Writing from the Netherlands after visiting future clients this week; here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets (Follow me @inflation_guy) :
- very surprising core inflation, barely rounded up to 0.1% month/month. Waiting for breakdown, but Shelter was still +0.1% so something odd.
- Core CPI ex-shelter only 1.39%, not terribly far from the 2010 lows.
- …part of the answer is that core commodities decelerated further, -0.1% y/y. But core services, most of which is housing, ALSO decel.
- Major groups; Accel: Food/Bev (15.3%); Decel: Apparel, Transp, Medical Care, Educ/Comm (34.3%). Balance unch on y/y rate rounded to tenths.
- Housing actually accelerated slightly. So decline in core was apparel, Medical Care, Education, and non-fuel transportation. Hmmm.
- …If you believe core is going to keep falling, you DON’T want to bet on it being led lower by Medical Care and Education.
- We expect this to be the low print on core. Our forecast remains 2.6%-3.0% for 2013, but only 0.6% has been realized so far
- It wd probably be prudent to lower our 4cast range; we will if there is another miss lower in May. But not by much: housing still the driver
I think the sixth bullet is the key point: core inflation is drooping because of Medical Care and Education & Communication decelerating. This is terrific news, but there’s about forty years of history that should lead one to be skeptical that these are the categories that will lead inflation lower.
Our forecast for 2.6%-3.0% is based on an expected acceleration in rents, based on the recent rise in home prices. We’re not changing that forecast yet because our model didn’t expect the acceleration to happen yet. However, it should begin to happen in the next 1-3 months.
If primary and Owners’ Equivalent rents don’t begin to accelerate in the next month or two, we will lower our 2013 forecast simply because it will be difficult to see a sufficient acceleration to reach our goal with only a half year or so to go. But the reason we don’t lower our forecast much is that the primary driver here is still rents, and there is no question which way rent inflation is headed. Only if we conclude that for some strange reason there is going to be a permanent shift in the capitalization rate of owner-occupied housing (that is, if there is a permanent shift in the ratio of rents to prices from what it has historically been) would we reconsider the direction of our forecast, and then only if home prices stopped launching higher.
Meanwhile, weak growth numbers, soft inflation numbers, and the seeming success of the Abe program in Japan as growth there has abruptly surprised higher (although it cannot be attributable to the BOJ monetization, since that program hasn’t been around long enough to affect the real economy even if there is money illusion at work) ought to cause any silly talk about the “taper” of the Fed’s buying program. That was always due for enormous skepticism, but with all of the arrows pointing the wrong way there is almost no chance that the FOMC will elect to taper purchases in the next few months. Indeed, I would expect the “hints” of such action to cease in short order. The only reason to talk about it is to (a) convince the world that Fed policy is credible, but a ruling on that credibility won’t be made until the episode is over, based on results, not at this time and based on what they say; or (b) because there is little cost of doing so, since the markets won’t panic if there’s no chance of near-term implementation.
Imagine an island on which magic trees grow. These trees, as it turns out, are exactly like the trees everywhere else, except for three things. First, these trees never die. Second, the trees always grow to exactly 100 feet tall eventually. And third, to pass time on this boring island the villagers place bets on which specific trees in a given acre of land (on which all trees were planted at the same time) will grow the fastest over the next ten years.
Right after an acre is planted, there is much activity that can only be termed purely speculative. Without any obvious difference in the first shoots, the villagers place their bets based on which of the tree-market brokers tells the best story about a particular tree. These brokers do tend to change their minds frequently, however, so it turns out that there is rapid trading.
After a few years, some trees have clearly started to grow faster than other trees. Villagers tend to invest more on these trees that have “momentum.” And this trend continues, because the further in the lead a given tree is over its rivals, the more momentum it clearly has. There is, however, a class of investors who like to invest in the smaller trees, since the bet is on the rate of growth over time, and these investors think that the smaller trees are likely to revert to the mean (indeed, because all of these magic trees end up at the same height, they are correct on average).
The villagers who “own” the taller trees are generally happy, since their trees are “in the lead.” They don’t much care for the villagers who “own” the smaller trees, because they think these folk are just negative ninnies. The value-villagers are fairly confident, though, because they understand the math; and many of them are dismissive of the momentum-villagers and call them “lemmings.”
The odd thing is that both of these “investors” have their time in the sun. Early on in a tree’s growth pattern, the ones quickly out of the gate do tend to grow more rapidly. Consequently, momentum is a viable strategy. But the bigger the lead gets for these trees, the worse the bet becomes that the rate of growth will continue. Once the tree reaches 99 feet, for example, there are not many ways that it can beat a 20-foot tree going forward (remember – all of these magic trees always grow to be exactly 100 feet in time). And yet, the momentum-villagers remain true to their investment style, saying “the 20-foot tree must just be sick. And it can’t get as much sun because the 99-foot tree is shading it. The 99-foot tree may only grow 1 foot over the next ten years, but the 20-foot tree might not grow at all.” And, after all, it is fun to have your bet on the biggest tree in the forest. However, the value-villagers almost always win that bet.
This allegory isn’t really about growth versus value in equity investing. It is about asset class performance and, more specifically, the performance of equities versus commodities. There is a significant amount of history to suggest that over long periods of time, the average growth rate of equities and the average growth rate of commodity indices is approximately equal. This happens because the basic sources of both asset classes are fairly steady: aggregate economic growth, in the case of equities, and collateral return plus rebalancing effect, plus some other smaller sources of return, in commodities. So regardless of what you think about equities or commodities, in general when equities are dramatically outperforming commodities, you should be selling them to buy commodities, and vice-versa. But that isn’t how most investors bet. Most investors make up a story about why the tree is stunted, and will never grow, will never catch up, and then turn to bet on the tall tree.
It is a mistake.
It is a mistake, though, that the Street actively encourages because where the broker makes his money is on frenzy. Rallying markets tend to produce more volume and excitement, and that means more money for the broker. This is especially true when the market is equities, since there isn’t much underwriting of commodities to be done but there is quite a lot of underwriting of new equity issues.
Frankly, this over-exuberant cheerleading sometimes results in lies being disseminated to investors. Consider the following snapshot of a Bloomberg page describing the characteristics, including the P/E ratio, of the Russell 2000 index. You will see it says the Price/Earnings ratio is about 18.41. We all know that means that if you pay $18.41, you will get a set of stocks that will have $1 in earnings, collectively. Right?
Well, the following chart is also from Bloomberg, and you get it if you type RTY<Index>FA<GO>. What it says is that the Price/Earnings Ratio is actually 54.86, which means that your $18.41 actually only gets you $0.33 of earnings! What’s going on here? Well, the next line shows you that what Bloomberg considers the “real” P/E ratio – important enough to have on the front page – is really the Price/Earnings ratio if we only count the positive earnings.
So, that $18.41 does in fact get us $1 in earnings. Wall Street doesn’t want us to focus on the fact that it also gets us $0.67 in losses, so that the net is only $0.33. Because surely, those losses were one-time events, and obviously all 2000 companies will make money next year, right?
It may be that stocks are a great bargain here, and that multiples will expand further, the economy will surge in a way we haven’t seen in a decade or two, in an environment of tame inflation but ample liquidity. If that is the case, then equity investors will win over the next five years because they’re betting on the trees that have grown the most in the last two years. But in all other cases, commodity indices should grow faster than stocks as both revert to their long-term growth rates.
With little economic data on the calendar, and the Fed speakers back-loaded at the Chicago Fed conference later in the week, there is time to reflect on other questions (unless, of course, the Israel/Syria back-and-forth turns into something more than the last couple of jabs have produced).
It is interesting to me that analysts and journalists truly enjoy finding comparisons between present situations and actors, except when the comparisons suggest unpleasant conclusions. This is at a time when there are really no comparable periods in history to compare to, at least with respect to major global policy initiatives!
I read comparisons between Shinzo Abe’s pressure on the Bank of Japan and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s campaign to resurrect the American economy with ever-greater monetary policy shocks. Somewhere, I saw an analyst ask “isn’t Abe taking note of the failure of U.S. monetary policy to goose the economy?” But the comparison is not apt because the two men, and the two economies, face very different challenges. Abe doesn’t need to increase consumer spending and reinvigorate the economy with monetary policy. While that might be nice, the main goal of Japanese monetary policy now is to raise the price level and the rate of inflation. They are using exactly the right tool to do so: lots of monetary easing. On the other hand, Bernanke is trying to kick-start the real economy with a monetary tool, while at least in principle avoiding an inflationary outcome. That’s like trying to hammer a nail with a fish. It might work, but it’s the wrong tool for the job. So the comparison doesn’t work: one man knows how to use his tools, the other does not.
Here is another useless comparison: “Bond Buyers See No 1994 as Bernanke Clarity Tops Greenspan.” The myth that transparency really helps markets in the long run is sort of silly: is there any sign that the crises caused by monetary policy have become less frequent since the Greenspan glasnost than they were before? I know that’s the belief, because the Fed has told us that’s the way it is. But my scorecard tells a sorry tale of bubbles and crashes since the early 1990s. It isn’t a lack of transparency that causes routs. It’s leverage, and negative gamma. Mortgage hedgers are more active now than they were in 1994, and they have larger books. Hedge funds are orders of magnitude larger. And Wall Street is smaller, and is able to provide less liquidity – partly because they are more levered (which they think is okay because of “Fed transparency”), and partly because the government doesn’t want them to take bets with the leverage they have (which, since they’re paying for failures under the current system, isn’t wholly absurd).
So will the next bond selloff not be as bad as in 1994, because the Fed will give more warning? Remember that no matter how transparent the Fed is, there is still a transition point. Somehow, the market goes from a state of thinking there will be no tightening of policy, to a state of thinking that there will be a tightening of policy. That requires a re-pricing, whether it occurs because the Fed signaled it in a speech or a statement, or because they signaled it by doing Matched Sales for the SOMA account with Fed funds already trading above target (as was the old way of telling us something had changed). There is no way to go from “not knowing” to “knowing” without a moment of realization. And when that phase change ultimately occurs, the greater leverage inherent in the market and the diminished role of market makers will cause the selloff (in my view) to very likely be more dramatic than in 1994.
One place where we cannot prevent comparisons – nor should we want to – is in the asset markets. Stocks are doing well, despite absurd valuations, because most other markets are either more-absurdly valued (e.g., Treasury bonds) or have horrible momentum that means they’re not popular right now (e.g., commodities). I have no doubt that equity performance over the next 10 years will be very uninspiring, because equity markets that start from this level of valuation never produce inspiring returns. But when people ask me what the trigger will be for a selloff, I have to shrug. There have been plenty of “reasons” for that to happen. But I think the ultimate reason is probably this: equities are perceived as the “only game in town.” I have read several articles recently that echo this one: “Bond Fund Managers are Loading Up on Stocks.” When there is some other asset class, or some other world market, that starts doing appreciably better, perhaps investors will decide to allocate away. Unfortunately, the candidates for that market are pretty few, given the general level of valuations. Could it be commodities, which is one of the few genuinely cheap markets? Or perhaps real estate, which is still only fair value but has some pretty striking momentum? I don’t know – but I am also not sitting around waiting for a “trigger event.” There may well be a selloff without such a trigger.
- upward surprise + upward revision in #Payrolls – not too shocking, as I pointed out in last article. Weak hours though…
- Here is part of what’s happening in #payrolls: more jobs, fewer hours = employers cutting back hours to avoid Obamacare coverage
- Question is, which is better for confidence? More jobs, lower earnings & wages, or fewer, but better, jobs? Probably the former.
- average weekly hours have stagnated since 2011, even as Unemployment has fallen.
Today’s Employment report was pretty straightforward: an upward surprise to payrolls and upward revisions; a decline in the Unemployment Rate, and declines in hours worked. The upward revisions to Payrolls is not really a surprise, although seeing the Unemployment Rate continue to decline when Consumer Confidence “Jobs Hard to Get” is increasing is unusual.
Two years ago, the “Average Hours Worked” was 34.4 hours and the Unemployment Rate was 9.0%. Today, average hours worked is still 34.4 hours and the Unemployment Rate is 7.5%.
What I said about Obamacare coverage should be expanded a bit. There have been anecdotal reports (see, e.g., here and here) that many employers are cutting back hours for some employees, because they are required to offer health insurance (at steep premium increases) to part-time employees working at least 30 hours per week. The incentives are large, especially for employers who are near the 50 employee cutoff, to cut back employee hours. The way this would show up in the data, if the behavior was widespread, would be (a) a decline in average hours, as more people work shorter shifts, and (b) potentially (but not automatically) an increase in the number employed, since an employer who cuts 100 hours of work from existing employees is now 10 hours short of the labor input needed. I suspect this is only partly the case – if you cut 100 hours, maybe you add three 25-hour part-timers (it still costs money to hire, after all) – but it may help explain why the payrolls number keeps rising and the jobless number keeps falling although the average hours worked is pretty stagnant.
It would also help resolve the conundrum between the “Jobs Hard to Get” survey result and the Unemployment Rate, although it is a small divergence at present. If respondents are answering the survey as if the question is whether good or full-time jobs are hard to get, it may well be the case that those jobs are getting more difficult to find while there are more part-time positions being offered.
This is mere speculation, and storytelling, but I think it’s plausible that this is happening and may be affecting the data.
There has been a bunch of new data over the last couple of days, but I am afraid that all of the new stuff will not keep me from sounding like a broken record.
Consumer Confidence jumped yesterday, but more interesting is the fact that the “Jobs Hard to Get” subindex rose to the highest level since late last year, suggesting that weak jobs data isn’t entirely a one-off. Today, the ADP report was weaker-than-expected, at 119k (versus expectations for 150k) and a downward revision to last month. The Chicago Purchasing Managers’ Index on Tuesday was the weakest since 2009, but the ISM Manufacturing report today was on-target. Still, neither manufacturing index is generating much confidence that the economy is about to take off, and the early-year bump has been entirely reversed (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The Shiller Home Price Index, reported on Tuesday, was higher-than-expected at 9.3% year-on-year, rather than the 9.0% expected (and versus an 8.1% last!). What’s really interesting about this is that the recent surge in year-on-year growth has come because the usual seasonal pattern that sees prices sag in the springtime hasn’t been in evidence this year – accordingly, the year-on-year comparisons have gotten easier as prices have gone sideways rather than falling as they tend to do between August and March (see chart, source Bloomberg).
That’s interesting because such a phenomenon was also a condition of the bubble years prior to 2007 – prices generally rose steadily with only a hint of seasonality. Post-bubble, if you wanted to sell your house in February you had to offer a concession on price. Those concessions aren’t happening any more, which is a back-door confirmation of the overall price action.
As I have said before, ad nauseum, we are seeing slow and/or falling growth and firm and/or rising inflation in the pipeline, and that’s not at all inconsistent. Mainstream economists, and journalists of all stripes, seem to accept as a fundamental verity the linkage between growth and inflation, but the only minor problem with this firmly-held belief is that it ain’t so. Growth is bad, and inflation is still going to go up. In Q1, core CPI rose at a 2.1% pace, and I still think that for the full year core CPI will rise at 2.6%-3.0%.
I want to add a quick word here about a thesis that has been advanced recently. The thought is that if the abrupt housing demand is coming from investors rather than consumers, then rising housing prices might be consistent with pressure on rents. I think it’s important to clear up this confusion. Microeconomics tells us that when the price of a good goes up, the price of a substitute tends to rise as well. It is possible, if the overall price level is flat, that a phenomenon such as is described in this hypothetical could happen, with home prices rising and rents falling. But what is much more likely is that rents simply go up more slowly than home prices, so that they decline relative to home prices, rather than declining absolutely. This is, in fact, what we see historically: large increases in home prices tend to lead to increases in rents, but not of the same magnitude, and vice-versa. Whether the mechanism for this is a systematic institutional investor presence or just a large number of one-off instances of individuals renting out their second “investment” homes doesn’t really matter. Accordingly, I don’t expect to see a drastically different course carved out by the rental/home price relationship from what it has been historically. The main difference may be that the lags between home prices, inventories, rents, and so on might get screwed up somewhat, if institutional investors cause this to happen in a more organized way than the organic way in which it usually happens.
Another aside: there has also been a lot made recently, especially in commodity markets, about weak data from China. It is amazing how important it is to global commodity markets that China grows at 9% and not 8%. If I were a member of Chinese leadership, I would be trying to convince my data bureau to release slightly weak figures, since every time it does the hedge funds of the world offer large amounts of commodities as discount prices, which is just what a growing economy needs. It’s not like anyone believes the figures when they are reported to be high; I wonder why we believe it when they are reported to be low?
In addition to the data today, the Federal Reserve finished its meeting and announced no change in monetary policy for now. And there isn’t one coming for a while, either. There was no important change in the statement, although the Fed did take care to remind us that it “is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes.” [emphasis added] That’s comforting. But the simple fact is that the economy isn’t going to be booming any time soon, and the Committee isn’t going to taper its purchases unless it does because they labor under the delusion that they’re helping. Perhaps next year.
For the rest of the week, investors will be focused on Friday’s Employment Report. I am not really worried about the report being weaker-than-expected, because from everything I read it seems that the market is already anticipating something close to Armageddon (or at least, that’s how they are explaining the continued pressure on breakevens and commodities). So far, this is a routine slowdown that might be slipping into a renewed recession. Meanwhile, expectations on Friday are for Payrolls of 145k, up from 88k but down from the pace of the last year. And the ‘whisper’ number seems to be lower than that. I suspect the more likely surprise is that there is an upward revision to the 88k and the number exceeds estimates. Somehow, that will be also perceived as a negative for breakevens!
TIPS suffered today, even as nominal bonds rallied. Our Fisher yield decomposition model currently suggests that TIPS are as cheap, relative to nominals, as they have been since early September last year (when 10-year breakevens were at the same level they are at now). I am quite bullish on breakevens from here.
The core PCE deflator for March recorded a near-record 1.1%. Should we worry that deflation is taking hold?
Well, first of all you should recognize that the PCE, unlike the CPI, is frequently revised and by significant amounts. As the chart below shows, this is only a near-record because there was a massive revision that raised the 2010 low from 0.7% or so to 1.1%. We should be wary, in my opinion, to draw any strong conclusions from (and certainly wary of implementing policy based on) a data series that can have the rate of change revised by 60%.
But still, core PCE is near its lows while core CPI is not. Should we be concerned about deflation? Should the Fed?
There are a number of reasons for the difference. A persistent difference of about 0.25%-0.5% is consistent with differences in the type of formula used and other “normal” differences. The Fed favors the PCE because it has a broader representation of the economy – in that it doesn’t focus “just” on consumers – and because it adjusts more quickly as the composition of spending changes. However, if you are looking at how the costs to you the consumer change, the CPI is the index that you should be looking at.
The main reason that core PCE is currently so much lower than core CPI is that PCE has a much lower weight on housing. And, thanks to the Fed’s loose money policy, it is housing that is driving the CPI higher. The difference in housing weights currently adds 0.31% to CPI compared to PCE. The PCE makes up for this low weight in housing by having a much higher weight on medical care (about three times the CPI weight). Why the huge difference in the medical care weight?
The CPI and PCE metrics are meant to measure different things – the PCE is broader, but the CPI measures specifically expenditures by consumers. Consequently, the difference in medical care weights occurs because the CPI measures spending by consumers, while the PCE includes spending by Medicare, Medicaid, other government entities, the employer portion of health insurance, and other non-consumer payers. Which do you think is more relevant for consumers? And which do you think is a better representation of what a typical consumer spends: 42% on housing and 6% on medical care, or 26% on housing and 22% on medical care? In simple terms, do you spend more for your house, or do you spend about equal amounts on both? I suspect that for most Americans, especially those who are employed and those who are currently receiving Medicare, spending on housing is vastly higher than direct spending on medical care.
Isn’t it convenient for the Fed that right now, they can focus on a metric that is pointedly underweighting the category of expenditure that is most directly being affected by quantitative easing? This is one reason that I do not expect QE to stop any time this year.
I wonder how quickly all of the calls of “deflation!” will turn into calls of “hyperinflation!”
After gold was pummeled $200 in two days on April 12th and 15th, there was a proliferation of commentators who suddenly declared that inflation fears were in full flight. Although the decline in inflation swaps to that point was mainly attributable to the decline in energy prices (subsequently, some air has indeed come out of implied core inflation, but still there is no deceleration in inflation, much less deflation, priced in), the chorus of “I told you so’s” was deafening and many were encouraging Chairman Bernanke and other central bankers to take a victory lap. After the disastrous 5-year TIPS auction on April 18th I could almost hear Darth Vader saying “strike down the 5-year breakeven and the journey to a deflationary mindset will be complete.”
Well, not so fast. Since that point, gold has recovered about $100 in rallying six out of the last eight sessions. The 5-year breakeven has recovered from 1.94% to 2.15% (although to be fair about half of that was due to the roll). The 10-year breakeven also bounced 14bps, and is back above 2.40%. Today, every commodity in the DJ-UBS index, with the exception of Coffee, rallied.
Why? What has changed over the last week and a half? Nothing important; if anything, the data has been weaker than the data preceding the washout. And that fact, I continue to think, is a fact the salience of which remains ungrasped by central bankers. Unless it’s by sheer coincidence, global growth simply isn’t going to explode upward while incentive structures are so bad and governments consume such a large part of the economy. And as long as growth doesn’t explode higher, central banks will keep easing, because – despite almost five years of contrary evidence – they think it helps growth. I believe the only way that global QE stops is if central banks come to understand that they aren’t doing any good on growth, and are doing much harm on inflation, though with a lag.
I am not terribly optimistic that such a eureka moment is nigh, especially when the economics community is so subject to confirmation bias that a technical washout in gold can provoke hosannas.
An April 12 article in the Washington Post highlighted recent research that indicates a one-percentage point increase in unemployment makes us feel four times as bad as a one-percentage point increase in inflation. This is not particularly surprising, at some level, although I greatly suspect that the results are non-linear – but I am not shocked that it feels worse to see people lose their jobs (or to lose one’s own job) than to absorb slightly higher price increases.
But the article goes on to argue that “Such findings could have significant implications for monetary policy, which until the most recent recession has primarily been concerned with controlling inflation. But now some central banks are speaking of allowing inflation to rise or stay slightly above their usual targets in hopes of bringing down unemployment.” The idea the article is proposing is that it is incorrect to balance evenly the (inherently conflicting) mandates the Fed is tasked with to seek lower inflation and lower unemployment; they should favor, according to this argument, lower unemployment.
There are several flaws in this argument, but I believe it is likely that the Fed more or less agrees with the sentiment.
One flaw is that the damage to inflation comes in the compounding. If unemployment is 6% now and 6% next year, there has been no change. But if inflation is 6% this year and 6% next year, then prices are up 12.4%. And if it’s for three years, it’s 19.1%. How many years of that 1% compounding inflation do you trade for 1% incremental change in unemployment?
A bigger flaw, in my view, is that central banks don’t have any important control over the unemployment rate, while they have important control over inflation. It may also be the case that a 1% rise in background radiation levels makes people feel even worse than a 1% rise in unemployment, but that doesn’t mean the Fed should target radiation levels!
Moreover, even if you think the Fed can affect growth, it is still true that for big moves in these numbers (because we really don’t care so much about 1% inflation change or 1% unemployment change, after all) the central bank’s power to cause harm is clearly much larger in inflation. It is possible to get 101% inflation, and in fact many central banks have done so. No central bank has ever managed to produce 101% unemployment.
I doubt that commodities and breakevens will go higher in a straight line from here. And every time there is a break lower, the deflationists will call for the surrender of the monetarists. But I do wonder if this latest break is the worst we will see until there is at least some sign that QE is going to end.
Five years into the biggest money-printing exercise of all time, and commodities are (incredibly) approaching the status of being universally loathed. On Friday, gold provided a great illustration of one reason I always say that investors should have a position in diversified commodity indices. A Goldman Sachs report released a couple of days ago (with gold 20% off the highs) suggested that prices may have further to fall; more important to Friday’s rout, though, was the increase in the European assessment of how much more money Cyprus will have to raise for itself (€6bln, or about 35-40% of annual Cypriot GDP) to complete the bailout, and the speculation that Cypriot gold reserves will have to be sold.
Add to this the fact that Friday’s economic data was weak with ex-Auto Retail Sales -0.4% and the Michigan Confidence figure showing a surprising drop. Clearly, investors believe this to be a death knell for inflation (as opposed to the “death bell” – I’m not sure what that is – that Citigroup says has been sounded for the commodity supercycle).
But all of the data, and the European sovereign crisis, apparently does support rapidly rising home prices and equities at disturbing multiples of 10-year earnings!
Considering that commodities have been around far longer than equities, bonds, or even money itself, it is incredible how little understanding there is about them.
One misunderstanding, and key to understanding the current situation, is not peculiar to commodities. It is simply the common confusion of nominal and real quantities. In a nutshell, the change in any good’s nominal price over time consists of two things: a real price change, and a change in the price that recognizes that the value of the currency unit measuring stick has changed – that is, inflation. We’re familiar with this construction in the form of the Fisher equation, which tells us that nominal yields represent the combination of a real return that is the cost of money plus a premium (or, less frequently, a discount) for the expected change in the price level over the holding period. But that construction applies to all price changes.
So if the price of your ham sandwich rises 3% this year, is there a bull market in ham sandwiches? Well, in all likelihood not – it’s just that the overall price level is rising by roughly that amount. What about if the price of the ham sandwich rises by only 1%, because ham is becoming cheaper? Then we would say that there was a 2% decline in the real price of the ham sandwich, plus 3% inflation.
Now, if prices instead rose 15%, the ham sandwich in this latter scenario would not still be only rising in price by 1%. It would likely rise by 13% or so: the 15% inflation, minus the 2% decline in the real price of a ham sandwich. Even if a ham sandwich glut was forcing a 10% decline in real prices, the nominal price of a ham sandwich would still be rising in that case.
So, when groups trumpet the “end of the commodity cycle,” they seem to be confused. It is possible that they are saying that real commodity prices should decline over time, but I wonder whether their clients would be awed by that prediction since it has been the norm for hundreds of years. Moreover, if they were referring to real prices, then if CPI goes up 10% and commodity prices go up 5%, they will be right – but clients might not see it the same way.
But I don’t think that’s what they are saying. If it is, then those groups are also a bit late to the party – commodity indices, which include additional sources of return, have underperformed inflation by 28% since 2004 and are down about half from the 2008 highs. Frankly, in the chart below (Source: Bloomberg), which shows the DJ-UBS commodity index divided by the NSA CPI, I don’t see anything which looks like an up-leg of a supercycle, except perhaps the doubling from 2003-2008. Is a 100% gain over five years a “supercycle”?
Now, in the SP-GSCI, which has a much greater weight in energy, it looks plausibly like a “supercycle,” as prices tripled in real terms off the lows in 1999 (see Chart, source Bloomberg), and admittedly the chart looks a little feeble at the moment. But that difference is, as I just suggested, mostly due to energy. And if you think the energy supercycle has ended…just short energy, don’t paint all commodities with the ugly brush!
And, by the way, it seems like a pretty wimpy supercycle if the peak in real terms doesn’t even approach the earlier peak.
In nominal terms, all of these charts look different, with the downswings being dampened and the upswings accentuated, because of inflation. But that’s certainly not the right way to look at commodities (or any asset) over time. We don’t care about the nominal return. We care about the real return. And viewed through a real return lens, commodities are much closer to being really cheap than to being really rich!
Obviously, I disagree with all of these groups when it comes to commodities generally. About gold I have no firmly-held opinion about its valuation at the moment, but commodities generally we see as cheap – in fact, we expect triple the real returns from investing in commodities indices over the next ten years compared to equity investing. This is a function of both the very rich absolute valuations of equities and the very cheap absolute valuations of commodities indices.
Moreover, if inflation does in fact accelerate – something which has nothing to do with the weak Michigan or Retail Sales numbers – then commodities will also have terrific nominal returns while equities might well have negative nominal returns.
For a change, fixed-income is where all of the excitement is. For more than a month (since March 5th, the S&P has closed no lower than 1540 and no higher than 1570, plus or minus a couple of nickels: a month-long range of less than 2%. What’s really amazing about that is that on seven of those twenty-three trading days, the range of the day was more than half of the month’s entire closing range. In two of the last four trading days, the intraday range was two-thirds of that for the entire month!
Meanwhile, the 10-year Treasury rate has gone from 1.90% to 2.06%, down to 1.71%, and ending today at 1.75%. The closing range in point terms of the current 10-year note was 99-16 to 102-19, or a bit more than 3% (and it was obviously more than that for the long bond). It has been a long time since bonds were more volatile than stocks over a period as long as a month.
Most of that volatility in nominal rates has been on the real interest rate side. The range in closing 10-year TIPS yields is -0.52% to -0.76%, or 24bps, compared to 35bps for the nominal yield. That’s more volatility than the real yield should be displaying at this level of rates, and it has moved TIPS from being slightly cheap a month ago to somewhat rich. Our Fisher yield decomposition model, which had been neutral on TIPS and breakevens since mid-February, is now modestly short TIPS (and still flat breakevens). Moreover, the leverage applied by our long-inflation-biased “smart beta” model is only 2/3 of the neutral leverage, so conservatism is the watchword at the moment.
The rally in TIPS and nominal yields owes much, I am sure, to the somewhat feeble data we have seen over the last week. The Employment data, in particular, were very disappointing, especially to that group of people who expected profligate monetary policy easing to create economic growth. It will surprise no regular reader of this column that I am not shocked to see a lack of growth response to aggressive monetary policy easing – as I take pains to remind readers, monetary policy is not supposed to affect growth, except in the presence of money illusion. It is therefore something less than a news flash that growth is responding more to tiny changes in government spending (albeit temporarily) than to massive changes in monetary aggregates.
To be sure, even monetary aggregates have been drooping lately…at least, the ones that matter. M2 has been lurching along in the mid-6% growth rate year-on-year, and flat over the last quarter (see chart, source Federal Reserve). That’s only slightly above the average growth rate in M2 since 1981 – although, to be fair, the average core inflation over the same time period has been about 3.1%, so core inflation is still well below where we would expect it to get to if this rate of monetary growth continues.
Growth in commercial bank credit growth, also, has retreated to only 4.1% year-over-year after spending most of the past year above 5%. It too is still right around the long-term average real growth in commercial bank credit (see chart, source Federal Reserve, Enduring Investments), but last year it had been edging towards the mid-2000s standard.
So these are positive developments from the standpoint of future inflation, but it is far too early to call victory on that front. I expect the rise in M2 to re-accelerate in fairly short order; but in any event it is important to remember that the Fed is not the only game in town and not the only central bank that is pursuing easy-money policies. Indeed, last week the biggest news was that the Bank of Japan pledged to double its monetary base, its holdings of JGBs, and its holdings of ETFs and JREITs over a period of only two years.
This policy will almost surely produce the result the Japanese policymakers have been shamelessly vocal about seeking: higher inflation, in a short period of time. At the end of the day, the inflation that Japan gets in the near-term will depend on what their domestic money velocities and multipliers do, but they will surely get higher inflation eventually just as the Fed’s policies have produced inflation even with declining multipliers and velocity. To my mind, the Japanese inflation swaps market – which according to Bloomberg is at 1.26% for 5 years and 1.01% for 10 years – seems to be cheap!
But the Japanese policy will certainly not stop at the water’s edge. Around 2/3 of our domestic inflation is sourced from global factors, and the monetary policy of a major trading partner is a significant global factor. The behavior of the Yen and industry response to changing competitive pressures from Japan will determine how much of the BOJ’s inflation remains domestic and how much is exported, but it would be surprising indeed if the result was entirely contained within the borders of Japan. The Yen has responded sharply to the policy changes at the BOJ (see chart, source Bloomberg), but in my opinion it has very much further to go. In fact, the only reason we may not get back to mid-1980s levels is that the Fed’s policy is similarly aggressive – the only difference at the moment is that the Fed is giving lip service to the notion that they intend to hold down inflation in the long run. (I don’t believe them.)
None of the above has much, if anything, to do with North Korea, or Cyprus, or Slovenia, or Portugal. All of those countries still are potential wild cards, and all of them (it needs hardly be said) constitute downside risk. The White House is seemingly satisfied to wait to see if North Korea really will launch a nuclear-tipped missile; this means that the entire distribution of potential outcomes is compressed so that there is a very high likelihood of nothing bad happening, and a very small chance of something really, really bad happening. How do you trade that? The answer is that you use options. Implied volatilities are under pressure again because the recent tight range makes it difficult to eat the time decay of long-vol positions. But as for me, I’m delighted to pay insurance premiums for insurance that turns out to be unnecessary, especially when that premium is low. I don’t have any long equity positions, but if I did then I’d be protecting them with cheap put options.
Markets have been surprisingly quiet over the last few days. Some of that, no doubt, is due to the NCAA basketball tournament, to the Good Friday/Easter Monday holiday in the U.S. and in Europe, and to baseball’s Opening Day.
We also had Japanese year-end and the end of Q1 in the U.S., and to the extent that the last week has brought any market moves of interest at least a portion of that can be put on the account of the calendar. On Thursday, the S&P set a record month-end close, although a higher intraday print was established in October of 2007. But while news accounts attributed the almost-record to an “easing of Cyprus fears,” it is much more likely that it was due to the normal (and well-known) quarter-end “mark ‘em up” machinations of less-scrupulous fund managers in illiquid market conditions.
In a similar vein, the quirk of having the quarter end on a Thursday three days before the calendar turns helped exaggerate a massive move in grains, especially corn, on a mildly bearish crop report. Those who are invested in commodities for tactical reasons are being flushed because they’re tired of waiting, as an article in today’s Wall Street Journal made clear. The investors who are leaving do not have comfort in the asset class because they don’t understand the drivers of the asset class; the result is that they become performance chasers. So, when crop reports suggest that the real price of corn should fall a little bit, investors slash nominal prices 10% in ‘get me out’ orders.
But as I said, these investors don’t understand the fundamental drivers of the asset class. The article cited above regarded the breakdown of the correlation between commodity indices and equity indices as something sinister, saying that the correlation is at its lowest level since 2008 and suggesting that this means that one of the two markets is wrong. As it turns out, though, the correlation of stocks and commodities is a relatively new phenomenon. Over the last 5 years, the correlation of monthly changes in the DJ-UBS index and the S&P is 0.61. However, for the 17 years prior to that, the correlation was 0.04 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
For the GSCI commodity index, the last-5-years correlation is 0.65, but for the 38 years prior to that (the GSCI has a longer history) the correlation was -0.02. In short, there is no reason to read a whole lot into the recent decoupling of stocks and commodities, except that it may suggest the hot money is finally leaving commodities. The correlation breakdown is also a good thing for anyone who believes – as I do – that stocks are overvalued. And, since a good portion of commodities’ long-run return comes from a rebalancing effect that is larger when the inter-commodity correlations are lower, this is more good news.
The choppy melt-up in stocks on Thursday was partially reversed by the new-quarter blues today, but all of this is mere detail. Over the last week, while authorities in Europe have encouraged investors to put the Cyprus issue to bed additional details have emerged that deserve mentioning. For example, it turns out that the larger depositors (over €100,000) investors in one of the Cypriot banks will not get a 10% haircut, or a 20% haircut, but something close to a 100% haircut – 37.5% of the deposit balance in excess of 100k will be converted to equity in the bankrupt bank. There are some reports that certain deposits belonging to “EU funds” will be exempt from the haircut. There are of course the stories that capital controls implemented in Cyprus were ignored in non-Cyprus branches of Cypriot banks, and one Cypriot newspaper is claiming that relatives of the president withdrew substantial funds from Laiki bank just before the bank was shut down.
While the worst of the immediate crisis has surely passed, it seems madness to me to pretend that it never happened or that it will have no knock-on effects. For that matter, it seems madness to conclude that since the knock-on effects were not immediate, that no such effects exist. On the other hand, when events are no longer going bang-bang-bang in rapid succession, it is reasonable to ask “whose move is it?” Will bank deposits begin to flee from periphery countries, or wait to see what assurances European officials give? Are central bankers already injecting liquidity into shaky banks, or are they waiting for the invitation from the banks in-country? Are investors reducing risk and diversifying away from European assets, or are they waiting to see if other investors do so first? All of these actions entail costs, and so there is a natural desire of every party to delay action…but to not delay action so long as to cause those costs to rise substantially.
As a trader, my inclination is to hit a bid and get out, and not worry about the bid/offer spread or those other costs. But I am not dealing with billions of Euros when I do that. Still, the insight is that when bad things might happen, the here-and-now transactions costs are usually a poor reason not to seek protection. This is why T-Bills over the last couple of years have occasionally had negative nominal yields (see the chart of 3-month T-bill yields below, source Bloomberg). Yes, it’s clearly dumb to pay $1.01 now to receive $1 in the future. But is it dumber than the alternatives?