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Money Illusion and Boiling Frogs

March 23, 2021 6 comments

“Twice a day we are all forced to await the quotation of the Zurich bourse. Every fresh drop in its value [of Austrian kronen to Swiss franc) is followed by a wave of rising prices … The confidence of Austrian citizens in the currency administration of the State is shaken to its foundation. The State which is perpetually printing new banknotes deceives us with the face value … A housewife who has had no experience of the horrors of currency depreciation has no idea what a blessing stable money is, and how glorious it is to be able to buy with the note in one’s purse the article one had intended to buy at the price one had intended to pay.” – account of Frau Eisenmenger, recounted in When Money Dies (Adam Fergusson).

“Speculation on the stock exchange has spread to all ranks of the population and shares rise like air balloons to limitless heights … My banker congratulates me on every new rise, but he does not dispel the secret uneasiness which my growing wealth arouses in me … it already amounts to millions.” – Ibid.

These two passages come from the contemporaneous observations of an Austrian living through the early stages of the hyperinflation that followed WWI in that country. I don’t for a minute mean to suggest that the global economies are on the verge of hyperinflation, but I present these as an apt illustration of a concept called money illusion. In the first passage, the writer makes plain that the kronen is buying less and less, in terms of real goods, every day. Similarly, it buys less and less in terms of equity shares. The former, we tend to regard as a negative, and the latter as a positive, even though they are both related in this case to the same phenomenon: the unit of measurement is losing its value, so that it buys less real stuff as time passes. Isn’t that interesting? For someone who is continually investing in the equity market – I’m looking at you, millennials – higher prices should strike us as a bad thing just as higher car prices strike us as a bad thing.

I don’t mention that, though, to suggest that equities are a great place to hide out from inflation. In fact, they’re a pretty lousy place: as inflation rises the multiple paid on earnings declines so that even if nominal earnings are rising with inflation equity market prices can’t keep up. That’s not as bad as holding paper money and watching it go to zero, but it ends up being about the same when the inflation gets serious enough that the market itself collapses – as it did in each example of monetary hyperinflation (Germany, Austria, Zimbabwe, etc) that we have seen to date. But again, it isn’t my purpose today to warn about the dangers of treating equities like real assets when multiples are at nosebleed highs.

The interesting part is the money illusion. The writer in the passages above is uneasy, because while she is making millions she understands that those millions are losing value almost as fast (and ultimately, faster) than she can make them. But for a while the higher and higher prints of the market, the rising value of one’s home, and the accelerating increase in wages makes people feel wealthier. And wealthier people are happier and tend to spend more of the marginal wealth, when that wealth is real. But in this case the wealth is an illusion, because that additional wealth buys (at best) the same amount it did previously.

In classical economics, we would call spending more in this circumstance – despite having a similar claim to wealth in real terms – irrational. Although we use dollars to translate our labor into the things we want to buy, we all understand that we are really trading our labor for those things – it’s just that we need a medium of exchange because no one wants to directly exchange groceries for inflation-focused asset management services. More’s the pity. So homo economicus would regard his increasing millions in the market and not feel any wealthier as he knows the units of account are growing weaker. The money dropped into his bank account through a universal direct stimulus also wouldn’t be treated as actual wealth, since if we handed everyone a trillion dollars then obviously we all wouldn’t be living like trillionaires because the people who sell goods and services would adjust their prices (if they did not, then those vendors are voluntarily decreasing their own claim to the real wealth, by accepting smaller real payments in return for the same amount of goods). Wealth is just a claim on the national product. If everybody’s nominal wealth rises, but the nation is not able to produce more units of real output, then in aggregate we clearly are not wealthier because the pie is the same size. (Now, if you hand everyone a trillion dollars except for one guy, then that guy is poorer and everyone else slightly richer. Ergo, direct cash payments to the poor are clearly a way to distribute actual wealth, especially if those who don’t receive those payments also face higher taxes. So fiscal policy here definitely shuffles the deck of the wealthy. It just doesn’t make us wealthier in aggregate.)

The question of how people behave when they see additional income that comes from a greater money supply, rather than from additional productivity/output, is crucially important in monetarism. In the quantity equation of exchange, MV≡PQ, an increase in the quantity of money and in the velocity of money (MV), which is the total nominal amount of expenditures, necessarily equals the real output times the price level of that output (PQ). The amount that is spent equals the amount that is bought. But how the right side divides between P and Q is very, very important. If there is no money illusion, then an increase in the quantity of money will primarily increase prices while output will remain stable. Shopkeepers are unwilling to part with their wares for a smaller piece of the pie in real terms. On the other hand, if money illusion is rife then producers respond to consumers flush with cash by providing as many goods and services as they can; they view the masses as having more actual wealth to spend and so output increases and prices don’t rise as much.

Unfortunately, it seems that money illusion operates primarily when the quantities involved are small, or narrowly distributed. When incremental money creation is widely distributed and significant in size, then (as the second quote at the start of this article suggests) consumers, suppliers, and investors eventually figure it out. When that happens, a change in M is almost fully reflected in a change in P, as over time it usually is anyway. So the secret of recovering from a negative economic shock by expansionary monetary policy is to boil the frog slowly.

No one involved in current policy circles is interested in boiling the frog slowly. And that means it’s not going to end well.

In this context, the current bubbly stock market looks decidedly better. The chart below shows the S&P 500 divided by M2 (and multiplied by 100 because sometimes I don’t like looking at decimals on my y-axis). Now, the S&P 500 level isn’t the purest look at the total value of the equity market, but you get the general idea here – stocks have outrun the growth rate in the money supply, even over the last year, but the new records we are hitting are mostly on money vapor.

Average-Inflation Targeting, In a Nutshell

August 26, 2020 1 comment

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

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

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

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

That is all.

Trust Masters, not Models

June 25, 2020 4 comments

Normally, when I write about markets, I try to point at models but there is a lot of guesswork and gut-work in analysis. When times are sort of normal, then models can be a big part of what drives your thinking. But times have not been ‘normal’ for a very long time, and this is part of what drives big policy errors (and big forecasting errors): if you are out of the ‘normal’ range, then to make a forecast or comment usefully on what is going on you need to have a good feel for what the model is actually trying to capture. You need to know where the model goes wrong.

When I was a rates options trader – stop me if I’ve told this story before – I found that I preferred to use a simple Black-Scholes pricing model instead of some fancy recombining-trinomial-tree-with-heteroskedastic-volatility-model. That was because even though Black Scholes doesn’t match up super well with reality, I at least had a good feel for where it fell short. For example, the whole reason we have a volatility smile is because real-world returns have fat tails, but pricing models like Black Scholes are based on the normal distribution. When the smile flattens, it means returns are becoming more like they’re being drawn from a normal distribution; when it steepens it means that the tails are becoming fatter. So that’s easy to understand.

If you understand why an option model works, then it’s easier to think about how to price something esoteric like an option on an inflation swap (which can trade at a negative rate, but actually isn’t a rates product at all but rather is a way of trading a forward price), and not mess it up. But if you just apply and try to calibrate a bad model – especially if it’s really complicated – then you get potentially really bad outcomes. And that is, of course, exactly where we are today.

We haven’t been ‘normal’, I guess, for a couple of decades. Central banks, and in particular the Federal Reserve, have dealt in the markets with a heavier and heavier hand. Nowadays, the Fed not only has expanded its balance sheet by trillions in a very short period of time, but it has expanded the range of markets it is involved in from Treasuries to mortgages to ETFs and now individual corporate bonds. And, since the whole point of this is because the Fed wants to make sure the stock market stays elevated (they are preternaturally terrified at the notion of a wealth effect from a market crash, even though historically the wealth effect has been surprisingly small) I suspect it is only a matter of time before they directly intervene in equity markets.[1] C’est la vie. There is no normal any more.

But at least the ‘normal’ we have had over the last decade was just modestly outside of the prior normal. Things didn’t work right according to the ‘traditional’ way of thinking about things; momentum became ascendant in a way we’ve never seen before and value almost irrelevant. We are now, though, working on a whole different part of the number line. This means that economists will continue to be surprised at almost everything they see, and it means that any model you look at needs to be informed by a good intuition about how the hell it works.

So, for example, let’s consider the money supply. Over the last 13 weeks, M2 is up at a 63% annualized rate. With two weeks left in the quarter, it looks like we will end up with something like a 10.25%-10.50% growth in the money supply for the quarter. The Q2 average money supply, compared to Q1 (important in looking at the MV=PQ equation), is going to be about 13.85% higher. That’s not annualized! Remember, the old record in M2 growth for a year was a bit above 13%, in 1976.

The current NY Fed Nowcast for 2nd Quarter GDP – keeping in mind that no one has any idea, this is as good a guess as any – is -19.03%. I really like the .03 part. That’s sporty. That would mean q/q growth of -4.75%.

If we want the price deflator to come in around 1.75% (+0.44% q/q), which is where it was for the year ended in Q1, then that means money velocity needs to fall about 16% for the quarter. (1-4.75%)*(1+0.44%)/(1+13.85%)-1 = -15.97%. If money velocity falls less, and that GDP estimate is correct, then inflation comes in higher. If money velocity falls more, then inflation comes in lower. If GDP growth is actually better than -19% annualized, then inflation is lower; if GDP is worse, then inflation is higher. We don’t need to worry much about the M2 numbers themselves, as they’re almost baked in the cake at this point.

The biggest amount that money velocity has ever fallen q/q is about 5%. But clearly, these are different times! We’ve also never seen a 19% decline in growth.

Weirdly, our model has M2 money velocity for Q2 at 1.159, which would be a 15.6% decline in money velocity. Let me stress that that is a total coincidence, and I put almost zero weight on that point estimate. Contributing to that sharp decline, in our model, is the small decline in interest rates from Q1, the increase in the non-M1 part of M2, the small increase in global negative-yielding debt, and (most importantly) a large increase in precautionary demand for cash balances due to economic uncertainty. (This is why it’s hard to get velocity to stay down at this level. The current low levels depend on low interest rates, which will probably persist, but also on dramatic precautionary savings, which are unlikely to). Small changes in money velocity will have big effects on inflation: if our model estimate for velocity was right, we’d see annualized inflation for Q2 at 4.3% or so. Here’s how confident I am in our model: for Q3, it is seeing unchanged velocity (approximately), which with money trends and the GDP Nowcast figures from the NY Fed would imply that y/y inflation would rise to 6.22%, about 17.5% annualized for the quarter. Not going to happen.

Here’s where knowing a bit about the underlying process and assumptions really matters. Velocity is effectively a plug number, in that bureaucrats are good at measuring money and pretty good at measuring GDP and prices, but really bad at measuring velocity directly. So velocity is solved for. And our model (along with every other model, probably) treats the response of money velocity to the input variables as more or less instantaneous. For small changes in these variables – movements in money growth from 4% to 6%, or GDP from 2% to 0% – the assumption about instantaneity is pretty irrelevant. The economy adjusts prices easily to small changes in conditions. But that’s not true at all for big changes. On the available evidence, many prices (if not most) accelerated a bit in Q2, which surprised almost everyone including us. But no matter what the model says, prices are not going to drop 5% in a quarter, or rise 5% in a quarter, for the entire consumption basket. Price changes take time – heck, rents don’t change every month, and it takes time to rotate through the sample. Also, manufacturers don’t tend to make large changes in prices overnight, preferring to drip it in and see consumer response. But here’s the point: the model doesn’t know this. So I suspect we will see money velocity this quarter around 1.14-1.17…not because I believe our model but because I think prices will accelerate by a little bit and I think the real uncertainty surrounds the forecast of GDP. Over time, velocity and inflation will converge with our model, but it will take time.

For what it’s worth, I think that GDP growth will be a little lower than the NY Fed thinks, for a different model reason: the model assumes that changes in various economic data can be mapped to changes in GDP. But that assumes a fairly stable price level…what they’re really mapping this data onto is the nominal price level, and assuming that the price level doesn’t change enough to matter. So I think some of the dollar improvement in durable goods sales, for example, reflects rising prices and not growth, which would be manifested in a slightly lower GDP change and a slightly higher GDP deflator change.

What does this mean and why does it matter?

For one thing…and you already knew this…models are currently trash. They mean almost nothing by themselves. You should ignore it all. I give very little credence to the NY Fed’s forecast. I am pretty sure Q2 GDP growth will have a minus sign, but I couldn’t tell you between -15% and -25% and neither can they. Which is why the -19 POINT OH-THREE is so sporty. But by the same token, you should listen more to the model-builder, and to people who understand what’s going on behind the models, and to people who are taking measurements directly rather than taking them from models. Because this is going back to the art of forecasting, and away from the science. We are over-quanted in this world, and we are over-committed to models, and we are overconfident in models, and we are over-reliant on models. They have a place, just as the autopilot has a place when conditions are placid. When things get rough, you want a real pilot holding the controls.[2]

There used to be a couple of guys in Boston who were auto mechanics and had a radio show. People would call up and describe the noises their cars made, and the guys would ask whether it made the noise only turning left, or both directions, and whether it got worse when it was humid, and other things that sounded crazy to you and me. And then they would diagnose the problem, sight-unseen. Those are the people you want to take your car to. They’re the ones who understand how it really works, and they don’t need to hook your car up to a computer to tell you what the problem is. I took my car to them, and they really were geniuses at it. So look for those people in market space: the ones who can tell by the sound of the squeal what is really going on under the hood. They won’t always be right, but they will have the best guesses…especially when something unusual happens.


[1] Ironically, I think that something else they are considering would have a much bigger effect on equity markets than if they directly bought equities, but I don’t want to talk about that in this space because it also has big implications for inflation-related markets and would create some really delicious relative value trades that I don’t want to discuss here.

[2] Although I didn’t think I’d remark on this in today’s comment: this is also why the Trump Administration’s move today to loosen the Volcker Rule to let banks take more risks with their capital is very timely. There is a lot of bumpy flight ahead of us and we should want seasoned traders making the markets with actual capital behind them, not robots looking to scalp an eighth.

Categories: Analogy, Investing, Trading

Half-Mast Isn’t Half Bad

April 28, 2020 1 comment

As I watch the stock market, implausibly, rise to levels no one expected so soon after the crash, I am also sickened by the cheerleading from those whose fortunes – not to mention egos – are wrapped up in the level at which the Dow trades. Stock market fetishism always fascinates me as much as it repels me. Although my experience as a trader (and a short-term options trader, at that) would seem to suggest otherwise, my makeup is as a long-term investor. I want to buy value, and the mathematics of investing for me is that I want (a) high intrinsic value at (b) a low price. While people who are buy-and-hold investors of a certain age clearly benefit from higher prices, young investors clearly benefit from lower prices since they’re going to be net buyers for a long time. And the price at which you acquire intrinsic value matters. So does the price at which you sell, but not until you sell.

So to me, there’s nothing great about a price that’s high relative to intrinsic value, unless I am preparing to sell. In a broader sense, the idea that we should cheer for higher prices (as opposed to higher intrinsic values) is not only unseemly, but destructive and I’ll explain why in a minute. I will note that the fascination with watching prices ticking every second goes back a long ways: you can read in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator about the bucket shops of the early 1900s where speculators would watch and trade the stock market tape. The general increase in investor twitchiness and short-termism that has accompanied the growth of financial news TV, online investing, and the development of ETFs to trade broad market exposures intraday certainly adds numbers to the cheerleading crowd. But it isn’t new. Depressing, but not new.

The most fascinating example of this belief in the (non-intuitive, to me) connection between the value of the stock market and the value of ‘Merica was presented to me in the aftermath of 9/11. When we first trudged back to lower Manhattan, there were people handing out these cards:

Fight Osama! Buy Cisco! I never did see the connection, and it seemed to me at the time either delusional (the terrorists win if my investment in Lucent goes down) or nakedly self-serving. Certainly the way I feel about my country has nothing to do with where I’m able to buy or sell eBay today. And actually, they really weren’t coming for our 401(k)s, they were coming for our lives. But I digress.

The point I actually want to make is that when the Fed works to stabilize market prices, they’re having a negative effect by destabilizing economic variables. An analogy from manufacturing might be an entry point to this explanation: a truism in manufacturing is that you can stabilize inventory, or you can stabilize production, but you can’t stabilize both (unless your customers are accommodating and provide very smooth demand). If you want to stabilize inventory levels, then you need to produce more when business is high and less when business is low, so you’re on the production roller-coaster. If you want to keep production level, then inventory will be low when business is high and high when business is low, so you’re on the inventory roller-coaster. Only if business itself is stable – which is rare – can you do both.

A similar thing happens in capital markets. You can stabilize the cost of capital, but then you destabilize growth rates. Or you can stabilize growth rates, and the cost of capital (stock and bond prices) will fluctuate. This is true unless you can do away with the business cycle. If you choose, as the Fed has in recent years, to try and stabilize market prices at very high levels (stabilizing the cost of capital at very low levels), then when underlying activity is strong you’ll get a ton of speculative investment in capacity, new ventures that depend on the availability of cheap capital, and strong growth. And then when economic activity heads lower, you’ll find that lots of businesses go bust and the recession is deeper. In fact, it’s not just the speculative businesses that go bust, but the overbuilding in the expansion can cause even prudent enterprises to have more difficulties in the downturn.

The Fed’s historical response to this has been to let the speculative activity happen when the cost of capital is held too low, but not let companies go bust when economic activity wanes…so they lower the cost of capital even further.

I’m obviously not the first person to point out that the Fed’s constant intervention has deleterious effects and tends to increase the amplitude of boom and bust. And, for what it’s worth, I’m not blaming the current recession on the Fed. Clearly, the proximate cause of this recession was COVID-19 and the global economic shutdown. What made it worse was that the Fed, by holding down the cost of capital, had previously precipitated the development and preserved the success of many more speculative enterprises. And the fetishism about stock prices, and about how important it is to have lots of money “working for you” in the stock market, is also one of the reason that people don’t save enough.

Of course, right now is probably not the time for the Fed and Congress to pull back and let huge numbers of people and companies go bankrupt. There’s a case to be made for the sort of government response we are having in this episode, in which personal income is being replaced by money creation while workers are ordered to stay home. There will be a piper to pay for that policy – a loss of price stability which is a consequence of trying to preserve output stability, but a consequence that it’s arguably acceptable to pay. Afterwards, though, I hope that central banks can start to let natural rhythms replace the autocratic ones. I am not hugely optimistic on that score, but one place to start is this: stop lowering the bar for central banks to intervene in markets. Stop targeting equity prices and interest rates. It’s okay to let the Dow trade at half-mast, and the bull will come back without the Fed’s help.

In fact, if we don’t keep trying to artificially increase the length of the mast, the Dow might never need to trade down to half-mast in the first place. Certainly, intrinsic values don’t retrace 50% in a recession!

Why Bond Folks Are More Afraid of COVID-19

March 8, 2020 1 comment

On Friday I tweeted a picture from our daily chart pack, and mused that either credit is too negative or stocks are not negative enough.

I spent the weekend musing about why the bond guys seem to be so negative about the effects of the COVID-19 virus compared to the stock guys. Equity investors tend to tell me things like “well, the fundamentals are pretty sound” (ignoring the role that multiples play in stock market levels), which sometimes manifests in super-dumb things like Larry Kudlow’s admonition a few thousand points ago that people should buy the dip. (By the way, all those folks who bought the dip because Larry said so…will the government make them whole? Didn’t think so. Rule to remember: never take the advice of someone who has a vested interest in the outcome.)

Meanwhile, bond investors had put bond yields at all-time lows. This is especially amazing compared to the levels that yields reached in the Global Financial Crisis; back then, a housing bubble was in the process of imploding and, since shelter is a major part of core inflation it was a done deal that inflation was going to plunge, and far (Core CPI eventually got as low as 0.6%, although it didn’t get very low at all ex-housing). So low nominal yields made sense. But today, this does not seem to be in the offing. Core inflation is more likely to accelerate with the effects of the supply shock, unless the virus gets so bad that we really do have a major demand shock. And even then it should not fall very far. So the message from the bond market is super negative on growth, and stocks are only a little off their all-time highs (at least, until tonight. Right now S&P futures are -4%, although a lot of that has to do with the collapse of energy prices thanks to the disintegration of OPEC+). So again, I wonder, why?

After long thought I think it is because bond investors understand much more viscerally the power of compound interest. Compound interest is the concept that money grows not linearly, but exponentially over time. If I start with $400 and grow it at 12% per year, here is what it becomes.

So that little $400 ends up being a really big pile of money after 60 years! From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow, and all of that. But equity folks don’t love this chart because the first 20 years looks incredibly uninteresting, not at all like Tesla. Now, if we look at this in log scale, it looks much more boring but this next chart says the same thing: stuff is compounding at 12%. And that chart actually looks kinda similar to this chart, sourced here.

This is a plot of COVID-19 cases outside of China, and the left axis is log scale. What this chart says is that there is no sign that the rate of growth of cases of COVID-19 is slowing. In fact, its spread has been remarkably consistent since the beginning of February. Roughly, the number of cases in the US has been growing at around 12% per day. Which means that the chart looks a whole lot like the chart of $400 turning into $360,000 over 60 years, except that now it is 400 cases (Friday’s figure) turning into 360,000 cases over 60 days.

So when people say “the flu kills more people than this virus,” I know they’re equity folks. They see 400 cases and compare to 36,000 flu deaths and scoff. But that just tells me they don’t appreciate the power of compounding. Yes, COVID-19 hasn’t killed 36,000 Americans yet. But the flu kills that many per year despite the fact that (a) it isn’t generally communicable for very long outside of the period when the carrier has symptoms – which is why it’s okay to go back to school when you’re fever-free for 24 hours, (b) it has a pretty low fatality rate in the 1-2% range, and (c) almost everyone is inoculated against the flu. COVID-19 beats the flu on all three of those metrics.

That doesn’t mean that this bug will kill everyone, but it does mean that it is fairly likely to kill more than the flu unless something changes with the rate of exponential growth. By the end of May, the same growth rate would mean more than 6 million Americans have gotten the virus, which means a couple hundred thousand would die.

This is not a prediction, and I really hope that the rate of contagion slackens and the survival rate increases. I don’t know what would cause that to happen: I am not an epidemiologist. I’m just a bond guy, and I understand compounding. In investments, compounding is your friend. In disease, compounding is your enemy.

Categories: Analogy Tags: ,

Tariffs and Subsidies…on Money

June 7, 2019 1 comment

Many, many years ago (27, actually) I wrote a paper on how a tariff on oil actually has some beneficial effects which needed to be balanced against the beneficial effect that a lower oil price has on economic growth. But since the early 1990s until 2015 or so I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times the issue of tariffs came up in thoughts about the economy and markets. To the extent that anyone thought about them at all, it was to think about how lowering them has an unalloyed long-term positive effect. Which, for the most part, it does.

But the economics profession can sometimes be somewhat shamanistic on the topic of tariffs. Tariffs=bad; time for the next chapter in the book. There is much more complexity to the topic than that, as there is with almost any economic topic. Reducing economics to comic-book simplicity only works when there is one overwhelmingly correct idea, like “when demand for a good goes up, so does the equilibrium price.” The end: next chapter.

Tariffs have, though, both short-term and long-term effects. In the long-term, we all agree, the effects of raising tariffs are deleterious. For any given increase in money and velocity, we end up with lower growth and higher inflation, all else equal. It is important to realize that these are largely one-time effects although smeared out over a long period. That is, after equilibrium is reached if tariffs are not changed any longer, tariffs have no large incremental effect. It is the change in tariffs that matters, and the story of the success of the global economy in terms of having decent growth with low inflation for the last thirty years is largely a story of continuously opening trade. As I’ve written previously, this train was just about running out of track anyway so that we were likely to go back to a worse combo of growth and inflation, but reversing that trend would lead to significantly worse combinations of growth and inflation in the medium-to-long term.

In the short-term, however, tariffs can have a positive effect (if they are expected to remain) on the tariff-imposing country, assuming no retaliation (or even with retaliation, if the tariff-imposing country is a significant net importer). They raise employment, and they raise the wage of the employed. They even may raise the real wage of the employed if there is economic slack. The chart below shows the y/y change in manufacturing jobs, and ex-manufacturing jobs, for the last 40 years. Obviously, the manufacturing sector has been shrinking – a story of increased productivity, but also of trade liberalization as manufacturing was offshored. The Obama-era work programs (e.g. “Cash for Clunkers”) temporarily reversed some of that differential decline, but since 2016 – when we got a new President – manufacturing payrolls growth has caught up to non-manufacturing. That’s not a surprise – it’s the short-term effect of tariffs.

The point is that tariffs are a political winner in the short-term, which is one reason I think that people are overestimating the likelihood that “Tariff Man” is going to rapidly concede on trade and lower tariffs. If the Administration gets a clear “win” in trade negotiations, then I am sure the President is amenable to reversing tariffs. But otherwise, it doesn’t hurt him in the heavy manufacturing states. And those states turn out to be key.

(This is a relative observation; it doesn’t mean that total payrolls will rise. The economic cycle still has its own momentum, and while tariffs can help parts of the economy in the short term it doesn’t change the fact that this cycle was very long in the tooth with lots of imbalances that are overdue for correction. It is no real surprise that employment is softening, even though it is a lagging indicator. The signs of softening activity have been accumulating for a while.)

But in the long run, we all agree – de-liberalizing trade is a bad deal. It leads among other things to bloat and inefficiency in protected sectors (just as any decrease in competition tends to do). It leads to more domestic capacity than is necessary, and duplicated capacity in country A and country B. It promotes inefficiency and unbalanced growth.

So why, then, are investors and economists so convinced that putting tariffs or subsidies on money has good (or even neutral) long-term effects? When the Fed forces interest rates higher or lower, by arbitrarily setting short-term rates or by buying or selling long-term bonds – that’s a tariff or a subsidy. It is protecting interest-rate sensitive sectors from having interest rates set by competition for capital. And, as we have seen, it leads in the long run to inefficient building of capacity. The Fed evinces concern about the amount of leverage in the system. Whose fault is that? If you give away free ice cream, why are you surprised when people get fat?

The only way that tariffs, and interest rate manipulations, have a chance of being neutral to positive is if they are imposed as a temporary rebalancing (or negotiating) measure and then quickly removed. In the case of Federal Reserve policy, that means that after cutting rates to address a temporary market panic or bank run, the central bank quickly moves back to neutral. To be clear, “neutral” means floating, market-determined rates where the supply and demand for capital determines the market-clearing rate. If investors believed that the central bank would pursue such a course, then they could evaluate and plan based on long-term free market rates rather than basing their actions on the expectation that rates would remain controlled and protective.

It is no different than with tariffs. So for central bankers criticizing the trade policy of the Administration, I say: let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone.

A Real Concern About Over(h)eating

I misread a headline the other day, and it actually caused a market analogy to occur to me. The headling was “Powell Downplays Concern About Overheating,” but I read it as “Powell Downplays Concern About Overeating.” Which I was most delighted to hear; although I don’t normally rely on Fed Chairman for dietary advice[1] I was happy to entertain any advice that would admit me a second slice of pie.

Unfortunately, he was referring to the notion that the economy “has changed in many ways over the past 50 years,” and in fact might no longer be vulnerable to rapidly rising price pressures because, as Bloomberg summarized it, “The workforce is better educated and inflation expectations more firmly anchored.” (I don’t really see how an educated workforce, or consumers who have forgotten about inflation, immunizes the economy from the problem of too much money chasing too few goods, but then I don’t hang out with PhDs…if I can avoid it.) Come to think of it, perhaps the Chairman ought to stick to dietary advice after all.

But it was too late for me to stop thinking about the analogy, which diverges from what Powell was actually talking about. Here we go:

When a person eats, and especially if he eats too much, then he needs to wait and digest before tackling the next course. This is why we take a break at Thanksgiving between the main meal and dessert. If, instead, you are already full and you continue to eat then the result is predictable: you will puke. I wonder if it’s the same with risk: some risk is okay, and you can take on more risk up to a point. But if you keep taking on risk, eventually you puke. In investing/trading terms, you rapidly exit when a small setback hits you, because you’ve got more risk on than you can handle. Believe me: been there, done that. At the dinner table and in markets.

So with this analogy in place, let’s consider the “portfolio balance channel.” In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, the Fed worked to remove low-risk securities from the market in order to push investors towards higher-risk securities. This was a conscious and public effort undertaken by the central bank because (they believed) investors were irrationally scared and risk-averse, and needed a push to restore “animal spirits.” (I’m not making this up – this is what they said). It was like the Italian grandmother who implores, “Eat! Eat! You’re just skin and bones!” And they were successful, just like Grandma. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) plots the slope of the securities market line relating expected real return and expected real risk, quarterly, going back to 2011. It’s based on our own calculations of the expected real return to stocks, TIPS, Treasuries, commodities, commercial real estate, residential real estate, corporate bonds, and cash, but you don’t have to believe our calculations are right. The calculation methodology is consistent over time, so you can see how the relative value in terms of risk and reward evolved.

The Fed succeeded in getting us to eat more and more risky securities, so that they got more and more expensive relative to safer securities (the amount of additional risk required to get an increment of additional return got greater and greater). Thanks Grandma!

But the problem is, we’re still eating. Risk is getting more and more expensive, but we keep reaching for another cookie even though we know we shouldn’t.

Puking is the body’s way of restoring equilibrium quickly. Abrupt market corrections (aka “crashes”) are the market’s way of restoring equilibrium quickly.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. One of my favorite market-related books, “Why Stock Markets Crash” by Didier Sornette, (also worth reading is “Ubiquity” by Mark Buchanan) talks about how markets ‘fracture’ after bending too far, just like many materials; the precise point of fracture is not identifiable but the fact that a fracture will happen eventually if the material continues to bend is indisputable.

My analogy is more colorful. Whether it is any more timely remains to be seen.


[1] To be fair, I also don’t rely on Fed Chairman for economic advice.

Being Closer to the ‘Oh Darn’ Inflation Strike

April 19, 2018 5 comments

The time period between spikes of inflation angst seems to be shortening. I am not sure yet about the amplitude of those spikes of angst, but the concern seems to be quickening.

This is not without reason as it seems that concerning headlines are occurring with more frequency. This week the Bloomberg Commodity Index again challenged the 2016 and 2017 highs before backing off today (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Somewhat more alarming than that, to people who watch commodities, is how the commodity indices are rallying. The culprits are energy as well as industrial metals, and each has an interesting story to tell. Energy has been rallying partly because of global tensions, but also partly because US shale oil production appears to be running into some bottlenecks on production (wages, shortages of frack sand) as well as delivery (capacity constraints on pipelines), and part of what has kept a lid on energy prices over the last couple of years was the understanding that shale oil production was improving rapidly and becoming lots more efficient due to improved technology. If shale is limited, the ‘lid’ on prices is not as binding as we had thought. On industrial metals, some of the upward pressure has been due to fallout from US sanctions on Rusal, a major supplier of aluminum and alumina. Since those sanctions were announced, aluminum prices have risen around 25%, and alumina (a raw input to aluminum production) about 50%, with knock-on effects in other industrial metals.

Both of these items bear on the market’s recent fears about new pressures on inflation – capacity constraints (especially rising wages for long-haul truckers) and potential fracturing of the global trade détente.

And 10-year breakevens are at new 4-year highs, although it is worth remembering that this is nowhere near the 10-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Shorter inflation swaps look less alarming, and not at new four-year highs. However, even here the news is not really soothing. The reason that shorter inflation swaps are lower than they have been in the past is because the energy curves are in backwardation – meaning that the market is pricing in lower energy process in the future. In turn, this means that implied core inflation – once we strip out these energy effects – are, in fact, at 4-year highs (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

So there is legitimate cause to be concerned about upside risks to inflation, and that’s one reason the market is a bit jumpier in this regard. But there is also additional premium, volatility, and angst associated with the level of inflation itself. While as I have pointed out before much of the rise in core inflation to date due to optics arising from base effects, that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘oh, rats’ strike is closer now. That is to say that when core inflation is running at 1.5%, stuff can go wrong without hurting you if your pain threshold is at 3%. But when core inflation is at 2.5% (as it will be this summer), not as much “bad stuff” needs to happen to cause financial pain. In other words, both the ‘delta’ and the ‘gamma’ of the exposure is higher now – just as if one were short a call option struck at (say) 3% inflation. Because, implicitly, many investors are.

If inflation is low, then even if it is volatile in a range it can be consistent with high market valuations for stocks and bonds. But when inflation starts to creep above 3%, those markets tend to suffer in non-linear fashion.

And this, I believe, is why the market’s nervousness about inflation (and market volatility resulting from that nervousness) is unlikely to soon abate.

Inflation and Castles Built on Sand

April 4, 2018 2 comments

Note: my articles are now released somewhat earlier on the blog site and on my private Twitter feed @inflation_guyPV, which you can sign up for here, than they are released on my ‘regular’ Twitter feed. Moreover, my monthly live tweets during the CPI report are only available on that feed.

Also note: if you haven’t heard it yet, you can listen to my appearance on the Bloomberg Odd Lots podcast last month here. For that matter, you can listen to it at that link even if you have heard it yet.


Now that we can stop focusing on the imminent destruction of wealth in the stock market, for at least today (I am underwhelmed at the rebound on light volume), we can get back to something that matters: inflation.

The chart below shows a straight, unweighted average of core or median inflation in the US, Europe, Japan, the UK, and China. (The chart looks similar if we only include the US, Europe, and China and exclude the recent ‘outlier’ Japan and UK experiences).

We know that, in the US, measured inflation is going to be rising at least until the summer, as the one-offs from 2017 drop out of the data. The prior decline, and the current rise, obscure the underlying trend…which is for steady acceleration in prices. But it’s important to realize that this is not merely a US trend, caused supposedly by ‘tight labor markets’ or somesuch. It is a much broader phenomenon. The chart below shows four of those five countries.

In the US, inflation has been rising steadily (other than that one-off burp caused by cell phones etc) since 2013. In the UK, China, and Europe, inflation has been rising since ~2015, to lesser or greater degree. In the UK, core inflation is showing some signs of topping as the Brexit-related spike fades, and the trend is less convincing in Europe so far. In Japan (see below), inflation has been rising since 2010, but the tax-induced spike in 2014 has messed up the steadiness of the trend. And of course, it is worth pointing out that 0.3% is only high relative to the average of -0.3% since 1999!

I point out these trends because inflation is less of a concern if it happens in one country than if it happens as part of a global inflation process. Imagine that inflation is represented by the proportion of the sand on a beach that is wet rather than dry. There are two ways that sand can get wet: because of random wave action that comes and goes, or because the tide is coming in.

Where you build your sand castle depends on which of these two – tide or waves – is responsible for wetting the sand on the beach.

This isn’t an idle question or speculation. In 2005, two researchers at the ECB[1] discovered that the first principal component of inflation in the G7 countries accounted for about 60-70% of the inflation in those countries. They theorized that this factor was a “global inflation” process and that FX rates compensated for the accumulated idiosyncratic inflation in each country pair. (Enduring Investments subsequently confirmed their work and we actually use this insight to drive some of our strategy models). It makes sense that there is an inflation “tide,” since central bank behaviors as well as fiscal behaviors (and cross-border interactions such as trade liberalization) are somewhat synchronized globally. Over the last decade, everyone has been easing monetary policy and running stimulative fiscal policy. Since the early 1990s, until lately, everyone was liberalizing trade policy and reaching more free trade agreements. So it isn’t a stretch to think that to at least some degree, the global inflation cycle should be synchronized as well.

(Indeed, I would argue that if there had been less synchronization in policy, then the idiosyncratic factor of an aggressively easing Japanese central bank would probably have led to a much weaker Yen and higher inflation in Japan than we have seen. Easy monetary policy is only inflationary in the short-term if there is an FX response – the waves that impact inflation idiosyncratically – which don’t really happen when everyone is doing it.) In the long-run, of course, excessively easy monetary policy changes the tide level. And, like the tide, it isn’t that easy to reverse.

The signs suggest the tide is coming in. Place your sand castle accordingly.


[1] M. Ciccarelli & B. Mojon, “Global Inflation”, ECB Working Paper N⁰537, October 2005.

Nudge at Neptune

Okay, I get it. Your stockbroker is telling you not to worry about inflation: it’s really low, core inflation hasn’t been above 3% for two decades…and, anyway, the Fed is really trying to push it higher, he says, so if it goes up then that’s good too. Besides, some inflation isn’t necessarily bad for equities since many companies can raise end product prices faster than they have to adjust wages they pay their workers.[1] So why worry about something we haven’t seen in a while and isn’t necessarily that bad? Buy more FANG, baby!

Keep in mind that there is a very good chance that your stockbroker, if he or she is under 55 years old, has never seen an investing environment with inflation. Also keep in mind that the stories and scenes of wild excess on Wall Street don’t come from periods when equities are in a bear market. I’m just saying that there’s a reason to be at least mildly skeptical of your broker’s advice to own “100 minus your age” in stocks when you’re young, which morphs into advice to “owning more stocks since you’re likely to have a long retirement” when you get a bit older.

Many financial professionals are better-compensated, explicitly or implicitly, when stocks are going up. This means that even many of the honest ones, who have their clients’ best interests at heart, can’t help but enjoy it when the stock market rallies. Conversations with clients are easier when their accounts are going up in size every day and they feel flush. There’s a reason these folks didn’t go into selling life insurance. Selling life insurance is really hard – you have to talk every day to people and remind them that they’re going to die. I’d hate to be an insurance salesman.

And yet, I guess that’s sort of what I am.

Insurance is about managing risks. Frankly, investing should also be about managing risks – about keeping as much upside as you can, while maintaining an adequate margin of safety. Said another way, it’s about buying that insurance as cheaply as you can so that you don’t spend all of your money on insurance. That’s why diversification is such a powerful idea: owning 20 stocks, rather than 1 stock, gets you downside protection against idiosyncratic risks – essentially for free. Owning multiple asset classes is even more powerful, because the correlations between asset classes are generally lower than the correlations between stocks. Diversification works, and it’s free, so we do it.

So let’s talk about inflation protection. And to talk about inflation protection, I bring you…NASA.

How can we prevent an asteroid impact with Earth?

The key to preventing an impact is to find any potential threat as early as possible. With a couple of decades of warning, which would be possible for 100-meter-sized asteroids with a more capable detection network, several options are technically feasible for preventing an asteroid impact.

Deflecting an asteroid that is on an impact course with Earth requires changing the velocity of the object by less than an inch per second years in advance of the predicted impact.

Would it be possible to shoot down an asteroid that is about to impact Earth?

An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact.  No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second.

NASA is also in the business of risk mitigation, and actually their problem is similar to the investor’s problem: find protection, as cheaply as possible, that allows us to retain most of the upside. We can absolutely protect astronauts in space from degradation of their DNA from cosmic rays, with enough shielding. The problem is that the more shielding you add, the harder it is to go very far, very fast, in space. So NASA wants to find the cheapest way to have an effective cosmic ray shield. And, in the ‘planetary defense’ role for NASA, they understand that deflecting an asteroid from hitting the Earth is much, much easier if we do it very early. A nudge when a space rock is out at the orbit of Neptune is all it takes. But wait too long, and there is no way to prevent the devastating impact.

Yes, inflation works the same way.

The impact of inflation on a normal portfolio consisting of stocks and bonds is devastating. Rising inflation hurts bonds because interest rates rise, and it hurts stocks because multiples fall. There is no hiding behind diversification in a ’60-40’ portfolio when inflation rises. Other investments/assets/hedges need to be put into the mix. And when inflation is low, and “high” inflation is far away, it is inexpensive to protect against that portfolio impactor. I have written before about how low commodities prices are compared with equity prices, and in January I also wrote a piece about why the expected return to commodities is actually rising even as commodities go sideways.

TIPS breakevens are also reasonable. While 10-year breakevens have risen from 1.70% to 2.10% over the last 9 months or so, that’s still below current median inflation, and below where core inflation will be in a few months as the one-offs subside. And it’s still comfortably below where 10-year breaks have traded in normal times for the last 15 years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

It is true that there are not a lot of good ways for smaller investors to simply go long inflation. But you can trade out your nominal Treasuries for inflation bonds, own commodities, and if you have access to UCITS that trade in London there is INFU, which tracks 10-year breakevens. NASA doesn’t have a lot of good options, either, for protecting against an asteroid impact. But there are many more plausible options, if you start early, than if you wait until inflation’s trajectory is inside the orbit of the moon.


[1] Your stockbroker conveniently forgets that P/E multiples contract as inflation rises past about 3%. Also, your stockbroker conveniently abandons the argument about how businesses can raise prices before raising wages, meaning that consumer inflation leads wage inflation, when he points to weak wage growth and says “there’s no wage-push inflation.” Actually, your stockbroker sounds like a bit of an ass.

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