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If Liquidity is Your Sword, Keep Swinging

April 28, 2015 9 comments

I am not one of those people who believe that if the Fed is dramatically easing, you simply must own equities. I must admit, charts like the one below (source: Bloomberg), showing the S&P versus the monetary base, seem awfully persuasive.

monbaseequalsstocks

But there are plenty of counter-examples. The easiest one is the 1970s, shown below (source: FRED, Bloomberg). Not only did stocks not rise on the geyser of liquidity – M2 growth averaged 9.6% per annum for the entire decade – but the real value of stocks was utterly crushed as the nominal price barely moved and inflation eroded the value of the currency.

m2notequalstocks

If you do believe that the Fed’s loose reins are the main reason for equities’ great run over the last few years, then you might be concerned that the end of the Fed’s QE could spell trouble for stocks. For the monetary base is flattening out, as it has each of the prior times QE has been stopped (or, as it turns out, paused).

But for you bulls, I have happy news. The monetary base is not the right metric to be watching in this case. Indeed, it isn’t the right metric to be watching in virtually any case. The Fed’s balance sheet and the monetary base both consist significantly of sterile reserves. These reserves affect nothing, except (perhaps) the future money supply. But they affect nothing currently. The vast majority of this monetary base is as inert as if it was actually money sitting in an unopened crate in a bank vault.

What does matter liquidity-wise is transactional balances, such as M2. And as I have long pointed out, the end of QE does nothing to slow the growth of M2. There are plenty of reserves to support continued rapid growth of M2, which is still growing at 6% – roughly where it has been for the last 2.5 years. And those haven’t been a particularly bad couple of years for stocks.

So, if liquidity is the only story that matters, then the picture below of M2 versus stocks (source: Bloomberg) is more soothing to bulls.

m2andstocksnow

Again, I think this is too simplistic. If ample liquidity is good today, why wasn’t it good back in the 1970s? You will say “it isn’t that simple.” And that’s exactly my point. It can’t be as easy as buying stocks because the Fed is adding liquidity. I believe one big difference is the presence of financial media transmitted to the mass affluent, and the fact that there is tremendous confidence in the Fed to arrest downward momentum in securities markets.

What central bankers have done to the general economy has not been successful. But, if you are one of the mass affluent, you may have a view of monetary policy as nearly omnipotent in terms of its effect on securities and on certain real assets such as residential real estate. What is different this time? The cult.

I am no equity bull. But if you are, because of the following wind the Fed has been providing, then the good news is: nothing important has changed.

Whither (Wither?) Profits

April 22, 2015 4 comments

Surprisingly, markets are treading water here. The dollar, interest rates, and stocks are all oscillating in a narrow range. In some ways, this is surprising. It does not shock me that interest rates are fairly boring right now, with the 10-year yield trading almost exclusively within 25bps of 2% since November. Market participants are divided between those who see the Fed’s cessation of QE as indicative that prices should decline to fair market-clearing levels (that is, higher yields) and those who see weakness economically both domestically and abroad. There is room for confusion here.

I am similarly not terribly shocked that the dollar is consolidating after a long run, especially when part of that run was fueled by the popular delusion that the Federal Reserve had suddenly become extremely hawkish and would preemptively hike rates before convincing signs of inflation arose. I am hard-pressed to think of a time when the Fed pre-emptively did anything, but that was the popular belief in any event. Now that it is becoming clear that a hike in rates in June is about as likely as the possibility that the Easter Bunny will deliver eggs at the same time, dollar traders who were relying on widening interest rate differentials are pausing to take stock of the situation. I will say that it certainly seems plausible to me that the dollar’s rally will continue for at least a little while, due to the volatility coming our way as the Greek drama plays out, but the buck is not an automatic buy either. Money growth in the U.S. continues to outpace money growth in most other economies (see chart, source Bloomberg), although it is a much closer thing these days.

allems

An increase in relative supply, if the demand curves are similar, should provoke a decrease in relative price. Unless you believe that the Fed isn’t just going to increase rates but is also going to shrink its balance sheet so that money growth abates eventually, it is hard to envision the dollar launching continuously higher. More likely is that as more and more currencies see their supplies increase, the exchange rates meander but the whole kit-and-kaboodle loses ground to real assets.

One of those real assets is housing. An underpinning to my argument, for several years running now, that core prices were not going to be deflating any time soon was the observation that housing prices (and hence rents, with a lag) have been rising rapidly once again. The deceleration in the year/year growth rates in 2014 was a positive sign, but the increase in prices in 2012 and 2013 is still pressing rents higher now and any sag in rents is yet to be felt. However, today’s release of FHA price index data as well as the Existing Home Sales report suggests that it is premature to expect this second housing bubble to unwind gently. The chart below is the year/year change in the median price of existing homes (source: Bloomberg). The recent dip now seems to have been an aberration, and indeed the slowdown in 2014 may have merely presaged the next acceleration higher.

ehslmp

And that bodes ill for core (median) price pressures, which have been steady around 2.2% for a while but may also be readying for the next leg up. Review my post-CPI summary for some of the fascinating details! (Well, fascinating to me.)

This doesn’t mean that I am sanguine about growth, either domestic or global, looking forward. I thought we would get out of 2014 without a recession, but I am less sure about 2015. Europe is going to do better, thanks to weaker energy and a weaker currency (although the weaker currency counteracts some of the energy weakness), but the structural problems in Europe are profound and the exit of Greece will cause turmoil in the banks. But US growth is in trouble: the benefit from lower energy prices is diffuse, while the pain from lower energy prices is concentrated in a way it hasn’t been in the past. And the dollar strength pressures company earnings, as we have seen, on a broad basis. And that’s where it is a little surprising that we are seeing water-treading. It gets increasingly difficult for me to figure out what equity buyers are seeing. Profits are flattening out and even weakening, and they are already at a very high level of GDP so that any economic weakness is going to be felt in profits directly. Furthermore, I find it very interesting that the last time actual reported profits diverged from “Kalecki Profits” corresponded to the last equity bubble (see chart, source Bloomberg).

kalecki

“Kalecki Profits” is a line that computes corporate profits as Investment minus Household Savings minus Government Savings minus Foreign Savings plus Dividends. Look up Kalecki Profit Equation on Wikipedia for a further explanation. The “Corp Business Prof After Tax” is from the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Z.1 report and is measured directly. The implication is that if companies are reporting greater profits than the sum of the whole, then the difference is suspect. For example, leverage: by increasing financial leverage, the same top line creates more of a bottom line (in either direction). The chart below (source: Federal Reserve; Enduring Investments analysis) plots the 1-year percentage change in business debt outstanding (lagged 2 quarters to center it on the year in question) versus the difference between the two lines in the prior chart.

explaindiverg

We might call this “pretty cool,” but in econometrics terms this is merely an explanatory relationship. That is, it doesn’t really help us other than to help explain why the two series diverge. It doesn’t, for example, tell us whether Kalecki profits will converge upwards to reported profits, or whether reported profits will decline; it doesn’t tell us whether it is a decline or deceleration in business debt outstanding that prompts that convergence or whether something else causes both things to happen. I think it’s unlikely that the divergence in the two profit measures causes the change in debt, but it’s possible. I will say that this last chart makes me more comfortable that the Kalecki equation isn’t broken, but merely that it isn’t capturing everything. And my argument, for what it is worth, would be that business leverage cannot increase without bound. At some point, business borrowing will decline.

It does not look like that is happening yet. I have been reading recently about how credit officers have been declining credit more frequently recently. That may be true, but it isn’t resulting in slower credit growth. Commercial bank credit growth, according to the Fed’s H.8 report and illustrated below, continues to grow at the fastest y/y pace since well before the crisis.

cbcredit

If credit officers are really declining credit more often than before, it must mean that applications are up, or that the credit is being extended on fewer loans (that is, to bigger borrowers). Otherwise, we can’t square the fact that there’s rapid credit growth with the proffered fact that credit is being declined more often.

There is a lot to sort through here, but the bottom line is this: I have no idea what the dollar is going to do. I am not sure what the bond market will do. I have no idea what stocks will do. But, if I have to invest (and I do!), then in general I am aiming for real assets and avoiding financial assets.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

April 17, 2015 3 comments

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments.

  • Core CPI+0.23% m/m is the story, with y/y upticking to 1.754% (rounded to +1.8%). This was higher than expected, by a smidge.
  • Core services +2.4% y/y down from 2.5%. But core goods -0.2%, up from -0.5% last mo and -0.8% two months ago. Despite dollar strength!
  • Core ex-housing rose to 0.91% y/y from 0.69% at the end of 2014. Another sign core inflation has bottomed and is heading back to median.
  • The m/m rise of 0.20% in core ex-shelter was the highest since Jan 2013.
  • Primary rents 3.53% y/y from 3.54%; OER 2.693% from 2.687%. Zzzzz…story today is outside of housing, which is significant.
  • Accelerating major groups: Apparel, Transport, Med Care, Recreation (32.1% of index). Decel: Food/Bev, Housing, Educ/Comm, Other (67.9%)
  • …but again, in housing the shelter component (32.7% of overall CPI) was unch at ~3% while fuels/utilities plunged to -2.26% from flat.
  • [in response to a question “Michael we have been scratching our heads on this one… is it some impact of port strike do you think?”] @econhedge I don’t think so. But core goods was just too low. Our proxy says this is about right.
  • @econhedge w/in core goods, Medical commodities went to 4.2% from 3.9%, new cars from 0.1% to 0.3%, and Apparel to -0.5% from -0.8%.
  • @econhedge so you can argue Obamacare effect having as much impact as port strike. But it’s one month in any case. Don’t overanalyze. 🙂
  • Medicinal drugs at 4.46% y/y. In mid-2013 it was flat. That was a big reason core CPI initially diverged from median. Sequester effect.
  • @econhedge Drugs 1.70%, med equip/supplies 0.08% (that’s percentage of overall CPI). 8.7% and 0.4% of core goods, respectively.
  • Median should be roughly 0.2%. I have it up 0.21% m/m and 2.22% y/y, but I don’t have the right seasonals for the regional OERs.
  • Further breakdown of medical care commodities: the biggest piece was prescription drugs, +5.74% y/y vs 5.19%. The other parts were lower.

The main headline of the story is that core inflation rose the most month-over-month since May. After a long string of sub-0.2% prints (that sometimes rounded up), this was a clean print that would annualize to 2.7% or so. And it is no fluke. The rise was broad-based, with 63% of the components at least 2% above deflation (see chart, source Enduring Investments, and keep in mind that anything energy-related is not part of that 63%) and nearly a quarter of the basket above 3%.

abovezero

This is no real surprise. Median has consistently been well above core CPI, which implied some “tail categories” were dragging down core CPI. These tail categories are still there (see chart, source Enduring Investments), but less than they had been (compare to chart here). Ergo, core is converging upward to median CPI. As predicted.

distrib

The next important step in the evolution of inflation will be when median inflation turns decisively higher, which we think will happen soon. But that being said, a few more months of core inflation accelerating on a year/year basis will get the attention of the moderates on the Federal Reserve Board. I don’t think it will matter until the doves also take notice, and this is unlikely to happen when the economy is slowing, as it appears to be doing. I don’t think we will see a Fed hike this year.

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