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No Strategic Reason to Own Nominal Bonds Now

January 26, 2016 6 comments

Today I presented our 2016 inflation forecast to the investment committee for a multifamily office, and when I was putting the presentation together I developed one slide that really is a must-see for investors in my opinion.

For some time, TIPS have been too cheap. Really, it has been more than a year that our metrics have shown inflation-linked bonds as not just cheap, but really cheap compared to nominal bonds. I don’t mean that real yields will fall – so this isn’t a statement about whether I am bullish or bearish on fixed-income. Frankly, I am somewhat conflicted on that point at this moment.

Rather, it is a statement about what sort of fixed-income instruments to own, for that part of your portfolio that needs to be in fixed-income. If you are running a diversified portfolio, then you can’t really avoid owning some bonds even if you are bearish on the bond market. For risk-reduction reasons if for no other, it makes sense to own some bonds.

But you don’t have to own fixed-coupon nominal bonds (or, for that matter, floating-coupon nominal bonds which are still exposed to inflation through the principal of the instrument). In fact, right now it is hard for me to imagine betting on nominal bonds for the portion of my portfolio that is in fixed-income.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is the picture:

compoundedinfl

The chart shows rolling, compounded 10-year inflation rates for as far back as we have reasonable data. And it shows the current level of 10-year inflation “breakevens.” What this means is that if you are long Treasuries, rather than TIPS, you will do better over the next ten years if inflation is below 1.34% and above roughly zero. If we have big deflation, TIPS will do just about as well since they are also principal protected; if we have any inflation over 1.34%, TIPS will do better.

And as the chart points out, since the Fed has been formed we have literally had almost zero 10-year periods in which inflation was in the 0-1.34% zone. Perhaps the 10-year periods ending early in the Great Depression, en route to big deflation, or coming out of the Great Depression heading into WWII. But otherwise, inflation has always been either higher or, in a Fed-screw-up scenario, much lower.

Put another way, it means that if you choose to own nominal bonds instead of inflation-linked bonds for the next 10 years, you are short a straddle on inflation, and you’re not being paid much to be short it. (Technically, you’re short a zero-cost ratio call spread since you don’t lose in deflation, but I’m trying to keep it simple!)

There may be tactical reasons to prefer nominal bonds to inflation-linked bonds. But to me, there is no clear strategic reason to be long nominal bonds for that portion of your portfolio that you intend to keep in fixed-income.

Categories: Bond Market, TIPS

CPI, Your Way

January 21, 2016 2 comments

For those of you on the East coast, looking for something fun to do with your weekend between shoveling turns, I thought this might be a good time to introduce our “personal CPI calculator.”

Sounds exciting, right?

It is an old idea: one of the reasons that people don’t like the Consumer Price Index is that no one is an “average” consumer. Everyone consumes more or less than the “typical” amounts; moreover, everyone notices or cares more about some costs than they do for others. It turns out that for most people, the CPI is a decent description of their consumption, at least close enough to use the CPI as a reference…but that answer varies with the person.

Moreover, CPI turns out to be a very poor measure for a corporate entity, which cares much more about some costs than others. Caterpillar cares a lot about grain prices, energy prices, and most importantly tractor prices, but they don’t care much about education. (This is one reason that corporate entities don’t issue inflation-linked bonds…it isn’t really a hedge for them. Which is why I have tried for years to get inflation subindices quoted and traded, so that issuers could issue bonds linked to their particular exposures, and investors could construct the precise exposure they wanted. But I digress.)

The BLS makes available many different subindices, and the weights used to construct the index from these subindices. Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta published on their macroblog an article about what they call “myCPI.” They constructed a whole mess of individualized market baskets, and if you go to the blog post they will direct you to a place you can get one of these market baskets emailed to you automatically every month. Which is pretty good, and starting to be what I think we need.

But what I wanted was something like this, which has been available from the Federal Statistical Office of Germany for years. I want to chart my own CPI, and be able to see how varying the weights of different consumption would result in different comparative inflation rates. The German FSO was very helpful and even offered their code, but in the end we re-created it ourselves but tried to preserve some of the look-and-feel of the German site (which is itself similar to the French site, and there are others, but not for US inflation).

Here is the link to Enduring’s “Personal CPI Calculator.” I think it is fairly self-explanatory and you will find it addicting to play around with the sliders and see how different weights would affect the effective price inflation you experience. You can also look at particular subindices, through the “products” button. Some of these are directly BLS series (but normalized to Jan 1999=100), and some are collections of subindices that I did to make the list manageable.

I think you’ll find it interesting. If you do, let me know!

Categories: CPI, New Products

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

January 20, 2016 4 comments

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.

  • So I guess the good news this morning is that the market has bigger worries than CPI. Wait, is that good news?
  • OK, remember this morning we’re dropping off some lousy numbers so core should rise to 2.1% just on base effects.
  • But Dec CPI is always weird, like many Dec numbers. It’s the only month that has a strong seasonal effect on prices (in the US).
  • Headline CPI will also rise, y/y, simply because of base effects. Don’t think the Fed didn’t know this when they tightened!
  • OK, +0.1% on core a bit weaker than expected, but y/y still rose to 2.1%. y/y headline to 0.7%, though I don’t care about headline.
  • Core month/month was 0.13% to 2 decimal places, and forecasters were really looking for 0.18%ish, so not horrible miss.
  • y/y core is 2.09% to 2 decimals. I really thought it would go to 2.2% this month, but like I said, Dec is wacky.
  • Next mo we compare to +0.18% in Jan 2015 (on core), so uptick to 2.2% will be more difficult. But core should converge with median.
  • OK, in big categories Housing and Medical care decelerated while Apparel, Transp, and Educ/communication accelerated.
  • In Medical Care (which is only 7.7% of CPI but high-angst for people), big drop in medicinal drugs to 1.66% from 2.68%.
  • That smacks of a seasonal maladjustment. But it’s only 1.7% of the basket.
  • In Housing, Primary Rents and OER both accelerated, which is what matters. Primaries 3.68% from 3.64%; OER 3.14% from 3.08%.
  • Those are the pendulous categories, between them almost half of core CPI, that matter. And they keep going up.
  • Lodging Away from Home (small category) dropped to 1.88% from 2.78% y/y. Again, smacks of bad seasonal adjustment.
  • Household Energy was also lower. So there you have it – the rent and implied rents continue to go up; the cost of piped gas e.g. not.
  • In Transp, Motor Fuel did better on base effects (only -19.5% y/y!) but insurance, repair, and new cars/trucks were all up.
  • Overall, core services remained at +2.9% y/y; core goods rose to -0.4% from -0.6%.
  • The continued rally in the dollar probably means core goods will continue to drag on overall CPI. It’s not a huge effect but it’s there.
  • Core inflation ex-housing rose, 1.28% y/y by my calculation, highest since mid-2014. Hasn’t been MUCH higher since 2012-13.
  • Sorry that’s core ex-shelter, not ex-housing.
  • So you can think of core CPI as (rents) + (core goods) + (core services ex-rents) + (food & energy). Each roughly equal weight.
  • Rents are over 3% and rising. Food & energy weak, core goods weak, core svcs ex-rents rising.
  • Rents will continue to rise. And so median CPI should also. But I am less sure than I have been that the $ will stop strengthening.
  • …and less sure that interest rates will rise, pulling up money velocity. So, I will be pulling my forecasts for 2016 lower.
  • They will still be higher than everyone on the Street, I am sure. Because they think growth matters a lot for inflation.
  • Proportion of CPI that is inflating faster than 3% is at 42.7%. So main body is still between 3%-4% with long negative tails.
  • But at least inflation hasn’t broadened FURTHER over the last few months. It’s been around 42-47% inflating over 3%.
  • ..fairly close call, looks like 0.147% on my back-of-envelope, which would make y/y median CPI drop to 2.43% from 2.46%.
  • Bottom line is that broad inflation is around 2.5%, but more than 40% of CPI is above 3% and rising.

The broad themes this month are very much in keeping with the (somewhat longer) post-CPI post I wrote last month – the analysis there is worth re-reading as several of these points keep coming up.  These broad themes are that (a) rents remain steadily accelerating, and likely will continue to do so because home prices continue to rise between 5-7% per year and rents tend to be driven largely by home prices over time. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows that the ratio of median home prices to the level of Owners’ Equivalent Rent is again rising. This means that either housing is entering into bubble-pricing territory again, or that OER is going to continue to be pulled higher for a while, or both.

ratiomedoer

Our models have OER continuing to rise to at least 3.5% (from 3.08%) although our more speculative model has it headed over 4%. Still, if that’s as bad as housing inflation gets, and the dollar continues to strengthen, then median inflation will probably not go much higher than 3% because core goods inflation will remain soft while core services inflation will eventually pause.

And the continued – and, to me, confounding – strength of the broad trade-weighted dollar is the real question. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) illustrates the connection between the dollar and core commodities. On the one hand, note that even large changes in the dollar have only a small effect on core goods (and on GDP), and essentially no effect outside of core commodities. And, if the dollar merely stops strengthening, then we would expect core goods prices to start rising around 0.5%-1.0%, which would add another few tenths to core CPI.

dollarvscore

But, on the other hand, note that the current weakness in core goods is consistent with the dollar’s recent pattern of strength, and some deeper analyses/regressions we look at suggest we could even get a bit more core goods weakness over the next 3-6 months. And is there any reason to expect the dollar’s strength to reverse? The dollar is the best house in a bad neighborhood, as it is said…for now. So I am no longer so confident that the greenback will start weakening soon.

Moreover, I am also less sure that interest rates are going to rise in the near term. While the Fed has begun to raise short-term interest rates, the economy is evidently weakening and the stock market isn’t doing very well recently to put it mildly. A further hike of rates this month is virtually out of the question, and further hikes this year are hardly assured. While higher inflation this year should cause nominal rates to eventually leak higher, I am not sure how soon that will happen. And if it doesn’t happen, then money velocity will probably not rise substantially. If velocity merely flatlines, then 5%-6% money supply growth with 2% GDP growth gives you 3%-4% inflation, which is still fairly perky compared with what most analysts are currently expecting but hardly alarming in the big picture.

The big picture concern – which is merely held in abeyance, since money velocity cannot stay permanently low unless interest rates also stay permanently low – is that interest rates and velocity must eventually return to some semblance of normalcy, if the economy is to be considered back in normalcy, and unless the Fed removes all of the excess reserves so that it is able to then start to shrink the money supply, rising velocity in the context of 5%-6% money supply growth produces pretty ugly inflation outcomes. (Go to our monetary inflation calculator to see what can happen with even a modest rebound in velocity.)

 

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Zigs and Zags

January 13, 2016 Leave a comment

“The market,” said J.P. Morgan, when asked for his opinion on what the market would do, “will fluctuate.”

Truer words were never spoken, but the depth of the truism as well is interesting. One implication of this observation – that prices will vary – is that the patient investor should mostly ignore noise in the markets. Ben Graham went further; he proposed thinking about a hypothetical “Mister Market,” who every day would offer to buy your stocks or sell you some more. On some days, Mister Market is fearful and offers to sell you stocks at a terrific discount; on other days, he is ebullient and offers to buy your holdings at far more than they are worth. Graham argued that this can only be a positive for an investor who knows the value of the business he holds. He can sell it if Mister Market is paying too much, or buy it if Mister Market is selling it too cheaply.

Graham did not give enough weight to momentum, as opposed to value – the idea that Mister Market might be paying too much today, but if you sell your holdings to him today, then you might miss the opportunity to sell them to him next year for double the stupid price. And, over the last couple of decades, momentum has become far more important to most investors than has value. (I blame CNBC, but that’s a different story).

In either case, the point is important – if you know what you own, and why you own it, and even better if you have an organized framework for thinking about the investment that is time-independent (that is, it doesn’t depend on how you feel today or tomorrow), then the zigs and zags don’t matter much to you in terms of your existing investments.

(As for future investments, young people should prefer declining asset markets, since they will be investing for long periods and should prefer lower prices to buy rather than higher prices; on the other hand, retirees should prefer rising asset prices, since they will be net sellers and should prefer higher prices to lower prices. In practice, everyone seems to like higher prices even though this is not rational in terms of one’s investing life.)

We have recently been experiencing a fair number of zigs, but mostly zags over the last couple of weeks. The stock market is near the last year’s lows – but, it should be noted, it still holds 84% of its gains since March 2009, so it is hardly disintegrating. The dividend yield of the S&P is 2.32%, the highest in some time and once again above 10-year Treasury yields. On the other hand, according to my calculations the expected 10-year return to equities is only about 1.25% more per annum than TIPS yields (0.65% plus inflation, for 10 years), so they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The CAPE is still around 24, which about 50% higher than the historical average. But, in keeping with my point so far: none of these numbers has changed very much in the last couple of weeks. The stock market being down 10%, plus or minus, is a fairly small move from a value perspective (from a momentum perspective, though, it can and has tipped a number of measures).

But here is the more important overarching point to me, right now. I don’t worry about zigs and zags but what I do worry about is the fact that we are approaching the next bear market – whether it is this month, or this year, or next year, we will eventually have a bear market – with less liquidity then when we had the last bear market. Dealers and market-makers have been decimated by regulations and constraints on their deployment of capital, in the name of making them more secure and preventing a “systemic event” in the next calamity. All that means, to me, is that the systemic event will be more distributed. Each investor will face his own systemic event, when he finds the market for his shares is not where he wanted it to be, for the size he needed it to be. This is obviously less of a problem for individual investors. But mutual fund managers, pension fund managers – in short, the people with the big portfolios and the big positions – will have trouble changing their investment stances in a reasonable way (yet another reason to prefer smaller funds and managers, but increasing regulation has also made it very difficult to start and sustain a smaller investment management franchise). Another way to say this is that it is very likely that while the average or median market movement is likely to be similar to what it has been in the past, the tails are likely to be longer than in the past. That is, we may not go from a two-standard-deviation event to a four-standard-deviation event. We may go straight to a six-standard-deviation event.

If market “tails” are likely to be longer than in the past because of (il)liquidity, then the incentive for avoiding those tails is higher. This is true in two ways. First, it creates an incentive for an investor to move earlier, and lighten positions earlier, in a potential downward move in the market. And second, in the context of the Kelly Criterion (see my old article on this topic, here), rising volatility combined with decreased liquidity in general means that at every level of the market, investors should hold more cash than they otherwise would.

I don’t know how far the market will go down, and I don’t really care. I am prepared for “down.” What I care about is how fast.

Up to Our Necks in it

January 12, 2016 7 comments

It is amazing to reflect on the fact that the stock market last week experienced its worst 5-day span to open the year ever. I haven’t independently confirmed that; it seems incredible to me that in a hundred and whatever years we have never started with a 6% loss – but that is what is being widely reported. In any event, it has been a bad start and the market is back to the levels it last saw in August, before the inexplicable Q4 blast-off. Easy come, easy go.

Why is the market down? The harder question is the question of why it was up in the first place. Stocks have been persistently far above fair value measured by CAPE, Tobin’s Q, or any other traditional value metric. The argument that stocks were high because bond yields were low is perhaps the best explanation; this is after all part of the whole “portfolio balance channel” effect that the Fed has been trying to create with QE – raise the price of a good (bonds) and the prices of substitutes (corporate bonds, stocks) should also rise. (Left unsaid, of course, is why it is a good thing to move asset prices away from fair value. The ‘wealth effect’ is small, and zero-sum at best unless prices can permanently be moved away from fair value.)

But if this is the explanation for sky-high stocks, it doesn’t explain why commodity indices – which are obviously also a substitute for stocks and bonds – are at multi-decade lows. Why should the price of that substitute move in the opposite direction? Before you say “weak global growth,” or “overproduction” (as this article has it) remember that not only is oil low, but so is Corn. And Hogs. And Sugar. And Cocoa. What, are we overproducing everything? Is China not eating, either?

I actually really like that article. When oil was at $120, everyone (including fancy Wall Street dealers) published breathless articles about $200 oil. Today I saw an article saying oil is going to $10 – which would be the lowest real price, I think, since oil was discovered. This article could have been written any time in the last 20 years and pointed to some new mine, or crop production technique, or oil field, or railroad, or the development of horizontal drilling, etcetera. It’s just when prices are very low that this is suddenly viewed as an epiphany that Aha! This must be why prices are low! There are big mines opening!

There are, of course, some problems of overcapacity in some commodities because cheap money made possible, for example, the massive draws from Baaken shale. But overcapacity in every commodity? Overcapacity in gold?

And global growth is, indeed, weakening. I would caution any analyst that wants to read into the surprising strength of Friday’s Payrolls report. It is a December measurement of the employment picture: notoriously difficult to seasonally adjust. Some have argued that exceptionally warm weather in December may have increased payrolls beyond what the seasonal adjustment calls for. I am not sure that argument works, since most of the seasonal adjustment is due to seasonal workers and I am not sure why you need more seasonal workers if it is warm. More in construction, perhaps…but the important point is that the error bars on the December are so large that you are supposed to ignore it in almost all circumstances. You simply cannot reject virtually any null hypothesis. What you believed before the number was released, in other words, you should still believe. And as for me, I believed that global growth was weakening – not collapsing, but weakening and probably headed for a recession.

And what a shame. What a shame that central bankers didn’t re-load when they had the chance, and let markets and economies get back to normal. What a shame that the federal deficit wasn’t pushed close to balance when the economy was growing over the last few years.

As David Bowie almost said, [What a] shame [they]’ve left us up to our necks in it.

But if in reaching that conclusion you have come to hate commodities along with stocks, you have come too late. Commodities were worth hating four years ago. But it is hard to see the upside of their downside, now.

This is not true, however, with equities.

Categories: Commodities

Back From the Moon

January 6, 2016 2 comments

Economics is too important to be left to economists, apparently.

When the FOMC minutes were released this afternoon, I saw the headline “Some FOMC Members Saw ‘Considerable’ Risk to Inflation Outlook” and my jaw dropped. Here, finally, was a sign that the Fed is not completely asleep at the wheel! Here, finally, was a glimmer of concern from policymakers themselves that the central bank may be behind the curve!

Alas…my jaw soon returned to its regular position when I realized that the risk to the inflation outlook which concerned the FOMC was the “considerable” risk that it might fall.

A quick review is in order. I know it is a new year and we are still shaking off the eggnog cobwebs. Inflation is caused (only) when money growth is faster than GDP growth. In the short run, that holds imprecisely because of the influence of money velocity, but we also have a pretty good idea of what causes money velocity to ebb and flow: to wit, interest rates (more precisely, investment opportunities, which can be simply modeled by interest rates but more accurately should include things such a P/E multiples, real estate cap rates, and so on). And in the long run, velocity does not continue to move permanently in one direction unless interest rates also continue to move in that direction.

It is worth pointing out, in this regard, that money growth continues to swell at a 6.2% domestically over the last 12 months, and nothing the Fed is currently contemplating is likely to slow that growth since there are ample excess reserves to support any lending that banks care to do. But it is also worth pointing out that inflation is currently at 7-year highs and rising, as the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows.

medcpi

Core inflation is also rising in Japan (0.9%, ex-food and energy, up from -0.9% in Feb 2013), the Eurozone (0.9% ex-food and energy, up from 0.6% in January 2015), and recently even in the UK where core is up to 1.2% after bottoming at 0.8% six months ago. In short, everywhere we have seen an acceleration in money growth rates, we are now seeing inflation. The only question is “why has it taken so long,” and the answer to that is “because central banks held interest rates, and hence velocity, down.”

In other words, as we head towards what looks very likely to be a global recession (albeit not as bad as the last one), we are likely to see inflation rates rising rather than falling. The only caveat is that if interest rates remain low, then the uptick in inflation will not be terrible. And interest rates are likely to remain relatively low everywhere, especially if the Fed operates on the basis of its expectations rather than on the basis of its eyeballs and holds off on further “tightenings.”

Because the Fed has really put itself in the position where most of the things it would normally do are either ineffective (such as draining reserves to raise interest rates) or harmful (raising rates without draining reserves, which would raise velocity and not slow money growth) if the purpose is to restrain inflation. It would be best if the Fed simply worked to drain reserves while slack in the economy holds interest rates (and thus velocity) down. But that is the sort of thinking you won’t see from economists but rather from engineers looking to get Apollo 13 safely home.

Want to try and get Apollo 13 safely back home? Go to the MV≡PQ calculator on the Enduring Investments website and come up with your own M (money supply growth), V (velocity change), and Q (real growth) scenarios. The calculator will give you a grid of outcomes for the average inflation rate over the period you have selected. Remember that this is an identity – if you get the inputs right, the output will be right by definition. Some numbers to remember:

  • Current velocity is 1.49 or so; prior to the crisis it was 1.90 and that is also the average over the last 20 years. The all-time low in velocity prior to this episode was in the 1960s, at about 1.60; the high in the 1990s was 2.20.
  • As for money supply growth, the y/y rate plunged to 1.1% or so after the crisis and it got to zero in 1995, but the average since 1980 including those periods is roughly 6% where it is currently. Rolling 3-year money growth has been between 4% and 9% since the late 1990s, but in the early 80s was over 10% and it declined in the mid-1990s to around 1%.
  • Rolling 3-year GDP growth has been between 0% and 5% since the 1980s. In the four recessions, the lows in rolling 3-year GDP were 0.2%, 1.7%, 1.7%, and -0.4%. The average was about 3.9% in the 1980s, about 3.2% in the 1990s, about 2.7% in the 2000s, and 1.8% (so far) in the 2010s.

Remember, the output is annualized inflation. Start by assuming average GDP, money growth, and ending velocity for some period, and then look at what annualized inflation would work out to be; then, figure out what it would have to be to get stable inflation or deflation. You will find, I think, that you can only get disinflation if money growth slows remarkably (and unexpectedly) and velocity remains unchanged or goes to new record lows. Try putting in some “normal” figures and then ask yourself if the Fed really wants to get back to normal.

And then ask yourself whether you would want Greenspan, Bernanke, and Yellen in charge of getting our boys back from the moon.

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