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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2019)

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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties. 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.

  • OK, CPI day at last. We get to find out if Powell meant “transitory” in the one-month sense (probably not) or in the 3-6 month sense (more likely).
  • After all we have had three weak core CPI figures in a row: 0.110% for Feb, 0.148% in March, 0.138% in April. Three 0.1%s, rounded.
  • Last month the culprit was used cars, -1.3% m/m, and Apparel at -0.8% m/m, the latter due to a methodology change. These are both short-term transitory, probably.
  • Meanwhile, the evidence that core is being infected these last three months by tail events is in the median CPI, which was +0.26%, +0.27%, and +0.20% the last 3 months.
  • Housing, on the other hand, remains strong, and this should continue for a bit; Medical Care remains weak with pharma especially (+0.1% y/y)…and I think that is “longer-term transitory” that should start to retrace higher.
  • I am expecting a return to normalcy, not so much a rebound, in autos and apparel. But that should be enough to hit the consensus figures of 0.21% on core, 2.09% y/y.
  • Longer-term, the fact that interest rates have fallen so far suggests that the small rebound we have seen over the last year and a half in money velocity may have trouble extending.
  • So I think Median probably peaks late this year or early next, though I don’t expect it to fall off a cliff, either, in this recession.
  • Grabbing coffee. Back in 11 minutes.
  • So maybe a liiiiiittle more transitory than we thought! Core +0.11% m/m, +2.00% y/y.
  • Last 12 months. The comp is easier next month, but none of the last 4 months would have exceeded it anyway!

  • Apparel basically flat m/m, which is approximately what I expected…-3.06% y/y though, which includes the methodology change.
  • CPI-Used Cars and Trucks was again down sharply m/m. -1.38%. That’s unlikely. Pushes y/y to +0.28%, Black Book has it about 1% above that.

  • Housing: OER +0.26% m/m, Primary Rents +0.24%. Actually those aren’t far from the trends (y/y in each case declined a couple of hundredths, to 3.34% and 3.73% respectively), but last month had been chippier.
  • Medical Care (and then I’m going to take a few minutes and dig deeper on some of these)…Medicinal Drugs (pharma) went into deflation. -0.11% m/m, -0.82% y/y. Chart in a moment. Doctor’s Services roughly unch, but only 0.30% y/y. Hospital Services bounced a bit, 1.30% y/y.
  • Even with the bounce, Hospital Services is lower than two months ago, 3 months ago, etc. One year ago it was 4.70% y/y. Hospital Services is the largest component of the Medical Care subindex.
  • Here is the y/y chart for drugs. Now, it’s very hard to measure this because there is tremendous dispersion in consumer costs for prescription drugs…massive differences based on which outlet, formulary, insurance, etc you have. Doing a lot of work on this. Sooo…

  • this is the y/y picture for NONprescription drugs, which are much easier to measure. Basically no chg. So either prescriptn drug mkt is getting much more competitive (I doubt it), there is some change in collection method (possible), or a shift showing up as change.

  • there is no lower-level index for drugs so we can’t really dig any deeper on that unfortunately. But it’s significant, not only for the CPI of course but for consumers generally (and the budget deficit) if health care costs really ARE slowing in a permanent way.
  • CPI – College Tuition and Fees, essentially unch at 3.81% vs 3.86% y/y. But well off the lows.

  • Now what does that last picture look like…oh, yeah, the S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index (my baby).

  • Core inflation ex-housing down to 1.04%, the lowest level since February 2018. Still nowhere near the lows, nowhere near deflation, and with lots of transitory stuff in it.

  • Core goods prices still in deflation, -0.2%. But lagged effect of the dollar’s 2017 selloff should just now be starting to wash into the core goods data. And we still haven’t seen the tariff effect yet. So this is still to come and the reason I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.

  • WEIRD: Biggest declines on the month were used cars & trucks (-15.3% annualized), Leased cars & trucks (-13.8%). Biggest gainers: Car and Truck Rental (+26.5%), Public Transportation (+24.8%).
  • Early estimate for Median CPI is +0.21% m/m, making y/y 2.81%. So, again, it’s a tails story.
  • Sorry, didn’t calculate the sheet for y/y. Should be 2.76% y/y for median, down from 2.80%.
  • Here is m/m Median CPI. Notice there’s really no major slowdown here. It’s been pretty steady and rising slightly y/y for a while. Nothing below 0.2% m/m since last August.

  • OK, four pieces and then we’ll sum up. Piece 1 is food and energy.

  • Piece 2 is core goods. As I said, I expect this to turn back higher. This is where you find Used Cars and Apparel…so transitory stuff is big here. This is also where tariffs fall heaviest.

  • Piece 3 is Core Services less Rent of Shelter. Same story here: “What is up with medical care?” It may be that since consumers under the ACA end up paying out of pocket for a much larger share, they’re bargaining harder. That could be why it feels so much worse than this.

  • Finally, rent of shelter – same old same old. No deflation while this remains steady as a rock.

  • So, in sum. I do think that Powell is right in focusing on the “transitory” inflation slowdown. Better measures, such as Median (see below for Median vs core), show no significant slowdown yet.

  • …and it’s hard to see where a slowdown would come from. Medical Care is already very slow. Core goods is already very slow, with negative tails already in the data but not much sign yet of the tariff effect sure to come. Housing is solid.
  • So for now, I expect median inflation to continue to crawl higher. As we get later in the year, though, unless interest rates rebound a lot higher there’s a decent chance that money velocity droops again.
  • Now, money velocity is already REALLY low so it may not. This chart isn’t our best model but it suggests velocity is already too low for the level of int rates (I’m not sure it’s a linear function near zero though). It was responding, but lower int rates may truncate a bounce.

Nothing more really to add – I will say that although Powell is right and these are transitory factors, I have lost faith that the Chairman is a “different sort” of Fed Chair since he doesn’t have an academic background. He was at first, but appears to have been captured by the econocognoscenti. Ergo, I expect the Fed will ignore the fact that inflation is still drifting higher, and start to cut rates as the growth figures make it ever clearer that the economy is heading towards (if not already in) recession. Long-end yields are already 110bps or more off the highs, so I think the bond market already has more than half its recession-rally finished (I don’t think we’ll have new low yields this cycle since I don’t think inflation will collapse and I don’t think the recession will be as bad). But stocks haven’t even begun their earnings-recession selloff, so…

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How Not to Do Income-Disparity Statistics

June 10, 2019 4 comments

I am a statistics snob. It unfortunately means that I end up sounding like a cynic most of the time, because I am naturally skeptical about every statistic I hear. One gets used to the fact that most stats you see are poorly measured, poorly presented, poorly collected, or poorly contexted. I actually play a game with my kids (because I want them to be shunned as sad, cynical people as well) that I call “what could be wrong with that statistic.” In this game, they have to come up with reasons that the claimed implication of some statistic is misleading because of some detail that the person showing the chart hasn’t mentioned (not necessarily nefariously; most users of statistics simply don’t understand).

But mostly, bad statistics are harmless. I have it on good authority that 85% of all statistics are made up, including that one, and another 12.223% are presented with false precision, including that one. As a result, the only statistic that anyone believes completely is the one they are citing themselves. So, normally, I just roll my eyes and move on.

Some statistics, though, because they are widely distributed or widely re-distributed and have dramatic implications and are associated with a draconian prescription for action, deserve special scrutiny. I saw one of these recently, and it is reproduced below (original source is Ray Dalio, who really ought to know better, although I got it from John Mauldin’s Thoughts from the Frontline).

Now, Mr. Dalio is not the first person to lament how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, or some version of the socialist lament. Thomas Piketty wrote an entire book based on bad statistics and baseless assertions, after all. I don’t have time to tackle an entire book, and anyway such a work automatically attracts its own swarm of critics. But Mr. Dalio is widely respected/feared, and as such a simple chart from him carries the anti-capitalist message a lot further.[1]

I quickly identified at least four problems with this chart. One of them is just persnickety: the axis obviously should be in log scale, since we care about the percentage deviation and not the dollar deviation. But that is relatively minor. Here are three others:

  1. I suspect that over the time frame covered by this chart, the average age of the people in the top group has increased relative to the average age of the people in the bottom group. In any income distribution, the top end tends to be more populated with older people than the bottom end, since younger people tend to start out being lower-paid. Ergo, the bottom rung consists of both young people, and of older people who haven’t advanced, while the top rung is mostly older people who have Since society as a whole is older now than it was in the 1970s, it is likely that the average age of the top earners has risen by more than the average age of the bottom earners. But that means the comparison has changed since the people at the top now have more time to earn, relative to the bottom rung, than they did before. Dalio lessens this effect a little bit by choosing 35-to-64-year-olds, so new graduates are not in the mix, but the point is valid.
  2. If your point is that the super-wealthy are even more super-wealthier than they were before, that the CEO makes a bigger multiple of the line worker’s salary than before, then the 40th percentile versus 60th percentile would be a bad way to measure it. So I assume that is not Dalio’s point but rather than there is generally greater dispersion to real earnings than there was before. If that is the argument, then you don’t really want the 40th versus the 60th percentile either. You want the bottom 40% versus the top 40 percent except for the top 1%. That’s because the bottom of the distribution is bounded by zero (actually by something above zero since this chart only shows “earners”) and the top of the chart has no bound. As a result, the upper end can be significantly impacted by the length of the upper tail. So if the top 1%, which used to be centi-millionaires, are now centi-billionaires, that will make the entire top 40% line move higher…which isn’t fair if the argument is that the top group (but not the tippy-top group, which we all agree are in a category by themselves) is improving its lot more than the bottom group. As with point 1., this will tend to exaggerate the spread. I don’t know how much, but I know the direction.
  3. This one is the most insidious because it will occur to almost nobody except for an inflation geek. The chart shows “real household income,” which is nominal income (in current dollars) deflated by a price index (presumably CPI). Here is the issue: is it fair to use the same price index to deflate the incomes of the top 40% as we use to deflate the income of the bottom 40%? I would argue that it isn’t, because they have different consumption baskets (and more and more different, as you go higher and higher up the income ladder). If the folks at the top are making more money, but their cost of living is also going up faster, then using the average cost of living increase to deflate both baskets will exaggerate how much better the high-earners are doing than the low-earners. This is potentially a very large effect over this long a time frame. Consider just two categories: food, and shelter. The weights in the CPI tell us that on average, Americans spend about 13% of their income on food and 33% on shelter (these percentages of course shift over time; these are current weights). I suspect that very low earners spend a higher proportion of their budget on food than 13%…probably also more than 33% on shelter, but I suspect that their expenditures are more heavily-weighted towards food than 1:3. But food prices in real terms (deflated by the CPI) are basically unchanged over the last 50 years, while real shelter prices are up about 37%. So, if I am right about the relative expenditure weights of low-earners compared to high-earners, the ‘high-earner’ food/shelter consumption basket has risen by more than the ‘low-earner’ food/shelter consumption basket. Moreover, I think that there are a lot of categories that low-earners essentially consume zero of, or very small amounts of, which have risen in price substantially. Tuition springs to mind. Below I show a chart of CPI-Food, CPI-Shelter, and CPI-College Tuition and Fees, deflated by the general CPI in each case.

The point being that if you look only at incomes, then you are getting an impression from Dalio’s chart – even if my objection #1 and #2 are unimportant – that the lifestyles of the top 40% are improving by lots more than the lifestyles of the bottom 40%. But there is an implicit assumption that these two groups consume the same things, or that the prices of their relative lifestyles are changing similarly. I think that would be a hard argument. What should happen to this chart, then, is that each of these lines should be deflated by a price index appropriate to that group. We would find that the lines, again, would be closer together.

None of these objections means that there isn’t a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our country. My point is simply that the disparity, and moreover the change in the disparity, is almost certainly less than it is generally purported to be with the weakly-assembled statistics we are presented with.


[1] Mr. Mauldin gamely tried to object, but the best he could do was say that capitalists aren’t good at figuring out how to share the wealth. Of course, this isn’t a function of capitalists. The people who decide how to distribute the wealth in capitalism are the consumers, who vote with their dollars. Bill Gates is not uber-rich because he decided to keep hundreds of billions of dollars away from the huddling masses; he is uber-rich because consumers decided to pay hundreds of billions of dollars for what he provided.

Categories: Economics, Politics, Rant, Theory

Tariffs and Subsidies…on Money

Many, many years ago (27, actually) I wrote a paper on how a tariff on oil actually has some beneficial effects which needed to be balanced against the beneficial effect that a lower oil price has on economic growth. But since the early 1990s until 2015 or so I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times the issue of tariffs came up in thoughts about the economy and markets. To the extent that anyone thought about them at all, it was to think about how lowering them has an unalloyed long-term positive effect. Which, for the most part, it does.

But the economics profession can sometimes be somewhat shamanistic on the topic of tariffs. Tariffs=bad; time for the next chapter in the book. There is much more complexity to the topic than that, as there is with almost any economic topic. Reducing economics to comic-book simplicity only works when there is one overwhelmingly correct idea, like “when demand for a good goes up, so does the equilibrium price.” The end: next chapter.

Tariffs have, though, both short-term and long-term effects. In the long-term, we all agree, the effects of raising tariffs are deleterious. For any given increase in money and velocity, we end up with lower growth and higher inflation, all else equal. It is important to realize that these are largely one-time effects although smeared out over a long period. That is, after equilibrium is reached if tariffs are not changed any longer, tariffs have no large incremental effect. It is the change in tariffs that matters, and the story of the success of the global economy in terms of having decent growth with low inflation for the last thirty years is largely a story of continuously opening trade. As I’ve written previously, this train was just about running out of track anyway so that we were likely to go back to a worse combo of growth and inflation, but reversing that trend would lead to significantly worse combinations of growth and inflation in the medium-to-long term.

In the short-term, however, tariffs can have a positive effect (if they are expected to remain) on the tariff-imposing country, assuming no retaliation (or even with retaliation, if the tariff-imposing country is a significant net importer). They raise employment, and they raise the wage of the employed. They even may raise the real wage of the employed if there is economic slack. The chart below shows the y/y change in manufacturing jobs, and ex-manufacturing jobs, for the last 40 years. Obviously, the manufacturing sector has been shrinking – a story of increased productivity, but also of trade liberalization as manufacturing was offshored. The Obama-era work programs (e.g. “Cash for Clunkers”) temporarily reversed some of that differential decline, but since 2016 – when we got a new President – manufacturing payrolls growth has caught up to non-manufacturing. That’s not a surprise – it’s the short-term effect of tariffs.

The point is that tariffs are a political winner in the short-term, which is one reason I think that people are overestimating the likelihood that “Tariff Man” is going to rapidly concede on trade and lower tariffs. If the Administration gets a clear “win” in trade negotiations, then I am sure the President is amenable to reversing tariffs. But otherwise, it doesn’t hurt him in the heavy manufacturing states. And those states turn out to be key.

(This is a relative observation; it doesn’t mean that total payrolls will rise. The economic cycle still has its own momentum, and while tariffs can help parts of the economy in the short term it doesn’t change the fact that this cycle was very long in the tooth with lots of imbalances that are overdue for correction. It is no real surprise that employment is softening, even though it is a lagging indicator. The signs of softening activity have been accumulating for a while.)

But in the long run, we all agree – de-liberalizing trade is a bad deal. It leads among other things to bloat and inefficiency in protected sectors (just as any decrease in competition tends to do). It leads to more domestic capacity than is necessary, and duplicated capacity in country A and country B. It promotes inefficiency and unbalanced growth.

So why, then, are investors and economists so convinced that putting tariffs or subsidies on money has good (or even neutral) long-term effects? When the Fed forces interest rates higher or lower, by arbitrarily setting short-term rates or by buying or selling long-term bonds – that’s a tariff or a subsidy. It is protecting interest-rate sensitive sectors from having interest rates set by competition for capital. And, as we have seen, it leads in the long run to inefficient building of capacity. The Fed evinces concern about the amount of leverage in the system. Whose fault is that? If you give away free ice cream, why are you surprised when people get fat?

The only way that tariffs, and interest rate manipulations, have a chance of being neutral to positive is if they are imposed as a temporary rebalancing (or negotiating) measure and then quickly removed. In the case of Federal Reserve policy, that means that after cutting rates to address a temporary market panic or bank run, the central bank quickly moves back to neutral. To be clear, “neutral” means floating, market-determined rates where the supply and demand for capital determines the market-clearing rate. If investors believed that the central bank would pursue such a course, then they could evaluate and plan based on long-term free market rates rather than basing their actions on the expectation that rates would remain controlled and protective.

It is no different than with tariffs. So for central bankers criticizing the trade policy of the Administration, I say: let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone.

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