Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy. And, given where all of this seems to be going…you ought to.
- Core inflation only up 0.122%. But housing continues to accelerate! Apparel -0.5% this month.
- Core dips slightly to 1.734% from 1.766% y/y. At odds with our forecast, due to the continued weakness in core goods.
- Still think core ends 2013 over 2%, but depends on core commodities coming up some. Our housing forecast looks good.
- Primary Rents stays at 3%, OER at 2.2%.
- Medical Care 2.4% y/y from 2.3%. And that’s with “health insurance” falling to 2.5% from 2.9%. Obviously, that’s all pre-ACA.
- Accel Major groups: Medical Care (7.2%). Decel: Apparel, Recreation, Educ/COmm (16.3%). Everything else sideways.
- This really IS mostly about the apparel decline. Bad back-to-school adjustment probably.
- I think given apparel, what we know will happen in medical care, and the housing stuff…next month may be over 0.3% on core.
This has all the signs of one of those numbers (and we’re seeing a lot of them this month) that should be averaged with next month’s number because of data collection quirks. Actually, we probably ought to average September, October, and November data together to get a “before, during, and after” average around the government shutdown. The apparel decline hit women’s apparel, men’s apparel, and girls’ apparel, but boys’ apparel inflation accelerated. Medical care prices re-accelerated slightly, as I think is destined to happen because the current run-rate is significantly due to the effect of the sequester on Medicare reimbursements, but we can already see that the “insurance” category is going to be accelerating markedly in the next few months because of the large number of cancellations and re-policying that is going on around the implementation of Obamacare. While direct consumer purchase of insurance and/or medical care is just a small part of overall inflation, a big jump will still be felt in the overall data.
The key conundrum continues to be the softness in core goods, but as I’ve argued previously the biggest part of the effect is from the very low readings from medicinal drugs and medical equipment – both of which accelerated this month. If the apparel reading really is a quirk, then core inflation is going to start heading higher with alacrity now. All of the “interesting” parts of it already are.
Everyone expected markets to provide a lot of late-day volatility today, and so they did. The Fed apparently doesn’t mind surprising the market with a non-consensus outcome when that surprise gooses stocks and bonds higher. Here are some (fairly unstructured) thoughts about today’s declaration from the Fed that there will be no “taper” in its QE program yet:
- This has nothing to do with the fact that there was a minor wiggle in the Employment data, some weakness in Retail Sales, and some other disappointments this month. If that is now the standard…that the Fed plans to expand its balance sheet without bound as long as growth is not smashing the cover off the ball, then we are truly lost for QE will never, ever end. This month’s numbers were all within the normal variation for economic data, which do in fact vary even when the underlying economy is not. The old standard was “ameliorate a deep recession.” Then Greenspan turned that to “resist even a mild recession.” And now, is the standard “robust growth no matter what the long-term cost?” I don’t think so, and so I reject the notion that the failure to begin the taper has anything to do with the growth numbers.
- Similarly, the inflation numbers cannot be the reason. Core inflation is now rising, and the Fed has previously recognized that some of the decline in inflation has been due to transient effects of the sequester. Median inflation has remained steady at 2.1%, which is basically the Fed’s long-term target. The cost of 10-year deflation floors in the market are at the lowest level since they began to trade in 2009 (see chart, source Bloomberg and BGC Partners – the price is in up-front basis points). So it isn’t a lingering fear of deflation that has the Fed concerned.
- The Fed speakers over the last month have had ample opportunity to shoot down the idea that taper would start at this meeting, which has been the consensus for a long time. None of them did so, implying that the Fed was comfortable with that consensus. But something changed in the last few days, and that is that the odds-on next Fed Chairman went from being Larry Summers to being Janet Yellen, who happened to be in the meeting today. Does this change the dynamic? Absolutely, since one reason Bernanke has started thinking and talking about tapering is so as to leave as clean a slate as possible so that the next Chairman wouldn’t have to start his term by tightening (sorry, I mean “reducing accommodation”) and scaring asset markets. Once Summers withdrew his name, Yellen’s vote got automatically much more important and the urgency to start the taper much less (since Yellen doesn’t believe there are any important costs to QE). Indeed, in his post-meeting presser Bernanke noted that the “first step” on a taper is “possible this year.” That is far to the dovish side of what the Street was expecting, but consistent with the notion that Yellen’s opinion will carry a heavy weight unless someone else is appointed to the post.
- Yellen said last June that the Fed’s objective is a quick return to full employment, and that Fed action might be justified “to insure against adverse shocks [emphasis mine],” or even if the Fed concludes that the recovery “is unlikely to proceed at a satisfactory pace.” So, perhaps I need to reconsider my point #1 above. Maybe that is the standard now.
- If in fact QE has no cost, then there is no reason to ever stop it. In fact, it should be accelerated. Most Fed officials seem recently to be coming to the realization that there is highly unlikely to be a costless economic remedy, even if they are not sure what the costs are or think they can be contained. Those people clearly have no voice any more, even though it appeared that those views in the last few months were gaining currency (no pun intended, since the dollar dropped to the lowest level since February after the announcement today – a Fed that was edging however slowly to being more-hawkish than average was good for the dollar; a weak, more-dovish than average central bank will be worse for the dollar all else equal). This is pedal-to-the-metal time.
- TIPS got a lot more expensive today, with the 10-year rallying 20bps to 0.475% and breakevens up 4.5bps one day before the Treasury auctions another slug of them. The auction ought still to go well, because caution has been thrown to the wind by our beloved central bankers. This is also good for commodities, and they rose today led by precious and industrial metals. Is it good for equities? Well…
- Equity analysts are like puppies. They completely forget what happened 5 minutes ago and every experience is brand new. There is never any context. So stocks shot higher today, with the S&P gaining 1.2%, because of the dovish Fed and lower interest rates. But over the last few months, as the taper grew closer and interest rates shot higher, all equities did was move to new highs. So, higher interest rates and a (relatively) hawkish Fed doesn’t hurt stock prices, but lower interest rates and a dovish Fed helps them? This may be why the Fed thinks that buying bonds keeps interest rates low and selling bonds doesn’t raise them. It’s a strange market-based notion of a perpetual motion machine. For goodness’ sake, let’s crank interest rates down 200bps, back up 200bps, down 200bps, and keep doing that and the stock market will be at 1,000,000 before you know it. Prosperity! But in fact it is probably more like a bicycle pump. Pushing down inflates the tire, pulling up doesn’t deflate it. It seems costless. However, if you keep doing that, eventually the tire will pop.
- Speaking of the perpetual motion machine, I enjoyed this little gem from the FOMC statement:
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. Taken together, these actions should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative…
Really? It hasn’t worked recently. Lest they forget: the taper hadn’t started yet, but until today it was busy being discounted in the bond market. I don’t expect that merely continuing to buy bonds into the SOMA will push rates much lower again. We all know that this game ends, and we know how it ends. With 10-year notes at 2.70% I wouldn’t be selling them, but I also wouldn’t expect a massive rally to unfold. I would hold long positions in September and October, because those are the right months in which to hold bonds (especially with debt ceiling fight #2, Syria, Italy’s government disintegrating, and Germany’s election), but if the market gave me 2.45% to sell, I would sell.
 Note, though, that no person who has ever held the office of Fed Vice-Chairman has later been appointed to be Chairman…although Donald Kohn, since he was Vice-Chairman from 2006-2010, would also represent a departure from this same tradition. However, he was not in the room.
Here is a summary of my tweets after the CPI release this morning. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- CPI +0.1%/+0.1% core, y/y core to 1.8%. Core only slightly weaker than expected as it rounded down to 0.1% rather than up to 0.2%.
- Housing CPI was weak, second month in a row. Rents will eventually catch up w/ housing prices…but not yet.
- Apparel CPI was weak after a couple of strong up months. I’ll have the whole breakdown in a bit.
- Core was actually only 0.13%, suggesting last August’s 0.06% and this August’s number might merely be bad seasonals.
- Market was only looking for 0.17% or so, so it’s not a HUGE miss. Still disappointing to my forecasts as upturn in rents remains overdue.
- Core CPI now 1.766% y/y. More difficult comparison next month although still <0.2%.
- Accelerating major grps: Apparel, Medical Care, Educ/Comm, Other (20.9%); decel: Food/Bev, Housing(!), Transp (73.1%), unch: Recreation
- Housing deceleration actually isn’t worrisome. Primary rents were 3.0% y/y vs 2.8% last. OER was 2.23% vs 2.19% last.
- Housing subcomponent drag was from lodging away from home, household energy, other minor pieces. So housing inflation story still intact.
- Core services inflation unch at 2.4% y/y; core goods inflation up to 0% from -0.2%. Source of uptick: mean reversion in core goods.
- So OER still reaches a new cycle high at 2.23%…it’s just not accelerating yet as fast as I expect it to. Lags are hard!
The initial reading of this number, as the tweet timeline above shows, was negative. The figure was weaker-than-expected, and Housing CPI decelerated from 2.26% to 2.17%. This seemed to be a painful blow to my thesis, which is that rising home prices will pass through into housing inflation (expressed in rents) and push core inflation much higher than economists currently expect.
Housing CPI is one of eight major subgroups of CPI, the other seven being Food and Beverages, Medical Care, Transportation, Apparel, Recreation, Education and Communication, and Other. Housing receives the most weight, at 41% of the consumption basket and an even heavier weight in core inflation. So, a deceleration in Housing makes it very hard for core inflation to increase, and vice-versa. If you can get the direction of Housing CPI right, then you’ll have a leg up in your medium-term inflation forecast (although it isn’t very helpful in terms of projecting month-to-month numbers, which are mostly noise). Thus, the deceleration in Housing seemed discouraging.
But on closer inspection, the main portions of Housing CPI are doing about what I expected them to do. Primary Rents (aka “Rent of primary residence”) is now above 3%, in sharp contrast to the expectations of those economists and observers who thought that active investor interest in buying vacant homes would drive up the price of housing but drive down the price of rents. Though I never thought that was likely…the substitution effect is very strong…it was a plausible enough story that it was worth considering and watching out for. But in the event, primary rents are clearly rising, and accelerating, and Owners’ Equivalent Rent is also rising although less-obviously accelerating (see Chart, source BLS).
So, it is much less clear upon further review that this is a terribly encouraging CPI figure. It is running behind my expectations for the pace of the acceleration, but it is clearly meeting my expectations for what should be driving inflation higher. As I say above, econometric lags are hard – they are tendencies only, and in this case the lags have been slightly longer, or the acceleration somewhat muted, from what would typically have been expected from the behavior of home prices. Some of that may be from the “investors producing too many rental units” effect, or it might simply be chance. In any event, the ultimate picture hasn’t changed. Core inflation will continue to rise for some time, and will be well above 2% and probably 3% before the Fed’s actions have any meaningful effect on slowing the increase.
In our business, one must be very careful of confirmation bias of course (as well as all of the other assorted biases that can adversely affect one’s decision-making processes). And so I want to be very careful about reading too much into today’s CPI report. That being said, there were some hints and glimmers that the main components of inflation are starting to look more perky.
Headline (“all items”) inflation rose in June to 1.75% y/y, with core inflation 1.64%. About 20% of the weights in the major groups accelerated on a year-on-year basis; about 20% declined, and 60% were roughly flat. However, two thirds of the “unchanged” weight was in Housing, which moved from 2.219% to 2.249% y/y…but the devil is in the details. Owner’s Equivalent Rent, which is fully 24% of the overall CPI and about one-third of core CPI, rose from 2.13% to 2.21%, reaching its highest rate of change since November 2008. Primary Rents (that is, if you are a renter rather than a homeowner) rose from 2.83% to 2.89%, which is also a post-crisis high. Since much of my near-term expectations for an acceleration in inflation in the 2nd half of the year relies on the pass-through of home price dynamics into rentals, this is something I am paying attention to.
This is what I expected. But can I reject a null hypothesis that core inflation is, in fact, in an extended downtrend – that perhaps housing prices are artificially inflated by investor demand and will not pass through to rents, and the deflation in core goods (led by Medicare-induced declines in Medical Care) will continue? I cannot reject that null hypothesis, despite the fact that the NAHB index today surprised with a leap to 57, its highest since 2006 (see chart, source Bloomberg, below). It may be, although I don’t think it is, that the demand is for houses, rather than housing and thus the price spike might not pass into rents. So, while my thesis remains consistent with the data, the real test will be over the next several months. The disinflationists fear a further deceleration in year-on-year inflation, while I maintain that it will begin to rise from here. I still think core inflation will be 2.5%-2.8% by year-end 2013.
In fact, I think there is roughly an even chance that core inflation will round to 1.8% next month (versus 1.6% this month), although the 0.2% jump will be more dramatic than the underlying unrounded figures. The following month, it will hit 1.9%. That is still not the “danger zone” for the Fed, but it will quiet the doves somewhat.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI remained at 2.1%, the lowest level since 2011. The Median CPI continues to raise its hand and say “hello? Don’t forget about me!” If anyone is terribly concerned about imminent deflation, they should reflect on the fact that the Median CPI is telling us the low core readings are happening because a few categories have been very weak, but that there is no general weakness in prices.
Although I maintain that the process of inflation will not be particular impacted by what the Fed does from here – and, if what they do causes interest rates to rise, then they could unintentionally accelerate the process – the direction of the markets will be. And not, I think, in a good way. We saw today what happens when an inflation number came in fairly close to expectations: stocks down, bonds flat, inflation-linked bonds up, and commodities up. Now, imagine that CPI surprises on the high side next month?
Speaking of the fact that commodities have had (so far at least) their best month in a while, there was a very interesting blog entry posted today at the “macroblog” of the Atlanta Fed. The authors of the post examined whether commodity price increases and decreases affect core inflation in a meaningful way. Of course, the simple answer is that it’s not supposed to, because after all that’s what the BLS is trying to do by extracting food and energy (and doing that across all categories where explicit or implicit food and energy costs are found, such as in things like primary rents). But, of course, it’s not that simple, and what these authors found is that when commodity prices are increasing, then businesses tend to try and pass on these cost increases – and they respond positively to a survey question asking them about that – and it tends to show up in core inflation. But, if commodity prices are decreasing, then businesses tend to try and hold the line on prices, and take bigger profit margins. And that, also, shows up in the data.
To the extent this is true, it means that commodity volatility itself has inflationary implications even if there is no net movement in commodity prices over some period. That is because it acts like a ratchet: when commodity prices go up, core inflation tends to edge up, but when commodity prices go down, core inflation tends not to edge down. Higher volatility, by itself, implies higher inflation (as well, as I have pointed out, as increasing the perception of higher volatility: see my article in Business Economics here and my quick explanation of the main points here). It’s a very interesting observation these authors make, and one I have not heard before.
The following is a summary and further explanation of my tweets following today’s CPI release:
- core #inflation +0.167, a smidge higher than expected but basically in line. Dragged down by medical care (-0.13%).
- Housing #inflation a solid 0.3%…this part is, as we expected, accelerating.
- Core commodities still dragging down overall core, now -0.2% y/y while core services still 2.3%.
- I still think Owners’ Equiv Rent will get to our year-end target but core goods not behaving. Have to lower our core CPI range to 2.5%-2.8%
- That 2.5%-2.8% still much higher than Street. Still assumes OER continues to accelerate, and core goods drag fades. Fcast WAS 2.6-3.0.
- Note that CPI-Housing rose at a 2.22% y/y rate, up from 1.94% last month. Highest since late ’08 early ’09. Acceleration there is happening.
- Major #CPI groups accel: Housing, Trans, Recreation (63.9%), Decel: Food/Bev, Apparel, Med Care, Educ/Comm (32.7%)
- Overall, IMO this CPI report is much more buoyant than expected. Core goods is flattering some ugly trends.
The important part of this CPI report is that CPI-Housing is finally turning up again, as I have been expecting it would “over the next 1-3 months.” Hands down, the rise in housing inflation (41% of overall consumption) is the greatest threat to effective price stability in the short run. Home prices are rising aggressively in many places around the country, and it is passing through to rents. Primary rents (where you rent an apartment or a home, rather than “imputed” rents) are up at 2.8% year/year, the highest level since early 2009, but not yet showing signs that it is about to go seriously vertical. Some economists are still around who will tell you that rapidly rising home prices are going to cause a decline in rents, as more rental supply comes on the market. That would be a very bizarre outcome, economically, but it is absolutely necessary that this happen if core inflation isn’t going to rise from here.
The last 7 months of this year see very easy comparisons versus last year, when CPI rose at only a 1.6% annualized pace for the May-December period. Only last June saw an increase of at least 0.20%. So, even with a fairly weak trend from here, core CPI will rise from 1.7% year/year. If each of the last 7 months of this year produces only 0.2% from core CPI, the figure will be at 2.2% by year-end. At 0.25% monthly, we’ll be over 2.5%; at 0.3% per month core CPI will be at 2.9% by year-end. So our core inflation forecast, at 2.5%-2.8%, is not terribly aggressive (and if we are right on housing inflation, it may be fairly conservative).
We have not changed our 2014 expectation that core CPI will be at least 3.0%.
Numerous classic cognitive errors are on display at once in these markets. We have “overconfidence,” with large bets being made on the basis of strongly-believed models and forecasts…but these are forecasts of the dynamics of a system whose configuration is distinctly unlike anything we have seen before, even remotely. What does a “taper” do to rates? How can we know, since we have never even had QE, much less a taper, before? How aggressively does it make sense to bet on the outcome of such a transition period, given rational-sized error bars on the estimates?
We also see naïve extrapolation of trends. TIPS go down every day, it seems, for no better reason than that “core inflation is low, and the Fed is no longer going to be maintaining as loose a policy.” Ten-year TIPS yields have risen 83bps since April 25th (5y TIPS, +107bps since April 4th). Ten-year breakevens have fallen from 2.59%, within 15bps of an all-time high, on March 14th to 2.03% – the lowest since January 2012 – now. What has changed? Our model identified TIPS as cheap to Treasuries (that is, breakevens too low for the level of nominal rates) and went nearly max-long when breakevens were still at 2.30%. It is some solace that this position has fared better than a long position in TIPS, but when markets simply follow recent momentum mindlessly it can be painful.
Year-ahead core inflation is priced in the market at roughly 1.50%, despite the fact that current core inflation of 1.7% is only at this level because of persistently soggy core goods prices (and core goods are much more volatile than core services prices). Meanwhile, although core services prices remain buoyant, housing rents have not even begun to respond to the sudden boom in housing prices. To realize the core inflation priced into the 1-year inflation swap, core goods prices need to remain low and rends would need to decelerate while a shortage of owner-occupied housing drives the prices of existing homes skyward. It is possible, but it would be a very unusual economic occurrence. As I have previously written, we are maintaining our forecast for core inflation in 2012 at 2.6%-3.0%; although we may tweak that lowers if next week’s CPI is disappointing, we will not be changing it dramatically. Based on both top-down and bottom-up forecasts, we think the inflation market right now is very wrong. However, in accordance with paragraph 1, above, our 80% confidence interval for that estimate would be quite wide. Still, we feel that most errors looking out at least one year are going to be in the direction of higher inflation, not lower inflation.
Now, our forecast relies significantly on the behavior of the housing market, since shelter is the largest share of the budget for most of us. There has been a lot written recently about how the rise in rates could shatter the housing recovery. But let me explain why I don’t think that will happen.
I remember reading many years ago in “The Money Game” by Adam Smith (a pseudonym) that “you make more money with good investing decisions than with good financing decisions.” At least, I think that’s where I read it. In any event, it is true: if you are creating the next Microsoft, it makes very little difference if you finance it at 2% or at 15%, because the investment performance will completely obliterate the cost of financing. And this is why higher rates, even significantly higher rates, will not derail the housing market while prices are rising at 10%+ per annum. A home buyer is clearly happier to borrow at 3% than at 5% (tax-deductible), but if the home price is appreciating at 10% per annum (tax free, for much of it, and tax-deferred in any event) then it is a home run for the buyer either way. What hurts the housing market is when the expectation of future home price changes goes from go-go to stop-stop. And, with most consumers concerned with inflation and recent price trends in the home market, this isn’t going to change soon.
Here is an illustration of the real-world response of housing to rates. This first chart is the Mortgage Banking Association’s Refinancing index, plotted against 10-year Treasury rates (inverted). You can see that the recent rise in rates is having a significant impact on refinancing activity.
And this next chart is a chart of the MBA Purchase Index, showing activity on mortgages related to new purchases of homes. Again, the 10-year Treasury rate is inverted. You can see that there is no meaningful correlation here; if anything, purchase activity has been rising over the past year while rates have also been rising.
So, rest easy: higher interest rates are not going to meaningfully impact the housing market, unless they go much higher. Indeed, homebuyers might reasonably believe here that there is a “Bernanke put” on home prices in the same way that investors (correctly) believed there was a “Greenspan put” on stock prices. The Fed (and for that matter the state and federal governments) clearly have responded and can reasonably be expected to respond robustly to a future home price bust. So why not be long real estate here, if your downside is protected…and in any case, is limited to your home equity?
And if home prices do not decline, then rents are not going to decline, and in fact need to accelerate to keep up with the previously-seen rise in home prices. That is going to cause core inflation to rise going forward.
One final note: over the next month or two I hope to put out a few more articles like the one I wrote on June 8th about equity returns and inflation, but focusing on other asset classes such as real estate, infrastructure, commodity indices, etcetera. But in the meantime, I wanted to point out one security to keep an eye on. It is one of only two inflation-linked bonds that is traded on an exchange with a daily price and reasonable bid/offer spreads. The symbol is OSM (for Bloomberg users: you need the <CORP> key), and it is a floating-rate inflation-linked bond issued by SLM Corp with a March 2017 maturity. The problem with this security is that it is very hard to figure out what its true yield is unless you have an inflation derivatives curve, and even harder to figure out whether the issue is priced correctly given that you own SLM credit. The recent selloff has driven the real yield of this issue to (approximately) 3.40%, which is obviously much higher than is available for TIPS. The bad news is that the bond is still fairly expensive given the spread that should exist for a SLM bond, but in terms of raw real yield to maturity there are not many inflation-linked bonds out there with that yield. I am not recommending this security, but mention it as a point of information for investors who may want to check it out on their own.
Housekeeping note: if you missed my comment on CPI from Friday, you can find it here. And if you missed my Bloomberg Radio interview with Carol Massar on Monday, don’t worry! I will post it when Bloomberg makes it available on their site.
One of the busier sessions in recent memory (although still well short of 1bln shares traded on the NYSE, which was the standard not that long ago) resulted in a sharp rally in the equity market with the S&P +1.2% on the day.
The trigger for this holiday treat was the “progress” in the budget talks and what investors see as the increasing likelihood that the ‘fiscal cliff’ is averted. Be careful, however; whatever progress there was is fairly speculative, and I suspect we will see a bad news wiggle before all is resolved.
It is ironic, perhaps, that what is moving the process closer to resolution is the Republicans’ sudden refusal to be steamrolled, and to instead try and play the game rather than try to negotiate as if both parties were trying to reach a fair resolution. I refer to the fact that Speaker Boehner has begun plans to start a separate legislative track in the House of Representatives by passing a bill that would keep the Bush tax cuts in place for most Americans; the bill would not avert the spending cuts that would take effect as part of the “fiscal cliff,” but would keep the government from reaching more deeply into citizens’ pockets on January 1st. It is, therefore, just exactly what the Republicans would want in these circumstances: spending cuts without tax increases (although fewer spending cuts than they would like).
The fact that this is a good play from the standpoint of the Republicans was immediately apparent from the fact that Democrats wasted no time in accusing Boehner of not negotiating in good faith with the President, and the President himself abruptly began to try and compromise slightly from his heretofore rigid position.
Of course, the Boener plan won’t pass the Senate because it will produce exactly zero Democrat votes, and if it somehow passed by luck it would be vetoed by the President, so it has no chance to become law. However, by putting the Democrats in the position of having to vote against tax cuts, it greatly increases the chances that both parties might negotiate to something that all parties hate, and therefore passes with flying colors.
In the US system, by Constitutional writ all revenue bills have to start in the House of Representatives, so by the very nature of this process the Republicans, who dominate the House, hold the serve in this negotiation. Incredibly, this is the first time they’ve shown any desire to use that advantage to produce a bill that represents something closer to their views.
As noted above, equities reacted very well to the Republicans’ show of spine. I’d noted several weeks back that I thought the Republicans had little incentive to negotiate, since going over the fiscal cliff represents smaller government and this may be the only opportunity that party has to get smaller government in the next few years. If this move persuades the Democrats of this fact, and the President moves to address the spending problem rather than just trying to soak the rich, then the fiscal cliff may be averted. It’s really important in a negotiation, especially if a true compromise is to be reached, that your counterparty knows that you may walk away.
Personally, I think the odds are still against this happening before year-end, but some resolution fairly early in the new year is probably odds-on. However, with the debt ceiling also approaching, 2013 may well see more of these cliffhanger negotiations.
Bonds, interestingly, sold off. You would think that the prospect for a smaller deficit, even marginally, would help the Treasury market but in this case I think investors are reacting to the fact that if the fiscal cliff is averted, it lessens the chance of near-term recession and brings forward the day of reckoning for the Fed. Today, 10-year Treasury yields rose to 1.82%, which is near the highest level since early May, and 10-year real yields rose to -0.73%. Over the last five days, nominal yields have risen 16bps, and all of that has come from real yields. That is, inflation expectations have barely moved and 10-year breakevens remain at 2.50%. Ten-year inflation swaps are at 2.77%, and the important 1-year inflation, 1 year forward has risen to 2.23%.
So, whether the ‘day of reckoning’ for the Fed is near, or far…what do they do, when they’ve hit that point? And, more importantly, what does it do to the market?
Let’s assume that we are at some point in the future and either the Unemployment Rate has dipped below 6.5%, the forward PCE inflation rate has risen above 2.5%, or inflation expectations have become “unanchored.” The first thing that the Fed will do is to stop unlimited QE: the statement does not imply that they will immediately start trying to get out of the hole they are in, only that they will stop digging the hole. But suppose that inflation continues to tick up – since the evidence is that inflation is a process with momentum. What does the Fed do next? This is the real question. How quickly can the Fed react to adverse inflation outcomes?
The traditional option is that the Fed raises the overnight rate. The Fed announces this move, but the important part is what happens next: the Open Market Desk (aka ‘the Desk’) conducts reverse repos to decrease the supply of reserves, or sells securities outright if it wishes to make a more-permanent adjustment. This causes the price of reserves (also known as the overnight rate) to rise, and the Desk adjusts its activity so that the overnight rate floats near the target rate.
The problem is that this won’t work right now. There are far too many reserves in circulation for the overnight interest rate to be increased by reverse repos or small securities sales. In fact, if it wasn’t for the interest being paid on excess reserves, the overnight rate would certainly be zero, and might even be negative because the supply of reserves greatly outweighs the demand for reserves. They are called “excess” reserves for a reason – the bank doesn’t need them, and will lend them overnight for pretty much any available rate.
So in order for the Fed to push the overnight rate higher, it must first soak up all of the excess reserves in the system – about $1.5 trillion at the moment – by selling bonds. Obviously, this is not something that can be done in the short-term.
But this misses the point a little bit anyway, because it isn’t the rate that matters to monetary policy but the amount of transactional money (such as M2). The Fed can set the overnight rate at 1% by simply agreeing to pay 1% as interest on excess reserves (IOER). But that won’t do anything at all to M2, because it won’t change the amount of reserves in the system and doesn’t change the money multiplier that relates the quantity of those reserves to M2.
So the short rate is dead. It isn’t going to move for a very long time, unless the FOMC decides to help the banks out by paying a higher IOER. And if they do that, it’s not going to affect inflation so it would just be a sweet present to the banks.
Okay, so perhaps the Fed can sell those long-dated securities and push long-term interest rates higher, slowing the housing market and the economy and squelching inflation, right? That’s partly right: the Fed can sell those securities, and it can push long rates higher (although the Fed has oddly claimed that if it sold those bonds, interest rates wouldn’t rise very much, which makes one wonder why they did it in the first place since presumably the opposite would also be true and buying them wouldn’t push rates down), and that would slow growth. However, it wouldn’t affect inflation, because inflation is not meaningfully affected by growth (I’ve discussed this ad nauseum in these articles; see partial arguments here, here, here, and here). But you don’t have to believe all of the evidence on that point; just play it in reverse: if driving long rates down didn’t cause a sudden jump in inflation, why would driving long rates up cause a sudden dampening in inflation?
Fama, in that article I quoted last week, had a very good point which I thought it was worth developing in more detail. The Fed has its hands off the wheel with respect to inflation…which isn’t a problem, except that they’re sitting in the back seat. The back seat of a very, very long bus.
In any event the issue isn’t when the Fed starts its tightening, but when inflation stops going up. These are not the same things. If core inflation were to start ticking higher today, at a mere 1% per year, I think it would take 6-9 months for the Fed to stop QE (core PCE is at 1.6%), probably another 3 months at a minimum before they started to tighten, and then at least 1-2 years before they could have any meaningful impact on the money supply and cause inflation to slow. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, or maybe I’m being a bit generous by assuming that after a year the FOMC would start doing something very dramatic to sop up reserves, like issuing a trillion dollars in Fed Bills, but even assuming that everything works out just about as well as it conceivably can, if inflation started heading higher in that way then you’re looking at a core CPI figure of 4-5% before it stops rising. Like I said, it’s quite a long bus, and that translates to long “tails” of inflation outcomes.
How would markets react to this? Obviously, bond rates would be much higher, but would this be good or bad for equities? The conventional wisdom holds that equities are good hedges for inflation, because over a long period of time corporate earnings should broadly keep pace with inflation. While that is true, it is also the case that earnings tend to be translated into prices at lower multiples when inflation is high (a fact that has been known for a long time; in 1979 Franco Modigliani and Richard Cohn described this as an error but there isn’t consensus on that issue) so that stocks tend to do relatively poorly when inflation is rising and better when inflation is falling from a high level. Moreover, stocks do especially poorly in the early stages of inflation when short-term inflation is surprising to the upside, as the chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) illustrates.
This chart highlights headline inflation, rather than core, but the point should be clear: nominal bonds and equities produce good real returns when inflation is surprising to the low side (even if that means that inflation is just going up slower than expected), and very poorly when inflation surprises to the high side (even when the overall level is low).
In my mind, this means that every investor needs to have some inflation protection, but especially now when the chances for an ugly inflation surprise are significant. For the record, the best asset class when inflation is surprising to the high side as measured here? Even inflation-linked bonds have produced negative real returns in such circumstances, because the real yield increase outweighs the higher inflation accruals in the short run. But commodities indices historically produced a 4% real return over that time period when inflation surprised at least 2.5% to the upside.
 It isn’t clear to me why you would want to wait until they were unanchored, if anchoring matters, since presumably it isn’t easy to anchor them again. After all, the whole reason the Fed wants anchored inflation expectations is because a regime change is thought to be hard – so if they are unanchored, you’ve just made it really hard to get inflation back down. In any event there’s not much evidence that “anchored” inflation expectations matter to actual inflation outcomes, but it’s just weird to me that the Fed would imply that they’d wait until expectations get loose from the anchor.
This is a summary of my Post-CPI tweets today. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Core CPI +0.146%, just barely missing the soft +0.2% people were looking for. But y/y still rose to 2.0%.
- that dip in core is over – next several months have easy year-ago comps.
- Services inflation +0.3%, as is Housing. It’s only core commodities that’s a drag now (+0.0% after -0.1% last month).
- Rents (both primary and OER) rose +0.2% and the y/y rise matches core inflation at 2.1%. The inflation-sapping bust is over.
- unrounded y/y core CPI: 1.988%.
- Y/Y core services inflation is 2.5%. Y/Y core goods is +0.7%. It was services that dragged core down in 2009-10. That’s over. [Note: see Chart, source BLS, below]
- accelerating subgroups: Housing, Apparel, Transport, Recreation (66.2%). Decelerating: Food&Bev, Other (20.2%). Med Care & Educ/Comm unch.
- Both primary rents (+2.7% y/y) and OER (+2.1% y/y) are accelerating – by which I mean they are inflating at a faster y/y pace.
- Median CPI from the Cleveland Fed was +0.2%, and the y/y rate steady at 2.3%. The recent disinflation is an illusion.
The first supplementary chart is for core goods and core services. The sum of these two (weighted, of course) is core CPI. As you can see, it was the decline in the core services component (notably housing) that drove the decline in core CPI in the late ‘Aughts; the overall core number was temporarily kept afloat by the rise in core goods, but the crisis caused that to collapse as well.
Over the last couple of years, core services have returned to 2.5%, and core inflation is only as low as 2% now because core goods prices have begun to decline again. However, taking a broader view, it appears to me that the disinflation in goods from the early 90s to the early 00s is over and that goods prices are gradually taking a higher track. I’ve written previously about the possibility that the “globalization dividend” in terms of disinflationary pressures has shown some signs of ebbing. Obviously, should core goods inflation return to the levels it achieved a year ago (2.2% in November and December), overall core inflation would be comfortably above 2% even if core services inflation did not continue to accelerate.
In a non-CPI related note, New York Fed President Bill Dudley said today that the Fed won’t be “hasty” to pull back easy money: “If we were to see some good news on growth I would not expect us to respond in a hasty manner.” This confirms what we already knew – the Fed is willing to risk letting the inflation genie out of the bottle. Now, faster growth is not actually causal of inflation, as I frequently point out, so not responding to growth is ironically the right strategy, but it’s important to consider the reasons he gives for this policy. He is not saying that the Fed will not respond to growth because growth is not something they can affect; what he’s actually saying is that (since the Fed believes they can affect growth meaningfully) there is a very high hurdle to tightening even if prices accelerate somewhat further as long as growth remains slow.
So in what I think is the most likely case, continued slow growth with rising inflation, the Fed wouldn’t likely start to tighten the screws until core inflation was near 3% (and more importantly, until the economists who are modeling inflation as a function of growth decide they’re wrong, and stop forecasting a decline from whatever level we are at today). Since there is a significant delay of at least 6 months from Fed action to any effect on prices, this means that core inflation could easily get comfortably above 3% before any Fed action took effect – and, with the amount of money they’d need to withdraw, and the likelihood that they would start timidly, I have no idea how long it would take for them to stop an inflationary process which, at that point, would have considerable momentum.
So, in summary, this will not be the last uptick we see in core inflation.
To know that you’re standing before a cherry tree, you needn’t have cherries; cherry blossoms suffice. The seasons are long, so if you want to be able to harvest the fruit you need to look early for the signs.
So it is with inflation, and some would say it is with markets in general. We look for the early hints (a less-poetic scribe might call them ‘green shoots’) that signal when the season has turned. With inflation, indeed, the season has turned long ago, when core inflation bottomed in Europe, the U.S., and Japan in 2010 (and in the UK even earlier). But as we have seen, markets have not yet internalized this turning, or in some cases (as with nominal yields) have begun the recognition and then reversed it.
Consider now the humble 7.5% gain this month in the DJ-UBS commodity index (and comparably large moves in many other indices). It isn’t the size of the move, or its consistency, that is interesting to me; rather, it is that the movement has come partnered with a break of commodities’ relationship to the dollar.
Since commodities for the most part are priced in dollars, it is natural that they tend to move in the opposite direction from the greenback. When the dollar strengthens, then commodities are more expensive to non-dollar consumers, and they demand less. Yes, of course there are other factors, but when there are no stronger underlying currents then commodity indices tend to move inversely to the dollar. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) illustrates the strong coupling of the dollar index (here inverted) and the DJ-UBS Commodity Index in yellow, both normalized to August 1st, 2011.
But note that this recent movement in commodities has come not in conjunction with a weakening in the dollar, but in spite of a strengthening (albeit a modest one) of the unit. This, I think, may be the first blossoms of spring in commodity-land.
Some may object that the rise in commodity prices is primarily driven by grains, but this is not the source of this divergence. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the dollar index again (and again inverted) against the DJ-UBS ex-Agriculture Commodity Index.
I am not a disinterested observer of the Commodity Spring, as readers well know; our models have for some time now indicated that commodities were the only outright-cheap major asset class and our main strategy has been heavily overweight them for quite a while. So perhaps I will be accused of seeing blossoms where none have yet bloomed. But as commodity indices approach their highs of the year, they are still only 14-15% off their lows, and far below their highs of a few years back. They remain the cheap asset class.
Moving to inflation more-broadly, it seems the market is growing comfortable with the notion that core inflation may have topped since it hasn’t risen appreciably in a few months. It is certainly useful for those expecting QE3 – as am I – if that perception gains currency (no irony intended) since de-fanging the hawks on the Federal Reserve Board would seem to be a sine qua non for loosening policy appreciably. But I believe that comfort is ill-placed.
I had been expecting, based on the lagged effect of the large inventory of unsold homes last year, for the housing portion of core inflation to ebb from its recent pace. It has merely flattened out, and while inventories are coming down those declines shouldn’t begin to push shelter CPI up for another quarter or two. But long-lag relationships are inherently difficult since the lags can shift over time. So let’s look at a shorter-lag relationship.
The housing component of CPI is driven by rents, both for consumers who rent their residence (“Primary Rents”) and for the consumption value of owner-occupied housing (“Owners’ Equivalent Rent” or OER). The chart below shows the relationship between OER and the CBRE index of rents on multifamily property, lagged 2 quarters (the red dot marks the last OER point). The goodness of fit of this relationship, shown for the period 2001-present in the Chart below (Source: Bloomberg and BLS), is quite reasonable but interestingly, the recent rises in rents suggests that OER is significantly understated.
The number for the rental series ending in Q1 suggests that OER, which was last at 2.03% year-on-year in June, should be more like 3.4%. Since OER has a 23.5% weight in CPI and a 30.7% weight in core CPI, if OER were to converge it would be worth 0.4% on core inflation. And rental increases do not yet show much sign of ebbing. In short, the flattening out of core inflation over the last few months may represent the extent of what we can get out of housing at this point.
The last piece of evidence is really more corroboration of a speculation I’ve previously mentioned here. The sudden revival in apparel pricing this year has caught many analysts by surprise, and most have been expecting for the series to relapse soon (the price of cotton is often blamed, as if cotton hasn’t had any previous spikes in the last twenty years). My speculation was that the flattening and declining of apparel prices beginning in the early 1990s could plausibly be related to the opening of the U.S. textile industry to global competition, but if that is true then there must eventually come a time when the globalization has run its course and there are no more gains to be had from the declining domestic labor content in apparel. Thereafter, the rise in prices going forward should reflect rising wages in the source economies, without the dilution of changing composition.
Now Morgan Stanley has published a piece, by Joachim Fels et. al., called “Margin Call” (July 25, 2012). The authors illustrate that the U.S. margins of Chinese exporters have shrunk by 20-30% between 2004 and 2010, and argue among other things that “Price increases for Chinese imports and the spillover effects these are likely to generate may contribute to meaningful upward pressure on inflation.” This is not inconsistent with my speculation above, but adds a separate potential cause for the rise in apparel prices and other China-sourced prices (significant among them, incidentally, resin prices).
All in all, these pieces of evidence contribute to my belief that as consumers we ought to take time to smell the flowers, because the harvest of cherries is likely to follow in train. And in this case, that would be the pits.
 The R2 should be taken with a grain of salt, however, since these are overlapping observations.