First Ballots are in on Results of Fed Tightening

February 11, 2016 3 comments

It fascinates me how bear markets all feel alike in some ways. What I remember very clearly from the equity bear markets of 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 is that bulls wanted to bottom-tick the market at every imagined opportunity. Every “support level,” for the first half of each decline at least, saw bulls pile in as if the train were about to leave the station without them on it. Of course, the train was about to leave the station, but it was backing up.

Today, the S&P didn’t quite touch 1810 on the downside, basically matching the 1812 low from January. Bulls love double-bottoms. Of course, many of those turn out not to be double-bottoms after all, but the ones that are look very nice on the charts. So stocks rocketed off the lows, rising 25 S&P points in a matter of minutes after briefly being down 51. The rally was helped ostensibly by comments from the UAE oil minister, who claimed OPEC is ready to cooperate on a production cut. But that isn’t really why stocks rallied so dramatically; after all the news only pushed crude oil itself up about a buck. The real reason is that bulls are crazy maniacs.

They’re that way for a reason. If you are benchmarked against an equity index, it is very hard for an unlevered fund manager to beat that index in an up market. Once you subtract fees, and a drag from whatever cash holding you must have, you’re doing well to match the index since your limitation is (by definition of ‘unlevered’) 100% long.[1] Where a fund manager must beat his index is in a down market, by participating less than 100% in a selloff. But being an outperformer in a down market is less valuable since customer outflows are likely to outweigh the inflows if there is a serious bear market. Therefore, fund managers naturally fall into a pattern of scalping small selloffs for outperformance. But since they can’t really afford to miss being long in a bull market, there is a serious tendency to dive back in at any hint that the decline may be over.

So we get these entertaining, furious bear market rallies, which tend not to last very long. Of course, my entire premise is that this is an equity bear market, and I could be completely wrong on that. If I am, then ignore the prior paragraphs.

Where I am more confident that I am right is on the monetary policy side. Get this: since the Fed hiked rates, year-over-year M2 money growth has gone from 5.7% to…5.7%. Lest you think this anomaly (because tightening is supposed to involve a deceleration in money growth, right?!?), the 26-week growth rate in M2 has gone from 5.3% to 6.8%, and the 13-week growth rate from 2.9% to 7.3%. The annualized growth rate of M2 from mid-December to February 1st (the figure that was released today) is 11.2%. In other words, money supply growth is clearly not decelerating.

Now, in a traditional tightening, the Fed would restrict reserves and this would have the effect of reducing, or at least causing a deceleration in the growth rate of, M2 through the money multiplier. As a side effect, interest rates would rise but the point of tightening is to reduce the growth rate of money. Or, at least, it used to be.

With the Fed’s current operating framework, in which interest rates are moved around like magnets on a refrigerator to the desired level, there should be no meaningful effect on money supply growth. That’s not to say that money growth rates should accelerate (as they evidently have), merely that the growth rates should be stochastic with respect to authoritarian interest-rate manipulation. They may fall, or they may rise, but it should not be related to the Fed’s “tightening.” I’ve been saying this for a long, long time and the first evidence is in. The Fed’s rate hike has done nothing to reduce the growth rate of money, and therefore ought to do nothing to restrain inflation. Indeed, if higher interest rates follow from a series of Fed hikes – which they haven’t, but mainly because no one believes the Fed is going to hike again while their precious stocks are only 35% above fair value rather than 50% – then the expected effect would be for monetary velocity to rise and inflation to accelerate.

At this point, the Fed can thank the market that their moves haven’t accelerated the already-established trend towards higher inflation. But the clock is ticking. If the Fed does indeed hike rates next month, the bond market may start taking it seriously and start the rates-inflation spiral.

[1] Unless, of course, you’re adding alpha. But the universe of fund managers adds approximately zero alpha – slightly positive, and negative net of fees. Except whoever your manager is, of course. I’m sure he’s the best. Good job finding him!

Fed Nonsense and Error Bars

February 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Today’s news was the Employment number. I am not going to talk a lot about the number, since the January jobs number is one of those releases where the seasonal adjustments totally swamp the actual data, and so it has even wider-than-normal error bars. I will discuss error bars more in a moment, but first here is something I do want to point out about the Employment figure. Average Hourly Earnings are now clearly rising. The latest year-on-year number was 2.5%, well above consensus estimates, and last month’s release was revised to 2.7%. So now, the chart of wage growth looks like this.


Of course, I always point out that wages follow inflation, rather than leading it, but since so many people obsess about the wrong inflation metric this may not be readily apparent. But here is Average Hourly Earnings, y/y, versus Median CPI. I have shown this chart before.


The salient point is that whether you are looking at core CPI or PCE or Median CPI, and whether you think wages lead prices or follow prices, this number significantly increases the odds that the Fed raises rates again. Yes, there are lots of reasons the Fed’s intended multi-year tightening campaign is unlikely to unfold, and I am one of those who think that they may already be regretting the first one. But a number like this will tend to convince the hawks among them otherwise.

Speaking of the Fed, last night I attended a speech by Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, sponsored by Market News International. Every time I hear a Fed speaker speak, afterwards I want to put my head into a vise to squeeze all of the nonsense out – and last night was no different. Now, Dr. Mester is a classically-trained, highly-accomplished economist with a Ph.D. from Princeton, but I don’t hold that against her. Indeed, credit where credit is due: unlike many such speakers I have heard in the past, Dr. Mester seemed to put more error bars around some of her answers and, in one of the best exchanges, she observed that we won’t really know whether the QE tool is worth keeping in the toolkit until after monetary conditions have returned to normal. That’s unusual; most Fed speakers have long been declaring victory. She is certainly a fan and an advocate of QE, but at least recognizes that the chapter on QE cannot yet be written (although I make what I think is a fair attempt at such a chapter in my book, due out in a month or so).

But the problem with the Federal Reserve boils down to two things. First, like any large institution there is massive groupthink going on. There is little true and significant diversity of opinion. For example there are, for all intents and purposes, no true monetarists left at the Fed who have any voice. Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed was the last one who ever published pieces expressing the important role of money in monetary policy, and he retired a little while back. As another example, it is taken as a given that “transparency” is a good thing, despite the fact that many of the questions posed last night to Dr. Mester boiled down to problems that are actually due to too much transparency. I doubt seriously whether there has ever been a formal discussion, internally, of the connection between increased financial leverage and increased Fed transparency. Many of the problems with “too big to fail” institutions boil down to too much leverage, and a transparent Fed that carefully telegraphs its intentions will tend to increase investor confidence in outcomes and, hence, tend to increase leverage. But I cannot imagine that anyone at the Fed has ever seriously raised the question whether they should be giving less, rather than more, information to the market. It is significantly outside of chapter-and-verse.

The second problem is that the denizens of the Fed overestimate their knowledge and their ability  to know certain things that may simply not be knowable. Again, Dr. Mester was a mild exception to this – but very mild. When someone says “We think the overnight rate should normalize more slowly than implied by the Taylor Rule,” but then doesn’t follow that up with an explanation of why you think so, I grow wary. Because economics in the real world, practiced honestly, should produce a lot of “I don’t know” answers. It may be boring, but this is how the question-and-answer with Dr. Mester should have gone:

Q: What do you think inflation will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think short rates will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2017?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really, really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the consensus is at the Fed about the optimal pace of raising rates?

A: I don’t know. Each person on the Committee has a point estimate, each of which has really wide error bars. Collectively, we have an average that has even wider error bars. We cannot therefore usefully characterize what the path of the short rate will look like. At all.

Indeed, this is part of the problem with transparency. If you are going to be transparent, there is going to be pressure to provide “answers.” But a forecast without an error bar is just a guess. The error bars are what cause a guess to become an estimate. So we get a “dot plot” with a bunch of guesses on it. The actual dot plot, from December, looks like this:


But the dot plot should look more like this, where the error bars are all included.

betterdotplotObviously, we would take the latter chart as meaning…correctly…that the Fed really has very little idea of where the funds rate is going to be in a couple of years and cannot convincingly reject the hypothesis that rates will be basically unchanged from here. That’s simultaneously transparent, and very informational, and colossally unhelpful to fast-twitch traders.

And now I can release the vise on my head. Thank you for letting me get the nonsense out.

Why So Negative?

February 2, 2016 2 comments

The news on Friday that the Bank of Japan had joined the ECB in pushing policy rates negative was absorbed with brilliant enthusiasm on Wall Street. At least, much of the attribution for the exceptional rally was given to the BoJ’s move. I find it implausible, arguably silly, to think that a marginal change in monetary policy by a desperate central bank on the other side of the world – however unexpected – would have a massive effect on US stocks. Subsequent trading, which has reversed almost all of that ebullience in two days, suggests that other investors also may agree that just maybe the sorry state of earnings growth rates in this country, combined with a poor economic outlook and still-lofty valuations, should matter more than Kuroda’s gambit.

To be sure, this is a refrain that Ben Bernanke (remember him? Of helicopter infamy?) was singing last month, before the Federal Reserve hiked rates impotently, and clearly the Fed is investigating whether negative rates is a “tool” they should add to their oh-so-expansive toolbox for fighting deflation.

Scratch that. The Fed no longer needs to fight deflation; inflation is at 2.4% and rising. The toolbox the Fed is interested in adding to is the one that contains the tools for goosing growth. That toolbox, judging from historical success rates, is virtually empty. And always has been.

Back to Japan: let me point out that if the BOJ goal has been to extinguish deflation, it has already done so. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows core inflation in Japan for the last 20 years or so. Abstracting from the sales-tax-related spike, core inflation has risen fairly steadily from -1.5% to near 1.0% since mid-2010.


They did this, very simply, by working to accelerate money supply growth from the 1.5%-2.0% growth that was the standard in the late pre-crisis period to over 4% by 2014 and 2015 (see chart, source: Bloomberg).


Not rocket science, folks. Monetary science.

Now, recently money supply growth has begun to fall off, so the BoJ likely was concerned by that and wants to find a way to ensure that inflation doesn’t slip back. If that was their intention, then cutting rates was exactly the wrong thing to do. The regression below (source: Bloomberg) illustrates in a different way what I have shown here before: interest rates and money velocity are closely tied (as Friedman explained decades ago). The r-squared of this relationship – assuming that functionally a linear fit is appropriate, which I am not sure of – is a heady 0.822.


You may notice the data is from the US; that’s because Bloomberg doesn’t have a good velocity series for Japan’s M2 but the causal relationship is the same: lower term interest rates imply less reason not to hold cash.

Now, it may be the case that this relationship ceases to apply at negative rates even though the idea is based on the relative difference between cash yielding zero and longer-term investments or consumption alternatives. The reason that velocity might behave differently at sub-zero rates is that people respond asymmetrically to losses and gains. That is, the pleasure of a gain is dominated by the pain of the same-sized loss, in most people. This cognitive bias may cause savers/investors to behave strikingly different if they are charged for deposits than if they are merely paid zero on those deposits (even if zero is lower than other available rates). In that case, we might see a spike in money velocity once rates go through zero as cash balances become hot-potatoes, just as if investment opportunities suddenly appeared. And rates, not just overnight but term rates, just went negative in Japan. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the 5y JGB rate.


Several observations:

  1. The speculation that sub-zero rates might cause a rise in velocity is just that: speculation. There’s no data to suggest that this effect exists.
  2. Frankly, I suspect it doesn’t, but it’s possible. However, if it does I would expect it to be a spot discontinuity in the relationship between rates and velocity. That is, the behavior should change between 0% and some negative rate, but then be somewhat linear thereafter. Cognitively, the reaction is both a general loss aversion, which is linear but no different at negative rates from zero, and a behavioral “endowment” reaction that is to the “taking” of money from a person and not necessarily related to the size of the theft.
  3. If it does exist, it still doesn’t mean that cutting rates to a negative rate was wise. After all, quantitative easing has done a fine job of pushing up inflation, and so there is no reason to take a speculative gamble like this to keep inflation moving higher. Just do more of the same. Lots more.
  4. More likely, the BoJ is doing this because they believe that negative rates will stimulate growth. This is much more speculative than you might think, and I may be overgenerous in phrasing the point that way. In any case, any growth benefit would stem either from weakening the currency (which QE would also do, with less risk) or from provoking investment in more marginal ventures that become acceptable at lower financing rates. We call that malinvestment, and it isn’t a good thing.
  5. Whatever the point of the BoJ’s move, the size of any growth effect from currency reactions is utterly dependent on the reaction function of trading counterparties. If other countries seek to devalue their currencies as well, then the whole operation will be inert.

So, will the BoJ’s move save US stocks? Heck, it won’t even save the Japanese economy.

No Strategic Reason to Own Nominal Bonds Now

January 26, 2016 2 comments

Today I presented our 2016 inflation forecast to the investment committee for a multifamily office, and when I was putting the presentation together I developed one slide that really is a must-see for investors in my opinion.

For some time, TIPS have been too cheap. Really, it has been more than a year that our metrics have shown inflation-linked bonds as not just cheap, but really cheap compared to nominal bonds. I don’t mean that real yields will fall – so this isn’t a statement about whether I am bullish or bearish on fixed-income. Frankly, I am somewhat conflicted on that point at this moment.

Rather, it is a statement about what sort of fixed-income instruments to own, for that part of your portfolio that needs to be in fixed-income. If you are running a diversified portfolio, then you can’t really avoid owning some bonds even if you are bearish on the bond market. For risk-reduction reasons if for no other, it makes sense to own some bonds.

But you don’t have to own fixed-coupon nominal bonds (or, for that matter, floating-coupon nominal bonds which are still exposed to inflation through the principal of the instrument). In fact, right now it is hard for me to imagine betting on nominal bonds for the portion of my portfolio that is in fixed-income.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is the picture:


The chart shows rolling, compounded 10-year inflation rates for as far back as we have reasonable data. And it shows the current level of 10-year inflation “breakevens.” What this means is that if you are long Treasuries, rather than TIPS, you will do better over the next ten years if inflation is below 1.34% and above roughly zero. If we have big deflation, TIPS will do just about as well since they are also principal protected; if we have any inflation over 1.34%, TIPS will do better.

And as the chart points out, since the Fed has been formed we have literally had almost zero 10-year periods in which inflation was in the 0-1.34% zone. Perhaps the 10-year periods ending early in the Great Depression, en route to big deflation, or coming out of the Great Depression heading into WWII. But otherwise, inflation has always been either higher or, in a Fed-screw-up scenario, much lower.

Put another way, it means that if you choose to own nominal bonds instead of inflation-linked bonds for the next 10 years, you are short a straddle on inflation, and you’re not being paid much to be short it. (Technically, you’re short a zero-cost ratio call spread since you don’t lose in deflation, but I’m trying to keep it simple!)

There may be tactical reasons to prefer nominal bonds to inflation-linked bonds. But to me, there is no clear strategic reason to be long nominal bonds for that portion of your portfolio that you intend to keep in fixed-income.

Categories: Bond Market, TIPS

CPI, Your Way

January 21, 2016 2 comments

For those of you on the East coast, looking for something fun to do with your weekend between shoveling turns, I thought this might be a good time to introduce our “personal CPI calculator.”

Sounds exciting, right?

It is an old idea: one of the reasons that people don’t like the Consumer Price Index is that no one is an “average” consumer. Everyone consumes more or less than the “typical” amounts; moreover, everyone notices or cares more about some costs than they do for others. It turns out that for most people, the CPI is a decent description of their consumption, at least close enough to use the CPI as a reference…but that answer varies with the person.

Moreover, CPI turns out to be a very poor measure for a corporate entity, which cares much more about some costs than others. Caterpillar cares a lot about grain prices, energy prices, and most importantly tractor prices, but they don’t care much about education. (This is one reason that corporate entities don’t issue inflation-linked bonds…it isn’t really a hedge for them. Which is why I have tried for years to get inflation subindices quoted and traded, so that issuers could issue bonds linked to their particular exposures, and investors could construct the precise exposure they wanted. But I digress.)

The BLS makes available many different subindices, and the weights used to construct the index from these subindices. Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta published on their macroblog an article about what they call “myCPI.” They constructed a whole mess of individualized market baskets, and if you go to the blog post they will direct you to a place you can get one of these market baskets emailed to you automatically every month. Which is pretty good, and starting to be what I think we need.

But what I wanted was something like this, which has been available from the Federal Statistical Office of Germany for years. I want to chart my own CPI, and be able to see how varying the weights of different consumption would result in different comparative inflation rates. The German FSO was very helpful and even offered their code, but in the end we re-created it ourselves but tried to preserve some of the look-and-feel of the German site (which is itself similar to the French site, and there are others, but not for US inflation).

Here is the link to Enduring’s “Personal CPI Calculator.” I think it is fairly self-explanatory and you will find it addicting to play around with the sliders and see how different weights would affect the effective price inflation you experience. You can also look at particular subindices, through the “products” button. Some of these are directly BLS series (but normalized to Jan 1999=100), and some are collections of subindices that I did to make the list manageable.

I think you’ll find it interesting. If you do, let me know!

Categories: CPI, New Products

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

January 20, 2016 4 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments. Plus…sign up to receive notice when my book is published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to You can also pre-order online.

  • So I guess the good news this morning is that the market has bigger worries than CPI. Wait, is that good news?
  • OK, remember this morning we’re dropping off some lousy numbers so core should rise to 2.1% just on base effects.
  • But Dec CPI is always weird, like many Dec numbers. It’s the only month that has a strong seasonal effect on prices (in the US).
  • Headline CPI will also rise, y/y, simply because of base effects. Don’t think the Fed didn’t know this when they tightened!
  • OK, +0.1% on core a bit weaker than expected, but y/y still rose to 2.1%. y/y headline to 0.7%, though I don’t care about headline.
  • Core month/month was 0.13% to 2 decimal places, and forecasters were really looking for 0.18%ish, so not horrible miss.
  • y/y core is 2.09% to 2 decimals. I really thought it would go to 2.2% this month, but like I said, Dec is wacky.
  • Next mo we compare to +0.18% in Jan 2015 (on core), so uptick to 2.2% will be more difficult. But core should converge with median.
  • OK, in big categories Housing and Medical care decelerated while Apparel, Transp, and Educ/communication accelerated.
  • In Medical Care (which is only 7.7% of CPI but high-angst for people), big drop in medicinal drugs to 1.66% from 2.68%.
  • That smacks of a seasonal maladjustment. But it’s only 1.7% of the basket.
  • In Housing, Primary Rents and OER both accelerated, which is what matters. Primaries 3.68% from 3.64%; OER 3.14% from 3.08%.
  • Those are the pendulous categories, between them almost half of core CPI, that matter. And they keep going up.
  • Lodging Away from Home (small category) dropped to 1.88% from 2.78% y/y. Again, smacks of bad seasonal adjustment.
  • Household Energy was also lower. So there you have it – the rent and implied rents continue to go up; the cost of piped gas e.g. not.
  • In Transp, Motor Fuel did better on base effects (only -19.5% y/y!) but insurance, repair, and new cars/trucks were all up.
  • Overall, core services remained at +2.9% y/y; core goods rose to -0.4% from -0.6%.
  • The continued rally in the dollar probably means core goods will continue to drag on overall CPI. It’s not a huge effect but it’s there.
  • Core inflation ex-housing rose, 1.28% y/y by my calculation, highest since mid-2014. Hasn’t been MUCH higher since 2012-13.
  • Sorry that’s core ex-shelter, not ex-housing.
  • So you can think of core CPI as (rents) + (core goods) + (core services ex-rents) + (food & energy). Each roughly equal weight.
  • Rents are over 3% and rising. Food & energy weak, core goods weak, core svcs ex-rents rising.
  • Rents will continue to rise. And so median CPI should also. But I am less sure than I have been that the $ will stop strengthening.
  • …and less sure that interest rates will rise, pulling up money velocity. So, I will be pulling my forecasts for 2016 lower.
  • They will still be higher than everyone on the Street, I am sure. Because they think growth matters a lot for inflation.
  • Proportion of CPI that is inflating faster than 3% is at 42.7%. So main body is still between 3%-4% with long negative tails.
  • But at least inflation hasn’t broadened FURTHER over the last few months. It’s been around 42-47% inflating over 3%.
  • ..fairly close call, looks like 0.147% on my back-of-envelope, which would make y/y median CPI drop to 2.43% from 2.46%.
  • Bottom line is that broad inflation is around 2.5%, but more than 40% of CPI is above 3% and rising.

The broad themes this month are very much in keeping with the (somewhat longer) post-CPI post I wrote last month – the analysis there is worth re-reading as several of these points keep coming up.  These broad themes are that (a) rents remain steadily accelerating, and likely will continue to do so because home prices continue to rise between 5-7% per year and rents tend to be driven largely by home prices over time. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows that the ratio of median home prices to the level of Owners’ Equivalent Rent is again rising. This means that either housing is entering into bubble-pricing territory again, or that OER is going to continue to be pulled higher for a while, or both.


Our models have OER continuing to rise to at least 3.5% (from 3.08%) although our more speculative model has it headed over 4%. Still, if that’s as bad as housing inflation gets, and the dollar continues to strengthen, then median inflation will probably not go much higher than 3% because core goods inflation will remain soft while core services inflation will eventually pause.

And the continued – and, to me, confounding – strength of the broad trade-weighted dollar is the real question. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) illustrates the connection between the dollar and core commodities. On the one hand, note that even large changes in the dollar have only a small effect on core goods (and on GDP), and essentially no effect outside of core commodities. And, if the dollar merely stops strengthening, then we would expect core goods prices to start rising around 0.5%-1.0%, which would add another few tenths to core CPI.


But, on the other hand, note that the current weakness in core goods is consistent with the dollar’s recent pattern of strength, and some deeper analyses/regressions we look at suggest we could even get a bit more core goods weakness over the next 3-6 months. And is there any reason to expect the dollar’s strength to reverse? The dollar is the best house in a bad neighborhood, as it is said…for now. So I am no longer so confident that the greenback will start weakening soon.

Moreover, I am also less sure that interest rates are going to rise in the near term. While the Fed has begun to raise short-term interest rates, the economy is evidently weakening and the stock market isn’t doing very well recently to put it mildly. A further hike of rates this month is virtually out of the question, and further hikes this year are hardly assured. While higher inflation this year should cause nominal rates to eventually leak higher, I am not sure how soon that will happen. And if it doesn’t happen, then money velocity will probably not rise substantially. If velocity merely flatlines, then 5%-6% money supply growth with 2% GDP growth gives you 3%-4% inflation, which is still fairly perky compared with what most analysts are currently expecting but hardly alarming in the big picture.

The big picture concern – which is merely held in abeyance, since money velocity cannot stay permanently low unless interest rates also stay permanently low – is that interest rates and velocity must eventually return to some semblance of normalcy, if the economy is to be considered back in normalcy, and unless the Fed removes all of the excess reserves so that it is able to then start to shrink the money supply, rising velocity in the context of 5%-6% money supply growth produces pretty ugly inflation outcomes. (Go to our monetary inflation calculator to see what can happen with even a modest rebound in velocity.)


Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Zigs and Zags

January 13, 2016 Leave a comment

“The market,” said J.P. Morgan, when asked for his opinion on what the market would do, “will fluctuate.”

Truer words were never spoken, but the depth of the truism as well is interesting. One implication of this observation – that prices will vary – is that the patient investor should mostly ignore noise in the markets. Ben Graham went further; he proposed thinking about a hypothetical “Mister Market,” who every day would offer to buy your stocks or sell you some more. On some days, Mister Market is fearful and offers to sell you stocks at a terrific discount; on other days, he is ebullient and offers to buy your holdings at far more than they are worth. Graham argued that this can only be a positive for an investor who knows the value of the business he holds. He can sell it if Mister Market is paying too much, or buy it if Mister Market is selling it too cheaply.

Graham did not give enough weight to momentum, as opposed to value – the idea that Mister Market might be paying too much today, but if you sell your holdings to him today, then you might miss the opportunity to sell them to him next year for double the stupid price. And, over the last couple of decades, momentum has become far more important to most investors than has value. (I blame CNBC, but that’s a different story).

In either case, the point is important – if you know what you own, and why you own it, and even better if you have an organized framework for thinking about the investment that is time-independent (that is, it doesn’t depend on how you feel today or tomorrow), then the zigs and zags don’t matter much to you in terms of your existing investments.

(As for future investments, young people should prefer declining asset markets, since they will be investing for long periods and should prefer lower prices to buy rather than higher prices; on the other hand, retirees should prefer rising asset prices, since they will be net sellers and should prefer higher prices to lower prices. In practice, everyone seems to like higher prices even though this is not rational in terms of one’s investing life.)

We have recently been experiencing a fair number of zigs, but mostly zags over the last couple of weeks. The stock market is near the last year’s lows – but, it should be noted, it still holds 84% of its gains since March 2009, so it is hardly disintegrating. The dividend yield of the S&P is 2.32%, the highest in some time and once again above 10-year Treasury yields. On the other hand, according to my calculations the expected 10-year return to equities is only about 1.25% more per annum than TIPS yields (0.65% plus inflation, for 10 years), so they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The CAPE is still around 24, which about 50% higher than the historical average. But, in keeping with my point so far: none of these numbers has changed very much in the last couple of weeks. The stock market being down 10%, plus or minus, is a fairly small move from a value perspective (from a momentum perspective, though, it can and has tipped a number of measures).

But here is the more important overarching point to me, right now. I don’t worry about zigs and zags but what I do worry about is the fact that we are approaching the next bear market – whether it is this month, or this year, or next year, we will eventually have a bear market – with less liquidity then when we had the last bear market. Dealers and market-makers have been decimated by regulations and constraints on their deployment of capital, in the name of making them more secure and preventing a “systemic event” in the next calamity. All that means, to me, is that the systemic event will be more distributed. Each investor will face his own systemic event, when he finds the market for his shares is not where he wanted it to be, for the size he needed it to be. This is obviously less of a problem for individual investors. But mutual fund managers, pension fund managers – in short, the people with the big portfolios and the big positions – will have trouble changing their investment stances in a reasonable way (yet another reason to prefer smaller funds and managers, but increasing regulation has also made it very difficult to start and sustain a smaller investment management franchise). Another way to say this is that it is very likely that while the average or median market movement is likely to be similar to what it has been in the past, the tails are likely to be longer than in the past. That is, we may not go from a two-standard-deviation event to a four-standard-deviation event. We may go straight to a six-standard-deviation event.

If market “tails” are likely to be longer than in the past because of (il)liquidity, then the incentive for avoiding those tails is higher. This is true in two ways. First, it creates an incentive for an investor to move earlier, and lighten positions earlier, in a potential downward move in the market. And second, in the context of the Kelly Criterion (see my old article on this topic, here), rising volatility combined with decreased liquidity in general means that at every level of the market, investors should hold more cash than they otherwise would.

I don’t know how far the market will go down, and I don’t really care. I am prepared for “down.” What I care about is how fast.


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