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Is A Bond Rally Due?

July 29, 2013 1 comment

As we head into a very busy week of economic data, the bond market remains drippy with the 10-year yield up to 2.59%. (Just writing that makes me laugh. Who would have thought, only a few years ago, that 2.59% was a high-ish yield?)

How we got here, from the ultra-low levels of the last two years, is well-traveled territory. The Fed’s swing from “QE-infinity” to “someday, maybe, we might not buy as many bonds” helped trigger a run for the exits, and then negative convexity inflection points kept the rout going for a long time. Most lately, the threat of muni bond convexity has been looming as the next big concern.

But my message today is actually one of good cheer. The worst of the bond selloff was now more than three weeks ago, without a further low being established. In my experience, convexity-inspired selloffs typically end not with a sharp rebound but with a sideways trade as “trapped” long positions gradually work their way out and buyers start to nibble. But it remains a buyer’s market for several weeks, at least.

We are getting far enough along in that process that I suspect we have a rally due. This has nothing to do with any economic data coming up. There is enough data coming this week, from Consumer Confidence to Payrolls to GDP to the Fed statement, that both bulls and bears will be able to find something to point to. And I am not pointing to technicals, exactly. I am just saying that markets rarely move in a straight line, and even bear markets – such as the one I think we have now entered, in bonds – have nice rallies from time to time.

But here’s a reason to expect this to happen relatively soon. The chart below is a neat “seasonal heat map” chart from Bloomberg showing the monthly yield change for the last 10 years and the average monthly change on the top line.

heatmapFor a long time, I have been following the rule of thumb I learned as a mere babe in the bond market, and that’s that the best time of the year to buy bonds is the first few days of September. From at least the late 1970s until today, September until mid-October has been the strongest seasonal period of the year (not every year, but with enough consistency that you wanted to avoid being short in September). But the heat map above shows that this tendency may have shifted. The month that has seen the best average bond market performance over the last decade has been August, with yields falling an average of 22bps with rallies in 8 of the last 10 years. If we were sitting with 10-year yields at 1.59%, I would be less interested in this observation, but at 2.59% I am looking for the counter-trade.

To be sure, yields in the big picture are headed higher, not lower. But I am looking for signs that the recent selloff has over-discounted the immediate threat of ebbing Federal Reserve purchases. And I don’t expect growth to suddenly leap forward here, either.

As an aside, 10-year TIPS yields have also experienced one of their best months in August, with the other clear positive month being January. But, because nominal yields have been so strong, August has been the worst month for breakevens, with 10-year breakevens falling 10bps on average over the last ten years. No other month has seen breakevens decline as much as 6bps, on average.

Now, although I am a bond bear in the big picture, I don’t think that the housing market is doomed because interest rates will go up one or two or three percent. I am fascinated by how many analysts seem to think that unless 10-year rates are below 3%, the housing market will collapse. I argued about six weeks ago that higher mortgage rates should not impact sales of homes very much as long as the interest rate is less than the expected capital gain the homeowner expects to make on the home. (Higher rates will, however, cut fairly quickly into speculative building activity, which is much more rates-sensitive). And here is another reason not to worry too much about the housing market. A story in Bloomberg last week says that adjustable-rate mortgages are booming again, with mortgagees taking them out at the highest pace since 2008. Faced with higher rates, and a Fed with is not likely to raise short rates for a long while – as they have taken pains to keep reminding us – homebuyers have rationally decided to take the cheaper money and let the future refinancing take care of itself.

Whether that is sowing the seeds of a future debacle I will leave to other pundits to debate. From my perspective, the important point is that higher rates are not likely to slow home sales, or the recent rise in home prices, very much…unless they get a lot higher.

A Quick Thought on Municipal Bankruptcy

July 24, 2013 11 comments

On CNBC today, analyst Meredith Whitney commented that “everybody loses” from the Detroit declaration of bankruptcy.

If that is the case, then why in the world are they seeking bankruptcy? If everybody loses, then it means nobody wins from declaring bankruptcy, and if that’s the case then it would be truly idiotic to seek it.

But of course, this is nonsense. There is no wealth being either created or destroyed in a bankruptcy proceeding; it is merely being forcibly reallocated. In this case, the winners are the taxpayers of Detroit. More to the point, it is the future taxpayers of Detroit, who were on the hook for a bunch of liabilities that they were going to have to figure out how to pay someday, but are not now going to have to pay. Those folks win big. And it’s a good thing, too, because Detroit needs more of these future taxpayers to move to Detroit.

The losers are many in number. Bondholders will lose a lot. Pensioners will, unfortunately, lose a lot. Many of the public service unions will lose a lot as their contracts are rolled back. But their losses are equal in magnitude to the gains of the future taxpayers.

Another prediction that Whitney made is on firmer ground. She said that this bankruptcy would touch off a wave of other municipal bankruptcies. I think there is a very good chance of that. I am not saying that because I have analyzed the balance sheets of many municipalities in great detail, as Whitney have (although I have seen enough, in trying to persuade some of them to hedge their post-employment medical liabilities, to be concerned). I say it because we have seen such phenomena before in industries which were overburdened. Consider telecommunications in the early 2000s. Once one big telecom company declared bankruptcy, it suddenly had a big cost advantage over its rivals, and could underprice them until its rivals followed the same path. We’ve also seen this in airlines. It seems to me that it is entirely possible that, if Detroit is able to lower taxes and reinvigorate the economy once it no longer needs to service these overwhelming liabilities, and begins to attract migrants from high-tax neighboring cities and states, then it makes the finances of places like, say, Chicago that much worse as their taxpayers leave.

Babies and Bathwater

July 23, 2013 3 comments

Before I descend into the mundane discussion of economies and markets, let me first congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son. In watching the pictures of the royals leaving the hospital with their child, I was struck at the fact that when his wife passes off the child, Prince William looks as uncomfortable holding a baby as most first-time fathers are. He did, however, have more luck with the mechanics of the car seat…as, again, most new fathers do.

However, when he drives home, he won’t have to worry about the rising cost of housing, and probably doesn’t fret much about whether his child will be able to afford a comfortable life in an inflationary future. “Will my son be better off than I am?” is a question for non-royals!

I have no idea what the rents are for a Kensington Palace apartment, but I will bet they are rent-controlled. Meanwhile, housing prices in the U.S. continue to rise rapidly. Today’s announcement of the FHA Home Price Index suggested prices have risen 7.3% over the last year (the fourth month in a row over 7%), while the median price of a home in the Existing Home Sales report yesterday was 13.2% above the year-ago level (see chart).

somehomeprices

Aside from inflation, however, where the future trajectory is clear, the performance of the economy is probably best characterized by the word “muddled” (thank you, John Mauldin). Last Thursday, the Philly Fed index was published at 19.8 – a two-year high – versus expectations for 8.0; on Monday the Chicago Fed index showed -0.13 versus expectations for flat, and today the Richmond Fed index was -11 (the second-worst since 2009) versus expectations for +9.

And, in the meantime, Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) missed earnings badly and Detroit declared bankruptcy. Apple (AAPL) is just out with earnings and pulled the old trick of “beat on current earnings, match on revenues, but guide lower for next quarter.” The current consensus for Q2 GDP (the advance estimate is due out next week) is a mere 1.3%.

With all of this, equity prices are doing well with stocks up 5.4% for the month. Bond yields are fairly flat, with 10-year yields up 4bps from the end of June, but TIPS are doing relatively well (10y real yields -14bps; 10y breakevens +18bps). And even the DJ-UBS Commodity index is +4.3%. Gold is up nearly 10%.

Three weeks do not a turn in sentiment make, but I do find it interesting that real estate, inflation breakevens, gold, and commodities generally are all enjoying a renaissance right after inflation-linked bonds and commodities were buried in late June, with large outflows especially from TIPS funds (the shares outstanding of the TIP ETF went from 183 million at year-end, to 165 million in late May, to just 139 million now). It got so bad that my company reached out to customers in late June with a thorough explanation and presentation of why we thought the market was ‘getting it wrong.” Investors were throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

To be sure, I think real yields, breakevens, and nominal yields will eventually be much higher. But if nominal yields can simply avoid breaking higher for the next few weeks, I think the stage will be set for a fixed-income rally into September and October. As I have written before, in the aftermath of a convexity event such as we have just seen, a “cool down” period of a few weeks is usually necessary to work off the bad positions induced and trapped by the market’s sudden slide. Once these positions are worked off, I think the weak economic growth and weakening corporate internals will pressure stocks lower and the stock and bond markets will get back into some semblance of what static-equilibrium types think of as “fair value” relative to one another.[1]

Even so, I think that commodities, breakevens, and even gold might have already seen the worst of their markets. In this suspicion I have been wrong before. Money velocity in Q2 will have declined further (probably to about 1.50 from 1.53 in Q1), but I think it will be higher – or at least not much lower – in Q3. And once velocity turns, time has run out. I am reminded of an old quote from Milton Friedman, from his book Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History.

“When the helicopter starts dropping money in a steady stream – or, more generally, when the quantity of money starts unexpectedly to rise more rapidly – it takes time for people to catch on to what is happening. Initially, they let actual balances exceed long-run desired balances, partly out of inertia; partly because they may take initial price rises as a harbinger of subsequent price declines, an anticipation that raises desired balances; and partly because the initial impact of increased money balances may be on output rather than on prices, which further raises desired balances. Then, as people catch on, prices must for a time rise even more rapidly, to undo an initial increase in real balances as well as to produce a long-run decline.” (p.36)

When this happens, stocks will take a beating. But it may be the final beating in this long, drawn out, secular bear. I guess it is far too early to say that, but I recently saw two news items that I have long been waiting for. The first is that CNBC is having ratings “issues,” and it is starting to get bad enough that the producers are thinking about “tinkering with primetime.” The second, which is clearly related, is that Maria Bartriromo is thinking of leaving business news to take her inestimable talents elsewhere.

As with commodities and inflation breakevens recently, a sine qua non for the start of a new bull market of substantial magnitude – not a 100% rally from the lows, but a 100% rally above the old highs – is that everyone stops thinking that stocks are smart and exciting investments, that they are “where it’s at,” and that all the cool people are buying stocks. And I have never been able to figure out how an environment sufficiently depressing to germinate a new bull market can occur if the cheerleaders are televised 24/7. Honestly, I had just about given up. While we still need cheap valuations and rotten sentiment to start a bull market (and we are very far from both of those standards in equities), a move towards general indifference among investors would be a good start.

 


[1] As the quote marks suggest, I don’t think that they will be right when you hear people declare that “stocks now offer good value relative to bonds again.” I think the people who use the “Fed model” tend to overprice stocks generally…and they tend to be much more diligent disciples of the model when yields are falling than when they are rising. When yields rise, they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because bond yields are going to rise, while when yields are low they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because of the current level of bond yields.

Ben, Can I Speak With Your Mommy?

July 17, 2013 5 comments

Although the market action was restrained today, one gets the feeling that it was the heat rather than the lack of news. There were at least two events worth commenting on today.

The first was the Housing Starts figure, which at 836k (versus 960k expected) was about 13% worse than expected. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, housing starts are now about 16% below the highs hit earlier this year. And the industry, while upbeat (see the NAHB upside surprise yesterday), must be that way because of the perceived future business since the level of starts we are retreating from is only slightly above the level reached at the depths of the 1991 recession.

starts

However, this is positive news both for investors in housing and for the economy as a whole. The decline in housing starts appears to be a price response to higher interest rates (it certainly isn’t a response to a glut, as inventories are extremely low right now). It is terrific news that this is happening, because it is a rational response to higher interest rates on the part of spec builders (who are much more sensitive to financing than is the average homebuyer). On the chart below, I’ve added the 10-year Treasury yield (inverted).

starts2

Note that the correlation of levels from January 1990 to December 2006 is about -0.80: you can see the zig-zags line up pretty well, and remember this is not even mortgage rates but Treasury rates. But you can see that from 2003 to 2005 or so, Housing Starts continued to rise while interest rates were also rising.

While it’s on much less data, and clearly the intercept of the regression is very different, the correlation of these two series has resumed a fairly high inverse correlation (-0.68) since December 2008.

The growth news here isn’t particularly good, since higher rates will clearly lead to fewer housing starts. It isn’t horrible, since the construction and real estate industry is, after all, a much smaller part of the economy now than it was in the height of the bubble. But after all, that is how higher interest rates are supposed to impact growth – so it’s natural, even if the Fed may not care for the messiness of nature.

In any event, less building translates into more support for prices in the existing housing market, which is good for homeowners and financial investors. Some economists will also expect the higher home prices to ignite further economic growth, via a “wealth effect,” but I am skeptical of that in this case. In the mid-2000s, there was clearly a wealth effect from the home price boom, because the combination of higher prices and lower interest rates meant that consumers could cash out home equity to support additional spending. But in the extant case, increasing home prices are occurring in conjunction with interest rates going up. In that circumstance, there will not be very much refinancing activity (why refinance into a higher rate mortgage?). So, is the wealth effect caused by wealth per se, or by wealth that can be drawn on and spent, via refinancing? I suspect it is the latter, which means that the higher wealth will have a much lower “wealth effect” coefficient going forward and some economists, and probably the Fed, will overestimate growth as a result.

Speaking of the Fed, the other event of the day was the start of Chairman Bernanke’s final monetary policy report to the Congress – unless it turns out that he stays Chairman longer than expected, for example because no other candidate is found who can be confirmed and actually wants the job. Remember, this Chairman got to play Santa Claus; the next one gets to be Scrooge (pre-visitation).

For the most part, this was an unremarkable testimony. After being careful to ladle on the dovishness in good measure after the bond market reacted to the Fed’s declaration that QE will be ending soon (not to mention, a lot of negative convexity in the market), there was no way that Bernanke was going to be anything but quite supportive.

But one part sort of struck me because it is a major departure from the line taken by all previous Fed chairmen. In the past, the Fed was generally willing to pursue a fairly accommodative monetary policy if fiscal policy was restrictive or at least responsible. Chairman Greenspan even made that promise explicit, and public, in 1995. (See here for background on that period.) And Bernanke himself, four years ago, admonished the Congress to “demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal sustainability in the longer term.”

But Chairman Bernanke is now complaining about the effort to make mild cuts in government spending. Today he said that “fiscal policy is stunting the recovery,” and that “the risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect.”

To be clear, he is complaining about the fact that Federal expenditures over the last six months were only $1.688 trillion, compared to $1.717 trillion in the last six months of 2012. It isn’t that there has been dramatic spending restraint due to the sequester – it has been, at best, very mild (we can get a more-generous figure by comparing against the first six months of 2012, in which case spending is down from $1.851 trillion…about 1% of GDP). Revenues are up, by about $202bln with comparison against the year-ago period (about 1.25% of GDP). This is a drag, but it isn’t a 2.25% drag because this is replaced at least in part elsewhere in the economy. Indeed, revenues are up and spending is down partly because the economy is doing better. It’s called an automatic stabilizer…that’s how it works.

In any event, if the Chairman of the Fed is going to whine when very moderate fiscal conservatism causes the economy to expand at only 1-2% per year, then what chance do we ever have of balancing the budget? Who is wearing the big boy pants? Ben, can I speak with your mommy?

And, if we’re not going to even try very hard to balance the budget, what chance do we have to restrain inflation, once the tide has decisively turned? The answer is none. No chance at all, unless someone – or people generally – demand fiscal and monetary sanity be returned.

Don’t Look Now, But

July 16, 2013 2 comments

In our business, one must be very careful of confirmation bias of course (as well as all of the other assorted biases that can adversely affect one’s decision-making processes). And so I want to be very careful about reading too much into today’s CPI report. That being said, there were some hints and glimmers that the main components of inflation are starting to look more perky.

Headline (“all items”) inflation rose in June to 1.75% y/y, with core inflation 1.64%. About 20% of the weights in the major groups accelerated on a year-on-year basis; about 20% declined, and 60% were roughly flat. However, two thirds of the “unchanged” weight was in Housing, which moved from 2.219% to 2.249% y/y…but the devil is in the details. Owner’s Equivalent Rent, which is fully 24% of the overall CPI and about one-third of core CPI, rose from 2.13% to 2.21%, reaching its highest rate of change since November 2008. Primary Rents (that is, if you are a renter rather than a homeowner) rose from 2.83% to 2.89%, which is also a post-crisis high. Since much of my near-term expectations for an acceleration in inflation in the 2nd half of the year relies on the pass-through of home price dynamics into rentals, this is something I am paying attention to.

This is what I expected. But can I reject a null hypothesis that core inflation is, in fact, in an extended downtrend – that perhaps housing prices are artificially inflated by investor demand and will not pass through to rents, and the deflation in core goods (led by Medicare-induced declines in Medical Care) will continue? I cannot reject that null hypothesis, despite the fact that the NAHB index today surprised with a leap to 57, its highest since 2006 (see chart, source Bloomberg, below). It may be, although I don’t think it is, that the demand is for houses, rather than housing and thus the price spike might not pass into rents. So, while my thesis remains consistent with the data, the real test will be over the next several months. The disinflationists fear a further deceleration in year-on-year inflation, while I maintain that it will begin to rise from here. I still think core inflation will be 2.5%-2.8% by year-end 2013.nahbboom

In fact, I think there is roughly an even chance that core inflation will round to 1.8% next month (versus 1.6% this month), although the 0.2% jump will be more dramatic than the underlying unrounded figures. The following month, it will hit 1.9%. That is still not the “danger zone” for the Fed, but it will quiet the doves somewhat.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI remained at 2.1%, the lowest level since 2011. The Median CPI continues to raise its hand and say “hello? Don’t forget about me!” If anyone is terribly concerned about imminent deflation, they should reflect on the fact that the Median CPI is telling us the low core readings are happening because a few categories have been very weak, but that there is no general weakness in prices.

Although I maintain that the process of inflation will not be particular impacted by what the Fed does from here – and, if what they do causes interest rates to rise, then they could unintentionally accelerate the process – the direction of the markets will be. And not, I think, in a good way. We saw today what happens when an inflation number came in fairly close to expectations: stocks down, bonds flat, inflation-linked bonds up, and commodities up. Now, imagine that CPI surprises on the high side next month?

Speaking of the fact that commodities have had (so far at least) their best month in a while, there was a very interesting blog entry posted today at the “macroblog” of the Atlanta Fed. The authors of the post examined whether commodity price increases and decreases affect core inflation in a meaningful way. Of course, the simple answer is that it’s not supposed to, because after all that’s what the BLS is trying to do by extracting food and energy (and doing that across all categories where explicit or implicit food and energy costs are found, such as in things like primary rents). But, of course, it’s not that simple, and what these authors found is that when commodity prices are increasing, then businesses tend to try and pass on these cost increases – and they respond positively to a survey question asking them about that – and it tends to show up in core inflation. But, if commodity prices are decreasing, then businesses tend to try and hold the line on prices, and take bigger profit margins. And that, also, shows up in the data.

To the extent this is true, it means that commodity volatility itself has inflationary implications even if there is no net movement in commodity prices over some period. That is because it acts like a ratchet: when commodity prices go up, core inflation tends to edge up, but when commodity prices go down, core inflation tends not to edge down. Higher volatility, by itself, implies higher inflation (as well, as I have pointed out, as increasing the perception of higher volatility: see my article in Business Economics here and my quick explanation of the main points here). It’s a very interesting observation these authors make, and one I have not heard before.

You Can’t Jawbone a Bungee Jump

July 12, 2013 4 comments

Incredible to me, as well as to many others I am sure, is the fact that the words of one guy, Chairman Bernanke, who is leaving office soon, carries more weight in the market than all of the actual news that we see from day to day.

Today, France’s sovereign rating was lowered by S&P to AA+ from AAA. This is more significant than it sounds, since it means that none of the European “bailout” institutions can feasibly carry a AAA rating any more unless Germany and the Netherlands want to guarantee the whole thing. (They don’t.) In a humorous note, the French Finance Minister said that the country remains committed to restoring growth, lowering deficits, and adding jobs. Hmmm. One of these three doesn’t seem to belong in a statement about restoring the credit of the nation. How does adding jobs – stimulus, that is – help the situation? It was a strange statement.

Portugal’s situation is worsening again as President Silva is insisting on a broader “unity” government in which all parties participate in the government (and take the heat for austerity measures). Not all of the other parties agree; in particular the Socialists are demanding new elections, while declaring “we must abandon the politics of austerity, and renegotiate the terms of our adjustment programme.” In this dust-up, the more extreme elements of the political sphere in Portugal are calling for debt repudiation. Portuguese bond yields (10y) are back up to 7.35%, which is well above the 5.20% lows from May although also a far cry from the 16% levels in the teeth of the crisis early last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).

porto10

Philadelphia Fed President Plosser today said in a speech that the Fed should start exiting from the asset purchase program in September, and completely cease buying bonds by the end of the year. He is concerned about causing another housing boom (too late!), and thinks the costs outweigh the further benefits. He is right, and bonds took some brief grief before investors remembered that (a) he’s not the Chairman, who has the only vote that matters, and (b) he’s not even an FOMC voter this year.

None of this – not France, not Portugal, not Plosser – rattled the U.S. equity market in the slightest, because Bernanke has pledged to keep the taps running as long as possible, tapering slowly, and then maintaining easy policy for a long time. So investors are delighted to see stocks at all-time (nominal) price highs with nearly a 24 Shiller P/E. At these levels, the expected real total return for the next decade from the stock market is less than 1.75% per annum…with 10-year TIPS yielding 0.50%.

So does the continued presence of easy money from the Fed warrant exceptional risk-taking and valuation in equities? It seems to me that it does not. Removing QE is, of course, tightening relative to the baseline of current policy. Policy may remain absolutely easy, but it is going to be relatively tighter…and the direction of interest rates, not merely their level, matters to investors. Of course, Fed mouthpieces clearly want to suggest that “policy will remain accommodative.” Indeed it will, and it will also remain accommodative when the Fed Funds rate rises to 1%…and 2%…and 3% someday. But it will be less accommodative, or in other words: more restrictive.

The word-smithing by the Chairman in this regard is understandable, because the jawboning is an important part of policy for a central bank that is nearly impotent due to prior decisions. But it is absurd. Previously, investors were asked to stomach the “Perpetual Motion Machine” interpretation of policy: that buying bonds would push interest rates lower and increase economic activity, while selling them wouldn’t push rates higher or decrease activity (or prices in related markets). This latest tweak to the argument asks us to believe also that buying fewer bonds has the same (positive) effect as buying a lot of bonds!

Again, I completely understand why the Fed is trying to jawbone the markets to their way of thinking. But you can’t jawbone a bungee jump, and the inflection of policy here is the start of a bungee jump.

The risk here is that investors decide that the Fed is really going to be slow at removing accommodation (which I think is correct), but inflation is going to start to be problematic sooner than that. That sort of attitude adjustment may be closer than you think, for two reasons. First of all, the CPI report is due on Tuesday. Market expectations are for a figure lower than last month’s +0.17% rise in core inflation, and a decline in the year/year core inflation rate to +1.6% (from 1.7%) as last June’s +0.21% rolls out of the 12-month comparison. I believe there is a good chance that core comes in better than that, although it is unlikely to push the year-on-year change higher. But it could, since housing continues to accelerate and these low figures require ever-increasing drag from core goods prices. In any event, though, inflation will accelerate on a year-on-year basis in August, because the easy comparisons begin: +0.10%, +0.06%, +0.15%, +0.17%, +0.12%, and +0.12% are the monthly changes in core prices for the last six months of 2012: a 1.4% pace in aggregate. And the underlying inflation dynamics are accelerating at the same time.

The second reason that inflation expectations may begin to rise among investors soon is more pedestrian (in more ways than one): gasoline prices have recent spiked 40 cents in the futures markets, from near the lows of the year to near the highs of the year. This will pass through to retail gasoline prices over the next few weeks. If gasoline prices do not rise further from here, then no important shift in inflation perceptions will likely happen. But keep an eye on this. Enduring Investments’ sophisticated measure of “consumer inflation angst” has been at multi-decade lows for some time (see chart), but a fairly reasonable shortcut way to evaluate how consumers are feeling about inflation is to look at prices at the gas pump.

aggadjYou should note that there are two spikes on this chart. One covers the move higher from March 2001 to February 2003, a period during which stocks fell 28%. The second covers May 2007 to July 2009, covering a 35% slump in prices. (There is also a minor blip from November 2010 to September 2011, a period during which the S&P only dropped 4%.)

Of course, increasing consumer inflation angst wasn’t the only thing that was happening during those periods that helped to drive stocks down. Among other things, valuations were high. Indeed, valuations were high partly because inflation angst was so low. And one ought to consider this: if stocks decline from here in concert with rising inflation expectations, we would be able to say the same thing looking back: it isn’t only rising inflation expectations, but also high valuations and plenty of bad news to go around.

Moderate Monetary Policy: Vice Or Virtue?

July 10, 2013 4 comments

Barry Goldwater once said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It is one of the great quotes of the 20th century, and so I feel moderately guilty to convert it to my own selfish uses by saying that “Extremism in the defense of bad monetary policy is no virtue. And neither is moderation in the attack on inflation.”

And that, for the most part, is the story of the day.

Much of the day’s trading session was as languorous as the Bermuda-shorted walkers on Lexington Avenue in the wilting, moist heat of the New York summer. But, late in the day, the release of the minutes from the last FOMC meeting and the subsequent question-and-answer session from Chairman Bernanke roused traders and rattled markets.

The minutes themselves were filled with comments on inflation that are likely to be held up as articles of ridicule in only a few months.

The extremism of St. Louis Fed President Bullard, in defense of bad policy, summed it up: “Mr. Bullard dissented because he believed that, in light of recent low readings on inflation, the Committee should signal more strongly its willingness to defend its goal of 2 percent inflation. He pointed out that inflation had trended down since the beginning of 2012 and was now well below target.” He was not alone, as “…most participants…anticipated that [inflation] would remain below the Committee’s 2 percent objective for some time.”

If by “some time” they mean “several months,” then I suppose this will end up being right. But there is very little doubt that core inflation will be over 2% very quickly, unless some interesting data quirk provides an encore to the Medicare-induced decline in core CPI over the last six months. This is where good analysis is supposed to play a role. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows core CPI, along with another measure of the central tendency of inflation: the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI.

medianandcoreNow, in this column I have written quite a bit previously about what exactly is happening to core CPI, and why we shouldn’t pay too much attention to its recent decline (in summary: it is all in core commodities and especially pharmaceutical prices, while the biggest chunk of CPI, housing, is in the process of turning higher). But the point of this chart is that the deviation in core CPI compared to median CPI should be a clue to the thoughtful analyst to look more closely at what is going on, since the median is barely moving – and remains above 2% – while the average is declining. What this tells you, statistically, is that there are a few big outliers to the downside that are skewing the core reading lower. It is upon further investigation that the observation about housing-versus-pharmaceuticals (which cause core PCE to be even lower, since core PCE exaggerates the effect of medical care while understating the importance of housing) ought to be crystal clear. You don’t have to be an inflation expert to figure that out. You just need to look at the data carefully. It takes a bit more expertise, but not a ton, to observe that the second half of the year should see core inflation rise because of easy comparisons to the year-ago period, if for no other reason.

And the Fed came to the right conclusion…

“Several transitory factors, including a one-time reduction in Medicare costs, contributed to the recent very low inflation readings. In addition, energy prices declined, and nonfuel commodity prices were soft…”

…and then butchered the forecast for higher core inflation by incorrectly attributing it:

“Most participants expected inflation to begin to move up over the coming year as economic activity strengthened…”

It’s a simple forecast (although the rise will be more than they expect it to be), and they at least got the sign of the movement in inflation right. Maybe they even got the causes right, privately, but just felt it was too hard to explain in the minutes.

But, I doubt it.

The FOMC participants are not expecting, as it also says, inflation to move above 2% (on core PCE, which would be somewhat higher on core CPI). It’s a very marginal forecast they are making here. More extremism, though, was provided by the IMF’s Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard, who said in an interview that he is “not at all worried about inflation” in the U.S., because in his view (although stated as fact) inflation can rise because of an overheated economy or people’s expectations of cost increases. People, said Blanchard, who fear a jump in prices are “plain wrong.”

What is plain wrong is that they picked a guy to be chief economist who doesn’t understand the first thing about inflation. Virtually no one who has studied the matter believes that inflation expectations cause inflation. This is because there is nothing remotely suggestive of that in the data (and, moreover, no one can figure out how having customers who are afraid of cost increases can cause a vendor in a competitive marketplace to jack up prices with no other reason). Many people believe that an “overheated economy” can cause inflation to rise, so that’s at least a more common error, but consider that that core inflation fell in the U.S. from 1995-1999, and then rose from 2000 to 2002. Consider that it fell from 2006 to 2008 with unemployment below 5% and then rose sharply in 2011 with unemployment around 9%. Given that, is it unreasonable to ask that a chief economist at least be less strident in his statement about how plain wrong everyone else is?[1]

There was some volatility on the release of the FOMC minutes, with inflation markets getting pressured modestly on the theory that the minutes were not quite as dovish as was hoped, and there was at least some fair discussion about the importance of holding down inflation. Eventually, that is. But inflation breakevens as well as commodities prices (and stocks, and bonds, etc) rallied when Chairman Bernanke took some questions after his speech in Boston. In his responses, he backed off the recent tapering signals further – really, they’ve been backpedaling so fast on this that they’re behind where they started – by saying that inflation and the state of the jobs market indicates that more Fed stimulus is needed. The fact that this comment, myopically focused on the very short run followed a speech with the grand title of “The First 100 Years of the Federal Reserve: The Policy Record, Lessons Learned, and Prospects for the Future” was an irony apparently lost on the Chairman.

But, hey, let’s face it. He’s going to be gone when the important work of policy normalization gets started. As the President said recently, he’s stayed far longer than he wanted to. Is it unreasonable to expect him to just be ‘phoning it in’ at this point? Yet his moderation is no virtue, especially if you own fixed-rate bonds or other assets that will perform poorly when inflation rises.


[1] I, on the other hand, am free to do so since I am not the Chief Economist of the IMF nor the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and moreover because no one much cares what I think. Ah, the freedom of irrelevance!

The Baby is Calm … For Now

July 8, 2013 5 comments

So, the bond market has had another few days of riding the yo-yo. A 20-bp bond selloff on Friday (followed by a 10bp rally today) was precipitated by a stronger-than-expected Employment Report, with the actual number of jobs created exceeding estimates by 100k (including revisions to the prior two months). Interestingly, the Unemployment Rate rose, but on the whole the data was clearly better than most observers expected even if the net result is that the economy is still limping along at almost precisely the same pace it has done so for the last few years (see chart, source: Bloomberg).

payrollsAnd so the equity market reaction makes some sense. The jobs report was strong enough so as to alleviate (or at least salve, temporarily) fears that the economy is about to slip back into recession, while not being so strong that it could lead to a premature taper which leaves everyone gasping but unsatisfied.

The bond market, though, was routed. The bad convexity profile, combined with the poor liquidity of a trading session stranded between a holiday and a weekend, throttled fixed-income and drove rates to the highs of the move. Ten-year Treasury yields (2.74% on Friday) reached the highest levels in almost two years.

I was wrong about stocks, but right about bonds, when I said I expected the prior trends to re-assert themselves after quarter-end. Given an Employment number that missed expectations one way or the other, it was going to be hard to be right on both in the short-term.

But in the slightly longer-term, the imbalances between equities and fixed-income are building in a way they haven’t been for a long time. As the chart below shows, the rally in equities has been fueled importantly by a long decline in long-term real interest rates, from 3% to -1%, since 2008.

tworealsA further equity rally is not out of the question, of course. The real equity premium (the excess expected real return of stocks relative to TIPS) in mid-2011 was as low as it is now, and that “unattractive condition” preceded a 40% rally in the stock market over two years. The difference is that in 2011, real interest rates were low, but (we know in retrospect) were destined to go much lower. It seems unlikely – although not impossible! – that real rates are about to rally again from +0.53% to -1.00%, thereby precipitating an additional rally.

Indeed, although it may be a trick of the eye the chart above seems to suggest that equity price turns lag the turns in real yields. The regression of real yield levels versus equity levels happens to have its best fit with a lag of 19 weeks. Not to worry, however: if that’s not merely spurious, then it means you still have about a month before the big equity slide is due to begin!

Interestingly, the international backdrop is heating up again, although in prior incarnations the Arab Spring (now replaced by the Egyptian Summer) and Grexit crisis (now replaced with the Portuguese government stability crisis and …the Grexit crisis) didn’t cause any lasting damage to equities. However, it bears repeating that those crises occurred in the context of steady and significant declines in interest rates.

Calm, anyway, is inherently destabilizing. The Troika wouldn’t be pressing Greece for more concessions, or holding Portugal’s feet to the fire, if markets were going crazy. However, because markets (and especially, equity markets) are comparatively calm, it seems like a fair time for policymakers to send trial balloons aloft. Similarly, the FOMC seems oddly relaxed about the carnage in bond markets, with officials content to waggle fingers in disapprobation at market action rather than to reverse course and speak soothingly about how additional quantitative easing could be provided. I expect a one-thousand point Dow fall would change that perspective rather quickly. As parents know, it is easy to hold the line on good parenting until Junior throws a fit, and then it is so tempting to give him a lollipop to quiet him down. But, while he’s behaving, why not ask him to try broccoli today?

Wahhhhhhh![1] And then we’ll see whether central bank discipline is real, or merely threatened.


[1] This is not autobiographical. My son loves broccoli.

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