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And Now Their Watch is Ended

August 3, 2020 3 comments

At one time, fiscal deficits mattered. There was a time when the bond market was anthropomorphized as a deficit-loathing scold who would push interest rates higher if asked to absorb too much new debt from the federal government. The ‘bond vigilantes’ were never an actual group, but as a whole (it was thought) the market would punish fiscal recklessness.

Of course, any article mentioning the bond vigilantes must include the classic account by Bob Woodward, describing how then-President Bill Clinton reacted to being told that running too-large deficits would cause interest rates to rise and tank the economy: “Clinton’s face turned red with anger and disbelief. ‘You mean to tell me that the success of the program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of ****** bond traders?’”

Truth be told, this was always a bit of a crock in the big scheme of things. Although the bond market occasionally threw a tantrum when Big Government programs were announced, the bond traders have always been there when the actual paper hit the street. The chart below shows 10-year yields versus the rolling 12-month federal deficit. Far from being deficit scolds, bond market investors have always behaved more as if bonds were Giffen goods (whose price gets higher when there is more supply, and lower when there is less supply, in the opposite manner from ‘normal’ microeconomic dynamics). I guess so long as we are doing a walk down economic history lane, we could also say that the bond market followed a financial version of Say’s law: that supply creates its own demand…

Well, if ever there was a time for the market to get concerned about deficits, now is surely it. While the Fed continues to buy massive quantities of paper (to “ensure the smooth functioning of the markets”, as it surely does since if they were not buying such quantities the adjustment may be anything but smooth), there is still an enormous amount of Treasury debt in private hands. And it all yields far less than the rate of inflation. Clearly, these private investors are not alarmed by the three-trillion-dollar deficit, nor of the effect that the Fed buying a large chunk of it could have on the price level.

If investors are not alarmed by a $3T deficit – and, aside from market action being so benign, consider whether you’ve read any such alarm in the financial press – then it’s probably fair to say that there isn’t a deficit amount that would alarm them. Always before, if the market absorbed an extra-large deficit there was always at least the concern that it might choke on all that paper. Or, if it didn’t, that surely we were at the upper level of what could be absorbed. I don’t sense anything like the unease we’ve seen in prior deficit spikes. And that’s what alarms me. Because, as I tell my kids: a rule without enforcement means there isn’t a rule. Investors are not putting any limitation on the federal balance; ergo there is no limit.

Well, perhaps by itself that’s not a big deal. Heck, maybe deficits really don’t matter. But what bothers me is that the risk to that possibility is one-sided. If deficits don’t matter, then no biggie. But if they do matter, and the bond vigilantes are dead so that there is no push-back, no enforcement of that rule, then it follows that the only speed limit that will be enforced is when the car hits the tree. That is, if there is no alarm that causes the market to discipline the government spenders before there’s a crack-up, then eventually there will be a crack-up with 100% probability (again, assuming that deficits do matter at some level, and maybe they don’t).

While the vigilantes kept watch, there was scant worry that a government auction would fail. Although, as I’ve pointed out, the vigilantes weren’t macro-enforcers there were sometimes micro-aggressions: sudden interest rate adjustments where yields would jump 100bps in six weeks, say. This doesn’t happen any longer. So, while there’s plenty of money floating about right now to buy this zero-yielding debt, the larger the bond market gets the more of that money it will be sucking up. Unless, that is, the amount of money expands faster than the amount of debt (so that the debt shrinks in real terms), which is another way to say that the price level rises sharply. In that case, in order to keep the markets “orderly” the Federal Reserve will have to take more and more of that zero-yielding debt out of the market, replacing it with cash. It’s easy to see how that could spiral out of control quickly, as well.

I am not sure how close we are to such a crack-up. It could be years away; it could be weeks. But without the bond vigilantes, there’s no law in this town at all.

Low Real Yields – You Can’t Avoid Them

July 29, 2020 7 comments

Recently, 10-year real yields went to new all-time lows. Right now, they’re at -0.96%. What that means is that, if you buy TIPS, you’re locking in a loss of about 1% of your purchasing power, per year, over the next decade. If inflation goes up 2%, TIPS will return about 1%. If inflation goes up 8%, TIPS will return 7%. And so on.

With that reality, I’ve recently seen lamentations that TIPS are too expensive – who in the world would buy these real yields?!?

The answer, of course, is everybody. Indeed, if you can figure out a way to buy an asset without locking in the fundamental reality that the real risk-free rate is -1%, please let me know.

Because when you buy a nominal Treasury bond, you are buying them at a nominal interest rate that reflects a -1% real interest rate along with an expectation of a certain level of inflation. The whole point of the Fisher equation is that a nominal yield consists of (a) the real cost of money, and (b) compensation for the expected deterioration in the value of that money over time – expected inflation.[1] So look, if you buy nominal yields, you’re also getting that -1% real yield…it’s just lumped in with something else.

Well golly, then we should go to a corporate bond! Yields there are higher, so that must mean real yields are higher, right? Nope: the corporate yield is the real yield, plus inflation compensation, plus default risk compensation. Your yield is higher because you’re taking more (different) risks, but the underlying compensation you’re receiving for the cost of money is still -1%.

Commodities! Nope. Expected commodity index returns consist of expected collateral return, plus (depending how you count it) spot return and roll return. But that collateral return is just a fixed-income component…see above.

Equities, of course, have better expected returns over time not because they are somehow inherently better, but because buyers of equities earn a premium for taking on the extra risk of common equities – cleverly called the equity risk premium – over a risk-free investment.

In fact, the expected returns for all long positions in investments consist of the same basic things: a real return for the use of your money, and a premium for any risk you are taking over and above a riskless investment (the riskless investment being, we know, an inflation-linked bond and not a nominal bond). This is the whole point of the Capital Asset Pricing Model; this understanding is what gives us the Security Market Line, although it’s usually drawn incorrectly with T-bills as the risk-free asset. Here is the current market line we calculate, using our own models and with just a best-fit line in there showing the relationship between risk and return. Not that long ago, that entire line was shifted higher more or less in parallel as real interest rates were higher along with the expected returns to every asset class:

So why am I mentioning this? Because I have been hearing a lot recently about how people are buying stocks because TINA (There Is No Alternative) when yields are this low. But if the capital asset pricing model means anything, that is poor reasoning: your return to equity investment incorporates the expected real return to a riskless asset. There is an alternative to equities and equity risk; what there’s no alternative to is the level of real rates. The expected real return from here for equities is exceptionally poor – but, to be fair, so are the expected real returns from all other asset classes, and for some of the same reasons.

This is a consequence, of course, of the massive amount of cash in the system. Naturally, the more cash there is, then the worse the real returns to cash because a borrower doesn’t need to compensate you as much for the use of your money when there’s a near-unlimited amount of money out there. And the worse the real returns to cash, the worse the real returns to everything else.

You can’t avoid it – it’s everywhere. I don’t know if it’s the new normal, but it is the normal for now.


[1] Unhelpfully, the Fisher equation also notes that there is an additional term in the nominal yield, which represents compensation being taken on by the nominal bondholder for bearing the volatility in the real outcome. But it isn’t clear why the lender, and not the borrower, ought to be compensated for that volatility…the borrower of course also faces volatility in real outcomes. In any event, it can’t be independently measured so we usually just lump that in with the premium for expected inflation.

The Big Bet of 10-year Breakevens at 0.94%

March 11, 2020 5 comments

It is rare for me to write two articles in one day, but one of them was the normal monthly CPI serial and this one is just really important!

I have been tweeting constantly, and telling all of our investors, and anyone else who will listen, that TIPS are being priced at levels that are, to use a technical term, kooky. With current median inflation around 2.9%, 10-year breakevens are being priced at 0.94%. That represents a real yield of about -0.23% for 10-year TIPS, and a nominal yield of about 0.71% for 10-year Treasuries. The difference in these two yields is 0.94%, and is approximately equal to the level of inflation at which you are indifferent to owning an inflation-linked bond and a nominal bond, if you are risk-neutral.

First, a reminder about how TIPS work. (This explanation will be somewhat simplified to abstract from interpolation methods, etc). TIPS, the U.S. Treasury’s version of inflation-linked bonds, are based on what is often called the Canadian model. A TIPS bond has a stated coupon rate, which does not change over the life of the bond and is paid semiannually. However, the principal amount on which the coupon is paid changes over time, so that the stated coupon rate is paid on a different principal amount each period. The bond’s final redemption amount is the greater of the original par amount or the inflation-adjusted principal amount.

Specifically, the principal amount changes each period based on the change in the Consumer Price All Urban Non-Seasonally Adjusted Index (CPURNSA), which is released monthly as part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI report. The current principal value of a TIPS bond is equal to the original principal times the Index Ratio for the settlement date; the Index Ratio is the CPI index that applies to the coupon date divided by the CPI index that applied to the issue date.

To illustrate how TIPS work, consider the example of a bond in its final pay period. Suppose that when it was originally issued, the reference CPI for the bond’s dated date (that is, its Base CPI) was 158.43548. The reference CPI for its maturity date, it turns out, is 201.35500. The bond pays a stated 3.375% coupon. The two components to the final payment are as follows:

(1)          Coupon Payment = Rate * DayCount * Stated Par * Index Ratio

= 3.375% * ½ * $1000 * (201.35500/158.43548)

= $21.45

(2)          Principal Redemption = Stated Par * max [1, Index Ratio]

= $1000 * (201.35500/158.43548)

= $1,270.90

Notice that it is fairly easy to see how the construction of TIPS protects the real return of the asset. The Index Ratio of 201.35500/158.43548, or 1.27090, means that since this bond was issued, the total rise in the CPURNSA – that is, the aggregate rise in the price level – has been 27.09%. The coupon received has risen from 3.375% to an effective 4.2892%, a rise of 27.09%, and the bondholder has received a redemption of principal that is 27.09% higher than the original investment. In short, the investment produced a return stream that adjusted upwards (and downwards) with inflation, and then redeemed an amount of money that has the same purchasing power as the original investment. Clearly, this represents a real return very close to the original “real” coupon of 3.375%.

Now, there is an added bonus to the way TIPS are structured, and this is important to know at times when the market is starting to act like it is worried about deflation. No matter what happens to the price level, the bond will never pay back less than the original principal. So, in the example above the principal redemption was $1,270.90 for a bond issued at $1,000. But even if the price level was now 101.355, instead of 201.355, the bond would still pay $1,000 at maturity (plus coupon), even though prices have fallen since issuance. That’s why there is a “max[ ]” operator in the formula in (2) above.

So, back to our story.

If actual inflation comes in above the breakeven rate, then TIPS outperform nominals over the holding period. If actual inflation comes in below the breakeven rate, then TIPS underperform over the holding period. But, because of the floor, there is a limit to how much TIPS can underperform relative to nominals. However, there is no limit to how much TIPS can outperform nominals. This is illustrated below. For illustration, I’ve made the x-axis run from -4% compounded deflation over 10 years to 13% compounded inflation over 10 years. The IRR line for the nominal Treasury bond is obviously flat…it’s a fixed-rate bond. The IRR line for the TIPS bond looks like a call option struck near 0% inflation.

Note that, no matter how far I extend the x-axis to the left…no matter how much deflation we get…you will never beat TIPS by more than about 1% annualized. Never. On the other hand, if we get 3% inflation then you’ll lose by 2% per year. And it gets worse from there.

Because annualizing the effect makes this seem less dramatic, let’s look instead at the aggregate total return of TIPS and Treasuries. For simplicity, I’ve assumed that coupons are reinvested at the current yield to maturity of the 10-year note, which would obviously not be true at high levels of inflation but is in fact the simplifying assumption that the bond yield-to-maturity calculation makes.

So, if you own TIPS in a deflationary environment, you’ll underperform by about 10% over the next decade. Treasuries will return 7.3% nominal; TIPS will return -2.3% nominal. Unfortunate, but not disastrous. But if inflation is 8%, then your return on Treasuries will still be 7.3%, but TIPS will return 103%. Hmmm. Yay, your 10-year nominal Treasuries paid you back, plus 7.3% on top of that. But that $1073 is now worth…$497. Booo.

So the point here is that at these prices you should probably own TIPS even if you think we’re going to have deflation, unless you are really confident that you’re right. You are making a much bigger bet than you think you’re making.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (February 2020)

February 13, 2020 1 comment

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

  • Welcome to CPI day! Before we get started, note that at about 9:15ET I will be on @TDANetwork with @OJRenick to discuss the inflation figures etc. Tune in!
  • In leading up to today, let’s first remember that last month we saw a very weak +0.11% on core CPI. The drag didn’t seem to come from any one huge effect, but from a number of smaller effects.
  • The question of whether there was something odd with the holiday selling calendar, or something else, starts to be answered today (although I always admonish not to put TOO much weight on any single economic data point).
  • Consensus expectations call for +0.2% on core, but a downtick in y/y to 2.2% from 2.3%. That’s not wildly pessimistic b/c we are rolling off +0.24% from last January.
  • Next month, we have much easier comparisons on the y/y for a few months, so if we DO drop to 2.2% y/y on core today that will probably be the low for a little while. Feb 2019 was +0.11%, March was +0.15%, April was +0.14%, and May was +0.11%.
  • So this month we are looking to see if we get corrections of any of last month’s weakness. Are they one-offs? We are also going to specifically watch Medical Care, which has started to rise ominously.
  • One eye also on core goods, though this should stay under pressure from Used Cars more recent surveys have shown some life there. Possible upside surprise because low bar. Don’t expect Chinese virus effect yet, but will look for signs of it.
  • That’s all for now…good luck with the number!
  • Small upside surprise this month…core +0.24%, and y/y went up to 2.3% (2.27% actually).
  • We have changes in seasonal adjustment factors and annual and benchmark revisions to consumption weights this month…so numbers are rolling out slowly.
  • Well, core goods plunged to -0.3% y/y. A good chunk of that was because Used Cars dropped -1.2% this month, down -1.97% y/y.
  • Core services actually upticked to 3.1% y/y. So the breakdown here is going to be interesting.
  • Small bounce in Lodging Away from Home, which was -1.37% m/m last month. This month +0.18%, so no big effect. But Owners Equivalent Rent jumped +0.34% m/m, to 3.35% y/y from 3.27%. Primary Rents +0.36%, 3.76% y/y vs 3.69%. So that’s your increase in core services.
  • Medical Care +0.18% m/m, 4.5% y/y, roughly unchanged. Pharma fell -0.29% m/m after +1.25% last month, and y/y ebbed to 1.8% from 2.5%. That goes the other way on core goods. Also soft was doctors’ services, -0.38% m/m. But Hospital Services +0.75% m/m.
  • Apparel had an interesting-looking +0.66% m/m jump. But the y/y still decelerated to -1.26% from -1.12%.
  • Here is the updated Used Cars vs Black Book chart. You can see that the decline y/y is right on model. But should reverse some soon.

  • here is medicinal drugs y/y. You can see the small deceleration isn’t really a trend change.

  • Hospital Services…

  • Primary Rents…now, this and OER are worth watching. It had been looking like shelter costs were flattening out and possibly even decelerating a bit (not plunging into deflation though, never fear). This month is a wrinkle.

  • Core ex-housing 1.53% versus 1.55% y/y…so no big change there. The upward pressure on core today is mostly housing.
  • Whoops, just remembered that I hadn’t shown the last-12 months’ chart on core CPI. Note that the next 4 months are pretty easy comps. We’re going to see core CPI accelerate from 2.3%.

  • So worst (core) categories on the month were Used Cars and Trucks and Medical Care Commodities, which we’ve already discussed. Interesting. Oddly West Urban OER looks like it was down m/m although my seasonal adjustment there is a bit rough.
  • Biggest gainers: Miscellaneous Personal Goods, +41% annualized! Also jewelry, footwear, car & truck rental, and infants/toddlers’ apparel.
  • Oddly, it looks like median cpi m/m will be BELOW core…my estimate is +0.22% m/m. That’s curious – it means the long tails are more on the upside for a change.
  • Now, we care about tails. If all the tails start to shift to the high side, that’s a sign that the basic process is changing.
  • One characteristic of disinflation and lowflation…how it happens…is that prices are mostly stable with occasional price cuts. If instead we go to mostly stable prices with occasional price hikes, that’s an inflationary process. WAY too early to say that’s what’s happening.
  • Appliances (0.2% of CPI, so no big effect) took another big drop. Now -2.08% y/y. Wonder if this is a correction from tariff stuff.
  • Gotta go get ready for air. Last thing I will leave you with is this: remember the Fed has said they are going to ignore inflation for a while, until it gets significantly high for a persistent period. We aren’t there yet. Nothing to worry about from the Fed.

Because I had to go to air (thanks @OJRenick and @TDAmeritrade for another fun time) I gave a little short shrift on this CPI report. So let me make up for that a little bit. First, here’s a chart of core goods. I was surprised at the -0.3% y/y change, but it actually looks like this isn’t too far off – maybe just a little early, based on core import prices (see chart). Still, there has been a lot of volatility in the supply chain, starting with tariffs and now with novel coronavirus, with a lot of focus on the growth effects but not so much on the price effects.

It does remain astonishing to me that we haven’t seen more of a price impact from the de-globalization trends. Maybe there is some kind of ‘anchored inflation expectations’ effect? To be sure, it’s a little early to have seen the effect from the virus because ships which left before the contagion got started are still showing up at ports of entry. But I have to think that even if tariffs didn’t encourage a shortening of supply chains, this will. It does take time to approve new suppliers. Still I thought we’d see this effect already.

Let’s look at the four pieces charts. As a reminder, this is just a shorthand quartering of the consumption basket into roughly equal parts. Food & Energy is 20.5%; Core Goods is 20.1%; Rent of Shelter is 32.8%; and Core services less rent of shelter is 26.6%. From least-stable to most:

We have discussed core goods. Core Services less RoS is one that I am keeping a careful eye on – this is where medical care services falls, and those indices have been turning higher. Seeing that move above 3% would be concerning. The bottom chart shows the very stable Rents component. And here the story is that we had expected that to start rolling over a little bit – not deflating, but even backing off to 3% would be a meaningful effect. That’s what our model was calling for (see chart). But our model has started to accelerate again, so there is a real chance we might have already seen the local lows for core CPI.

I am not making that big call…I’d expected to see the local highs in the first half of 2020, and that could still happen (although with easy comps with last year, it wouldn’t be much of a retreat until later in the year). I’m no longer sure that’s going to happen. One of the reasons is that housing is proving resilient. But another reason is that liquidity is really surging, so that even with money velocity dripping lower again it is going to be hard to see prices fall. M2 growth in the US is above 7% y/y, and M2 growth in the Eurozone is over 6%. Liquidity is at least partly fungible when you have global banks, so we can’t just ignore what other central banks are doing. Over the last decade, sometimes US M2 was rising and sometimes EZ M2 was rising, but the last time we saw US>7% and EZ>6% was September 2008-May 2009. Before that, it happened in 2001-2003. So central banks are providing liquidity as if they are in crisis mode. And we’re not even in crisis mode.

That is an out-of-expectation occurrence. In other words, I did not see it coming that central banks would start really stepping on the gas when global growth was slowing, but still distinctly positive. We have really defined “crisis” down, haven’t we? And this isn’t a response to the virus – this started long before people in China started getting sick.

So, while core CPI is currently off its highs, it will be over 2.5% by summertime. Core PCE will be running up on the Fed’s 2% target, too. If the Fed maintains its easy stance even then, we will know they are completely serious about letting ‘er rip. I can’t imagine bond yields can stay at 2% in that environment.

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

October 31, 2019 14 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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