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

October 31, 2019 Leave a comment

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.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (October 2019)

October 10, 2019 Leave a 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 with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments or Enduring Intellectual Properties (updated sites coming soon). 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.

  • CPI day! Want to start today with a Happy Birthday to @btzucker , good friend and inflation trader extraordinaire at Barclays. And he does NOT look like he is 55.
  • We are coming off not one not two but THREE surprisingly-high core CPI prints that each rounded up to 0.3%. The question today is, will we make it four?
  • Last month, the big headliners were core goods, which jumped to 0.8% y/y – the highest in 6 years or so – and the fact that core ex-housing rose to 1.7%, also the highest in 6 years.
  • Core goods may have some downward pressure from Used Cars this month, as recent surveys have shown some softness there and we have had two strong m/m prints in the CPI, but core goods also has upward tariffs pressure, and pharma recently has been recovering some.
  • (The monetarist in me also wants to point out that we have M2 growth accelerating and near 6% y/y, and it’s also accelerating in Europe…but I also expect that declining interest rates are going to drag on money velocity. Neither of those is useful for forecasting 1 month tho)
  • Now, one thing I am NOT paying much attention to is yesterday’s soggy PPI report. There’s just not a lot of information in the broad PPI, with respect to informing a CPI forecast. I mostly ignore PPI!
  • The consensus forecast for today calls for a soft 0.2%. I don’t really object to that forecast. We are due for something other than 0.3%. But I would be surprised if we got something VERY soft. I think those 0.3%s are real.
  • Unless we get less than 0.12%, though, we won’t see core CPI decline below 2.4% (rounded). And if we get 0.222% or above, we will see it round UP to 2.5%. That’s because we are dropping off one more softish number, from Sep 2018, in the y/y.
  • Median, as a reminder, is 2.92%, the highest since late 2008. It’s going to take a lot to get back to a deflation scare, even if inflation markets are currently pricing a fairly rapid pivot lower in inflation. I don’t think they’re right. Good luck today.
  • Obviously a pretty soft CPI figure. 0.13% on core, 2.36% y/y.

  • This is not going to help the new 5yr TIPS when the auction is announced later. But let’s look at the breakdown. Core goods fell to 0.7% from 0.8%, and core services stable at 2.9%.
  • As expected, CPI-Used Cars and Trucks was soft. -1.63% m/m in fact. That actually raises the y/y slightly though, to 2.61% from 2.08%. There’s more softness ahead.

  • OER (+0.27%) and Primary rents (+0.35%) were both higher this month and the y/y increased to 3.40% and 3.83% respectively. So why was m/m so soft? Used cars is worth -0.05% or so, but we need more to offset the strong housing.
  • (Lodging away from home also rebounded this month, +2.09% m/m vs -2.08% last month).
  • Big drop in Pharma, which is surprising: -0.79% m/m, dropping y/y back to -0.31%. That’s still well off the lows of -1.64% a few months ago.
  • Core ex-shelter dropped to 1.55% y/y from 1.70% y/y. That’s still higher than it has been for a couple of years.
  • Apparel dropped -0.38% on the month. The new methodology is turning out to be more volatile than the old methodology, which is fine if apparel prices are really that volatile. I’m not sure they are. y/y for apparel back to -0.32%.
  • Yeah, apparel is just reflecting the strong dollar, but I’m still surprised that we haven’t seen more trade-tension effect.

  • So, Physicians’ services accelerated to 0.93% y/y from 0.71%. And Hospital Services roughly unchanged. Pharma as I said was down (in prescription, flat on non-prescription). Health Insurance still +18.8% y/y (was 18.6% last month).
  • A reminder that “health insurance” is a residual, and you’re likely not seeing that kind of rise in your premiums. But I suspect it means that there are other uncaptured effects that should be allocated into different medical care buckets, or perhaps this leads those movements.
  • So even with that pharma softness, overall Medical care (8.7% of the CPI) was exactly unchanged at 3.46% y/y.
  • College Tuition and Fees decelerated to 2.44% from 2.51%. But that’s mostly seasonal adjustment – really, there’s only 1 College Tuition hike every year, and it just gets smeared over 12 months. Tuition is still outpacing core, but by less.
  • Largest drops in core m/m were Women’s/Girls’ apparel(-18.7% annualized), Used Cars & Trucks(-17.9%), Infants’/Toddlers’ apparel(-13.4%), Misc Personal Goods(-12.1%), and Jewelry/Watches (-11.9%). Biggest gainers: Lodging away from home(+28.1%) & Men’s/Boys’ Apparel.(+25.5%)
  • Here’s the thing. Median? It’s a little hard to tell because the median categories look like the regional housing indices, but I think it won’t be lower than +0.25% unless my seasonal is way off. And that will put y/y Median CPI at 3%.

  • The big difference between the monthly median and core figures is because the core is an average, and this month that average has a lot of tail categories on the low side while the middle didn’t move much.
  • That’s why, when you look at the core CPI this month, there’s nothing that really jumps out (other than used cars) as being impactful. You have moves by volatile components, but small ones like jewelry and watches or Personal Care Products.
  • Here is OER, in housing, versus our forecast. There’s no real slowdown happening here yet, and that’s going to keep core elevated for a while unless non-housing just collapses. And there’s no sign of that – core ex-housing, as I noted, is still around 1.4%.

  • So, this is a fun chart. In white is the median CPI, nearing the highs from the mid-90s, early 2000s, and late 2000s. Now compare to the 5y Treasury yield in purple. Last time Median was near this level, 5s were 3-4%.

  • Another fun chart. Inflation swaps vs Median CPI. Not sure I’ve ever seen a wider spread. Boy are investors bearish on inflation.

  • Here is the distribution of inflation rates, by low-level components. You can see the long tails to the downside that are keeping core lower than where “most” prices are going. So inflation swaps aren’t as wrong as median makes them look…if the tails persist. Not sure?

  • So four pieces: food & energy, about 21% of CPI.

  • Core goods, about 19%. Backed off some, but still an important story.

  • Core services less rent of shelter. About 27% of CPI. And right now, meandering. Real question is whether rise in health care inflation is going to pass through eventually to other components or if it is transitory. If the former, there’s a big potential upside here.

  • And rent of shelter, about 33% of CPI. As noted, this ought to decelerate some, but no real indication it’s about to collapse. And you can’t get MUCH lower inflation unless it rolls over fairly hard.

  • Really, the summary today is that there isn’t anything that looks like a sea change here. Most prices continue to accelerate. Now, next month the comparison is harder as Oct 2018 core was +0.196%. Month after was +0.235%. So some harder comps coming for core.
  • That said, I continue to think that we’ll see steady to higher inflation for the balance of this year with an interim peak coming probably Q1-Q2 of next year. But the ensuing trough won’t be much of a trough, and the next peak will be higher.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in.

I don’t think there is anything in this report that should change any minds. The Fed ought to be giving inflation more credit and be more hesitant to be cutting rates, but they are focused on the wrong indicator (core PCE) and, after all, don’t really want to be the guys spoiling the party. I think they’ll be slow, but we’re entering a recession (if we’re not already in one) and since the Federal Reserve utterly believes that growth causes inflation, they will tend to ignore a continued rise in inflation as being transitory. Since they said it was transitory when it dipped a couple of years ago – and it really was – they will be perceived as having some credibility…but back then, there really was some reason to think that the dip was transitory (the weird cell phone inflation glitch, among them), and there’s no real sign right now that this increase in inflation is transitory.

Yes, I think inflation will peak in the first half of 2020, but I’m not looking for a massive deceleration from there. Indeed, given how low core PCE is relative to better measures of inflation, it’s entirely possible that it barely declines while things like Median and Sticky decelerate some. Again, I’m not looking for inflation or, for that matter, anything that would validate the very low inflation expectations embedded in market prices. The inflation swaps market is pricing something like 1.5% core inflation for the next 8 years. Core inflation is currently almost a full percentage point higher, and unlikely to decline to that level any time soon! And breakevens are even lower, so that if you think core inflation is going to average at least 1.25% for the next 10 years, you should own inflation-linked bonds rather than nominal Treasuries. I know that everyone hates TIPS right now, and everyone will tell you you’re crazy because “inflation isn’t going to go up.” If they’re right, you don’t lose anything, or very little; if they’re wrong, you have the last laugh. And much better performance.

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.

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.

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