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Anchors Aweigh!

October 19, 2015 2 comments

I think it is time to talk a little bit about “anchored inflation expectations.”

Key to a lot of the inflation modeling at the Fed, and in some sterile economics classrooms around the country, is the notion that inflation is partially shaped by the expectations of inflation. Therefore, when people expect inflation to remain down, it tends to remain down. Thus, you often hear Fed officials talk about the importance of inflation expectations being anchored, and that phrase appears often in Federal Reserve statements and minutes.

I have long found it interesting that with as much as the Fed relies on the notion that inflation expectations are anchored, they have no way to accurately measure inflation expectations. Former Fed Chairman Bernanke said in a speech in 2007 that three important questions remain to be addressed about inflation expectations:

  1. How should the central bank best monitor the public’s inflation expectations?
  2. How do changes in various measures of inflation expectations feed through to actual pricing behavior?
  3. What factors affect the level of inflation expectations and the degree to which they are anchored?

According to Bernanke, the staff at the Federal Reserve struggle with even the first of these questions (“while inflation expectations doubtless are crucial determinants of observed inflation, measuring expectations and inferring just how they affect inflation are difficult tasks”), although this has not deterred them from tackling the second and third questions. Economists use the Hoey survey, the Survey of Professional Forecasters, the Livingston survey, the Michigan survey, and inflation breakevens derived from the TIPS or inflation swaps markets. But all of these suffer from the fundamental problem that what constitutes “inflation” is a difficult question in itself and answering a question about a phenomenon that is hard to quantify viscerally probably causes people to respond to surveys with an answer indicating what they expect the well-known CPI measure to show. I talked about many of these problems in my paper on measuring inflation expectations (“Real-Feel” Inflation: Quantitative Estimation of Inflation Perceptions), but the upshot is that we don’t have a good way to measure expectations.

So, with that as background, consider this fact: next year, some Medicare participants will face a 0% increase in premiums while some Medicare participants will face increases of more than 50%.

I am skeptical of the notion of inflation anchoring. But I am really skeptical if it is the case that different segments of the population see totally different inflation pictures. Which anchor counts, if one large group of people expects 7% inflation and another large group expects 1% inflation?

I would argue that none of those anchors matter, because the whole notion is silly. Let’s think through the mechanism of “inflation anchoring.” So the idea is that when people expect lower inflation, they make decisions that tend to produce lower inflation. What decisions are those? If you expect 1% inflation, but Medicare costs go up 50%, what decision are you going to make that will cause that increase to be closer to your expectations? If eggs go up 25 cents per carton and you were expecting 5 cents…is the idea that no one will buy eggs and so the vendor will have to lower the price? What about his costs? Pretty clearly, the mechanism will have to work on the seller’s side, but since every seller is a buyer except for the original seller of labor, the idea must be that if people expect high inflation they argue for higher wages, which causes prices to rise.

Aha.

I have put paid to that notion in this space before. It doesn’t make any sense to think that wages lead inflation, for if they did then we would all love inflation because we would always be ahead of it. But we know that’s not how it works – prices rise, and then we get higher wages. And sometimes we don’t.

Let’s try another hypothetical. Suppose the Federal Reserve literally drops $50 trillion, unexpectedly, from helicopters. And suppose that consumers did not change their expectations for inflation because they believed, much like the Fed does, that money doesn’t play a role in causing inflation – in other words, their expectations were “extremely well-anchored.” Does anyone think that the price level wouldn’t change, a lot, in contrast to the expectations of the crowd? (I sometimes wonder if Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who “sometimes…believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” was a Fed economist.)

The whole idea that inflation expectations matter is an effort to explain why parameterizations of inflation models have a regime break in the early 1990s. That is, you can fit a model to 1970-1992, or to 1994-present, but you need different parameters for almost anything you try in the Keynesian-modeling world. Econometricians know that outcome means that you are missing an explanatory variable somewhere; econometricians also know that a very convenient way to gloss over the problem is to introduce a “dummy” variable. In this case, the dummy variable is explained as “inflation expectations became anchored in the early 1990s.”

With all of the problems affecting the notion of expectations-anchoring, I find this solution to the modeling problem deeply unsatisfying. I do not believe that inflation expectations anchor for everybody collectively, but that different groups of people have different (and widely different) anchors. And I don’t think that these anchors themselves play much of a role at all in causing a certain level of inflation. There are better models, simpler models, which do not require you to believe six impossible things.

Unfortunately, they do require you to believe in monetarism. And to some people, that is a seventh impossible thing.

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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

October 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) 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. Plus…sign up to receive notice when my book is published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com. You can also pre-order online.

  • core CPI +0.21%, higher than expected. y/y core to 1.89%.
  • core services up to 2.7%; core goods remains at -0.5%
  • The rise in core CPI #inflation is no surprise to anyone watching Median. But a surprise to many apparently.
  • Owners’ Equiv (3.09% from 3.02%), Primary Rent (3.71% v 3.62%), Lodging Away from Home (1.94% v 1.69%).
  • Overall housing 2.12% vs 2.02% last month. All in keeping with established trends and unsurprising; this has further to go.
  • Medical Care approx unch (2.45% y/y); Recreation unch (0.64%); Apparel down slightly.
  • within Medical, medical drugs decelerated to 2.9% from 3.5%, but professional services and health insurance counteracted that.
  • Core #inflation ex-housing up to 1% vs 0.9%. That’s low but highest it has been since last July.
  • Worth pointing out: derivatives markets are pricing core CPI to be below 1.5%, compounded, for 8yrs. It’s above that now.
  • …and implied core for the next year is below zero (even after today’s rally so far). Core deflation is not happening.
  • US (headline) #Inflation mkt pricing: 2015 0.5%;2016 1.3%;then 1.6%, 1.7%, 1.7%, 1.8%, 2.0%, 2.1%, 2.2%, 2.3%, & 2025:2.3%.
  • So Fed, what do you believe? the market or your own lying eyes? They’re focused on headline now so their deflation worries persist.
  • This is a fun chart. Note that about half of the weight of CPI is inflating >3%. But 12% is deflating.

cpidist

  • That’s why median matters.
  • Warning: Back of the envelope on Median CPI suggests chance of +0.3%; would imply Median would go to post-crisis high near 2.5%.
  • My back-of-the-envelope lacks seasonal adjustment for regional housing indices but it has been pretty close recently.
  • Cleveland Median CPI +0.3%, +2.5% y/y. QED.
  • inflation is now officially higher than it has been since 2009, on the way down.
  • And Fed to continue to do nothing about it.
  • Median CPI thru this month. In line with what we have been forecasting. Any questions?

medagain

At 2.5%, median inflation is not only at or above the equivalent level on core PCE, given historical spreads, but also is clearly rising as the chart above shows. However, this Fed believes very strongly that inflation cannot go up if the economy is slowing, despite generations’ worth of counterevidence (the 1970s, anyone?). The economy does seem to be slowing, not just domestically but globally. Therefore, whether the Fed thinks Median CPI is relevant or not, they will continue to focus on headline inflation numbers that flirt with deflation because of the drastic decline in energy quotes. If they talk about the central tendency of inflation, they will talk about core PCE (and ignore the question of whether the slowdown in medical care which shows up there is illusory or transitory). If pressed, they may mention core CPI, which is still below target because of the “tail” categories.

You will not hear them talk about Median CPI at 2.5% and rising.

Inflation is headed higher. How much higher, and how quickly, depends on several factors such as how quickly the Fed raises rates (I have already said this is unlikely, but note that I think raising rates would initially accelerate inflation) and whether bank lending slows for reasons unrelated to monetary policy. But the sign is clear. Inflation is headed higher.

Walmart Traffic may be Down but Wall Street Traffic is Up

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Walmart (WMT) didn’t have its best day today. The bellwether retailer forecast a profit decline of 6-12% in its 2017 fiscal year, in some part because of a $1.5bln increase in wage expenses; the stock dropped 10% to its lowest level since 2012 and off about 33% from the highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

wmt

I mention Walmart neither to recommend it nor to pan it, but only because in the absence of news from WMT I would have been inclined to ignore the modest downside surprise in Retail Sales today; September Retail Sales ex-auto-and-gasoline were unchanged versus expectations for a +0.3% rise. But Retail Sales, like Durable Goods, is a wildly volatile number (see chart, source Bloomberg).

retsales

This was a bad month, but it wasn’t the worst month in 2015. It wasn’t even the second or third-worst month in 2015. Looking at a monthly figure, it is difficult to reject any null hypothesis; put another way, you really cannot discern whether +0.5% is statistically different from +0.0%. [I didn’t actually do the test…I am just making the general statistical observation.] Today’s data will tweak the Q3 forecasts a bit lower, but isn’t anything to be upset about. Except, that is, for the fact that Walmart is bleeding.

There is something else that is different about this decline, and really about this whole year. I have documented in the past the steady decline in equity volumes that has been occurring for almost a decade now. The chart below shows the cumulative NYSE volume, by trading day of the year, for 2006 through present. Note the steady march lower in volumes year after year after year. 2014 and 2013 were almost mirror images, so you can’t see 2014. But notice the thicker black line: that is 2015.

volslongtermHere is another way to illustrate the same thing. By year, here is the number of days that less than 1 billion shares traded in NYSE Composite Volume.

Number of sub-billion share days
2005 4
2006 7
2007 7
2008 18
2009 35
2010 113
2011 166
2012 240
2013 246
2014 246

In 2015, we are on pace for a mere 228 sub-billion share days.

I guess by now my point is plain, but here is one more chart and that is the rolling 20-day composite volume for 2014 (lower line) and 2015 (upper line).

vols201415

In general, volumes have been higher this year, but the real divergence began at the end of July, when the lines began to move away from each other more rapidly. The equity breakdown started on August 20th.

What does this all mean? Rising trading volumes while markets are declining suggests we should consider imputing more significance to what many are calling a correction but which may be the beginning of something deeper. There are re-allocations happening, and outright sales – not just fast money slinging positions around. Technically, this is supposed to put more weight on the “damage” done by this correction, and raise a bit of a warning flag about the medium-term set-up.

Incidentally, you can buy warning flags cheaply at Walmart.

The New Fed Operating Framework Explained with Cheese

October 8, 2015 2 comments

This will be a brief but hopefully helpful column. For some time, I have been explaining that the new Fed operating framework for monetary policy, in which the FOMC essentially steers interest rates higher by fiat rather than in the traditional method (by managing the supply of funds and therefore the resulting pressure on reserves), is a really bad idea. But in responding to a reader’s post I inadvertently hit on an explanation that may be clearer for some people than my analogy of a doctor manipulating his thermometer to give the right reading from the patient.

Right now, there is a tremendous surplus of reserves above what banks are required to hold or desire to hold. With free markets, this would result in a Fed funds interest rate of zero, or even lower under some circumstances, with a substantial remaining surplus.[1] In this case, the Fed funds effective rate has tended to be in the 10-20bps range since the Fed started paying interest on excess reserves (IOER).

So what happens when there is a floor price established above the market-clearing price? Economics 101 tells us that this results in surplus, with less exchange and higher prices than at equilibrium. Consider a farm-price support program where the government establishes a minimum price for cheese (as it has, actually, in the past). If that price is below the natural market-clearing price, then the floor has no effect. But if the price is above the natural market-clearing price, as in the chart below where the minimum cheese price is set at a, then in the market we will see a quantity of cheese traded equal to b, at a price of a.

cheese

But what also happens is that producers respond to the higher price by producing more cheese, which is why the supply curve has the shape it does. In order to keep this excess cheese from pushing market prices lower, the government ends up buying c-b cheese at some expense that ends up being a transfer from government to farmers. It can amount to a lot of cheese.[2] This is the legacy of farm price supports: vast warehouses of products that the government owns but cannot distribute, because to distribute them would push prices lower. So the government ends up distributing them to people who wouldn’t otherwise buy cheese, at a zero price. And eventually, we get the Wikipedia entry “government cheese.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_cheese

Now, this is precisely what has happened with the artificial price support for overnight interest rates. Whatever the clearing interest rate is with the current level of reserves, it is lower than the 0.25% IOER (and we know this, among other ways, because there are excess reserves. If the price floating to the actual clearing price, then there would be no excess reserves, although the mechanism for this result is admittedly more confusing than it is for cheese). So the Federal Reserve is forced to “buy up the surplus reserves” by paying interest on these reserves; this amounts to a transfer from the government to banks, rather than to farmers in the cheese example.

You should realize too that setting the floor rate higher than the market-clearing rate artificially reduces the volume of trade in reserves. The chart below, which comes from this article on the New York Fed’s blog, illustrates this nicely.

6a01348793456c970c019b01bdca9a970d-800wi

Creating such a floor also causes the supply of excess reserves themselves to increase beyond what it would otherwise be. This confusing result derives because while the Fed supplies the total reserves number to the market, banks can choose to create more “excess” reserves by doing less lending, or can create fewer excess reserves by doing more lending. Of course, banks aren’t deciding to create excess reserves per se; they are deciding whether it is more advantageous to make a loan or to earn risk-free money on the excess reserves. A higher floor rate implies less lending, all else equal – and, as I have said in the past, this means the Fed could cause a huge increase in bank lending by setting IOER at a penalty rate. This would create the conditions necessary for these lines to cross in negative nominal interest rate territory, with much higher volumes of credit and much lower levels of excess reserves being the result.

In this environment, and as recognized by the Sack-Gagnon framework that is now the presumed operating framework for Fed policy, raising IOER is the only way to change the overnight interest rates unless the Desk undertakes to shift the entire supply curve heavily to the left, by draining trillions in reserves. But raising IOER, just like raising the floor price of cheese, will create more imbalances: bigger excess reserves, less lending, and a bigger transfer from government to banks.

(Note: this is subtly different from what I have said before, which is that raising IOER will have no effect on the growth rate of the transactional money supply. Depending on the shape of the supply curve, it will reduce lending which in turn may reduce the growth rate of the monetary aggregates that we care about, such as M2. My suspicion is that the supply curve is in fact pretty steep, meaning that banks are relatively insensitive to small changes in rates, and thus loans and hence the monetary aggregates won’t see much change in the rate of growth – or, more likely, any change will be the result of other effects beyond this one such as the effect of general economic prospects on the quality of credits and the demand for loans).

Price supports, as any economist can tell you, are an inefficient way to subsidize an industry. And in fact, I don’t think the Fed is really interested in subsidizing banks at this stage in the cycle: they seem to be doing just fine. But they are taking on all of these imbalances, creating all of this government cheese, because they believe the effects I talk about parenthetically above are quite large, rather than vanishingly small as I believe. And the ancillary effect, by raising interest rates, is to spur money velocity – an unmitigated negative in this environment, as it will push inflation higher.

Now, all of this discussion may be moot since the current betting is that the Fed won’t raise interest rates any time soon. But it is good to understand this mechanism as clearly as we can, so that we can prepare ourselves for those effects when they occur.

[1] It is really hard to say how low interest rates would go, and/or how much surplus would remain, because we have no idea at all what the supply and demand curves for funds look like at sub-zero rates. Most likely there is a discontinuity at a zero rate, but how much of one and the elasticities of supply and demand below zero are likely to be “weird.”

[2] In fact, in high school I won an economics prize for my paper “That’s a Lotta Cheese.” No joke.

Recession Won’t Be Fun…But Better than Last Time

October 6, 2015 4 comments

Yesterday, I mentioned the likelihood that a recession is coming. The indicators for this are mostly from the manufacturing side of the economic ledger, and they are at this point merely suggestive. For example, the ISM Manufacturing Index is at 50.2, below which level we often see deeper downdrafts (see chart, source Bloomberg).

napmpmi

Capacity Utilization, which never got back to the level over 80% that historically worries the Fed about inflation, has been slipping back again (see chart, source Bloomberg).

capU

Now, we have to be a bit careful of these “classic” indicators because of the increased weight of mining and exploration in GDP compared with the last few cycles. A good part of the downturn in Capacity Utilization, I suspect, could be traced to weakness in the oil patch. But at the same time, we cannot blithely dismiss the manufacturing weakness as being “all about oil” in the same way that Clinton supporters once dismissed Oval Office shenanigans as being “all about sex.” Oil matters, in this economy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while historically a declining oil price was a boon to the nation as a whole (which is why we never suffered much from the Asian Contagion: the plunge in commodity prices tended to support the U.S., which is generally a net consumer of resources), in this cycle low oil prices are probably neutral at best, and may even be contractionary for the country as a whole.

Whether we have a recession in the near term (meaning beginning in the next six months or so) or further in the future, here is one point that is important to make. It will not be a “garden variety” recession, in all likelihood. That is not because we have boomed so much, but because we are levered so much. There are no more “garden variety” recessions.

Financial leverage in an economy, just as in individual businesses, increases economic volatility. So does operational leverage (which means: deploying fixed capital rather than variable inputs such as labor – technology, typically). And our economy has both in spades. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the debt of domestic businesses as a percentage of GDP. Businesses are currently more levered than they were in 2007, both in raw debt figures and as a percentage of GDP.

domlevbus

Investors fearing recession should shift equity allocations (to the extent some equity allocation is retained) to less-levered businesses. But be careful: some investors think of growth companies as being low-leverage but tech companies (for example) in fact have very high operating leverage even if financial leverage is low. Both are bad when earnings decline – and growth firms typically have less of a margin of safety on price. I tried to do a screen on low-debt, low-PE, high-dividend non-tech companies with decent market caps and didn’t find very much. Canon (CAJ), Guess? Inc (GES) to name a couple of examples…and neither of those have low P/E ratios. (I don’t like to invest in individual stocks in any event but I mention these for readers who do – these aren’t recommendations and I neither own them nor plan to, but may be worth some further research if you are looking for names.)

On the plus side, economically-speaking, relatively heavy personal income taxation also acts as an automatic stabilizer. On the minus side, this is less true if the tax system is heavily progressive, since it isn’t the higher-paid employees who tend to be the ones who are laid off (except on Wall Street, where it is currently de rigueur to cut experienced, expensive staff and retain less-experienced, cheaper staff). Back on the plus side, a large welfare system tends to be an automatic stabilizer as well. On the minus side, all of these fiscal stabilizers merely move growth from the future to the present, so the deeper the recession the slower the future growth.

And, of course – there is nothing that central banks can really do about this, unless it is to make policy rates negative to spur additional extension of negative-NPV loans (that is, loans to less-creditworthy borrowers). I am not sure that even our central bank, with its unhealthy fear of the cleansing power of recession, thinks that’s a good idea.

There is some good news, as we brace for this next recession: while overall levels of debt are higher for businesses, financials, and households, the debt burden compared to GDP is lower for households and especially for domestic financial institutions (see chart, source Bloomberg).

domlev

Our banks are in relatively good health, compared with their condition headed into the last downturn. So this will not be a calamity, as in 2008. But I don’t expect it to only be a “mild” recession, either – as if any recession ever feels mild to individuals!

The Sky is Not Falling…Yet

October 5, 2015 2 comments

The Employment Report on Friday was bad – but it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that the consensus seems to have spun it into. It is true that there were no bright spots. It is true that the net number of new jobs added was worse than consensus and indeed worse than some of the more pessimistic expectations. But 142k new jobs is not a recessionary collapse (yet). Let us remember that one or two months every year fall below that figure (see chart, source Bloomberg).

bfmA5B7

Folks, it’s just not a robust recovery and never has been. It has been slow and steady, and now it is probably petering out, but…let’s not jump off the buildings just yet. In fact, one of my favorite indicators during this period while the Unemployment Rate has been falling but the general perception of the employment picture has been poor has been the “Not in labor force, want a job now” series, which shows people who are discouraged enough to not be looking for work, but would take a job if it was offered. As the chart below shows, that number is far above the lows from the last couple of expansions, and so has been a good check on the improvement in the Unemployment Rate. Now, however, we must also recognize that it is near the recent lows.

jhtg

So not all of the “job market internals” are flashing red. True, none of them are exactly flashing green, either! Nor have they really ever been, in this cycle.

At the same time, it is incredible to me that the ex-Chairman of the Fed is taking a victory lap, claiming in the Wall Street Journal today that his policies led to a non-inflationary decline in the unemployment rate. Surely a professional economist ought to know the difference between correlation and causality. It is absolute madness to claim that the Fed’s policies did nothing for the price level but had a huge effect on the real economy. That is almost exactly opposite of what generations of monetary policy experience teaches us: that monetary policy has almost no effect on real variables but only affects the price level. A more thorough retort will be given in “What’s Wrong with Money?”, which you can pre-order now! (If you prefer, send a note to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will email you when it is published).

The unemployment rate declined for two reasons: the first is that just as no tree grows to the sky, no hole is bottomless. Eventually, even without any intervention at all, the business cycle takes over and recessions end. The second reason in this case is that the federal government ran (and continues to run) massive fiscal deficits, which demonstrably affect near-term growth. Yes, those deficits merely rearrange growth, stealing growth from the future to improve growth today, but if current growth is given by Y=C+I+G+(X-M) there is no way that the Fed can claim what is the biggest contribution over the last few years, percentage-wise. Madness, I say.

Is the economy headed for recession? In all likelihood, yes. But this employment number was not the first nor even the best sign of that possibility.

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