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Meteorologists and Defenseless Receivers

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

The stock market really seemed to “want” to get to 2000 on the S&P. I hope it was worth it. Now as real yields seem to be moving higher once again (see chart below, source Bloomberg) – in direct contravention, it should be noted, of the usual seasonal trend which anticipates bond rallies in September and October – and the Fed is essentially fully ‘tapered’, market valuations are again going to be a topic of conversation as we head into Q4 just a few weeks from now.

realyields

To use an American football analogy, the stock market right now is in an extended position like a wide receiver reaching for a high pass, but with no rules in place to prevent the hitting of a defenseless receiver. This kind of stretch is what can get a player laid up for a while.

Now, it has been this way for a long time. And, like many other value investors, I have been wary of valuations for a long time. I want to make a distinction, though, between certain value investors and others. There are some who believe that the more a market gets overvalued, the more dramatic the ensuing fall must be. These folks get more and more animated and exercised the longer that the market crash doesn’t happened. I think that they have a point – a market which is 100% overvalued is in more perilous position than one which is a mere 50% overvalued. But we really must keep in mind the limits of our knowledge about the market. That is, while we can say the market is x% overvalued with respect to the Shiller PE or whatever our favorite metric is, and we can say that it is becoming more overextended than it previously was, we do not know where true fair value lies.

That is to say that it may be – I don’t think it is, but it’s possible – that when stocks are at a 20 Shiller PE (versus a long-term average of 16) they are not 25% overvalued but actually at fair value. Therefore, when they go to a 24 PE, they are more overvalued but instead of 50% overvalued they are only 25% overvalued because true fair value is, in this example, at 20. What this means is that knowing the Shiller PE went from 20 to 24 has no particular implications for the size of the eventual market break, because we don’t actually know that 16 really represents fair value. That’s an assumption, and an untestable assumption at that.

Now, we need assumptions. There is no way to keep from making assumptions in financial markets, and we do it every day. I happen to think that the notion that a 16 Shiller PE is roughly fair value is probably a good assumption. But my point is that when you’re talking about how much more overvalued a market is than it was previously, with the implication that the ensuing break ought to be larger, you need to remember that we are only guessing at fair value. Always. This is why you won’t catch me saying that I think the S&P will drop eventually to some specific figure, unless I’m eyeballing a chart or something. In my mind, my job is to talk about the probabilities of winning or losing and the expected value of those wagers. That is, harking back to the old Kelly Criterion thinking– we try to assess our edge and odds but we always have to remember we can’t know either for certain.

Bringing this back to inflation (it is, after all, CPI week): even though we can’t state with certainty what the odds of a particular outcome actually are, we can state what probability the market is placing on certain outcomes. In inflation space, we can look at the options market to infer the probability that market participants place on the odds of a certain inflation rate being realized over a certain time period (n.b. the market currently only offers options on headline inflation, which is somewhat less interesting than options on core inflation, but we can extract the latter information using other techniques. For this exercise, however, we are focusing on headline inflation.)

What the inflation options market tells us is that over the next year, market participants see only about an 18% chance that headline inflation will be above 2.25% (that is, roughly the Fed’s target, applied to CPI). This is despite the fact that headline inflation is already at 2%, and median inflation is at 2.2%. So the market is overwhelmingly of the opinion that inflation declines, or at least rises no further, from here. You can buy a one-year, 2.5% inflation cap for about 5-7bps, depending who you ask. That’s really amazing to me.

Looking out a few years (see table below, source Enduring Investments), we see that the market prices roughly a 50-50 chance of inflation being above the Fed’s target starting about three years from now (September 2016-September 2017, approximately), and for each year thereafter. But how long are the tails? The inflation caplet market says that there is no better than a 24% chance that any of the next 10 years sees inflation above 4%. We are not talking about core inflation, but headline inflation – so we are implicitly saying that there will be no spikes in gasoline, as well as no general rise in core inflation, in any year over the next decade. That strikes me as … optimistic, especially since our view is that core inflation will be well above 3% for calendar 2015.

Probability that inflation is above
in year 2.25% 3.00% 4.00% 5.00% 6.00%
1 18% 5% 3% 1% 0%
2 41% 19% 8% 3% 1%
3 46% 25% 11% 5% 3%
4 50% 31% 15% 7% 4%
5 52% 35% 18% 10% 6%
6 50% 35% 19% 11% 7%
7 50% 36% 21% 13% 8%
8 49% 37% 22% 14% 9%
9 48% 37% 23% 15% 10%
10 47% 37% 24% 16% 11%

What is especially interesting about this table is that the historical record says that high inflation is both more probable than we think, and that inflation tails tend to be much longer than we think. Over the last 100 years (since the Fed was founded, essentially), headline inflation has been above 4% fully 31% of the time. And the conditional probability that inflation was over 10%, given that it was over 4%, was 32%. In other words, once inflation exceeds 4%, there is a 1 in 3 chance, historically, that it goes above 10%.

Cautions remain the same as above: we cannot know the true probability of the event, either a priori or even in retrospect when the occurrence will be either probability=1 (it happened) or probability=0 (it didn’t). This is why it is so hard to evaluate meteorologists, and economists, after the fact! But in my view, the market is remarkably sanguine about the prospects for an inflation accident. To be fair, it has been sanguine…and correct…for a long time. But I think it is no longer a good bet for that streak to continue.

Enter the Draghi

September 4, 2014 6 comments

While we wait for our Employment Report tomorrow, there is plenty of excitement overseas.

The dollar continued to strengthen today, with the dollar index reaching the highest level since the middle of last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).

dollarindex

As with the rest of the dollar’s strengthening move, it was really not any of our own doing. The dollar is simply, and I suspect very temporarily, the best house in a bad neighborhood right now. In the UK, the Scots are about to vote for independence, or not, but it will be a close vote regardless. In Japan, the Yen is weakening again as the Bank of Japan continues to ease and Kuroda continues to jawbone against his currency.

In Europe this morning, the ECB surprised many observers by cutting its benchmark rate to the low, low rate of just 5 basis points (0.05%), and lowered the deposit rate to -0.2%…meaning that if a bank wants to leave money sitting at the ECB, it is forced to pay the ECB to hold it. A negative deposit rate is akin to the Fed setting interest on excess reserves at a negative figure, something that makes great sense if the point of quantitative easing is to get money into the economy. In the Fed’s case, it turns out that the real point was to de-lever the banks forcibly, so it didn’t care that the reserves were sitting inert, but in the ECB’s case they would really like to see inflation higher (core inflation for the whole Eurozone is under 1%) so it is important that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank is reflected in actual currency in circulation.

Right now, the negative deposit rate isn’t so important since the ECB holds negligible deposits. But the negative deposit rate was step one; step two is to gin up the quantitative easing again. ECB President Draghi had promised several months ago to do so with ‘targeted LTRO’, and today he delivered by saying that the ECB has decided to begin TLTRO in October. The ECB will “purchase a broad portfolio of simple and transparent securities” even though some observers have noted that there aren’t a lot of asset-backed securities in the market to buy (but trust Wall Street on this: if there is a buyer of a few hundred billion Euros’ worth of such securities, those securities will be issued. Wall Street isn’t good at everything, but they’re darn good at finding ways to satisfy a motivated, huge buyer. (See “subprime MBS”).

This is significant, as I said it was when Draghi first mentioned this back in June. It is significant if they follow through, and at least at this point it appears they mean to do so. Now, Europe still needs to fight against the dampening effect on money velocity that lower interest rates are having, but at least they recognize the need to get M2 money growth above the 2.7% y/y rate it is at presently (which is, itself, above the 1.9% rate of the year ended April). Money growth in Europe is currently the lowest in the world, and – surprise! – deflation is the biggest threat in Europe. Go figure.

How does this affect inflation in the US?

Changes in the global money supply contributes to a global inflation process that underpins inflation rates around the world. The best way to think about the fluctuations in exchange rates, with respect to inflation, is that they allocate global inflation between countries (or, alternatively, you can think of inflation as being “global” plus “idiosyncratic”, where a country’s idiosyncratic inflationary or disinflationary policies affect the domestic inflation rate and the exchange rate with other countries). So, the ECB’s aggressive easing (when it happens) will have two main effects. First, it will tend to push up average inflation globally compared to what it would otherwise have been. Second, it will tend to weaken the Euro and strengthen the dollar so that inflation in Europe should rise relative to US inflation – all else being equal, which of course it is not.

With respect to this latter effect, I need to take pains to point out that it is a small effect, or rather than the relative movements in the currency need to be a lot bigger to be worth worrying about. A stronger dollar, in short, is not going to put much pressure on US inflation to be lower. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows a proxy we use for core commodities inflation, ex-medical, against the broad trade-weighted dollar lagged 9 months.

eimodelcorecomm

You can see that core commodities respond broadly to the dollar’s strength or weakness. A 5% rise (decline) in the dollar causes, nine months later, a 1% decline (rise) in core commodities inflation, ex-medical care commodities. Core ex-medical care commodities represents about 18% of the consumption basket, and the dollar’s effect outside of that part of the basket is indeterminate at best, so we can say that a 5% rise in the dollar causes inflation to decline about 0.18%.

In short, don’t waste a lot of time worrying that the 4% rise in the dollar this year will lead to deflation any time soon. Against that 18% of the consumption basket, we have 57% of the basket (core services) inflating at 2.6%, and over half of that consists of primary and owners’ equivalent rents, which are rising at 3.3% and 2.7% respectively and have a lot of upward momentum. Unless the dollar shoots dramatically higher, it should not affect overall prices very much.

Back to School!

September 3, 2014 2 comments

Back to school! It is the beginning of September, post-Labor Day, and students everywhere are back to school.

It is the time of year when investors, too, tend to be schooled – as bond markets tend to strengthen and equity markets to weaken (relative to the overall drift). It doesn’t happen every year, but the tendency in fixed income markets is strong enough that, as a rule, I demand much stronger reasons to sell bonds in September and October than during the rest of the year.

This year, we appear to be in for a special treat. We all get to learn new acronyms, like ISIS, and Americans are learning where Ukraine is on a map of the world. What fun.

Monetary policymakers tend to be resistant to further lessons, since after all they have had so many years of book learning that, darn it, they should know enough by now! And yet – there is so much about economics and monetary policy that we just don’t know; so much that isn’t knowable; and so much that we know with great confidence but just isn’t so.

However, I have been delighted to find that recently, the subject of money velocity has been appearing more frequently in policy circles. To a monetarist, velocity is one of a very small handful of things that matter, and its absence from discussions among the learned has been a terrible sign that monetarism was not merely in retreat, but almost extinct. And yet, the predictions of monetarism have been borne out time and time again (that is, the actual predictions, not the idea that printing money causes economic growth – a prediction that presupposes a high degree of money illusion is at work), while the predictions of Keynesian economists have only worked once the parameters are revised post-hoc to fit the crisis. Increased money supply growth got Japan out of its deflationary spiral – as predicted. None of the Keynesian solutions deployed over the last two decades have worked, but the first attempt at serious money-printing worked. (Although it remains to be seen if the BOJ will keep its pedal to the metal; it certainly hasn’t yet “doubled the money supply” as it had pledged to do).

High money growth – that is, transactional money and not inert reserves – always accompanies high inflation. For a time, money growth may be offset by declining money velocity, but we also know quite a bit about what causes money velocity to move. Last year I cited a rare paper by a central banker (Samuel Reynard at the Swiss National Bank) that really had insight on these almost-forgotten tenets of monetarism. And this year, I am delighted to note that some economists at the St. Louis Fed have published a brief note entitled “What Does Money Velocity Tell Us about Low Inflation in the U.S.?” While the authors, Yi Wen and Maria Arias, mistakenly focus on the velocity of base money, and thus reach an incorrect conclusion that individuals are “hoarding” money (when it in fact is sitting in bank reserves, untouched), it is nevertheless the right topic and the right question, and that’s most of the battle.

I have previously shown the chart of interest rates and money velocity, so let me show it again.

m2andrates

This is important, because it’s the single biggest risk to a significant inflation accident. While the low vacancy rate and the rapid growth in housing prices will continue to push rents higher, bringing median and/or core inflation above 3% by early next year, we can live with 3%. The risk for much worse inflation is all tied to a rebound in monetary velocity. It bears repeating. From 2008 to 2013, money growth was rapid but declining money velocity (tied to interest rate declines, mainly) restrained inflation. If money growth remains at the same level but money velocity merely stabilizes, it is consistent with inflation of 3%-4%. But if money velocity reverses even a part of its post-crisis decline, then inflation could move appreciably higher. Since Q2 of 2008, the velocity of M2 has fallen at a 3.76% annualized rate; were that to reverse, with the same money supply growth, then the 3-4% inflation becomes 6.75%-7.75% inflation, which I think we would all agree is a bad thing.

Now, the unfortunate thing is that models of velocity that incorporate interest rates and certain other factors already indicate that money velocity should be rising. The chart below shows our proprietary model of money velocity; as you can see, since mid-2013 there has been a large and growing gap between what the model implies and where money velocity has actually been recorded. This might well mean that the model is wrong. But we should also take it as indicating the risk of a rise in velocity is real, whether it is a 1% or 2% rise per year, or a 15% snap-back over a shorter period of time.

eimodelvel

As I always admonish, that’s a big picture concern, and not something to trade tomorrow. I would be gradually accumulating positions in inflation swaps, caps, breakevens, and broad commodity indices. There is time before people start to get really concerned. But to my mind, what is interesting is that the central bankers are now at least starting to reconsider velocity.

When In Doubt, Add a Parameter

With heavy travel over the last week and looming over the next couple of weeks, I figured that I really ought to get an article out before everyone forgets that I write a blog.

It isn’t that there is a dearth of topics. I have so much to talk about that I am brimming over; however, between the usual press of our Quarterly Inflation Outlook (which comes out after the CPI number this month) and the press of business-seeking activity, it has been difficult to put virtual pen to virtual paper.

Here is a great example. The New York Fed blog routinely gives me great material, both positive and negative. They’ve just published an article entitled “Inflation in the Great Recession and New Keynesian Models” with a followup article called “Why Didn’t Inflation Collapse in the Great Recession?” The pair of articles could just as easily be entitled, “When Your Model Doesn’t Work, Add a Parameter.”

I have said on a number of occasions that the credit crisis was a great test of the fundamental Keynesian hypothesis that inflation is caused by growth relative to potential output. And, in the event, that hypothesis was shown to be as bankrupt as Countrywide. I have always liked the way I summed up the state of the argument in 2012:

“The upshot is that we’ve just come off the biggest recession in 80 years, and inflation barely slowed. In fact, if you remove the effects of the bubble unwind in housing, it didn’t slow at all. If growth causes inflation, and if recessions are by definition deflationary, then we should have seen a decline in core prices.”

Here is the chart that accompanies that assertion:

gdpcoreinflation

Now, this doesn’t mean that the monetarists are right, but it assuredly means that the Keynesians are wrong. It is far too much, though, to ask for the peaceful surrender of this view. Instead, the Keynesians (or “New Keynesians” if you prefer) first recalibrated their models, like Goldman did in 2012. (Note, incidentally, that their re-calibrated model called for sharply declining core inflation starting from the moment they published that prediction, converging on 1.4% or so in 2013. In actuality, Median CPI basically went sideways from 2011 until recently. Core inflation declined, but only because of the one-off effect of the sequester, which I don’t imagine is what Goldman was forecasting).

What the NY Fed authors have done is to postulate that the real problem with New Keynesian models is that slack isn’t measured right, but rather that “the present value of expected future marginal costs is the more meaningful way of measuring slack.” It is a wonderful thing to be able to live in a world of models populated with unobservable variables that just happen to take on the right values to make the theory work. Even if, from time to time, one needs to re-calibrate when the model’s predictions don’t work out.

For the rest of us, the fact that monetarist models predicted that inflation would not plunge in the crisis, and have consistently given predictions wholly consistent with subsequent outcomes – without requiring re-parameterization – is a pretty strong argument that it’s likely to be closer to the right way to look at the world…even if it doesn’t give us as much to do.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

July 15, 2014 1 comment

So, the Fed’s tightening is almost done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quarterlycorpcred

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

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

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

regimeshift

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

velo3inputs

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

Plight of the Fed Model

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

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

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

nomvsshiller

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

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

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

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

realvsshiller

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

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

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

The Fed’s “Own Goal”

June 18, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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