Awareness of Inflation, But No Fear Yet

June 24, 2014 1 comment

Suddenly, there is a bunch of talk about inflation. From analysts like Grant Williams to media outlets like MarketWatch  and the Wall Street Journal (to be sure, the financial media still tell us not to worry about inflation and keep on buying ‘dem stocks, such as Barron’s argues here), and even Wall Street economists like those from Soc Gen and Deutsche Bank…just two name two of many Johnny-come-latelys.

It is a little surprising how rapidly the articles about possibly higher inflation started showing up in the media after we had a bottoming in the core measures. Sure, it was easy to project the bottoming in those core measures if you were paying attention to the base effects and noticing that the measures of central tendency that are more immune to those base effects never decelerated much (see median CPI), but still somehow a lot of people were taken by surprise if the uptick in media stories is any indication.

I actually have an offbeat read of that phenomenon, though. I think that many of these analysts, media outlets, and economists just want to have some record of being on the inflation story at a time they consider early. Interestingly enough, while there is no doubt that the volume of inflation coverage is up in the days since the CPI report, there is still no general alarm. The chart below from Google Trends shows the relative trend in the search term “rising inflation.” It has shown absolutely nothing since the early days of extraordinary central bank intervention.

risinginflationsearch

Now, I don’t really care very much when the fear of inflation broadens. It is the phenomenon of inflation, not the fear of it, which causes the most damage to society. However, there is no doubt that the fear of inflation definitely could cause damage to markets much sooner than inflation itself can. The concern has been rising in narrow pockets of the markets where inflation itself is actually traded, but because we trade headline inflation the information has been obscured. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows the 1-year headline inflation swap, in black, which has risen from about 1.4% to 2.2% since November. But the green line shows the implied core inflation extracted from those swap quotes, and that line has risen from 1.2% in December to 2.6% or so now. That is far more significant – 2.6% core inflation over the next year would mean core PCE would exceed 2% by next spring. This is a very reasonable expectation, but as I said it is still only a narrow part of the market that is willing to bet that way.

coresincedec

If I was long equities – which I am not, as our four-asset-class model currently has only a 7.4% weight in stocks – then I would keep an eye on the search terms and for other anecdotal evidence that inflation fears are starting to actually rise among investors, rather than just being the probably-cynical musings of people who don’t want to be seen as having missed the signs (even if they don’t really believe it).

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.”

Core and Median CPI Converging

As expected, and as I’ve been saying for a long time, (a) median inflation is rising and now is at 2.3% y/y, the highest level since 2009, and (b) core inflation is converging to median inflation as the one-off effects of the sequester on Medicare payments is removed from the data.

coremedBoth will continue to move higher, with Core chasing Median until they are basically right atop each other again.

Categories: CPI, Quick One

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

June 17, 2014 7 comments

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

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

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

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

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

corefromcrude

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

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

The Dollar and Commodities – Just Friends

June 11, 2014 4 comments

The recent, aggressive ECB ease, combined with some mild Fed growls about increasing rates “at some point,” ought to be good news for the dollar against the Euro. And so it has been, although as you see in this weekly chart (source: Bloomberg) the weakening of the Euro has been (a) mild and (b) started more than a month before the ECB actually took action. (Note that the units here are dollars per Euro).

eur

Even though the ECB did considerably more than expected, much of that was in the form of a promise; until the body takes concrete steps towards implementing some of the new QE forms, the decline in the Euro is likely to be relatively slow and steady. Similarly, although the Yen has stopped weakening in 2014, I expect that trend has further to go as long as the Bank of Japan doesn’t lose its nerve with easing. In any event, both of those central banks seem at the moment to be more dovish than the Fed, which augurs for dollar strength.

Is that bad for commodities? The conventional wisdom is that since many commodities trade in dollars, a strong dollar implies weak commodities and vice versa.

There is some support for this view. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows weekly levels of the dollar index versus the DJ-UBS index, going back to 1996 or so. The correlation is okay, at -0.725.

dollarcommod

Note, though, that this is a correlation of levels. If you look at a correlation of changes, which is what you would need to use dollar movements as a trading model for commodities, it is effectively zero. (These two series aren’t lovers, moving together always, but just friends coming together to the same place from time to time). Moreover, the regression of levels says that commodities are currently 15% or so cheap – the red smudge on the chart shows the current levels (yet another way that commodities appear to be cheap). Finally, the beta is quite low: if the dollar index rose 20%, it would correlate with roughly a 20% decline in commodities…if commodities preserved the same level of cheapness. To be sure, that is a sizeable drop but a 20% rise in the dollar would put it at levels not seen in more than a decade.

In any event, be careful not to confuse the nominal dollar price of commodities with the real price (I’ve made this argument from time to time in many contexts – see for example here, here, and here). Although changing the value of the dollar will diminish the price of commodities in dollars relative to what they would otherwise would be, if the global price level rises then the price of commodities will rise with it – they just may rise less than they otherwise would. And, since commodities typically experience their highest inflation “beta” at the beginning of an increase in inflation, it is reasonable to expect that commodities’ rise will be enough to cause any dollar-inspired softness to be completely obscured.

You still want to be long commodities if we are in an inflationary upswing, regardless of what the Fed does. And, needless to say, I am somewhat skeptical that the Fed will do anything particularly aggressive on the tightening side!

They Came to Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECBdepo

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

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

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

europlusus

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

euroinfl10

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


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

Growling Dogs Sometimes Bite

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

No kidding?

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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