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A Generous Fed Isn’t Really the Good News it Sounds Like

October 31, 2019 14 comments

I understand why people are delighted about Powell’s remarks yesterday, about how the Fed would need to see a significant and sustained increase in inflation before hiking rates again. This generation, and the last, does not see inflation as a significant threat, nor a significant cost should it get going, and believes firmly that the Fed can easily squelch it if it gets going. (They believe this because, after all, the Fed told them so).

Older investors might be more reticent to believe that there’s a pony in there somewhere, since the evidence suggests that not only does inflation erode purchasing power (thereby demanding even more nominal return be provided by portfolios that are already overstretched valuation-wise) but it also ruins the diversification effect of bonds relative to stocks. The main reason that 60:40 is a dramatically lower risk portfolio (and more efficient in an investing sense) than 100% stocks is that stock and bond returns have tended to be inversely correlated for a long time. When stocks go up, bonds go down, in general (and vice-versa). But that’s because they have inverse sensitivities to the economic growth factor. In recent years, that has been the only factor that matters, but stocks and bonds have the same sensitivity to the inflation factor: when inflation goes up, both stocks and bonds tend to decline (and vice-versa). Consequently, when inflation becomes an important element in investors’ calculations the correlation of stocks and bonds tends to be positive and in the immortal words of Billy Joel in “Goodnight Saigon,” “We would all go down together.” Along these lines I recently prepared this chart for Real Asset Strategies,[1] illustrating that when inflation is over about 2.5%, correlations tend to flip. This is a 3-year average of y/y inflation (and shown on the chart as inflation minus 2.5% so the zero line is what matters, not the line at 2.5%) versus 3-year correlations; the point is that you don’t need 4% inflation to drastically change the value of the 60:40 portfolio.

I also think that people give the Fed much more credit for their ability to squelch inflation – which after all they haven’t had to do for more than 30 years after spending 15 years squelching the last round – than they deserve. But that’s a ‘show me’ situation and it’s hard to prove my suspicion that they won’t be so successful when push comes to shove.

So, I understand why people are partying about a Fed that is even looser than it had been. I don’t think that’s the correct response, but I understand it.

I also understand why people are somewhat morose about trade frictions. It isn’t for the right reason, that in the long run it will hurt real growth a smidge and increase inflation a smidge-and-a-half, but because they think it will have a drastic effect on near-term growth. That’s why everyone gets so excited about any inkling the US and China are nearing a trade détente and so depressed when it looks like they aren’t. We are told that the current global slowdown is being caused largely by the trade war.

In my view that’s nonsense. The global economy has been expanding for a decade on exceptionally loose liquidity but no tree grows to the sky. The global economy was slowing well before the trade frictions could possibly have had any impact. But it is hard to convince people of that, because everyone knows that:

GDP = C + I + G + (X-M),

or consumption plus investment plus government spending plus trade. And we learned in school about Ricardian comparative advantage and how trade enriches (or anyway, can enrich) both parties at the same time. So if China doesn’t import anything from the US and doesn’t export anything to the US, growth is going to be crushed, right?

But that’s not how trade works. Frankly, that’s not how anything in the GDP equation works. If you remove the final term, you don’t reduce GDP by (X-M). Sure, if this was an algebra problem you would, but it’s not. In the real world, what you lose from trade gets partially replaced by an increase in consumption, investment, or government. Just as I pointed out last year with soybeans, if China buys zero from us it means they have to buy them from someone else, which means that supplier doesn’t have them to sell to one of their traditional customers…who then buys them from us. Incidentally, neither beans nor corn went to zero after mid-2018 (see chart, source Bloomberg, normalized to December 2017=100).

The rest of trade works the same way if the two parties are “internal customers” and “external customers.” Though there will always be winners and losers, if we don’t have international trade then we won’t have a destination for our merchandise overseas…but we will also have consumers who don’t have Chinese goods to buy and so need to buy something from a domestic producer instead. This is not a zero sum game; it clearly results in a loss for all players. But the order of magnitude of this loss in the short run is not very big at all, especially for a country with a large fraction of its domestic production going to domestic consumption, as in the US but not even for the world at large. The world economy has lots of reasons to slow and go into recession, and trade frictions are one of those reasons, but certainly not the only one and not even the largest reason.

An overreaction by markets to anything in a stream of economic news is not unique or new, of course; those overreactions won Robert Shiller a Nobel Prize after all for his work pointing out the “excess volatility puzzle” as an early highlight of the nascent field of behavioral economics. But there’s a good reason to ignore most of these wiggles and focus on the long-term effect of these developments. Which, in the case of both the general climate of trade and the Fed’s reaction function to inflation, are negatives for both stocks and bonds.


[1] As part of Enduring Intellectual Properties’ investment in Real Asset Strategies, I serve as Director of Research for the firm. Real Asset Strategies LLC offers liquid real asset strategies focused on diversification benefits and inflation protection at reasonable fees.

The Fed’s Reserves Management Problem

October 22, 2019 Leave a comment

There has been a lot written about the Fed’s recent decision to start purchasing T-bills to re-expand its balance sheet, in order to release some of the upward pressure on short-term interest rates in the repo market. Some people have called this a resumption of Quantitative Easing, while others point out that it is merely an adjustment to a technical condition of reserves shortage. The problem is that both perspectives may be right, under different circumstances, and that is the underlying problem.

The triggering issue here was that overnight repo rates had been trading tight, and in fact briefly spiked to around 10%. It isn’t surprising that the Federal Reserve responded to this problem by adding lots of short-term liquidity: that’s how they respond to every issue. Banks in trouble? Add liquidity. Economy slightly weak? Add liquidity. “Stranger Things” episode somewhat disappointing? Add liquidity.

Traditionally, the Fed’s response would have been correct. In the “old days,” the overnight interest rate was how the Open Markets Desk gauged liquidity in the interbank market. If fed funds were trading above the Fed’s desired target (which was not always announced, but which could always be inferred by the Desk’s actions in response to reserves tightness or looseness), the Fed would come in to do “system” repos and add short-term liquidity. If fed funds were trading below the target, then “matched sales” was the prescription. It was fairly straightforward, because the demand for reserves was relatively easy to monitor and the adjustments to the supply of reserves small and regular.

But the problem today goes back to something I wrote about back in March, and that’s that reserves no longer serve just one function. In those aforementioned “old days,” the function of reserves was to support a bank’s lending activities in a straightforward statutory formula that was easy for a bank to calculate: this amount of lending required that amount of reserves, calculated over a two-week period ending on a Wednesday. Under that sort of regime, spikes in funds and repo rates (other than occasionally over the turn of year-end) were very rare and the Desk could easily manage them.

This is no longer the case. Reserves now serve two functions, as both lending support and as “High Quality Liquid Assets” (HQLA) that systemically-important banks can use in calculating its Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR). This has two really critical implications that we will only gradually learn the importance of. The first implication is that, because the amount of reserves needed to support lending activities is unlikely to be exactly the amount of reserves needed for a bank to achieve its HQLA, at any given time one of these two effects will dictate the amount of reserves the system needs. For example if banks need more reserves for HQLA reasons, then it means they will have more reserves than needed for their existing loan books – and that means economic stability and inflation control will in those cases take a back seat to bank stability. So, as the Fed has struggled to keep up with HQLA demand, year-over-year M2 growth (which is partly driven by reserves scarcity or plenty) has risen fairly quickly to 2-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

The second implication is that, because the demand for each of these two functions of reserves changes independently in response to changes in interest rates and other market forces, it is not entirely knowable or forecastable by the Desk how many reserves are actually needed…and that number could change a lot. For example, there are other assets that also serve as HQLA; so if, for example, T-bill yields were a bit higher than the interest paid on reserves a bank might choose to hold more Tbills and only as much reserves as needed to support its lending activities. But if Tbill rates then fall, or customers lift those bills away from the bank’s balance sheet, or the denominator of the LCR (the riskiness of the bank’s activities, essentially) changes due to market conditions, the bank may suddenly choose to hold lots more reserves. And so rates might suddenly spike or plummet for reasons that have to do with the demand and supply of reserves for the HQLA function, with the Fed struggling to add or subtract large amounts of reserves over short periods of time.

In such a case, targeting a short-term interest rate as a policy variable is going to be exquisitely more difficult than it used to be, and honestly it isn’t clear to me that this is a solvable problem under the current framework. Either you need to declare that reserves don’t qualify as HQLA (which seems odd), or you need to require that a bank hold a certain amount as HQLA and set that number high enough that reserves are essentially the only HQLA a bank has (which seems punitive), or you need to accept that the central bank is either going to have to surrender control of the money supply (which is scary) or of short-term interest rates (which is also scary).

But simply growing the balance sheet? That’s the right answer today, but it might be the wrong answer tomorrow. It does, though, betray that the central bank has a knee-jerk response to err on the side of too much liquidity…and those of us who remember that inflation is actually a real thing see that as a reason for concern. (To be fair, central banks have been erring on the side of too much liquidity for quite some time. But maybe they’ll keep being lucky!)

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (October 2019)

October 10, 2019 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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties (updated sites coming soon). 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.

  • CPI day! Want to start today with a Happy Birthday to @btzucker , good friend and inflation trader extraordinaire at Barclays. And he does NOT look like he is 55.
  • We are coming off not one not two but THREE surprisingly-high core CPI prints that each rounded up to 0.3%. The question today is, will we make it four?
  • Last month, the big headliners were core goods, which jumped to 0.8% y/y – the highest in 6 years or so – and the fact that core ex-housing rose to 1.7%, also the highest in 6 years.
  • Core goods may have some downward pressure from Used Cars this month, as recent surveys have shown some softness there and we have had two strong m/m prints in the CPI, but core goods also has upward tariffs pressure, and pharma recently has been recovering some.
  • (The monetarist in me also wants to point out that we have M2 growth accelerating and near 6% y/y, and it’s also accelerating in Europe…but I also expect that declining interest rates are going to drag on money velocity. Neither of those is useful for forecasting 1 month tho)
  • Now, one thing I am NOT paying much attention to is yesterday’s soggy PPI report. There’s just not a lot of information in the broad PPI, with respect to informing a CPI forecast. I mostly ignore PPI!
  • The consensus forecast for today calls for a soft 0.2%. I don’t really object to that forecast. We are due for something other than 0.3%. But I would be surprised if we got something VERY soft. I think those 0.3%s are real.
  • Unless we get less than 0.12%, though, we won’t see core CPI decline below 2.4% (rounded). And if we get 0.222% or above, we will see it round UP to 2.5%. That’s because we are dropping off one more softish number, from Sep 2018, in the y/y.
  • Median, as a reminder, is 2.92%, the highest since late 2008. It’s going to take a lot to get back to a deflation scare, even if inflation markets are currently pricing a fairly rapid pivot lower in inflation. I don’t think they’re right. Good luck today.
  • Obviously a pretty soft CPI figure. 0.13% on core, 2.36% y/y.

  • This is not going to help the new 5yr TIPS when the auction is announced later. But let’s look at the breakdown. Core goods fell to 0.7% from 0.8%, and core services stable at 2.9%.
  • As expected, CPI-Used Cars and Trucks was soft. -1.63% m/m in fact. That actually raises the y/y slightly though, to 2.61% from 2.08%. There’s more softness ahead.

  • OER (+0.27%) and Primary rents (+0.35%) were both higher this month and the y/y increased to 3.40% and 3.83% respectively. So why was m/m so soft? Used cars is worth -0.05% or so, but we need more to offset the strong housing.
  • (Lodging away from home also rebounded this month, +2.09% m/m vs -2.08% last month).
  • Big drop in Pharma, which is surprising: -0.79% m/m, dropping y/y back to -0.31%. That’s still well off the lows of -1.64% a few months ago.
  • Core ex-shelter dropped to 1.55% y/y from 1.70% y/y. That’s still higher than it has been for a couple of years.
  • Apparel dropped -0.38% on the month. The new methodology is turning out to be more volatile than the old methodology, which is fine if apparel prices are really that volatile. I’m not sure they are. y/y for apparel back to -0.32%.
  • Yeah, apparel is just reflecting the strong dollar, but I’m still surprised that we haven’t seen more trade-tension effect.

  • So, Physicians’ services accelerated to 0.93% y/y from 0.71%. And Hospital Services roughly unchanged. Pharma as I said was down (in prescription, flat on non-prescription). Health Insurance still +18.8% y/y (was 18.6% last month).
  • A reminder that “health insurance” is a residual, and you’re likely not seeing that kind of rise in your premiums. But I suspect it means that there are other uncaptured effects that should be allocated into different medical care buckets, or perhaps this leads those movements.
  • So even with that pharma softness, overall Medical care (8.7% of the CPI) was exactly unchanged at 3.46% y/y.
  • College Tuition and Fees decelerated to 2.44% from 2.51%. But that’s mostly seasonal adjustment – really, there’s only 1 College Tuition hike every year, and it just gets smeared over 12 months. Tuition is still outpacing core, but by less.
  • Largest drops in core m/m were Women’s/Girls’ apparel(-18.7% annualized), Used Cars & Trucks(-17.9%), Infants’/Toddlers’ apparel(-13.4%), Misc Personal Goods(-12.1%), and Jewelry/Watches (-11.9%). Biggest gainers: Lodging away from home(+28.1%) & Men’s/Boys’ Apparel.(+25.5%)
  • Here’s the thing. Median? It’s a little hard to tell because the median categories look like the regional housing indices, but I think it won’t be lower than +0.25% unless my seasonal is way off. And that will put y/y Median CPI at 3%.

  • The big difference between the monthly median and core figures is because the core is an average, and this month that average has a lot of tail categories on the low side while the middle didn’t move much.
  • That’s why, when you look at the core CPI this month, there’s nothing that really jumps out (other than used cars) as being impactful. You have moves by volatile components, but small ones like jewelry and watches or Personal Care Products.
  • Here is OER, in housing, versus our forecast. There’s no real slowdown happening here yet, and that’s going to keep core elevated for a while unless non-housing just collapses. And there’s no sign of that – core ex-housing, as I noted, is still around 1.4%.

  • So, this is a fun chart. In white is the median CPI, nearing the highs from the mid-90s, early 2000s, and late 2000s. Now compare to the 5y Treasury yield in purple. Last time Median was near this level, 5s were 3-4%.

  • Another fun chart. Inflation swaps vs Median CPI. Not sure I’ve ever seen a wider spread. Boy are investors bearish on inflation.

  • Here is the distribution of inflation rates, by low-level components. You can see the long tails to the downside that are keeping core lower than where “most” prices are going. So inflation swaps aren’t as wrong as median makes them look…if the tails persist. Not sure?

  • So four pieces: food & energy, about 21% of CPI.

  • Core goods, about 19%. Backed off some, but still an important story.

  • Core services less rent of shelter. About 27% of CPI. And right now, meandering. Real question is whether rise in health care inflation is going to pass through eventually to other components or if it is transitory. If the former, there’s a big potential upside here.

  • And rent of shelter, about 33% of CPI. As noted, this ought to decelerate some, but no real indication it’s about to collapse. And you can’t get MUCH lower inflation unless it rolls over fairly hard.

  • Really, the summary today is that there isn’t anything that looks like a sea change here. Most prices continue to accelerate. Now, next month the comparison is harder as Oct 2018 core was +0.196%. Month after was +0.235%. So some harder comps coming for core.
  • That said, I continue to think that we’ll see steady to higher inflation for the balance of this year with an interim peak coming probably Q1-Q2 of next year. But the ensuing trough won’t be much of a trough, and the next peak will be higher.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in.

I don’t think there is anything in this report that should change any minds. The Fed ought to be giving inflation more credit and be more hesitant to be cutting rates, but they are focused on the wrong indicator (core PCE) and, after all, don’t really want to be the guys spoiling the party. I think they’ll be slow, but we’re entering a recession (if we’re not already in one) and since the Federal Reserve utterly believes that growth causes inflation, they will tend to ignore a continued rise in inflation as being transitory. Since they said it was transitory when it dipped a couple of years ago – and it really was – they will be perceived as having some credibility…but back then, there really was some reason to think that the dip was transitory (the weird cell phone inflation glitch, among them), and there’s no real sign right now that this increase in inflation is transitory.

Yes, I think inflation will peak in the first half of 2020, but I’m not looking for a massive deceleration from there. Indeed, given how low core PCE is relative to better measures of inflation, it’s entirely possible that it barely declines while things like Median and Sticky decelerate some. Again, I’m not looking for inflation or, for that matter, anything that would validate the very low inflation expectations embedded in market prices. The inflation swaps market is pricing something like 1.5% core inflation for the next 8 years. Core inflation is currently almost a full percentage point higher, and unlikely to decline to that level any time soon! And breakevens are even lower, so that if you think core inflation is going to average at least 1.25% for the next 10 years, you should own inflation-linked bonds rather than nominal Treasuries. I know that everyone hates TIPS right now, and everyone will tell you you’re crazy because “inflation isn’t going to go up.” If they’re right, you don’t lose anything, or very little; if they’re wrong, you have the last laugh. And much better performance.

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