It has been a busy couple of weeks on the business side, which is why I haven’t been writing many articles. However, I wanted to be sure and pen a quick one today.
The main economic data is due out later this week: Existing Home Sales on Wednesday, New Home Sales on Thursday (both of these more interesting for the home price indications than for the volume figures), and Durable Goods on Friday. (Some of us also get excited about the 10-year TIPS re-opening on Thursday, with real yields at a 1-year high after a 35bp selloff over the last three weeks). But Monday and Tuesday have been relatively bereft of news, except for the occasional Fed speaker.
It is that “occasional Fed speaker” that I want to mention today.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard today gave a speech in Europe, about the need for the ECB to pursue “aggressive” QE in order to prevent a long period of low inflation and deflation such as that experienced by Japan over the last few decades.
What word am I searching for here…would it be “chutzpah?”
I realize that Chairman Bernanke has already been featured on a magazine cover as a Hero. It bears remembering that Greenspan was also called the Maestro at one point, although we are now all aware that his management of the Fed helped to precipitate a massive crisis. History isn’t written in real time by bloggers. It’s written by historians, years later.
But hasn’t the Fed, after all, been really successful? Isn’t a victory lap deserved? Haven’t they earned the right to lecture to other central banks about the proper execution of monetary policy? After all, the Fed brought down the unemployment rate while inflation remains tame. Case closed.
Perhaps that would be a good argument if Earth was hit by a comet tomorrow and all life ceased. But in the event life continues, we will need to wait until the cycle is complete. Celebrating now is like pumping one’s fist in celebration in the middle of a motorcycle jump over 25 buses. Nice trick, but we’ll hold our applause until you stick the landing if you don’t mind.
There seems to be great faith in the Federal Reserve that the tough part is over. All that they need to do now, it seems they believe, is to just start tightening before inflation gets going; they can do it very gradually, supposedly, because of the great credibility the Fed has and because they understand how inflation responds to rates.
But in fact, inflation doesn’t respond to rates but to money. And not to reserves, but to transactional money. Transactional money responds not to total reserves, but to banking activity and the resulting level of required reserves…which the Fed is unable to directly affect. When the Fed begins to taper, and then to somehow drain reserves, I predict it will have almost zero impact on the inflation process until the excess reserves have been drained.
Indeed, if interest rates rise when the Fed begins to do this, it will perversely tend to increase the velocity of money, which tends to vary inversely with the opportunity cost of holding cash balances (that is, velocity goes up when interest rates go up, all else equal). It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s pretty important, as the chart below suggests (I think I have run something like this chart previously).
Now, ordinarily when the Fed is raising rates, they’re also draining reserves – so the increase in money velocity is balanced by the decline in money to some degree. That won’t happen this time. When rates go up, velocity will go up, but the quantity of (M2) money will not change because it is driven by a multiplier that acts on required reserves. That means inflation may well rise as interest rates increase, at least for a while.
I might be wrong, but I am willing to wait and see how it plays out. If I am wrong, then you don’t have to put me on the cover of a magazine.
To conclude that inflation is fully tamed at this point, anyway, is remarkably optimistic. Home prices are skyrocketing at rates only rarely seen, and it would be incredible if that did not lead to higher rents and higher core inflation…literally within a couple of months from now, judging from the historical lag patterns.
But, again, I should return to my main point: it isn’t that the Fed is wrong, it’s just that they are so completely certain that they are right even though the difficult part of the trick – unwinding the extraordinary policy without any adverse effects – lies ahead.
Sit down, James Bullard. Let the ECB manage its own affairs. I am sure they can mess it up on their own, without your help. And certainly, without your condescending advice!
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.
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.
The explosion today wasn’t at the White House. That was a false report, put out when the Twitter account of the Associated Press was hacked. But that report immediately led to immolation at some high-frequency trading (HFT) fund, somewhere, almost certainly. The S&P immediately dropped 16 points as some news algorithm (or algorithms) scraped the tweet and immediately converted it into sell orders. As they say in the circus, “whoops!” And, as in the circus, that utterance is almost immediately followed by the sound of ambulances. In an otherwise very quiet market, there was a five minute period of very active trading, punctuated by swearing so loud you could almost hear it.
Somewhere, there is a fund that was founded on the basis of its smart algos that can “react faster than humans can react,” which took losses faster than a human could have taken losses. Ouch, I say. Ouch. But my sympathy for HAL is tempered by the fact that HAL has no sympathy for me.
I am pretty sure that the rapid movement in housing prices has nothing to do with HFT algorithms, although the violence of the move is starting to be vaguely reminiscent. Fortunately, home sales documentation is still not effected in microseconds, so we all still have a chance to beat the machines. Over the last few days, we have seen Existing and New Home Sales data, and the FHA’s Home Price Index; the more stable two of these confirmed that home prices continue to accelerate. In fact, as the chart below shows, the year-on-year rise in Existing Home median prices is more than 10% faster than core inflation for only the second time since the data has been kept. The first time that happened was in the midst of the housing bubble.
Housing is nowhere near bubble territory yet, and as the chart also shows the rise in home prices can persist at better than 10% over CPI for at least a little while. However, it can’t last too long because of the reflexivity of it: eventually, no matter what happens to home prices, the increases will pass into core inflation and the spread will be eaten away from the bottom.
This isn’t even necessarily a negative sign of a re-inflating bubble. In principle, if home prices had gotten overextended on the downside in a “negative bubble,” this could simply be a snap-back and just healthy. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. I showed here that median existing home prices as a multiple of median household income are right on the average for the last 36 years or so – certainly not cheap. The chart below shows a similar relationship for New Homes. Note that with new homes, one would expect an uptrend since the average new home has grown in size over the years and loan qualifications have also allowed lower-income borrowers to dedicate larger shares of their incomes to buying new homes.
The simple implication of the fact that home prices continue to accelerate higher is that core inflation is absolutely going to head higher. I think that Owners’ Equivalent Rent will turn higher in the next couple of months; Pimco recently wrote a piece saying they think the upturn takes until late this year; but it will happen. And it will happen regardless of whether the “shadow inventory” of homes hits the market or not, although if there really is a large unsold shadow inventory of homes, that will moderate the advance. My question is: where is this shadow inventory? Existing home prices are 10-20% off the lows depending on what series you use. Are sellers waiting for a return to the peak?
Some observers have noted that homes are now suddenly appearing on the market, and they divine a supply response. This is possible, but what is more likely is that this is the normal seasonal pattern: people put their homes on the market in the spring, not in the winter. This is why the sales data are seasonally-adjusted, so don’t trust your anecdotal evidence! The chart below shows the nonseasonally-adjusted single family Existing Home Sales (source: NAR) for the last few years. You can see that the data mavens fully expect home sales to be picking up now, which is why there are many more homes on the market suddenly. There are every year at this time.
So I think we are still left with the conundrum. Where are all of those shadow homes? We know where the new homes are – they were never built, because the market was awful. That inventory will respond as builders build new homes. But as for the shadow inventory of existing homes…maybe they don’t exist?
From the standpoint of inflation, the question of shadow inventory only matters to the trajectory of future inflation, not to the question of how much CPI will rise in 2013 and 2014. Those OER increases are virtually baked in the cake, unless something very strange is happening. While an important lesson of the last few years is that very strange things happen all the time, we’re talking about a specific very strange thing: the possibility that the price of a good (a home) rises, and the price of a close substitute (a rental) does not. While those can diverge from time to time, I have great confidence in the economic verity that the prices of substitutes tend to move together.
The only way there might be a big divergence is if home prices are rising because the investment value of the home, and not its value as housing, is what is increasing (although in the bubble years, rents eventually rose as well). But if that is the case, wouldn’t that in itself be a sign that there is concern about inflation, so that people are seeking real assets wherever they can find them? Concern about inflation need not lead to inflation, but it may be a contemporaneous indication that inflation is rising and it merely hasn’t shown up in the data yet.
The rise in home prices is the biggest single alarm being sounded about inflation at the moment, and it seems to me that it pays to listen to it, and check that the doors and windows are locked…just to be sure.
 This is a much smaller effect with existing homes, since the average square footage of the homes existing in the entire nation changes much more slowly; also, many existing homes are move-up homes so the marginal-borrower effect, which I suspect is pretty small anyway except for the bubble years, is less pronounced.
The sine qua non for a disaster is that no one is worrying about the disaster. Earthquakes are less damaging in Tokyo than the same earthquake would be in New York, because in Tokyo buildings are designed to be earthquake-resistant. This is also true in markets; if investors are guarded about purchasing equities because of all the bad things that can happen, then prices of equities will be very low and it will be difficult to effect a true crash in such a circumstance.
The opposite doesn’t necessarily follow in the physical world (if you don’t prepare for an earthquake, it doesn’t increase…so far as we know…the probability of it happening), but it occasionally does in the financial world. I pointed out in January the work by Arnott and Wu which indicates that a company which enjoys “top dog status” in terms of having the greatest market capitalization in its sector tends to underperform the average company in the market by 5% per year for a decade. This is largely because investors in such companies are not prepared for adverse surprises, so that any such surprises tend to be taken poorly. Similarly, problems in Cyprus had an outsized effect on markets because (remarkably) no one was prepared for there to be problems in Cyprus that the rest of the Eurozone wouldn’t simply write a check to cover.
By this standard, inflation is growing more dangerous by the day, as more and more investors and pundits start talking – incredibly – about deflation. St. Louis Federal Reserve President Bullard today told an audience at the Hyman Minsky Conference in New York that it is “too early” to worry about deflation. That statement must hit most readers of this column as hysterically funny, given how many readers typically complain that the CPI is far lower than their personal experience of inflation. Bullard also noted that he favors an increase in the pace of QE if inflation falls further. Since core inflation is currently at 1.9%, Bullard is essentially putting a floor on inflation near where we once thought the ceiling was.
I read somewhere today that the recent declines in copper and gold are “signs of deflation.” I disagree. At best, they are signs of fears of deflation, right? But even that, I don’t buy. While breakevens in the TIPS market have declined recently, they are still not particularly low by any historical standard (see chart of 10y BEI, source Bloomberg). Moreover, a not-insignificant part of that decline represents a direct response to energy’s retracement and isn’t a reaction to a softer opinion about core inflation.
In fact, the core inflation implied by the 1-year inflation swap, once energy is extracted, is above the current level of core inflation and near the highs that have been seen since early 2011 (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
So I suspect, rather, that the causality runs the other way: the decline in copper and gold has caused an increase in chatter and vocal concern about deflation. But the people who are investing directly on whether deflation will happen aren’t seeing it. This is somewhat comforting, as it’s the people with actual money (rather than pundits and economists) who determine whether their institutions are ready.
Now, to the extent that the increased chatter actually leads to renewed relaxation in inflation expectations (ex-energy), it sets the stage for worse damage when it inevitably happens. Inflation, like earthquakes, is more injurious when societal institutions have not prepared for it. Median inflation in the U.S. over the last decade is about 2.5%. But in South Africa, it is 5.7%. In the U.S., a 5.7% inflation rate would cause major havoc, but South Africans would be amused at that since they deal every day with that pace of price change (as did Americans, in the 1980s). In Turkey, median inflation has been about 9.5%, but there again the society has adapted to it. To the extent that there is any fear in the U.S. about inflation rising to 5% or to 10%, institutions will prepare for it, and they will eventually learn to deal with it. It’s the shift to that new reality that can be especially painful.
The rest of the week has only minor economic data releases, with the Philly Fed report on Thursday (Consensus: 3.0 vs 2.0 last) the most important of them. A few Fed speakers will be on the tape. But the real market concern is concern in the market: the VIX has risen to 16.5 after having receded slightly on Tuesday; the dollar today retraced all of Tuesday’s decline and then some. Gold and commodities have not fallen further after the washout on Monday, but neither have they rejected the lower levels and rallied back. The S&P has support at 1540 or so but below that level there could be a substantial further fall. All of these markets have potential for important moves, and in the meantime there is the potential for renewed headlines out of Cyprus where there is consternation over the new demands from the EU. The trader in me would guess (stress: guess) at further weakness in equities, an attempt made by energy markets to hold near these levels, a halting rally into resting sell orders in precious metals markets, steady nominal bond markets but with some rebound higher in long breakevens. But here are the problems: (1) these are all connected – so I could easily miss on every one of these guesses; (2) any big move will affect sentiment on the others, so that there are copious feedback loops; (3) much of what happens will depend on the next quantum of news to hit the screens, and (4) Wall Street is less and less in a position to take risk and maintain orderly markets, as it has in the past. We might even simply tread water into the weekend and take our volatility on Monday. But I’m fairly convinced that more volatility is coming before markets calm down again.
But that’s not a problem, if you’re prepared for it!
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Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Sigh.Not this month!Core #inflation +0.1%, waiting 4 data to see rounding. Big fall in apparel, & housing uptick not happening yet.
- Apparel decline most since April 2001. That will reverse.
- Core with rounding looks like 0.106%, 1.89% y/y. definitely weak. Will look at breakdown to see where.
- This is the most that y/y has been below our forecast track since January 2009!
- Core services fell from +2.6% y/y to +2.5%, but core goods fell to flat from +0.3%. Our thesis is that these will converge up, not down.
- Core goods is inherently harder to forecast. Core services is largely housing.
- Accelerating subgroups: Educ/Comm (6.8% of basket). Decel: Apparel, Transp, Food & Bev, Recreation (41.7%). Unch: Housing, Med Care, Other
- CPI drooping appears to be seasonal maladjustment. The Apparel burp itself is worth 0.04%.
- Housing – we’re still waiting for the upturn. This month primary rents rose to 2.81% from 2.74% y/y, Lodging Away from Home rose too.
- Owners’ Equivalent Rent (24% of CPI) fell to 2.083% vs 2.144%. Since Primaries are rising, probably just a lag issue. 1 or 2 more months.
- Apparel saw broad-based huge declines. Again, likely seasonal. Core decelerated 0.11%, and 0.06% of that was Apparel.
- Our forecast for full-year CPI doesn’t change as a result of this number. We’re still at 2.6%-3.0% on core for 2013.
I don’t want to overplay the Apparel card here. March is a big month for seasonal adjustment for Apparel, but it is possible that this marks the end of the two-year spike in Apparel prices. If it does, then it resolves one speculation I’ve had: that the rise in Apparel, after twenty years of flat-to-declining prices, indicated that in some areas the globalization dividend on inflation may have ended. It is far too early to say that speculation is wrong, especially with big seasonal adjustments in March. Prior to 1992, there were certainly setbacks in Apparel on a regular basis due to the difficulty in seasonal adjustment. So it’s too early to say this is wrong, but not too early to say it’s surprising. And, after all, there’s always the possibility that the screwy numbers were the last twenty-three of them, and not this one. But these are still the highest seasonally-adjusted Apparel prices we’ve had in March since 2001 (see chart, source BLS, below).
The small blip down in Housing is much less of a concern. Primary rents are still rising, and OER didn’t exactly decline aggressively. We’ve been waiting out a “flat part” in the lag structure – this just means we have to wait another month or two. The chart below is updated (multiple sources) through this morning.
None of this will help the commodities guys, nor the TIPS guys, in the short run. But it doesn’t change the big picture for inflation. It’s coming. We just have to wait another month or two for the evidence!