Today the 1-year CPI swap rate closed at 1.77%, the highest rate since 2014 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The CPI swap (which, as an aside, is a better indicator of expected inflation than are breakevens, for technical reasons discussed here for people who truly have insomnia) indicates that headline inflation is expected to be about 1.77% over the next year. That’s nearly double the current headline inflation rate, but well below the Fed’s target of roughly 2.3% on a CPI basis. But at least on appearances, investors seem to be adjusting to the reality that inflation is headed higher.
Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. And in this case, they are. The headline inflation rate is of course the combination of core inflation plus food inflation and energy inflation; as a practical matter most of the volatility in the headline rate comes from the volatility endemic in energy markets. I’ve observed before that this leads to unreasonable volatility in long-term inflation expectations, but in short-term inflation expectations it makes perfect sense that they ought to be significantly driven by expectations for energy prices. The market recognizes that energy is the source of inflation volatility over the near-term, which is why the volatility curve for inflation options looks strikingly like the volatility curve for crude oil options and not at all like the volatility curve for LIBOR (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
The shape of the energy futures curves themselves also tell us what amount of energy price change we should include in our estimate of future headline inflation (or, alternatively, what energy price change we can hedge out to arrive at the market’s implied bet on core inflation). I am illustrating this next point with the crude oil futures curve because it doesn’t have the wild oscillations that the gasoline futures curve has, but in practice we use the gasoline futures since that is closer to the actual consumption item that drives the core-headline difference. Here is the contract chart for crude oil (Source: Bloomberg):
So, coarsely, the futures curve implies that crude oil is expected to rise about $4, or about 9%, over the next year. This will add a little bit to core inflation to give us a higher headline rate than the core inflation rate. Obviously, that might not happen, but the point is that it is (coarsely) arbitrageable so we can use this argument to back into what the market’s perception of forward core inflation is.
And the upshot is that even though 1-year CPI swaps are at the highest level since 2014, the implied core inflation rate has been steadily falling. Put another way, the rise in short inflation swaps has been less than the rally in energy would suggest it should have been. The chart below shows both of these series (source: Enduring Investments).
So – while breakevens and inflation swaps have been rallying, in fact this rally is actually weaker than it should have been, given what has been happening in energy markets. Investors, in short, are still irrationally lugubrious about the outlook for price pressures in the US over the next few years. Remember, core CPI right now is 2.2%. How likely is it to decelerate 1.5% or more over the next twelve months?
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Here is an interesting chart that might suggest flows into oil markets.
Or perhaps it suggests something else. But I put together the chart below (data sourced from Bloomberg) because it seemed to me as if recently crude oil – and other energy markets, but I am focusing on Crude – has been having a nice little spike in the middle of the morning. Often, these have seemed inexplicable to me; other times (like yesterday) there was ostensibly news but it was not immediately obvious that the news was oil-supportive.
This chart shows a composite trading day for June NYMEX Crude Oil futures for the last 20 days. You can see that it appears I am not imagining it: on average, Crude has been rallying about 30 cents per day, beginning about 9:00ET.
I thought this might be flattered by the DOE weekly release, which is at 10:30ET on Wednesdays. So I removed those days and the relationship is still clear (although it makes the rise from 3am to 9am look relatively more important).
I don’t know exactly what this means, but it has “felt” to the old trader in me that the market was tending to gap in that time frame and this seems to confirm the visceral sense. It doesn’t necessarily mean my other gut feeling, that this might represent systematic daily allocations – perhaps to energy or broad commodity ETFs? Or OTC products? Or both? – is correct, however.
I am sure that in my career I have seen weirder reactions, but when the Durable Goods number came out and plainly was significantly weaker-than-expected and energy rallied I must admit it was hard to think of one.
Presumably the reaction was an indirect one: weaker growth means the Fed is less likely to tighten, which means a lower dollar and hence, higher global demand for oil. But that seems a wild overthink. If there is a recession in the offing, and if we care about demand in oil markets (and I think we should), then weak economic growth from one of the world’s largest economies probably ought to be reflected in lower oil prices.
There is part of me that wants to say “maybe investors have finally realized that any given month of Durable Goods Orders is almost meaningless because the volatility of the number makes it hard to reject any particular null hypothesis.” I haven’t done this recently, but many years ago I discovered that a forecast driven by the mechanical rule of -0.5 times last month’s Durables change had a better forecasting record than Street economists. Flip the sign, divide by two. However, I don’t really think the market suddenly got wise.
I also don’t think it’s that a bunch of people got the API report, which came out at 4:30pm to subscribers only, early. That report supposedly showed a large draw in crude inventories when a build was expected – but I’m not into conspiracy theories. That would be too obvious, anyway.
The perspective of analysts on Bloomberg was that the oil market will “rebalance” this year, a point which isn’t very far from the point I made last week in my article “Don’t Forget Oil Demand Elasticity!” But rebalancing doesn’t mean that prices should go higher. They have, after all, already gone quite a bit off the lows. By our proprietary measure, the real price of oil is at a level which implies a 10-year expected real return of about 1% per annum. In other words, it’s within about 10% of fair value quantitatively; given the immense supply overhang that doesn’t seem to promise lots of upside from these levels.
It isn’t just energy. The Bloomberg Commodity Index is 15% off its January lows (see chart, source Bloomberg). Precious metals, industrial metals, softs, grains, and meats are all above their lows of the last 1-2 quarters.
Unfortunately, much of this is simply a function of the dollar’s retracement. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index (left axis, inverted) against the broad trade-weighted dollar. Heck, arguably commodities are still lagging.
But the winds of change do seem to be about. Last week, the Treasury auctioned 5y TIPS; though this isn’t an event in and of itself, the fact that the auction was strongly bid is certainly unusual. The 5y TIPS are a difficult sell. People who are concerned about inflation are typically looking to protect against the long-term. But TIPS also represent real interest rate risk, and if you think inflation is going to be rising near-term then you probably don’t want to own lots of interest rate risk. Sure, you’ll prefer inflation-linked real rates to nominal rates (see my timely comment from January, “No Strategic Reason to Own Nominal Bonds Now”: since then, 10y real yields have fallen 40bps while 10y nominal yields have fallen 7bps), but if you really think inflation is about to rear its ugly head then you don’t want any real or nominal duration but only inflation duration.
And inflation duration has lately been doing really well. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the marked rebound in the 10-year breakeven inflation rate since February 9th.
I think there’s some evidence that the pendulum of complacency on inflation has begun finally to swing back the other way. Core inflation is rising in Europe, the UK, Japan, and the US, and it was inevitable that someone would notice. Ironically, it took energy’s rally to make people notice (and energy, of course, isn’t in core inflation). But what do I care?
If in fact the pendulum of complacency and concern has finally reversed, then both stocks and bonds are in for a rough ride. Bonds may be marginally protected by a dovish Fed, but that only works as long as the inscrutable Fed stays dovish…or inscrutable.
(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link.)
The big story of the weekend was that a meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC producers, at which an agreement was supposed to be signed to freeze oil production at recent levels, ended without an agreement being signed. This was not an enormous surprise, since Iran didn’t even attend the conference and the Saudis had said they wouldn’t sign unless Iran agreed, but oil prices initially took a significant hit before recovering some later in the day.
The economic significance of the lack of agreement is fairly small; most producers are producing near their maximum output, except for important non-attendees like the United States and Iran. (The Saudis claim to be able to put 1mm barrels per day online in short order, too). But the psychological significance was thought to be important.
I’m not so sure about the importance of mind-games in an efficient global market for a commodity product. The market is oversupplied, by a significant amount, and no amount of posturing will change that. However, basic economics may.
Overlooked by many is the fact that OPEC’s problem is one that automatically diminishes over time even if OPEC does nothing. This is because the demand for oil is short-term inelastic, but long-term elastic.
The elasticity of demand describes how quickly the quantity demanded responds to price. If demand is very elastic, then changes in price cause large changes on the quantity demanded. On the other hand, inelastic demand curves indicate that the quantity demanded changes very little when the price on offer changes.
The elasticity of demand has a very significant consequence for the question of how revenues change when prices change. Revenue is simply price times quantity. So, if a small change in price causes a large change in quantity (that is, an elastic demand curve), it is a good strategy (for example, as an individual company) to cut one’s price: the company will sell lots more product and give up only a little revenue on each one, so that total revenues rise with price declines if a producer faces an elastic demand curve. On the other hand, if demand is inelastic, then a price cut doesn’t change the quantity sold very much, but decreases revenue on each unit. If a producer faces an inelastic supply curve, total revenues decline with price decreases. And, conversely, total revenues increase with price increases in such a case. This is the reason that cartelization of the oil industry is an apparently attractive strategy: oil demand is, at least in the short-run, price inelastic. If gasoline prices rise $1 per gallon next week, you will still drive almost as much as before.
But static equilibria cannot fully describe dynamic markets! It turns out that for most products, demand elasticity in the long-run is higher, and often much higher, than in the short run. Consumers adjust to changing prices by adjusting their consumption mix! This is also true with energy markets: while you won’t drive a lot less next week if gasoline prices are much higher, if they stay higher you will start to carpool, buy more energy-efficient vehicles, and so on. This is one reason that cartelization ends up failing. In the short run, it makes sense to band together and hike prices, raising overall revenue, but this has deleterious effects on long-run revenue and creates incentives to cheat to grab more of the (diminishing) demand.
Analysis of the energy markets tends to focus on supply, but as prices increase and decrease over extended periods of time, it is important to remember that demand eventually responds. From 2011 until mid-2014, retail gasoline averaged about $3.50 per gallon (see chart, source Bloomberg). But it has been below that level for almost two years, and averaged more like $2.30 per gallon since then.
Similarly, WTI crude oil averaged around $100/bbl in 2011-mid2014, but only about $60 since then. And most of that was well below $60. The picture for Brent is of course very similar.
In the short run, with inelastic demand, these large declines represent a very large drop in OPEC producer revenues. But in the long run – and after two years, we are much closer to the long run – demand will increase even if the global economy doesn’t grow at all because there is a demand response to lower prices. OPEC, in other words, initially sold the same amount of oil at lower prices, but as time passes they will sell larger amounts of oil at these lower prices. While that’s not as good as selling those larger amounts of oil at higher prices, it is better than what it had been after the initial, sharp decline.
So oil producers will have more total revenue over the next year, even if price doesn’t change and even if the global economy stops growing, than they did last year. The need for a production freeze becomes less urgent all the time.
Of course, the supply overhang is huge, and it won’t go away overnight and probably won’t go away from demand response alone. But, as we are dealing with the long run, we shouldn’t neglect the demand response, either.
Following is a concatenation of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy. Due to scheduling issues, I don’t have any further development of the observations highlighted below.
- OK, 4 minutes until CPI. If I had to guess what a theme, I would say the question of whether apparel and medical care trends continue.
- Is apparel the canary in the coal mine from recent jumps? And is CPI or PPI right about medical care? The latter has been softer.
- Weak CPI number! 0.1%/0.1% and y/y core slipped to 2.2%!
- even weaker than that…+0.07%, 2.20% exactly y/y on core. That’s a really big surprise.
- first glance – medical care y/y slipped, and apparel y/y plunged. getting more detail
- core services slipped to 3.0% from 3.1%; core goods dropped to -0.4% from +0.1%
- while i’m waiting for more detail…this CPI doesn’t mean it’s done going up; just that we can’t reject the hypothesis that it’s not.
- have to remember these are experiments – underlying inflation rate not knowable so we can only reject hypotheses.
- my suspicion: we may be able to lean more to the “apparel was seasonal” hypothesis but jury is out on medical care normalization.
- ok – apparel -0.64% from +0.89% y/y. medical care 3.29% from 3.50%. housing up small, recreation, education/comm, other all up small.
- within apparel: Mens suits/sportcoats/outerwear -7.6% from -4.6%. Mens furnishings -1.2% from +2.2%. Mens pants/shorts -5.8% from +2.4%
- but WOMENS outerwear 5.5% from 3.2%; suits & separates +0.2% from -0.3%. Dresses down though, -6.3% from -4.3%.
- so could be seasonal…but we will have to wait to know for sure. weird, anyway.
- in housing: Primary rents 3.66% vs 3.68%; OER 3.12% vs 3.16%. lodging away from home 2.27% v 4.19%. so rise in housing was HH energy.
- In Medical: drugs 2.49% v 2.34%. Prof svcs 2.27% vs 2.54%. hospital 4.33% v 4.90%. Insuance 6.20% v 5.97%. Similar read to PPI.
- PPI and CPI don’t have much overlap, or we would rely more on the earlier PPI. So hard to read much.
- does mean core PCE not likely to converge as quickly with core/median CPI.
- ok last tweet: early estimate on median still looks like +0.17%, 2.39%, down vy slightly from 2.43% y/y.
None of this changes the underlying focus: median at 2.4% and core converging upward to it. And there’s still no sign that housing is about to weaken. Core goods had been strengthening; this has been arrested but it may be a function of the early Easter (however, Easter occurred for men, too…). As I suspected early – this is a holding-pattern number, certainly weaker than inflation bulls expected but it doesn’t dash the underlying trends…yet. This makes the April number, released next month, more important!
And none of this changes the underlying points I made in a Marketwatch opinion article that appeared yesterday. You can read that article here.
Last week I mentioned something about what Keynes said in the General Theory, and promised to expand on that a bit this week. I will do so, in the form of a book review.
I can’t remember who it was, and I’m sorry, but one of the people who read my articles suggested a book to me a year or so ago published in 2009 and called Where Keynes Went Wrong: And Why World Governments Keep Creating Inflation, Bubbles, and Busts by Hunter Lewis, and I finally got around to reading it. I am very glad I did – this book is terrific, and is a must-read if you are either pro-Keynes or anti-Keynes.
Of course, readers will know from my articles that I am anti-Keynes, although more precisely I am anti-Keynesian in the modern sense of that word. I never read very much of the General Theory, because honestly it is poorly written in the sense of its prose, and I always assumed that Keynes probably had some great insights and it was the later Keynesians that screwed up what he said.
Oh, I was so wrong. Keynes was looney tunes. A bona fide lunatic. He proved masterful in manipulating the cult of personality that existed at the time he was writing, however; he was adept at destroying his opponents in ways that sounded erudite and like certain later personalities the media adored him. All of this is well-documented by Mr. Lewis, although the looney tunes conclusion is my own.
The book is put together brilliantly. The author quotes passages from Keynes, using actual quotes interspersed with paraphrasing – which is necessary because, as I said above, the General Theory is poorly written and opaque. But it isn’t the paraphrasing that is damning. When Mr. Lewis wants to indict Keynes, he does it with his own words. For example, in unraveling the absurd (and often self-contradictory) prescriptions that Keynes had for managing the macro economy, Mr. Lewis declares that Keynes thought government should never raise interest rates. That’s right, never. But you needn’t take Lewis’ word for it. Here’s Keynes, cited in the book:
“The remedy for the boom is not a higher rate of interest but a lower rate of interest! For that may enable the boom to last. The right remedy for the trade cycle is not to be found in abolishing booms and thus keeping us permanently in a semi-slump; but in abolishing slumps and thus keeping us permanently in a quasi-boom.”
If you are anything like me, that sent a shiver down your spine right now. Does that sound at all familiar? Keep in mind that Lewis wrote this book in 2009. He could not possibly have anticipated that interest rates would not move away from zero for seven years (and counting, in some countries). And yet this quote sounds to me so much like what the Mount Rushmore of Fed speakers seemed to be suggesting last week. “It worked,” Bernanke was saying. “We’re not in a bubble economy,” said Yellen. None of them saw any signs of serious imbalances, except Volcker (and he was fairly circumspect about how worrisome they were).
In my own book, I indict Keynesianism in the simplest way: I simply point out that the prescription of the Keynesians hasn’t only not worked, it also has failed in every major prediction since, basically forever. But Lewis attacks Keynes himself, with his own words, from the original source. He explains, very clearly, where Keynes went wrong. If you wonder why world governments keep screwing up economies…you should read this book.
 Apparently elsewhere Keynes said different things but in the General Theory he was consistent on this point.
 Keynes, General Theory, p. 322; quoted on page 20 of Where Keynes Went Wrong by Hunter Lewis.
In yesterday’s article, I neglected to mention one remark by a former Fed chair that bothered me at the time. However, I didn’t mention it because I thought the reason it bothered me was that it was vacuous – the sort of throw-away line that someone uses to stall while thinking of the real answer to the question. Since then, I’ve realized what specifically annoyed the subconscious me about the remark.
When Bernanke was asked about whether a recession is coming at some point; he glibly replied “Expansions don’t die of old age,” as if that was obvious and the questioner was being a dolt. Like so much of what Bernanke says, this statement is both true, and irrelevant.
Human beings, also, don’t die of old age. There is a cause of death – something causes a person to die; it isn’t that their library card of corporeality became overdue and they expired. The cause may be a heart attack, a slip-and-fall in the bathtub, cancer, pneumonia, complications from surgery, or the flu, but death is the result of a cause. It just happens that as a person gets older, the number of potential causes multiplies (a newborn rarely has a heart attack) and the number of causes that become fatal to an old person, where they would be merely inconvenient to a hale person, increases as well. As we age, parts of our bodies and immune systems weaken – and that’s where death sneaks in.
Think of those weaknesses as…let’s call them imbalances that have accumulated.
The statement that expansions don’t die of old age is literally true. Something causes them to die. It may be monetary error, but as Volcker pointed out last night in answer to a different question, there were recessions long before there was a Federal Reserve. Expansions also can die from a diminution of credit availability, from energy price spikes, from malinvestment, from an overextension of balance sheets that leads to bankruptcies…from a myriad of things that may not kill a young, vibrant expansion.
The parallel is real, and the point is that while this expansion was never very vibrant the current imbalances are legion. The Fed may not see them, or may believe them to be small (like Bernanke’s Fed felt about the housing bubble and Greenspan’s Fed felt about the equity bubble). But the Fed has a fantastic record on one point: they are nearly flawless at misdiagnosing a patient who is sickening.