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Why the Fed Doesn’t Fear Inflation, But You Do

April 29, 2013 9 comments

The core PCE deflator for March recorded a near-record 1.1%. Should we worry that deflation is taking hold?

Well, first of all you should recognize that the PCE, unlike the CPI, is frequently revised and by significant amounts. As the chart below shows, this is only a near-record because there was a massive revision that raised the 2010 low from 0.7% or so to 1.1%. We should be wary, in my opinion, to draw any strong conclusions from (and certainly wary of implementing policy based on) a data series that can have the rate of change revised by 60%.

pceandrevisions

But still, core PCE is near its lows while core CPI is not. Should we be concerned about deflation? Should the Fed?

There are a number of reasons for the difference. A persistent difference of about 0.25%-0.5% is consistent with differences in the type of formula used and other “normal” differences. The Fed favors the PCE because it has a broader representation of the economy – in that it doesn’t focus “just” on consumers – and because it adjusts more quickly as the composition of spending changes. However, if you are looking at how the costs to you the consumer change, the CPI is the index that you should be looking at.

The main reason that core PCE is currently so much lower than core CPI is that PCE has a much lower weight on housing. And, thanks to the Fed’s loose money policy, it is housing that is driving the CPI higher. The difference in housing weights currently adds 0.31% to CPI compared to PCE. The PCE makes up for this low weight in housing by having a much higher weight on medical care (about three times the CPI weight). Why the huge difference in the medical care weight?

The CPI and PCE metrics are meant to measure different things – the PCE is broader, but the CPI measures specifically expenditures by consumers. Consequently, the difference in medical care weights occurs because the CPI measures spending by consumers, while the PCE includes spending by Medicare, Medicaid, other government entities, the employer portion of health insurance, and other non-consumer payers. Which do you think is more relevant for consumers? And which do you think is a better representation of what a typical consumer spends: 42% on housing and 6% on medical care, or 26% on housing and 22% on medical care? In simple terms, do you spend more for your house, or do you spend about equal amounts on both? I suspect that for most Americans, especially those who are employed and those who are currently receiving Medicare, spending on housing is vastly higher than direct spending on medical care.

Isn’t it convenient for the Fed that right now, they can focus on a metric that is pointedly underweighting the category of expenditure that is most directly being affected by quantitative easing? This is one reason that I do not expect QE to stop any time this year.

Categories: CPI, Federal Reserve, Quick One Tags:

Not So Fast on the Deflation Talk

April 25, 2013 4 comments

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.

Rage Against the Machines

April 23, 2013 7 comments

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.

realexist

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.[1]

nhslmedinc

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.

nsa

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.


[1] 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.

Telling Stories About TIPS

April 19, 2013 1 comment

It always bugs me a bit when a market event that happens for one cause is attributed to another cause merely to advance an easy narrative. The awful 5y TIPS auction yesterday and subsequent flush of TIPS breakevens is being attributed to a “fading of inflation concerns.” There may be some fading of inflation concerns, although as I demonstrated in my last article expectations for core inflation haven’t been fading.

But the main reasons the auction failed were far simpler. Prime among these is that the 5-year TIPS have always had more problems being sold, because people who want inflation protection tend to primarily want long inflation protection. In the last couple of years, I’ve had discussions with many institutional investors who expressed interest when I discussed a 50-year inflation-linked bond. But the 5y TIPS are mainly of interest to (a) indexers and (b) foreign central banks. As such, they are prone to occasional disasters when the central banks don’t show up, dealer risk-taking appetite is low, and market momentum is such that dealers don’t feel like warehousing the auction risk until the indexes are rebalanced at month-end and the indexers come for the paper. This isn’t to say that I expected this to be a bad auction, because the last few auctions of all kinds have been pretty normal (that is, more like normal Treasury auctions than like TIPS auctions of old). But it’s not surprising to me that it happened. And it has nothing to do with inflation fears fading, except that some buyers perhaps figured they could buy at better levels later because of the market narrative about inflation fears fading.

And today, we’re seeing a big bounce-back in breakevens so far. What does that do to the narrative?

(As an aside, and for disclosure, our Fisher model identified TIPS as exceptionally cheap compared with nominal bonds after the auction and went fully long breakevens on the close.)

Categories: Quick One, TIPS, Trading

Preparedness

April 17, 2013 4 comments

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.

10bei

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).

ImpliedCore

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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Categories: Commodities, Europe, Trading Tags:

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

April 16, 2013 2 comments

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).

cpiapp

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.

housingagain

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!

 

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary Tags:

Big Trade, Little Door

April 15, 2013 7 comments

In ordinary times, the terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon (officials are being careful not to call it “terrorism,” but I’m not an official so I can operate in the reality sphere) would absolutely trump anything that happened in the markets today and, in fact, would likely have been the cause of any market movement that actually occurred. That’s because most of the time markets echo the framework of the rest of reality: most of the universe is space, and most market activity is just empty noise.

This is the reason that traders who are continuously transacting in the markets are called “noise traders.”

But on Monday, there was plenty of market action and it had nothing to do with Boston, nor with the slightly-earlier ultimatum from North Korea to South Korea, which stated that military action would “start immediately.” (N.b.: There were many losers today, but one of them surely must be reckoned as Kim Jong-un. A tin-pot dictator makes a threat, and is almost immediately knocked off the front page of the New York Times by events in Boston. That must really annoy him.)

Before the attack in Boston, however, there was already plenty of financial pain. The carnage in the precious metals pits came right on cue after the negative sell-side reports of late last week had a chance to work on the psyches of investors. Gold fell 10%, and silver nearly 14%. This represents the worst two-day fall in gold in thirty years. And, while yesterday I pointed out that the commodity “super-cycle” certainly doesn’t look like one, I can understand how the picture of gold in real terms looks like it may be completing something big (see chart of gold expressed in December 2012 dollars using CPI, source Bloomberg).

realgold

There is considerable concern tonight that these losses may provoke selling in related markets as investors raise funds to meet margin calls. This is possible, although significant thumpings in the past in precious metals (it isn’t like this is the first time we’ve seen volatility in a commodity) didn’t provoke dramatic related-market action. To be sure, the avalanche is much more loaded now than it has been in the past, with equity markets sharply overvalued and investors already reaching a level of disgust with commodities. But I don’t think it goes too far. (Those may be my famous last words!)

What happened in gold and silver is a function of the big trade/little door syndrome, more than anything else. News outlets blamed the weak data yesterday in the U.S. and the small miss in Chinese GDP (7.7% versus 8.0% expected, but keep in mind that we all know these are made-up numbers) for setting off the wave of selling, but that’s just the latest straw. The break of technical levels on Friday, combined with the suddenly-burning desire of hedgies to not be the last one through the little door, is what led to such a dramatic move today. It may well continue until everyone who wants to get through the little door has done so. Or, it may not – but I would admonish an investor who wants to buy gold here to think like a trader rather than a playground monitor: don’t try to break up the fight. If the hedgies want to eat each other in a fight to get to the door, let them.

And, incidentally, remember that the big trade/little door syndrome is not limited to gold and silver. Think about equity exposures too. If you’re long by policy, fine. But if you’re long stocks and feeling uncomfortable about it, then “sell down to the sleeping point” at least.

The irony of the timing of the gold rout is potentially juicy, with CPI tomorrow. The decline in precious metals is happening partly because so many investors are abruptly convinced that inflation has truly been defeated. It is incredible to me that this belief is so widespread, but perhaps this is the sine qua non for the next washout in financial markets and the setup for the long-awaited up-move in commodities (for, although the “super-cycle” is evidently just now ending according to some observers, commodities prices have been in general decline for the last two years).

Growth is falling short of expectations, but that doesn’t have any implications for inflation. Tomorrow’s CPI is forecast to be flat and +0.2% on core, holding core inflation constant at 2.0%. Sentiment appears to be favoring a shortfall in those figures, but it is my belief that we are on the cusp of the next sustained move higher in core inflation, to be led by housing. Remember that the last two CPI figures haven’t exactly been soothing. Two months ago, core inflation was +0.3% when the market was expecting +0.2%. Last month, all eight major subgroups of CPI accelerated on a year-on-year basis, the first time that has ever happened since the current 8 subgroups have been in existence. I am loathe to pick the month where we’re going to see Owners’ Equivalent Rent finally break higher, because econometric lags are not written in stone. But it ought to be soon.

When it happens, expect sell-side economists and pundits of all stripes, to say nothing of the Federal Reserve, to downplay the significance of it. I wouldn’t expect a sudden rally in commodities or a rebound in breakevens (10-year breakevens are at the lows of the year, mainly because rates on the whole are declining – 10y TIPS yields are also within 3bps of the year’s low), but it might help stop the bleeding.

This ‘Cycle’ Certainly Hasn’t Been Super

April 14, 2013 5 comments

Five years into the biggest money-printing exercise of all time, and commodities are (incredibly) approaching the status of being universally loathed. On Friday, gold provided a great illustration of one reason I always say that investors should have a position in diversified commodity indices. A Goldman Sachs report released a couple of days ago (with gold 20% off the highs) suggested that prices may have further to fall; more important to Friday’s rout, though, was the increase in the European assessment of how much more money Cyprus will have to raise for itself (€6bln, or about 35-40% of annual Cypriot GDP) to complete the bailout, and the speculation that Cypriot gold reserves will have to be sold.

Add to this the fact that Friday’s economic data was weak with ex-Auto Retail Sales -0.4% and the Michigan Confidence figure showing a surprising drop. Clearly, investors believe this to be a death knell for inflation (as opposed to the “death bell” – I’m not sure what that is – that Citigroup says has been sounded for the commodity supercycle).

But all of the data, and the European sovereign crisis, apparently does support rapidly rising home prices and equities at disturbing multiples of 10-year earnings!

Considering that commodities have been around far longer than equities, bonds, or even money itself, it is incredible how little understanding there is about them.

One misunderstanding, and key to understanding the current situation, is not peculiar to commodities. It is simply the common confusion of nominal and real quantities. In a nutshell, the change in any good’s nominal price over time consists of two things: a real price change, and a change in the price that recognizes that the value of the currency unit measuring stick has changed – that is, inflation. We’re familiar with this construction in the form of the Fisher equation, which tells us that nominal yields represent the combination of a real return that is the cost of money plus a premium (or, less frequently, a discount) for the expected change in the price level over the holding period. But that construction applies to all price changes.

So if the price of your ham sandwich rises 3% this year, is there a bull market in ham sandwiches? Well, in all likelihood not – it’s just that the overall price level is rising by roughly that amount. What about if the price of the ham sandwich rises by only 1%, because ham is becoming cheaper? Then we would say that there was a 2% decline in the real price of the ham sandwich, plus 3% inflation.

Now, if prices instead rose 15%, the ham sandwich in this latter scenario would not still be only rising in price by 1%. It would likely rise by 13% or so: the 15% inflation, minus the 2% decline in the real price of a ham sandwich. Even if a ham sandwich glut was forcing a 10% decline in real prices, the nominal price of a ham sandwich would still be rising in that case.

So, when groups trumpet the “end of the commodity cycle,” they seem to be confused. It is possible that they are saying that real commodity prices should decline over time, but I wonder whether their clients would be awed by that prediction since it has been the norm for hundreds of years. Moreover, if they were referring to real prices, then if CPI goes up 10% and commodity prices go up 5%, they will be right – but clients might not see it the same way.

But I don’t think that’s what they are saying. If it is, then those groups are also a bit late to the party – commodity indices, which include additional sources of return, have underperformed inflation by 28% since 2004 and are down about half from the 2008 highs. Frankly, in the chart below (Source: Bloomberg), which shows the DJ-UBS commodity index divided by the NSA CPI, I don’t see anything which looks like an up-leg of a supercycle, except perhaps the doubling from 2003-2008. Is a 100% gain over five years a “supercycle”?

commodreal

Now, in the SP-GSCI, which has a much greater weight in energy, it looks plausibly like a “supercycle,” as prices tripled in real terms off the lows in 1999 (see Chart, source Bloomberg), and admittedly the chart looks a little feeble at the moment. But that difference is, as I just suggested, mostly due to energy. And if you think the energy supercycle has ended…just short energy, don’t paint all commodities with the ugly brush!

gscireal

And, by the way, it seems like a pretty wimpy supercycle if the peak in real terms doesn’t even approach the earlier peak.

In nominal terms, all of these charts look different, with the downswings being dampened and the upswings accentuated, because of inflation. But that’s certainly not the right way to look at commodities (or any asset) over time. We don’t care about the nominal return. We care about the real return. And viewed through a real return lens, commodities are much closer to being really cheap than to being really rich!

Obviously, I disagree with all of these groups when it comes to commodities generally. About gold I have no firmly-held opinion about its valuation at the moment, but commodities generally we see as cheap – in fact, we expect triple the real returns from investing in commodities indices over the next ten years compared to equity investing. This is a function of both the very rich absolute valuations of equities and the very cheap absolute valuations of commodities indices.

Moreover, if inflation does in fact accelerate – something which has nothing to do with the weak Michigan or Retail Sales numbers – then commodities will also have terrific nominal returns while equities might well have negative nominal returns.

Necessary Finger Crossing

April 11, 2013 15 comments

Housekeeping note: in case you missed it, here is a link to Tuesday’s article, which was not picked up through all of the “usual” syndication channels. Note that, in addition to doggerel, it contains an announcement regarding the free ‘office hours’ I am making available to readers who wish to sign up. (On the basis of the first “round,” I’ve decided to lengthen the sessions to 20 minutes but only offer three of them per week, but this may evolve further as I learn more.)

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When we look back on this period of financial history, I wonder if it will not be called the “era of unintended consequences.” I can think of lots more names for the era, some of them unprintable, but this one certainly applies.

I tend to think of unregulated markets as chaotic, but fundamentally structured. They tend to be efficient, although research has demonstrated that even completely free markets can produce bubbles and negative bubbles. But I really do believe in something like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ that leads the baker to make just enough bread without being told how many loaves to make. A farmer’s market or third-world bazaar, although seemingly chaotic, still often manages to arrange itself so that most purveyors of similar goods end up in one general area. However, when someone intervenes to organize the chaos, there is often an unintended consequence. A recent example is the Fed’s low-rate policy in the mid-2000s, which was meant to respond to the equity bubble burst and the recession of the early 2000s; it also helped produce the housing bubble. Certainly, the housing bubble was not intended by the Fed, but it clearly followed partly from the easy money policies. As another example, Cyprus needed a bailout partly because their banks had been involved in helping Greece by buying Greek debt. Surely countless other examples suggest themselves.

Another example came to my attention today. As part of a presentation I am giving in a week and a half, I will be talking about the “portfolio balance channel” and how it is pushing investors to take more risk than they should, based on the absolute return expectations, because of the configuration of relative return expectations. (I wrote about this in “A Relatively Good Deal Doesn’t Mean It’s A Good Deal”, back in January). But a friend pointed out that it isn’t merely retail and professional investors who are being forced to take risky assets at bad prices because the safe assets have even worse prices: central banks are as well, according to this article in the Financial Times, entitled “Central banks move into riskier assets.” Who knew?

Central bankers are not supposed to really care about portfolio returns. They’re supposed to care mainly about return of capital rather than return on capital. That’s theory, but the reality is that central bankers want to be heroes just like anyone else, and their jobs are definitely made politically easier if they are revenue generators and not cost-centers. And that in turn made me think of the article in this month’s Financial Analysts Journal by Robert C. Merton et. al., in which they argue that “monetary and fiscal policies designed to deal with things like stimulus or consumption demand can actually have unintended consequences of some magnitude for financial stability and markets.” More interestingly, they graphically illustrate how much more connected financial institutions are now than they were prior to 2008.

And one important unintended consequence of the Fed’s efforts on the portfolio balance channel is that the connectedness is increasing, and the nonlinear exposures of central banks are increasing as well. That, in turn, suggests that rather than being meaningfully safer than we were five years ago, we may well be less safe. You could already make such an argument by pointing out that sovereign states have less room to fiscally ease in response to crisis, but add to that the fact that central banks themselves could be caught up in a crisis and be losing capital at just the moment when it is most needed. Of course, at some level a central bank that has control over its own currency – unlike those in, say, Portugal or Italy – can always print a solution. The increasing risk posture of central banks, I believe, increases the possibility of a blatant printing outcome (as opposed to the circumspect printing currently being pursued) in response to a renewed crisis.

Never before have so many fingers been crossed for the global economy. And never before has it been so necessary to cross our fingers!

A Bright Golden Haze

April 9, 2013 4 comments

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.

The Dow is as high as an elephant’s eye,

An’ it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky.

Oh what a beautiful morning!

Oh what a beautiful day.

It’s far too pretty for trading,

So why don’t we play golf today.

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, it appeared as if the lovely spring day in the Northeast took its toll on market activity today. It has always been the case that good weather tended to cause trading to slow, but as trader bonuses have gradually disconnected from performance over the last few years it seems as if the pattern has been accentuated. True, there wasn’t much to trade on today…but in the past that didn’t seem to matter quite so much.

That said, I won’t stop at merely butchering show tunes as there are one or two recent stories I’d like to address from yesterday that I didn’t broach in that somewhat-lengthy article. The first is the news that President Obama’s latest tax plan includes a provision to cap IRAs at $3 million. To most of us, that’s a lot of money, although the article points out rightly that if you are a business owner who has contributed to a retirement plan as long as it has been available, it is fairly easy to get numbers above that level without needing extraordinary returns. Thrift, and compound returns, are two of the only three investing miracles that can produce great wealth with little effort (the third is rebalancing – look for my book “Only Three Miracles,” due out in roughly 2023).

But more disturbing is the fact that the White House has not said whether this $3mm level would be indexed for inflation (or, for that matter, whether it would affect defined benefit plans or Roth IRAs on which you’ve already paid taxes). If it is not indexed for inflation, then any readers of this column could be ‘capped out’ of tax-advantaged structures with sufficient inflation. And, since there is no reason that inflation could not reach scary levels, given the right circumstances, this is something that every investor should be aware of.

It is also disturbing to me, personally, that according to the story:

 “The White House said in an April 5 statement that under current law ‘some wealthy individuals’ can accumulate ‘substantially more than is needed to fund reasonable levels of retirement saving.’”

Maybe I am the only person who is concerned about the use of the word “reasonable” here, as if my decision for what amount of savings I want to accumulate, rather than spend, is open to someone else’s validation of whether my savings is “reasonable.” But I suspect not. This statement isn’t part of the law, but it is part of the context under which laws are being proposed, and I think this means that we investors (including unreasonable ones, who should be spending much more and saving less, darn it) ought to be paying attention.

The other topic I want to include concerns the remarks of Chairman Bernanke yesterday at a conference in Georgia. I’ve previously pointed out in this space that selling assets from SOMA or letting those bonds run off are not feasible approaches for the Fed to take when it comes time to tighten. Apparently, the Fed now agrees, after having previously discussed (publicly) these options. Bernanke remarked in his response to audience questions that “asset sales are late in the process and not meant to be the principal tool of policy normalization” and that rather the Fed prefers to adjust the interest rate paid on excess reserves (IOER) as its main policy tool.

My main complaint about the IOER tool is that we have no idea how it is calibrated, and whether a small adjustment can cause important amounts of liquidity to be pulled back from the market. Moreover, I think this is a defensive tool – the Fed needs to keep the Excess Reserves from becoming Required Reserves by having banks expand lending too quickly. But consider the difficulty: if a bank has $1bln in excess reserves and $50mm in required reserves (for example), and increases lending by 50% so that required reserves rise to $75mm and excess reserves fall to $975mm, then by how much does the Fed need to raise IOER, currently at 25bps, to induce the bank to hold $1bln rather than $975mm in excess reserves? This is the problem – the Fed isn’t operating on the variable that they actually want to control.

The picture below is a slide from the presentation I will be delivering this month at the Inside Indexing event in Boston. Notice the relative sizes of the excess and required reserves slices. The Fed needs to take big swipes at the excess reserves piece without damaging the required reserves piece too much. This strikes me as being somewhat more challenging than the Federal Reserve currently seems to believe.

IIslide8

I continue to think that the best solution for the Fed, and also the one least likely to be deployed, is to raise reserve requirements to make official the unofficial policy of de-leveraging banks. By doing that, they will with one wave of the magic monetary wand cause excess reserves to vanish and they can operate again on required reserves.

Do you want to discuss any of this with me directly? Long-time readers know that I value the interaction with readers, as that feedback is the main compensation I get for writing this column. Well, I am introducing today a new way to interact with me, (and more importantly, for me to interact with you). I am offering (free) “office hours” to anyone who wants to sign up, to talk about pretty much anything in a free-form give-and-take. I’m starting with four 15-minute sessions per week, and we’ll see how it goes (of course, anyone who wants a deeper dive on an inflation topic is welcome to contact me about consulting through Enduring Investments). To sign up for my free office hours, click here and pick a date and time.

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