Archive

Archive for May, 2013

Bonds and the “Convexity Trade”

May 29, 2013 5 comments

It has been a long time since we have had to worry about and think about the phenomenon of mortgage convexity and the effect that it can have on the bond market. But with 10-year interest rates up 50bps in less than 1 month, and some of the selloff recently being attributed to “convexity-related selling,” it is worth reminiscing.

We need to start with the concept of “negative convexity.” This is a fancy way of saying that a market position gets shorter (or less long) when the market is going up, and longer (or less short) when the market is going down. That’s obviously a bad thing: you would prefer to be longer when the market is going up and less long when the market is going down (and, not surprisingly, we call that positive convexity).

Now, a portfolio of current-coupon residential mortgages in the US exhibits the property of negative convexity because the homeowner has the right to pre-pay the mortgage at any time, and for any reason – for example, because the home is being sold, or because the homeowner wants to refinance at a lower rate. Indeed, holders of mortgage-backed securities expect that in any collection of mortgages, a certain number of them will pre-pay for non-economic reasons (such as the house being sold) and the rest will be pre-paid when economic circumstances permit. Suppose that in a pool of mortgages, the average mortgage is expected to be paid off in (just to make up a number, not intended to be an accurate or current figure) ten years. This means that the security backed by those mortgages (MBS for short) would have a duration of about ten years, so that a 1% decline in interest rates would, in the absence of convexity, cause prices to rise about 10%.[1]

Now, that’s really just a guess based on where interest rates are currently. As interest rates change, so does the duration of the bond. If mortgage interest rates fall significantly, then most of the mortgages in that MBS would pre-pay and the duration of the security would fall sharply. Suppose that after a sufficient decline in interest rates, the same pool of mortgages in that MBS is expected to be pre-paid on average in only 3 years. Now a further 1% decline in interest rates will only cause the price of the MBS to rise about 3%. This is negative convexity, and what is significant here is how holders of MBS respond. In order to maintain a similar market exposure, the owner of the MBS needs to buy more bonds, swaps, or MBS to maintain his duration. That is, into a rally, the MBS owner needs to buy more. This is “buying high,” and it’s the manifestation of one side of that negative convexity.

Suppose that instead interest rates rise sharply. Now, instead of expecting those mortgages to economically pre-pay over the next 10 years, we realize that the opportunities for these homeowners to refinance just went away (at least for a while); consequently, we now expect the mortgages to pay off in 15 years on average, rather than 10. A further rise of 1% in interest rates will cause prices to fall 15% rather than 10%. Again, the MBS holders need to respond, and they do so by selling bonds, swaps, or MBS to maintain duration. That is, into a selloff, the MBS owner needs to sell more. This is “selling low,” and it’s the manifestation of the other side of that negative convexity.

Put together, a manager of a large MBS portfolio is earning a higher-than-average coupon, but is also systematically buying high and selling low on his hedges and losing a little money each time. More importantly for our case here is that if the market moves enough to trigger the hedging activity then we say that “the convexity trade” has caused a significant amount of selling into a selloff, or a significant amount of buying into a rally, and this essentially means fuel is being added to the fire and the move is worsened. The mortgage market is massive, and especially with dealers having less capacity for market-making risk-taking a big convexity trade could cause a huge move. In the 2000s, I recall two massive selloffs of at least 125bps over a period of just a few weeks, in which every 5bps seemed to bring out another huge seller and push the market another 5bps.

Figuring out exactly what the trigger level is at which the convexity trade kicks in is the domain of mortgage analysts, and there is a lot of brainpower and computing power put to this analysis. These folks can tell you that “a 10-year note rate of 2.25% will cause the market to get longer by 150bln 10-year note equivalents [just to be clear, this is a made up example],” which in turn implies that there will be substantially more selling when interest rates approach that level.

Now, I don’t know what the current trigger levels are, but I can tell you a few more things from years of experience.

First is that the market’s negative convexity is greatest when the market has rallied to a new level and stayed there for a long time, allowing most borrowers to refinance their mortgages to the current coupon. The chart of 10-year yields below (Source: Bloomberg) illustrates this point. In 2008, 10-year note yields fell below 2.5%, but did so very quickly and few people had a chance to refinance (plus, mortgage spreads were quite wide and credit was hard to get), so the mortgage market maintained something like its prior equilibrium.

10yy

However, over 2010 and especially after mid-2011, rates got substantially lower and stayed lower; mortgage credit also got somewhat easier than in early 2009 (although obviously underwater homeowners cannot refinance, and this limited the amount of refinancing activity so that MBS prepay speeds weren’t as rapid as the pre-2008 models had expected). We have now been at these levels for some time, so that I suspect the market’s average coupon is substantially lower today than it was two years ago. This means the bond market is very vulnerable to a convexity trade to higher yields, especially once the ball gets rolling. The recent move to new high yields for the last 12 months could trigger such a phenomenon. If it does, then we will see 10-year note rates above 3% in fairly short order.

The second point is somewhat more subtle. The nature of the negative convexity in the higher rate direction is different from the nature of the negative convexity in the lower rate direction. When rates fall, we are looking at borrowers refinancing, which means that we can stair-step lower: rates fall, borrowers refinance, rates fall further, borrowers refinance again, etcetera. But when rates rise, the duration increase is caused by a lack of activity. Borrowers eschew refinancing. And this, fundamentally, can only happen once no matter how far rates move. If it is not economical to refinance with rates 2% higher, then few borrowers will refinance. But at 5% higher rates, there is no additional effect: once your model expects essentially zero refinancing, the convexity trade is over until you get substantial new origination of mortgages, and this takes longer. Therefore, in a selloff the convexity trade is somewhat self-limiting. It sure doesn’t feel like it at the time, but it is.

This is a long article but it is worth reflecting on because of the conclusion, and that is this: if rates rise because the Fed begins to raise rates (or finds it doesn’t have enough will to keep them low, once the bond market expects much higher inflation), then there is no “cap” on how high they can go. But if rates rise in a sloppy fashion because of a convexity trade, there really is a cap. It would be ugly to see interest rates rise another 100bps (and really, really bad for stocks I think), but if they did so because of the convexity trade then we would probably get a bunch of that move reversed thereafter.

I don’t have a strong opinion about whether we are at that point yet, and I no longer have access to great mortgage analysts. But Fed speakers should tread very lightly, as I doubt the first trigger point is terribly far away and you surely don’t want to hit it.

There is one reason I don’t think that the bond market selloff we have seen to date is heavily driven by convexity-related flows, and that is that TIPS yields have risen faster than nominal bond yields. Over the period during which nominal 10-year yields have risen 50bps, 10-year TIPS yields have actually risen 58bps. If the trade was a convexity-driven trade, it would be primarily affecting nominal yields, which means that while TIPS would be suffering, they would be suffering less than nominal bonds, rather than more. (The flip side is that if you are bearish here because you think the convexity trade might kick in, you should also expect breakevens to widen substantially when that trade does kick in). Indeed, TIPS at -0.13% is the best bargain we have seen in quite some time (see chart, source Bloomberg).

GTII10

Indeed, our multi-asset strategy has kicked the TIPS component all the way up to 11%, which is the highest it has been in a long while. TIPS are not cheap, but they are cheaper, and they are extremely cheap relative to nominal bonds. And they are not yet as cheap as i-Series savings bonds, although the yield advantage of those bonds has dropped from the 159bps it was when I wrote about it here to “only” 93bps. But that’s still a great arb, and so I continue to advocate i-bonds.


[1] I am abstracting from the niceties of Macaulay versus modified versus option-adjusted duration here for the purposes of exposition.

“I Say, Let ‘Em Crash”

May 27, 2013 3 comments

John Mauldin wrote a piece last week about Brown-Vitter, a piece of legislation making its way through Congress that has a “simple” approach to getting the government out of the bank-rescue business: for big banks (basically defined in the legislation as banks who use derivatives to structure customer deals), a massive capital buffer is demanded, which would effectively take big US banks out of the derivative business and greatly increase costs and decrease variety of derivative and other solutions (many bonds issued by corporate entities are coupled with a swap to the dealer, which would now be subject to a massive capital charge).

The appeal of the legislation is its simplicity. It simply destroys the business model of the largest banks.

Moreover, it doesn’t solve the “too big to fail” problem. It merely changes the hurdle of how much bad stuff needs to happen, in order to cause a bank to fail in the first place and to require saving. It wouldn’t cause the government to exit the position of writing puts on banks: it would merely move the strike prices of those puts.

I will say that in my interactions with Wall Street banks, I have not run across anyone who is concerned, at least not yet, that Brown-Vitter will actually become law. It is simply too blunt of an approach – akin to burning a town down in order to keep it from being flooded.

The cynic in me says that all of this legislation is designed mainly to produce big contributions from banks to the reelection campaigns of public officials. There is a much simpler way to get the government out of the too-big-to-fail business, which furthermore does not involve causing massive side effects in the derivatives and other markets. Congress could simply pass a rule that prohibits the government (including the Fed) from bailing out a private enterprise. Problem solved, subsidy ended.

The Fed already has the power to close down and wind down insolvent banks. Of all of the Fed’s powers, this is the one that has been used most successfully over the years. It isn’t the failure of a bank that is the problem, but the chaotic failure of a bank that is the problem. Task the Fed with reducing the chaos inherent in large bank failures, and let the chips otherwise fall where they may.

Categories: Banks/Wall Street

Unsteady As She Goes

May 25, 2013 3 comments

Let’s reset the state of things:

  • The Federal Reserve, and other central banks, have added a tremendous amount of liquidity to global financial markets. Ironically, both central banks who want higher prices (the Bank of Japan) and central banks who do not (pretty much all the rest) are pursuing the same strategy, and both groups believe they are winning.
  • Global growth recovered from the post-crisis lows, but several major economies may be returning to recession after an expansion whose duration has been somewhat typical of the post-war period (even if the amplitude has not been).
  • Some central banks have gone so far as to essentially declare victory, and are considering what course to take to unwind the extraordinary liquidity.

What is really somewhat remarkable about the current circumstance is really the last point. What central banks have done to date is really the easy part: handing out presents to children at Christmas always brings hugs and cheers. The difficult part is going to those children after Christmas and telling them you need the presents back, because you bought them on credit and need to return them to the store since you can’t pay for them.

And the children in such a case can react poorly. That essentially happened this week when very mild comments from Ben Bernanke helped provoke a 7% one-day plunge in the Nikkei and considerable volatility in a number of other markets over the last couple days of this week.

But let’s go one step further, because while the direction of the reaction to hints of an eventual change in Fed policy is not surprising the magnitude of that change may be. In other words, does anyone think that a 7% fall in a stock market, on the basis of vague statements about future monetary policy, is normal? Or does it look like the reaction of a frothy, overpumped market filled with participants who are there because…they feel there’s nothing else available (and, anyway, one shouldn’t “fight the Fed”)?

(I am just asking, just as I am asking why my mother-in-law’s broker virtually refused to let her sell stocks on Wednesday this week (before the breaks), urging her to “not give into fear.” Fear, when the market is going up in a straight line? That’s an odd thought. When brokers can’t even conceive of why someone might want to not hold stocks, we are in a frightening state of mind.)

Incidentally, I didn’t find the overall message on further asset purchases and timing of a future “taper” terribly unclear. William Dudley, president of the NY Fed and probably the second most-powerful voice at the Fed, said that the decision to taper will take three or four months. Moreover, the release this week of minutes from the most-recent FOMC meeting noted that “A couple of participants expressed the view that an additional monetary policy response might be warranted should inflation fall further.” If Dudley is talking in terms of 3-4 months to even decide on a taper, and some meeting participants are still questioning whether more asset purchases could be warranted, there’s simply no reason to be concerned about a change in policy for quite a while.

(Incidentally, I also found another snippet from the minutes interesting. Low and stable inflation used to be considered a good thing, but not necessarily any more: “It was also pointed out that, even absent further disinflation, continued low inflation might pose a threat to the economic recovery by, for example, raising debt burdens.” It is not at all clear to me that a taper will even be announced in 2013, much less effected.)

In any case, if a simple lack of clarity on asset purchases causes a massive selloff in Tokyo and jittery markets worldwide, then it really is time to stop the asset purchases because it will get harder and harder to take those presents away.

Now, the sad part of all this is that the Fed’s unwind plan simply isn’t going to work to restrain inflation. According to that same story linked to above:

“That strategy calls for the Fed to allow assets to mature without being replaced. The central bank would then modify its guidance on how long it plans to keep the federal funds rate near zero and begin temporary operations to drain excess bank reserves. The Fed would next raise the federal funds rate, and finally, start selling securities.”

Remember, draining excess reserves should have no effect at all on the supply of transactional money (e.g., M2). The Fed needs first to drain something like $1.6 trillion in excess reserves (I have kinda lost track) before their actions have an impact on a variable that matters. Simply wanting to restrain inflation isn’t enough.

I do think that we are going to get higher interest rates; I just don’t think those higher interest rates are going to impact the inflationary impulse now being charged in the system. However, as events this week showed, they very likely are going to impact market prices, and perhaps severely.

Existing Home Inflation Remains “Contained”

Right, the Fed’s actions have definitely not caused any inflation.

ehslmpAsset inflation is only a temporary relief/diversion from consumer price inflation. In this case (unlike with, say, equities), the investment good is also a consumption good – housing – so the pass-through is relatively straightforward. And, I would say, probably inevitable.

 

Categories: Housing Tags:

Chutzpah

May 21, 2013 5 comments

It has been a busy couple of weeks on the business side, which is why I haven’t been writing many articles. However, I wanted to be sure and pen a quick one today.

The main economic data is due out later this week: Existing Home Sales on Wednesday, New Home Sales on Thursday (both of these more interesting for the home price indications than for the volume figures), and Durable Goods on Friday. (Some of us also get excited about the 10-year TIPS re-opening on Thursday, with real yields at a 1-year high after a 35bp selloff over the last three weeks). But Monday and Tuesday have been relatively bereft of news, except for the occasional Fed speaker.

It is that “occasional Fed speaker” that I want to mention today.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard today gave a speech in Europe, about the need for the ECB to pursue “aggressive” QE in order to prevent a long period of low inflation and deflation such as that experienced by Japan over the last few decades.

What word am I searching for here…would it be “chutzpah?”

I realize that Chairman Bernanke has already been featured on a magazine cover as a Hero. It bears remembering that Greenspan was also called the Maestro at one point, although we are now all aware that his management of the Fed helped to precipitate a massive crisis. History isn’t written in real time by bloggers. It’s written by historians, years later.

But hasn’t the Fed, after all, been really successful? Isn’t a victory lap deserved? Haven’t they earned the right to lecture to other central banks about the proper execution of monetary policy? After all, the Fed brought down the unemployment rate while inflation remains tame. Case closed.

Perhaps that would be a good argument if Earth was hit by a comet tomorrow and all life ceased. But in the event life continues, we will need to wait until the cycle is complete. Celebrating now is like pumping one’s fist in celebration in the middle of a motorcycle jump over 25 buses. Nice trick, but we’ll hold our applause until you stick the landing if you don’t mind.

There seems to be great faith in the Federal Reserve that the tough part is over. All that they need to do now, it seems they believe, is to just start tightening before inflation gets going; they can do it very gradually, supposedly, because of the great credibility the Fed has and because they understand how inflation responds to rates.

But in fact, inflation doesn’t respond to rates but to money. And not to reserves, but to transactional money. Transactional money responds not to total reserves, but to banking activity and the resulting level of required reserves…which the Fed is unable to directly affect. When the Fed begins to taper, and then to somehow drain reserves, I predict it will have almost zero impact on the inflation process until the excess reserves have been drained.

Indeed, if interest rates rise when the Fed begins to do this, it will perversely tend to increase the velocity of money, which tends to vary inversely with the opportunity cost of holding cash balances (that is, velocity goes up when interest rates go up, all else equal). It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s pretty important, as the chart below suggests (I think I have run something like this chart previously).

velo5y

Now, ordinarily when the Fed is raising rates, they’re also draining reserves – so the increase in money velocity is balanced by the decline in money to some degree. That won’t happen this time. When rates go up, velocity will go up, but the quantity of (M2) money will not change because it is driven by a multiplier that acts on required reserves. That means inflation may well rise as interest rates increase, at least for a while.

I might be wrong, but I am willing to wait and see how it plays out. If I am wrong, then you don’t have to put me on the cover of a magazine.

To conclude that inflation is fully tamed at this point, anyway, is remarkably optimistic. Home prices are skyrocketing at rates only rarely seen, and it would be incredible if that did not lead to higher rents and higher core inflation…literally within a couple of months from now, judging from the historical lag patterns.

But, again, I should return to my main point: it isn’t that the Fed is wrong, it’s just that they are so completely certain that they are right even though the difficult part of the trick – unwinding the extraordinary policy without any adverse effects – lies ahead.

Sit down, James Bullard. Let the ECB manage its own affairs. I am sure they can mess it up on their own, without your help. And certainly, without your condescending advice!

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

May 16, 2013 1 comment

Writing from the Netherlands after visiting future clients this week; here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets (Follow me @inflation_guy) :

  • very surprising core inflation, barely rounded up to 0.1% month/month. Waiting for breakdown, but Shelter was still +0.1% so something odd.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter only 1.39%, not terribly far from the 2010 lows.
  • …part of the answer is that core commodities decelerated further, -0.1% y/y. But core services, most of which is housing, ALSO decel.
  • Major groups; Accel: Food/Bev (15.3%); Decel: Apparel, Transp, Medical Care, Educ/Comm (34.3%). Balance unch on y/y rate rounded to tenths.
  • Housing actually accelerated slightly. So decline in core was apparel, Medical Care, Education, and non-fuel transportation. Hmmm.
  • …If you believe core is going to keep falling, you DON’T want to bet on it being led lower by Medical Care and Education.
  • We expect this to be the low print on core. Our forecast remains 2.6%-3.0% for 2013, but only 0.6% has been realized so far
  • It wd probably be prudent to lower our 4cast range; we will if there is another miss lower in May. But not by much: housing still the driver

I think the sixth bullet is the key point: core inflation is drooping because of Medical Care and Education & Communication decelerating. This is terrific news, but there’s about forty years of history that should lead one to be skeptical that these are the categories that will lead inflation lower.

Our forecast for 2.6%-3.0% is based on an expected acceleration in rents, based on the recent rise in home prices. We’re not changing that forecast yet because our model didn’t expect the acceleration to happen yet. However, it should begin to happen in the next 1-3 months.

If primary and Owners’ Equivalent rents don’t begin to accelerate in the next month or two, we will lower our 2013 forecast simply because it will be difficult to see a sufficient acceleration to reach our goal with only a half year or so to go. But the reason we don’t lower our forecast much is that the primary driver here is still rents, and there is no question which way rent inflation is headed. Only if we conclude that for some strange reason there is going to be a permanent shift in the capitalization rate of owner-occupied housing (that is, if there is a permanent shift in the ratio of rents to prices from what it has historically been) would we reconsider the direction of our forecast, and then only if home prices stopped launching higher.

Meanwhile, weak growth numbers, soft inflation numbers, and the seeming success of the Abe program in Japan as growth there has abruptly surprised higher (although it cannot be attributable to the BOJ monetization, since that program hasn’t been around long enough to affect the real economy even if there is money illusion at work) ought to cause any silly talk about the “taper” of the Fed’s buying program. That was always due for enormous skepticism, but with all of the arrows pointing the wrong way there is almost no chance that the FOMC will elect to taper purchases in the next few months. Indeed, I would expect the “hints” of such action to cease in short order. The only reason to talk about it is to (a) convince the world that Fed policy is credible, but a ruling on that credibility won’t be made until the episode is over, based on results, not at this time and based on what they say; or (b) because there is little cost of doing so, since the markets won’t panic if there’s no chance of near-term implementation.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary Tags: ,

Magic Trees

Imagine an island on which magic trees grow. These trees, as it turns out, are exactly like the trees everywhere else, except for three things. First, these trees never die. Second, the trees always grow to exactly 100 feet tall eventually. And third, to pass time on this boring island the villagers place bets on which specific trees in a given acre of land (on which all trees were planted at the same time) will grow the fastest over the next ten years.

Right after an acre is planted, there is much activity that can only be termed purely speculative. Without any obvious difference in the first shoots, the villagers place their bets based on which of the tree-market brokers tells the best story about a particular tree. These brokers do tend to change their minds frequently, however, so it turns out that there is rapid trading.

After a few years, some trees have clearly started to grow faster than other trees. Villagers tend to invest more on these trees that have “momentum.” And this trend continues, because the further in the lead a given tree is over its rivals, the more momentum it clearly has. There is, however, a class of investors who like to invest in the smaller trees, since the bet is on the rate of growth over time, and these investors think that the smaller trees are likely to revert to the mean (indeed, because all of these magic trees end up at the same height, they are correct on average).

The villagers who “own” the taller trees are generally happy, since their trees are “in the lead.” They don’t much care for the villagers who “own” the smaller trees, because they think these folk are just negative ninnies. The value-villagers are fairly confident, though, because they understand the math; and many of them are dismissive of the momentum-villagers and call them “lemmings.”

The odd thing is that both of these “investors” have their time in the sun. Early on in a tree’s growth pattern, the ones quickly out of the gate do tend to grow more rapidly. Consequently, momentum is a viable strategy. But the bigger the lead gets for these trees, the worse the bet becomes that the rate of growth will continue. Once the tree reaches 99 feet, for example, there are not many ways that it can beat a 20-foot tree going forward (remember – all of these magic trees always grow to be exactly 100 feet in time). And yet, the momentum-villagers remain true to their investment style, saying “the 20-foot tree must just be sick. And it can’t get as much sun because the 99-foot tree is shading it. The 99-foot tree may only grow 1 foot over the next ten years, but the 20-foot tree might not grow at all.” And, after all, it is fun to have your bet on the biggest tree in the forest. However, the value-villagers almost always win that bet.

This allegory isn’t really about growth versus value in equity investing. It is about asset class performance and, more specifically, the performance of equities versus commodities. There is a significant amount of history to suggest that over long periods of time, the average growth rate of equities and the average growth rate of commodity indices is approximately equal. This happens because the basic sources of both asset classes are fairly steady: aggregate economic growth, in the case of equities, and collateral return plus rebalancing effect, plus some other smaller sources of return, in commodities. So regardless of what you think about equities or commodities, in general when equities are dramatically outperforming commodities, you should be selling them to buy commodities, and vice-versa. But that isn’t how most investors bet. Most investors make up a story about why the tree is stunted, and will never grow, will never catch up, and then turn to bet on the tall tree.

It is a mistake.

It is a mistake, though, that the Street actively encourages because where the broker makes his money is on frenzy. Rallying markets tend to produce more volume and excitement, and that means more money for the broker. This is especially true when the market is equities, since there isn’t much underwriting of commodities to be done but there is quite a lot of underwriting of new equity issues.

Frankly, this over-exuberant cheerleading sometimes results in lies being disseminated to investors. Consider the following snapshot of a Bloomberg page describing the characteristics, including the P/E ratio, of the Russell 2000 index. You will see it says the Price/Earnings ratio is about 18.41. We all know that means that if you pay $18.41, you will get a set of stocks that will have $1 in earnings, collectively. Right?

Lie2

Well, the following chart is also from Bloomberg, and you get it if you type RTY<Index>FA<GO>. What it says is that the Price/Earnings Ratio is actually 54.86, which means that your $18.41 actually only gets you $0.33 of earnings! What’s going on here? Well, the next line shows you that what Bloomberg considers the “real” P/E ratio – important enough to have on the front page – is really the Price/Earnings ratio if we only count the positive earnings.

Lie1

So, that $18.41 does in fact get us $1 in earnings. Wall Street doesn’t want us to focus on the fact that it also gets us $0.67 in losses, so that the net is only $0.33. Because surely, those losses were one-time events, and obviously all 2000 companies will make money next year, right?

It may be that stocks are a great bargain here, and that multiples will expand further, the economy will surge in a way we haven’t seen in a decade or two, in an environment of tame inflation but ample liquidity. If that is the case, then equity investors will win over the next five years because they’re betting on the trees that have grown the most in the last two years. But in all other cases, commodity indices should grow faster than stocks as both revert to their long-term growth rates.

Comparisons

With little economic data on the calendar, and the Fed speakers back-loaded at the Chicago Fed conference later in the week, there is time to reflect on other questions (unless, of course, the Israel/Syria back-and-forth turns into something more than the last couple of jabs have produced).

It is interesting to me that analysts and journalists truly enjoy finding comparisons between present situations and actors, except when the comparisons suggest unpleasant conclusions. This is at a time when there are really no comparable periods in history to compare to, at least with respect to major global policy initiatives!

I read comparisons between Shinzo Abe’s pressure on the Bank of Japan and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s campaign to resurrect the American economy with ever-greater monetary policy shocks. Somewhere, I saw an analyst ask “isn’t Abe taking note of the failure of U.S. monetary policy to goose the economy?” But the comparison is not apt because the two men, and the two economies, face very different challenges. Abe doesn’t need to increase consumer spending and reinvigorate the economy with monetary policy. While that might be nice, the main goal of Japanese monetary policy now is to raise the price level and the rate of inflation. They are using exactly the right tool to do so: lots of monetary easing. On the other hand, Bernanke is trying to kick-start the real economy with a monetary tool, while at least in principle avoiding an inflationary outcome. That’s like trying to hammer a nail with a fish. It might work, but it’s the wrong tool for the job. So the comparison doesn’t work: one man knows how to use his tools, the other does not.

Here is another useless comparison: “Bond Buyers See No 1994 as Bernanke Clarity Tops Greenspan.” The myth that transparency really helps markets in the long run is sort of silly: is there any sign that the crises caused by monetary policy have become less frequent since the Greenspan glasnost than they were before? I know that’s the belief, because the Fed has told us that’s the way it is. But my scorecard tells a sorry tale of bubbles and crashes since the early 1990s. It isn’t a lack of transparency that causes routs. It’s leverage, and negative gamma. Mortgage hedgers are more active now than they were in 1994, and they have larger books. Hedge funds are orders of magnitude larger. And Wall Street is smaller, and is able to provide less liquidity – partly because they are more levered (which they think is okay because of “Fed transparency”), and partly because the government doesn’t want them to take bets with the leverage they have (which, since they’re paying for failures under the current system, isn’t wholly absurd).

So will the next bond selloff not be as bad as in 1994, because the Fed will give more warning? Remember that no matter how transparent the Fed is, there is still a transition point. Somehow, the market goes from a state of thinking there will be no tightening of policy, to a state of thinking that there will be a tightening of policy. That requires a re-pricing, whether it occurs because the Fed signaled it in a speech or a statement, or because they signaled it by doing Matched Sales for the SOMA account with Fed funds already trading above target (as was the old way of telling us something had changed). There is no way to go from “not knowing” to “knowing” without a moment of realization. And when that phase change ultimately occurs, the greater leverage inherent in the market and the diminished role of market makers will cause the selloff (in my view) to very likely be more dramatic than in 1994.

One place where we cannot prevent comparisons – nor should we want to – is in the asset markets. Stocks are doing well, despite absurd valuations, because most other markets are either more-absurdly valued (e.g., Treasury bonds) or have horrible momentum that means they’re not popular right now (e.g., commodities). I have no doubt that equity performance over the next 10 years will be very uninspiring, because equity markets that start from this level of valuation never produce inspiring returns. But when people ask me what the trigger will be for a selloff, I have to shrug. There have been plenty of “reasons” for that to happen. But I think the ultimate reason is probably this: equities are perceived as the “only game in town.” I have read several articles recently that echo this one: “Bond Fund Managers are Loading Up on Stocks.” When there is some other asset class, or some other world market, that starts doing appreciably better, perhaps investors will decide to allocate away. Unfortunately, the candidates for that market are pretty few, given the general level of valuations. Could it be commodities, which is one of the few genuinely cheap markets? Or perhaps real estate, which is still only fair value but has some pretty striking momentum? I don’t know – but I am also not sitting around waiting for a “trigger event.” There may well be a selloff without such a trigger.

Summary of My Post-Employment Tweets

  • upward surprise + upward revision in #Payrolls – not too shocking, as I pointed out in last article. Weak hours though…
  • Here is part of what’s happening in #payrolls: more jobs, fewer hours = employers cutting back hours to avoid Obamacare coverage
  • Question is, which is better for confidence? More jobs, lower earnings & wages, or fewer, but better, jobs? Probably the former.
  • average weekly hours have stagnated since 2011, even as Unemployment has fallen.

 

Today’s Employment report was pretty straightforward: an upward surprise to payrolls and upward revisions; a decline in the Unemployment Rate, and declines in hours worked. The upward revisions to Payrolls is not really a surprise,  although seeing the Unemployment Rate continue to decline when Consumer Confidence “Jobs Hard to Get” is increasing is unusual.

Two years ago, the “Average Hours Worked” was 34.4 hours and the Unemployment Rate was 9.0%. Today, average hours worked is still 34.4 hours and the Unemployment Rate is 7.5%.

What I said about Obamacare coverage should be expanded a bit. There have been anecdotal reports (see, e.g., here and here) that many employers are cutting back hours for some employees, because they are required to offer health insurance (at steep premium increases) to part-time employees working at least 30 hours per week.  The incentives are large, especially for employers who are near the 50 employee cutoff, to cut back employee hours. The way this would show up in the data, if the behavior was widespread, would be (a) a decline in average hours, as more people work shorter shifts, and (b) potentially (but not automatically) an increase in the number employed, since an employer who cuts 100 hours of work from existing employees is now 10 hours short of the labor input needed. I suspect this is only partly the case – if you cut 100 hours, maybe you add three 25-hour part-timers (it still costs money to hire, after all) – but it may help explain why the payrolls number keeps rising and the jobless number keeps falling although the average hours worked is pretty stagnant.

It would also help resolve the conundrum between the “Jobs Hard to Get” survey result and the Unemployment Rate, although it is a small divergence at present. If respondents are answering the survey as if the question is whether good or full-time jobs are hard to get, it may well be the case that those jobs are getting more difficult to find while there are more part-time positions being offered.

This is mere speculation, and storytelling, but I think it’s plausible that this is happening and may be affecting the data.

A Broken Record But It’s A Good Song

There has been a bunch of new data over the last couple of days, but I am afraid that all of the new stuff will not keep me from sounding like a broken record.

Consumer Confidence jumped yesterday, but more interesting is the fact that the “Jobs Hard to Get” subindex rose to the highest level since late last year, suggesting that weak jobs data isn’t entirely a one-off. Today, the ADP report was weaker-than-expected, at 119k (versus expectations for 150k) and a downward revision to last month. The Chicago Purchasing Managers’ Index on Tuesday was the weakest since 2009, but the ISM Manufacturing report today was on-target. Still, neither manufacturing index is generating much confidence that the economy is about to take off, and the early-year bump has been entirely reversed (see chart, source Bloomberg).

pmis

The Shiller Home Price Index, reported on Tuesday, was higher-than-expected at 9.3% year-on-year, rather than the 9.0% expected (and versus an 8.1% last!). What’s really interesting about this is that the recent surge in year-on-year growth has come because the usual seasonal pattern that sees prices sag in the springtime hasn’t been in evidence this year – accordingly, the year-on-year comparisons have gotten easier as prices have gone sideways rather than falling as they tend to do between August and March (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Shillerseasonal

That’s interesting because such a phenomenon was also a condition of the bubble years prior to 2007 – prices generally rose steadily with only a hint of seasonality. Post-bubble, if you wanted to sell your house in February you had to offer a concession on price. Those concessions aren’t happening any more, which is a back-door confirmation of the overall price action.

As I have said before, ad nauseum, we are seeing slow and/or falling growth and firm and/or rising inflation in the pipeline, and that’s not at all inconsistent. Mainstream economists, and journalists of all stripes, seem to accept as a fundamental verity the linkage between growth and inflation, but the only minor problem with this firmly-held belief is that it ain’t so. Growth is bad, and inflation is still going to go up. In Q1, core CPI rose at a 2.1% pace, and I still think that for the full year core CPI will rise at 2.6%-3.0%.

I want to add a quick word here about a thesis that has been advanced recently. The thought is that if the abrupt housing demand is coming from investors rather than consumers, then rising housing prices might be consistent with pressure on rents. I think it’s important to clear up this confusion. Microeconomics tells us that when the price of a good goes up, the price of a substitute tends to rise as well. It is possible, if the overall price level is flat, that a phenomenon such as is described in this hypothetical could happen, with home prices rising and rents falling. But what is much more likely is that rents simply go up more slowly than home prices, so that they decline relative to home prices, rather than declining absolutely. This is, in fact, what we see historically: large increases in home prices tend to lead to increases in rents, but not of the same magnitude, and vice-versa. Whether the mechanism for this is a systematic institutional investor presence or just a large number of one-off instances of individuals renting out their second “investment” homes doesn’t really matter. Accordingly, I don’t expect to see a drastically different course carved out by the rental/home price relationship from what it has been historically. The main difference may be that the lags between home prices, inventories, rents, and so on might get screwed up somewhat, if institutional investors cause this to happen in a more organized way than the organic way in which it usually happens.

Another aside: there has also been a lot made recently, especially in commodity markets, about weak data from China. It is amazing how important it is to global commodity markets that China grows at 9% and not 8%. If I were a member of Chinese leadership, I would be trying to convince my data bureau to release slightly weak figures, since every time it does the hedge funds of the world offer large amounts of commodities as discount prices, which is just what a growing economy needs. It’s not like anyone believes the figures when they are reported to be high; I wonder why we believe it when they are reported to be low?

In addition to the data today, the Federal Reserve finished its meeting and announced no change in monetary policy for now. And there isn’t one coming for a while, either. There was no important change in the statement, although the Fed did take care to remind us that it “is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes.” [emphasis added] That’s comforting. But the simple fact is that the economy isn’t going to be booming any time soon, and the Committee isn’t going to taper its purchases unless it does because they labor under the delusion that they’re helping. Perhaps next year.

For the rest of the week, investors will be focused on Friday’s Employment Report. I am not really worried about the report being weaker-than-expected, because from everything I read it seems that the market is already anticipating something close to Armageddon (or at least, that’s how they are explaining the continued pressure on breakevens and commodities). So far, this is a routine slowdown that might be slipping into a renewed recession. Meanwhile, expectations on Friday are for Payrolls of 145k, up from 88k but down from the pace of the last year. And the ‘whisper’ number seems to be lower than that. I suspect the more likely surprise is that there is an upward revision to the 88k and the number exceeds estimates. Somehow, that will be also perceived as a negative for breakevens!

TIPS suffered today, even as nominal bonds rallied. Our Fisher yield decomposition model currently suggests that TIPS are as cheap, relative to nominals, as they have been since early September last year (when 10-year breakevens were at the same level they are at now). I am quite bullish on breakevens from here.

%d bloggers like this: