Heading into the CPI print tomorrow, the market is firmly in “we don’t believe it” mode. Since the CPI report last month – which showed a third straight month of a surprising and surprisingly-broad uptick in prices – commodity prices are actually down 4% (basis the Bloomberg Commodity Index, formerly known as the DJ-UBS Commodity Index). Ten-year breakeven inflation is up 1-2bps since then, but there is still scant sign of alarm in global markets about the chances that the inflation upswing has arrived.
Essentially, no one believes that inflation is about to take root. Few people believe that inflation can take root. Indeed, our measure of inflation angst is near all-time lows (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
…which, of course, is exactly the reason you ought to be worried: because no one else is, and that’s precisely the time that often offers the most risk to being with the crowd, and the most reward from bucking it. And, with 10-year breakevens around 2.22%, the cost of protecting against that risk is quite low.
I suspect that one reason some investors are less concerned about this month’s CPI is that some short-term indicators are indicating that a correction in prices may be due. For example, the Billion Prices Project (which is now Price Stats, but still makes a daily series available at http://bpp.mit.edu/usa/) monthly inflation chart (shown below) suggests that inflation should retreat this month.
However, hold your horses: the BPP is forecasting non-seasonally-adjusted headline CPI. The June seasonals do have the tendency to subtract a bit less than 0.1% from the seasonally-adjusted number, which means that it’s not a bad bet that the non-seasonally-adjusted figure will show a smaller rise from May to June than we saw April to May, or March to April. Moreover, the BPP and other short-term ‘nowcasts’ of headline inflation are partly ebbing due to the recent sogginess in gasoline prices, which are 10 cents lower (and unseasonally so) than they were a month ago.
But that does not inform on core inflation. The last three months’ prints of seasonally-adjusted core CPI have been 0.204%, 0.236%, and 0.258%, which is a 2.8% annualized pace for the last quarter…and accelerating. Moreover, as I have previously documented the breadth of the inflation uptick is something that is different from the last few times we have seen mild acceleration of inflation.
None of that means that monthly core CPI will continue to accelerate this month. The consensus forecast of 0.19% implies year/year core CPI will accelerate, but will still round to 2.0%. But remember that the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI, to which core CPI should be converging as the sequester/Medical Care effect fades, is at 2.3% and rising. We should not be at all surprised with a second 0.3% increase tomorrow.
But, judging from markets, we would be.
This is not to say I am forecasting it, because forecasting one month’s CPI is like forecasting a random number generator, but I think the odds of 0.3% are considerably higher than 0.1%. I am on record as saying that core or median inflation will get to nearly 3% by year-end, and I remain in that camp.
I think it’s really interesting that suddenly, we are hearing from both hawks and doves on the Federal Reserve that the Fed is starting to worry whether some “complacency” has snuck into the market.
It is sort of a strange claim, since a really important part of QE and about how it was supposed to work was through the “portfolio balance channel.” In a nutshell, the idea of the portfolio balance channel is that if the Fed removes sufficient of the “safe” securities from the market, then people will be forced to buy riskier securities. Thus, the Fed was intentionally trying to substitute for animal spirits. And they were successful at it, which I illustrated in this post more than a year ago. So now, the Fed is surprised that the riskier asset classes are getting very expensive?
It is sometimes hard to keep track of all of the Fed’s arguments, since they seem to shift as frequently as necessary to make them appear to be on the right side of the data. Honestly, it’s a little bit like the way politicians work the “spin” cycle. The portfolio balance channel was good, and a goal of policy; now it’s surprising. You need to take good notes to keep this stuff straight.
That being said, it is not usually a coincidence when three Fed officials use nearly the same words in consecutive speeches, particularly when those three Fed officials include both hawks (Fisher, George) and doves (Dudley). The difference here is that Fisher and George are probably making this argument because they’d like to see the Fed pull back on the reins a bit, while Dudley probably doesn’t intend to do anything about the fear of complacency other than talk about it.
What does this mean?
- I am not the only person who is worried about not being worried (see my article from Monday).
- At least some people at the Fed are concerned that they have gone too far. This isn’t really news; the only news would be if that’s starting to be a majority opinion.
- At least some people at the Fed think that policymakers should be trying to ‘talk down’ markets.
Why do I include the third point? Because, if the Fed really was planning to do anything about it, they would just do it. Talking about complacency might cause some people to decrease their risky-market bets, but putting Treasuries back on the street and taking in cash would force the de-risking to happen. Call it the portfolio “rebalance” channel. No doubt, there is plenty of fear at the Fed about the possibility that the complacency might break suddenly in a sloppy, discontinuous way, but there are a couple of decades of experience with the lack of success of FOMC “open mouth policy.” Does the phrase “irrational exuberance” mean anything to you? Did Greenspan’s utterance of that phrase in December 1996 affect in any way the trajectory of the over-complacent equity market? Nope.
Ironically, I think what really galls the Fed is that market measures of policy rate expectations over the next few years imply a lower trajectory than the Fed feels they have laid out as their road map. The Committee, it seems doesn’t mind surprising the market on the dovish side but is wary of surprising them on the hawkish side. I predict that, if the short end of the rates curve steepens just a little bit, Fed officials will stop worrying so much about “complacency” even if stocks continue to ramp up.
In any case, it is worth listening when the Fed starts talking with one voice. There are lots of other reasons to be the first person to shed complacency, but here is a new one: whether it’s a bona fide signal or just central banker bluster, there is a new tone coming from Fed speakers. Beware of dogs that growl; sometimes they bite.
I am beginning to worry about my own complacency. As a person who has been a participant in the fixed-income markets for a long time, I have become quite naturally a very cautious investor. Such caution is a quintessentially fixed-income mindset (although you might not guess that from the way bond people behaved in the run-up to the global financial crisis) – as a bond investor, you are essentially in the position of someone who is short options: taking in small amounts on a regular basis, with an occasional large loss when the credit defaults. A bond investor can greatly improve his performance in the long run relative to an index by merely avoiding the blow-ups. Miss the Enron moment, and you pick up a lot of relative performance. (The same is true of equities, but there is much more upside to being an optimist. The stock market selects for optimists, the bond market for pessimists.)
This is a lesson that many high-yield investors today, chasing near-term carry, seem to have forgotten. But my purpose here isn’t to bash those involved in the global reach for yield. I am merely pointing out that this is how I tend to think. I am always looking for the next disaster that hangs a portfolio with a big negative number. As Prince Humperdinck said in The Princess Bride, “I always think everything could be a trap – which is why I’m still alive.”
And I am starting to worry about my own complacency. I don’t get the feeling that we’re gearing up for Round 2 of the global financial crisis. Something bad, perhaps, but not catastrophic.
To be sure, there are a large number of potential pitfalls facing investors today, and I think market volatilities underestimate their probabilities substantially. We are facing an inflection in policy from the ECB this week, with analysts expecting a substantial additional easing action (and it is overdue, with money growth in Europe down to a feeble 1.9% y/y, near the worst levels of the post-crisis period – see chart, source Bloomberg). Absent a major change in policy, liquidity on the continent is going to become increasingly dear with possible ramifications for the real economy as well as the asset economy.
The Federal Reserve is facing a more-serious policy inflection point, with no agreement amongst FOMC members (as far as I can tell) about how to transition from the end of QE to the eventual tightening. I’ve pointed out before – while many Fed officials were whistling Dixie about how easy it would be to reverse policy – that there is no proven method for raising interest rates with the vast quantity of excess reserves sitting inert on bank balance sheets. Moreover, raising interest rates isn’t the key…restraining money growth is. The key point for markets is simply that there is no plan in place that removes these reserves, which means that interest rates are not likely to respond to Fed desires to see them rise. And, if the Fed uses a brute-force method of raising the interest paid on excess reserves, then rates may rise but we don’t know what will happen to the relative quantities of required and excess reserves (and it is the level of required reserves that actually matter for inflation). It is a thorny problem, and one which the markets aren’t giving enough credit regarding the difficulty thereof.
Valuation levels are high across the board (with the exception of commodity indices). They’re doubly high in stocks, with high multiples on earnings that are themselves high with respect to revenues. And yes, this concerns me. I expect more volatility ahead, and perhaps serious volatility. But the fact that I am just saying “perhaps,” when all of my experience and models say “there is no escape without some bad stuff happening,” means that I am being infected – relative to my usual caution – by the general complacency.
In other words, I am worried that I am not worried enough.
The interesting thing is that equity bulls said during the entire march higher that “it doesn’t matter what the fundamentals are, the Fed is pushing the market higher and spreads tighter.” I still don’t believe that was an inevitable outcome to the Fed’s QE, but the fact is that people believed it and they were correct: that was enough to keep the market going higher. I can’t be comfortable going along with the crowd in that circumstance, but in retrospect it would have been better to abandon the models, throw caution to the wind, and ride along with the fun. And perhaps this regret is one reason for my developing complacency.
But that way lies madness, since the problem is not the ride but the getting out when the ride is over. The Fed is no longer providing QE (or, in any event, QE will shortly end altogether). So what’s the excuse now? It seems to me that everyone is still riding on the fun train, and just watching carefully to see if anyone jumps off. I think the market rally is on very tenuous footing, because if faith in the market’s liquidity goes away, the value anchor is very far from these levels. Yet, part of me is skeptical that a market which hasn’t corrected in more than two years can actually return to those value anchors. I should know better, because the bond-market mindset reminds me that market gains are generally linear while market losses are discontinuous, sloppy, and non-linear. Especially, I ought to be thinking, when market liquidity is so poor thanks to the government’s assault on market makers over the last few years.
I keep wondering if there is one more pulse higher in stocks coming, one more decline in commodities before they begin to catch up with money growth and inflation, one more rally in bonds before they begin to discount a higher inflation path. And this is very possible, because while I worry about my own developing complacency most investors are not concerned about their own.
Complacency or no, insurance is cheap. The low current level of implied volatilities in almost every asset class makes portfolio protection worthwhile, even if it costs a bit of performance to acquire that protection.
Is there anything different about the current downturn in stocks, already two whole days old?
It is difficult to get terribly concerned about this latest setback when in one sense it is right on schedule. The modest down-swings have occurred at such regular intervals that the chart of the VIX looks quite a bit like an EKG (see chart, source Bloomberg).
A rise in the VIX to the 19-21 zone happens approximately quarterly, with minor peaks at the same intervals. Eerie, ain’t it?
So is there anything particularly ominous about the current pullback? There is no clear catalyst – I am reading that the selloff is being “led” by tech shares, but the tech-heavy indices look to me as though they have fallen similarly (adjusted for the fact that they have higher vol to begin with. The S&P is down around 3%, and the NDX is down 4.6% over the same period. To be sure, the NDX’s recent peak wasn’t a new high for the year, and it has penetrated the 100-day moving average on the downside, but it doesn’t look unusual to me.
Nor do the economic data look very different to me. The Payrolls number on Friday was in line with expectations, and beat it comfortably when including the upward revisions to the prior two months. The generation of 200k new jobs is not exciting, but it is pretty standard for a normal expansion. My main concern had been that the “hours worked” figure in the employment report had plunged last month, but it rebounded this month and assuaged my concerns (although Q1 growth is probably still going to be low when it is reported later this month, it will be reasonably explained away by the weather).
Two things are different now from previous setbacks, but one is positive and one is negative. They are related, but one is somewhat bullish for the economy and the other is somewhat bearish for risky assets.
We will start with the negative, because it segues nicely into the positive. It is nothing new, of course, to point out that the Fed is tapering, and will be steadily continuing to taper over the next several meetings. Despite the well-orchestrated chorus of “tapering is not tightening,” such Fed action clearly is a “negative loosening” of policy – if you don’t want to call that tightening, then invent a new language, but in English it is tightening.
Now, I never want to short sell the notion that President Clinton taught us all, including market denizens, that if you say something ridiculous often enough, it comes to be regarded as the truth. At times, the market meme clearly has kept the market moving upward even though rational analysis argued for a different outcome. For example, in the early part of the equity bear market that started in 2000, the market meme was that this was a “corporate governance” crisis or a “tech selloff”, when in fact it was a broad-based and deep bear market. In the more-recent credit crisis, it started off as a “subprime” crisis even though it was clearly much more, from the beginning.
So I am loathe to bet about how long markets can run on air before the market meme falters. The challenge, obviously, is being able to distinguish between times when the market meme is correct; when the market meme is incorrect, but harmless; and when the market meme is incorrect, and obfuscating a deeper, more dangerous reality.
“Tapering is not tightening” is one of those thoughts that, while not as serious as “this is a corporate governance problem” or “this is about subprime,” is also clearly mistaken, and possibly dangerous. The reason it might actually be dangerous is because the effect of tightening doesn’t happen because people are thinking about it. Monetary policy doesn’t act primarily through the medium of confidence, any more than gravity does. And, just as gravity is still acting on those aboard the “Vomit Comet,” monetary tightening still acts to diminish liquidity (or, more precisely, the growth rate of liquidity) even when it appears to be doing nothing special at the moment.
The eventual effect of diminished liquidity is to push asset prices lower, and (ironically) also may be to push money velocity higher since velocity is correlated with interest rates.
Now, don’t be overly alarmed, because even as Fed liquidity provision is slowing down there is no sign that transactional money growth is about to slow. Indeed (and here is the positive difference), commercial bank credit has begun to rise again after remaining nearly static for approximately a year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). (As an aside, I corrected the pre-2010 part of this chart to reflect the effect of recategorizations of credit as of March 2010 that caused a jump in the official series).
If you look carefully at this chart, by the way, you will see something curious. Notice that during QE2, as the monetary base rose commercial bank credit stagnated – and then began to rise as soon as the Fed stopped buying Treasuries. It rose steadily during late 2011 and for most of 2012. Then, commercial bank credit began to flatline as soon as the Fed began to buy Treasuries again (recall that QE3 started with mortgages for a few months before the Fed added Treasuries to the purchase order), and began to climb again at just about the same time that the taper began in December.
I don’t have any idea why these two series should be related in this way. I am unsure why expanding the monetary base would “crowd out” commercial bank credit in any way. Perhaps the Fed began QE because they forecast that commercial bank credit would flatline (in QE1, credit was obviously in decline), so the causality runs the other way…although that gives a lot of credit to forecasters who have not exhibited much ability to forecast anything else. But regardless of the reason, the fact that bank credit is expanding again – at an 8% annualized pace over the last quarter, the highest rate since 2008 – is positive for markets.
Of course, an expansion and/or a market rally built on an expansion of credit is not entirely healthy in itself, as to some extent it is borrowing from the future. But if credit can expand moderately, rather than rapidly, then the “gravity” of the situation might be somewhat less dire for markets. Yes, I still believe stocks are overvalued and have been avoiding them in preference to commodities (the DJ-UBS is 7.3% ahead in that race, this year), but we can all hope to avoid a repeat of recent calamities.
The problem with that cheerful conclusion is that it depends so much on the effective prosecution of monetary policy not just from the Federal Reserve but from other monetary policymakers around the world. I will have more to say on that, later this week.
News flash! High-frequency trading (HFT) is happening!
The “60 Minutes” piece on HFT that aired this weekend ensured that now, finally, everyone has heard of HFT. Even “60 Minutes” has now heard of it, four years after the Flash Crash and more than a decade after it began. Apparently the FBI is now suddenly concerned over this “latest blemish.”
Again, this is hardly new. Here is the record of Google search activity of the term “high frequency trading.”
So why is it that, for years, most of the world knew about HFT and yet no one did anything about it?? According to author Michael Lewis, the stock market is rigged! There should be an uproar (at least, there should be if you are selling a book). Why has there been no uproar previously?
To put it simply: this is a crime where it isn’t clear anyone is being hurt, Lewis’s panicky declaration notwithstanding. Except, that is, other high-frequency traders, who have fought over the tiny fractions of a penny so hard that the incidence of HFT is actually in decline. Let’s be clear about what HFT is, because there seems to be some misunderstanding (one commentator I saw summarized it as “the big banks buy the stock and then the retail investor buys it 5%-10% higher.” This would be a problem, if that’s what was happening. But it isn’t. The high frequency traders are playing for fractions of a penny. And the person they are stepping in front of may be your buy order, or it may be the offer you just bought from – if you ever see fills like $20.5999 when the offer was $20.60, then you were injured to the tune of minus 1/100 of a cent per share. The whole notion of HFT is to be in and out of a position in milliseconds, which basically limits expected profits to a fraction of the bid/offer. And when there are lots of high frequency traders crossing signals? Then the bid/offer narrows. That’s not a loss to you – it’s a gain.
High frequency traders aren’t just buying and pushing markets up. They are buying and selling nearly-instantly, scalping fractions of pennies. From all that we know, they have no net effect on prices. Indeed, from all that we know, both the beneficial aspects and the negative aspects remain unproven (see “What Do We Know About High Frequency Trading?” from Charles Jones of the Columbia Business School.
So, if you’re being ripped off, it’s far more likely that you’re being ripped off by commissions than that you’re being ripped off by the robots.
But let’s suppose that the robots do push prices up 5% higher than they would otherwise be. Either that’s the right price to pay…in which case they made the market more efficient by pushing it nearer to fair value…or it’s the wrong price to pay, in which case the only way they win is by selling it to someone who pays too much. If that’s you, then the robots aren’t the problem – you are. Stop giving them a greater fool to sell to, and they will lose money.
Now, this is all good advertising for another concept, which needs to be stated often to individual investors but probably could be said in a nicer way than “you’re getting ripped off by robots”: yes, the market is full of very, very smart people. And yet, on average returns cannot be above-average! This means that if you don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA and you buy it anyway, then you can be sure you will still own it, or be still buying it, when the smart guys decide it is time to sell it to you. They don’t have to have inside information to beat you – they just have to know more than you about the company, about valuations, about how it should be valued, and so on. This is why I very rarely buy individual equities. I am an expert in some things, but I don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA. I am the sucker at that table.
Long-time readers will know that I am no apologist for Wall Street. I spent plenty of time on that side of the phone, and I have seen the warts even though I also know that there are lots of good, honest people in the business. The biggest problems with Wall Street are (a) those good, honest people aren’t always fully competent, (b) the big banks are too big, so that when you get weak competence and very weak oversight combined with occasional dishonesty, there can be serious damage done, (c) there is not a strong enough culture at many firms of “client first;” although that doesn’t mean the culture is “me first,” it means the client’s needs sometimes are forgotten, and finally (d) the Street is not particularly creative when it comes to new product development.
And I don’t really like the algo traders and the movement of the business to have more robots in charge. But look, this trend (not necessarily HFT but automated trading) is what you get when you start regulating the heck out of the humans. Which do you want? Kill the robots, and you need more of those dastardly humans. Remove the humans, and those lightning-quick robots might trade in front of you. Choose. In both cases, you will be victimized less if you (a) trade large and liquid indices, not individual equities, and (b) trade infrequently.
The far bigger problem in my mind is the opacity, still, of bond trading and the very large bid/offer spreads that retail investors pay to buy or sell ordinary Treasury bonds that trade in large size – often billions – on tiny fractions of 1% of price. Think of it: in equities, with or without HFT you will get a better price for a 100-lot than for a 1,000,000-lot. But in bonds, you will get a vastly better price for a billion than for a thousand. Now that is where a retail investor should get angry.
This isn’t the first time that stocks have corrected, even if it is the first time that they have corrected by as much as 4% in a long while. I point out that rather obvious fact because I want to be cautious not to suggest that equities are guaranteed to continue lower for a while. Yes, I have noted often that the market is overvalued and in December put the 10-year expected real return for stocks at only 1.54%. Earlier in that month, I pointed out and remarked on Hussman’s observation that the methods of Didier Sornette suggested a market “singularity” between mid-December and January. And, earlier this month, I followed up earlier statements in which I said I would be negative on stocks when momentum turned and added that I would sell new lows below the lows of the week of January 17th.
But none of that is a forecast of an imminent decline of appreciable magnitude, and I want to be clear of that. The high levels of valuation make any decline potentially dangerous since the levels that will attract serious value investors are so far away. But that is not tantamount to forecasting a waterfall decline, which I have not done and will not do. How does one forecast animal spirits? And that is exactly what a waterfall decline is all about. Yes, there may be precipitating events, but these are rarely known in prospect. Sure, stocks fell sharply after Bear Stearns in the summer of 2007 liquidated two mortgage-backed funds, but stocks reached new highs in October 2007. What happened in mid-October 2007 to trigger the top? Here is a crisis timeline assembled by the St. Louis Fed. There is basically nothing in October 2007. Similarly, as Bob Shiller has documented, at the time of the 1987 crash there was no talk whatsoever about portfolio insurance. The explanation came later. How about March 2000, the high on the Nasdaq (although the S&P 500 didn’t top until September)?
What two of these episodes – 2000 and 2007 – have in common is that valuations were stretched, but I think it’s important to note that there was no obvious precipitating factor at the time. It wasn’t until well into the stock market debacle in 2007-08 that it became obvious (even to Bernanke!) that the subprime crisis wasn’t just a subprime crisis.
Here is my message, then: when you hear shots fired, it isn’t the best idea to wait around to figure out why people are shooting before you put your head down. Because as the saying goes: if the enemy is in range, so are you.
And, although it may not end up being a full-fledged firefight, shots are being fired, mere days before Janet Yellen takes the helm of the Fed officially (which may be ominous since Fed Chairmen are traditionally tested by markets early in their tenure). Last night, Turkey was forced to crank up money rates by about 450bps, depending which rate you look at. When Argentina was having currency issues, it wasn’t surprising – when you have runaway inflation, even if you declare inflation to be something else, the currency generally gets hit eventually. And Russia’s central bank was established only in 1990. But Turkey, about 65% larger in GDP terms than Argentina, is relatively modern economically and has a central bank that was established in the 1930s and has been learning lessons basically in parallel with our Fed since the early 1980s. Heck, it’s almost a member of the EU. So when that central bank starts cranking up rates to defend the currency, I take note. It may well mean nothing, but since global economics has been somewhat dull for the last year or so (and that’s a good thing), it stands out as something different.
What was not different today was the Fed’s statement, compared to its prior statement. The FOMC decided to continue the taper, down to “only” $65bln in purchases monthly now. This was never really in question. It would have been incredibly shocking if the Fed had paused tapering because of a mild ripple in global equity markets. The only real surprise was actually on the hawkish side, as Minnesota Fed President Kocherlakota did not dissent in favor of maintaining unchanged (or increased) stimulus – something he has been agitating for recently. Don’t get too used to the Fed being on the hawkish side of expectations, however. As noted above, Dr. Yellen takes the helm starting next week.
The Treasury held its first auction of floating rate notes (FRNs) today, and the auction was highly successful. And why should they not be? They are T-bill credits that reset to the T-bill rate quarterly, plus 4.5bps. In the next few days I will post an article explaining, however, why floating rate notes don’t provide “inflation protection;” there has been a lot of misinformation about that point, and while I explained why this isn’t true in a post from May 2012 when the concept of the FRN program was first mooted, it is worth reiterating in more detail.
So we now have a new class of securities. Why? What constituency was not being sufficiently served by the existing roster of 1-month, 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year TBills, and 2 year notes?
I will ask another “why” question. Why is the President proposing the “myRA” program, which is essentially a way to push savings bonds (the basics of the program is that if you sign up and meet certain income requirements, the government will give you the splendid opportunity to put your money in an account that returns a low, guaranteed rate of interest). This is absolutely nothing new. You can already set up an account with http://www.TreasuryDirect.gov and have your employer make a payroll direct deposit to that account. And there’s no income maximum, and no requirement to ever roll it into an IRA. Yes, it’s true – with Treasury Direct, you will have to pay federal taxes on the interest, but the target audience for the myRA program is not likely to be paying much in the way of taxes so that’s pretty small beer.
The answer to the “why” in both cases is that the Treasury, noticing that one regular trillion-dollar buyer of its debt is leaving the trough, is looking rather urgently for new buyers. FRNs, and a new way to push Treasuries on middle-class America.
Interest rates have declined since year-end, partly because equities have been weak, partly because some growth indicators have been weak recently, and partly because the carry on long Treasury securities is positively terrific. But the Treasury is advertising fairly loudly that they are concerned about whether they’ll be able to raise enough money, at “reasonable” rates, through conventional auctions. Both of these “innovations” cause interest payments to be pegged at the very short end of the curve, where the Fed has pledged to control interest rates for now, but I think interest rates will rise eventually.
Probably not, however, while the bullets fly.
 In a note to Natixis clients on December 4th, 2007, entitled “Tragedy of the Commons,” I commented that “M2 has grown only at a 4.4% annual rate over the last 13 weeks, and that’s egregiously too little considering the credit mess (not just subprime, as I am sure my readers are aware, but Alt-A and Prime mortgages, auto loans and credit cards too),” but the idea that the crisis was broader than subprime wasn’t the general consensus at the time by any means. Incidentally, in that same article I said “We have not entered a recession with core inflation this low in many decades, and this recession looks to be a doozy. I believe that by late 2008 we will be confronting the possibility of deflation once again. And, as in the last episode, the Fed will face a stark choice: if short rates don’t get to zero before inflation gets to zero, the Fed loses as they will never be able to get short rates negative,” which I mention since some people think I have always been bullish on inflation.
 I wonder how the money is treated for purposes of the debt ceiling. If the Treasury is no longer able to issue debt, then surely it won’t be able to do what amounts to issuing debt in the “myRA” program? So if they hit the debt ceiling, does interest on the account go to zero?
Tomorrow’s Employment Report offers something it hasn’t offered in a very long time: the chance to actually influence the course of monetary policy, and therefore markets.
Now that the taper has started, its continuation and/or acceleration is very “data dependent.” While many members of the FOMC are expecting for the taper to be completely finished by the middle of this year (according to the minutes released yesterday), investors understand that view is contingent on continued growth and improvement. This is the first Payrolls number in a very long time that could plausibly influence ones’ view of the likely near-term course of policy.
I don’t think that, in general, investors should pay much attention to this report in December or in January. There is far too much noise, and the seasonal adjustments are much larger than the net underlying change in jobs. Accordingly, your opinion of whether the number is “high” or “low” is really an opinion about whether the seasonal adjustment factors were “low” or “high.” Yes, there is a science to this but what we also know from science is that the rejection of a null hypothesis gets very difficult as the standard deviation around the supposed mean increases. And, for this number and next months’ number, the standard deviation is very high.
That will not prevent markets from trading on the basis of whatever number is reported by the BLS tomorrow. Especially in fixed-income, a figure away from consensus (197k on Payrolls, 7.0% on the Unemployment Rate will likely provoke a big trade. On a strong figure, especially coupled with a decline in the Unemployment Rate below 7%, you can expect bonds to take an absolute hiding. And, although it’s less clear with equities because of the lingering positive momentum from December, I’d expect the same for stocks – a strong number implies the possibility of a quicker taper, less liquidity, and for some investors that will be sufficient sign that it’s time to head for the hills.
I think a “weak” number will help fixed-income, and probably quite a lot, but I am less sure how positive it will be for the equity market.
In any event, welcome back to volatility.
Meanwhile, with commodities in full flight, inflation breakevens are shooting higher. Some of this is merely seasonal – over the last 10 years, January has easily been the best month for breakevens with increases in the 10-year breakeven in 7 of the 10 years with an overall average gain of 15bps – and some of it is due to the reduction of bad carry as December and January roll away, making TIPS relatively more attractive. Ten-year breakevens have risen about 18bps over the last month, which is not inconsistent with the size of those two effects. Still, as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, 10-year breakevens are back to the highest level since before the summer shellacking.
Indeed, according to a private metric we follow, TIPS are now back almost to fair value (they only very rarely get absolutely rich) compared to nominal bonds. This means that the benefit from being long breakevens at this level solely consists of the value that comes from the market’s mis-evaluating the likelihood of increasing inflation rather than decreasing inflation – that is, a speculation – and no longer gets a “following wind” from the fact that TIPS themselves were cheap outright. I still prefer TIPS to nominal Treasuries, but that’s because I think inflation metrics will increase from here and, along with those metrics, interest in inflation products will recover and push breakevens higher again.
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.