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The Optionality of Inventories

January 21, 2021 2 comments

I was speaking with a good friend of mine, who was reflecting optimistically on the possible positives to come out of the COVID crisis. The economic system may, thanks to 2020, become less fragile as we are collectively realizing that certain aspects of our system have become very vulnerable to breakage with serious attendant consequences. (Being more of a cynic, I should note that I don’t think this antifragility extends to financial market pricing, certainly at the moment.) For example, he noted, most meat processing in our country is done by a very small number of processors, so when COVID forces a shutdown it can mean…no meat. Most of the saline bags, he told me, are made in Puerto Rico. Of course, we all now know that most of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) come from one country, China.

Years ago, we had this problem when OPEC controlled the vast majority of the world’s oil. This is less of a problem today, because the market worked on it: high prices created an incentive for innovation in the field of energy extraction. Now there are lots of sources of oil, although OPEC still controls a plurality of it. But the system is less fragile, for sure.

As an inflation guy, I am regularly intrigued by the ways that the world has become more fragile with respect to inflation over time, as the threat of inflation has receded into the misty depths of memory. Insurance companies, for example, have only a sketchy institutional memory (and generally only near the top of the organization where the old folks are) of how the inflation of the late ‘70s eviscerated their financial condition. In 2021, we find ourselves at a point in history where it has been nearly 30 years since we have seen a core CPI reading above 3%. And people will run around as if their hair is on fire when we get it again, even though from the perspective of 1985 that would have seemed a funny problem.

But I’m actually not here to talk about inflation but rather another old habit that we’ve “evolved” away from in the C-suites of American industry, and that’s carrying inventory. Now, carrying an inventory balance is one way to reduce a firm’s exposure to inflation, so I’m not entirely ignoring the inflation angle here; the grander point though is that carrying inventory is insurance against lots of things. To name just a few:

  • your supplier shutting down because of some disease or some authoritarian lockdown measure
  • sudden increases in tariffs on raw goods, or embargos
  • a sudden surge in demand for your finished goods because some other supplier was unable to provide
  • transportation issues and bottlenecks slowing the receipt of raw goods, such as a shortage of containers at the ports or a closure of border traffic
  • large but temporary spikes in the cost of freight, as a result of same

Inventory protects against a multitude of sources of volatility, that is. Of course, this protection comes at a cost, since inventory is a use of capital and capital costs money. Now, being an old option trader (and not merely a trader of old options) that says to me that holding inventory is very much like a financial option: a countable and defined cost, that is paid no matter what your inventory turns are, and an occasional highly significant and non-linear payoff at random times, when you need it.

Owning options is neither a good nor a bad thing, inherently. Paying too much for options that have value only very infrequently is a bad thing, but even in that case if the bad thing is a very bad thing, then you’re willing to ‘overpay’ relative to the actuarial value of the option. We do this all the time with various casualty insurances (we obviously overpay relative to the actuarial likelihood of our home catching on fire or being burgled, since if we paid the ‘fair’ price then the insurance company wouldn’t be able to exist), because the negative value to us of a large loss is not proportional to the negative value of the small cost of the insurance premium…even if that premium is ‘too large.’

So it is interesting, then, that “just-in-time” inventory management, and in general the focus on reducing inventory levels, has progressed to such a level as to be almost fetishistic. And I would argue the main reason this has happened is that the episodes of loss, where the ‘inventory option’ would be ‘in the money’ have been fairly infrequent, as we have improved the supply chain architecture over the years.

But this has clearly changed, and we are seeing manufacturing enterprises – not to mention homeowners, as I stockpile soup against the possibility of another COVID-like lockdown – build precautionary inventories of inputs, and BTB enterprises increasing finished goods inventories. Because lots of these folks have been burned. It only takes one fire in your neighborhood to sell a lot of fire insurance.

And by the way, it makes perfect sense that companies should be retreating from lean-inventory models. Capital is super cheap right now; literally the cheapest in history. Carrying inventory is therefore not only an option with a bigger chance of paying off than it used to, but it’s also a really cheap option.

Here are some other option theorems in the inventory context:

  1. Options have more value, the more volatility there is. The a priori cost of the option varies with implied volatility and the ex post value of the option is related to realized volatility. Therefore, the inventory option is more valuable now, as we have greater economic volatility.
  2. Corollary: higher expected future volatility should raise the sticker price of an option. In the case of inventory, the price of the option is related to the cost of capital. Ergo, more volatile economic outcomes should raise the cost of capital. So far, they haven’t, which means the inventory option is probably irrationally cheap.
  3. Some older option trader once told me “don’t be a weenie and sell a teenie.” That is, taking in a small amount of money to sell ‘lottery tickets’ that are very unlikely to hit is still a bad long-term decision because being short one lottery ticket that hits can end the game. Similarly, it makes no sense not to carry large inventories of inexpensive items. Think thread, or fasteners. “For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost….” Or APIs. Or soup.

That’s all I have to say about real business options, except for the obligatory (for this column) observation: inventory is not just an option, but also a hedge against future price changes. When inflation is low and stable, this hedge has little value and can work against you as well as for you. When inflation is rising, though, the incentive increases to invest more in inventories that will be worth more (once converted to finish goods, or sold to a customer) the longer the inventory is held.

Categories: Uncategorized

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (January 2021)

January 13, 2021 1 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, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments!

  • Welcome to #CPI Day 2021! We get the last of 2020’s CPI figures today.
  • There’s always volatility in year-end figures, and this one is no exception. Last month, in fact, was pretty weird. In the Nov CPI we had soft housing, very strong Apparel. Broad softness sprinkled with some large moves in small categories. My write-up: Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (December 2020)
  • As a result, while core CPI was higher-than-expected, Median inflation (which is a steadier measure) was soft. However, skewness on the upside is DIFFERENT from the way we’ve seen it for a while and I’ll be interested to see if that remains.
  • Economists’ consensus is that Core is gonna soften – the m/m core CPI consensus is around 0.12%. I think that’s mostly a call on rents, which have been softening.
  • But here’s the thing – rents haven’t really been softening much outside of big cities. What has been changing is that landlords have been expecting less rent due to financially-stressed tenants. This shows up in CPI as softening average rent growth.
  • And that could change, although probably not until next month. Payments looked soft in December. But rent tracker indices have payments a bit better this month, and they should be: there was just another Federal money drop.
  • Next month or two, we should see a rebound in rents. And in the long run, we definitely will because home prices are jumping and these two can’t diverge forever.
  • Away from Shelter, dislocations in the supply chain remain and part of the trick over the next 6 months is going to be teasing out the COVID effects from the long-term effects. Freight costs have risen steeply and there are goods shortages in places b/c of container shortages!
  • Another category I’m watching that has been weak for a while: Medicinal Drugs. Interestingly, this month (again, probably starts to hit Jan CPI when it is released next month) some major pharma manufacturers announced price increases.
  • Not a huge surprise: pharma prices had been suppressed when President Trump was threatening to introduce Most Favored Nation rules (saying companies can’t charge Americans more than other countries). Pharma played nice. CPI-Medicinal Drugs is negative y/y!
  • I wrote about that here: Drug Prices and Most-Favored-Nation Clauses: Considerations back in August. But the Biden Administration won’t be doing that. Ergo, it’s safe to raise prices again. And they have. We’ll see how much – starting next month.
  • That’s all for the walk-up. Expect volatility! I will probably focus on the ex-shelter number. BTW, be aware that monthly comps get super easy after this month, for a few months. Core CPI will be over 2.5% y/y, probably, by April & push 3% in May. Then the comps get much harder.
  • Do remember, as I constantly remind: the #Fed doesn’t care one bit about inflation. But if YOU do, and have interests in how to hedge/invest in the inflationary period approaching, visit https://enduringinvestments.com
  • And one more note: I will be on Bloomberg TV with @adsteel and @GuyJohnsonTV at 10:10ET this morning. And my interview with @MetreSteven on @RealVision just dropped this morning. A lot happening in inflation today!! Good luck…
  • Core CPI was +0.09%, a touch softer than expected. Y/Y at 1.62%.

  • Seems like Dec is always weak…even accounting for the seasonals! Let’s see. Primary rents rose 0.10%, y/y declined further to 2.28% from 2.45%. As I said, that will start changing soon. OER was +0.14%, y/y down to 2.17% from 2.28%.
  • Apparel took another big jump, +1.36% m/m. That’s part of the general strength in core goods. Core goods at 1.7% y/y, up from 1% just three months ago!
  • Check THIS out. Core goods inflation above core services inflation for the first time in years. Since the GFC, actually. A lot of that is supply chain folks. But a lot of it is people buying products with government money drops.

  • That rise in core goods happened even with CPI-Used Cars and Trucks -1.15% on the month, second weak month in a row. Looks like the used car prices in the CPI aren’t going to catch up with the private surveys on the upside, as they didn’t on the downside.

  • Airfares slipped -2.29% after +3.49% last month. Lodging Away from Home flat vs +3.93% last month. Motor Vehicle Insurance though continued to rebound, +1.42% after +1.23% last month. Those are my main “covid categories.”
  • In Medical Care, which was down for the second month in a row: Medicinal Drugs -0.24% (y/y down to -2.13%!), Doctors’ Services -0.02% (y/y to 1.74%), Hospital Services +0.30% (y/y 2.99%).
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s hard to measure medical care, but these are just silly numbers. I doubt doctors are charging less when their costs have gone up enormously. But perhaps they’re charging CONSUMERS less, and we’re measuring consumer prices? Hmm.
  • CPI for Medicinal Drugs, y/y. Come on, man.

  • Core inflation ex-shelter was roughly unchanged this month, +1.45% y/y. Was +1.46% last month. It hasn’t been much higher than 1.7% since 2012.
  • So only two categories had large negative changes: Car and Truck Rental, -49.9% annualized, and Used Cars and Trucks, -12.96%. The latter coming down from a high level. But long list of >10% gainers again:
  • >10% annualized: Jewelry and Watches (39.5%), Men’s/Boys Apparel (+31.8%), Women’s/Girls Apparel (+18.3%), Car Insurance (+17.9%), Misc Personal Goods (+15.5%), Personal Care Goods (+12.9%), Tobacco/smoking (+12.9%), Misc Personal Svcs (+10.8%).
  • Those are just non-food and energy. Also >10% annualized increases in Dairy, Nonalcoholic Beverages, Fuel Oil, and Motor Fuel. But we know those are volatile. I include them in case anyone says “the government ignores milk.”
  • Anyway, Median should be soft again but not as soft as core this month. Median category will be a housing regional so it’s just a guess but I’m saying +0.13% m/m, 2.23% y/y. Core will actually pass over Median in a few months, I think, due to base effects.
  • College Tuition and Fees: +0.74% y/y vs +0.58%. I’ve talked elsewhere about how there’s a quality change here that the BLS knows about but is ignoring for now b/c should reverse: online college ain’t same as in-person college.
  • University costs themselves are up a lot. Talked at length to a university CFO consultant yesterday and they believe many of these costs will remain BUT there are some really interesting applications of virtual education that I can’t fit in here. 🙂
  • Circling back, just want to put the Apparel jump into context. Here is the Apparel price level index. So acceleration in 2011 (after years of nothing), slow deflation, crash into COVID, and just recovering some pricing power. Will be interesting to see how far it extends.

  • Update to our OER model. And honestly, everyone’s model looks something like this – lagged effect of home price rises is a big contributor, as are incomes, to where rents should go. But we’re looking at measured rents ADJUSTED for non-collection. That’s the key.

  • Here’s a fun one. 10-year inflation swaps are about to cross above current median inflation. That hasn’t happened in a long time. You would think the forward should be above, at least because tails tend to be to the upside, but they almost never are. At least, recently.

  • Distribution of y/y price changes by bottom-level category. Big spike is OER of course. But a really wide dispersion otherwise. Chaos.

  • Four-Pieces charts and then I’ll wrap up. Piece 1: Food & Energy.

  • Piece 2: Core Goods. Wheee! Honestly this overshoots our models so I think at least some of it are dislocations. But some of it is real, too much money pushing too few goods. And some is the recently-weak USD, so if you get a much stronger dollar (@MetreSteven) it could change.

  • Piece 3: Core Services less Rent of Shelter. This is the conundrum. I can’t imagine doctors services and hospital services stay depressed in this world. Other services may (office cleaning if there are no offices), but that’s also a consumption basket change. Stay tuned here.

  • Piece 4, Rent of Shelter. I think this will start to reverse as early as next month when the next gov’t checks go out. And the Biden Administration promises more. So delinquencies should decline, raising measured rents.

  • And that’s all for today. I’ll post a summary of these tweets in a bit. Remember to look up my interview on @RealVision, tune in to @BloombergTV at 10:10 to see me there, and visit http://EnduringInvestments.com if you need an inflation nerd!

Recent inflation prints have been held down by soft rents, and that continued this month. A lot of this is artificial: when landlords expect to collect less rent…which is not unreasonable during a recession…then this shows up as a decline in collected rents. But when/if those renters get more current, it shows up as a reacceleration in rents. That’s what I expect will happen, and it could happen soon since more Federal largesse is on its way. It’s an upside risk for the next few months. Although, in another sense, it isn’t really a risk: it’s what we should be expecting to see, given what is happening in home prices.

Rents are the main part of core services inflation. Because of the softness in rents and the softness in medical care services – which is a real head-scratcher – core services inflation fell below core goods inflation this month for the first time in a very long time. Now, normally you don’t see goods inflation in the middle of a recession, but then again normally Washington DC isn’t throwing thousands of dollars into the account of every family. Too much money: check. And supply chains are stressed. Too few goods: check. No surprise we’re seeing goods inflation.

So really, the wiggles in inflation we have seen over the last year are not particularly surprising in themselves, and it’s easy to explain them by falling back on the excuse du jour: “COVID.” Certainly, a lot of the chaotic pricing environment is due to Covid and the related disruption in our economic system. But the question is, what will happen on the other side? We have had massive money growth, with declining velocity until last quarter. Will velocity continue to decline? I am skeptical of that. Precautionary cash balances are higher than they ought to be, given where rates are, because people are nervous and when you are nervous you keep more in reserve. But this won’t be true forever. And we know that, behaviorally, the velocity of “found money”/windfalls is higher than the velocity of earned money, and moreover people are less price-sensitive when they spend a windfall. So I expect that as things go back to normal, inflation will rise – and probably a lot.

This is the test! Modern Monetary Theory holds you can print all you want, with no consequences, subject to certain not-really-binding constraints. The last person who offered me free wealth with no risk was a Nigerian prince, and I didn’t believe him either. I will say though that if MMT works, then we’ve been doing monetary policy wrong for a hundred years (but then, we also leached people to cure them, for hundreds of years) and all of our historical explanations are wrong – and someone will have to explain why in the past, the price level always followed the GDP-adjusted money supply.

Now, over the next four or five months it will be much easier to believe the inflation story. While core inflation was +0.24% last January and +0.22% last February, it was -0.10% in March, -0.45% in April, and -0.06% in May. By mid-year, that is, we will be around 2.8% core CPI y/y (if we just get 0.2% per month) before the comps turn much more difficult. Even though this is fully known, and even though it will therefore be a violation of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, it will not stop people from becoming alarmed and for the markets to respond accordingly! So buckle in – at the very least, the first half of 2021 will be extraordinarily interesting. 

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