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The Neatest Idea Ever for Reducing the Fed’s Balance Sheet

September 19, 2018 7 comments

I mentioned a week and a half ago that I’d had a “really cool” idea that I had mentioned to a member of the Fed’s Open Market Desk, and I promised to write about it soon. “It’s an idea that would simultaneously be really helpful for investors and help the Fed reduce a balance sheet that they claim to be happy with but we all really know they wish they could reduce.” First, some background.

It is currently not possible to directly access any inflation index other than headline inflation (in any country that has inflation-linked bonds, aka ILBs). Yet, many of the concerns that people have do not involve general inflation, of the sort that describes increases in the cost of living and erodes real investment returns (hint – people should care, more than they do, about inflation), but about more precise exposures. For examples, many parents care greatly about the inflation in the price of college tuition, which is why we developed a college tuition inflation proxy hedge which S&P launched last year as the “S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index.” But so far, that’s really the only subcomponent you can easily access (or will, once someone launches an investment product tied to the index), and it is only an approximate hedge.

This lack has been apparent since literally the beginning. CPI inflation derivatives started trading in 2003 (I traded the first USCPI swap in the interbank broker market), and in February 2004 I gave a speech at a Barclays inflation conference promising that inflation components would be tradeable in five years.

I just didn’t say five years from when.

We’ve made little progress since then, although not for lack of trying. Wall Street can’t handle the “basis risks,” management of which are a bad use of capital for banks. Another possible approach involves mimicking the way that TIGRs (and CATS and LIONs), the precursors to the Treasury’s STRIPS program, allowed investors to access Treasury bonds in a zero coupon form even though the Treasury didn’t issue zero coupon bonds. With the TIGR program, Merrill Lynch would put normal Treasury bonds into a trust and then issue receipts that entitled the buyer to particular cash flows of that bond. The sum of all of the receipts equaled the bond, and the trust simply allowed Merrill to disperse the ownership of particular cash flows. In 1986, the Treasury wised up and realized that they could issue separate CUSIPs for each cash flow and make them naturally strippable, and TIGRs were no longer necessary.

A similar approach was used with CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations). A collection of corporate bonds was put into a trust[1], and certificates issued that entitled the buyer to the first X% of the cash flows, the next Y%, and so on until 100% of the cash flows were accounted for. Since the security at the top of the ‘waterfall’ got paid off first, it had a very good rating since even if some of the securities in the trust went bust, that wouldn’t affect the top tranche. The next tranche was lower-rated and higher-yielding, and so on. It turns out that with some (as it happens, somewhat heroic) assumptions about the lack of correlation of credit defaults, such a CDO would produce a very large AAA-rated piece, a somewhat smaller AA-rated piece, and only a small amount of sludge at the bottom.

So, in 2004 I thought “why don’t we do this for TIPS? Only the coupons would be tied to particular subcomponents. If I have 100% CPI, that’s really 42% housing, 3% Apparel, 9% Medical, and so on, adding up to 100%. We will call them ‘Barclays Real Accreting-Inflation Notes,’ or ‘BRAINs’, so that I can hear salespeople tell their clients that they need to get some BRAINs.” A chart of what that would look like appears below. Before reading onward, see if you can figure out why we never had BRAINs.

When I was discussing CDOs above, you may notice that the largest piece was the AAA piece, which was a really popular piece, and the sludge was a really small piece at the bottom. So the bank would find someone who would buy the sludge, and once they found someone who wanted that risk they could quickly put the rest of the structure together and sell the pieces that were in high-demand. But with BRAINs, the most valuable pieces were things like Education, and Medical Care…pretty small pieces, and the sludge was “Food and Beverages” or “Transportation” or, heaven forbid, “Other goods and services.” When you create this structure, you first need to find someone who wants to buy a bunch of big boring pieces so you can sell the small exciting pieces. That’s a lot harder. And if you don’t do that, the bank ends up holding Recreation inflation, and they don’t really enjoy eating BRAINs. Even the zombie banks.

Now we get to the really cool part.

So the Fed holds about $115.6 billion TIPS, along with trillions of other Treasury securities. And they really can’t sell these securities to reduce their balance sheet, because it would completely crater the market. Although the Fed makes brave noises about how they know they can sell these securities and it really wouldn’t hurt the market, they just have decided they don’t want to…we all know that’s baloney. The whole reason that no one really objected to QE2 and QE3 was that the Fed said it was only temporary, after all…

So here’s the idea. The Fed can’t sell $115bln of TIPS because it would crush the market. But they could easily sell $115bln of BRAINs (I guess Barclays wouldn’t be involved, which is sad, because the Fed as issuer makes this FRAINs, which makes no sense), and if they ended up holding “Other Goods and Services” would they really care? The basis risk that a bank hates is nothing to the Fed, and the Fed need hold no capital against the tracking error. But if they were able to distribute, say, 60% of these securities they would have shrunk the balance sheet by about $70 billion…and not only would this probably not affect the TIPS market – Apparel inflation isn’t really a good substitute for headline CPI – it would likely have the large positive effect of jump-starting a really important market: the market for inflation subcomponents.

And all I ask is a single basis point for the idea!


[1] This was eventually done through derivatives with no explicit trust needed…and I mean that in the totally ironic way that you could read it.

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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (September 2018)

September 13, 2018 4 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guyPV and get this in real time, by going to PremoSocial. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments or Enduring Intellectual Properties. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • Half hour to CPI. Early thoughts:
  • This is one of those months where, because they have different survey respondents, the consensus core CPI index number does not match up with the consensus core y/y number.
  • the index number implies 0.19% m/m rise in core. But we are rolling off 0.21% or so, and only barely ticked to a rounded 2.4% core CPI last month. Ergo, if we get that index number we’ll see a rounded 2.3% on core.
  • BUT the consensus core y/y is (according to Bloomberg) 2.4%. These can’t both be true except for different survey populations.
  • The weak PPI doesn’t really concern me. The components we care about, mainly health care, were not particularly weak. PPI is one of those numbers that’s all over the place. I showed this chart yesterday. Not a lot of signal through the noise.

  • But since we’re fighting over the Maginot line of 0.2%, it could well make a difference and cause a “surprise” downtick to 2.3% on core CPI this month. I think that is the whisper consensus, is an 0.1% or low 0.2% and a core number that drops slightly.
  • That would be another excuse for an equity rally although not sure whether bond guys would buy it.
  • If there’s an UPSIDE surprise, likely will come from core goods. Got all the way to flat last month, first time in a dog’s age. And this with the dollar generally strong.
  • Some are concerned about the jump in housing last mo, but that jump merely reversed the prior drop. Don’t expect re-deceleration. Home prices remain sturdy, and wage increases are starting to provide better support to household formation and therefore, housing demand.
  • As usual keep an eye on cars as an element of core goods. Last month the y/y rose to 0.84%, finally starting to reflect some of the strength of private surveys. Will it continue?
  • Pharma is also in core goods, and it dropped precipitously last month & probably will bounce. But it has been weakening generally for a while now. Even if that trend is valid, it got ahead of itself I think.
  • So, there ARE some upside risks too. Trying to see through all of that, I will be looking at core-ex-housing, which got to 1.5% last month – hasn’t been a lot higher than that in a long time.
  • But the real bottom line is this: inflation is accelerating globally and we’re seeing lots of signs of that. Core might tick down on a y/y basis today – if it doesn’t, that’s pretty bullish. But it’s going to be going higher.
  • That’s all for now…more in about 22 minutes!
  • Ouch! Soft number. 0.1% m/m on core, 2.2% on y/y.
  • 08% m/m on core.

  • 19% on core y/y. Wasn’t even a round-down. Waiting on components.
  • I gotta say, the slow-rolling of the components is starting to get ridiculous. It used to be they came out at 8:30 like everything else. It’s 8:35 and the BLS still hasn’t posted the files. Which means Bloomberg also doesn’t have them.
  • Well, they still don’t have all the data on Bloomberg but I’m pulling the BLS figures. There was a sharp drop in Apparel, -1.6% m/m, which makes little sense in a world of tariffs.
  • The big effect was a large decline in owners’ equivalent rent to 3.33% from 3.39%, which is questionable. Primary rents down slightly.
  • Also decelerations in doctors’ services and hospital services, to 0.31% from 0.64% and to 4.17% from 4.59%, respectively. Pharma didn’t bounce; it fell further to 0.77% from 0.92%.
  • Consequence of OER, doctors/hospital services is that core services inflation dropped from 3.1% to 3.0% y/y. Core goods, thanks to Apparel, fell to -0.2% from 0.0%.
  • Core goods declined even though Used Cars rose to 1.25% y/y vs 0.84% last month. Well, that’s something.
  • Boys’ apparel y/y went to -3.43% from +4.11%. All apparel decelerated (not boys & girls or men’s footwear, but everything else), but boys’ fell the most. That’s likely a seasonal effect due to placement of Labor Day and hence start of school.
  • Yeah, so here’s apparel. Evidently plunging! As a reminder we import virtually all apparel. Looking at this it’s less obviously “transitory”, but also not obvious what’s going on. With trade wars it’s simply the wrong direction.

  • Core ex-housing decelerated to 1.34% vs 1.50% last month. Not a huge move, actually, and tells you how much of this was the deceleration in OER.
  • In the grand scheme of things, OER is just hugging the model. I don’t see any reason to expect it to suddenly drop but leveling off was in the cards.

  • I mentioned the rise in used cars. New cars didn’t do much, 0.30% from 0.23%.
  • Here’s the drop in professional services (doctors). No trade effect here.

  • Tuition and fees is starting to re-accelerate…2.77% vs 2.15% y/y
  • FWIW, Median will be soft too but not THAT soft. 0.14%-0.17% depending on where OER-South Urban falls on a seasonally-adjusted basis.
  • I’m a little torn on what to think of this report. Obviously some parts are just nonsense, like the apparel bit. The OER was large for one month but not wholly unexpected. Medical Care continues to be a conundrum. Autos are finally doing what they’re supposed to do.
  • I guess my gut feeling is that aside from apparel, this is a fairly normal report and shouldn’t really change your opinion one way or the other. The 0.2% drop in the rounded core CPI was big, but it was a tougher comp.
  • Annualized 3-month core CPI is at 2% – kinda where it has been.

  • Let’s look at the four-pieces charts and see if that sways me. Food & Energy:

  • Piece 2, core goods. I don’t think this setback is serious. A lot of it is apparel and, outside of apparel, this is doing well. Pharmaceuticals are a little weak. But cars are strong. I suspect this reverses next month.

  • Piece 3, core services less shelter. Again, a little dip here on softness in medical care services, but nothing alarming to the bullish case yet.

  • Piece 4, rent of shelter. Down this month, and clearly flattening out, but that’s what we expected.

  • In sum, I think those pictures say that this was a widespread, but fairly shallow dip. It was a tough comp versus year ago. The left tail is getting heavy again, but the median isn’t moving much.

  • weight above 3%

  • Next month, the m/m dropping off is only 0.13%, so core will pop back up again especially if any of these factors reverse. Could easily get back to 2.4% although 2.3% should be the expectation. Month after that the comp is 0.21%, and then 0.12%, and then it gets tougher.
  • So this month was the lowest m/m core in a long time, but no sign of any sea change – unless Apparel is telling us that trade wars lower prices for consumers, in which case let’s do more of that!
  • It is somewhat soothing after signs last month that the trend was not only rising (higher inflation) but accelerating (rising at an increasing rate) past the prior trend.
  • But the signs from wages (which admittedly lag), the UIG, and the underlying components is that we’re not out of the woods yet. But have a relaxed month chasing stocks higher on more-dovish fed talk! This also fits into the positive bond market seasonal from Sept-Nov.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in.

To bottom-line it: this was a soft number with some one-offs but, with the exception of the Apparel miss – and that’s just highly unlikely to be real – it seems to be broad and slightly soft, rather than narrower with things that look like potential changes in macro trends. Housing does not look poised to collapse while unemployment and wages are pointing in the right direction, and medical care isn’t going to (probably) move into outright deflation. It’s already the slowest in a couple of generations (see chart, source Bloomberg).

I think this number will make the Fed feel better, and make investors feel better, and people who don’t take the time to peel the onion might think that the Fed has won, can stop tightening, and we can just expand the economy without price pressures or any price implications from trade. That’s almost certainly wrong, but this is a good number for the market and I totally expect talking Fed heads to be sounding even more dovish than they were.

Categories: Tweet Summary

Inflation-Related Impressions from Recent Events

September 10, 2018 2 comments

It has been a long time since I’ve posted, and in the meantime the topics to cover have been stacking up. My lack of writing has certainly not been for lack of topics but rather for a lack of time. So: heartfelt apologies that this article will feel a lot like a brain dump.

A lot of what I want to write about today was provoked/involves last week. But one item I wanted to quickly point out is more stale than that and yet worth pointing out. It seems astounding, but in early August Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare reported the largest nominal wage increase in 1997. (See chart, source Bloomberg). This month there was a correction, but the trend does appear firmly upward. This is a good point for me to add the reminder that wages tend to follow inflation rather than lead it. But I believe Japanese JGBis are a tremendous long-tail opportunity, priced with almost no inflation implied in the price…but if there is any developed country with a potential long-tail inflation outcome that’s possible, it is Japan. I think, in fact, that if you asked me to pick one developed country that would be the first to have “uncomfortable” levels of inflation, it would be Japan. So dramatically out-of-consensus numbers like these wage figures ought to be filed away mentally.

While readers are still reeling from the fact that I just said that Japan is going to be the first country that has uncomfortable inflation, let me talk about last week. I had four inflation-related appearances on the holiday-shortened week (! is that an indicator? A contrary indicator?), but two that I want to take special note of. The first of these was a segment on Bloomberg in which we talked about how to hedge college tuition inflation and about the S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index (which my company Enduring Investments designed). I think the opportunity to hedge this specific risk, and to create products that help people hedge their exposure to higher tuition costs, is hugely important and my company continues to work to figure out the best way and the best partner with whom to deploy such an investment product. The Bloomberg piece is a very good segment.

I spent most of Wednesday at the Real Return XII conference organized by Euromoney Conferences (who also published one of my articles about real assets, in a nice glossy form). I think this is the longest continually-running inflation conference in the US and it’s always nice to see old friends from the inflation world. Here are a couple of quick impressions from the conference:

  • There were a couple of large hedge funds in attendance. But they seem to be looking at the inflation markets as a place they can make macro bets, not one where they can take advantage of the massive mispricings. That’s good news for the rest of us.
  • St. Louis Fed President James Bullard gave a speech about the outlook for inflation. What really stood out for me is that he, and the Fed in general, put enormous faith in market signals. The fact that inflation breakevens haven’t broken to new highs recently carried a lot of weight with Dr. Bullard, for example. I find it incredible that the Fed is actually looking to fixed-income markets for information – the same fixed-income markets that have been completely polluted by the Fed’s dominating of the float. In what way are breakevens being established in a free market when the Treasury owns trillions of the bonds??
  • Bullard is much more concerned about recession than inflation. The fact that they can both occur simultaneously is not something that carries any weight at the Fed – their models simply can’t produce such an outcome. Oddly, on the same day Neel Kashkari said in an interview “We say that we have a symmetric view of inflation. We don’t mind if it’s 2.1 or 1.9, but in our practice, in what we actually do, we are much more worried about high inflation than we are low inflation. And I think that that is the scar from the 1970s.” That’s ludicrous, by the way – there is no way in the world that the Fed would have done the second and third QEs, with the recession far in the rear view mirror, if the Fed was more concerned with high inflation. Certainly, Bullard showed no signs of even the slightest concern that inflation would poke much above 2%, much less 3%.
  • In general, the economists at the conference – remember, this is a conference for people involved in inflation markets – were uniform in their expectation that inflation is going nowhere fast. I heard demographics blamed (although current demographics, indicating a leftward shift of the supply curve, are actually inflationary it is a point of faith among some economists that inflation drops when the number of workers declines. It’s actually a Marxist view of the economic cycle but I don’t think they see it that way). I heard technology blamed, even though there’s nothing particularly modern about technological advance. Economists speaking at the conference were of the opinion that the current trade war would cause a one-time increase in inflation of between 0.2%-0.4% (depending on who was speaking), which would then pass out of the data, and thought the bigger effect was recessionary and would push inflation lower. Where did these people learn economics? “Comparative advantage” and the gain from trade is, I suppose, somewhat new…some guy named David Ricardo more than two centuries ago developed the idea, if I recall correctly…so perhaps they don’t understand that the loss from trade is a real thing, and not just a growth thing. Finally, a phrase I heard several times was “the Fed will not let inflation get out of hand.” This platitude was uttered without any apparent irony deriving from the fact that the Fed has been trying to push inflation up for a decade and has been unable to do so, but the speakers are assuming the same Fed can make inflation stick at the target like an arrow quivering in the bullseye once it reaches the target as if fired by some dead-eye monetary Robin Hood. Um, maybe.
  • I marveled at the apparent unanimity of this conclusion despite the fact that these economists were surely employing different models. But then I think I hit on the reason why. If you built any economic model in the last two decades, a key characteristic of the model had to be that it predicted inflation would be very low and very stable no matter what other characteristics it had. If it had that prediction as an output, then it perfectly predicted the last quarter-century. It’s like designing a technical trading model: if you design one that had you ‘out’ of the 1987 stock market crash, even if it was because of the phase of the moon or the number of times the word “chocolate” appeared in the New York Times, then your trading model looks better than one that doesn’t include that “factor.” I think all mainstream economists today are using models that have essentially been trained on dimensionless inflation data. That doesn’t make them good – it means they have almost no predictive power when it comes to inflation.

This article is already getting long, so I am going to leave out for now the idea I mentioned to someone who works for the Fed’s Open Market Desk. But it’s really cool and I’ll write about it at some point soon. It’s an idea that would simultaneously be really helpful for investors and help the Fed reduce a balance sheet that they claim to be happy with but we all really know they wish they could reduce.

So I’ll move past last week and close with one final off-the-wall observation. I was poking around in Chinese commodity futures markets today because someone asked me to design a trading strategy for them (don’t ask). I didn’t even know there was such a thing as PVC futures! And Hot Rolled Coils! But one chart really struck me:

This is a chart of PTA, or Purified Terephthalic Acid. What the heck is that? PTA is an organic commodity chemical, mainly used to make polyester PET, which is in turn used to make clothing and plastic bottles. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Here’s what else I don’t know: I don’t know why the price of PTA rose 50% in less than two months. And I don’t know whether it is used in large enough quantities to affect the end price of apparel or plastic bottles. But it’s a pretty interesting chart, and something to file away just in case we start to see something odd in apparel prices.

Let me conclude by apologizing again for the disjointed nature of this article. But I feel better for having burped some of these thoughts out there and I hope you enjoyed the burp as well.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2018)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guyPV and get this in real time, by going to PremoSocial. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments or Enduring Intellectual Properties. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • half hour to CPI. Welcome again to the private channel. Tell your friends!
  • Another easy comp (0.143%) versus year ago. August 2017 was +0.222%, Sep was 0.132%, Oct was 0.214%, and Nov was 0.121%. So we still have some easy comps ahead although not easy as they were. That means core should keep rising, although slower than over the last 6 mo.
  • Pretty safe economist estimate for 0.2% on core and for y/y to stay 2.3% rounded. As long as m/m core is 0.162%-0.259%, y/y will stay in that range.
  • Rents have been leveling out recently, and not providing as much upward oomph. That passes the baton to core goods and more generally to core ex-shelter.
  • Ironically, even though core goods started to accelerate before any sign of tariffs, investors I think might “look through” inflation like that, which they can explain away by saying “ha ha tariffs trump ha ha.”
  • One other item – I will be especially attentive to Median CPI this month, which jumped to 2.80% y/y last month. That looks a little like an acceleration past the prior trend (meaning 2013-2015), well past merely erasing the 2016-17 dip.
  • I should note that this month’s CPI report is being brought to you from sunny Curacao! Only 20 minutes to the number.
  • Well, 0.23% on core CPI was a bit higher than expected, but oddly got a tick higher in the y/y to 2.354%, rounding up to 2.4%. The SA y/y is still 2.3%, but NSA is 2.4%. This happens from time to time because seasonal factors change year to year.
  • Last 12 Rorschach test.

  • CPI – Used Cars and Trucks +1.31% m/m, pushing y/y to 0.84% y/y FINALLY. Private surveys have been saying this for a while.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent +0.29% (3.395% y/y), up from 3.37%, and primary rents +0.32% to 3.628%, up from 3.58% last month. Lodging away from home +0.4% m/m after -3.7% last month, so some give-back.
  • Core goods back to 0% y/y, first time in 5 years it has been out of deflation!
  • A fair amount of that is cars.

  • But not all is upbeat. Interestingly core services was steady at 3.1% even though Medical Care was weak across the board. Overall Med Care -0.2% m/m, making y/y 1.91% vs 2.45% last month. Pharma -0.96% m/m, 0.92% y/y vs 3.19% last month. Doctors svcs -0.17%/0.64% vs 0.86%
  • …and hospital services 0.36% m/m, 4.59% y/y, vs 4.74% last month.
  • used car chart update.

  • Not much market reaction. It is after all August. 10y breakevens up about 0.5bps from just before the figure. I think for the “look through the number” people the jump in cars is going to scream “steel tariffs” even though I think it’s more.
  • New cars y/y.

  • core ex-shelter now at 1.50%, the highest in 2 years. Inflation isn’t just in housing any more.
  • Biggest m/m declines were two apparel categories (which move around a lot) and Medical Care Commodities. Biggest gainers Public Transport, Car/Truck Rental, Jewelry/Watches, Fresh Fruits/Veggies, and Used Cars & Trucks.
  • My estimate of Median CPI is 0.224%, pushing y/y to 2.84%. Getting perilously close to 3%!
  • Four pieces: food & energy

  • Core goods – it has been a long time since core goods was meaningfully above 0%. It will happen.

 

  • Core services less Rent of Shelter. This is interesting because Medical Care Services is a big part of this and it was weak. But Core Services didn’t soften.

  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter. Stable, high. No real chance for this to substantially slow in the near term.

 

  • I think we’ll stop there for today. All in all an interesting report as core goods is starting to show some worrying strength and core inflation outside of shelter is now getting perky too.

Really, the only important softness in this report was medical care. A lot of that was pharmaceuticals (which is in core goods), and yet core goods still accelerated to flat for the last year. But the core services part of medical care also decelerated, and core services overall didn’t drop. The weakness in medical care matters because PCE – which the Fed uses as its benchmark – exaggerates the importance of medical care so this trend will tend to keep core PCE lower relative to core CPI, and help the Fed believe they are not “behind the curve.” Yet, there are some signs that even dovish FRB members are not wholly on board with that any longer; nor should they be. For a long time, shelter has been the driving force pushing core inflation higher but that is no longer the case. The rise in core-ex-shelter to 1.5%, and the fact that core goods is about to lurch into positive territory, are both contributing to the broadening inflation trend. We see this in median inflation, which should rise again to a further post-crisis high when it is reported in a few hours.

We alternate between modest comps and easy comps for the next few months – but no really difficult comps. Measured inflation should continue to accelerate for the balance of 2018 and make the Fed’s obsession with core PCE increasingly indefensible.

Alternative Risk Premia in Inflation Markets

July 25, 2018 1 comment

I’m going to wade into the question of ‘alternative risk premia’ today, and discuss how this applies to markets where I ply my trade.

When people talk about ‘alternative risk premia,’ they mean one of two things. They’re sort of the same thing, but the former meaning is more precise.

  1. A security’s return consists of market beta (whatever that means – it is a little more complex than it sounds) and ‘alpha’, which is the return not explained by the market beta. If rx is the security return and rm is the market return, classically alpha isThe problem is that most of that ‘alpha’ isn’t really alpha but results from model under-specification. For example, thanks to Fama and French we have known for a long time that small cap stocks tend to add “extra” return that is not explained by their betas. But that isn’t alpha – it is a beta exposure to another factor that wasn’t in the original model. Ergo, if “SMB” is how we designate the performance of small stocks minus big stocks, a better model isWell, obviously it doesn’t stop there. But the ‘alpha’ that you find for your strategy/investments depends critically on what model you’re using and which factors – aka “alternative risk premia” – you’re including. At some level, we don’t really know whether alpha really exists, or whether systematic alpha just means that we haven’t identified all of the factors. But these days it is de rigeur to say “let’s pay very little in fees for market beta; pay small fees for easy-to-access risk premia that we proactively decide to add to the portfolio (overweighting value stocks, for example), pay higher fees for harder-to-access risk premia that we want, and pay a lot in fees for true alpha…but we don’t really think that exists.” Of course, in other people’s mouths (mostly marketers) “alternative risk premia that you should add to your portfolio” just means…
  2. Whatever secret sauce we’re peddling, which provides returns you can’t get elsewhere.

So there’s nothing really mysterious about the search for ‘alternative risk premia’, and they’re not at all new. Yesteryear’s search for alpha is the same as today’s search for ‘alternative risk premia’, but the manager who wants to earn a high fee needs to explain why he can add actual alpha over not just the market beta, but the explainable ‘alternative risk premia’. If your long-short equity fund is basically long small cap stocks and short a beta-weighted amount of large-cap stocks, you’re probably not going to get paid much.

For many years, I’ve been using the following schematic to explain why certain sources of alpha are more or less valuable than others. The question comes down to the source of alpha, after you have stripped out the explainable ‘alternative risk premia’.

As an investor, you want to figure out where this manager’s skill is coming from: is it from theoretical errors, such as when some guys in Chicago discovered that the bond futures contract price did not incorporate the value of delivery options that accrued to the contract short, and harvested alpha for the better part of two decades before that opportunity closed? Or is it because Joe the trader is really a great trader and just has the market’s number? You want more of the former, which have high information ratios, are very persistent…but don’t come around that much. You shouldn’t be very confident in the latter, which seem to be all over the place but don’t tend to last very long and are really hard to prove. (I’ve been waiting for a long time to see the approach to fees suggested here in a 2008 Financial Analysts’ Journal article implemented.)

I care about this distinction because in the markets I traffic in, there are significant dislocations and some big honking theoretical errors that appear from time to time. I should hasten to say that in what follows, I will mention some results for strategies that we have designed at Enduring Intellectual Properties and/or manage via Enduring Investments, but this article should not be construed as an offer to sell any security or fund nor a solicitation of an offer to buy any security or fund.

  • Let’s start with something very simple. Here is a chart of the first-derivative of the CPI swaps curve – that is, the one-year inflation swap, x-years forward (so a 1y, 1y forward; a 1y, 2y forward; a 1y, 3y forward, and so on). In developed markets like LIBOR, not only is the curve itself smooth but the forwards derived from that curve are also smooth. But this is not the case with CPI swaps.[1]

  • I’ve also documented in this column from time to time the fact that inflation markets exaggerate the importance of near-term carry, so that big rallies in energy prices not only affect near-term breakevens and inflation swaps but also long-dated breakevens and inflation swaps, even though energy prices are largely mean-reverting.
  • We’ve in the past (although not in this column) identified times when the implied volatility of core inflation was actually larger than the implied volatility of nominal rates…which outcome, while possible, is pretty unlikely.
  • Back in 2009, we spoke to investors about the fact that corporate inflation bonds (which are structured very differently than TIPS and so are hard to analyze) were so cheap that for a while you could assemble a portfolio of these bonds, hedge out the credit, and still realize a CPI+5% yield at time when similar-maturity TIPS were yielding CPI+1%.
  • One of my favorite arbs available to retail investors was in 2012, when I-series savings bonds from the US Treasury sported yields nearly 2% above what was available to institutional investors in TIPS.

But aside from one-off trades, there are also systematic strategies. If a systematic strategy can be designed that produces excess returns both in- and out- of sample, it is at least worth asking whether there’s ‘alpha’ (or undiscovered/unexploited ‘alternative risk premia’) here. All three of the strategies below use only liquid markets – the first one, only commodity futures; the second one, only global sovereign inflation bonds; and the third one, only US TIPS and US nominal Treasuries. The first two are ‘long only’ strategies that systematically rebalance monthly and choose from the same securities that appear in the benchmark comparison. (Beyond that, this public post obviously needs to keep methods undisclosed!). And also, please note that past results are no indication of future returns! I am trying to make the general point that there are interesting risk factors/alphas here, and not the specific point about these strategies per se.

  • Our Enduring Dynamic Commodity Index is illustrated below. It’s more volatile, but not lots more volatile: 17.3% standard deviation compared to 16.1% for the Bloomberg Commodity Index.

That’s the most-impressive looking chart, but that’s because it represents commodity markets that have lots of volatility and, therefore, offer lots of opportunities.

  • Our Global Inflation Bond strategy is unlevered and uses only the bonds that are included in the Bloomberg-Barclays Global ILB index. It limits the allowable overweights on smaller markets so that it isn’t a “small market” effect that we are capturing here. According to the theory that drives the model, a significant part of any country’s domestic inflation is sourced globally and therefore not all of the price behavior of any given market is relevant to the cross-border decision. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

  • Finally, here is a simple strategy that is derived from a very simple model of the relationship between real and nominal Treasuries to conclude whether TIPS are appropriately priced. The performance is not outlandish, and there’s a 20% decline in the data, but there’s also only one strategy highlighted here – and it beats the HFR Global Hedge Fund Index.

I come not to bury other strategies but to praise them. There are good strategies in various markets that deliver ‘alternative risk premia’ in the first sense enumerated above, and it is a good thing that investors are extending their understanding beyond conventional beta as they assemble portfolios. I believe that there are also strategies in various markets which deliver ‘alternative risk premia’ that are harder to access because they require rarer expertise. Finally, I believe that there are strategies – but these are very rare, and getting rarer – which deliver true alpha that derives from theoretical errors or systematic imbalances. I think that as a source of a relatively unexploited ‘alternative risk premium’ and a potential source of unique alphas, the inflation and commodity markets still contain quite a few useful nuggets.


[1] I am not necessarily claiming that this can be exploited easily right now, but the curve has had such imperfections for more than a decade – and sometimes, it’s exploitable.

Categories: Good One, Investing, Theory, TIPS Tags:

The Important Trade Effects Are Longer-Term

The question about the impact of trade wars is really two questions, and I suppose they get conflated a lot these days. First, there’s the near-term market impact; second is the longer-term price/growth impact.

The near-term market impact is interesting. When the market is in a bad mood (forgive the anthropomorphization), then trade frictions are simply an excuse to sell – both stocks and bonds, but mostly stocks. When the market is feeling cheerful, and especially around earnings season, trade wars get interpreted as having very narrow effects on certain companies and consequently there is no large market impact. That is what seems to have happened over the last few weeks – although trade conflicts are escalating and having very concentrated effects in some cases (including on markets, such as in commodities, where they really oughtn’t), it hasn’t dampened the mood of the overall market.

In fact, the risk in these circumstances is that a “happy” market will take any sign of a reduction in these tensions as broadly bullish. So you get concentrated selloffs in single names that don’t affect the market as a whole, and when there’s any sign of thawing you see a sharp market rally. We saw a bit of that in the last day or so as Mexico’s President-elect and US President Trump both expressed optimism about a ‘quick’ NAFTA deal. Honestly, the broad market risk to trade in the near-term is probably upwards, since any increase in tensions will have a minor and concentrated effect while any thawing (especially with China) at all will cause a rally.

But beware in case the mood changes!

As an inflation guy, I’m far more interested in the longer-term impact. And there, the impact is unambiguous and bad. I’ve written about this in the past, in detail (see this article, which is probably my best on the subject and first appeared in our private quarterly), but the salient point is that you don’t need a trade war to get worse inflation outcomes than we have seen in the last 20 years. You only need for progress on advancing global trade to stop. And it seems as though it has.

Not all of the forces pressing on inflation right now are bullish, although most are. Apartment rents have slowed their ascent, and the delayed effect of the dollar’s rally will have a dampening effect next year (arrayed against that, however, are the specific effects of tariffs on particular goods) although globally, FX movements are roughly zero-sum in terms of global inflation. Money growth has slowed, to levels that would tend to contain inflation if velocity were also to remain stable at all-time lows. But velocity recently started to uptick (we will find out on Friday if this uptick continued in Q2) and as interest rates gradually increase around the globe money velocity should also quicken. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows our proprietary model for money velocity.

At this point, trade is pushing inflation higher in two ways. The first is that arresting the multi-decade trend towards more-open markets and more-numerous trade agreements fundamentally changes the inflation/growth tradeoff that central banks globally will face. Rather than having a following wind that made monetary policy relatively simple (although policymakers still found a way to louse it up, potentially beyond repair, largely as a result of believing their own fables about the powerful role that central banks played in saving the world first from inflation, and then from deflation), there will be a headwind that will make monetary much more difficult – more like the 1960s and 1970s than the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The second way that trade conflict is pushing inflation higher is mechanical, by causing higher prices of recorded goods as a direct result of tariff implementation.

But this second way, while it gets all the ink and causes near-term knee-jerk effects in markets, is much less important in the long run.

Gold Has Barely Beaten Inflation, and That’s About Right

July 19, 2018 1 comment

Okay: I’ve checked my door locks, made sure my kids are safe, and braced myself for the inevitable incendiary incoming comments. So, I feel secure in pointing this out:

Gold’s real return for the last 10 years has been a blistering 1.07% per year. And worse, that’s higher than you ought to expect for the next 10 years.

Here’s the math. Gold on July 19, 2008 was at $955. Today it is at $1223, for a gain of 28.1%. But the overall price level (CPI) was at 218.815 in June 2008, and at 251.989 in June 2018 (we won’t get July figures for another month so this is the best we can do at the moment), for a 15.2% rise in the overall price level.

1.07% = [(1+28.1%) / (1 + 15.2%)] ^ 0.1 – 1

It might be even worse than that. Gold bugs are fond of telling me how the CPI is manipulated and there’s really so much more inflation than that; if that’s so, then the real return is obviously much worse than the calculation above implies.

Now, this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. You start with a pile of real stuff, which doesn’t grow or shrink for ten years…your real return is, at least in units of that real stuff, precisely 0%. And that’s what we should expect, in the very long run, from the holding of any non-productive real asset like a hard commodity. (If you hold gold via futures, then you also earn a collateral return of course. And if you hold warehouse receipts for physical gold, in principle you can earn lease income. But the metal itself has an a priori expected real return of zero). Indeed, some people argue that gold should be the measuring stick, in which case it isn’t gold which is changing price but rather the dollar. In that case, it’s really obvious that the real return is zero because the price of gold (in units of gold) is always 1.0.

So, while everyone has been obsessing recently about the surprisingly poor performance of gold, the reality is that over the longer time horizon, it has done about what it is supposed to do.

That’s actually a little bit of a coincidence, deriving from the fact that at $955 ten years ago, gold was reasonably near the fair price. Since then, gold prices soared and became very expensive, and now are sagging and getting cheaper. However, on my model gold prices are still too high to expect positive expected returns over the next decade (see chart, source Enduring Intellectual Properties).

The ‘expected return’ here is derived from a (nonlinear) regression of historical real prices against subsequent real returns. To be sure, because this is a market that is subject to immense speculative pressure both in the bull phases and in the bear phases, gold moves around with a lot more volatility than the price level does; consequently, it swings over time from being very undervalued (1998-2001) to wildly overvalued (2011-2013). I wouldn’t ever use this model to day-trade gold! However, it’s a useful model when deciding whether gold should have a small, middling, or large position in your portfolio. And currently, despite the selloff, the model suggests a small position: gold is much more likely to rise by less than the price level over the next decade, and possibly significantly less as in the 1980-1990 period (although I’d say probably not that bad).


DISCLOSURE: Quantitative/systematic funds managed by Enduring Investments have short positions in gold, silver, and platinum this month.

Categories: Commodities, Gold, Investing
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