**NOTE – please see the announcement at the end of this article, regarding a series of free webinars that begins next Monday.**
Whatever else the election of Donald Trump to be President of the United States has meant, it has meant a lot of excitement in precincts that worry about inflation. This is usually attributed, among the chattering classes, to the faster growth expected if Mr. Trump’s expressed preference for tax cuts and spending increases obtains. However, since growth doesn’t cause inflation that isn’t the part of a Trump Presidency that concerns me with respect to a continuing rise in inflation.
In our latest Quarterly Inflation Outlook, I wrote a short piece on the significance of the de-globalization movement for inflation. That is an area where, if the President-Elect delivers on his promises, a lot of damage could be done in the growth/inflation tradeoff. I have written before about how a big part of the reason for the generous growth/inflation tradeoff of the 1990s was the rapid globalization of many industries following the end of the Cold War. Deutsche Bank recently produced a research piece (I don’t recall whether it had anything to do with inflation, weirdly) that contained the following chart (Source: as cited).
This chart is the “smoking gun” that supports this version of events, in terms of why the inflation dynamic shifted in the early 1990s. Free trade helped to restrain prices in certain goods (apparel is a great example – prices are essentially unchanged over the last 25 years), by allowing the possibility of significant cost savings on production.
The flip side of a cost savings on production, though, is a loss of domestic manufacturing jobs; it is this loss that Mr. Trump took productive advantage of. If Mr. Trump moves to increase tariffs and other barriers to trade, and to reverse some of the globalization trend that has driven lower prices for the last quarter-century, it is potentially very negative news for inflation. While there was some evidence that the globalization dividend was beginning to get ‘tapped out’ as all of the low-hanging fruit had been harvested – and such a development would cause inflation to be higher than otherwise it would have been – I had not expected the possibility of a reversal of the globalization dividend except as a possible and minor side-effect of tensions with Russia over the Ukraine, or the effect the Syrian refugee problem could have on open borders. The election of Mr. Trump, however, creates the very real possibility that the reversal of this dividend might be a direct consequence of conscious policy choices.
I don’t think that’s the main reason that people are worried about inflation, though. Today, one contributor is the news that OPEC actually agreed to cut production, in January, and that some non-OPEC producers agreed to an additional cut. U.S. shale oil producers are clicking their heels in delight, because oil prices were already high enough that production was increasing again and they are more than happy to take more market share back. Oil prices are up about 15% since the announcement.
But that’s near-term, and I don’t expect the oil rally has legs much beyond current levels. Breakevens have been rallying, though, for weeks. Some of it isn’t related to Trump at all but to other initiatives. One correspondent of mine, who owns an office-cleaning business, sent me this note today:
“Think of you often lately as I’m on the front line out here of the “instant” 25% increase in min wage. Voters decided to move min wage out here from 8.05 to $10 jan 1. Anyone close to 10/hr is looking for a big raise. You want to talk about fast dollars, hand a janitor a 25% pay bump and watch the money move. Big inflation numbers pending from the southwest. I’m passing some through but market is understandably reacting slower than the legislation.”
Those increases will definitely increase measured inflation further, though by a lot less than it increases my friend’s costs. Again, it’s an arrow pointing the wrong way for inflation. And, really, there aren’t many pointing the right way. M2 growth continues to accelerate; it is now at 7.8% y/y. That is too fast for price stability, especially as rates rise.
All of these arrows add up to substantial moves in inflation breakevens. 10-year breaks are up 55bps since September and 30bps since the election. Ten-year inflation expectations as measured more accurately by inflation swaps are now at 2.33%. Almost all of that rise has been in expectations for core inflation. The oft-watched 5y5y forward inflation (which takes us away from that part of the curve which is most impacted by energy movements) is above 2.5% again and, while still below the “normal” 2.75%-3.25% range, is at 2-year highs (see Chart, source Bloomberg).
So what is an investor to do – other than to study, which there is an excellent opportunity to do for the next three Mondays with a series of educational webinars I am conducting (see details below)? There are a few good answers. At 0.46%, 10-year TIPS still represent a poor real return but a guaranteed positive 1/2% real return beats what is available from many risky assets right now. Commodities remain cheap, although less so. You can invest in a company that specializes in inflation, if you are an accredited investor: Enduring Investments is raising a small amount of money for the management company in a 506(c) offering and is still taking subscriptions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to own inflation expectations directly – and in any event, the easy money there has been made.
What you don’t want to do if you are worried about inflation is own stocks as a “hedge.” Multiples move inversely with inflation.
Unlike prior equity market rallies, I understand this one. It is plausible to me that a very business-friendly President, who cuts corporate and personal taxes and reduces regulatory burdens, might be good for corporate earnings and even for the economic growth rate (although the bad things coming on trade will blunt some of that). But before getting too ebullient about the potential for higher corporate earnings, consider this: if Trump is business-friendly, then surely the opposite must be said about President Obama who did essentially the reverse. But what happened to equities? They tripled over his eight years (perhaps they “only” doubled, depending on when you measure from). That’s because lower interest rates and the Fed’s removal of safe securities in search of a stimulus from the “portfolio balance channel” caused equity multiples to expand drastically. So, valuations went from low, to extremely high. Multiples matter a lot, and right now even if you think corporate earnings over the next four years might be stronger than over the last four you still have to confront the fact that multiples are more likely to move in reverse. In short: if stocks could triple under Obama, there is no reason on earth they can’t halve under a “business-friendly” President. That’s not a prediction. (But here is one: equities four years from now will be no more than 20% higher than they are now, and might well be lower.)
Also, remember Ronald Reagan? He who created the great bull market of the 1980s? Well, stocks rallied in the November he was elected, too. The S&P closed November 1980 at 140.52. Over the next 20 months, the index lost 24%. It wasn’t until almost 1983 before Reagan had a bull market on his hands.
An administrative announcement about upcoming (free!) webinars:
On consecutive Mondays spanning December 5, December 12, and December 19 at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.
Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.
Had a great interview with Chuck Jaffe on MoneyLife today! Interview is streamed at moneylifeshow.com/upcomingGuests… Look for me in the Wednesday, April 6th edition – about halfway down. Or click directly to the stream here.
(**Administrative Note: My new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All has been launched. Here is the Amazon link. Please kindly consider buying a copy for yourself, for your neighbor, and for your library! If you are moved to write a review, or if you wander across a review that you think I may not have seen, please let me know. And thanks in advance for your support.)
With today’s trade, WTI Crude oil is now up 45% from the lows set last month! That’s great news for the people who had endured a 75% fall from the 2014 highs to last month’s low. More than half of the selloff has been recouped, right?
In a nutshell, a 45% rally from $110 would be a bit more impressive than 45% from $26.05, which was the low print for front Crude. And energy markets, in both technical and fundamental terms, have a lot of wood to chop before prices return to the former highs, or even the $40-60 range on crude that many people think reflects fundamental value.
So why the dramatic rally? Oil bulls will say it is because rig counts are down, so that supply destruction is happening and helping to balance the market. Perhaps, although rig counts have been falling for some time. Also, some producers have been talking about reining in production…again, perhaps this is important although since the US is the world’s largest producer of oil and neither Saudi Arabia (#2) nor Russia (#3) are in a good economic position to reduce revenues further than they already have been reduced by falling prices this would seem to be a marginal effect. And I might also add the point that thanks to the very long fall in prices, energy commodities are much cheaper than other commodities – which have also fallen, but far less – on a value metric. But no one trades commodities on value.
The real reason is that being short energy has become a very crowded trade. This is partly because of the large overhang of crude and other products in storage, but also partly because the energy futures curves are enormously in contango, which means there are large roll returns to be earned on the short side by being short – because, when the delivery month approaches, the short position buys back the front month and sells the next, higher-priced, contract. In this way, the seller is continuously selling higher prices and rolling down into a well-supplied spot market. See the chart below (source: Enduring Investments), which shows the return you would earn if you shorted the one-year-out Crude contract and rolled it in to the current spot price.
Obviously, the main risk is if spot prices suddenly rally, say, 45%, leaving you with a heavy mark-to-market loss and the prospect of only making some of it back through carry. That is what has started to happen over the last couple of weeks in crude (and some other contracts). It was a crowded carry trade that is now somewhat less crowded.
What happens over time, though, is that it is hard to sustain these flushes unless the carry situation changes markedly. Once oil prices rise enough that the short on fundamentals is at least a not-horrible bet, the carry trade re-asserts. It is, simply put, much easier to be short this contract than long it. What changes the picture eventually is that the fundamental picture changes, either lowering future expected prices (flattening the energy curve relative to spot, and reducing the contango) or raising spot prices as the supply overhang is actually absorbed (raising the front end, and reducing the contango). In the meantime, this is just a crowded-trade rally and likely limited in scope.
Tomorrow, I will mention another crowded-short trade that has recently rebounded, but which is less likely to re-assert itself aggressively going forward.
I will give the Fed this much. Although they have historically been lousy forecasters, I think that at least a few of them may be dovish at this moment not just because they are always dovish, but because they believe there is a legitimate reason right now to be dovish. That is, they are afraid that the recent global retreat in equities is not merely a correction from lofty multiples – it is that, at least, of course – but signs of something more fundamentally amiss. Heck, a member of the FOMC suggested in the most-recent “dot plot” that negative policy interest rates may be appropriate this year and next year!
Probably, China scares them quite a bit; I am not sure it should because I think China’s impact is generally exaggerated in terms of its effect on the US, given the relatively small amount of trade that we do with China, but it is reasonable to be concerned about that large economy right now.
The recent plunge in domestic manufacturing indices may also be disconcerting. While many of these are relative indices (are conditions better or worse than they were last month?) rather than absolute indices (how are conditions now, compared to what they were in some fixed base period?), it is difficult to ignore that today the Richmond Fed index dropped to -5 from 0, when +2 was expected, which puts it at the lowest level in a couple of years. Actually, the Richmond Fed Index alone would be quite easy to ignore, but last week’s surprise in Empire Manufacturing (-14.67, versus expectations for a bounce to -0.50) made back-to-back months that were the worst since 2009; the Philly Fed Index fell to -6 when +6 was expected (and -6 is the lowest level since 2012); and both Capacity Utilization and the Michigan Sentiment index have continued their decline from highs set late last year.
At some point, even if these are all small fry, one begins to sense a pattern. Even if one has a Ph.D. in economics and works at the Fed!
So I will give the Fed credit, or perhaps I ought to say the benefit of the doubt, that they are delaying tightening because they perceive weakness on the horizon. I believe that they are likely correct in that. In my view, this does not mean the Fed ought not to tighten but merely means they are so far overdue that they completely missed the opportunity to normalize policy during the expansion and now face another recession with no bullets. Policy still needs to be normalized, but in this case that perhaps means returning rates not to the mid-expansion norm but the recession norm (say, 3% on Fed funds rather than 5% on Fed funds). However, I will give them credit at least for recognizing at last that they are in a box. I wonder how long it will take them to understand that the box is of their own making; that the Fed ought long ago to have led the world’s central banks in raising rates rather than pursuing more and bigger QE to do what monetary policy cannot do well, if at all: buoy real variables.
And I will give credit to Governor Bullard, who is not always perhaps the sharpest knife in the drawer (why is it that whenever I give credit to the Fed it doesn’t sound like a good thing?) but was spot-on when he dissed Jim Cramer on CNBC on Monday. Not that Jim Cramer is the only cheerleader for permanent easing to permanently support equities, but he certainly is a standard-bearer. Bullard said:
“I’ve got a message for your friend Jim Cramer. The Fed cannot permanently raise stock prices. The idea that the Fed is going one way or the other, and this is what’s driving the stock market, is not true. He’s one of the great people at looking at businesses, how good is this business, what’s the profitability of the business, what’s this thing worth? And to have him cheerleading for lower rates 24-hours a day is, I think, unsavory.”
A the least, I can empathize with the Fed’s dilemma. They have missed a whole cycle by over-easing the last time around. Okay, that was all in the past. “Mistakes were made.” So now what? What does the Fed do with growth evidently slowing, but inflation at the target and employment below the target?
What they should do, probably, is tighten with all due haste, but as I said above tighten to what is still an easy policy. The problem, as I have pointed out before, is that (a) this will cause a further acceleration in inflation, by tending to raise money velocity without a corresponding decline in money growth, and (b) there isn’t a chance of them actually doing that. At this point, they may be stuck. Ray Dalio may be right. More QE…more disastrous QE…may be the next step. But let us hope that, having tried and failed by doing too much, our central bankers might attempt to succeed by doing as little as possible.
Administrative Note: For those who missed my appearance on Bloomberg TV’s “What’d You Miss” program last Wednesday, here is a link to my segment: http://bloom.bg/1Jo7DDb Hope you enjoy!
Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments. And sign up to receive notice when my book is published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com.
Also note that I have been invited to be a guest on “What’d You Miss?” today at 4pm ET. Catch it!
- Core CPI +0.1%, but y/y stays at +1.8% as it was a “soft” 0.1%. Specifically 0.07%, weaker than expected.
- Core services remains +2.6%; core goods -0.5% y/y.
- The -0.5% drag in core goods remains about what we can expect from the dollar’s current strength.
- But remember core goods is the smaller part of core inflation (and the more volatile part).
- Bottom line on Fed has been: plenty of argument either way. This number doesn’t affect the argument either way. Doves will be doves.
- No idea if Fed hikes tomorrow, but SHOULD have removed extraordinary accommodation when extraordinary risks were past. Years ago.
- Speaking of housing: Primary rents 3.62% from 3.56%; OER at 3.02% from 3.00%. This acceleration will continue.
- Lodging away from home is a small piece (0.8% of total CPI) but always fascinates me. 1.7% y/y versus 5.7% six months ago.
- Medical care was unch, 2.47% vs 2.49%, but pharmaceuticals was 3.5% vs 3.2% while professional services 1.7% vs 2.1%.
- The weakness in medical care continues to be the main story holding down core vs median, since 2013.
- Motor fuel of course a big drag on headline, but New and used motor vehicles also still weak (a dollar effect): -0.1% vs +0.2%.
- I actually think Median stands a decent chance of an 0.2% month, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculation.
- If I am right, then Median may be at the highest level since the crisis ended. Currently 2.28%; 2012 high was 2.38%.
- We won’t know for a few hours and my calculator doesn’t seasonally adjust the regional housing indexes so don’t take that to the bank.
- But even if median just stays at 2.3%, that’s consistent with PCE inflation being at the Fed’s target.
- Really looking forward to this: On Bloomberg TV at 4pm ET with Joe and Alix.
- Good time to mention my book “What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All” due out in Feb. Can preorder: http://amzn.to/1YbJT0p
- We don’t even have cover art yet! But the manuscript is done.
- Much more interesting discussion [than OER] is medical care. MUCH harder to measure than OER, because consumers don’t pay for it directly.
- We all know insurance costs are going up, but part of this is a price effect and part is a utilization effect.
- Part of the effect of the ACA is to get people to consume less health care by making them pay for smaller costs directly.
- …of course, that lessens overall welfare since your tradeoffs are worse. But I don’t want to get too ‘inside baseball’ in 140 char.
- BTW, it occurs to me I never mentioned y/y core CPI is 1.83% from 1.80%, so it rose a smidge even though a weak core #.
There wasn’t a lot that was new or different in this figure. Housing continues to be the main strain on consumer budgets, as housing costs continue to rise and, given the rise in housing prices generally, this ought to continue. On the other hand, the main drag to core continues to be in the core goods component, and this ought to continue for a while. However, I don’t believe it will intensify, so for a while core (and more importantly, median) inflation will just creep up gradually. At some point, core goods will revert higher, and at that point core inflation will move with more alacrity. The timing on this appears somewhat far off, however.
That said, two other points need to be made today.
The first point is that the Federal Reserve will either raise rates tomorrow, or they will not, and this number has virtually no bearing on that. This Fed does not care very much about inflation, which is why they focus on a number (core PCE) which is not only the softest of the available series but also currently is very clearly too low based on a number of temporary effects. Core PCE has a lot to recommend it theoretically. But myopic focus on it (and any discussion at all of headline inflation, which is near zero only because of the oil price crash) can only mean that Federal Reserve policymakers are biased to be doves. But we already knew that. Moreover, if the Fed raises rates tomorrow and does it without removing the quantities of excess reserves in the system, they really aren’t doing much. At least, not much that is helpful.
The second point is that the inflation market continues to price dramatically different inflation over the next few years than we are likely to get. Either energy prices are going to continue to crash – in which case buoyant core inflation will still result in low headline inflation, which is what trades in the market – or they are going to stop crashing, in which case inflation expectations are far too low. There is virtually no chance that core inflation declines any time soon. I can make a case that core will only converge to near median, and then go flat, but unless housing collapses suddenly and unexpectedly core inflation is not going lower. (Of course, one-off effects like the medical care effect can still pervert the core numbers from time to time, which is why I focus on median, but this is inherently difficult to forecast and the one-off effects of course might also be in the upward direction).
Here is a quick follow-up on yesterday’s column, along with an administrative note (at the end). Yesterday, I noted there that momentum investors will begin to lose interest in being long equities as the year-over-year price return goes towards zero. I thought of another way to illustrate the same point, which maybe gets to something more like the average investor thinks.
The average “retail” investor wants big returns, but has a very non-linear response to losses. The reason that individual investors as a whole tend to under-perform institutional investors is that the former tend to exaggerate the effect of losses while underestimating the probability of losses. So, what tends to happen is that individual investors are perennially surprised by negative equity returns (don’t feel bad – financial media is set up to reinforce this bias), and react harshly to mildly negative returns – but not harshly enough to significantly negative returns.
So, the chart below shows a simple calculation of the probability of an equity loss over the next twelve months assuming that the expected return is just the return of the last 12 months, and the standard deviation of the return is the VIX (and assuming distributions are normal…just to complete the list of improbable assumptions). This doesn’t seem unreasonable with respect to assessing a typical investor’s expectations: returns should continue, and volatility is forward-looking.
Maybe it’s just me, but in these terms it seems more amazing. For much of the last few years, the trailing 12 month return was so high that it would take around a one-standard-deviation loss (16% chance) to experience a negative year – if, that is, we use prior returns to forecast future returns. In general, that’s a very bad idea. However, I can’t argue that this naïve approach has failed over the last few years!
What is the trigger that makes investors want to get out? After years of gains are investors going to act like they are “playing with house money” and wait until they get actual losses before they get jittery? Or will a 30-40% subjective chance of loss be enough for them to scale back? I think that this way of looking at the same picture we had yesterday seems much more promising for bulls. But, again, this is only true if valuation doesn’t matter. Stocks look less scary this way…but this is probably not the right way to look at it!
**Administrative Note – I have just agreed to write a book for a terrific publisher. The working title is “What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind.” I am very excited about the project, but it is a lot of work to turn the manuscript out by late August for publication in the fall. My posts here had already been more sporadic than they used to be, but now I actually have an excuse! If you would like to be on the notification list for when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!
Before getting into today’s column, let me first describe my plan of attack for the month of December. I plan to have several comments this week and next week, culminating in my annual “Portfolio Projections” piece at the end of next week. Then, for the last two weeks of the month, I plan to ‘re-blog’ some of my best articles from the last four years (editing out the current events, which will no longer be topical of course). Included in that list is an article on long-run returns to equities, one on Yellen’s defense of large-scale asset purchases, an article on the Phillips Curve, one on why CPI isn’t a bogus construct of a vast governmental conspiracy, and so on. Because I don’t expect some of the places where this column is ‘syndicated’ to post the re-blogs, you should consider going to the source site to sign up for these posts.
With that housekeeping complete, I want to turn today to a scholarly article I recently stumbled on which is worth a read even once you have read my synopsis and comments. The article, written one year ago by Samuel Reynard of the Swiss National Bank, is entitled “Assessing Potential Inflation Consequences of QE after Financial Crises.” It appears to be unpublished except as a working paper, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising since it is so decidedly clear-eyed and takes the consensus view of QE to task.
What I love about this article is that Reynard’s view is remarkably consonant with my own – the only example I can come up with of a reasonably-placed central banker espousing such commonsensical views (Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed gets an honorable mention though), backed with quantitative data and clear reasoning. Here is the paper’s abstract:
“Financial crises have been followed by different inflation paths which are related to monetary policy and money creation by the banking sector during those crises. Accounting for equilibrium changes and non-linearity issues, the empirical relationship between money and subsequent inflation developments has remained stable and similar in crisis and normal times. This analysis can explain why the financial crisis in Argentina in the early 2000s was followed by increasing inflation, whereas Japan experienced deflation in the 1990s and 2000s despite quantitative easing. Current quantitative easing policies should lead to increasing and persistent inflation over the next years.”
In the introduction, the author directly tackles current central bank orthodoxy: “It is usually argued that it is sufficient to monitor inflation expectations, and that central banks can avoid accelerating inflation by quickly withdrawing reserves (or by increasing the interest rate payed on reserves) once inflation expectations start rising. The monetary analysis of this paper however shows that there has never been a situation of excess broad money (created by the banking system) which has not been followed by increasing inflation, and that the increase in inflation occurs after several years lags.”
Reynard starts with the quantity theory of money (MV≡PQ), which I have discussed at length in this column. Regular readers will know that I am careful to distinguish transactional money from base money – as does Reynard – and that the sole reason inflation has not accelerated is that money velocity has declined. This decline is not due to the financial crisis directly, but as I have shown before it is due to the decline in interest rates. This makes monetary policy problematic, since an increase in interest rates which in ordinary times (that is, when there isn’t a couple trillion of excess reserves) would cause M2 to decelerate and dampen inflation will also cause money velocity to rise – offsetting to some extent the effects of the rising interest rates on the money supply. (Among other things, this effect tends to help cause monetary policy to overshoot on both sides). Reynard’s insightful way around this problem is to “model equilibrium velocity as a function of interest rate to reflect changes in inflation environments.” That is, the monetary equation substitutes an interest rate variable, based on a long-run equilibrium relationship with velocity, for velocity itself. In Reynard’s words,
“Thus the observed money level is adjusted…by the interest rate times the estimated semi-elasticity of money demand to account for the fact that, for example in a long-lasting disinflationary environment when inflation and interest rate decrease, the corresponding increase in money demand reflecting the decline in opportunity cost is not inflationary: the price level does not increase with the money level given that equilibrium velocity decreases.”
This is exactly right, and it is exceedingly rare that a central banker has that sort of insight – which is one of the reasons we are in this mess with no obvious way out. Reynard then uses his model to examine several historical cases of post-crisis monetary and inflationary history: Switzerland, Japan, Argentina and the 1930s U.S. He finds that there are downward rigidities to the price level that cause inflation to resist turning negative (or to fall below about 1.5% in the U.S.), but that when there is excess liquidity the link between liquidity and inflation is very tight with a lag of a couple of years. Reynard’s opinion is that it is this non-linearity around price stability that has caused prior studies to conclude there is no important link between money and inflation. As Fama observed back in the early 1980s, and I observe pretty much daily to the point that it is now a prohibited topic at the dinner table, when inflation is very low there is a lot of noise in the money-inflation relationship that makes it difficult to find the signal. But the money-inflation connection at higher levels of inflation and money, and over longer periods of time, is irrefutable.
In the last section of the paper, the author assesses the effects of current QE (through November 2012) on future inflation in the U.S. His conclusion is that “Excess liquidity has always been followed by persistent increases in inflation. Current quantitative easing policies should lead to increasing and persistent inflation over the next years.” The chart accompanying this statement is reproduced below.
As you can see, the model suggests inflation of 3-4% in 2013 and 5% in late 2014. While clearly inflation in 2013 has been lower than suggested by the chart, this isn’t supposed to be a trading model. I suspect that if get 3-4% in 2014 and 5%+ in 2015 (our forecast is for 3.0%-3.6% on core inflation in 2014 and 3.3%-4.8% in 2015), the issue of whether Reynard was essentially correct will not be in question!