Home > CPI, Employment, Federal Reserve > Dog Bites Man: Markets Still Not Making Sense

Dog Bites Man: Markets Still Not Making Sense


The Employment number these days is sometimes less interesting than the response of the markets to the number over the ensuing few days. That may or may not be the case here. Thursday’s Employment report was stronger than expected, although right in line with the sorts of numbers we have had, and should expect to have, in the middle of an expansion.

12mpayrolls

As the chart illustrates, we have been running at about the rate of 200k per month for the last several years, averaged over a full year. I first pointed out last year that this is about the maximum pace our economy is likely to be able to sustain, although in the bubble-fueled expansion of the late 1990s the average got up to around 280k. So Thursday’s 288k is likely to be either revised lower, or followed by some weaker figures going forward, but is fairly unlikely to be followed by stronger numbers.

This is why the lament about the weak job growth is so interesting. It isn’t really very weak at all, historically. It’s merely that people (that is, economists and politicians) were anticipating that the horrible recession would be followed by an awe-inspiring expansion.

The fact that it has not been is itself informative, although you are unlikely to see economists drawing the interesting conclusion here. That’s because they don’t really understand the question, which is “is U.S. growth unit root?” To remember why this really matters, look back at my article from 2010: “The Root of the Problem.” Quoting from that article:

“what is important to understand is this: if economic output is not unit root but is rather trend-stationary, then over time the economy will tend to return to the trend level of output. If economic output is unit root, then a shock to the economy such as we have experienced will not naturally be followed by a return to the prior level of output.”

In other words, if growth is unit root, then we should expect that expansions should be roughly as robust when they follow economic collapses as when they follow mild downturns. And that is exactly what we are seeing in the steady but uninspiring job growth, and the steady if not-unusual return to normalcy in the Unemployment Rate (once we adjust for the participation rate). So, the data seem to suggest that growth is approximately unit root, which matters because among other things it makes any Keynesian prescriptions problematic – if there is no such thing as “trend growth” then the whole notion of an output gap gets weird. A gap? A gap to what?

Now, it is still interesting to look at how markets reacted. Bonds initially sold off, as would be expected if the Fed cared about the Unemployment Rate or the output gap being closed, but then rallied as (presumably) investors discounted the idea that the Federal Reserve is going to move pre-emptively to restrain inflation in this cycle. Equities, on the other hand, had a knee-jerk selloff on that idea (less Fed accommodation) but then rallied the rest of the day on Thursday before retracing a good part of that gain today. It is unclear to me just what news can actually be better than what is already impounded in stock prices. If the answer is “not very darn much,” then the natural reaction should be for the market to tend to react negatively to news even if it continues to drift higher in the absence of news. But that is counterfactual to what happened on Thursday/Monday. I don’t like to read too much into any day’s trading, but that is interesting.

Commodities were roughly unchanged on Thursday, but fell back strongly today. Well, a 1.2% decline in the Bloomberg Commodity Index (formerly the DJ-UBS Commodity Index) isn’t exactly a rout, but since commodities have been slowly rallying for a while this represents the worst selloff since March. The 5-day selloff in commodities, a lusty 2.4%, is the worst since January. Yes, commodities have been rallying, and yet the year-to-date change in the Bloomberg Commodity Index is only 2% more than the rise in M2 over the same period (5.5% versus 3.5%), which means the terribly oversold condition of commodities – especially when compared to other real assets – has only barely begun to be corrected.

I do not really understand why the mild concern over inflation that developed recently after three alarming CPI reports in a row has vanished so suddenly. We can see it in the commodity decline, and the recent rise in implied core inflation that I have documented recently (see “Awareness of Inflation, But No Fear Yet”) has largely reversed: currently, implied 1 year core inflation is only 2.15%, which is lower than current median inflation – implying that the central tendency of inflation will actually decline from current levels.

I don’t see any reason for such sanguinity. Money supply growth remains around 7%, and y/y credit growth is back around 5%. I am not a Keynesian, and I believe that growth doesn’t matter (much) for inflation, but the recent tightening of labor markets should make a Keynesian believe that inflation is closer, not further away! If one is inclined to give credit in advance to the Federal Reserve, and assume that the Committee will move pre-emptively to restrain inflation – and if you are assuming that core inflation will be lower in a year from where it (or median inflation, which is currently a better measure of “core” inflation) is now, you must be assuming preemption – then I suppose you might think that 2.15% core is roughly the right level.

But even there, one would have to assume that policy could affect inflation instantly. Inflation has momentum, and it takes time for policy – even once implemented, of which there is no sign yet – to have an effect on the trajectory of inflation. Maybe there can be an argument that 2-year forward or 3-year forward core inflation might be restrained by a pre-emptive Fed. But I can’t see that argument for year-ahead inflation.

Of course, markets don’t always have to make sense. We have certainly learned this in spades over the last decade! I suppose that saying markets aren’t making a lot of sense right now is merely a headline of the “dog bites man” variety. The real shocker, the “man bites dog” headline, would be if they started making sense again.

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  1. July 7, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    I continue to agree with you on this fundamental disconnect. If you inherit a car that is optimized to run at 55mph and then run it at 80mph for long stretches of time, you will a) find yourself in the garage for a while and b) need to run it at 55mph when you get it back on the road. It’s only within the Dismal Science that morons like Krugman and Obama can delude themselves (and millions of others) by starting from “assume there are no capacity constraints and no debt constraints” and then coming up with policy from that. I won’t call Yellen a moron yet, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. By the way, I’m wondering whether her most recent speech, which was seen as her continuing to spike the punchbowl, could also be read as the elimination of the Greenspan/Bernanke put. Logically (not that the Fed has been operating logically recently), if the Fed has no role in popping bubbles, then it follows that it has no role in holding up stock prices. What do you think?

    • July 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm

      Mr. Twain – I think that logic holds up, but for the fact that the prior Fed chiefs have also sworn off popping bubbles because they can’t be identified prospectively (so they say). So for Greenspan: “But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?” And, a little less famously from Bernanke: “For example, to the extent that a stock-market boom causes, or simply forecasts, sharply higher spending on consumer goods and new capital, it may indicate incipient inflationary pressures. Policy tightening might therefore be called for–but to contain the incipient inflation not to arrest the stock-market boom per se.”

      And yet, both Fed Chairmen felt the need to weigh in rapidly when the stock market set back even modestly. I think Yellen is just chapter-and-verse on this one. Thus proving what … well, you … said once, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”

      • July 8, 2014 at 12:19 pm

        LoL. Always good to chat with you….I think we can agree that this is not going to end well….such a shame that smart people focus only on the short term. This is why I like Shiller. He may not be a quant jock but he understands the limitations of his discipline.

  1. July 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm
  2. July 8, 2014 at 7:29 pm

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