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Average-Inflation Targeting, In a Nutshell

August 26, 2020 1 comment

Let the bow-tie set argue about the niceties and the nuances. Here is what I can tell you about inflation targeting so that we can all understand the debate: suppose they changed the rules of baseball in an analogous way.

A new pitcher comes in to the game. He throws a pitch over the batter’s head. His next pitch skips behind the batter. His third pitch sails 2 feet high and outside. His fourth pitch almost hits the mascot.

“Yer out!” barks the umpire. Because the four pitches averaged out to strikes. My questions:

  1. I don’t know that the new rule gives me any greater confidence in the pitcher.
  2. It isn’t clear to me how that rule would help the batter.
  3. Maybe this helps a bad pitcher. But I wonder why a good pitcher would need that rule.

That is all.

Drug Prices and Most-Favored-Nation Clauses: Considerations

August 25, 2020 4 comments

A potentially important development in the market for pharmaceuticals – and in the pricing of the 1.6% of the Consumer Price Index that Medicinal Drugs represents – is the President’s move towards a “most-favored-nation” clause in the pricing of pharmaceuticals. The concept of a favored-nations clause is not new, although this is the first time it has been applied broadly to the pharmaceutical industry. In the investment management industry, it is not uncommon for very large investors (state pension funds, for example) to demand such a clause in their investment management agreements. Essentially, what such a clause does is guarantee to the customer that no other customer will get better pricing.[1] In the context of pharmaceuticals, the “problem” that the President is addressing is the fact that Americans buying a drug will often pay many times what a customer in another country will pay the pharmaceutical company for that same drug.

The optics are terrific for the President, but the economics not as much so. The argument is that demanding such a clause will force pharmaceutical companies to lower prices for American consumers drastically, to something approximating the price of those same products purchased abroad. The reality, though, is not so clear.

This is a story about price elasticity of demand. As I do often, I pause here and give thanks that I studied economics at a university that had a fantastic econ faculty. Economics is a great field of study, because done right it teaches a person to ask the right questions rather than jumping to what seems to be the apparent answer. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about Street research: done right, the value of that research is in guiding the questions, rather than handing us the answers.)

So let’s start at the ‘free market’ version of the pharmaceutical company’s profit-maximization problem. Let’s start by assuming that the marginal cost of production of a little pill is close to zero, or at least that it’s no different for the pill sold in one country versus the pill sold in another country. Then, the firm’s profit-maximizing linear programming problem is to maximize, independently for each country, the price where the marginal revenue is essentially zero – where in order to sell additional units, the price must be lowered enough that selling those additional units costs more in lost profit on the other units than it does on the incremental units. (If I sell 10 units at $10, and in order to sell the 11th unit I have to lower the price to $9, then I go from $100 in revenue to $99 in revenue and so if I am a profit-maximizer I won’t do this).

This point will be different in each country, and depends on the demand elasticity for that drug in that country. If the demand for a drug is very elastic, then that market will tend to clear at a lower price since each incremental decline in price will produce a relatively large increase in incremental quantity demanded. On the other hand, if the demand for the drug is very inelastic, then that market will tend to clear at a higher price since each additional increase in price will result in the loss of relatively few units of quantity sold. Now, every country and every drug will have different price elasticities. A lifestyle drug like the little blue pill will face fairly elastic demand in a Third World country, while a malarial drug probably does not.[2]

As an aside, one of the things which creates a more-elastic demand curve is the availability of substitutes. So, if the FDA makes it more difficult for a new statin drug to be approved than does the equivalent agency in Italy, then demand for a particular statin drug (all else equal) will be more elastic in Italy, where it faces more competition, than in the US. If you want lower prices, promote competition. But back to our story:

Now the Trump Administration adds a constraint to the drug company’s linear programming problem, such that the maximization is now joint; the problems are no longer independent maximization problems but the company must find the price that maximizes revenue across all markets collectively. If the free market has found a perfect and efficient equilibrium, then any such constraint must lower the value of the revenue stream to the drug company because if it did not, then it implies the company would already have be operating at that single-price solution. Constrained solutions can never be more valuable than unconstrained solutions, if both are in equilibrium.

What the drug company most assuredly will not do, though, is immediately lower the price to the American consumer to the lowest price charged to any other country. What it will do instead is take the highest price, and then add the incremental market that has the most inelastic demand, and see how much total revenue will increase if they have to lower the universal price to induce demand in that market. Note that this outcome may lower the price in the high-priced country, but it will also raise the price in the low-priced country. Since the lower-priced countries probably have more-elastic demand than the high-priced country…which is suggested by the fact that they had lower prices when they were being separately optimized…it is easy to imagine a scenario where the drug company ends up only supplying the high-priced country because the large increases in price for other countries essentially eliminate that demand. And that outcome, or indeed as I said any constrained outcome, is likely to be bad for the drug company. But what it will almost certainly not do is cause drug prices in the USA to drop 70%, or a massive decline in the Medicinal Drugs portion of CPI.

It may cause a decline in US drug prices, but that is not as certain as it appears. If the optimal strategy is to supply the drug only in the United States, then prices need not change at all (the US would then be the Most Favored Nation because it’s the only customer). In fact, the drug company might need to increase prices in the US. That happens because when you allow price discrimination, any customer who pays more than the variable cost of the product (which we assume here is close to zero) contributes something to the fixed overhead of the company;[3] therefore, a company that understands cost accounting will sometimes sell a product below the total cost per unit as long as it is above the variable cost per unit. When a US company, then, sells a pill to Norway at a really low price but above the cost of production, it defrays some of its overhead. If a most-favored-nation clause prevents a company from doing this, it will need to raise the price of the product in its remaining markets in order to cover the overhead that is not being covered any longer by those customers.

OK, so that’s just one iteration. I suspect that most pharmaceutical companies will end up lowering prices a little bit in the US and in other countries where prices are similar, and only selling them in countries that now pay a very low price to the extent that those foreign countries and/or international charities subsidize those purchases. But then we get into the financial and legal engineering part of this: what happens if Pfizer now licenses the formula for a particular drug to an Indian company that is legally distinct and doesn’t sell to the United States? Does the licensing agreement also fall under the MFN clause? What if Pfizer spins off its South American operations, sharing the intellectual property with its spinoff? For that matter, it might be the case that for some drugs, it is optimal to sell it everywhere in the world except the US, because the value of the unconstrained-non-US portion of the business is greater than the constrained-US portion of the business.

Now wouldn’t that be a kick in the head, to see pharmaceutical companies leave the US and refuse to sell to the US consumer because it makes them subject to the MFN clause? In the end, it seems to me that this is a great political gesture but it will be very difficult to get the results the President and his team wants.


[1] As an aside, in investment management this has caused the universe of strategies available to institutions demanding this clause to be reduced, hurting their investors. There are many circumstances in which an investment manager will offer outstanding, and sometimes outlandish, terms to investors who are the first in a new strategy, or who are low-touch easy/sophisticated customers, etc; a later entry by a large, high-maintenance customer may not be economic under the same terms.

[2] I am not at all an expert on how drug price elasticity behaves in this riot of market/product combinations, so readers who are should give me a break! I’m just illustrating a point.

[3] Cleverly called “variable contribution.”

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2020)

August 12, 2020 4 comments

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!

  • Well, it’s CPI day and I have to tell you I’m looking forward to this one and I’ll tell you why.
  • Used cars! The Black Book retention index jumped about 9% last month after 8.5% the prior month. There’s typically a 3-month lag before it gets into CPI, but w/ a big move it’s harder to say. Each of those jumps would be worth about 0.3% on core, and we have two of them coming.

  • That being said, (a) there is still one dip we haven’t seen yet so we COULD have a dip in used cars this month. It would be surprising, but it would mean we can prep for a couple of really good numbers. So I’m excited either way.
  • And it’s not just used cars. Now that things are opening up, we’re going to see pressures in other places. Medical care started to show some ups last month and I expect that to continue as hospitals are hurting for revenue.
  • Last month we also saw strong apparel, lodging away from home, and airfares, which were rebounding from the covid-induced swoon. I think that could continue, and it’s an interesting story line to watch.
  • On the other hand – this is next month’s story but college tuitions are likely to decline this year because colleges are giving discounts. Even though the product has changed in quality (e-learning not the same as in-person), the BLS has decided it can’t quality-adjust easily.
  • So CPI for college-tuition-and-fees – again, probably next month – will fall and then rebound hard next year. So that’s fun. It’s not right, but it’s okay, as the saying goes.
  • Shelter last month, ex-hotels, was soft. That’s the only fly in the inflationary ointment, but it’s a big one. So far it doesn’t look like rents are likely to decelerate much overall, nor housing prices fall – but if they do, that’s a big deal.
  • I will be looking at core-ex-housing to see if pressures are broadening, but looking at shelter b/c it’s a big, slow item. If shelter weakens appreciably, it will be news – historically, with the last recession being an exception, housing prices and rents almost never FALL.
  • But they can slow, and with incomes sketchy housing inflation probably SHOULD slow. If it doesn’t, that’s a real sign that the rising monetary tide is raising all assets. (And goods and services). FWIW, wages also aren’t slowing. Atlanta Fed wages are +3.8% y/y.
  • (There’s interesting stuff around the disconnect between wages and the unemployment rate right now, but I’ll save that for a blog post another time. Not really a CPI-day thing.)
  • Consensus today is for 0.2% on core CPI, but a soft 0.2% with y/y falling to 1.1%. I think there’s lots of upside to that if Used Cars pops, but a little downside if shelter is weak again. I’m in the “probably higher” camp.
  • Good luck! And if you’re curious about what an inflation guy does when it’s not CPI day, stop by Enduring Investments: http://enduringinvestments.com
  • Oh, yes.
  • I don’t think we need to worry much about the rounding this month. Core +0.6% m/m; y/y to 1.6% when it was expected to drop to 1.1%.
  • FWIW, that was rounded down. +0.62% m/m on core. Repeat: rounded down. I will have to check but that is the biggest monthly figure in decades.
  • I think I soiled myself.
  • There are going to be a lot of crazy charts like this one this month. This is the last 12 core CPI prints.

  • y/y core rose from 1.19% to 1.57%, in one month. Core goods were -1.10% y/y; now they are -0.5%. Core services were 1.90%; now they’re 2.3%.
  • Take that Keynesians. WHERE’S YOUR OUTPUT GAP MODEL NOW? …but I shouldn’t celebrate. All of those degrees…and poor Nomura forecasting outright deflation…
  • Now interestingly, Used Cars and Trucks was up, 2.33% m/m, but that’s not the big jump yet. (!)

  • Lodging Away from Home, another COVID-casualty, was +1.2% m/m. Same as last month. But the y/y is still -13.26% (was -13.92%).
  • Primary rents rebounded some, +0.19% vs +0.12% last month, and OER as well +0.21% from +0.09%. Those are m/m numbers, and the y/y are still softening though: 3.12% for primary rents and 2.80% for OER, down from 3.22%/2.84%. But not collapsing.
  • OK, I said I was going to be interested in core-ex-housing. It jumped from 0.35% y/y to +1.01% y/y. Now, that’s only the highest since March but again: the deflation dragon, if not slain, is pretty sick.
  • Apparel was +1.08% m/m, but y/y is still -6.4% (was -7.2%). Like the other belly-flop categories, there’s still a lot of recovery to come.
  • So how are the doctors doing? Medical Care was +0.41% m/m, but that actually dropped the y/y slightly to 5.02% from 5.08%. However, that’s mostly because Pharma remains weak.
  • CPI for Medicinal Drugs was flat again. +0.02% this month; -0.01% last month. The y/y is down to 1.1%.

  • But Physicians’ Services up to 2.58% y/y (up 0.67% this month)

  • And hospital services hanging out at around 5% y/y. Look, like many services these are all becoming more labor-intensive and that means…more expensive. Some of that might come back, some day.

  • Totally forgot airfares: +5.4% m/m after +2.6% m/m last month. But still down a lot from the peak. Here’s the y/y figure.

  • And a quick check of the markets: 10-year breakevens +3.5bps, kinda surprised it’s not more. 5y breakevens +5bps. Some of this might just be time for price discovery. I know when I was a CPI swaps dealer, it took some time before we knew wth was the right price.
  • BTW that core increase was the biggest monthly increase since 1991. That predates TIPS by 6 years.
  • Now, college tuition and fees rose to 2.09% y/y from 1.74% y/y. That’s interesting, as that serious ought to be declining next month. And for tuitions, that’s a largeish m/m change. Interesting.
  • Let’s see. Biggest m/m declines: misc personal goods (-41.7% annualized) and meats, poultry, fish & eggs (-36.9%, but it had been up a lot too).
  • The list of gains annualizing more than 10% has 14 categories. Includes motor vehicle insurance, car/truck rental, public transportation, used cars/trucks, communication, jewelry, footwear, lodging away from home…
  • Now, those who live by Median CPI ought to also die by Median CPI. I’ll convert you all, eventually. Median this month will be something like +0.21%, because it ignores the upside long tails like it did the downside ones. y/y will actually decline to 2.56%
  • The message there is just that the underlying trends are pretty stable. But it’s not insignificant that the tails shifted to the right side from the left side. As I’ve said before, that’s sort of what infl looks like in practice, just as disinflation has one-offs to the left.
  • Health insurance y/y is a little softer, down to 18.7% y/y from 19.4%. So we got that going for us.

  • This is the distribution of y/y changes in the CPI. There’s still a big left tail anchor which is why core is below median. But this is a much more balanced distribution than it has been in a while.

  • And here’s the weight of categories going up by more than 2.5% y/y. The weight is the highest since July 2008.

  • That doesn’t look very deflationary to me.
  • Putting together the four-pieces charts and then I’ll wrap up.
  • Piece 1 – food and energy. With all of the wild swings, it’s net-net kinda boring.

  • Piece 2, core goods. This was the piece that was getting a wind behind it because of trade frictions when the crisis hit. Big bounce this month. Much of that is autos, but as I pointed out early: the BIG jump in car prices hasn’t hit the data yet.

  • Piece 3, core services less rent of shelter. Also a big recovery, and some of this is airfares. Some also is medical care. But there are a number of other categories contributing here. Still kind of trendless last 5y, overall.

  • Piece 4, the biggest and slowest piece, and looks scary. Until you remember this includes hotels (lodging away from home). If you take that out, shelter has decelerated some but not a lot, and certainly not in a disturbing way like this appears. Don’t project this!

  • OK to sum up. I saw someone call this a “noisy” report. Well, only in the sense of clanging cymbals. The data here all swung in one direction – but there really weren’t a lot of surprises, per se. The only surprise was the synchony of the surprises to one side.
  • As I said up top, we still have a couple of +0.3% boosts (maybe +0.2% if we’re ahead of mode) coming from used cars. And a lot of the beaten-down categories haven’t really recovered (apparel, etc) fully.
  • THAT’S what’s surprising. This wasn’t the left tail snapping back, much. This was a much broader advance than the decline had been. The decline had been 4 categories: lodging AFH, used cars, airfares, apparel. Way more here.
  • There are lots of bumps ahead, including the question of whether home prices and rents decelerate when and if incomes decline. We aren’t seeing that yet. And with M2 growing at 23% per year, it’s hard to believe asset prices can decline very much. Including housing.
  • The fun thing to think about is: what is happening at the Fed today? Are they clapping wildly, that they succeeded in pushing prices up? Or are they somber, wondering if they might have overdone it? Or are they focusing on median CPI and saying, meh?
  • My guess is that there’s a bit of nervousness. The Fed wants to overshoot 2%, but they don’t want to put it at 6%. I’ve said for a long time: creating inflation is easy. Creating A LITTLE inflation is hard.
  • Well, that was fun. Thanks for tuning in. I’ll put a summary on my blog relatively shortly. Again, if today’s number makes you think ‘hey, maybe we should talk to an inflation guy and see if he can help us’, stop by our website: https://enduringinvestments.com Have a nice day.

I don’t know whether to be exhausted or energized. I think I’ll go with energized, because this is not likely to be the last surprise in inflation prints. We are entering a period, not only of higher inflation (probably), but also much higher inflation volatility. That’s important, because a key underpinning of the valuation argument for stocks and bonds is that inflation is not only low, it’s low and stable and therefore can be ignored in calculations. But if inflation is volatile, and especially if it’s high and volatile, then  companies and investors need to include it in their calculus. And if the inflation factor ends up becoming significant again, after more than a decade of irrelevance, then it means that (a) stocks and bonds will become increasingly correlated and (b) stock and bond valuations will be lower.

Now, I don’t know if the markets really understand what’s going on. In fact, this number was so outside of expectations I think that investors just dismissed it as a one-off, like April’s number. But it’s not. This was not just a snapback of the depressed categories; indeed, most of the categories that were depressed because of Covid (lodging away from home, airfares, e.g.) are still depressed although they’ve rebounded a little. This was much broader than that. But investors have pushed 10-year breakevens up only 3-4bps, to 1.66%. Stocks are soaring, and 10-year nominal yields are a mere 3.5bps higher. Commodities are flat. Gold, after a bloodbath yesterday, is flat today. The only way those reactions make sense is if investors are missing the significance.

When the unemployment rate shoots higher, then you can understand a positive market reaction because investors have come to count on the Fed supporting markets in that circumstance. But that reasoning doesn’t make sense here. Nothing about a 7.2% annualized rate of inflation (0.6% * 12) would make the Fed eager to add more liquidity. Ergo, it must be that investors just don’t care about the inflation numbers, or they think this is a random miss.

They should care. This isn’t a one-standard-deviation miss; it’s the biggest monthly print in thirty years and there was no big outlier. While it doesn’t guarantee that inflation is heading higher, the question is whether this print is consistent with our a priori model of the world.

If you’re a Keynesian, the answer is absolutely not. So economists who are output-gap focused are going to say that this number doesn’t matter; it’s ‘quirky’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘measurement error’; the output gap is going to drag down inflation. Maybe that’s why investors are nonchalant about this…because they’re being told by the bow-tie set to look through it.

But if you’re a monetarist, this is entirely consistent with your a priori model. The only surprising thing about this is that it is happening so soon. I was thinking we would see inflation rise starting in Q4 and it would get messy in 2021. I might have to move up the timetable. Because this number is entirely consistent with my model, I’m much less sanguine. This might be only the first shot over the bow… Indeed, over the next several months I can say that since we are confident that used car prices are going to add a lot to core inflation, we will probably have at least one or two more prints of 0.4%-0.5% on core over the next three months. If we get 0.4%, 0.2%, 0.4%, then in three months core CPI will be back to 2.25% y/y, and that with unemployment still in the high-single or low-double-digits. And it could actually be worse than that. Without home prices collapsing, it’s hard to see it being much better than that and absolutely no way to see how prices (or even the inflation rate) could be lower than that unless something really, really weird happens.

Well, 2020 is the year of really, really weird so I suppose I will never say never. But inflation hedges remain super cheap; if you’ve been waiting to scoop them up I can’t see any argument for waiting any more.

And Now Their Watch is Ended

August 3, 2020 3 comments

At one time, fiscal deficits mattered. There was a time when the bond market was anthropomorphized as a deficit-loathing scold who would push interest rates higher if asked to absorb too much new debt from the federal government. The ‘bond vigilantes’ were never an actual group, but as a whole (it was thought) the market would punish fiscal recklessness.

Of course, any article mentioning the bond vigilantes must include the classic account by Bob Woodward, describing how then-President Bill Clinton reacted to being told that running too-large deficits would cause interest rates to rise and tank the economy: “Clinton’s face turned red with anger and disbelief. ‘You mean to tell me that the success of the program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of ****** bond traders?’”

Truth be told, this was always a bit of a crock in the big scheme of things. Although the bond market occasionally threw a tantrum when Big Government programs were announced, the bond traders have always been there when the actual paper hit the street. The chart below shows 10-year yields versus the rolling 12-month federal deficit. Far from being deficit scolds, bond market investors have always behaved more as if bonds were Giffen goods (whose price gets higher when there is more supply, and lower when there is less supply, in the opposite manner from ‘normal’ microeconomic dynamics). I guess so long as we are doing a walk down economic history lane, we could also say that the bond market followed a financial version of Say’s law: that supply creates its own demand…

Well, if ever there was a time for the market to get concerned about deficits, now is surely it. While the Fed continues to buy massive quantities of paper (to “ensure the smooth functioning of the markets”, as it surely does since if they were not buying such quantities the adjustment may be anything but smooth), there is still an enormous amount of Treasury debt in private hands. And it all yields far less than the rate of inflation. Clearly, these private investors are not alarmed by the three-trillion-dollar deficit, nor of the effect that the Fed buying a large chunk of it could have on the price level.

If investors are not alarmed by a $3T deficit – and, aside from market action being so benign, consider whether you’ve read any such alarm in the financial press – then it’s probably fair to say that there isn’t a deficit amount that would alarm them. Always before, if the market absorbed an extra-large deficit there was always at least the concern that it might choke on all that paper. Or, if it didn’t, that surely we were at the upper level of what could be absorbed. I don’t sense anything like the unease we’ve seen in prior deficit spikes. And that’s what alarms me. Because, as I tell my kids: a rule without enforcement means there isn’t a rule. Investors are not putting any limitation on the federal balance; ergo there is no limit.

Well, perhaps by itself that’s not a big deal. Heck, maybe deficits really don’t matter. But what bothers me is that the risk to that possibility is one-sided. If deficits don’t matter, then no biggie. But if they do matter, and the bond vigilantes are dead so that there is no push-back, no enforcement of that rule, then it follows that the only speed limit that will be enforced is when the car hits the tree. That is, if there is no alarm that causes the market to discipline the government spenders before there’s a crack-up, then eventually there will be a crack-up with 100% probability (again, assuming that deficits do matter at some level, and maybe they don’t).

While the vigilantes kept watch, there was scant worry that a government auction would fail. Although, as I’ve pointed out, the vigilantes weren’t macro-enforcers there were sometimes micro-aggressions: sudden interest rate adjustments where yields would jump 100bps in six weeks, say. This doesn’t happen any longer. So, while there’s plenty of money floating about right now to buy this zero-yielding debt, the larger the bond market gets the more of that money it will be sucking up. Unless, that is, the amount of money expands faster than the amount of debt (so that the debt shrinks in real terms), which is another way to say that the price level rises sharply. In that case, in order to keep the markets “orderly” the Federal Reserve will have to take more and more of that zero-yielding debt out of the market, replacing it with cash. It’s easy to see how that could spiral out of control quickly, as well.

I am not sure how close we are to such a crack-up. It could be years away; it could be weeks. But without the bond vigilantes, there’s no law in this town at all.

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