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Whither Bonds? Arnott Answers

June 23, 2015 1 comment

I really enjoy reading, and listening to, Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates. He is one of those few people – Cliff Asness is another – who is both really smart, in a cutting-edge-research sense, and really connected to the real world of investing. There are only a handful of these sorts of guys, and you want to align yourself with them when you can.

Rob has written and spoken a number of times over the last few years about the investing implications of the toppling of the demographic pyramid in developed markets. He has made the rather compelling point that much of the strong growth of the last half-century in the US can be attributed to the fact that the population as a whole was moving through its peak production years. Thus, if “natural” real growth was something like 2%, then with the demographic dividend we were able to sustain a faster pace, say 3% (I am making up the numbers here for illustration). The unfortunate side of the story is that as the center of gravity of the population, age-wise, gets closer to retirement, this tailwind becomes a headwind. So, for example, he figures that Japan’s sustainable growth rate over the next few decades is probably about zero. And ours is probably considerably less than 2%.

He wrote a piece that appeared this spring in the first quarter’s Conference Proceedings of the CFA Institute, called “Whither Bonds, After the Demographic Dividend?” It is the first time I have seen him tackle the question from the standpoint of a fixed-income investor, as opposed to an equity investor. I find it a compelling read, and strongly recommend it.

Don’t miss the “Question and Answer Session” after the article itself. You would think that someone who sees a demographic time bomb would be in the ‘deflation’ camp, but as I said Rob is a very thoughtful person and he reaches reasonable conclusions that are drawn not from knee-jerk hunches but from analytical insights. So, when asked about whether he sees an inflation problem, or continued disinflation, or deflation over the next five years, he says:

“I am not at all concerned about deflation. Any determined central banker can defeat deflation. All that is needed is a printing press. Japan has proven that. Japan is mired in what could only be described as a near depression, and it still has 1.5% inflation. So, if a central bank prints enough money, it can create inflation in an economy that is near a depression.”

This, more than anything else, explains why keeping interest rates low to avert deflation is a silly policy. If deflation happens, it is a problem that can be solved. Inflation is a much more difficult problem to solve because collapsing the money supply growth rate runs counter to political realities. I don’t think this Fed is worried about inflation at all, and they’re probably not worried too much about deflation either any longer. But they believe they can force growth higher with accommodative monetary policy, when all available evidence suggests they cannot. Moreover, Arnott’s analysis suggests that we are probably already growing at something near to, or even above, the probable maximum sustainable growth rate in this demographic reality.

Maybe we can get Arnott on the Federal Reserve Board? Probably not – no one who is truly qualified for that job would actually want it.

**Note – If you would like to be on the notification list for my new book, What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. ou 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.

  • Core CPI prints +0.145…just misses printing +0.2, which will make it seem weak. We will see the breakdown.
  • y/y core goes to 1.73% from 1.81%. A downtick there was very likely because we were dropping off +0.23%
  • This decreases odds of Sept Fed hike (I didn’t think likely anyway) but remember we have a couple more cpi prints so don’t exaggerate.
  • Core goods (-0.3% from -0.2%) and core services (2.4% from 2.5%) both declined. Again, some of that is base effects.
  • fwiw, next few months we drop off from core CPI: +0.137%, +0.098%, +0.052%, and +0.145%. So y/y core will be higher in a few months.
  • INteresting was housing declined to 1.9% from 2.2% y/y. But it was all Lodging away from home: 0.96% from 5.1% y/y!
  • Gotta tell you I am traveling now and that reminds you the difference between rate and level. Hotels are EXPENSIVE!
  • Owners’ Equiv Rent +2.79% from 2.77%. Primary Rents 3.47% unch. So the main housing action is still up. And should continue.
  • Remember the number we care about is actually Median CPI, a couple hours from now. That should stay 0.2 and around 2.2% y/y.
  • At root, this isn’t a very exciting CPI figure. It helps the doves, but that help will be short-lived. Internals didn’t move much tho.

The last remark sums it up. While the movement in Lodging Away from Home made it briefly look like there was some weakness in housing, I probably would have dismissed that anyway. There’s simply too much momentum in housing prices for there to be anything other than accelerating inflation in that sector. We have a long way to go, I think, before we have any topping in housing inflation.

But overall, this was a fairly boring figure. While the year-on-year core CPI print declined, that was due as I mentioned to base effects: dropping off a curiously strong number from last year. (That said, this month’s core CPI definitely calms things a bit after last month’s upward surprise). However, the next few base effect changes will push y/y core CPI higher. While today’s data will be welcomed by the doves, by the time of the September meeting the momentum in core inflation will be evident and median inflation is likely to be heading higher as well.

Note that I don’t think the Fed tightens in September even with a core CPI at 2% or above, but the bond market will get very scared about that between now and then. Could be some rough sledding for fixed income later in the summer. But not for now!

Stocks Look Less Scary This Way

Here is a quick follow-up on yesterday’s column, along with an administrative note (at the end). Yesterday, I noted there that momentum investors will begin to lose interest in being long equities as the year-over-year price return goes towards zero. I thought of another way to illustrate the same point, which maybe gets to something more like the average investor thinks.

The average “retail” investor wants big returns, but has a very non-linear response to losses. The reason that individual investors as a whole tend to under-perform institutional investors is that the former tend to exaggerate the effect of losses while underestimating the probability of losses. So, what tends to happen is that individual investors are perennially surprised by negative equity returns (don’t feel bad – financial media is set up to reinforce this bias), and react harshly to mildly negative returns – but not harshly enough to significantly negative returns.

So, the chart below shows a simple calculation of the probability of an equity loss over the next twelve months assuming that the expected return is just the return of the last 12 months, and the standard deviation of the return is the VIX (and assuming distributions are normal…just to complete the list of improbable assumptions). This doesn’t seem unreasonable with respect to assessing a typical investor’s expectations: returns should continue, and volatility is forward-looking.

probloss

Maybe it’s just me, but in these terms it seems more amazing. For much of the last few years, the trailing 12 month return was so high that it would take around a one-standard-deviation loss (16% chance) to experience a negative year – if, that is, we use prior returns to forecast future returns. In general, that’s a very bad idea. However, I can’t argue that this naïve approach has failed over the last few years!

What is the trigger that makes investors want to get out? After years of gains are investors going to act like they are “playing with house money” and wait until they get actual losses before they get jittery? Or will a 30-40% subjective chance of loss be enough for them to scale back? I think that this way of looking at the same picture we had yesterday seems much more promising for bulls. But, again, this is only true if valuation doesn’t matter. Stocks look less scary this way…but this is probably not the right way to look at it!

**Administrative Note – I have just agreed to write a book for a terrific publisher. The working title is “What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind.” I am very excited about the project, but it is a lot of work to turn the manuscript out by late August for publication in the fall. My posts here had already been more sporadic than they used to be, but now I actually have an excuse! If you would like to be on the notification list for when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!

Possibly a Tactical Chance for Bonds

This week, I am participating in a school-style debate at the Global Fixed Income Institute’s conferences in Madrid where the question before the house is whether or not inflation will resurface in major world economies in the next five years. As you might imagine, I feel that my part of the debate is the easy part, especially as inflation is pointing higher in the US and core inflation just surprised higher in Europe. However, I am sure the other side feels the same way.

The Institute is interested in this discussion partly to illuminate the question of whether the substantial rise in yields over the last three months or so in all developed bond markets (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing 10y yields in US, UK, Germany and Japan) is indicative of a return of fears of inflation.

all10s

The ironic part of this is that I do not believe that the rise in yields has much if anything to do with the expectation for higher inflation. Partly, it is due to a subtle sea change in the way investors are thinking about the prospects for central bank policy – to wit, the possibility (which I see as slim) that the Fed chooses to raise rates meaningfully above zero in the next year, starting in September. But to some degree, the market has been discounting higher forward rates for a very long time. It has been consistently wrong on that point, but the steeply sloped yield curve (the 2y/10y spread hasn’t been flatter than 120bps since early 2008 – see chart, source Bloomberg) implies higher forward rates.

2s10stoday

The rise in yields, in my view, is partly related to the prospect for changes in central bank policy, but also partly (and more sinisterly) related to the continuing intentional destruction by policymakers of the ability of large banks and dealers to make markets. We see worse liquidity in more and more markets almost by the day (as predicted five years ago in this space, for example here and here, as well as by many other observers). Less liquid markets tend to trade with more volatility, as it gets harder to move institutional size, and at lower prices since holders of assets need to factor in the difficulty of selling a position. Higher yields are going to happen in any event, and when institutional holders of bonds decide to diversify into commodities or into other real assets, interest rates could rise quickly depending how quickly that meme spreads. Of course, the same is true of equities, and commodities. Asset-allocation shifts will get messier.

I actually think this isn’t a bad time tactically to enter long positions in fixed-income. The Fed isn’t going to be as aggressive as people expect; also, bonds will get some support from investors fleeing fading momentum in stocks. The chart below (source: Bloomberg; Enduring Investments calculations) shows the 52-week price change in stocks. This is one measure of momentum, and a very important one as lots of investors look at their returns in annual chunks. Incredibly, since the latter part of 2012 investors have always been able to see double-digit returns from stocks when they looked in the rear-view mirror. Today, that number is 7.5%.

stockmo

That’s still a terrific real return of more than 5%, but (a) many investors have very screwy return expectations, (b) many investors are well aware that they’ve been living on borrowed time with a liquidity-inspired rally, and (c) certain quantitative investors place significant weight to momentum, over value, in their investment models.

It’s just another red flag for stocks, but it has become passé to point them out. From the standpoint of a bond investor, though, this is good news because all of those equity owners, when they decide to take their chips off the table, will become bond buyers.

And when that happens, the liquidity issues in fixed-income might cut the other way for a while.

Grab the Reins on the Dollar, Part 2

June 2, 2015 9 comments

I hadn’t meant to do a ‘part 2’ on the dollar, but I wanted to clear something up.

Some comments on yesterday’s article have suggested that a strong dollar is a global deflationary event, and vice-versa. But this is incorrect.

The global level of prices is determined by the amount of money, globally, compared to global GDP. But the movements of currencies will determine how that inflation or deflation is divvied up. Let us look at a simplified (economist-style) example; I apologize in advance to those who get college flashbacks when reading this.

Consider a world in which there are two countries of interest: country “Responsible” (R), and country “Irresponsible” (I). They have different currencies, r in country R and i in country I (the currencies will be boldface, lowercase).

Country R and I both produce widgets, which retail in country R for 10 r and in country I for 10 i. Suppose that R and I both produce 10 widgets per year, and that represents the total global supply of widgets. In this first year, the money supply is 1000r, and 1000i. The exchange rate is 1:1 of r for i.

In year two, country I decides to address its serious debt issues by printing lots of i. That country triples its money supply. FX traders respond by weakening the i currency so that the exchange rate is now 1:2 of r to i.

What happens to the price of widgets? Well, consumers in country R are still willing to pay 10 r. But consumers in country I find they have (on average) three times as much money in their wallets, so they would be willing to pay 30 i for a widget (or, equivalently, 15 r). Widget manufacturers in country R find they can raise their prices from 10 r, while widget manufacturers in country I find they need to lower their price from 30 i in order to be competitive with widget manufacturers in R. Perhaps the price in R ends up at 26r, and 13i in I (and notice that at this price, it doesn’t matter if you buy a widget in country R, or exchange your currency at 1:2 and buy the widget in country I).

Now, what has happened to prices? The increase in global money supply – in this case, caused exclusively by country Ihas caused the price of widgets everywhere to rise. Prices are up 30% in country R, and by 160% in country I. But this division is entirely due to the fact that the currency exchange rate did not fully reflect the increased money supply in country I. If it had, then the exchange rate would have gone to 1:3, and prices would have gone up 0% in country R and 200% in country I. If the exchange rate had overreacted, and gone to 1:4, then the price of a widget in country R would have likely fallen while it would have risen even further in country I.

No matter how you slice it, though – no matter how extreme or how placid the currency movements are, the total amount of currency exchanged for widgets went up (that is, there was inflation in the price of widgets in terms of the average global price paid – or if you like, the average price in some third, independent currency). Depending on the exchange rate fluctuations, country R might see deflation, stable prices, or inflation; technically, that is also true of country I although it is far more likely that, since there is a lot more i in circulation, country I saw inflation. But overall, the “global” price of a widget has risen. More money means higher prices. Period.

In short, currency movements don’t determine the size of the cake. They merely cut the cake.

In a fully efficient market, the currency movement would fully offset the relative scarcity or plenty of a currency, so that only domestic monetary policy would matter to domestic prices. In practice, currency markets do a pretty decent job but they don’t exactly discount the relative changes in currency supplies. But as a first approximation, MV≡PQ in one’s own home currency is not a bad way to understand the movements in prices.

Grab the Reins on the Dollar

June 1, 2015 1 comment

Let us all grab the reins on the dollar. Yes, it is true: the buck is up some 25% from a year ago, and at the highest level in more than a decade. After retracing recently, the dollar index has been chugging higher again although it has yet to penetrate recent highs. But put this all into context. In the early 1980s, the dollar index exceeded 160 before dropping nearly by half. A subsequent rally into the early 2000s was a 50% rally from the lows and took the index to 120. This latest rally is a clear third place, but also a distant third place (see chart, source Bloomberg).

buck

We can probably draw some instruction from reviewing these past circumstances. The rally of the early 1980s was launched by the aggressively hawkish monetary policy of Paul Volcker, who vowed to rein in inflation by restraining money growth. He succeeded, and took core inflation from nearly 14% in 1980 (with the dollar index at 85) down to 4.5% in 1985 (with the dollar index at 160). If you make a thing, in this case dollars, more scarce, its price rises. An optimistic press wrote about the “Superdollar” and the return of that signature American optimism.

Well, one out of two isn’t bad. The dollar soon slipped back, as other central banks instituted similar monetary restraint and the relative advantage to the greenback faded. It bounced around until the late 1990s, when Congress attacked the federal deficit – actually turning it into a surplus in the late 1990s. The dollar rallied fairly steadily from 1995 until topping out between late 2000 and early 2002, thanks to aggressive easing action from the Fed which took the Fed Funds target rate from 6.5% to 1.0%.

But it is important to remember that with currencies, it is all relative. If everyone is easing or everyone is tightening, then there shouldn’t be much in the way of relative currency movements. Thus, even though the Fed has spent most of the last seven years doing quantitative easing, the dollar hasn’t done much on net because everyone else is doing so as well. All currencies should be cheapening relative to real assets (and are, with respect to real estate, but not so much with commodities…for reasons that make little sense to me), but not relative to one another.

But recently, the dollar has outperformed because the investing community collectively perceived a divergence in monetary policies in the offing. While Japan and Europe have been ramping their QE higher, the Fed has ended its QE and at least some people expect them to raise rates soon. If it were to actually happen that money growth in Japan and Europe continued to accelerate while it slowed in the U.S., then it makes perfect sense that the dollar should appreciate. That is happening a little: the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows that in the most recent data, European M2 money growth exceeded US M2 money growth (as well as UK and Japan M2 money growth) for the first time since 2008. Look at that spike on the red line in the chart below!

themsOn the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be anything dramatic happening on that chart, with all growth rates between 3.5% and 6.1%. And, honestly, I think investors have it generally wrong in thinking that if the Fed hikes US interest rates, money growth should slow and overall monetary conditions should tighten. Quite the contrary: I believe that with enormous excess reserves in place, rising interest rates will only spur bank interest in lending, and money growth will not slow but may even increase. But in any event, dollars are not about to become more scarce. The Fed doesn’t need to do any more QE; the vast quantities of excess reserves act as a reservoir of future money.

I have been surprised by the dollar’s rally, but unless something changes in a more serious way I don’t expect the rally to end up resembling the two prior periods of extended dollar strength.

Categories: Dollar, ECB Tags:

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

May 22, 2015 2 comments

Here 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.

 

  • CPI Day! Exciting. The y/y for core will “drop off” +0.20% m/m from last yr, so to get core to 1.9% y/y takes +0.29 m/m this yr.
  • Consensus looks for a downtick in core to 1.7% y/y (rounding down) instead of the rounded-up 1.8% (actually 1.754%) last mo.
  • oohoooooo! Core +0.3% m/m. y/y stays at 1.8%. Checking rounding.
  • +0.256% m/m on core, so the 0.3% is mostly shock value. But y/y goes to 1.81%, no round-assist needed.
  • Headline was in line with expectations, -0.2% y/y. Big sigh of relief from dealers holding TIPS inventory left from the auction.
  • Core ex-shelter was +0.24%, biggest rise since Jan 2013. That’s important.
  • This really helps my speaking engagement next mo – a debate between pro & con inflation positions at Global Fixed Income Institute. :-)
  • More analysis coming. But Excel really hates it when you focus on another program while a big sheet is calculating…
  • It’s still core services doing all the heavy lifting. Core goods was -0.2% y/y (unch) while core services rose to 2.5% y/y.
  • Core services has been 2.4%-2.5% since August.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent rose to 2.77% y/y, highest since…well, a long time.
  • Thanks Excel for giving me my data back. As I said, OER was 2.77%, up from 2.69%. Primary rents frll to 3.47% from 3.53%.
  • Housing as a whole went to 2.20% y/y from 1.93%, which is huge. Some of that was household energy but ex-energy shelter was 2.67 vs 2.56
  • Or housing ex-shelter, ex-energy was 1.14% from 0.67%. Seems I am drilling a bit deep but getting housing right is very important.
  • Medical Care +2.91% from 2.46%. Big jump, but mostly repaying the inexplicable dip from Q1. Lot of this is new O’care seasonality.
  • Median is a bit of a wildcard this month. Looks like median category will be OER (South Urban), so it will depend on seasonal adj.
  • But best guess for median has been 0.2% for a while. Underlying inflation is and has been 2.0%-2.4% since 2011.
  • And reminder: it’s median that matters. Core will continue to converge upwards to it, (and I think median will go higher.)
  • None of this changes the Fed. They’re not going to hike rates for a long while. Growth is too weak and that’s all they care about.
  • For all the noise about the dual mandate, the Fed acts as if it only has one mandate: employment (which they can’t do anything about).
  • The next few monthly core figures to drop off are 0.23%, 0.14%, 0.10%, and 0.05%.
  • So, if we keep printing 0.22% on core, on the day of the Sep FOMC meeting core CPI will be 2.2% y/y, putting core PCE basically at tgt.
  • I think this is why FOMC doves have been musing about “symmetrical misses” and letting infl scoot a little higher.
  • US #Inflation mkt pricing: 2015 1.1%;2016 1.8%;then 1.8%, 2.0%, 2.0%, 2.1%, 2.2%, 2.3%, 2.4%, 2.5%, & 2025:2.4%.
  • For the record, that is the highest m/m print in core CPI since January 2008. It hasn’t printed a pure 0.3% or above since 2006.

 

There is no doubt that this is a stronger inflation print than the market expected. Although the 0.3% print was due to rounding (the first such print, though, since January 2013), the month/month core increase hasn’t been above 0.26% since January 2008 and it has been nearly a decade since 0.3% prints weren’t an oddity (see chart, source Bloomberg).

monthlycore

You can think of the CPI as being four roughly-equal pieces: Core goods, Core services ex-rents, Rents, and Food & Energy. Obviously, the first three represent Core CPI. The breakdown (source: BLS and Enduring Investments calculations) is shown below.

threecoreparts

Note that in the tweet-stream, I referred to core services being 2.4%-2.5% since August. With the chart above, you can see that this was because both pieces were pretty flat, but that the tame performance overall of core services was because services outside of rents was declining while rents were rising. But core services ex-rents appear to have flattened out, while housing indicators suggest higher rents are still ahead (Owners’ Equivalent Rent, the bigger piece, went to 2.77%, the highest since January 2008). Core goods, too, look to have flattened out and have probably bottomed.

So the basic story is getting simpler. Housing inflation continues apace, and the moderating effects on consumers’ pocketbooks (one-time medical care effects, e.g., which are now being erased with big premium hikes) are ebbing. This merely puts Core on a course to re-converge with Median. If core inflation were to stop when it got to median, the Fed would be very happy. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) supports the statement I made above, that median inflation has been between 2% and 2.4% since 2011. Incidentally, the chart is through March, but Median CPI was just released as I type this, at 2.2% y/y again.

median thru march

But that gentle convergence at the Fed target won’t happen. Unless the Federal Reserve acts rapidly and decisively, not to raise rates but to remove excess reserves from the banking system (and indeed, to keep rates and thereby velocity low while doing so, a mean trick indeed), inflation has but one way to go. Up. And there appears little risk that the Fed will act decisively in a hawkish fashion.

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