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The Downside of Balancing US-China Trade

January 18, 2019 Leave a comment

The rumor today is that China is going to resolve the trade standoff by agreeing to balance its trade with the US by buying a trillion dollars of goods and services over the next four years. The Administration, so the rumor goes, is holding out for two years since that will look better for the election. They should agree to four, because otherwise they’re going to have to explain why it’s not working.

I ascribe approximately a 10% chance that the trade balance with China will be at zero in four years. (I’m adjusting for overconfidence bias, since I think the real probability is approximately zero.) But if it does happen, it is very bad for our financial markets. Here’s why.

If China buys an extra trillion dollars’ worth of US product, where do they get the dollars to do so? There are only a few options:

  1. They can sell us a lot more stuff, for which they take in dollars. But that doesn’t solve the trade deficit.
  2. They can buy dollars from other dollar-holders who want yuan, weakening the yuan and strengthening the dollar, making US product less competitive and Chinese product more competitive globally. This means our trade deficit with China would be replaced by trade deficits with other countries, again not really solving the problem.
  3. They can use the dollars that they are otherwise using to buy financial securities denominated in dollars, such as our stocks and bonds.

The reality is that it is really hard to make a trade deficit go away. Blame the accountants, but this equation must balance:

Budget deficit = trade deficit + domestic savings

If the budget deficit is very large, which it is, then it must be financed either by running a trade deficit – buying more goods and services from other countries than they buy from us, stuffing them with dollars that they have no choice but to recycle into financial assets – or by increased domestic savings. So, let’s play this out and think about where the $500bln per year (the US trade deficit, roughly, with the rest of the world) is going to come from. With the Democrats in charge of Congress and an Administration that is liberal on spending matters, it seems to me unlikely that we will see an abrupt move into budget balance, especially with global growth slowing. The other option is to induce more domestic savings, which reduces domestic consumption (and incidentally, that’s a counterbalance to the stimulative growth effect of an improving trade balance). But the Fed is no longer helping us out by “saving” huge amounts – in fact, they are dis-saving. Inducing higher domestic savings would require higher market interest rates.

The mechanism is pretty clear, right? China currently holds roughly $1.1 trillion in US Treasury securities (see chart, source US Treasury via Bloomberg).

China also holds, collectively, lots of other things: common equities, corporate bonds, private equity, US real estate, commodities, cash balances. Somewhere in there, they’ll need to divest about a trillion dollars’ worth to get a trillion dollars to buy US product with.

The effect of such a trade-balancing deal would obviously be salutatory for US corporate earnings, which is why the stock market is so ebullient. But it would be bad for US interest rates, and bad for earnings multiples. One of the reasons that financial assets are so expensive is that we are force-feeding dollars to non-US entities. To the extent that we take away that financial inflow by balancing trade and budget deficits, we lower earnings multiples and raise interest rates. This also has the effect of inducing further domestic savings. Is this good or bad? In the long run, I feel reasonably confident that having lower multiples and more-balanced budget and trade arrangements is better, since it lowers a source of economic leverage that also (by the way) tends to increase the frequency and severity of financial crack-ups. But in the short run…meaning over the next few years, if China is really going to work hard to balance the trade deficit with the US…it means rough sledding.

As I said, I give this next-to-no chance of China actually balancing its trade deficit with us. But it’s important to realize that steps in that direction have offsetting effects that are not all good.

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

September 19, 2018 14 comments

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

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

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

I just didn’t say five years from when.

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

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

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

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

Now we get to the really cool part.

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

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

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


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

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.

A Real Concern About Over(h)eating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2018)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guyPV and get this in real time, by going to PremoSocial. Until the end of June, you can get $9.99 off (one month free, or a discount off the already-discounted annual plan) by using code “tryme”. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments or Enduring Intellectual Properties. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • 27 minutes to CPI! Here are my pre-figure thoughts:
  • Last month (April CPI) was a big surprise. The 0.098% rise in core was the lowest in almost a year, rewarding those economists who see this recent rise as transitory. (I don’t.)
  • But underneath the headlines, April CPI was nowhere near as weak as it seemed. The sticky prices like housing were stronger and much of the weakness came from a huge drop in Used Cars and Trucks, which defied the surveys.
  • Medical Care and Apparel were also both strong last month.
  • Now, BECAUSE the weakness was concentrated in a small number of categories that had large moves, median inflation was still +0.24% last month, which drives home the fact that the underlying trend is much stronger than 0.10% per month.
  • The question this month is: do we go back to what we were printing, 0.18%-0.21% per month (that’s the 2 month and 6 month avg prior to last month, respectively), or do we have a payback for the weak figure last month?
  • To reiterate – there were not really any HIGH SIDE upliers to potentially reverse. Maybe housing a touch, but not much. To me, this suggests upside risk to the consensus [which is around 0.17% or so and a bump up (due to base effects) to 2.2% y/y].
  • I don’t make monthly point forecasts, but I would say there’s a decent chance of an 0.21% or better…which number matters only since it would accelerate the y/y from 2.1% to 2.3% after rounding. So I agree with @petermcteague here, which is a good place to be.
  • Note there’s also the ongoing risk each month of seeing tariffs trickle through or trucking pressures start to diffuse through to other goods prices. Watch core goods.
  • So those are my thoughts. Put it this way though – I don’t see much that would cause the Fed to SLOW the rate hike plans, at least on the inflation side. Maybe EM or something not US economy-related, but we’d have to have a shockingly broadly weak number to give the FOMC pause.
  • Starting to wonder why we even both with an actual release. Economists nailed it, 0.17% m/m on core, 2.21% y/y.
  • That’s a 2.05% annualized increase. Which would be amazing if the Fed could nail that every month.

  • Core goods accelerated to -0.3% from -0.4%, so the jump there hasn’t happened. Core services moved up to 3.0% from 2.9%. That is the highest core services since Feb 2017, but not absurd.
  • still waiting on core goods acceleration…

  • Used cars and trucks again dropped sharply. -0.89% after -1.59% last month. That’s m/m. The y/y is -1.68%. Again, that’s at odds with all of the private surveys and is a big disconnect. I can’t explain it.
  • Owners’ Equiv Rent put in another solid month +0.25% m/m, up to 3.41% y/y. Starting to get a bit ahead of our model again.

  • Large jump in lodging away from home, 2.93% m/m. That takes the y/y to 4.29%. LAFH is only 0.9% of CPI, but that’s an outlier that will probably come back next month.
  • Medical Care scored a solid 0.2%, accelerating to 2.38% y/y.

  • Pharma (3.73% vs 2.65%), Doctor’s Services (0.55% vs 0.31%), and Hospital Services (4.74% vs 4.49%) all accelerated.
  • Apparel was flat on the month, but that moved y/y up to 1.4% vs 0.8%.
  • Neither stocks nor breakevens care about this figure. Summer has set in. It used to be that the summer lull was a couple of weeks in August. Then it went to all of August as the US mirrored Europe. Now it pretty much starts in June and lasts until Labor Day.
  • I forgot to mention Primary Rents, by the way. They actually decelerated to 3.63% y/y from 3.70%, which takes some the sting out of a potential OER reversal. The Primary Rents move was countertrend so it should also retrace next month. But only 1/3 of the weight of OER.
  • The Primary Rents move does tend to reinforce the message of our model, that OER is a tiny bit out over its skis. However as that chart illustrated, it can diverge a bunch from our model.
  • Biggest m/m declines were in Car and Truck Rental and Public Transportation (what’s up with vehicles??), followed by Mens and Boys’ Apparel. I’ve mentioned Used Cars and Trucks. Household Furnishings also weak.
  • Biggest m/m increases are the aforementioned Lodging Away from Home, Infants and Toddlers’ Apparel, Motor Fuel, and Medical Care Commodities (mostly Pharma).
  • All of the median categories are Rent and OER subcategories which are hard to get a read on, but median should again be mid-0.2s, probably 0.26-0.27% m/m pushing y/y to nearly 2.7% on Median CPI! Last mo was highest since 1/09; this would be highest since 2008.
  • This is median BEFORE today’s figure, which will come later. And I could be wrong about it.

  • Core ex-housing, something worth watching especially since housing seems back in an uptrend, rose to 1.29% from 1.21%. That’s the highest since Jan 2017, but it hasn’t been higher than 1.61% since early 2013. Right now can still claim it’s a housing story.
  • Putting together the four-pieces charts.
  • Still not much action in inflation markets. From the swap curve: US #Inflation mkt pricing: 2018 2.2%;2019 2.2%;then 2.3%, 2.4%, 2.4%, 2.4%, 2.5%, 2.5%, 2.4%, 2.5%, & 2028:2.5%.
  • Four Pieces: Food & Energy first. Roughly 21% of CPI.

  • Core Goods, about 19% or so of CPI. Rising very slowly. If core inflation is to reach ‘escape velocity’ this needs to rise a fair amount. Tariffs will help that, eventually.

  • Core services, less rent of shelter. About 27% of overall CPI. Lot of medical care here, which as we expected has been pulling this higher. Again, for CPI to reach escape velocity you’d want to see this above 3%.

  • And the big kahuna, housing, about 1/3 of overall CPI. Had a steady run-up, got ahead of itself and came back to model, and now is accelerating again. Housing indeed looks tight, and this should continue especially if wages continue to accelerate.

  • Diffusion look at inflation is still pretty dull. Slightly less than half of all categories of CPI are accelerating faster than 3%. But that’s been very consistent between 40% and 50% (obviously at ~50%, median CPI would be at 3%).

  • OK, last overall point. May was an easy hurdle to get an acceleration in y/y, as May 2017 was only +0.08. June and July of last year were both +0.143%, so again we should see more acceleration. Y/y core CPI should be at 2.3% next mo & hit 2.4% in Sept just on base effects.
  • …that’s merely assuming 0.2% per month from core CPI, which is between what TTM core says it is and what median stays it is. If we print just a smidge above 0.2% per month we could hit 2.5% in November. Again, that’s assuming no big acceleration in underlying pressures.
  • I happen to believe there ARE some underlying pressures so I think we’ll hit 2.5% sooner than that and median will press 3%. Nothing super alarming for the Fed, but somewhat discomfiting. The real test will be once we hit Dec and Jan and those hard comps.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in, and thanks for subscribing to the modestly-priced premium channel. I really appreciate your voting with your dollars in this way!

Breakevens eventually did care a little bit, rising a tick or so. Market-wise, today’s number continues to do two things. First, it doesn’t really give any reason for the Fed to arrest or delay its current plans to gradually hike overnight rates. There was no surprise here – this is still all very much in the realm of base effects as we drop off the strange deceleration from last year. Second, there’s really no reason for interest rates in the US to stay below 3%. In an expanding economy with accelerating inflation which is already at 2.2%, or 2.7% on median, a 3% nominal yield makes little sense. Real yields, and nominal yields, are too low. So, honestly, are breakevens…inflation swaps are showing forward expected inflation rates of no more than 2.5% out for many years, even though median inflation (and headline inflation!) is already above that level. You have to have a great deal of faith in an untested hypothesis – the idea that inflation expectations will be ‘anchored’ and overwhelm any effects from tariffs, actual production bottlenecks, and monetary largesse, to keep inflation low and steady – to be actively shorting inflation at these levels, and if you’re buying Treasuries at yields below 3% you are actively betting on inflation declining.

If it seems a strange time to be making that bet, I agree with you. But market sentiment is clearly biased in favor of a belief that the weather will always be sunny and warm and that neither inflation nor commodities will go higher, or equities or bonds lower, from these levels. The contrary evidence about inflation, anyway, continues to build and to my mind it requires an increasing effort of will to ignore that evidence.

European Inflation Concerns Also Rising?

In this space I write a lot about inflation, but specifically I focus mostly on US inflation. However, inflation is substantially a global process – a paper by two ECB economists in 2005 (and our independent followup) found that nearly 80% of the variance in inflation in the G7 and G12 could be accounted for by a common factor. This observation has investment implications, but I’m not focusing on those here…I’m just presenting that fact to explain why I am about to show a chart of European inflation.

Right, so technically it’s my second article in a row in which I mention European inflation. In last Friday’s “Potpourri for $500, Alex”, I noted that core European inflation rebounded to 1.1% after being counted for dead at 0.7% last month. But what is illustrated above is the inflation swaps market, and so is forward-looking. I think this looks a lot more dramatic: investors expect 5-year European inflation to average 1.5% over the next 5 years (a year ago, they were at 1.1% or so and two years ago the market was at 0.7%), and to converge up towards 1.8% where the 5y, 5y forward inflation swap indicates the approximate long-run expectation since it’s not significantly influenced by wiggles in energy.

What is especially interesting though is not the overall trend. Inflation markets everywhere, with the exception of the UK, have been trending higher for a couple of years – you are forgiven if you hadn’t heard that, but the ‘disinflation’ lobby is strong (most of the equity houses have some skin in the game in that direction, after all). No, what is most interesting to me is that inflation swaps have been trending higher recently even though energy prices have been in retreat and even though European yields (outside of Italy) have mostly been in decline. It isn’t as if Euro area growth has been setting the world afire. The currency has been weakening as US growth seems to be outstripping growth on the continent and as the European ‘experiment’ once again looks to be under stress.

What Euro inflation investors may believe, though, are two things. First, a trade war is really bad for inflation, and probably moreso for Europe than the US since there is a larger external sector. Trade frictions are bad for everyone, of course, but a splintering of the Euro bloc would be the ultimate in trade frictions. Second, the ECB is being much slower to stop QE and raise rates than is the Fed. Heck, the ECB’s deposit facility is still at -0.40%, where it has been for 2016. While I am in the camp that rates are of limited importance when economic liquidity is far larger than the economy demands (that is, when there are inert excess reserves), that’s not a mainstream view and as much as I would like to believe otherwise, markets respond to the mainstream view and not mine!

For some time, we’ve favored European ILB over US ILB, and that has been a steady if unexciting trade. Even after this move, European inflation bonds are still considerably cheap to US TIPS, which are themselves still fairly cheap relative to nominal US rates.

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