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

October 31, 2019 10 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.

Tariffs Don’t Hurt Domestic Growth

August 28, 2019 7 comments

I really wish that economics was an educational requirement in high school. It doesn’t have to be advanced economics – just a class covering the basics of micro- and macroeconomics so that everyone has at least a basic understanding of how an economy works.

If we had that, perhaps the pernicious confusion about the impact of tariffs wouldn’t be so widespread. It has really gotten ridiculous: on virtually any news program today, as well as quite a few opinion programs (and sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference), one can hear about how “the trade war is hurting the economy and could cause a recession.” But that’s ridiculous, and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what tariffs and trade barriers do, and what they don’t do.

Because to the extent that people remember anything they were taught about tariffs (and here perhaps we run into the main problem – not that we weren’t taught economics, but that people didn’t think it was important enough to remember the fine points), they remember “tariffs = bad.” Therefore, when tariffs are implemented or raised, and something bad happens, the unsophisticated observer concludes “that must be because of the tariffs, because tariffs are bad.” In the category of “unsophisticated observer” here I unfortunately have to include almost all journalists, most politicians, and most alarmingly a fair number of economists and members of the Fed. Although, to be fair, I don’t think the latter two groups are making the same error as the former groups; they’re probably just confusing the short-term and the long-term or thinking globally rather than locally.

In any event, this reached a high enough level of annoyance for me that I felt the need to write this short column about the effects of tariffs. I actually wrote some of this back in June but needed to let it out again.

The effect of free trade, per Ricardo, is to enlarge the global economic pie. (Ricardo didn’t speak in terms of pie, but if he did then maybe people would understand this better.) However, in choosing free trade to enlarge the pie, each participating country surrenders its ability to claim a larger slice of the pie, or a slice with particular toppings (in this analogy, choosing a particular slice means selecting the particular industries that you want your country to specialize in). Clearly, this is good in the long run – the size of your slice, and what you produce, is determined by your relative advantage in producing it and so the entire system produces the maximum possible output and the system collectively is better off.

However, that does not mean that this is an outcome that each participant will like. Indeed, even in the comparative free trade of the late 1990s and 2000s, companies carefully protected their champion companies and industries. Even though the US went through a period of truly sucking at automobile manufacturing, we still have the big three automakers. On the other hand, the US no longer produces any apparel to speak of. In fact, I would suggest that the only way that free trade works at all in a non-theoretical world is if (a) all of the participants are roughly equal in total capability or (b) the dominant participant is willing to concede its dominant position in order to enrich the whole system, rather than using that dominant position to secure its preferred slices for itself. Many would argue that (b) is what happened, as the US was willing to let its manufacturing be ‘hollowed out’ in order to make the world a happier place on average. Enter President Trump, who suggested that as US President, it was sort of his job to look out for US interests. And so we have tariffs and a trade war.

What is the effect of tariffs?

  1. Tariffs are good for the domestic growth of the country imposing them. There is no question about it in a static equilibrium world: if you raise the price of the overseas competitor, then your domestic product will be relatively more attractive and you will be asked to make more of it. If other countries respond, then the question of whether it is good or bad for growth depends on whether you are a net importer or exporter, and on the relative size of the Ex-Im sector of your economy. The US is a net importer, which means that even if other countries respond equally it is still a gain…but in any event, the US economy is relatively closed so retaliatory tariffs have a comparatively small effect. The effect is clearly uneven, as some industries benefit and some lose, but tariffs are a net gain to growth for the US in the short term (at least).
  2. Tariffs therefore are good for US employment. In terms of both growth and employment, recent weakness has been blamed on tariffs and the trade war. But this is nonsense. The US economy and the global economy have cycles whether or not there is a trade war, and we were long overdue for a slowdown. The fact that growth is slowing at roughly the same time tariffs have been imposed is a correlation without causality. The tariffs are supporting growth in the US, which is why Germany is in a recession and the US is not (yet). Anyone who is involved with a manufacturing enterprise is aware of this. (I work with one manufacturer which has suddenly started winning back business that had previously been lost to China in a big way).
  3. Tariffs are bad for global growth. The US-led trade war produces a shrinkage of the global pie (well, at least a slowing of its growth) even as the US slice gets relatively larger. But for countries with big export-import sectors, and for our trade partners who are net exporters to the US and have tariffs applied to their goods, this is an unalloyed negative. And as I said, more-fractious trade relationships reduce the Ricardian comparative advantage gain for the system as a whole. It’s just really important to remember that the gains accrue to the system as a whole. The question of whether a country imposing tariffs has a gain or a loss on net comes down to whether the growth of the relative slice outweighs the shrinkage of the overall pie. In the US case, it most certainly does.
  4. Trade wars are bad for inflation, everywhere. I’ve written about this at length since Trump was elected (see here for one example), and I’d speculated on the effect of slowing trade liberalization even before that. In short, the explosion of free trade agreements in the early 1990s is what allowed us to have strong growth and low inflation, even with a fairly profligate monetary policy, as a one-off that lasted for as long as trade continued to open up. That train was already slowing – partly because of the populism that helped elect Mr. Trump, and partly because the 100th free trade agreement is harder than the 10th free trade agreement – and it has gone into reverse. Going forward, the advent of the trade war era means we will have a worse tradeoff of growth and inflation for any given monetary policy. This was true anyway as the free-trade-agreement spigot slowed, but it is much more true with a hot trade war.
  5. Trade wars are bad for equity markets, including in the US. A smaller pie means smaller profits, and a worse growth/inflation tradeoff means lower growth assumptions need to be baked into equity prices going forward. Trade wars are of course especially bad for multinationals, whose exported products are the ones subject to retaliation.

In the long run, trade wars mean worse growth/inflation tradeoffs for everyone – but that doesn’t mean that every country is a net loser from tariffs. In the short run, the effect on the US of the imposition of tariffs on goods imported to the US is clearly positive. Moreover, because the pain of the trade war is asymmetric – a country that relies on exports, such as China, is hurt much more when the US imposes tariffs than the US is hurt when China does – it is not at all crazy to think that trade wars in fact are winnable in the sense of one country enlarging its slice at the expense of another country or countries’ slices. To the extent that the trade war is “won,” and the tariffs are not permanent, then they are even beneficial (to the US) in the long run! If the trade war becomes a permanent feature, it is less clear since slower global growth probably constrains the growth of the US economy too. Permanent trade frictions would also produce a higher inflation equilibrium globally.

In this context, you can see that the challenge for monetary policy is quite large. If the US economy were not weakening anyway, for reasons exogenous to trade, then the response to a trade war should be to tighten policy since tariffs lead to higher prices and stronger domestic growth. However, the US economy is weakening, and so looser policy may be called for. My worry is that the when the Federal Reserve refers to the uncertainty around trade as a reason for easing, they either misapprehend the problem or they are acting as a global central bank trying to soften the global impact of a trade war. I think a decent case can be made for looser monetary policy – but it doesn’t involve trade. (As an aside: if central bankers really think that “anchored inflation expectations” are the reason we haven’t had higher inflation, then why are they being so alarmist about the inflationary effects of tariffs? Shouldn’t they be downplaying that effect, since as long as expectations remain anchored there’s no real threat? I wonder if even they believe the malarkey about anchoring inflation expectations.)

Do I like tariffs? Well, I don’t hate them. I don’t think the real economy is the clean, frictionless world of the economic theorists; since it is not, we need to consider how real people, real industries, real companies, and real regimes behave – and play the game with an understanding that it may be partially and occasionally adversarial, rather than treating it like one big cooperative game. There are valid reasons for tariffs (I actually first enumerated one of these in 1992). I won’t make any claims about the particular skill of the Trump Administration at playing this game, but I will say that I hope they’re good at it. Because if they are, it is an unalloyed positive for my home country…whatever the pundits on TV think about the big bad tariffs.

What “Transitory Factors” Might Tell Us About Inflation

May 23, 2019 2 comments

There is a lot of buzz around inflation these days. Some people are explaining why we shouldn‘t worry and some people why we should, but regardless – it’s a topic of conversation for the first time in ages. And despite this (or rather, because of it, because I find myself very busy these days), I haven’t written in a long time despite the fact that I have a few things worth writing about. I keep trying, though.

Today I am cheating a bit and taking a column from the quarterly inflation outlook that my company (Enduring Investments) just sent to customers. But I think it is fair to include it here, because the musing was provoked by a recent exchange I had on Twitter while doing my monthly CPI analysis/tweetstorm (follow me @inflation_guy).

As readers know, I tend to focus on Median CPI, rather than Core CPI, as my forecast target variable. The reason is that price changes are rarely distributed randomly. If they were, then the choice of core or median CPI would be irrelevant because they would normally be the same, or roughly the same. But when a distribution has long tails, the ends of the distribution exert a lot of pressure on the average and so median can differ substantially from the mean simply because one tail is much longer than the other even if most of the distribution is similar.

Consider a playground see-saw and imagine that on one side of the see-saw are seated several small children. Think of the “average” of the see-saw system as the point where the see-saw balances. Well, there are lots of ways to balance the system with weight on the other side of the see-saw: a very large weight close to the fulcrum will do it. But the further away from the fulcrum one places the weight, the smaller the weight necessary to balance the scale. As Archimedes said, “give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I can move the world.” The point is that an influence far from the middle of the distribution can have a very significant effect on the average because it is far away from the distribution:  the effect on the mean is (weight * distance from the mean).

Example: the mean of 98% of a distribution is 12. The remaining 2% of the distribution is 28. The weighted average is [(12 * 0.98) + (118 * .02)] / (0.98 + 0.02) = 14.12.  That little 2% caused the mean to go from 12, without the tail, to 14.12 with the tail…a movement of 17.7%! Notice that .02 * 118 = 2.12, which is the amount the mean moved. And if that tail is 228 rather than 118, the mean goes to 16.32. So you see, the length of the tail matters. In both cases, the median was 12, which I would argue is a better indicator of the “central tendency” of the distribution.

(If the distribution is approximately normal, then the tails roughly balance and so the mean and median are about the same. But many economic indicators are not normally distributed, especially ones like income or home prices which are bound by zero on one side. Thus, for many economic series the median, rather than mean, is a better measure. Even though CPI is not bound by zero, it is not normal because prices are not set in a continuous process but instead to have jump-discontinuities.)

The chart below, which I often show in my CPI tweetstorm, shows the see-saw of CPI, where I’ve broken up the index into its lowest-level components and placed those weights on a number line representing the most-recent year-over-year changes. The height of the bar indicates the amount of the basket that sits in that bucket. As you can see, nearly half of the CPI is inflating faster than 3% (which is why Median CPI is 2.8%), and the mode of the distribution is between 3.5% and 4.0%. But because of the far left tail, the mean – which is what core CPI is – is just barely over 2%. Because we have much longer left-hand tails than right-hand tails, the average is biased lower relative to median.

But is this “normal?” Some people have occasionally accused me of picking Median CPI because it tends to be higher, and so the number makes it look like there is more inflation. If the spread were constant, then it would be a bit academic which we chose as the forecast variable, and in fact Core would have a better claim since after all, as consumers purchasing that basket we are in fact paying the average price and not the median.

In fact, though, I think that the tendency of core in recent years to trade below median really is its own interesting story about how prices evolve. If we have 3% inflation, it does not mean that all prices are going up at 3% per year, 0.75% per quarter, 0.25% per month. The price of any given good doesn’t move smoothly but rather episodically, sporadically, spastically. When we are in a disinflationary period, or anyway a low-inflation period, what is happening is that those episodes involve periods of slower prices and “transitory factors” that tend to be on the downside.[1] In that sense, it may be that the Fed, and me/Enduring, both err when they try to look through ‘transitory factors’ because transitory factors may be part of the process. The argument for that perspective is similar to the argument I myself make about why “ex-items” measures make sense when you are looking at an individual company’s earnings but not when you look at the aggregate earnings of the economy. Because bad stuff, or “items,” are always happening to someone somewhere. You can throw them out of any one analysis but if you own the index, you’ll get some of those “items.” You just don’t know from where. Perhaps inflation is the same way.

However, I should point out that median inflation is not always below core. The chart below shows median and core CPI going back to 1983, which is when the Cleveland Fed’s series for Median CPI begins. Notice that from 1983 until 1993, Median CPI was generally lower than core CPI. In 1994, this changed and it has been the opposite ever since.

The year 1994 is significant because that is also the year that most models for inflation that are calibrated on pre-1994 data break down (or, conversely, it is the year prior to which a model calibrated on post-1994 data breaks down). I have written previously about this phenomenon and the fact that the Fed believes this is when inflation expectations abruptly became “anchored,” whatever that means – but *I* believe that this discontinuity is when globalization kicked into high gear with an explosion in the number of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. It strikes me as plausible that these items are related. When markets are suddenly opened to global competition, affected markets will suddenly show slower price appreciation due to the pressure from that competition (and the replacement of high-cost domestic goods with lower-cost imports). But which market is currently being affected will not stay constant, but change over time. In other words, I think the fact that core has been persistently below median for a long time is a symptom of the globalization “dividend.”

If I am right, and if if I am also right about the arrow of globalization changing direction, then it follows that core and median might flip positions at some point over the next couple of years. And then the “transitory effects” will be mostly on the high side.


[1] It could also be indicative of a bias from the measurers that their improved methods are always looking for lower inflation – not in the “the BLS is making up this *@&$^” sense but in the sense that for lots of reasons the CPI appears to be overstated because of technical details about the functional form, the way measurement errors happen, etc. And so researchers may spend more time looking for ways that inflation is overstated. I don’t think that research bias is actually much of a problem. But I figured I ought to mention that that is one possible interpretation.

Categories: Causes of Inflation, CPI

What if ‘Excess Reserves’ Aren’t Really Excess?

March 4, 2019 2 comments

One intriguing recent suggestion I have heard recently is that the “Excess” reserves that currently populate the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve aren’t really excess after all. Historically, the quantity of reserves was managed so that banks had enough to support lending to the degree which the Fed wanted: when economic activity was too slow, the Fed would add reserves and banks would use these reserves to make loans; when economic activity was too fast, the Fed would pull back on the growth of reserves and so rein in the growth of bank lending. Thus, at least in theory the Open Markets Desk at the New York Fed could manage economic activity by regulating the supply of reserves in the system. Any given bank, if it discovered it had more reserves than it needed, could lend those reserves in the interbank market to a bank that was short. But there was no significant quantity of “excess” reserves, because holding excess reserves cost money (they didn’t pay interest) – if the system as a whole had “too many” reserves, banks tended to lend more and use them up. So, when the Fed wanted to stuff lots of reserves into the system in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and especially wanted the banks to hold the excess rather than lending it, they had to pay banks to do so and so they began to pay interest on reserves. Voila! Excess reserves appeared.

But there is some speculation that things are different now because in 2011, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision recommended (and the Federal Reserve implemented, with time to comply but fully implemented as of 2015) a rule that all “Systematically Important Financial Institutions” (mainly, really big banks) be required to maintain a Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) at a certain level. The LCR is calculated by dividing a bank’s High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) by a number that represents its stress-tested 30-day net outflows. That is, the bank’s liquidity is expressed as a function of the riskiness of its business and the quantity of high-quality assets that it holds against these risks.

In calculating the HQLA, most assets the bank holds receive big discounts. For example, if a bank holds common equities, only half of the value of those equities can be considered in calculating this numerator. But a very few types of assets get full credit: Federal Reserve bank balances and Treasury securities chief among them.[1]

So, since big banks must maintain a certain LCR, and reserves are great HQLA assets, some observers have suggested that this means the Fed can’t really drain all of those excess reserves because they are, effectively, required. They’re not required because they need to be held against lending, but because they need to be held to satisfy the liquidity requirements.

If this is true, then against all my expectations the Fed has, effectively, done what I suggested in Chapter 10, “My Prescription” of What’s Wrong with Money? (Wiley, 2016). I quote an extended section from that book, since it turns out to be potentially spot-on with what might actually be happening (and, after all, it’s my book so I hereby give myself permission to quote a lengthy chunk):

“First, the Federal Reserve should change the reserve requirement for banks. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain. In this case, the Fed has the power (and the authority) to, at a stroke, redefine reserves so that all of the current “excess” reserves essentially become “required” reserves, by changing the amount of reserves banks are required to hold against loans. No longer would there be a risk of banks cracking open the “boxes of currency” in their vaults to extend more loans and create more money than is healthy for an economy that seeks noninflationary growth. There would be no chance of a reversion to the mean of the money multiplier, which would be devastating to the inflation picture. And the Open Markets Desk at the Fed would immediately regain power over short-term interest rates, because when they add or subtract reserves in open market operations, banks would care.

“To be sure, this would be awful news for the banks themselves and their stock prices would likely take a hit. It would amount to a forcible deleveraging, and impair potential profitability as a result. But we should recognize that such a deleveraging has already happened, and this policy would merely recognize de jure what has already happened de facto.

“Movements in reserve requirements have historically been very rare, and this is probably why such a solution is not being considered as far as I know. The reserve requirement is considered a “blunt instrument,” and you can imagine how a movement in the requirement could under normal circumstances lead to extreme volatility as the quantity of required reserves suddenly lurched from approximate balance into significant surplus or deficit. But that is not our current problem. Our current problem cries out for a blunt instrument!

“While the Fed is making this adjustment, and as it prepares to press money growth lower, they should work to keep medium-term interest rates low, not raise them, so that money velocity does not abruptly normalize. Interest rates should be normalized slowly, letting velocity rise gradually while money growth is pushed lower simultaneously. This would cause the yield curve to flatten substantially as tighter monetary conditions cause short-term interest rates in the United States to rise.

“Of course, in time the Fed should relinquish control of term rates altogether, and should also allow its balance sheet to shrink naturally. It is possible that, as this happens, reserve requirements could be edged incrementally back to normal as well. But those decisions are years away.”

If, in fact, the implementation of the LCR is serving as a second reserve requirement that is larger than the reserve requirement that is used to compute required and “excess” reserves, then the amount of excess reserves is less than we currently believe it to be. The Fed, in fact, has made some overtures to the market that they may not fully “normalize” the balance sheet specifically because the financial system needs it to continue to supply sufficient reserves. If, in fact, the LCR requirement uses all of the reserves currently considered “excess,” then the Fed is, despite my prior beliefs, actually operating at the margin and decisions to supply more or fewer reserves could directly affect the money supply after all, because the reserve requirement has in effect been raised.

This would be a huge development, and would help ameliorate the worst fears of those of us who wondered how QE could be left un-drained without eventually causing a move to a much higher price level. The problem is that we don’t really have a way to measure how close to the margin the Fed actually is; moreover, since Treasuries are a substitute for reserves in the LCR it isn’t clear that the margin the Fed wants to operate on is itself a bright line. It is more likely a fuzzy zone, which would complicate Fed policy considerably. It actually would make the Fed prone to mistakes in both directions, both over-easing and over-tightening, as opposed to the current situation where they are mostly just chasing inflation around (since when they raise interest rates, money velocity rises and that pushes inflation higher, but raising rates doesn’t also lower money growth since they’re not limiting bank activities by reining in reserves at the margin).

I think this explanation is at least partly correct, although we don’t think the condition is as binding as the more optimistic assessments would have it. The fact that M2 has recently begun to re-accelerate, despite the reduction in the Fed balance sheet, argues that we are not yet “at the margin” even if the margin is closer than we thought it was previously.


[1] The assumption in allowing Treasuries to be used at full value seems to be that in a crisis the value of those securities would go up, not down, so no haircut is required. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, especially if the crisis were to be caused, for example, by a failure of the government to pay interest on Treasuries due to a government shutdown. The more honest reason is that if the Fed were to haircut Treasuries, banks would hold drastically fewer Treasuries and this would be destabilizing – not to mention bad for business on Capitol Hill.

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.

Developed Country Demographics are Inflationary, not Deflationary

July 17, 2018 4 comments

I’m a relatively simple guy. I like simple models. I get suspicious with models that seem overly complicated. In my experience, the more components you add to a model the more likely it is that one of them ceases having explanatory power and messes up your model’s value. In this it is like (since tonight is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game I thought I’d use a baseball analogy) bringing in relievers to a game. Every reliever you bring in has some chance that he just doesn’t have it tonight, so therefore you ought to bring in as few relievers as you can.

Baseball managers don’t seem to believe this, so they bring in as many relievers as they can. Similarly, economists don’t seem to believe the rule of parsimony. The more complexity in the model, the better (at least, for the economist’s job security).

Let’s talk about demographics and inflation.

Here’s how I think about how an aging population affects inflation:

  1. Fewer workers in the workforce implies a lower unemployment rate and higher wages, c.p.
  2. A higher retiree/active worker ratio implies lower saving, which will tend to send interest rates higher and equity prices lower, and tend to increase money velocity, c.p.
  3. A higher retiree/non-retiree ratio probably implies lower spending, c.p.

It seems to me that people who argue that aging populations are disinflationary don’t really have a useful model in mind. If they do, then it revolves only around #3, and the idea that spending will diminish over time; if you believe that inflation is related to growth then this sounds like stagnation and deflation. But if there’s lower spending, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a wider output gap because of #1. The best you could say about the effect on the output gap of an aging population is that it is indeterminate: potential output growth should decline because of workforce decline (potential output growth » growth in the # of workers + growth in productivity per worker), while demand growth should also decline, leading to uncertain effects on the output gap.

I think that most people who think the demographic situation of developed nations is disinflationary are really just extrapolating from the single data point of Japan. Japan had an aging population; Japan had deflation; ergo, an aging population causes deflation. But as I’ve argued previously, the main cause of deflation in Japan was overly tight monetary policy.

The decrease in potential growth rates due to the graying of the population is real and clearly inflationary on its face, all else equal. Go look at our MVºPQ calculator and see what happens when you lower the annual real growth assumption, for any other set of assumptions.

So, my model is simple, and you don’t need to have a lot of extraneous dynamics if you simply say: slower potential growth implies higher potential inflation, and demographics implies lower potential future growth. Qed.

One other item I would point out about the three points above: all three are negative for stock markets. If you truly believe that the dominant effects are lower spending, less savings, and higher wages the you can’t possibly think that demographics are anything other than disastrous for equity valuations in the future.

Potpourri for $500, Alex

June 1, 2018 5 comments

When I don’t write as often, I have trouble re-starting. That’s because I’m not writing because I don’t have anything to say, but because I don’t have time to write. Ergo, when I do sit down to write, I have a bunch of ideas competing to be the first thing I write about. And that freezes me a bit.

So, I’m just going to shotgun out some unconnected thoughts in short bursts and we will see how it goes.


Wages! Today’s Employment Report included the nugget that private hourly earnings are up at a 2.8% rate over the last year (see chart, source Bloomberg). Some of this is probably due to the one-time bumps in pay that some corporates have given to their employees as a result of the tax cut, and so the people who believe there is no inflation and never will be any inflation will dismiss this.

On the other hand, I’ll tend to dismiss it as being less important because (a) wages follow prices, not the other way around, and (b) we already knew that wages were rising because the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker, which controls for composition effects, is +3.3% over the last year and will probably bump higher again this month. But the rise in private wages to a 9-year high is just one more dovish argument biting the dust.

As an aside, Torsten Slok of Deutsche Bank pointed out in a couple of charts today that one phenomenon of recent years has been that people staying in the same jobs increasingly see zero wage growth. Although this is partly because wage growth in general has been low, the spread between wage growth for “job switchers” and “job stayers” is now about 1.25% per year, the highest rate in about 17 years. His point is that as we see more switchers due to a tight labor market, that implies more wage growth (again, the Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker does a better job, so this just means average hourly earnings should increasingly converge with the Atlanta Fed figure).


Today I was on the TD Ameritrade Network and they showed a chart that I’d included in our Quarterly Inflation Outlook (which we distribute to customers). I tweeted the chart back on May 22 but let me put it here, with some brief commentary lifted from our quarterly:

“As economic activity has started to absorb more and more unemployed into the workforce, a shortage has developed in the population of truck drivers. This shortage is not easy to overcome, since it takes time to train new truck drivers (and the robo-truck is still no more than science fiction). Moreover, recent advances in electronically monitoring the number of hours that drivers are on the road – there have been rules governing this for a long time, but they relied on honest reporting from the drivers – have artificially reduced the supply of trucker hours at just the time when more were needed because of economic growth…As a result of this phenomenon, total net-of-fuel-surcharge truckload rates are 15% higher than they were a year ago, which is the highest rate of increase since 2004. As the chart (source: FTR Associates and BLS) illustrates, there is a significant connection between truckload rates lagged 15 months and core inflation (0.74 correlation).”

According to FTR Transportation Intelligence, the US is short about 280,000 truck drivers compared to what it needs.


Remember when everyone said Europe was about to head back into deflation, thanks to that surprise dip in core inflation last month? Here is what I had to say about that on my private Twitter feed (sign up here if this stuff matters to you) at the time.

As Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story is that core European CPI printed this month at 1.1%, shocking (almost) everyone for a second month.


I had a conversation recently with a potential client who said they didn’t want to get into a long-commodity strategy because they were afraid of chasing what is hot. It’s a reasonable concern. No one wants to be the pigeon who bought the highs.

But some context is warranted. I didn’t want to be impolite, but I pointed out that what he was saying was that in the chart below, he was afraid it was too late to get on the orange line because it is too hot.

Incidentally, lest you think that I chose that period because it flatters the argument…for every period starting June 30, XXXX and ending June 1, 2018, the orange line is appreciably below the white line and has never been meaningfully above it, for XXXX going back to 2002. For 2002-2011, the two indices shown here were pretty well correlated. Since 2011, it has been a one-way underperformance ticket for commodities. They are many things, but “hot” is not one of them!

I haven’t heard back.

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