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Avoiding the Rattlesnakes in Monetary Policy

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And now on to today’s rant.

Today we got the minutes from the last FOMC meeting, but that is of course old news by now. The nuance of whether the central bankers at the meeting were a little more dovish or a little more hawkish used to matter more when every utterance of every Fed official wasn’t carried live on television. By the time we get the FOMC minutes, even the nuance is outdated if Fed speakers have been active at all.

Make no mistake: I once would stop what I was doing when the minutes came out, and pored over the fine detail to pick out that nuance; but it’s no longer necessary. I am less intrigued by the wording in today’s minutes than I am by what Neel Kashkari said a few days ago.

Mr. Kashkari, who is President of the Minneapolis Fed despite his tender age of 44, declared last Friday that his colleagues’ desire to raise interest rates is attributable to a “ghost story” they are telling themselves:

 “People are worried that, if wages start to climb, if businesses have to compete with each other, you may not get gradual wage growth. You might all of a sudden get an acceleration in wages.

“I call this — and I mean this with no disrespect — I call this a ghost story, meaning, I cannot prove to you that there’s not a ghost underneath this table. I cannot prove it definitively. There may be. But there is no evidence that there is a ghost under this table. There is no evidence in any of the data that wages have this acceleration factor and are all of a sudden going to take off.”

I guess perhaps I am getting old and so am more easily irritated when young whippersnappers are blatantly disrespectful to their elders. Sure, at every age we think we have the answers. But Mr. Kashkari is so far off base here it is fair to wonder how the hell he got this job in the first place…because he clearly doesn’t understand one of the basic principles of monetary policy.

It is true what he says. There is no evidence that wages are about to take off, and I sympathize with his frustration about the Phillips-Curve cult at the Fed. I would go further and say that even if wages were to suddenly accelerate, moving higher before inflation moves higher in what is a fairly unusual occurrence, there’s very little support for the notion that this would in turn push prices higher. The data supporting “wage driven” inflation is very thin indeed. This is why the Phillips Curve tends to work fairly well on wages, but not very well on inflation. That is, low unemployment rates tend to precede increases in wages, but aren’t particularly predictive when it comes to increases in inflation.

But despite the fact that what he says is true, he is wrong about the implications for policy because he doesn’t appreciate the nonlinear effects of forecasting errors here. One of the basic rules of monetary policy is (or at least should be) this: because there are large error bars on your forecasts, try to nudge policy in the direction least likely to &*@#$^@ it up.

Kashkari is saying that there’s no reason not to keep rates low, because we haven’t seen any sign of wage inflation. But that’s not the right question. The right question is this: is it more likely that we will &*@#$^@ it up by keeping rates too low, or by moving them too high? Being wrong and being slightly too tight when you’re already incredibly accommodative is probably a small error. Being wrong and being slightly too loose when you’re already incredibly accommodative has at least the potential to be a massive error, because inflation has long tails – so making that error could have nonlinearly bad results.

One might argue that being too tight could crack the stock and bond markets. This is true, but it will always be true unless the markets crack on their own. It’s true because markets are ridiculously overvalued, so there will always be a risk of nonlinearly bad moves in asset markets. But that risk is inescapable: at some point, rates will have to be normalized, and it is likely to move the equilibrium prices for those markets lower. The Fed is trying to address that part of the risk by being so outlandishly incremental that asset markets won’t care. So far, so good.

(There is an additional irony here, and that is that raising interest rates is the action which is more likely to ignite inflation as money velocity moves up so that you might also get nonlinearly bad outcomes in inflation by raising rates. But that is not what Kashkari is saying.)

No one, it seems, is worried about the nonlinear outcomes these days. If they were, implied volatilities would be much higher, since it is through options that you can best protect your assets from nonlinear market moves. As investors, we can choose to take that risk with our own little piece of the pie. Policymakers don’t have access to option hedges on economy-wide economic variables, though. Their best strategy is to try and walk the course least likely to result in their stepping on a rattlesnake.

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Categories: Federal Reserve

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2017)

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…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • about 15 mins to CPI. Consensus on core is 0.15% or 0.16% m/m, which would see y/y rise to ~1.74% vs 1.71%.
  • Few see upside risks to that forecast. Indeed, most pundits are braced for a lower print. 0.15% on core would have beaten last 4 mo.
  • Last 4 core CPI: -0.12%, 0.07%, 0.06%, 0.12%. But the 4 before that were 0.18%, 0.22%, 0.31%, and 0.21% so it’s a fair bet.
  • Though the NKor situation dominates market concerns, today’s CPI garnering more than normal interest. Potential for some volatility.
  • We’ve heard dovish Fed govs floating idea of pausing rate hikes (though continuing balance sheet reduction). That’s what doves do, but…
  • …but another weak CPI will be seen as “sealing the deal” for removing rate hikes from the calendar.
  • STRONG core CPI print is a much bigger surprise to most. Might be less mkt risk though – want to sell Tsys with NKor situation hot?
  • Core CPI 0.11%, y/y: 1.70%. Actually slightly down v 1.71% last mo. Think we can take rate hikes off table but will look @ breakdn.
  • Core goods steady at -0.6%, no dollar effect pushing it higher yet. Core services 2.4%, lowest in 2yrs.
  • Just quick glance I see new cars -1.1% y/y down from -0.3%. If this is autos I’d not be as worried.
  • Core ex-Shelter rose slightly, actually, to 0.63% from 0.60% y/y. But that’s obviously not alarming.
  • Dropping the full data set at the moment. Please hold.
  • In Housing, Primary Rents decelerated to 3.81% from 3.86%. OER slipped to 3.21% vs 3.23%. Small moved but big categories.
  • Lodging Away from Home -2.36% vs -0.07%. Big move, small category. But that category often has big moves.
  • Apparel went to -0.44% vs -0.67%. Again, not really seeing the dollar effect – apparel is one of the first places it would show up.
  • New cars -0.63% vs 0.01%, weight of 3.68% of CPI. Not only the lowest in 8 years but…recession leader? See chart.

  • Used cars -4.08% vs -4.30%, so the effect is in new.
  • That new cars decel is worth 3bps on core, so if was still at 0.01% we’d have had core right at expectations even w/ shelter slowdn.
  • Medical Care 2.58% vs 2.66% y/y. Pharma rose (3.84% vs 3.31%) but Prof Svcs dropped to 0.21% vs 0.58%
  • Medical – Professional Services starting to look like Telecommunications. What’s the one-off here?

  • Again with rents…decelerating but right about back on schedule.

  • For those playing at home: wireless telephone services -13.25% vs -13.19%. After the huge drop a few months ago, not much add’l.
  • Incidentally, Land Line Phone Services is 0.73% weight in CPI while Wireless is 1.74%. Gone is the ubiquitous creamcicle on the wall.
  • A little hard to guess at Median b/c median category looks like Midwest Urban OER, which gets a 2nd seasonal adj, but my est is 0.18%.
  • Here’s the inflation story over the last year, in two important chunks.

  • US #Inflation mkt pricing: 2017 1.3%;2018 1.8%;then 2.1%, 2.1%, 2.1%, 2.2%, 2.1%, 2.1%, 2.3%, 2.4%, & 2027:2.4%.
  • Here’s a little teaser from our quarterly. These are not forecasts, but entirely derived from mkt data.

  • Inflation in four pieces: Food & Energy

  • Piece 2: Core Goods, nothing to see here.

  • Core Services Less RoS – this is the core CPI story.

  • …though don’t forget piece 4. As noted earlier, this is just going back to model but some will forecast collapse.

  • This might be the bigger story – declining core CPI is all about the weight in the left tail, which is why median is still at 2.2%.

  • Despite core CPI slowdown, 44% of components are still inflating faster than 3%.

  • …this makes it more likely the recent CPI slowdown reverses, b/c it’s being caused by left-tail outcomes that probly mean-revert.

Coming into today the market thought the probability of a December rate hike was only 38%, which seemed very low to me. But there is nothing here that suggests the doves are going to lose the fight to slow down the already-timid pace of rate hikes. It isn’t surprising to see markets rally on this data.

However, it is also easy to get carried away with the story that inflation is decelerating. Those left-tail categories are what is driving core inflation lower (and it’s the reason I focus on median CPI, because it ignores the outliers). Shelter has come off the boil a bit, and if that rolled over I would be more concerned about seeing much lower CPI. But there is no sign of that happening, and it seems unlikely to given that home prices themselves continue to rise at a better-than-5% clip (see chart, source Bloomberg).

So, if shelter isn’t going to continue to decelerate much more, then the risk going forward is mean-reversion of those left-tail categories. I don’t think Physician Services are going to go into deflation. (To be sure, some of that is probably a measurement issue as the mode of hiring and paying for doctors is changing, and it is hard to predict mean reversion from measurement issues). Thus, if the market starts to price a near-zero chance of higher rates come December, I’d be interested in buying that option on the chance that one or two of these next four CPI prints (the December CPI report is out the day of the December FOMC meeting) is tilted the other way.

Inflation Markets Showing a Pulse

We are two days away from the next electrifying CPI report (well, some of us consider it electrifying). The last few prints have been very low, causing great consternation among investors, economists, and other analysts who like to try and “play the carom” by picking turning points in the data.

As I have written before, there is nothing yet to suggest that inflation has abruptly turned and started to dive, and most of the shortfalls over the last few months have been caused by one-offs. (You can review my May, June, and July CPI summaries for the details, and also look at one of those one-offs in depth here.) Indeed, it would be odd if inflation suddenly turned tail and ran, since global money growth remains adequate to support the current level of inflation (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

This chart only shows the US and Europe, but if you add the UK and Japan and Switzerland and whatever else you like, the picture doesn’t change appreciably. In addition to the steady money growth (which, it should be remembered, no central bank is trying to restrain since most of them don’t believe it matters), housing prices continue to rise faster than inflation (see chart, source Enduring Investments) – which suggests that the cost of shelter is not about to suddenly go into retreat.

Finally, although it’s a minor effect, the dollar has recently weakened meaningfully. It isn’t a big deal but it changes the sign of that minor effect. Yes, there are pockets where I expect to see some coming or continuing weakness in pricing, such as in autos, but overall it would surprise me to see this three-month trend actually represent the top tick. Not to mention that such a thing would imply the casual inflation pundits were actually right, and not only right but timely. What are the odds?

Meanwhile, there are some interesting undercurrents that suggest I am not alone in thinking that inflation isn’t dead (again, or still, depending on your point of view). Against form, inflation swaps in the US have been rising anew; even more surprising, European inflation swaps are reaching towards new highs (see chart, sourced from our daily chart package) even though the Euro has been strong.

The market isn’t always…or even often…right. But there are flows into inflation product right now that, while hardly tsunamic, are causing moves unlike any we’ve seen recently. Also note that commodities are showing strength – the Bloomberg Commodity Index is up 6.5% since late June, and that isn’t all energy. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index ex-energy.

With CPI on Friday, all I am saying now is that this is worth keeping in mind. Among all of the other negatives for stock and bond markets recently, a renewed rise in inflation would be an unwelcome addition.

Categories: CPI

The Gold Price is Not ‘Too Low’

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Before I start today’s article, let me say that I don’t like to write about gold. The people who are perennially gold bulls are crazy in a way that is unlike the people who are perennial equity bulls (Abby Joseph Cohen) or perennial bond bulls (Hoisington). They will cut you.

That being said, they are also pretty amusing.

To listen to a gold bull, you would think that no matter where gold is priced, it is a safe haven. Despite the copious evidence of history that says gold can go up and down, certain of the gold bulls believe that when “the Big One” hits, gold will be the most prized asset in the world. Of course, there are calmer gold bulls also but they are similarly dismissive of any notion that gold can be expensive.

The argument that gold is valuable simply because it is acceptable as money, and money that is not under control of a central bank, is vacuous. Lots of commodities are not under the control of a central bank. Moreover, like any other asset in the world gold can be expensive when it costs too much of other stuff to acquire it, and it can be cheap when it costs lots less to acquire.

I saw somewhere recently a chart that said “gold may be forming a major bottom,” which I thought was interesting because of some quantitative analysis that we do regularly (indeed, daily) on commodities. Here is one of the charts, approximately, that the analyst used to make this argument:

I guess, for context, I should back up a little bit and show that chart from a longer-term perspective. From this angle, it doesn’t look quite like a “major bottom,” but maybe that’s just me.

So which is it? Is gold cheap, or expensive? Erb and Harvey a few years ago noticed that the starting real price of gold (that is, gold deflated by the price index) turned out to be strikingly predictive of the future real return of holding (physical) gold. This should not be terribly shocking – although it is hard to persuade equity investors today that the price at which they buy stocks may affect their future returns – but it was a pretty amazing chart that they showed. Here is a current version of the chart (source: Enduring Investments LLC):

The vertical line represents the current price of gold (all historical gold prices are adjusted by the CPI relative to today’s CPI and the future 10-year real return calculated to derive this curve). It suggests that the future real return for gold over the next decade should be around -7% per annum. Now, that doesn’t mean the price of gold will fall – the real return could be this bad if gold prices have already adjusted for an inflationary future that now unfolds but leaves the gold price unaffected (since it is already impounded in current prices). Or, some of each.

Actually, that return is somewhat better than if you attempt to fit a curve to the data because the data to the left of the line is steeper than the data to the right of the line. Fitting a curve, you’d see more like -9% per annum. Ouch!

In case you don’t like scatterplots, here is the same data in a rolling-10-year form. In both cases, with this chart and the prior chart, be careful: the data is fit to the entire history, so there is nothing held ‘out of sample.’ In other words, “of course the curve fits, because we took pains to fit it.”

But that’s not necessarily a damning statement. The reason we tried to fit this curve in the first place is because it makes a priori sense that the starting price of an asset is related to its subsequent return. Whether the precise functional form of the relationship will hold in the future is uncertain – in fact, it almost certainly will not hold exactly. But I’m comfortable, looking at this data, in making the more modest statement that the price of gold is more likely to be too high to offer promising future returns than it is too low and likely to provide robust real returns in the future.

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