There was a great deal of excitement about today’s Employment Report. The S&P rallied 1.1%, erasing the month-to-date losses at a stroke. And for what? Nonfarm Payrolls were reported at 203k with a net +8k upward revision to the prior months, versus expectations for 185k. That’s a miss that is easily within the standard error. The 6-month average stayed at about 180k and the 12-month average at about 190k. The 3-month average reached 193k, but that is lower than it was in Q1 of this year so no great shakes there.
True, the Unemployment Rate dropped from 7.3% to 7.0%, reversing the unexpected uptick from last month as the labor force participation rate rebounded. Economists were always suspicious of that steep drop in the participation rate, and some bounce was expected (pushing the Unemployment Rate down). But so what? As the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, this is just another step in a long, steady, slow improvement.
I think the reasoning must be something like this: the economy is stronger than we thought, by a little, yet this doesn’t change much about the timing of the taper. Unemployment is 7%, and core PCE is 1.1%. Neither one is close to the Evans Rule targets, so there’s plenty of time (at least, if you are a committed dove like is Yellen). They’re looking for reasons to be slow on tapering, not to accelerate it. At least, this is why equity investors were excited. Perhaps. It does not, though, change my own views in any way – the economy is moving along at roughly the pace that is now normal, adding jobs at a pace that is about what we should expect in the thick of an expansion. The expansion is still growing long in the tooth. But forecasting growth is no longer nearly as important as forecasting the Fed, and that seems fairly easy right now: mo’ money is mo’ better. Stocks are nearing an ugly disconnect, I think – but not today.
I seem to regularly take a lot of heat in the comments section of this column for several things. Some readers take me to task for covering up for The Man and his CPI Conspiracy. I won’t address that here, but on December 18th I’ll be running a combination of two old blog posts that explain why CPI isn’t a made-up number, and why most people perceive inflation as being higher than it actually is. The other major complaint is that I have been “calling for inflation forever” and that I am somehow an unrequited inflation-phobe.
I want to refute that specifically. The people who say that are sometimes confusing me with someone else, and that’s okay. But sometimes they make an assumption that since my Twitter handle is @inflation_guy, because I traded inflation derivatives on Wall Street and was the designer and market maker of the CPI futures contract that launched in 2004, and because I run a specialty investment management firm with a core focus on inflation, I must always be super bullish on inflation.
In fact, people who have followed my comments off-line and on-line for the last decade know that is very far from the truth. In fact, when I was an inflation swaps trader the dealer I worked for often got exasperated because I routinely told clients that I did not expect inflation to head higher very soon because of the huge overhang of private debt. “How can you expect us to sell inflation products,” they asked, “if you keep telling everyone there is no inflation?” My rejoinder: “If we are only selling these products when inflation goes up, we only have a business half the time, or whenever we can convince the client that inflation is going up. But these products almost always reduce risk, since almost every client has a natural exposure to inflation going up, and although they have systematically profited over the last two decades from a bet they didn’t know they were making, that cannot continue forever. That’s the reason people should buy inflation products: to reduce risk.”
So, for many years I was exactly the opposite of what I am sometimes accused nowadays of being: although I didn’t worry about deflation very much, I certainly wasn’t worried about runaway inflation.
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
It was clear that the Fed’s actions in 2008 were going to change things in a big way, but it is interesting that my models anticipated that inflation would continue to decline into 2010 and bottom in Q3 or early Q4 (which is what I said here among other places). It is from that point that I began to diverge with Wall Street opinion (again – since the consensus expected inflation in the middle 2000s while I did not). I published what I think is a helpful time series of my 12-month-ahead model forecasts in early 2012, contrasting it with a chart from Goldman.
So now, let me update the model chart with a forecast for the next twelve months. Before I do, note that in the chart I have substituted Median CPI for Core CPI, for the reasons I have written about for a while now: Core CPI is being dragged down by several one-off movements, most notably in Medical Care, and so Median CPI is currently a better measure of the true central tendency of inflation.
The black line is the actual Median CPI. The red line is the average of the other two models depicted as green and blue lines. The blue line is quite similar to the model I have been using for a very long time; it uses a couple of macro variables including a role for private indebtedness. The green line is something I introduced only in the last few years; it models shelter separately from the ex-shelter components because we have a pretty decent idea of what drives shelter inflation. Frankly, I like that model better, which is why my firm’s forecast for 2014 is for core (or median) inflation to be 3%-3.6%. The model says 3%, and I believe the tails are on the high side.
But the real purpose of my presenting that chart, and the aforementioned discussion, is to defend myself against the calumny that I am a perpetual bull on inflation. Nothing could be further from the truth. From 2004-2010, if I was bullish on inflation at all it was only a “trading opinion” based on market prices. It is only since then that I have been loudly bullish on inflation. And, even then, while I will tell you why inflation could have extremely long tails on the upside, you will not find me forecasting 8%. Nor claiming that inflation really is somewhere that I said it would be, because I don’t like the numbers the BLS is reporting.
I have said in the past, and reiterate now, that one of the main reasons I write this column is mainly to hear reasoned counterarguments to my theses. I think I get sucked far too often into debates with unreasoned or unreasonable counterarguments, not to mention ad hominem attacks.
It goes with the territory of writing a public blog, I suppose. At some level it doesn’t matter much, because I wouldn’t have been on Wall Street for two decades if I bruised easily. But on the other hand, I have a right to self-defense and I have now exercised that right with respect to this particular charge!
 A quote variously attributed to Keynes, Samuelson, and others…and apropos here.
 Incidentally, note that our firm forecast may differ from the model forecast based on our discretionary reading of the model and other factors. In the last two years, the naked model has handily whupped our discretionary forecast.
All the expectations for resurgent growth are running into a time problem. While the Federal Reserve continues to pump the system, hoping for that burst of energy coming out of the slump, there is really little reason to expect anything more than we have already gotten. I’ve written recently about that in the context of payroll growth and the rate of improvement in the unemployment rate. But there is also, as I say, a time problem.
The current expansion, believe it or not, is getting long in the tooth. While there have been longer expansions – the one from 1991 to 2001, fueled by a continuous decline in interest rates, a budget that was near balance or in surplus, and an asset bubble engendered by the promise of the Internet and some remarkable Wall Street pitchmen – the average postwar expansion has only been 68 months, peak to peak, or 58 months, trough to peak. According to the NBER, on which we rely to jog our memories since this was so long ago, the prior business cycle peak occurred in December 2007 and the prior trough in June 2009. So, using those average business cycle lengths, the expected date of the subsequent peak would be between August 2013 and May 2014. This latter date is especially interesting because it is approximately the current consensus on when the QE taper is expected to begin (again).
I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that getting more than an “average” expansion in the current circumstance would be a pleasant surprise indeed. With the size of government deficits, the uncertainty engendered by the morass in Congress and the rapid proliferation of regulatory overhead (both ACA-related and other), real interest rates much closer to the likely bottom than to the likely top, and continued threat of volatility in the international political economy… it is remarkable to me that we’ve even been able to squeeze out one of “average” duration.
And all it took was a few trillions!
It is well past time when it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to stop trying to push the economy faster. Blowing into the sail simply doesn’t work very well to make the boat go faster. It will only lead to hyperventilation.
So now we are in a situation in which the expansion is likely to begin to wind down, and very likely to do so at least partly provoked by the Fed’s tightening of policy (for lessening QE is, as we have seen from the interest rate response, clearly a tightening of policy). It may become very tempting for the Yellen Fed to continue QE as weakness manifests, but the problem is going to be that inflation is going to be heading higher, not lower, into the slowdown as the housing price inflation continues to percolate into rental prices and a weakening dollar helps other prices to firm as well.
We really are in a very dangerous situation equity market-wise, as a result of this timing issue. Over the next year inflation is going to rise, growth is (probably) going to slow, and equity earnings ex-finance are looking decidedly punk as a recent article by Sheraz Mian from Zacks Investment Research pointed out. Which is not to say, of course, that the stock market can’t or won’t continue to ramp higher…just that it is increasingly subject to sudden-breakage risk as the shelf it sits on gets higher and higher.
So, the bond market has had another few days of riding the yo-yo. A 20-bp bond selloff on Friday (followed by a 10bp rally today) was precipitated by a stronger-than-expected Employment Report, with the actual number of jobs created exceeding estimates by 100k (including revisions to the prior two months). Interestingly, the Unemployment Rate rose, but on the whole the data was clearly better than most observers expected even if the net result is that the economy is still limping along at almost precisely the same pace it has done so for the last few years (see chart, source: Bloomberg).
And so the equity market reaction makes some sense. The jobs report was strong enough so as to alleviate (or at least salve, temporarily) fears that the economy is about to slip back into recession, while not being so strong that it could lead to a premature taper which leaves everyone gasping but unsatisfied.
The bond market, though, was routed. The bad convexity profile, combined with the poor liquidity of a trading session stranded between a holiday and a weekend, throttled fixed-income and drove rates to the highs of the move. Ten-year Treasury yields (2.74% on Friday) reached the highest levels in almost two years.
I was wrong about stocks, but right about bonds, when I said I expected the prior trends to re-assert themselves after quarter-end. Given an Employment number that missed expectations one way or the other, it was going to be hard to be right on both in the short-term.
But in the slightly longer-term, the imbalances between equities and fixed-income are building in a way they haven’t been for a long time. As the chart below shows, the rally in equities has been fueled importantly by a long decline in long-term real interest rates, from 3% to -1%, since 2008.
A further equity rally is not out of the question, of course. The real equity premium (the excess expected real return of stocks relative to TIPS) in mid-2011 was as low as it is now, and that “unattractive condition” preceded a 40% rally in the stock market over two years. The difference is that in 2011, real interest rates were low, but (we know in retrospect) were destined to go much lower. It seems unlikely – although not impossible! – that real rates are about to rally again from +0.53% to -1.00%, thereby precipitating an additional rally.
Indeed, although it may be a trick of the eye the chart above seems to suggest that equity price turns lag the turns in real yields. The regression of real yield levels versus equity levels happens to have its best fit with a lag of 19 weeks. Not to worry, however: if that’s not merely spurious, then it means you still have about a month before the big equity slide is due to begin!
Interestingly, the international backdrop is heating up again, although in prior incarnations the Arab Spring (now replaced by the Egyptian Summer) and Grexit crisis (now replaced with the Portuguese government stability crisis and …the Grexit crisis) didn’t cause any lasting damage to equities. However, it bears repeating that those crises occurred in the context of steady and significant declines in interest rates.
Calm, anyway, is inherently destabilizing. The Troika wouldn’t be pressing Greece for more concessions, or holding Portugal’s feet to the fire, if markets were going crazy. However, because markets (and especially, equity markets) are comparatively calm, it seems like a fair time for policymakers to send trial balloons aloft. Similarly, the FOMC seems oddly relaxed about the carnage in bond markets, with officials content to waggle fingers in disapprobation at market action rather than to reverse course and speak soothingly about how additional quantitative easing could be provided. I expect a one-thousand point Dow fall would change that perspective rather quickly. As parents know, it is easy to hold the line on good parenting until Junior throws a fit, and then it is so tempting to give him a lollipop to quiet him down. But, while he’s behaving, why not ask him to try broccoli today?
Wahhhhhhh! And then we’ll see whether central bank discipline is real, or merely threatened.
 This is not autobiographical. My son loves broccoli.
- 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.
It was a pretty quiet day today, so instead of writing about the fairly boring market action (although AAPL broke below $500 for a few minutes and TIPS continued their recent bounce) I wrote a book report about the book How the Trading Floor Really Works. However, because people have requested that I separate obviously unrelated posts, you can find that review here.
There is one chart I would like to share – sort of a holdover from last week that I never got around to. It shows the unemployment rate (white line) against Initial Unemployment Claims (yellow line) for the last couple of cycles. (Source: Bloomberg)
So, do you think the job market is improving? You’re right! Does the job market still suck? You betcha!
There is also something different going on here, beyond the usual year-end seasonal adjustment tomfoolery. The decline in Initial Claims typically happens when the economy has stopped getting worse, and the current level is consistent with an economy that is turning jobs over at roughly the normal pace. We’re not creating lots more unemployed. But the slow decline in the Unemployment Rate is a sign that we’re not absorbing the existing unemployed through new growth of existing enterprises, or creation of new enterprises, as is typical in recoveries. I don’t think it should come as an absolute shock that in this business-unfriendly climate, businesses are reticent to expand, even if production as a whole is expanding.
The following are my post-Payrolls tweets (@inflation_guy), along with some charts and added thoughts.
- Payrolls number close, expected 85k was actually 146k but 49k of downward revisions. Amazingly good guesses given Sandy.
- Unemployment Rate drops to 7.746% from 7.876% (so really 0.1 drop not 0.2 drop), due to sharp particip drop to 63.6 from 63.8
- Not a particularly good report; haven’t had >200k jobs since March, after these revisions. But chatterverse will say it’s bullish stocks
- Goods producing jobs -22k; service-providing +169k. Retail trade +53, allaying some fears that weak Xmas season could hurt #s.
- Here’s some good news: Aggregate weekly hours rose to a new post-2008 high of 104.1, which is higher than it was in 2000. [Note: chart below]
- “Not in labor force” rose again: second highest total ever. Not in labor force, want a job now also rose. This is “shadow unemployment.” [Note: charts below]
- The chatterverse will say it’s a good report, but in my view it isn’t good enough, and we’ll quickly turn to fiscal cliff again.
As noted, this isn’t a great report. It continues the theme of tepid recovery, but without the people leaving the labor force the unemployment rate would be much higher. The chart below (source: BLS via Bloomberg) shows the “not in labor force” numbers going back decades.
Now, the thing is that I’m not sure this is a temporary phenomenon – some of these people are leaving the labor force because they’re giving up, but some of them are leaving the labor force because they’re retiring, or retiring early. We would be expecting some rise in this number anyway, due to the fact that Baby Boomers are starting to retire. So I think the chart below (same source) is a better view of the part of this rise that’s truly disturbing. It shows the category “not in labor force, but want a job now.” These are people who are not counted in the labor force because they’re not looking for a job, but if someone called and offered them a job they’d take it. Presumably, when the job market starts visibly recovering, these people will start to look again.
Finally, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the economy is still stumbling, but at least it’s stumbling forward. The chart below (same source) shows the aggregate weekly hours worked by production or nonsupervisory employees (2002=100).
As I say above, this isn’t a great report, and it isn’t a bad report – in my view, it’s good enough so that the CNBC talking heads can tell everyone to buy but not so good that it will re-direct the narrative from the fiscal cliff. And it certainly isn’t good enough to claim that there’s any evidence the economy is “ready to explode” once the fiscal cliff is resolved.