal debt instrument consists of several components: the real cost of money, a premium for expected inflation, and a premium for the riskiness of the credit. Normally, with Treasuries we can say the credit spread is effectively zero, so that we refer to the spread that a corporate bond trades over Treasuries as “the” credit spread because that spread minus zero equals that spread. But there is no reason to think that spread would remain constant if the Treasury’s credit was diminished, any more than it would remain constant if the corporate’s credit was diminished. If Treasury rates spiked because the government’s perceived credit spread was no longer zero, then unless that also affected the perceived credit of, say, Caterpillar then there is no theoretical reason that CAT yields should also rise.
In any event, a federal default is not going to happen unless someone in the Administration wants it to happen. The government’s $2.9 trillion in revenues is quite a bit more than is needed to pay the $300bln or so in interest costs per year, so unless the Treasury simply decided to default (see an excellent article here by my friends at TF Market Advisors) it isn’t going to happen. The Treasury has made some mystifying statements about how they don’t have the capability to pay some expenses and not others, but in the worst case someone can sit down and manually wire the money to every holder. So that’s nonsense that is meant to scare us.
So I don’t have any decent “trading opinions” on the basis of the government shutdown. What I do believe is that this is an unmitigated positive for inflation (positive in the sense of pushing it higher), and thus for breakevens and inflation swaps. The longer the government stays shut, the longer quantitative easing will be in force as the Fed attempts to counteract the short-term contraction of economic activity (the fact that monetary policy is ineffective at affecting growth rates never seems to enter their minds); furthermore a long shutdown will more likely to push the dollar lower in my opinion – although, as I said above, I can argue the reverse position as well. On the other hand, if the Republicans cave quickly, as is likely in my view, and the ACA goes into effect, prices for consumer-purchased medical care will rise rapidly. This is less a statement about whether the ACA will push aggregate health care costs higher, although I believe that it will. It’s more an observation that controlled prices in the government-purchased sector will produce higher prices outside of the controls, and it is this latter group that will be sampled for consumer prices (since the price the government purchases at is not a “consumer” price). Since it is the Medical Care subgroup of CPI that has been pressing core CPI to be lower than median CPI, any rebound in Medical Care inflation will push aggregate core inflation higher.
Was that said in a confusing-enough manner?
TIPS should do well while the government is shut, because there is ongoing growth in demand for TIPS while the supply will be drying up. Unlike with the nominal Treasury market, there is no corporate inflation-linked bond sector that can replace the inflation exposure (although there should be) demanded by investors, so TIPS will tend to outperform nominal bonds in the event that both sets of auctions are canceled.
 There are other costs, such as the discount to the interest rate that the Treasury pays as a result of the status of Treasuries as superior collateral in repo and similar exchanges, but they are not relevant to this point.
 There may be a practical argument that there might be a substitution effect, but that’s also saying that investors would bet the selloff in Treasuries makes them a better risk-adjusted bet than CAT bonds. However, if the Treasury’s credit spread moved permanently higher, it would not affect the equilibrium bond yield of a corporate bond.
I wrote recently about money velocity and reminded readers that theory says higher interest rates tend to increase money velocity because it decreases the demand for real cash balances. This was around the discussion of whether the enormous demand for Verizon bonds could be anecdotal evidence that velocity is increasing.
Yesterday the blog Sober Look – which is one of my favorites because it gives intelligent looks at many different markets – ran an article entitled “Could rising rates fuel credit growth in the US?” in which they in turn cite Deutsche Bank research. It’s a very quick article and worth a read, because it sheds some light on one of the mechanisms by which credit growth may increase with higher rates. Ordinarily, higher rates inhibit money growth at the same time that they increase velocity, partly because the yield curve flattens. But in this case, higher rates may increase both credit growth and money velocity – at least when rates initially rise – since the market is moving ahead of the Fed and steepening the yield curve in a selloff.
It’s just another puzzle piece to rotate in your mind, to try and see how it all fits together!
What is the significance of the fact that Verizon on Wednesday managed to sell $49bln in bonds without any kind of hiccup?
Obviously, it means that the corporate market is doing okay, that investors who are starved for good spreads like the attractive spread the bonds were priced at, and that there is reasonable confidence in the marketplace that Verizon can succeed even as a much more-leveraged company. All are good things.
But here is another thing to think about. My friend Peter Tchir, who writes the excellent T-Report, noted this morning that “Investors weren’t selling other bonds to buy Verizon.” That is, a fair amount of the money may well have been coming out of cash to go into the Verizon bonds.
Why does this matter? Remember that the velocity of money is the inverse of the demand for real cash balances. That is, when everyone is holding cash, the velocity of money is low; when no one wants to hold cash, the velocity of money is high. I have shown the chart below (source: Enduring Investments) before and argued that higher interest rates will tend to increase velocity by decreasing the demand for real cash balances. At least, that usually is what happens.
What would a turn higher in velocity look like? Well, I think it may well look something like this. “I no longer have to reach as much for yield and take all the risk I had to in March to get a 3% yield. So it’s time to invest some of this cash.”
Now, the ultimate flows get a little confusing, because cash is neither created nor destroyed in this transaction. Cash is transferred to Verizon from investors; Verizon then transfers that to Vodafone investors, who perhaps put it back in the bank for no net change. But if those investors in turn say “I don’t want those cash balances, either,” and then go invest or lend it or spend it, then you’re starting to see how money velocity is increasing. The money essentially becomes a kind of financial “hot potato” now, moving more rapidly from investor to investor, from consumer to vendor, and so on. The volume of transactions rises, which increases prices and output as explained by the MV≡PQ monetarist credo.
And that is how higher rates can produce more inflation.
We are seeing other strange things, too, that could be consistent with this explanation. Another great blog, “Sober Look,” observed last week that 30-year jumbo mortgage loan rates have fallen below conforming mortgage loan rates. Their explanation of the phenomenon is worth reading, but note this part: “Flush with deposits, banks have access to extraordinarily cheap capital and are seeking to earn more interest income.” Yet this has been true for some time. What has changed is that interest rates are now higher, increasing the opportunity cost of cash in both nominal and real terms.
This doesn’t automatically mean that money velocity is increasing; it may just be an interesting bond sale and unusual market activity in jumbo mortgages. But it is worth thinking about, because as I note in that article linked to above, even a modest rise in money velocity could produce an aggressive response from inflation.
When I remark, from time to time, that I think the Fed has made a mistake in increasing transparency of its deliberations and actions, people occasionally look at me as if I had come out opposed to motherhood or apple pie. But my point is that transparency is good if it permanently decreases risk…but it doesn’t.
What matters is how market actors respond to increased transparency. It is much like the old debate about whether football players ought to wear helmets. It is clear that helmets decrease the likelihood of brain damage in any given collision, compared to the un-helmeted rider in an identical collision. But it is also clear that as helmets have gotten better and better, football players have played faster and faster, with more abandon, and lead with their heads a lot more than they did when all they had was a leather cap. The net effect is indeterminate.
In markets, increased transparency from a central bank or regulator leads to increased leverage in a very direct way. The central bank’s dial is for transparency, but the investor’s dial is for risk appetite and when the central bank turns its dial it does not change the investor’s risk preferences. The result is that increasing transparency, which decreases the risk at any given leverage and at any particular moment, leads to higher levels of leverage, which lowers the tolerance for error. And, as we have seen, central banks and regulators are quite prone to error.
In an interesting way, this is tied into the volume question. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows rolling 250-trading-day volume for the NYSE in billions of shares. As has been well-documented, market volumes have been steadily declining for years.
As we have mentioned here before, there are lots of excuses for lower market volumes on the major exchanges, and probably many of those excuses are part of the answer. But we can no longer simply attribute this to the movement of volumes to “dark pools.” There is simply less going on in the markets, whether in rates or in equities. Ask the dealers. Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule are simply decimating volumes. And this is not just bad for dealers, it is bad for everyone.
When a trade happens, there is information revealed. Indeed, in some markets a meaningful proportion of the volume transacted is between dealers who are testing the market to get more information. More trades means that there are more quanta of information. More quanta of information produces more confidence in prices. More confidence in prices means more support for the current prices, and more de facto liquidity.
Think of it this way. If a bond has never traded, and two counterparties come together to trade some at a price of 103, what is your estimate of the true market for another trade? Is it one tick around 103? If so, then you are displaying almost outrageous overconfidence – one data point between two counterparties, about whose motivations you know precisely nothing, tells you almost zero about what the true market (by which I mean, the prices at which you could buy, for an offer, or sell, for a bid, a typical-sized transaction) is, and even less about what the support market (by which I mean the prices at which you could transact in substantially larger sizes) is. And so bid/offer spreads, whether quoted on-screen or over-the-counter from a dealer in the security, must be wider since the market-maker just doesn’t know as much as he would if volumes were higher – and, more to the point, the market must be wider because the client who initiates the trade is likely to know more than the market-maker does about the right price. This is because the market-maker must make a market whether or not he knows the fair price, but the buyer or seller doesn’t have to trade unless he/she believes the fair price is outside of the quoted range. Of course, that’s where the information comes from: if the offer is lifted, it means someone is saying “I think the fair price is higher than your offer,” and that is information.
I mention this today for several reasons. First, because it has been a while since I showed the NYSE volumes chart in a while. Second, because there was an article on Bloomberg today entitled “Professor Who Helped Pop Junk Bubble Says Trace Slows Trade” which ties transparency to diminished volumes. To the extent that Trace produces true transparency and reduces the need for “testing” trades, it is a good thing…but then we should see tighter spreads for size, and while the study is suggestive it isn’t conclusive on this point. More interestingly, the professor in question also made the point that “less trading may hurt investors if, instead of reducing ‘noise’ from the market, the reduction slows how quickly new information alters prices.” And this point is also key:
”…if the decrease in trading activity is the result of dealers’ unwillingness to hold inventory, transparency will have caused a reduction in the range of investing opportunities. That is, even if a decline in price dispersion reflects a decrease in transaction costs, the concomitant decrease in trading activity could reflect an increased cost of transacting due to the inability to complete trades.”
So transparency, it seems, is not an unalloyed positive like apple pie. But lower trading volumes, which are partly the result of transparency (and partly the result of poorly-conceived rules like Dodd-Frank, the Volcker Rule, and Basel III), are very probably bad for everyone. This doesn’t just affect hedge funds. Markets which are deep and liquid are much less prone to sudden price breaks. With the US equity market still floating near the highs despite rapid increases in nominal and real interest rates and worst-ever outflows from ETFs last month, this is a point that may be more than academic at the moment.
 However, no one disputes that the faster game is a lot more fun to watch. What I suspect has happened is that the introduction of hard-sided helmets probably increased injuries until players essentially reached maximum speed/recklessness, after which point the further improvements in helmet design probably started to make the game safer again. But it is really hard to prove that.
It didn’t seem when dawn broke in New York today as if the stock market would spend some time during this first post-summer session fighting to record a positive mark on the close. The S&P opened up 1% higher, partly because Chinese economic data was modestly stronger-than-expected, but mostly because hot money types sought to use the thin overnight session to try and create the impression that returning investors were flocking to buy “these cheap levels.”
But whatever the proximate cause of the overnight rally, it was met immediately with selling and three hours later the indices were flirting with unchanged on the day before a late charge produced a +0.4% finish for the S&P. I don’t think the turnaround had anything to do with the fact that Israel fired ballistic missiles into the Mediterranean as a test of anti-ballistic-missile technology last night – that information was known when we walked in, although there was some confusion about whether the U.S. was involved or not and whether it was supposed to be secret or not.
Indeed, the whole U.S. market seems far more interested in whether the Employment number this Friday is 160k or 180k than whether the U.S. or Israel attacks Syria, prompting a response from Iran and/or Syria on Israel and generally provoking the situation in the Middle East like a Mentos candy dropped into Diet Coke. This is why 10-year notes were down on the day, despite the fact that the terribly low float outside the Fed means any flight to quality could be explosive.
The odds of a flight to quality may be low, but the expected payoff is (probability of event) * (value given that event happens), the latter of which is quite high. This is one reason I would be more comfortable being cautiously long bonds at this point. I guess the counterargument is that any taper will have a disproportionate effect on the sectors with less float, but I would think that should be mostly priced in by now. Well, perhaps the Syrian conflict is priced in as well…after all, little is likely to happen very soon, unless Congress acts quickly to validate the President’s request for authorization of military action. The President doesn’t seem to be looking for a quick answer and would probably like the whole issue to just go away, so probably the most likely event is still that nothing happens in Syria that impacts U.S. interests very much.
But do keep in mind that the part of the value of a particular strategy that comes from a particular state of the world is, as I said above, (probability of the state of the world) * (value given that state of the world happens). For many financial options, the value of the option is determined not by the likely or median outcome, or even the distribution of likelihood of outcomes around the strike price of the option, but rather the outcomes in the tail, where there is very low likelihood and very high value. These are all “unlikely” events, in the sense that their independent probabilities are less than 50% and in most cases markedly less:
- a hot war in the Middle East,
- an abrupt taper from the Fed, or a decision from the Fed to increase purchases,
- Merkel’s party loses the vote and is unable to form a pro-Euro coalition,
- the Yen suddenly collapses,
- the US borrowing ceiling isn’t extended without fierce brinkmanship (in mid-October, the US won’t be able to pay for everything it wants to pay for, although it will still have plenty to make debt service and entitlement payments and so is not in even remote danger of an actual default unless the Treasury simply refuses to direct its ample revenues to debt service),
- …and others.
How does your asset allocation perform under each of these scenarios? Are there tails you have unhedged? If so, then you are doing what hedge funds have been doing for the last couple of decades: selling implicit options, earning a better return today as long as a bad event doesn’t hit. In hedge fund land, we talk about being short implied credit or liquidity options, but even retail investors have this sort of position on. What happens to your portfolio if oil goes to $200, or the US suddenly drops into recession, or the Euro breaks up over the weekend? What about if inflation goes from 2% to 6%? (Interesting fact: over the last 100 years, inflation accelerated by at least 4% from one year to the next fully 10% of the time. And the probability that inflation is over 10%, given that it is over 4.5%, is 37%…so in other words, the inflation tails are very long).
Don’t ask me for answers about what you should do in these cases – my purpose in these articles is not to distribute free answers to intricate questions that depend on your personal situation. My purpose is to present the question, and the question is, have you thought about how your portfolio will perform in the case of unlikely events?
If not, spend some time doing so. My fundamental belief is that a 70% or 80% equity position is almost never the right answer for any investor. If you are sufficiently wealthy that you could lose that 80% and have it not affect your lifestyle, either now or in the future, then you truly can plan for the long haul and ignore such risks (although even then I would not ignore valuations because you can add to your long-term returns by paying attention to them). For everyone else, “long term” is probably 10 years or less, and severe impairment of the portfolio does not admit to a certain 10-year cure. Just ask the people who had most of their retirement assets in Enron, or for that matter in the NASDAQ circa March 2000.
Watch your tail. The next month or two will be interesting.
 Technically, this is only true if all of the enumerated states of the world are distinct. To the extent that they are not, a covariance structure comes into play…for our purposes you can think of each separate event as creating option value, but you can’t simply sum those values.
The Financial Times today carried an article entitled “Japan Inflation Rises to Highest in Nearly Five Years.” Core inflation in Japan reached -0.1%, which is actually the highest since early 2009, so not quite five years (see chart, source Enduring Investments, below). More importantly, however, the year-on-year figures are near the highest in the last decade-plus, with base effects likely to push core inflation above zero in the near future.
This should be shocking to no one, since Japanese M2 growth recently reached the highest year-on-year growth level since … wait for it … 1999, and is now actually growing slightly faster than European money supply for the first time in a long, long time. Because, you see, money growth is intimately related to inflation. News flash!!
But the Japanese have only just begun to increase their money supply, and it is going to go a lot higher. As will inflation in Japan.
Now, here’s the conundrum of the day. If the Japanese pat themselves on the back because they are near to exorcising the deflation demon with quantitative easing, then how can Bernanke, Yellen, Summers, et. al. be so confident that our QE will not increase inflation? It can’t be the case that QE is effective at ending deflation (which was one benefit that Bernanke trumpeted in the past, too), but doesn’t tend to increase inflation. Well, I suppose it can be the case, but it would be quite weird.
The difference between the US and Japanese response to money growth over the last few years is that money velocity in the US has been declining with interest rates, while the Japanese already had rates so low that velocity had nowhere to go but up. As I have noted previously, even if velocity in the US merely levels out, 7% money growth will produce an uncomfortable rise in inflation.
So before settling into the belief, as Summers has expressed, that quantitative easing has “few harmful side effects,” it seems to me that we ought to reflect on the Japanese QE example.