Ugly CPI


Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or (if you’re already following me on Twitter or seeing this elsewhere) subscribe to direct email of my free articles here.

  • Complete shocker of a CPI figure. Core at +0.01%, barely needed any rounding to get to 0.0. Y/y falls to 1.73%. Awful.
  • Zero chance the Fed does anything today, anyway. The doves just need to point to one number and they win.
  • Stocks ought to LOVE this.
  • Core services dropped to 2.5% y/y from 2.6% and core goods to -0.4% from -0.3%.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/bev. That’s all. 14.9% of basket. Everything else decelerating.
  • I just don’t see, anecdotally, a sudden change in the pricing dynamics in the economy. That’s why this is shocking to me.
  • Primary rents to 3.18% from 3.28%. Owners’ Equiv to 2.68% from 2.72%. Both in contravention of every indicator of market tightness.
  • Apparel goes to 0.0% from +0.3% y/y. That’s where you can see a dollar effect, since apparel is mostly manufactured outside US.
  • Airline fares -2.7% versus -0.2% y/y last month and +4.7% three months ago. It’s only 0.74% of the basket but big moves like that add up.
  • Medical care: 2.09% versus 2.61% y/y. Now THAT is where the surprise comes in. Plunge in ‘hospital and related services.’ to 3.8% vs 5.5%.
  • …we (and everyone else!) expect medical care to bounce back from the sequester-inspired break last year. I still think it will.
  • core inflation ex-housing at 0.91% y/y, lowest since August 2004. Yes, one decade.
  • core inflation ex-housing is now closer to deflation than during the deflation scare. In late 2010 it got to 1.08% y/y.
  • Needless to say our inflation-angst indicator remains at really really low levels.
  • Interestingly, the proportion of CPI subindices w y/y changes more than 2 std dev >0 (measuring broad deflation risk) still high at 38%.
  • To sum up. Awful CPI nbr. Housing dip is temporary & will continue to keep core from declining much. Suspect a lot of this is one-off.
  • …but I thought the same thing last month.
  • Neil Diamond said some days are diamonds, some days are stones. If you run an inflation-focused investment mgr, this is a stone day.
  • Interestingly, Median CPI was unchanged at 2.2% this month. I’d thought it fell too much last month so this makes sense.

I am still breathing heavily after this truly shocking number. This sort of inflation figure, outside of a crisis or post-crisis recovery, is essentially unprecedented. Lower prints happened once in 2010, once in 2008, three times in 2003, and once in 1999. But otherwise, basically not since the 1960s.

The really amazing figure is the core-ex-Housing number of 0.91% y/y. A chart of that (source: Enduring Investments) is below.

corexshelter

There are interesting similarities between the current situation and late 2003, which is the last time that ex-housing inflation flirted with deflation. Between late 2000 and June 2003, money velocity fell 11%, in concert with generally weakening money growth. Velocity fell primarily because of a sharp decline in interest rates from 6% on the 5y note to around 2.25%. The circumstances are similar now: 5y interest rates declined from around 5% to 0.5% from 2006 through mid-2013, accompanied by a 24% decline in money velocity. And voilá, we have weakness in core inflation ex-housing.

The important differences now, though, are twofold. The first is that the absolute levels of money velocity, and of interest rates, are much lower and very unlikely to fall much further – indeed, money velocity is lower than it “should” be for this level of interest rates. And the second is that there is an enormous supply of inert reserves in the system which will be difficult to remove once inflation begins to rise again. The Fed began to increase interest rates in 2004, which helped increase money velocity (and hence, inflation) while it also caused M2 growth to decline to below 4% y/y. Core inflation rose to 3%, but the Fed was basically in control. Today, however, the Fed has no direct control over the money supply because any reserves they remove will be drawn from the “excess” reserves held by banks. This will make it difficult to increase overnight rates except by fiat (and increasing them by setting a floor rate will merely cause money velocity to rise while having no effect on the money supply). So the ‘potential inflation energy’ is much higher than it was in 2003. As an aside, in 2004 I was quite vocal in my opinions that inflation was not about to run away on the upside, which is another key difference!

If you are a tactical inflation trader, today’s CPI figure should make you despise inflation-linked bonds for a few weeks. But they have already taken quite a drubbing this month, with 10-year breakevens falling from 2.27% to 2.08% as I type. It’s okay to watch them fall, tactically, especially if nominal bonds generally rally. But strategically, not much has changed about the inflationary backdrop. I don’t expect airline fares to continue to drop. I don’t expect Medical Care inflation, which has a strong upward bias due to base effects, to plunge further but to return to the 3%-4% range over the next 6-12 months. And Housing inflation slowed slightly this month but remains on course to continue to rise. So, if you are considering your inflation allocations, this is a good time to increase them while markets are dismissive of any possibility of higher prices.

Without a doubt, today’s number – especially following another weak CPI print last month – is a head-scratcher. But there aren’t a lot of downside inflation risks at the moment. Our forecast had been for core (or median) inflation to reach 2.6%-3.0% in 2014. I would say that core CPI isn’t going to get to that level this year with 4 prints left, and even median CPI (which is a better measure right now of the central tendency of inflation, thanks to the aforementioned base effects in medical care, and remained at 2.2% this month) is going to have a harder time reaching that target. I’d lower and narrow the target range for 2014 median inflation to 2.5%-2.8% based on today’s data.

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