Archive for October 31, 2019

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.

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