Archive

Archive for November, 2013

Fed Talks About Price-Level Targeting

November 27, 2013 4 comments

There is a blog post on the site of the New York Fed might be significant. The title of the post is “Has the Fed Stabilized the Price Level?” In the post, the authors take up the question of price level targeting. This, in itself, is worth noting because the debate about whether the Fed should target the inflation rate (trying to hit 2% on the PCE deflator every year) or the price level (trying to average 2% over the next 10 years, say) has been ebbing and flowing for the last few years but during and after the crisis has generally taken a back seat to more pressing issues like “how can we buy a couple trillion dollars’ worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities without impairing market function?” Back at the end of 2010, I wrote a blog post about the fact that price-level targeting is gaining currency (no pun intended) at the Fed.

The authors start by noting that the Fed has been incredibly successful, as it turns out, at hitting the 2% target on inflation. Like most authors who address this subject, they choose a historical period where that happens to be the case and draw a nice exponential curve that happens to fit nicely since, after all, they chose a period during which low and stable inflation was the norm. They then proceed, as most establishment economists do, to give the Fed most if not all of the credit for maintaining inflation low and stable even though any fair real-time analysis of the history – see, for example, my book which, incidentally, makes a fine Christmas gift – must conclude that this was partly a lucky break.

What is interesting and potentially significant, though, is where the authors focus on the deviation from that trend. Although drawing the line the way they originally drew it suggests that the Fed has successfully targeted long-term price-level growth almost exactly, they then re-draw the line based on an arbitrary start date of January 2006 (this happens to be the beginning of Bernanke’s tenure, but since the price level in 2006 has nothing to do with actions he took in 2006, that date is purely arbitrary). The significance is that when drawn from that date, the price level appears too low:

“While the price level has remained remarkably close to its 2 percent trend line since the early 1990s, the total PCE deflator has been below this trend line since 2009 with a 1.4 percent gap in July 2013; the core index displays an even larger gap.”

Hmmm. At this point, one suspects that the authors may be adjusting the lens to reach the conclusion they want. They proceed to ask whether the Fed is, or should be, aiming to stabilize inflation (at 2% on PCE, about 2.25% on CPI) or the price level, and suggest (remember, the authors are at the Fed) that quantitatively speaking the Fed’s policy has worked out to be essentially price-level targeting whatever they called it. The big moment comes:

“Moreover, while the FOMC has stated its policy strategy in terms of an inflation rate and not the price level, it is interesting to note that there is a technical equivalence between the Fed’s “longer-run inflation goal” of 2 percent and price-level targeting. As such, if the FOMC’s past behavior continues, it is reasonable to expect inflation temporarily higher than 2 percent so that the price level will return to its long-run trend line.”

Whether or not the Fed actually chooses, or should choose, price-level targeting or rate targeting is a debate for a future day although the link to my blog post above shows it is also a debate for a past day! The interesting thing about the NY Fed blog post, though, is that the price-level argument is being used to support the notion that inflation somewhat above the target is not only acceptable but actually desirable. This may be merely an academic discussion, but take note of it just in case.

Advertisements

Moving Goalposts

November 14, 2013 9 comments

The equity melt-up continues, with the S&P 500 now up more than 25% year-to-date in a period of stagnant growth and an environment of declining market liquidity. The catalysts for the latest leg up were the comments and testimony by Fed Chairman-nominee Janet Yellen, whose confirmation hearings began today.

Her comments should alleviate any fear that Yellen will be anything other than the most dovish Fed Chairman in decades. Ordinarily, potential central bankers take advantage of confirmation hearings to burnish their monetarist and hawkish credentials, in much the same way that Presidential candidates always seem to try and campaign as moderates. It makes sense to do so, since the credibility of a central bank has long been considered to be related to its dedication to the philosophy that low and stable prices promote the best long-term growth/inflation tradeoff. Sadly, that no longer appears to be the case, and Janet Yellen should easily be confirmed despite some very scary remarks in both the scripted and the unscripted part of her hearing.

In her prepared remarks, Yellen commented that “A strong recovery will ultimately enable the Fed to reduce its monetary accommodation and reliance on unconventional policy tools such as asset purchases.” Given half a chance to repeat the tried-and-true mantra (which Greenspan used repeatedly) about the Fed balancing its growth and inflation responsibilities by focusing on inflation since growth in the long run is maximized then inflation is low and stable…Yellen focused on growth as not only the primary but virtually the only objective of the FOMC. As with Bernanke, the standard which has been set will be maintained: we now use extraordinary monetary tools until we not only get a recovery, but a strong recovery. My, have the goalposts moved quite a lot since Volcker!

That means that QE may indeed last forever, since QE may be one of the reasons that the recovery is not strong (notice that no country which has employed QE so far…or ever, as far as I know…has enjoyed a strong recovery). In a very direct sense, then, Yellen has declared that the beatings will continue until morale improves. And I always thought that was just a saying!

I would call that borderline insanity, but I am no longer sure it is borderline.

Among other points, Yellen noted that the Fed is intent on avoiding deflation. In this, they are likely to be successful just as I am likely to be successful in keeping alligators from roosting on my rooftop. So far, there is no sign of it happening, hooray! I must be doing something right!

Yellen also remarked that the Fed might still consider cutting the interest it pays on banks’ excess reserves, or IOER. The effect of this would be to release, all at once, some large but unknown quantity of sterile reserves into the transactional money supply. If there was any question that she is more dovish than Bernanke, there it is. It was never clear why the Fed was pursuing such a policy – flood the market with liquidity, and then pay the banks to not lend the money – unless the point was merely to reliquify the banks. It is as if the Fed shipped sealed crates of money to banks and then paid them rent for keeping the boxes in their safes, closed. If you’re going to do QE, this is at least a less-damaging way to do it although it raises the question of what you do when you need the boxes back. Yellen, on the other hand, is open to the idea of telling the banks that the Fed won’t pay them any longer to keep those boxes unopened, and instead will ship them crowbars. This only makes sense if you really do believe that money causes growth, but has nothing to do with inflation.

The future Fed Chairman also declared that the Fed has tools to avert emergence of asset bubble. Of course, no one really doubts that they have the tools; the question is whether they know how and when to use the tools. And, to bring this to current events, the question is no longer whether they can avert the emergence of an asset bubble, but whether they can deflate the one they have already re-inflated in stocks, and an emerging one in property! Oh, wait, she’s at the Federal Reserve…which means she won’t realize these are bubbles until after the bubble pops, and then will say that no one could have known.

Now, it may be that the U.S. is merely nominating Dr. Yellen in self-defense, to keep the dollar from becoming too strong or something. Last week’s surprise rate cut from the ECB, and the interesting interview by Peter Praet of the ECB in which he opens the door for asset purchases (which interview is ably summarized and dissected by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard here), keeps the heat on the Fed to remain the most accommodative of the major central banks.

At least the ECB had a reasonable argument that there was room for them to paint the least attractive house on the block. Europe is the only one of the four major economies (I exclude China since quality data is “iffy” at best) where central-tendency measures of inflation are declining (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

globalinfAnd that is, of course, not unrelated to the fact that the ECB is the only one of the four major central banks to be presiding over low and declining money supply gowth (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

globalmsStill, the Bundesbank holdovers must be apoplectic at these developments. I wonder if it’s too late to nominate one of them to be our next Fed Chairman?

There is of course little desire in the establishment to do so. The equity market continues to spiral higher, making the parties louder and longer. It is fun while it lasts, and changing to a bartender with a more-generous pour might extend the good times slightly longer.

It is no fun being the designated driver, but the good news is that I will be the one without the pounding headache tomorrow.

[Hmmm…erratum and thanks to JC for catching it. The S&P is “only” up 25.6% YTD (my Bloomberg terminal decided that it wants to default to the return in Canadian dollars). So originally the first paragraph had “32%” rather than 25%. Corrected!]

Twit or Treat?

November 7, 2013 7 comments

I guess we have to add to the list of uncomfortable comparisons to 1999’s equity mania the Twitter IPO. A widely-known company with no earnings…and no visible way to produce any revenues of note, much less earnings…went public and promptly doubled. Hedge funds which were able to get in on the IPO allocation cheered this nice kick to their performance numbers, and the backers of the now-$25bln-company are surely elated. But the rest of us have got to be thinking about Pets.com.

It was an article by Hussman Funds (ht rich t) that got me thinking more deeply about these comparisons. Although the article was referred to me partly because of the insightful comments about the Phillips Curve, which echo similar comments I have made in the past, I kept reading to the end as I usually do when trapped in a Hussman article! While there are a number of us (including Hussman, Grantham, Arnott, e.g.) who have been concerned for a while about equity market valuations since we use similar metrics, I really haven’t been terribly concerned about the possibility of an imminent and steep market decline for a while, though I think returns from these levels over the next decade will be close to flat in real terms as they were after the 1999 peak. However, Hussman had me thinking about this.

I do think that there is one key difference from 1999, and that is that not everyone is talking about stocks. That is, not yet…the Twitter IPO might get us there – on Fox Business News today a young talking head (who was no more than 10 years old in 1999) made sure that viewers were informed that anyone could buy Twitter, just by calling their broker. (Not just anyone, though, could get in at the IPO price…a point the cub reporter neglected to mention).

The counter-argument to “is this a 1999 set-up?” takes two forms. The less-sophisticated form is “nuh-uh”, although usually said in a slightly more elaborate way that implies the questioner is a mindless, not to mention soulless, Communist who isn’t getting enough loving at home. The more-sophisticated argument is worth considering, but isn’t particularly soothing to me. This hypothesis is that this isn’t 1999, it’s 1997, before the parabolic blow-off and with lots of room left to run. It wasn’t as if there was any lack of skepticism about the stock market’s levels (which, sweetly, we considered lofty at the time):

“Is it possible that there is something fundamentally new about this current period that would warrant such complacency? Yes, it is possible. Markets may have become more efficient, competition is more global, and information technology has doubtless enhanced the stability of business operations. But, regrettably, history is strewn with visions of such “new eras” that, in the end, have proven to be a mirage. In short, history counsels caution.” – Alan Greenspan, February 26th, 1997

The bubble, of course, did not pop in 1997. It popped in 1999, after Greenspan had abandoned his prior skepticism (in late 1998, as he came to believe that “I do not claim that all market behavior is a rational response to changes in the real world. But most of it must be. For, were it otherwise, the relatively stable economic environments that have been evident among the major industrial countries over the generations would not be possible”).  Between 1997 and 1999, there was plenty of time for investors to make money, and as long as they realized they were taking money for the future and got out before 2000…alas, very few of them did.

But, speaking from experience, the 1997-1999 period was very lonely. While investors who gradually sold their long positions out in 1998 and 1999 did much better than the ones they were selling to, they were also very unpopular at cocktail parties. The bearish analysts were put on the street, begging for tuppence. Which, considering that most of them were in the United States, was also unsuccessful.

The 1999 bubble…and the later property bubble…also did not burst until the Fed was actually tightening policy. It is on this point that many bullish arguments depend, but it is a weak one I believe. To be sure, there is no chance that the Fed will be tightening policy any time soon. The taper is not going to happen until 2014Q2 at the earliest, and I think it will take until later in 2014, when inflation figures will become uncomfortable, before they will start pulling back on QE. Some observers believe it will be much later. A Wall Street Journal article on Wednesday detailed a recent research paper written by the head of the monetary affairs division at the Fed; it argued that it may make sense for the Fed to lower its Unemployment Rate threshold and said that “an ‘optimal’ policy might keep rates near zero as late as 2017.”

The activist Fed continues to be one of the biggest risks to the market and the economy. As a trader, I know that 90% of trading is just sitting there, waiting for the ‘fat pitch’ you can do something about. It boggles my mind that a central banker doesn’t sit around at least that much, considering that they know even less about the complexities of the global economy than I know about the complexities of the market. And, unlike the global economy, the market doesn’t fight back when I act on it.

I actually have a feeling that we won’t be worrying about those Unemployment thresholds, either the old ones or the ones proposed in that paper. As I wrote late last month, the expansion is getting a bit long in the tooth and I would not be surprised to see another recession looming in 2014. I don’t have any reason for that outlook other than the calendar, but sometimes these reasons become obvious only in hindsight.

In any event, though, I wouldn’t wait around for the Fed to be tightening. It isn’t overnight funding rates that I would worry about, but longer-term interest rates, and there has already been a warning shot fired that indicates the Fed is not wholly in control of those rates.

So, it may be too early to be out of equities. Maybe even a lot too early. But one thing I am sure of is that it isn’t too late. It is the latter condition, not the former, that is the most damaging to one’s financial position.

%d bloggers like this: