It is obviously time for another update. I haven’t been an active poster recently, because as many of you know I am busy working on a book for the Wiley label. I am about 80% done; however, it is very time-consuming! The title of the book is (tentatively) What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com. Even better, you can pre-order it already apparently, even though it’s not due out until later this year or early next year. (No pressure, huh?)
So, I have been embroiled in the writing and editing process, and not posting much. This will change soon, but China’s overnight move to (slightly) devalue the yuan is significant enough to warrant a post. There are also some other topics that need a quick mark-to-market, but I will save those for another day.
China’s move is possibly qualitatively significant, but I don’t believe it is yet quantitatively significant. A two-percent move in a currency is barely worth recording – it is almost within the daily standard deviation band of some currencies! So, when you have read about how this dramatically changes the inflationary concern of the Fed to a deflationary concern…that’s nonsense. The Swiss Franc strengthened by 20% against all currencies, in a single day, back in January. Since then, the core Swiss inflation rate has moved from +0.4% y/y to -0.6% y/y. Also note that Switzerland’s imports amount to about 50% of its GDP.
Let’s take that as a back-of-the-envelope scalar just to do a rationality check. A 20% change in exchange rate affecting about 50% of goods and services caused a 1% move in core CPI.
The U.S. imports about $40bln in goods from China per month, out of an annual GDP of $16.3 trillion. So in this case, we have a 2% move in exchange rate affecting about 2.9% of domestic goods and services. So if the effect was linear, we would expect about 1/10th * 1/17th * 1% of a move in core CPI as a result of the Chinese action. Check my math, but that would seem to be about 0.006% movement in expected core inflation as a result of China’s revaluation. Negligible, in other words.
Now, qualitatively the effect might be higher if, for example, this presages a more-significant move by China. But even assuming that the exchange rate moved ten times as much, you are still talking about rounding error on inflation. Sure, the effect might not be linear but the essential guess is that from a price perspective we don’t care.
Certain companies and industries and goods, of course, will see a much bigger effect (it would be hard to have a much smaller effect), but it shouldn’t be a big deal – even if it is part of a larger move. From the standpoint of economic growth, it may matter more…but even so, a 2% change is unlikely to matter as much as a 10% change in shipping costs, and moves like that happen all the time.
China is a big economy, and a big trading counterparty of ours. But the U.S. is still a significantly-closed economy. While China represents about 20% of all of our imports, imports as a whole only amount to 14% of US GDP. So, in summary: this is an interesting moment politically, if China is signaling a willingness to float her currency. It is not a particularly interesting day macro-economically, at least from the standpoint of the effect on prices of this move.
I really enjoy reading, and listening to, Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates. He is one of those few people – Cliff Asness is another – who is both really smart, in a cutting-edge-research sense, and really connected to the real world of investing. There are only a handful of these sorts of guys, and you want to align yourself with them when you can.
Rob has written and spoken a number of times over the last few years about the investing implications of the toppling of the demographic pyramid in developed markets. He has made the rather compelling point that much of the strong growth of the last half-century in the US can be attributed to the fact that the population as a whole was moving through its peak production years. Thus, if “natural” real growth was something like 2%, then with the demographic dividend we were able to sustain a faster pace, say 3% (I am making up the numbers here for illustration). The unfortunate side of the story is that as the center of gravity of the population, age-wise, gets closer to retirement, this tailwind becomes a headwind. So, for example, he figures that Japan’s sustainable growth rate over the next few decades is probably about zero. And ours is probably considerably less than 2%.
He wrote a piece that appeared this spring in the first quarter’s Conference Proceedings of the CFA Institute, called “Whither Bonds, After the Demographic Dividend?” It is the first time I have seen him tackle the question from the standpoint of a fixed-income investor, as opposed to an equity investor. I find it a compelling read, and strongly recommend it.
Don’t miss the “Question and Answer Session” after the article itself. You would think that someone who sees a demographic time bomb would be in the ‘deflation’ camp, but as I said Rob is a very thoughtful person and he reaches reasonable conclusions that are drawn not from knee-jerk hunches but from analytical insights. So, when asked about whether he sees an inflation problem, or continued disinflation, or deflation over the next five years, he says:
“I am not at all concerned about deflation. Any determined central banker can defeat deflation. All that is needed is a printing press. Japan has proven that. Japan is mired in what could only be described as a near depression, and it still has 1.5% inflation. So, if a central bank prints enough money, it can create inflation in an economy that is near a depression.”
This, more than anything else, explains why keeping interest rates low to avert deflation is a silly policy. If deflation happens, it is a problem that can be solved. Inflation is a much more difficult problem to solve because collapsing the money supply growth rate runs counter to political realities. I don’t think this Fed is worried about inflation at all, and they’re probably not worried too much about deflation either any longer. But they believe they can force growth higher with accommodative monetary policy, when all available evidence suggests they cannot. Moreover, Arnott’s analysis suggests that we are probably already growing at something near to, or even above, the probable maximum sustainable growth rate in this demographic reality.
Maybe we can get Arnott on the Federal Reserve Board? Probably not – no one who is truly qualified for that job would actually want it.
**Note – If you would like to be on the notification list for my new book, What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!
I hadn’t meant to do a ‘part 2’ on the dollar, but I wanted to clear something up.
Some comments on yesterday’s article have suggested that a strong dollar is a global deflationary event, and vice-versa. But this is incorrect.
The global level of prices is determined by the amount of money, globally, compared to global GDP. But the movements of currencies will determine how that inflation or deflation is divvied up. Let us look at a simplified (economist-style) example; I apologize in advance to those who get college flashbacks when reading this.
Consider a world in which there are two countries of interest: country “Responsible” (R), and country “Irresponsible” (I). They have different currencies, r in country R and i in country I (the currencies will be boldface, lowercase).
Country R and I both produce widgets, which retail in country R for 10 r and in country I for 10 i. Suppose that R and I both produce 10 widgets per year, and that represents the total global supply of widgets. In this first year, the money supply is 1000r, and 1000i. The exchange rate is 1:1 of r for i.
In year two, country I decides to address its serious debt issues by printing lots of i. That country triples its money supply. FX traders respond by weakening the i currency so that the exchange rate is now 1:2 of r to i.
What happens to the price of widgets? Well, consumers in country R are still willing to pay 10 r. But consumers in country I find they have (on average) three times as much money in their wallets, so they would be willing to pay 30 i for a widget (or, equivalently, 15 r). Widget manufacturers in country R find they can raise their prices from 10 r, while widget manufacturers in country I find they need to lower their price from 30 i in order to be competitive with widget manufacturers in R. Perhaps the price in R ends up at 26r, and 13i in I (and notice that at this price, it doesn’t matter if you buy a widget in country R, or exchange your currency at 1:2 and buy the widget in country I).
Now, what has happened to prices? The increase in global money supply – in this case, caused exclusively by country I – has caused the price of widgets everywhere to rise. Prices are up 30% in country R, and by 160% in country I. But this division is entirely due to the fact that the currency exchange rate did not fully reflect the increased money supply in country I. If it had, then the exchange rate would have gone to 1:3, and prices would have gone up 0% in country R and 200% in country I. If the exchange rate had overreacted, and gone to 1:4, then the price of a widget in country R would have likely fallen while it would have risen even further in country I.
No matter how you slice it, though – no matter how extreme or how placid the currency movements are, the total amount of currency exchanged for widgets went up (that is, there was inflation in the price of widgets in terms of the average global price paid – or if you like, the average price in some third, independent currency). Depending on the exchange rate fluctuations, country R might see deflation, stable prices, or inflation; technically, that is also true of country I although it is far more likely that, since there is a lot more i in circulation, country I saw inflation. But overall, the “global” price of a widget has risen. More money means higher prices. Period.
In short, currency movements don’t determine the size of the cake. They merely cut the cake.
In a fully efficient market, the currency movement would fully offset the relative scarcity or plenty of a currency, so that only domestic monetary policy would matter to domestic prices. In practice, currency markets do a pretty decent job but they don’t exactly discount the relative changes in currency supplies. But as a first approximation, MV≡PQ in one’s own home currency is not a bad way to understand the movements in prices.
Yesterday, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans gave a speech in which he said that he probably leaned towards making the first tightening early next year, as there is “no compelling reason for us to be in a hurry to tighten financial conditions.” The Fed, he said, probably shouldn’t raise rates until there’s a “greater confidence” that inflation one-to-two years ahead will be at or above 2%. This isn’t a surprising view, as Evans is the progenitor of the “Evans Rule” that says rates should stay near zero until unemployment has fallen below 6.5% (it has) or inflation has risen above 2.5%. Yes, those bounds have been walked about; in particular the 6.5% unemployment rate is obviously no longer binding (he sees the “natural rate” as being 5% again). But the very fact that he promoted a rule that set restraints on a mere return to normal policy means that he is a dove, through and through. So, it should not be surprising that he isn’t in a hurry to tighten.
What I found amusing is the sop he threw to the bears. Fed speakers often try to do the “on the one hand, on the other hand” maneuver, but in Evans’ case his heart clearly isn’t in it. He said that “you could imagine a case being made for a rate increase in June.” Notice that he doesn’t say he could imagine a case being made! I am also unclear about which June he means. Does he mean…
|(thru Apr)||(thru May)|
|Q1 GDP||Q2 GDP||Median CPI||M2 growth|
|June 2015?||0.2%||1.0% (e)||2.2%||5.4%|
I am not sure exactly what he thinks those darn hawks are looking at, but it seems to me the case for tightening in June is getting worse every year.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I didn’t include the Unemployment Rate in the table above. That particular metric has been improving each year, but we know that the labor situation tends to lag the economic situation. The Unemployment Rate is a big political football, but it isn’t particularly useful for policy unless you believe in the concept of a “natural rate” with respect to accelerating unemployment in the overall economy. I don’t: low unemployment tends to increase wages, but has no discernible effect on consumer inflation. Moreover, it appears that the “natural rate” shifts quite a bit over time (6.5% down to 5% in Evans’ formulation, in only a few years’ time), making it look to me like a fairly useless concept.
Yes, of course it makes it more difficult politically to tighten when people are out of work, but since monetary policy is quite useful for affecting prices and not particularly useful for affecting growth, this should be a secondary effect at best. The Fed simply can’t help the unemployed worker, except by holding down inflation for him. In the real world, of course, the Fed Chair is not going to countenance an uptick in rates when unemployment is above 5% or so.
Let me be clear: I think the Fed ought to have tightened in 2012, 2013, or 2014, and they ought to tighten now. I don’t necessarily mean they should guide rates higher, but they should reduce the size of the mountain of reserves via any means a their disposal. But if you are going to argue one year over another year, I think it is hardest to argue that now is the time unless you are merely being guided by the old James Carville adage that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is right now.
One thing that Evans said that quickens my heart, as an inflation-watcher, is that the Fed “ought to allow” a chance that inflation overshoots 2% that is symmetrical to its chance of falling below it. While he is quintessentially unclear about how he would establish these probabilities – as I have just shown, he seems blissfully unaware that consumer price inflation is already above 2% – the mere fact of treating the costs of inflation misses as symmetrical is dangerous territory. The costs are not symmetrical. The costs of an inflation rate around 0% are very low; some frictions, perhaps, created by wage “stickiness” (even this possibility hasn’t been conclusively established until inflation gets convincingly below zero). The costs of an inflation rate of 4% are much higher, since inflation has historically had long “tails.” That is, once inflation goes up a little, it not infrequently rises a lot. Over the last 100 years, if you take the set of all year-on-year inflation rates above 4%, you find that about one-third of them are also above 10%. This means the costs of a loss of inflation vigilance is must greater than the costs of a loss of deflation vigilance.
To be sure, it looks like growth slowed over the course of the difficult winter. The cause of this malaise doesn’t appear to me to be weather-related, but rather dollar-related; while currency movements don’t have large effects on inflation, they have reasonably significant effects on top-line sales when economies are sufficiently open. It is less clear that we will have similar sequential effects and that growth will be as punk in Q2 as it was in Q1. While I do think that the economy has passed its zenith for this expansion and is at increasing risk for a recession later this year into next, I don’t have much concern that we are slipping into a recession now.
Given how close the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracker was to the actual Q1 GDP figure, the current forecast of that tool of 0.8% for Q2 – which would be especially disappointing following the 0.2% in Q1 that was reported last week – has drawn a lot of attention. However Tom Kenny, a senior economist at ANZ, points out that the indicator tends to start its estimate for the following quarter at something close to the prior quarter’s result, because in the absence of any hard data the best guess is that the prior trend is maintained. I am paraphrasing his remark, published in today’s “Daily Shot” (see the full comment at the end of the column here). It is a good point, and (while I think recession risks are increasing) a good reminder that it is probably too early to jump off a building about US growth.
That being said, it does not help matters that gasoline prices are rising once again. While national gasoline prices are only back up to $2.628 per gallon (see chart, source Bloomberg), that figure compares to an average of roughly $2.31 in Q1 (with a low near $2/gallon).
It isn’t clear how much lower gasoline prices helped Q1 growth. Since lower energy prices also caused a fairly dramatic downshift in the energy production sector of the US economy, lower prices may have even been a net drag in the first quarter. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that higher gasoline prices now will be a net boost to the second quarter; while energy consumption responds quite rapidly to price changes, energy producers will likely prove to be much more hesitant to turn the taps back on after the serious crunch just experienced. I doubt $0.30/gallon will matter much, but if gasoline prices continue to creep higher then take note.
Inflation traders have certainly taken note of the improvement in gasoline prices, but although inflation swaps have retraced much of what they had lost late last year (see chart of 5y inflation swaps, quoted in basis points, source Bloomberg) expectations for core inflation have not recovered. Stripping out energy, swap quotes for 5-year inflation imply a core rate of around 1.65% compounded – approximately the same as it was in January.
And that brings us to the most interesting chart of all. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the year/year change in the Employment Cost Index (wages), in white, versus median inflation.
Repeat to yourself again that wages do not lead inflation; they follow inflation. I would argue this chart shows wages are catching up for the steady inflation over the last couple of years, and for the increased health care costs that are now falling on individuals and families but are not captured terribly well by the CPI. But either way, wages are now rising at a faster rate than prices, which will not make it easy for inflation to sink lower.
Let me also show you another chart from a data release last week. This is the Case-Shiller 20-city composite year/year change. Curiously (maybe), housing prices may be in the process of re-accelerating higher after cooling off a bit last year – although home price inflation as measured by the CS-20 never fell anywhere near to where overall inflation was.
Inflation risks are clearly now moving into the danger zone. I showed a chart of a lagging inflation indicator (wages), a coincident indicator (energy), and a leading indicator (housing). All three of these are now rising at something faster than the current rate of core inflation. In my view, there is not much chance that core inflation over the next 5 years will average only 1.65%.
I am not one of those people who believe that if the Fed is dramatically easing, you simply must own equities. I must admit, charts like the one below (source: Bloomberg), showing the S&P versus the monetary base, seem awfully persuasive.
But there are plenty of counter-examples. The easiest one is the 1970s, shown below (source: FRED, Bloomberg). Not only did stocks not rise on the geyser of liquidity – M2 growth averaged 9.6% per annum for the entire decade – but the real value of stocks was utterly crushed as the nominal price barely moved and inflation eroded the value of the currency.
If you do believe that the Fed’s loose reins are the main reason for equities’ great run over the last few years, then you might be concerned that the end of the Fed’s QE could spell trouble for stocks. For the monetary base is flattening out, as it has each of the prior times QE has been stopped (or, as it turns out, paused).
But for you bulls, I have happy news. The monetary base is not the right metric to be watching in this case. Indeed, it isn’t the right metric to be watching in virtually any case. The Fed’s balance sheet and the monetary base both consist significantly of sterile reserves. These reserves affect nothing, except (perhaps) the future money supply. But they affect nothing currently. The vast majority of this monetary base is as inert as if it was actually money sitting in an unopened crate in a bank vault.
What does matter liquidity-wise is transactional balances, such as M2. And as I have long pointed out, the end of QE does nothing to slow the growth of M2. There are plenty of reserves to support continued rapid growth of M2, which is still growing at 6% – roughly where it has been for the last 2.5 years. And those haven’t been a particularly bad couple of years for stocks.
So, if liquidity is the only story that matters, then the picture below of M2 versus stocks (source: Bloomberg) is more soothing to bulls.
Again, I think this is too simplistic. If ample liquidity is good today, why wasn’t it good back in the 1970s? You will say “it isn’t that simple.” And that’s exactly my point. It can’t be as easy as buying stocks because the Fed is adding liquidity. I believe one big difference is the presence of financial media transmitted to the mass affluent, and the fact that there is tremendous confidence in the Fed to arrest downward momentum in securities markets.
What central bankers have done to the general economy has not been successful. But, if you are one of the mass affluent, you may have a view of monetary policy as nearly omnipotent in terms of its effect on securities and on certain real assets such as residential real estate. What is different this time? The cult.
I am no equity bull. But if you are, because of the following wind the Fed has been providing, then the good news is: nothing important has changed.
Two relatively quick items that I want to address today; they have been in my ‘to do’ box for a while.
One of the most interesting features of the fixed-income landscape today, and one that will likely serve in the future as an exam question on finance quizzes, is the increasingly widespread proliferation of negative nominal interest rates among government bond markets…and occasionally even for high-quality corporate paper.
In finance theory, this can’t happen. Because currency earns a 0% nominal interest rate, theory says that no rational person would ever accept a negative nominal interest rate. If I have $50 today, and put it in the bank, I will have $49 tomorrow. So why not just keep the $50 in my wallet? (Obviously this leads to high cash balances, which means low monetary velocity, by the way). And this is true in the absence of “other costs.”
So why are so many interest rates negative? Are individuals irrational? No: at least not so irrational that they prefer less money to more money. However, what is true at an individual level does not necessarily scale to the institutional level. An institution, such as a money fund or corporation, does not have the freedom to hold its assets in physical currency. Microsoft has $90 billion in cash and equivalents. If this were in $100 bills, it would weigh about one thousand tons. That’s a pretty big vault. And vaults cost money. Guards cost money. And, if Microsoft had this money in the vault, it would be harder to spend. It is much easier to wire $5 million than it is to send an armored car.
In the presence of those costs, Microsoft and other institutions will accept a negative interest rate. It will invest its money at a negative rate rather than build a vault.
Now, an important (if obvious) point is that cash balances are so high, and interest rates so low, because global central banks are making sure we have plenty of cash. Too much cash chasing too few investment opportunities causes rates to be low.
Walmart and Minimum Wage Increases
It has been a few weeks now, but when Walmart in February announced it was going to increase the minimum wages it plans to pay its employees (preceded by Starbucks, Aetna, and the Gap and followed by TJX and Target), I received a number of queries about what the hike was going to do to inflation. Is this the beginning of the much-feared “cost-push inflation”?
The answer is no. Wages, as I have said many times, follow inflation rather than lead it. Think about it: wouldn’t it be really weird for companies to raise wages and then raise prices, to the extent that they have control – at least with respect to timing – over both? No, whatever price increase is going to be caused by the increase in the wages Walmart expects to pay is already in the price. Walmart is not surprised by their own move to raise wages. Nor is anyone surprised by the general increase in the minimum wage, which happened in 2009.
So, while I continue to believe that inflation is rising, and will continue to rise…I don’t believe that the increase in prices is going to be any faster due to these wage increases. It does, however, increase my confidence that inflation is rising, since obviously these retailers are confident enough in the pricing environment to be able to increase wages (which are sticky – it is harder to lower them than to raise them).