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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.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (January 2021)

January 13, 2021 1 comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flip Side of Financialization of Commodities

Recently, a paper by Ilia Bouchouev (“From risk bearing to propheteering”) was published that had some very thought-provoking analysis. The paper traced the development of the use of futures and concluded that while futures markets in the past (specifically, he was considering energy markets but notes the idea started with agricultural commodities) tended towards backwardation – in which contracts for distant delivery dates trade at lower prices than those for nearer delivery dates – this is no longer as true. While others have noticed that futures markets do not seem to provide as much ‘roll return’ as in the past, Mr. Bouchouev suggested that this is not a random occurrence but rather a consequence of financialization. (My discussion of his fairly brief paper will not really do it justice – so go and read the original from the Journal of Quantitative Finance here).

Let me first take a step backward and explain why commodities markets tend towards backwardation, at least in theory. The idea is that a producer of a commodity, such as a farmer growing corn, has an affirmative need to hedge his future production to ensure that his realized product price adequately compensates him for producing the commodity in the first place. If it costs a farmer $3 per bushel to grow corn, and he expects to sell it for $5 per bushel, then he will plant a crop. But if prices subsequently fall to $2 per bushel, he has lost money. Accordingly, it behooves him when planting to hedge against a decline in corn prices by selling futures, locking in his margin. The farmer is willing to do this at a price that is lower than his true expectation, and possibly lower than the current spot price (although, technical note: Keynes’ ‘Theory of Normal Backwardation’ refers to the difference between his expected forward price and the price at which he is willing to sell futures, so that futures prices are expected to be downwardly biased forecasts of prices in the future, and not that they are expected to be actually lower than spot ‘normally’). He is willing to do this in order to induce speculators to take the other side of the trade; they will do so because they expect, on average, to realize a gain by buying futures and selling in the future spot market at a higher price.

Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to convincingly prove normal backwardation for individual commodities, because there is no way to get into the collective mind of market participants to know what they really expect the spot price to be in the future. Some evidence has been found (Till 2000) that a risk premium may exist for difficult-to-store commodities (agricultural commodities, for example), where we may expect producers to be the most interested in locking in an appropriate profit, but on the whole the evidence has been somewhat weak that futures are biased estimators of forward prices. In my view, that’s at least partly because the consumer of the product (say, Nabisco) also has a reason to hedge their future purchases of the good, so it isn’t a one-sided affair. That being said, owners of long futures positions have several other sources of return that are significant and persistent,[1] and so commodity futures indices over a long period of time have had returns and risks that are similar to those found in equity indices but deriving from very different sources. As a consequence, since the mid-2000s institutional investment into commodity indices has been significant compared to the prior level of interest, even as actual commodity returns have disappointed over the last 5-10 years. Which brings us back to Mr. Bouchouev’s story again.

He makes the provocative point that part of the reason commodity returns have been poorer in recent years is because markets have tended more toward contango (higher prices for distant contracts than for those nearer to expiry) than backwardation, and moreover that that is a consequence of the arrival of these institutional investors – the ‘financialization’ of commodities futures markets, in other words. After all, if Keynes was right and the tendency of anxious producers to be more aggressive than patient speculators caused futures to be downwardly biased, then it stands to reason that introducing more price-insensitive, institutional long-only buyers into the equation might tilt that scale in the other direction. His argument is appealing, and I think he may be right although as I said, commodities are still an important asset class – it’s just that the sources of returns has changed over time. (Right now, for what it’s worth, I think the potential return to spot commodities themselves, which are ordinarily a negative, are presently a strong positive given how badly beaten-down they have become over time).

All of that prelude, though, is to point out a wonderful corollary. If it is the case that futures prices are no longer biased lower by as much as they once were, then it means that hedgers are now getting the benefit of markets where they don’t have to surrender as much expectation to hedge. That is, where an oil producer might in the past have had to commit to selling next year’s oil $1 lower than where he expected to be able to sell it if he took the risk and waited, he may now be able to sell it $1 higher thanks to those institutions who are buying long-only indices.

And that, in turn, will likely lead to futures curves being extended further into the future (or, equivalently, the effective liquidity for existing markets will be extended further out). For example, over the last decade there have been several new commodities indices that systematically buy further out the curve to reduce the cost of contango. In doing so, they’re pushing the contango further out, and also providing bids for hedgers to be able to better sell against. So Mr. Bouchouev’s story is a good one, and for those of us who care about the financial markets liquidity ecosystem it’s a beautiful one. Because it isn’t the end of the story. Chapter 1 was producers, putting curves into backwardation to provide an inducement to draw out speculators to be the other side of the hedge. Chapter 2 is Bouchouev’s tale, in which financial buyers push futures markets towards contango, which in turn provides an inducement to draw out speculators on the other side, or for hedgers to hedge more of their production. In Chapter 3, also according to Bouchouev, the market balances with hedgers reacting to economic uncertainty, and speculators fill in the gaps. Of course, in Chapter 4 the Fed comes in and wrecks the market altogether… but let’s enjoy this while we can.


[1] …and beyond the scope of this article. Interested parties may refer to History of Commodities as the Original Real Return Asset Class, by Michael Ashton and Bob Greer, which is Chapter 4 in Inflation Risks and Products, 2008, by Incisive Media. You can contact me for a copy if you are unable to find it.

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!

A Generous Fed Isn’t Really the Good News it Sounds Like

October 31, 2019 14 comments

I understand why people are delighted about Powell’s remarks yesterday, about how the Fed would need to see a significant and sustained increase in inflation before hiking rates again. This generation, and the last, does not see inflation as a significant threat, nor a significant cost should it get going, and believes firmly that the Fed can easily squelch it if it gets going. (They believe this because, after all, the Fed told them so).

Older investors might be more reticent to believe that there’s a pony in there somewhere, since the evidence suggests that not only does inflation erode purchasing power (thereby demanding even more nominal return be provided by portfolios that are already overstretched valuation-wise) but it also ruins the diversification effect of bonds relative to stocks. The main reason that 60:40 is a dramatically lower risk portfolio (and more efficient in an investing sense) than 100% stocks is that stock and bond returns have tended to be inversely correlated for a long time. When stocks go up, bonds go down, in general (and vice-versa). But that’s because they have inverse sensitivities to the economic growth factor. In recent years, that has been the only factor that matters, but stocks and bonds have the same sensitivity to the inflation factor: when inflation goes up, both stocks and bonds tend to decline (and vice-versa). Consequently, when inflation becomes an important element in investors’ calculations the correlation of stocks and bonds tends to be positive and in the immortal words of Billy Joel in “Goodnight Saigon,” “We would all go down together.” Along these lines I recently prepared this chart for Real Asset Strategies,[1] illustrating that when inflation is over about 2.5%, correlations tend to flip. This is a 3-year average of y/y inflation (and shown on the chart as inflation minus 2.5% so the zero line is what matters, not the line at 2.5%) versus 3-year correlations; the point is that you don’t need 4% inflation to drastically change the value of the 60:40 portfolio.

I also think that people give the Fed much more credit for their ability to squelch inflation – which after all they haven’t had to do for more than 30 years after spending 15 years squelching the last round – than they deserve. But that’s a ‘show me’ situation and it’s hard to prove my suspicion that they won’t be so successful when push comes to shove.

So, I understand why people are partying about a Fed that is even looser than it had been. I don’t think that’s the correct response, but I understand it.

I also understand why people are somewhat morose about trade frictions. It isn’t for the right reason, that in the long run it will hurt real growth a smidge and increase inflation a smidge-and-a-half, but because they think it will have a drastic effect on near-term growth. That’s why everyone gets so excited about any inkling the US and China are nearing a trade détente and so depressed when it looks like they aren’t. We are told that the current global slowdown is being caused largely by the trade war.

In my view that’s nonsense. The global economy has been expanding for a decade on exceptionally loose liquidity but no tree grows to the sky. The global economy was slowing well before the trade frictions could possibly have had any impact. But it is hard to convince people of that, because everyone knows that:

GDP = C + I + G + (X-M),

or consumption plus investment plus government spending plus trade. And we learned in school about Ricardian comparative advantage and how trade enriches (or anyway, can enrich) both parties at the same time. So if China doesn’t import anything from the US and doesn’t export anything to the US, growth is going to be crushed, right?

But that’s not how trade works. Frankly, that’s not how anything in the GDP equation works. If you remove the final term, you don’t reduce GDP by (X-M). Sure, if this was an algebra problem you would, but it’s not. In the real world, what you lose from trade gets partially replaced by an increase in consumption, investment, or government. Just as I pointed out last year with soybeans, if China buys zero from us it means they have to buy them from someone else, which means that supplier doesn’t have them to sell to one of their traditional customers…who then buys them from us. Incidentally, neither beans nor corn went to zero after mid-2018 (see chart, source Bloomberg, normalized to December 2017=100).

The rest of trade works the same way if the two parties are “internal customers” and “external customers.” Though there will always be winners and losers, if we don’t have international trade then we won’t have a destination for our merchandise overseas…but we will also have consumers who don’t have Chinese goods to buy and so need to buy something from a domestic producer instead. This is not a zero sum game; it clearly results in a loss for all players. But the order of magnitude of this loss in the short run is not very big at all, especially for a country with a large fraction of its domestic production going to domestic consumption, as in the US but not even for the world at large. The world economy has lots of reasons to slow and go into recession, and trade frictions are one of those reasons, but certainly not the only one and not even the largest reason.

An overreaction by markets to anything in a stream of economic news is not unique or new, of course; those overreactions won Robert Shiller a Nobel Prize after all for his work pointing out the “excess volatility puzzle” as an early highlight of the nascent field of behavioral economics. But there’s a good reason to ignore most of these wiggles and focus on the long-term effect of these developments. Which, in the case of both the general climate of trade and the Fed’s reaction function to inflation, are negatives for both stocks and bonds.


[1] As part of Enduring Intellectual Properties’ investment in Real Asset Strategies, I serve as Director of Research for the firm. Real Asset Strategies LLC offers liquid real asset strategies focused on diversification benefits and inflation protection at reasonable fees.

Spinning Economic Stories

January 4, 2019 5 comments

As economists[1] we do two sorts of things. We do quantitative work, and we tell stories.

One of the problems with economics is that we aren’t particularly regimented about how we convert data into stories and about how we look at stories to decide how to interrogate the data. So what tends to happen is that we have a phenomenon and then we look at what story we like and decide if that’s a reasonable way to explain the data…without asking if there isn’t a more reasonable way to explain the data, or at least another way that’s equally consistent with the data. I’m not saying that everyone does this, just that it’s disturbingly common especially among people being paid to be storytellers and for whom a good story is really important.

So for example, there is a well -known phenomenon that inflation tends to accelerate after the Fed begins raising interest rates.[2] Purporting to explain this phenomenon, here is a popular story that the Fed is just really smart, so they’re ahead of inflation, and when they seeing it moving up just a little bit they can jump on it real quick and get ahead of it and so inflation goes up…but the apparent causality is there because we just knew it was going to go up and acted before the observation of the higher inflation happened. This is basically Keynesian theory combined with “brilliant person” theory.

There is another theory that is consistent with this, of course: monetarism, which explains that increasing interest rates actually causes inflation to move higher, by causing velocity to increase. But, because this isn’t the popular story, this doesn’t get matched up to the data very frequently. In my mind it’s a better theory, because it doesn’t require us to believe that the Fed is super brilliant to make it work. (And, not to get snarky, but the countervailing evidence versus Fed staff economist genius is pretty mountainous). Of course, economists – and the Fed economists in particular – like theories that make them look like geniuses, so they prefer the prior explanation.

But again, as economists we don’t have a good and rigorous way to say that one way is the ‘preferred’ story or to look at other stories that are consistent with our data. We tend to look at what part of the data supports our story – in other words, confirmation bias.

Why this is relevant now is that the Fed is in fact tightening and inflation is in fact heading higher, and the story being pushed by the Fed and some economists is “good thing the Fed is tightening, because it looks like inflation was going up!” The story on the other hand that I have been telling for quite some time (and which I write about in my book) is that it’s partly because the Fed is tightening and interest rates are going up that that inflation is rising, in a feedback loop that is missed in our popular stories. The important part is the next chapter in the story. In the “Fed is getting ahead of it” story, inflation comes down and the Fed is able to stop tightening, achieving a soft landing. In the “rate increase is causing velocity to rise and inflation to rise” story, the Fed keeps chasing the dog which is only running because the Fed is chasing it.

There is another alternative, which really excites the stock market as evidenced by today’s massive – although disturbingly low-volume – rally. That story is that the Fed is going to become more “data dependent” (Chairman Powell suggested something along these lines today), which is great because the Fed has already won on inflation and growth is still okay. So the Fed can stop the autopilot rate hikes. This story unfortunately does require a little suspension of disbelief. For one thing, today’s strong Employment report (Payrolls 370k, including revisions, compared to 184k expectations) is unfortunately a December figure which means it has huge error bars. Moreover, the Unemployment Rate rose to 3.9% from 3.7%, and while a higher Unemployment Rate doesn’t mean the economy is definitely slowing (it could just be that more people are looking for jobs because the job market is so robust – another fun story), it is certainly more consistent with the notion that the economy is slowing at the margin. The fact that the Unemployment Rate went up, while Hourly Earnings rose more than expected and Jobs rose more than expected, should make you suspect that year-end quirkiness might have something to do with the figures. For the decades I’ve watched economic data, I always advise ignoring the January and February Employment Reports since the December/January changes in payroll are so large that the noise swamps the signal. But professional storytellers aren’t really content to say “this doesn’t really mean anything,” even if that’s the quantitative reality. They get paid to spin yarns, so spin yarns they do.

Yeah, about those wages: I’m not really sure why economists were expecting hourly earnings to decelerate this month. All of the anecdotal data, along with other wage measures, are suggesting that wages are rising apace (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker vs AHE). Not really a surprise, even given its compositional challenges, that AHE is also rising.

The thing about all of these stories is that while they can’t change the actual reality, they can change how reality is priced. This is one of the reasons that we get bubbles. The stories are so powerful that trading against them, with a ‘value’ mindset for example, is quixotic. Ultimately, in the long run, the value of the equity market is limited by fundamentals. But in the short run, it is virtually unlimited because of valuation multiples (price as a speculative multiple of fundamental earnings, e.g.) and those valuation multiples are driven by stories. And that’s a big reason that bullish stories are so popular.

But consider this bearish footnote on today’s 3.4% S&P rally: volume in the S&P constituents today was lower than the volume was on December 26! To be fair, the volume yesterday, when the S&P declined 2.5%, was even a bit lower than today’s volume. It’s typical thin and whippy first-week-of-the-year trading. Let’s see what next week brings.


[1] People occasionally ask me why I didn’t go on for my MA or PhD in Economics. I reply that it’s because I learned my Intermediate Microeconomics very well: I stopped going for a higher degree when the marginal costs outweighed the marginal benefits. When you look at it that way, it makes you wonder whether the PhD economists aren’t just the bad students who didn’t absorb that lesson.

[2] It’s referred to as the “price puzzle”; see Martin Eichenbaum, “Interpreting Macroeconomic Time Series Facts: The Effects of Monetary Policy: Comments.” European Economic Review, June 1992. And Michael Hanson, “The ‘Price Puzzle’ Reconsidered,” Journal of Monetary Economics, October 2004.

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.

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.

Signs of a Top, OR that I am a Grumpy Old Man

June 20, 2018 4 comments

I was at an alternative investments conference last week. I always go to this conference to hear what strategies are in vogue – mostly for amusement, since the strategies that are in vogue this year are ones they will spit on next year. Two years ago, everyone loved CTAs; last year the general feeling was “why in the world would anyone invest in CTAs?” Last year, the buzzword was AI strategies. One comment by a fund-of-funds manager really stuck in my head, and that was that this fund-of-funds was looking for managers with quantitative PhDs but specifically ones with no market experience so that “they don’t have preconceived notions.” So, you can tell how that worked out, and this year there was no discussion of “AI” or “machine learning” strategies.

This year, credit strategies were in vogue and the key panel discussion involved three managers of levered credit portfolios. Not surprisingly, all three thought that credit is a great investment right now. One audience question triggered answers that were striking. The question was (paraphrasing) ‘this expansion is getting into the late innings. How much longer do you think we have until the next recession or crisis?” The most bearish of the managers thought we could enter into recession two years from now; the other two were in the 3-4 year camp.

That’s borderline crazy.

It’s possible that the developing trade war, the wobbling of Deutsche Bank, the increase in interest rates from the Fed, higher energy prices, Italy’s problems, Brexit, the European migrant crisis, the state pension crisis in the US, Elon Musk’s increasingly erratic behavior, the fact that the FANG+ index is trading with a 59 P/E, and other imbalances might not unravel in the next 3 years. Or 5 years. Or 100 years. It’s just increasingly unlikely. Trees don’t grow to the sky, and so betting on that is usually a bad idea. But, while the tree still grows, it looks like a good bet. Until it doesn’t.

There are, though, starting to be a few peripheral signs that the expansion and markets are experiencing some fatigue. I was aghast that venerable GE was dropped from the Dow Jones to be replaced by Walgreens. Longtime observers of the market are aware that these index changes are less a measure of the composition of the economy (which is what they tell you) and more a measure of investors’ animal spirits – because the index committee is, after all, made up of humans:

  • In February 2008 Honeywell and Altria were replaced in the Dow by Bank of America (right before the largest banking crisis in a century) and Chevron (oil prices peaked over $140/bbl in July 2008).
  • In November 1999, Chevron (with oil at $22) had been replaced in the Dow (along with Sears, Union Carbide, and Goodyear) by Home Depot, Intel, Microsoft, and SBC Communications at the height of the tech bubble, just 5 months before the final melt-up ended.

It isn’t that GE is in serious financial distress (as AIG was when it was dropped in September 2008, or as Citigroup and GM were when they were dropped in June 2009). This is simply a bet by the index committee that Walgreens is more representative of the US economy than GE and coincidentally a bet that the index will perform better with Walgreens than with GE. And perhaps it will. But I suspect it is more about replacing a stodgy old company with something sexier, which is something that happens when “sexy” is well-bid. And that doesn’t always end well.

After the credit-is-awesome discussion, I also noted that credit itself is starting to send out signals that perhaps not all is well underneath the surface. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the S&P 500 in orange, inverted, against one measure of corporate credit spreads in white.

Remember, equity is a call on the value of the firm. This chart shows that the call is getting more valuable even as the first-loss piece (the debt) is getting riskier – or, in other words, the cost to bet on bankruptcy, which is what a credit spread really is, is rising. Well, that can happen if overall volatility increases (if implied volatility rises, both a call and a put can rise in value which is what is happening here), so these markets are at best saying that underlying volatility/risk is rising. But it’s also possible that the credit market is merely leading the stock market. It is more normal for these markets to correlate (inverted) over time – see the chart below, which shows the same two series for 2007-2009.

I’m not good at picking the precise turning points of markets, especially when values start to get really bubbly and irrational – as they have been for some time. It’s impossible to tell when something that is irrational will suddenly become rational. You can’t tell when the sleepwalker will wake up. But they always do. As interest rates, real interest rates, and credit spreads have risen and equity yields have fallen, it is getting increasingly difficult for me to see why buying equities makes sense. But it will, until it doesn’t.

I don’t know whether the expansion will end within the next 2, 3, or 4 years. I am thinking it’s more likely to be 6 months once the tax-cut sugar high has truly worn off. And I think the market peak, if it isn’t already in, will be in within the next 6 months for those same reasons as companies face more difficult comps for earnings growth. But it could really happen much more quickly than that.

However, I recognize that this might really just mean that I am a grumpy old man and you’re all whippersnappers who should get off my lawn.

You Haven’t Missed It

April 26, 2018 2 comments

A question I always enjoy hearing in the context of markets is, “Have I missed it?” That simple question betrays everything about the questioner’s assumptions and about the balance of fear and greed. It is a question which, normally, can be answered “no” almost without any thought to the situation, if the questioner is a ‘normal’ investor (that is, not a natural contrarian, of which there are few).

That is because if you are asking the question, it means you are far more concerned with missing the bus than you are concerned about the bus missing you.

It usually means you are chasing returns and are not terribly concerned about the risks; that, in turn – keeping in mind our assumption that you are not naturally contrary to the market’s animal spirits, so we can reasonably aggregate your impulses – means that the market move or correction is probably underappreciated and you are likely to have more “chances” before the greed/fear balance is restored.

Lately I have heard this question arise in two contexts. The first was related to the stock market “correction,” and on at least two separate occasions (you can probably find them on the chart) I have heard folks alarmed that they missed getting in on the correction. It’s possible, but if you’re worried about it…probably not. The volume on the bounces has diminished as the market moves away from the low points, which suggests that people concerned about missing the “bottom” are getting in but rather quickly are assuming they’ve “missed it.” I’d expect to see more volume, and another wave of concern, if stocks exceed the recent consolidation highs; otherwise, I expect we will chop around until earnings season is over and then, without a further bullish catalyst, the market will proceed to give people another opportunity to “buy the dip.”

The other time I have heard the angst over missing the market is in the context of inflation. In this, normal investors fall into two categories. They’re either watching 10-year inflation breakevens now 100bps off the 2016 lows and 50bps off the 2017 lows and at 4-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg) and thinking ‘the market is no longer cheap’, or they just noticed the well-telegraphed rise in core inflation from 1.7% to 2.1% over the last several months and figuring that the rise in inflation is mostly over, now that the figure is around the Fed’s target and back at the top of the 9-year range.

Here again, the rule is “you didn’t miss it.” Yes, you may have missed buying TIPS 100bps cheap to fair (which they were, and we pointed it out in our 2015Q3 Quarterly Inflation Outlook to clients), but breakevens at 2.17% with median inflation at 2.48% and rising (see chart, source Bloomberg), and still 25bps below where breakevens averaged in the 5 years leading up to the Global Financial Crisis, says you aren’t buying expensive levels. Vis a vis commodities: I’ve written about this recently but the expectations for future real returns are still quite good. More to the point, inflation is one of those circumstances where the bus really can hit you, and concern should be less about whether you’ve missed the gain and more about whether you need the protection (people don’t usually lament that they missed buying fire insurance cheaper, if they need fire insurance!).

(In one way, these two ‘did I miss it’ moments are also opposites. People are afraid of missing the pullback in stocks because ‘the economy still looks pretty strong,’ but they’re afraid they missed the inflation rally because ‘the economy is going to slow soon and the Fed is tightening and will keep inflation under control.’ Ironically, those are both wrong.)

My market view is this:

  • For some time, TIPS have been very cheap to nominal bonds, but rich on an absolute Negative real yields do not a bargain make, even if they look better than other alternatives when lots of asset classes are even more expensive. But as real yields now approach 1% (70bps in 5y TIPS, 80bps in 10y TIPS), and with TIPS still about 35bps cheap to nominal bonds, they are beginning to be palatable to hold on their own right. And that’s without my macro view, which is that over the next decade, one way or the other, inflation protection will become an investment theme that people tout as a ‘new focus’ even though it’s really just an old focus that everyone has forgotten. But the days of <1% inflation are over, and we aren’t going to see very much <2% either. We may not see 4% often, or for long, but at 3% inflation is something that people need to take into account in optimizing a portfolio. I think we’re at that inflection point, but if not then we will be in a year or two. And TIPS are a key, and liquid, component of smart real assets portfolios.
  • Stocks have been outrageously expensive with very poor forward return expectations for a long time. However, these value issues have been overwhelmed by strong momentum (that, honestly, I never gave enough credit to) and the currently in-vogue view that momentum is somehow better than value. But perennially strong momentum is no longer a foregone conclusion. Momentum has stalled in the stock market – the S&P has broken the 50-day, 100-day, and (a couple of times, though only briefly so far) 200-day moving averages. The 50-day has now crossed below the 100-day. And the longer that the market chops sideways the weaker the momentum talisman becomes. Eventually, the value anchor will take over. There may be more chop to come but as I said above, I think another leg down is likely to come after earnings season.

And so, in neither case have you “missed it.”

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