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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (May 2020)

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, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments!

  • Once again CPI day, and unlike last month where expectations were very low, it seems people think they have a firmer grasp of inflation this month. Ha!
  • I suppose that’s relative, but while I think there will be some interesting stories today I wouldn’t read much into the near-term data. Some things we know will be happening just aren’t happening yet.
  • Some examples include hotels, food away from home, rent of residence, medical care…all of these have serious upward pressures going forward, but not clear today.
  • I’ll talk about these as we go today. The consensus forecast for core is -0.2%, dropping y/y core to 1.7% from 2.1%. Last April – so sweet, so long ago – was +0.198% on core so ordinarily we’d be expecting a small y/y acceleration today.
  • But remember that last month, median inflation was pretty much normal. All of the movement in core was in lodging away from home, airfares, and apparel.
  • I don’t know about apparel, but I doubt the other two have fallen as far this month. Surveys of used cars, another typical volatility source, have plunged though. Usually takes a couple months for that to come into the CPI, but with a big move like that, it might.
  • On the other hand, prices for medical care were virtually ignored in the survey for last month’s release. If they start surveying those more ambitiously, that’s going to be additive. No question in the medium-term, medical care prices are going up.
  • Rents will be very interesting. So, if someone skips a rent payment how the BLS treats it depends on whether the landlord expects to collect it eventually, some of it, or none of it.
  • Rent-skipping isn’t yet unusually prevalent, and the threat that Congress could declare a rent holiday will mean that NEW rents are definitely going to be higher (this is a new risk for a landlord). Remember it’s rents that drive housing inflation, not home prices.
  • Neither effect is likely appearing yet, but be careful of that number today. In fact, as I said up top, be careful of ALL of the numbers today!
  • In the medium-term, inflation is lots more likely than deflation because there is much more money out there chasing fewer goods and services (20% y/y rise in M2, better than 50% annualized q/q). But today?
  • And while no one will be surprised with a low number today, almost everyone would be shocked with a high number. But with a lot of volatility, a wider range of outcomes in BOTH directions becomes possible.
  • In other words, HUGE error bars on today’s number, which SHOULD mean we take it with a grain of salt and wait for a few more numbers. Markets aren’t good with that approach. OK, that’s it for the walk-up. Hold onto your hats folks. May get bumpy.
  • Core CPI fell -0.448%, meaning that it was very close to -0.5% m/m. The y/y fell to 1.44%. The chart looks like a lot of the other charts we’re seeing these days. But of course devil will be in the details.

  • Core goods -0.9% y/y from -0.2%; core services 2.2% from 2.8%.
  • CPI for used cars and trucks, coming off +0.82% last month, turned a -0.39% this month. That’s not super surprising. I suspect going forward that rental fleets will shrink (meaning more used cars) since most cars are rented from airports.

  • Lodging Away from Home again plunged, -7.1% after -6.8% last month. That’s a little surprising. In my own personal anecdotal observation, hotel prices in some places went up last month, although to be fair that’s forward. TODAY’S hotel prices are still being discounted.
  • However Primary rents were +0.20% after +0.30% last month. Y/Y slid to 3.49% from 3.67%. Owners’ Equivalent Rent was +0.17% vs 0.26% last month; y/y fell to 3.07% from 3.22%.
  • I would not expect any serious decline in rents going forward. It’s housing stock vs number of households, and if we’re trying to spread out that means MORE households if anything. Also, as noted earlier I expect landlords to raise rents to recapture ‘jubilee risk.’
  • Apparel was again down hard, -4.7% m/m. That’s not surprising to me. Transportation down -5.9% m/m, again no real surprise with gasoline. But Food & Beverages higher, up 1.40% m/m. That’s not surprising at all, if you’ve been buying groceries!
  • Still some oddness in Medical Care. Pharma was -0.13% m/m, down to +0.78% y/y from +1.30% last month. Doctors’ Services -0.08%. Both of those make little sense to me. But hospital services +0.50% m/m, pushing y/y to 5.21% from 4.37%. That part makes perfect sense!
  • Hospital Services Y/Y. Expect that one to keep going up. Overall, of the 8 major subsectors only Food & Energy, Medical Care, and Education/Communication were up m/m.

  • Core ex-housing fell to +0.6% y/y, vs +1.45% last month. That’s the lowest since…well, just 2017. The four-pieces chart is going to be interesting. As I keep saying though, the real story is in 2-3 months once things have settled and there’s actual transactions again.

  • Little pause here because some of the BLS series aren’t updated. I was looking at the -100% fall in Leased Cars and Trucks…and the BLS simply didn’t report a figure for that. Which is odd.
  • …doesn’t look like a widespread problem so we’ll continue. A quick look forward at Median – there’s going to be more of an effect this month but going to be up by roughly +0.15% depending on where the regional housing indices fall.
  • That will drop y/y median to 2.70% or so from 2.80%. You’ll see when we look at the distribution later, this is still largely a left-tail event. The middle of the distribution is shrugging slightly lower. Again, it’s early.
  • Biggest core category decliners: Car and Truck Rental, Public Transportation, Motor Vehicle Insurance, Lodging Away from Home, Motor Vehicle Fees (sensing a trend?) and some Apparel subcategories.
  • Only gainer above 10% annualized in core was Miscellaneous Personal Goods. But in food: Fresh fruits/veggies, Dairy, Other Food at Home, Processed Fruits/Veggies, Cereals/baking products, Nonalcoholic beverages, Meats/poultry/fish/eggs.
  • Gosh, I didn’t mention airfares, -12.4% m/m, -24.3% y/y. Some of that is jet fuel pass through. But it’s also definitely not going to last. Fewer seats and more inelastic travelers (business will be first ones back on planes) will mean lots higher ticket prices.
  • The airfares thing is a good thought experiment. Airlines have narrow margins. Now they take out middle seats. What happens to the fares they MUST charge? Gotta go up, a lot. Not this month though!

  • I’ll take a moment for that reminder – people tend to confuse price and quantity effects here, which is one reason everyone expects massive deflation. There is a massive drop in consumption, but that doesn’t mean a massive drop in prices.
  • Indeed, if it means that the marginal price-elastic buyer in each market is exiting long-term, it makes prices more likely to rise than to fall going forward. Producers only cut prices IF cutting prices is likely to induce more buyers. Today, they won’t.

  • 10-year breakevens are roughly unchanged from before the number. If anything, slightly higher. I think that’s telling – they’re already pricing in so little inflation that it’s getting hard to surprise them lower.
  • 10y CPI swaps, vs median CPI. Little disconnect.

  • Little delay from updating this chart. OER dropped to the lowest growth rate in a few years. But it’s not out of line with underlying fundamentals.

  • To be fair, underlying fundamentals take a while to work through housing, but lots of other places we’ve seen sudden moves. The only sudden move we have to be wary of is in rents if Congress declares a rent holiday.
  • Under BLS collection procedures, if rent isn’t collected but landlord expects to collect in the future, it goes in normally. If landlord expects a fraction, that is taken into effect. If landlord doesn’t expect to collect, then zero.
  • …which means that if Congress said “in June, no one needs to pay rent,” you’d get a zero, massive decline in rents…followed by a massive increase the next time they paid. That would totally muck up CPI altogether, and I would hope they would do some intervention pricing.
  • So that’s a major wildcard. To say nothing of the huge effect it would have on the economy. Let’s hope Congress leaves it to individual landlords to work it out with tenants, or at worst there’s a Rental Protection Program where the taxpayers pay the rent instead of the tenant.
  • OK time for four-pieces charts. For those new to this, these four pieces add up to the CPI and they’re all between 20% and 33% of the CPI.

  • Piece 1: Food and Energy. Actually could have been worse. Energy down huge, Food up huge (+1.5% m/m). But this is the volatile part. Interesting for a change as energy is reversing!

  • Piece 2, core goods. We went off script here. But partly, this is because the medicinal drugs component is lagging what intuition tells us it should be doing.

  • I said offscript for core goods. Here’s the model. We were expecting to be back around 0% over the next year, but not -1%.

  • Piece 3, core services less rent of shelter. This was in the process of moving higher before the virus. Medical Care pieces will keep going higher but airfares e.g. are under serious pressure. Again, I think that’s temporary.

  • Piece 4: rent of shelter. The most-stable piece; this would be alarming except that a whole lot of it is lodging away from home. I’ve already showed you OER. It has slowed, but it will take a collapse in home prices to get core deflation in the US. Doesn’t seem imminent.

  • Last two charts. First one shows the distribution of price changes. Most of what is happening in CPI right now is really big moves way out to the left. That’s why Median is declining slowly but Core is dropping sharply. It’s the tails.

  • And another way to look at the same thing, the weight of categories that are inflating above 3% per year. Still close to half. MOST prices aren’t falling and many aren’t even slowing. Some, indeed, are rising. This does not look like a deflationary outcome looming.

  • Overall summary – much softer figure than last month, but still pretty concentrated in the things we knew would be weak. A few minor surprises. But for us to get a real deflationary break, another big shoe needs to drop.
  • With money supply soaring and supply chains creaking, any return to normal economic activity is going to result in bidding for scarce supplies with plentiful money. You already see that in food, the one thing it’s easy to buy right now. That’s the dynamic to fear when we reopen.
  • And, lastly. I’ve made the point many times recently: inflation hedges are priced so that if you believe in deflation you should STILL bet on inflation because you don’t get any payoff if you’re right about deflation.
  • That’s all for today. Stop by our *new* website at https://enduringinvestments.com and let us know what you think. It needed a facelift! Good luck out there.

I think the key point this month is the point I made up top: we always need to be wary of one month’s data from any economic release. It’s important to remember that the release isn’t the actual situation, it’s a measurement of the actual situation and any measurement has a margin for error. All of these data need to be viewed through the lens of ‘does this change my null hypothesis of what was happening,’ and if the error bars are large enough then the answer almost always should be ‘no.’

However, markets don’t usually act like that. Although there’s not a lot of information in the economic data these days the markets act like there is. (I was, however, pleased to see the TIPS market not overreacting for a change.) Let’s look at this data for what it is: right now, the one thing we know for sure is that it’s hard to buy anything at all. Economic activity is a fraction of what it was before the lockdowns took effect – but that affects economic quantities transacted (GDP), not prices. We need to get back to something like normal business before we know where prices are going to reach equilibrium. From these levels, my answer is that in most cases the equilibrium will almost assuredly be higher. I think most consumer-to-consumer services are going to end up being a lot more labor-intensive, which is good for labor’s share of national income but bad for prices: declining productivity shows up in higher prices. And there’s lots more money out in the system. While some of this is because companies drew quickly on their bank lines lest those lines be pulled like they were in 2008-2009, a great deal of it is because the government is spending enormous sums (a lot of it helicopter money) and the Fed is financing that by buying the debt being issued. So while M2 growth probably won’t end up at 20% y/y for a long period, I think the best we can hope for is that it goes flat. That is, I think the money is here to stay.

Monetary velocity is falling, and in fact the next print or two are going to be incredibly low. Precautionary cash balances ballooned. But once the economy opens again, those precautionary balances will drop back to normal-ish and the money will still be there. It’s a cocktail for higher inflation, to be sure. The only question is how much higher.

Over the next few months, the inflation numbers will be hard to interpret. What’s temporary, and what’s permanent? Keep in mind that inflation is a rate of change. So hotel prices have plunged. Gasoline prices have plunged. But unless they continue to plunge, you don’t have deflation. You have a one-off that will wash out of the data eventually. If hotel prices retrace half of their plunge, that will be represented by a m/m increase from these levels. Airfares will end up higher than they were before the crisis, but even if they didn’t they’d likely be higher from here. The real question is whether the one-offs spread much farther than apparel/airfares/lodging away from home. So far, they’ve spread a little, but not a lot. We’re nowhere close to deflation, and I don’t think we’re going to be.

Why We’re Wrong About Restaurants

Figuring out the macro impact of the virus, while not easy, is in some ways easier than figuring out a lot of the micro. In some cases the impact seems pretty obvious, and probably is: airlines are likely to carry fewer passengers, and more of them will be business travelers, for a while (resulting, by the way, in higher airfares in CPI). But some of the effects are much harder to figure out than we think, and a lot of it comes down to the fact that people who are idly speculating about these things tend to be pretty poor about defining what the substitutes are for any product or service.

Actually, the question of ‘what is a substitute’ turns out to be hugely important in economic modeling, because it directly impacts the question of demand elasticity. If I am the only person who sells widgets, and you need a widget, then I probably have a lot of control over what you pay. But if someone else sells something that works about as well as a widget (but isn’t a Widget™), then I as the supplier likely have a lot less flexibility and I face a more elastic demand curve. This is one reason that salespeople are taught to remember that the customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill bit; they want a quarter-inch hole. In a more formal setting: it is enormously important in antitrust economics that the market is defined clearly when considering if a firm is monopolizing or attempting to monopolize[1], so much so that there is an index called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index with which industry concentration can be expressed. But I digress.

We read that many restaurants will fail as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, because quite aside from the question of the financial damage done to the restaurant owner from a two-month hiatus in revenues there is the question of “will people even come back?” And, if people do come back, but the restaurant-owner can only fit half as many people in the restaurant due to social distancing, then many restaurants can’t survive. Right?

So we are told, but there are a ton of assumptions there and some of them don’t hold. One of the biggest assumption is the question of what consumers use as a substitute for restaurant meals. With airlines, there is a clear substitute for the vacation traveler and that’s the automobile. Moreover, a vacation is not a necessity per se. But everyone needs to eat, so we can say with some confidence that if the average American ate 2.5 meals per day before the crisis they will probably eat 2.5 meals per day after the crisis. Somehow, they need to get those meals. If they are not going to restaurants for some of those meals, what are the alternatives? The argument that restaurants will fail hinges partly on the idea that these alternatives are convenient enough and enough competition for restaurant meals that consumers will eschew eating out and so restaurants won’t be able to sell their product. But will they? The alternatives to a restaurant meal are (a) a meal cooked at home or (b) a meal delivered. Many restaurants might fail for financial reasons, but that happens all the time in the food preparation biz. The question is whether the total number of restaurants in the country will be dramatically lower in the post-virus world. If so, it means that people are choosing en masse to make a significantly higher percentage of their meals at home. Anyone reading this who is doing a lot of their own cooking these days will realize why that’s probably not a tenable outcome as long as we continue to need two incomes in most families! Some, surely, will cook more. But when this is over, I suspect that meals not prepared at home will be a similar portion of our diets as it was before.

“Meals not prepared at home” includes both restaurant meals and delivery meals. Since the total number of meals consumed will be roughly the same, I think we’ll see a bit more home-cookin’ and a lot more delivery. It will be the restaurants, even those that did not previously deliver, cooking those meals. Maybe more delivery-only restaurants will start up. But I really think that we will see almost as many restaurants a year from now as we do now.

A separate question is what happens to the price of a meal-not-cooked-at-home, and it seems to me that the answer must be that it goes a lot higher. A delivered meal requires more manpower (for delivery), especially if delivery is going to be efficient at all. And in-restaurant meals (for those dinners, like your anniversary dinner, for which there are no good substitutes) are going to be higher-priced both because the demand curve will be more inelastic in the same way that the demand curve for business air passengers is more inelastic, and because the supply will be constrained. But my point is that if the restaurant used to plate 100 meals per hour, they’ll still plate pretty close to 100 meals per hour. It’s just that 50 of those meals will be going out the door.

Is there a substitute for movie theaters? Absolutely, and it was already winning. Good-bye movie theaters (although I have seen something about drive-ins making a comeback). A substitute for sports venues? Not so much, so I think we’ll see some innovation about how we safely attend such events but we haven’t seen the last of major league baseball at Citi Field or rugby at Twickenham. I think that international visitors to Disney World will probably decline, but domestic visitors will probably increase, as Disney for the latter is a substitute for an island vacation. But those islands that depend on tourism – there will be some pain there as there aren’t many convenient ways to get to Martinique that don’t involve flying.

But while I’m sure some restaurants will close because they cannot figure out delivery or because their product doesn’t translate well to delivery (see this story about a high-end restaurant that is facing this dilemma), I think consumption of meals-not-cooked-at-home will ensure that we will have a similar number of restaurants in the future. The broader point is this: be careful when you’re thinking about the damage that certain businesses will experience. Be sure to think about what the market for the good or service is, and what the relevant competitors are. Again, this doesn’t mean that existing companies will always survive, but if you know that the market for (for example) automobiles is still going to be there then there will be companies that serve that market. If they are different companies than today’s companies, that’s just creative destruction and it isn’t a bad thing for the consumer. (And, personal pitch: if you or your company needs help navigating these waters, visit our new website at https://www.enduringinvestments.com and drop me a line.)


[1] See Tasty Baking Company and Tastykake, Inc. v. Ralston Purina, Inc. and Continental Banking Co. (1987) in which the plaintiffs argued that the relevant market was premium snack cakes and pies and defendants argued that their products competed in the market for ‘all sweet snacks,’ because obviously their combination was less dominant if there were lots of substitutes.

Categories: Economics, Economy, Virus

Inflation Shocks, Inflation Vol Shocks, and 60-40 Returns

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of debate about the ultimate outcome of the current crisis in terms of causing inflation or disinflation, or even deflation. It is also not surprising that the Keynesians who believe that growth causes inflation have come down heavily on the side of deflation, at least in the initial phase of the crisis. Some nuanced Keynesians wonder about whether there will be a more-lasting supply shock against which the demand-replacement of copious governmental programs will force higher prices. And monetarists almost all see higher inflation after the initial velocity shock fades or at least levels out.

What is somewhat amazing is that there is still so much debate about whether investments in inflation-related markets and securities, such as TIPS and commodities (not just gold), make sense in this environment. A point I find myself making repeatedly is that given where inflation-sensitive markets are priced (inflation swaps price in 1% core inflation for the next 7 years, and commodities markets in many cases are near all-time lows), the potential results are so asymmetrical – heads I win, tails I don’t lose much – that it’s almost malpractice to not include these things in a portfolio. And it’s just crazy that there’s any debate about that. The chart below shows the trailing 10-year annualized real return for various asset classes, as a function of the standard deviation of annuitized real income.[1]

Most of the markets fall along a normal-looking curve in which riskier markets have provided greater returns over time. No guarantee of course – while expectations for future returns ought to be upward-sloping like this, ex post returns need not be – and we can see that from the extreme deviations of EAFE and EM stocks (but not bonds!) and, especially, commodities. Wow! So if you’re just a reversion-to-the-mean kind of person, you know where you ought to be.

Now, that’s true even if we completely ignore the state of play of inflation itself, and of the distribution of inflation risks. Let’s talk first about those risks.  One of the characteristics of the distribution of inflation is that it is asymmetric, with long tails to the upside and fairly truncated tails to the downside. The chart below illustrates this phenomenon with rolling 1-year inflation rates since 1934. Just about two-thirds of outcomes in the US were between 0% and 4% (63% of total observations). Of the remaining 37%, 30% was higher inflation and 7% was deflation…and the tails to the high side were very long.

This phenomenon should manifest in pricing for inflation-linked assets that’s a little higher than implied by a risk-neutral expectation of inflation. That is, if people think that 2% inflation is the most likely outcome, we would expect to see these assets priced for, say, 2.5% because the miss on the high side is potentially a lot worse than a miss on the low side. This makes the current level of pricing of inflation breakevens from TIPS even more remarkable: we are pricing in 1% for the better part of a decade, and so the market is essentially saying there is absolutely no chance of that long upward tail. Or, said another way, if you really think we’ll average 1% inflation for the next decade, you get that tail risk for free.

Finally, there’s the really amazing issue of how traditional asset classes perform with even modest inflation acceleration. Consider the performance of the classic “60-40” mix (60% stocks, 40% bonds) when inflation is stable, compared to when it rises just a little bit. The following table is based on annual data from NYU’s Aswath Damodaran found here.

Note that these are not real returns, which we would expect to be worse when inflation is higher; they are nominal returns. 60-40 is with S&P 500, dividends reinvested and using Baa corporate bonds for the bond component. And they’re not based on the level of inflation. I’ve made the point here many times that equities simply do poorly when inflation is high, and moreover 60-40 correlations tend to be positive (on this latter point see here). But even I was surprised to see the massive performance difference if inflation accelerates even modestly. Regardless of how you see this crisis playing out, these are all important considerations for portfolio construction while there is, and indeed because there is, considerable debate about the path for inflation. Because once there is agreement, these assets won’t be this cheap any more.


[1] Credit Rob Arnott for an observation, more than a decade ago, that an inflation-adjusted annuity for a horizon is the true riskless asset against which returns over that horizon should be measured. The x-axis here is the volatility of the return stream compared with such a (hypothetical) annuity. This is important because it illustrates that TIPS, for example, are lots less volatile in real space – the one we care about – than are Treasuries.

Categories: Investing, Stock Market, TIPS
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