I am sure that in my career I have seen weirder reactions, but when the Durable Goods number came out and plainly was significantly weaker-than-expected and energy rallied I must admit it was hard to think of one.
Presumably the reaction was an indirect one: weaker growth means the Fed is less likely to tighten, which means a lower dollar and hence, higher global demand for oil. But that seems a wild overthink. If there is a recession in the offing, and if we care about demand in oil markets (and I think we should), then weak economic growth from one of the world’s largest economies probably ought to be reflected in lower oil prices.
There is part of me that wants to say “maybe investors have finally realized that any given month of Durable Goods Orders is almost meaningless because the volatility of the number makes it hard to reject any particular null hypothesis.” I haven’t done this recently, but many years ago I discovered that a forecast driven by the mechanical rule of -0.5 times last month’s Durables change had a better forecasting record than Street economists. Flip the sign, divide by two. However, I don’t really think the market suddenly got wise.
I also don’t think it’s that a bunch of people got the API report, which came out at 4:30pm to subscribers only, early. That report supposedly showed a large draw in crude inventories when a build was expected – but I’m not into conspiracy theories. That would be too obvious, anyway.
The perspective of analysts on Bloomberg was that the oil market will “rebalance” this year, a point which isn’t very far from the point I made last week in my article “Don’t Forget Oil Demand Elasticity!” But rebalancing doesn’t mean that prices should go higher. They have, after all, already gone quite a bit off the lows. By our proprietary measure, the real price of oil is at a level which implies a 10-year expected real return of about 1% per annum. In other words, it’s within about 10% of fair value quantitatively; given the immense supply overhang that doesn’t seem to promise lots of upside from these levels.
It isn’t just energy. The Bloomberg Commodity Index is 15% off its January lows (see chart, source Bloomberg). Precious metals, industrial metals, softs, grains, and meats are all above their lows of the last 1-2 quarters.
Unfortunately, much of this is simply a function of the dollar’s retracement. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index (left axis, inverted) against the broad trade-weighted dollar. Heck, arguably commodities are still lagging.
But the winds of change do seem to be about. Last week, the Treasury auctioned 5y TIPS; though this isn’t an event in and of itself, the fact that the auction was strongly bid is certainly unusual. The 5y TIPS are a difficult sell. People who are concerned about inflation are typically looking to protect against the long-term. But TIPS also represent real interest rate risk, and if you think inflation is going to be rising near-term then you probably don’t want to own lots of interest rate risk. Sure, you’ll prefer inflation-linked real rates to nominal rates (see my timely comment from January, “No Strategic Reason to Own Nominal Bonds Now”: since then, 10y real yields have fallen 40bps while 10y nominal yields have fallen 7bps), but if you really think inflation is about to rear its ugly head then you don’t want any real or nominal duration but only inflation duration.
And inflation duration has lately been doing really well. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the marked rebound in the 10-year breakeven inflation rate since February 9th.
I think there’s some evidence that the pendulum of complacency on inflation has begun finally to swing back the other way. Core inflation is rising in Europe, the UK, Japan, and the US, and it was inevitable that someone would notice. Ironically, it took energy’s rally to make people notice (and energy, of course, isn’t in core inflation). But what do I care?
If in fact the pendulum of complacency and concern has finally reversed, then both stocks and bonds are in for a rough ride. Bonds may be marginally protected by a dovish Fed, but that only works as long as the inscrutable Fed stays dovish…or inscrutable.
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(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link.)
In the long list of nightmares that market risk managers have to wrestle with on a daily basis, some have gradually receded. For competently-run banks and large trading institutions, the possibility of a rogue trader making undiscovered trades or mis-marking his own book – another Nick Leeson – is increasingly remote given the layers of oversight. But one nightmare in particular has been increasing in frequency since 2009, especially as Volcker Rule and Dodd-Frank restrictions have been implemented.
The concern is market illiquidity. Every year that goes by, liquidity in the financial markets is declining. This is not apparent to the casual observer, or casual investor, who faces a tight market for his hundred- or thousand-lot. But probably every institutional investor has a story of how his attempt to hit a bid on the screens resulted in his trading the minimum size while the rest of the bid fled with sub-millisecond dispatch. And so the question is: if your mutual fund is hit by redemptions at the same time that its market (equities, emerging markets, credit?) is falling apart – and that is the normal time that redemptions swell – then at what price will it be able to get out? And what if there is no bid at all that is big enough?
Banks and other dealing institutions have responded to both the new regulatory restrictions themselves, and to the effects of the restrictions, by decreasing the size of their balance sheet dedicated to trading. Much of the apparent ‘liquidity’ in the market now is provided by the algos (the algorithmic trading systems) who as we have seen can be there and gone in an eyeblink. I am not aware of anything that has been done in the wake of the various “flash crashes” we have seen that would lead me to have great confidence that in the next big market discontinuity markets will function any better than they did in 2008. In fact, public liquidity is quite a bit smaller and I would expect them to function a fair bit worse.
Yes, many institutions have begun to access “dark pools” where they face anonymous counterparties in crossing large trades, rather than chasing hair-trigger algos for a fraction of the size they need. But nothing is particularly soothing about the dark pools, either (starting with their name). The whole point of a market discontinuity is that flow traders end up all on the same side of the flow; in these times we want the speculative traders with big balance sheets to take the other side of trades at a price that reflects a reasonable return on their capital. Those spec traders, or at least the big-balance-sheet banks, aren’t providing extra liquidity in dark pools either.
Banks have also responded to the beat-down regularly administered by socialists like Bernie Sanders and by sympathetic ears in the press (and among the populist splinters of the right as well) – by cutting the experienced and expensive traders who have more experience in pricing scarce liquidity, and perhaps finding it sometimes. Again, none of this makes me optimistic about how we will handle the next “event.”
None of this rant is new, really. But what is interesting and new is that the illiquidity is starting to show up in very visual ways. Regular readers know that my primary area of domain expertise is in rates, and specifically in inflation. Consider the chart below (source: Enduring Investments), which I would consider strong evidence that market liquidity in inflation is worse now than it was two years ago. The chart shows 1-year inflation forward from various points on the inflation curve. That is, the point on the far left is 1 year inflation, 0 years forward (in other words, today’s 1-year inflation swap). The next point is 1 year inflation, 1 year forward. And so on, so that the last point is 1 year inflation, 29 years forward.
Ignore the level of inflation expectations generally – that isn’t my point here. Obviously, inflation expectations are lower and that is not news. But the curve from two years ago shows a nice, smooth, “classic rates derivatives” shape. Inflation is priced in the market as rising in smooth fashion. This doesn’t mean that anyone really expects that inflation will rise smoothly like that; only that such is the best single guess and, moreover, one that has nice characteristics in terms of derivatives pricing and transparency.
The blue curve shows the curve from last Thursday. Now, I could have chosen any curve in the last month or two and they would have been similarly choppy. You can see that the market is evidently pricing in that inflation will be 1.72% over the next year, and then decline, then rise, then decline, then rise irregularly until 9 years from now when it will abruptly peak and descend.
That’s a mess, and it is an indication that liquidity in the inflation swaps market is insufficient to pull the curves into a nice, smooth shape. This is analogous to one important characteristic of a planet, from an astrophysicist’s point of view: any body that is not sufficiently massive to pull itself into a sphere is not a planet, by definition. I would argue that the inability of the market to pull the inflation curve into a nice and smooth “derivatives” shape is an early warning sign that the “mass” of liquidity in this market – and in others – is getting worse in a visually-apparent way.
Would you rather have a bar of chocolate today, or one year from today?
Most of us, if we like chocolate, would prefer to have a bar of chocolate today rather than at some point in the future. If you don’t care for chocolate, how about money? Would you rather have $100 today, or $100 next year?
The reason that Wimpy’s “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” ploy doesn’t work is that we would prefer to have the money today compared to the money on Tuesday. If Wimpy wants his burger today, but doesn’t have the money for it, then he must borrow the money and pay that money back on Tuesday. Because of our time preference for money, this will cost Wimpy something extra, as he needs to incentivize us to part with the money today so that he can get his burger now.
This is where it gets weird.
We are now in a Wimpy world. Not only can Wimpy get his burger today, it costs him less if he borrows the money because interest rates are negative. That is, “I’ll gladly pay you less money than the burger costs, and not until Tuesday, for the burger today.” And we are enthusiastically answering, “Sure! Sounds like a great deal!”
This is one weird implication of negative interest rates. If the yield curve was flat at a negative interest rate, it would imply that the further in the future something is, the more valuable it is. A dollar next week is worth more than a dollar today. With negative discount rates, a chocolate bar next year is preferable to a chocolate bar today. And poor Wimpy…being forced to have a hamburger today when a hamburger on Tuesday would be so much better!
It gets even weirder if the yield curve is initially negative but slopes upwards and eventually becomes positive. That implies that discount rates (time preferences) are negative at first, but then flip around and become normal at some point in the future. So there is one day in the future where value is maximized, and it’s less valuable to get money after that date or before that date.
You think this is mere theory, but this is happening internally to derivatives books even as we speak. The models are implying that money later is worth more than money now, because money now costs money to have. And from the standpoint of bank funding, that is absolutely true.
Another strange implication: in general, stocks that do not pay dividends should trade at lower multiples (relative to the firm’s growth) because, being valued only on some terminal cash flow date (when a dividend is paid or when the company is bought out), they’re worth less. But now it is better for a stock to not pay dividends; those dividends have negative value. Technically speaking, this means that companies which cut their dividends should trade at higher prices after the cut.
I can think of more! Ordinarily, if your child enters college the institution will offer you an incentive to pay four years’ tuition at a reduced rate, up front (or at a frozen rate). But, if interest rates are negative, the college should demand a premium if you want to pay up front. Similarly, car companies should insist that you take out a zero-interest-rate loan or else pay a premium if you feel you must pay cash.
In this topsy-turvy world, it is good to be in debt and bad to have a nest egg.
Neighbors appreciate you borrowing a cup of sugar and frown at you when you return it.
Burglars put off burglaries. Baseball teams sign the worst players to the longest deals. Insurance companies pay out life insurance before you die.
And all thanks to negative interest rate policies from your friendly neighborhood central bank. I will thank them tomorrow, when they’ll appreciate it more.
The news on Friday that the Bank of Japan had joined the ECB in pushing policy rates negative was absorbed with brilliant enthusiasm on Wall Street. At least, much of the attribution for the exceptional rally was given to the BoJ’s move. I find it implausible, arguably silly, to think that a marginal change in monetary policy by a desperate central bank on the other side of the world – however unexpected – would have a massive effect on US stocks. Subsequent trading, which has reversed almost all of that ebullience in two days, suggests that other investors also may agree that just maybe the sorry state of earnings growth rates in this country, combined with a poor economic outlook and still-lofty valuations, should matter more than Kuroda’s gambit.
To be sure, this is a refrain that Ben Bernanke (remember him? Of helicopter infamy?) was singing last month, before the Federal Reserve hiked rates impotently, and clearly the Fed is investigating whether negative rates is a “tool” they should add to their oh-so-expansive toolbox for fighting deflation.
Scratch that. The Fed no longer needs to fight deflation; inflation is at 2.4% and rising. The toolbox the Fed is interested in adding to is the one that contains the tools for goosing growth. That toolbox, judging from historical success rates, is virtually empty. And always has been.
Back to Japan: let me point out that if the BOJ goal has been to extinguish deflation, it has already done so. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows core inflation in Japan for the last 20 years or so. Abstracting from the sales-tax-related spike, core inflation has risen fairly steadily from -1.5% to near 1.0% since mid-2010.
They did this, very simply, by working to accelerate money supply growth from the 1.5%-2.0% growth that was the standard in the late pre-crisis period to over 4% by 2014 and 2015 (see chart, source: Bloomberg).
Not rocket science, folks. Monetary science.
Now, recently money supply growth has begun to fall off, so the BoJ likely was concerned by that and wants to find a way to ensure that inflation doesn’t slip back. If that was their intention, then cutting rates was exactly the wrong thing to do. The regression below (source: Bloomberg) illustrates in a different way what I have shown here before: interest rates and money velocity are closely tied (as Friedman explained decades ago). The r-squared of this relationship – assuming that functionally a linear fit is appropriate, which I am not sure of – is a heady 0.822.
You may notice the data is from the US; that’s because Bloomberg doesn’t have a good velocity series for Japan’s M2 but the causal relationship is the same: lower term interest rates imply less reason not to hold cash.
Now, it may be the case that this relationship ceases to apply at negative rates even though the idea is based on the relative difference between cash yielding zero and longer-term investments or consumption alternatives. The reason that velocity might behave differently at sub-zero rates is that people respond asymmetrically to losses and gains. That is, the pleasure of a gain is dominated by the pain of the same-sized loss, in most people. This cognitive bias may cause savers/investors to behave strikingly different if they are charged for deposits than if they are merely paid zero on those deposits (even if zero is lower than other available rates). In that case, we might see a spike in money velocity once rates go through zero as cash balances become hot-potatoes, just as if investment opportunities suddenly appeared. And rates, not just overnight but term rates, just went negative in Japan. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the 5y JGB rate.
- The speculation that sub-zero rates might cause a rise in velocity is just that: speculation. There’s no data to suggest that this effect exists.
- Frankly, I suspect it doesn’t, but it’s possible. However, if it does I would expect it to be a spot discontinuity in the relationship between rates and velocity. That is, the behavior should change between 0% and some negative rate, but then be somewhat linear thereafter. Cognitively, the reaction is both a general loss aversion, which is linear but no different at negative rates from zero, and a behavioral “endowment” reaction that is to the “taking” of money from a person and not necessarily related to the size of the theft.
- If it does exist, it still doesn’t mean that cutting rates to a negative rate was wise. After all, quantitative easing has done a fine job of pushing up inflation, and so there is no reason to take a speculative gamble like this to keep inflation moving higher. Just do more of the same. Lots more.
- More likely, the BoJ is doing this because they believe that negative rates will stimulate growth. This is much more speculative than you might think, and I may be overgenerous in phrasing the point that way. In any case, any growth benefit would stem either from weakening the currency (which QE would also do, with less risk) or from provoking investment in more marginal ventures that become acceptable at lower financing rates. We call that malinvestment, and it isn’t a good thing.
- Whatever the point of the BoJ’s move, the size of any growth effect from currency reactions is utterly dependent on the reaction function of trading counterparties. If other countries seek to devalue their currencies as well, then the whole operation will be inert.
So, will the BoJ’s move save US stocks? Heck, it won’t even save the Japanese economy.
Today I presented our 2016 inflation forecast to the investment committee for a multifamily office, and when I was putting the presentation together I developed one slide that really is a must-see for investors in my opinion.
For some time, TIPS have been too cheap. Really, it has been more than a year that our metrics have shown inflation-linked bonds as not just cheap, but really cheap compared to nominal bonds. I don’t mean that real yields will fall – so this isn’t a statement about whether I am bullish or bearish on fixed-income. Frankly, I am somewhat conflicted on that point at this moment.
Rather, it is a statement about what sort of fixed-income instruments to own, for that part of your portfolio that needs to be in fixed-income. If you are running a diversified portfolio, then you can’t really avoid owning some bonds even if you are bearish on the bond market. For risk-reduction reasons if for no other, it makes sense to own some bonds.
But you don’t have to own fixed-coupon nominal bonds (or, for that matter, floating-coupon nominal bonds which are still exposed to inflation through the principal of the instrument). In fact, right now it is hard for me to imagine betting on nominal bonds for the portion of my portfolio that is in fixed-income.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is the picture:
The chart shows rolling, compounded 10-year inflation rates for as far back as we have reasonable data. And it shows the current level of 10-year inflation “breakevens.” What this means is that if you are long Treasuries, rather than TIPS, you will do better over the next ten years if inflation is below 1.34% and above roughly zero. If we have big deflation, TIPS will do just about as well since they are also principal protected; if we have any inflation over 1.34%, TIPS will do better.
And as the chart points out, since the Fed has been formed we have literally had almost zero 10-year periods in which inflation was in the 0-1.34% zone. Perhaps the 10-year periods ending early in the Great Depression, en route to big deflation, or coming out of the Great Depression heading into WWII. But otherwise, inflation has always been either higher or, in a Fed-screw-up scenario, much lower.
Put another way, it means that if you choose to own nominal bonds instead of inflation-linked bonds for the next 10 years, you are short a straddle on inflation, and you’re not being paid much to be short it. (Technically, you’re short a zero-cost ratio call spread since you don’t lose in deflation, but I’m trying to keep it simple!)
There may be tactical reasons to prefer nominal bonds to inflation-linked bonds. But to me, there is no clear strategic reason to be long nominal bonds for that portion of your portfolio that you intend to keep in fixed-income.
Economics is too important to be left to economists, apparently.
When the FOMC minutes were released this afternoon, I saw the headline “Some FOMC Members Saw ‘Considerable’ Risk to Inflation Outlook” and my jaw dropped. Here, finally, was a sign that the Fed is not completely asleep at the wheel! Here, finally, was a glimmer of concern from policymakers themselves that the central bank may be behind the curve!
Alas…my jaw soon returned to its regular position when I realized that the risk to the inflation outlook which concerned the FOMC was the “considerable” risk that it might fall.
A quick review is in order. I know it is a new year and we are still shaking off the eggnog cobwebs. Inflation is caused (only) when money growth is faster than GDP growth. In the short run, that holds imprecisely because of the influence of money velocity, but we also have a pretty good idea of what causes money velocity to ebb and flow: to wit, interest rates (more precisely, investment opportunities, which can be simply modeled by interest rates but more accurately should include things such a P/E multiples, real estate cap rates, and so on). And in the long run, velocity does not continue to move permanently in one direction unless interest rates also continue to move in that direction.
It is worth pointing out, in this regard, that money growth continues to swell at a 6.2% domestically over the last 12 months, and nothing the Fed is currently contemplating is likely to slow that growth since there are ample excess reserves to support any lending that banks care to do. But it is also worth pointing out that inflation is currently at 7-year highs and rising, as the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows.
Core inflation is also rising in Japan (0.9%, ex-food and energy, up from -0.9% in Feb 2013), the Eurozone (0.9% ex-food and energy, up from 0.6% in January 2015), and recently even in the UK where core is up to 1.2% after bottoming at 0.8% six months ago. In short, everywhere we have seen an acceleration in money growth rates, we are now seeing inflation. The only question is “why has it taken so long,” and the answer to that is “because central banks held interest rates, and hence velocity, down.”
In other words, as we head towards what looks very likely to be a global recession (albeit not as bad as the last one), we are likely to see inflation rates rising rather than falling. The only caveat is that if interest rates remain low, then the uptick in inflation will not be terrible. And interest rates are likely to remain relatively low everywhere, especially if the Fed operates on the basis of its expectations rather than on the basis of its eyeballs and holds off on further “tightenings.”
Because the Fed has really put itself in the position where most of the things it would normally do are either ineffective (such as draining reserves to raise interest rates) or harmful (raising rates without draining reserves, which would raise velocity and not slow money growth) if the purpose is to restrain inflation. It would be best if the Fed simply worked to drain reserves while slack in the economy holds interest rates (and thus velocity) down. But that is the sort of thinking you won’t see from economists but rather from engineers looking to get Apollo 13 safely home.
Want to try and get Apollo 13 safely back home? Go to the MV≡PQ calculator on the Enduring Investments website and come up with your own M (money supply growth), V (velocity change), and Q (real growth) scenarios. The calculator will give you a grid of outcomes for the average inflation rate over the period you have selected. Remember that this is an identity – if you get the inputs right, the output will be right by definition. Some numbers to remember:
- Current velocity is 1.49 or so; prior to the crisis it was 1.90 and that is also the average over the last 20 years. The all-time low in velocity prior to this episode was in the 1960s, at about 1.60; the high in the 1990s was 2.20.
- As for money supply growth, the y/y rate plunged to 1.1% or so after the crisis and it got to zero in 1995, but the average since 1980 including those periods is roughly 6% where it is currently. Rolling 3-year money growth has been between 4% and 9% since the late 1990s, but in the early 80s was over 10% and it declined in the mid-1990s to around 1%.
- Rolling 3-year GDP growth has been between 0% and 5% since the 1980s. In the four recessions, the lows in rolling 3-year GDP were 0.2%, 1.7%, 1.7%, and -0.4%. The average was about 3.9% in the 1980s, about 3.2% in the 1990s, about 2.7% in the 2000s, and 1.8% (so far) in the 2010s.
Remember, the output is annualized inflation. Start by assuming average GDP, money growth, and ending velocity for some period, and then look at what annualized inflation would work out to be; then, figure out what it would have to be to get stable inflation or deflation. You will find, I think, that you can only get disinflation if money growth slows remarkably (and unexpectedly) and velocity remains unchanged or goes to new record lows. Try putting in some “normal” figures and then ask yourself if the Fed really wants to get back to normal.
And then ask yourself whether you would want Greenspan, Bernanke, and Yellen in charge of getting our boys back from the moon.
I almost never do this, but I am posting here some remarks from another writer. My friend Andy Fately writes a daily commentary on the FX markets as part of his role at RBC as head of US corporate FX sales. In his remarks this morning, he summed up Yellen’s speech from yesterday more adroitly than I ever could. I am including a couple of his paragraphs here, with his permission.
Yesterday, Janet Yellen helped cement the view that the Fed is going to raise rates at the next FOMC meeting with her speech to the Washington Economic Club. Here was the key paragraph:
“However, we must also take into account the well-documented lags in the effects of monetary policy. Were the FOMC to delay the start of policy normalization for too long, we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from significantly overshooting both of our goals. Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession. Moreover, holding the federal funds rate at its current level for too long could also encourage excessive risk-taking and thus undermine financial stability.” (Emphasis added).
So after nearly seven years of zero interest rates and massive inflation in the size of the Fed balance sheet, the last five of which were in place after the end of the Financial Crisis induced recession, the Fed is now concerned about encouraging excessive risk-taking? Really? REALLY? That may be the most disingenuous statement ever made by a Fed Chair. Remember, the entire thesis of QE was that it would help encourage economic growth through the ‘portfolio rebalancing channel’, which was a fancy way of saying that if the Fed bought up all the available Treasuries and drove yields to historic lows, then other investors would be forced to buy either equities or lower rated debt thus enhancing capital flow toward business, and theoretically impelling growth higher. Of course, what we observed was a massive rally in the equity market that was based largely, if not entirely, on the financial engineering by companies issuing cheap debt and buying back their own shares. Capex and R&D spending have both lagged, and top-line growth at many companies remains hugely constrained. And the Fed has been the driver of this entire outcome. And now, suddenly, Yellen is concerned that there might be excessive risk-taking. Sheesh!
Like Andy, I have been skeptical that uber-dove Yellen would be willing to raise rates unless dragged kicking and screaming to that action. And, like Andy, I think the Chairman has let the market assume for too long that rates will rise this month to be able to postpone the action further. Unless something dramatic happens between now and the FOMC meeting this month, we should assume the Fed will raise rates. And then the dramatic stuff will happen afterwards. Actually I wouldn’t normally expect much drama from a well-telegraphed move, but in an illiquid market made more illiquid by the calendar in the latter half of December, I would be cutting risk no matter which direction I was trading the market. I expect others will too, which itself might lead to some volatility.
There is also the problem of an initial move of any kind after a long period of monetary policy quiescence. In February 1994, the Fed tightened to 3.25% after what was to that point a record period of inaction: nearly one and a half years of rates at 3%. In April 1994, Procter & Gamble reported a $102 million charge on a swap done with Bankers Trust – what some at the time said “may be the largest ever” swaps charge at a US industrial company. And later in 1994, in the largest municipal bankruptcy to that point, Orange County reported large losses on reverse repurchase agreements done with the Street. Robert Citron had seen easy money betting that rates wouldn’t rise, and for a while they did not. Until they did. (It is sweetly sentimental to think of how the media called reverse repos “derivatives” and were up in arms about the leverage that this manager was allowed to deploy. Cute.)
The point of that trip down memory lane is just this: telegraphed or not (it wasn’t like the tightening in 1994 was a complete shocker), there will be some firms that are over-levered to the wrong outcome, or are betting on the tightening path being more gradual or less gradual than it will actually turn out to be. Once the Fed starts to raise rates, the tide will be going out and we will find out who has been swimming naked.
And the lesson of history is that some risk-taker is always swimming naked.