So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?
As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.
Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.
But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.
Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.
As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.
These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.
A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.
Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.
Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!
Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.
One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.
We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.
Recently, the San Francisco Federal Reserve published an Economic Letter in which they described why “Medicare Payment Cuts Continue to Restrain Inflation.” Their summary is:
“A steady downward trend in health-care services price inflation over the past decade has been a major factor holding down core inflation. Much of this downward trend reflects lower payments from public insurance programs. Looking ahead, current legislative guidelines imply considerable restraint on future public insurance payment growth. Therefore, overall health-care services price inflation is unlikely to rebound and appears likely to continue to be a drag on inflation.”
The article is worth reading. But I always have a somewhat uncomfortable reaction to pieces like this. On the one hand, what the authors are discussing is well known: healthcare services held down PCE inflation, and core CPI inflation, due to sequestration. Even Ben Bernanke knew that, and it was one reason that it was so baffling that the Fed was focused on declining core inflation in 2012-2014 when we knew why core was being dragged lower – and it was these temporary effects (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing core and Median CPI).
But okay, perhaps the San Francisco Fed is now supplying the reason: these were not one-off effects, they suggest; instead, “current legislative guidelines” (i.e., the master plan for Obamacare) are going to continue to restrain payments in the future. Ergo, prepare for extended lowflation.
This is where my discomfort comes in. The article combines these well-known things with questionable (at best) assumptions about the future. In this latter category the screaming assumption is the Medicare can affect prices simply by choosing to pay different prices. In a static analysis that’s true, of course. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely in the long run.
It’s a classic monopsonist pricing analysis. Just as “monopoly” is a term to describe a market with just one dominant seller, “monopsony” describes a market with just one dominant buyer. The chart below (By SilverStar at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13863070) illustrates the classic monopsony outcome.
The monopsonist forces an equilibrium based on the marginal revenue product of what it is buying, compared to the marginal cost, at point A. This results in the market being cleared at point M, at a quantity L and a price w, as distinct from the price (w’) and quantity (L’) that would be determined by the competitive-market equilibrium C. So, just as the San Fran Fed economists have it, a monopsonist (like Medicare) forces a lower price and a lower quantity of healthcare consumed (they don’t talk so much about this part but it’s a key to the ‘healthcare cost containment’ assumptions of the ACA neé Obamacare). Straight out of the book!
But that’s true only in a static equilibrium case. I admit that I wasn’t able to find anything relevant in my Varian text, but plain common-sense (and observation of the real world) tells us that over time, the supply of goods and services to the monopsonist responds to the actual price the monopsonist pays. That is, supply decreases because period t+1 supply is related to the reward offered in period t. There is no futures market for medical care services; there is no way for a medical student to hedge future earnings in case they fall. The way the prospective medical student responds to declining wages in the medical profession is to eschew attending medical school. This changes the supply curve in period t+1.
Any other outcome, in fact, would lead to a weird conclusion (at least, I think it’s weird; Bernie Sanders may not): it would suggest that the government should take over the purchase and distribution of all goods, since they could hold prices down by doing so. In other words, full-on socialism. But…we know from experience that pure socialist regimes tend to produce higher rates of inflation (Venezuela, anyone?), and one can hardly help but notice that when the government competes with private industry – for example, in the provision of express mail service – the government tends to lose on price and quality.
In short, I find it very hard to believe that mere “legislative guidelines” can restrain inflation in medical care, in the long run.
The Employment report was weak, with jobs coming in below consensus with a downward revision to prior months. It wasn’t abysmally weak, and not enough to change the a priori trajectory of the Fed. If the number had been 125k below expectations or 125k above it, then it may have had implications for the FOMC. But this is a number that has big swings and is revised multiple times. Getting 160k rather than 200k isn’t cause for celebration, but neither is it cause for panic. So whatever the Fed was getting ready to do didn’t change because of this number.
To be sure, no one knows what the Fed was planning to do, so this mainly has implications for the day’s volatility…which is to say that the market quickly went to sleep for the day.
Now, interestingly the Average Hourly Earnings number ticked higher to 2.5%, continuing the post-crisis upswing. At 2.5%, hourly earnings growth is slightly higher than median inflation and thus potentially “supportive of the inflation dynamic” from the standpoint of the Committee. Yes, wages follow inflation but not in the Fed models – so, while I don’t think this has any implications for future inflation it will eventually have implications for Fed policy. But this is a dovish Fed, and 2.5% earnings growth is not going to scare another tightening out of them…unless they were already planning to tighten.
Wages are actually a bit higher than that. Back in April I highlighted the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker and summarized how this measures is better than Hourly Earnings. I hadn’t been aware of this index previously but I follow it now. It stands at 3.2%. The difference between average hourly earnings and the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker is summarized below (Source: Bloomberg). Again, though: I don’t think we have seen anything today which will change the Fed’s collective opinion about the need for different monetary policy.
Earlier this week, I promised that I would revisit the question of how we can have both deflation and inflation, and how these concepts are confused. I first posted an article summarizing this point in January 2014, and in re-reading it I think it is good enough to pretty much cut-and-paste with only mild edits. So here it is:
How Inflation and Deflation Can Peacefully Coexist
In the discussion about whether the economy is exhibiting “inflationary tendencies” or “deflationary tendencies,” I find that many, many observers grow confused by the fact that we measure prices in dollars, which are themselves subject to changes in relative value due to supply and demand.
It helps to forget about dollars as the unit of measure. Just because it says “One Dollar” does not mean that it is an ever-fixed mark. With apologies to Shakespeare, dollars are not the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown although its dollar price be taken. There are two ways to look at the “inflation/deflation” debate. Depending on which one you are referring to, deflationary tendencies are not inconsistent with price inflation, and price inflation is not inconsistent with deflationary tendencies.
One is the question of dollar price; and here we are mainly concerned with the supply of dollars and the number of times they are spent, compared to the amount of stuff there is to buy. More dollars chasing the same goods and services imply higher prices. Of course, this is just another way of stating the monetarist equation: P ≡ MV/Q. This is an identity and true by definition. Moreover, it is true in practice: rapid money growth over some moderate length of time always corresponds with rapid deterioration in the purchasing power of the money unit – in other words, inflation. At least, we have no examples of (a) extremely high money growth without high inflation, or (b) extremely high inflation without high money growth.
But this is not the same discussion as saying that “the aging demographic [or debt implosion in a recession] means we will have deflation,” as many economists will have it. Deflation, in that sense, can still happen: if you have fewer workers making the same amount of GDP, then goods (and services) prices will fall relative to wages, which would be deflation the way we typically mean it if the overall price level was otherwise unchanged. However, if the money supply increases by a factor of 10, then nominal prices will increase no matter what else is going on. It may be, though, that in this case wages will increase slightly more than prices, so that there will be “deflation” in the unitless sense.
So, these are not inconsistent statements: (a) there will be increasing inflation next year, and (b) large amounts of private debt and demographic “waves” around the world are a deflationary force. The resolution to the seeming inconsistency is that (b) causes downward pressure on certain prices relative to other prices or, if you ignore the unit of exchange, it causes downward pressure in the ratio of one good that can be exchanged for another. Yet at the same time (a) implies that the overall increase in output in goods and services will be outstripped by the number of dollars spent on them, driving prices higher.
So you should cheer for the “good” sort of deflation. At least, you should cheer for it if you are still earning wages. But do not confuse that concept with the notion that prices in dollar terms will fall. That is wholly different, and unless central banks screw up pretty badly it is not going to happen. Indeed, despite all of the so-called “deflationary tendencies” – most of which I agree are important – I believe prices are going to rise in dollar terms and in fact they are going to rise at increasing rates (higher inflation) over the next few years.
P.S. Don’t forget to buy my book! What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All. Thanks!
 I kept this sentence…it was true in January 2014, as median inflation moved from 2.06% in Dec 2013 to 2.4% today, but I also believe this to be still true. Only the next leg will probably be faster.
(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link).
I am often critical of central banks these days, and especially the Federal Reserve. But that doesn’t mean I think the entire institution is worthless. While quite often the staff at the Fed puts out papers that use convoluted and inscrutable mathematics to “prove” something that only works because the assumptions used are garbage, there are also occasionally good bits of work that come out. While it is uneven, I find that the Atlanta Fed’s “macroblog” often has good content, and occasionally has a terrific insight.
The latest macroblog post may fall into the latter category. Before I talk about the post, however, let me as usual admonish readers to remember that wages follow inflation; they do not lead or cause inflation. That reminder is very important to keep in mind, along with the realization that some policymakers do think that wages lead inflation and so don’t get worried about inflation until wages rise as well.
With that said, John Robertson and Ellyn Terry at the Atlanta Fed published this great macroblog article in which they present the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker. Here’s the summary of what they say: most wage surveys have significant composition effects, since the group of people whose wages you are surveying now are very different from the group you surveyed last year. Thus, measures like Average Hourly Wages from the Employment report (which has been rising, but not alarmingly so) are very noisy and moreover might miss important trends because, say, high-wage people are retiring and being replaced by low-wage people (or industries).
But the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker estimates the wage growth of the same worker’s wage versus a year ago. That is, they avoid the composition effect.
It turns out that the Wage Growth Tracker has been rising much more steadily and at a higher rate than average hourly earnings. Here is the drop-the-mic chart:
With this data, the Phillips curve works like a charm. Higher employment is not only related, but closely related to higher wage growth. (For the record, Phillips never said that broad inflation was related to the unemployment rate. He said wage inflation was. See my post on the topic here.) The good news is that this doesn’t really say anything about future inflation, and what it means is that the worker who is actually employed right now is still keeping pace with inflation (barely) thanks to relatively strong employment dynamics.
The bad news, for Yellen and the other doves on the FOMC, is that if they were hiding behind the “tepid wage growth” argument as a reason to be suspicious that inflation will not be maintained, the Atlanta Fed just took a weed-whacker to their argument.
(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link.)
Last week, one of the curious parts of the CPI report was the large jump (1.6% month/month, or nearly 20% annualized) in Apparel. At the time, I dismissed this rise with a hand-wave, pointing out that it Apparel is only 4% of core and so I don’t worry as much about Apparel as I do, say, Medical Care or Housing.
But a Twitter follower called to my attention the words of @IanShepherdson, one of the real quality economists out there (and one whom I read regularly when he was with High Frequency Economics, and I was at Natixis). He hasn’t always been on top of the inflation story, but he nailed the housing bubble story in 2008 and I have great respect for him. Ian apparently said of Apparel that it could be the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to inflation, since apparel tends to respond more quickly to inflationary pressures since it is a very competitive and very homogeneous category.
So I figured it was worth taking a longer look at inflation.
Now, I should point out that I probably have a bias about getting over-excited about inflation. Back in 2011-12, Apparel prices started to accelerate rapidly for the first time in a generation- and that’s no hyperbole. As the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, the price index for seasonally-adjusted apparel prices went sideways-to-down-to-sideways between 1992 and 2012.
You can see from this why I may have gotten excited in 2012. Between 1970 and 1992, apparel prices rose at a very steady rate. Then, as post-Cold War globalization kicked into high gear, apparel manufacture moved from being largely produced in the US to being largely produced outside of the US; the effect on prices is apparent on the chart. But in 2011-2012, the price index began to move higher at almost the same slope as it had been moving prior to the globalization dividend. My thought back then was that the dividend only happens once: at first, input costs are stable or declining because high-cost US labor is replaced with low-cost overseas labor – but eventually, once all apparel is produced overseas, then the composition effect is exhausted and input prices will rise with the cost of labor again. In 2012, I thought that might be happening.
And then Apparel flattened out.
You can see, though, from the right side of the chart the latest spike that has Ian (and maybe me) so excited. The month/month rise was the third largest in the last 30 years, exceeded only by February 2009 and February 2000. As an aside, the fact that the three largest monthly spikes were all in February ought to make you at least a little suspicious that some of what is going on may be a seasonal-adjustment issue, but let’s leave that aside for now because I’m rolling.
What about the assertion that Apparel may be the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ giving an early indication on inflation? The chart below (source: Bloomberg, and Enduring Investments calculations) shows the year-over-year change in Apparel prices (on the right-hand scale) versus core CPI (on the left-hand scale).
I do have to admit, there is something suggestive about that chart although it is at least somewhat visual since I can’t find a consistent lag structure in the data. But the clear turns do seem to happen first in Apparel, often. Ah, but here is the fun chart. For the next chart, I’ve also taken out Shelter from core inflation, since Shelter especially in recent years has been largely driven by pretty crazy monetary policy, as I have pointed out before many times. (And if you want to read what I think that’s likely to lead to, read my book.) To make it fair, I also removed Apparel itself since once Shelter and Food and Energy are all removed, Apparel is starting to matter.
In this chart, you can start to see a pretty interesting tendency for Apparel to perhaps lead, slightly – and so, perhaps, Ian is right. In this case, I certainly wouldn’t want to bet against him since I think that’s where inflation is going too. I just wasn’t sure that Apparel was a strong part of the argument. (But at the same time, notice the big spike in Apparel inflation in 2012 preceded a rise in ex-housing core, but not a large or sustained rise in ex-housing core).
The table below shows the breakdown of Apparel into its constituent parts. The first column is the category, the second column is the weight (in overall CPI), the third column is the current y/y change, and the fourth column is the previous y/y change.
|Category||Weights||y/y change||prev y/y change|
|Boys’ and girls’ footwear||0.17%||2.506%||-0.046%|
I look at this to see whether there’s just one category that is having an outsized move; if there were, then we would worry more about one-off effects (say, the rollout of a new kind of women’s blouse that is suddenly all the rage). It is interesting that Men’s apparel and Boys’ apparel decelerated, while most everything else accelerated, but this happens all the time in the Apparel category. Actually, this is a pretty balanced set of sub-indices, for Apparel.
Now, I’m still not 100% sure this isn’t a seasonal-adjustment issue. It could be related to weather, or day count (29 days in February!), or some bottleneck at a port that caused a temporary blip in prices. I want to see a few more months before getting excited like I did in 2012! But we have had a couple of bad core CPI prints, and we also saw pressure in Medical Care so it is fair to say the number of alarm bells has broadened from one (Housing) to several (Housing, Medical Care, Apparel). It is fair to be concerned about price pressures at this point.
Today’s news was the Employment number. I am not going to talk a lot about the number, since the January jobs number is one of those releases where the seasonal adjustments totally swamp the actual data, and so it has even wider-than-normal error bars. I will discuss error bars more in a moment, but first here is something I do want to point out about the Employment figure. Average Hourly Earnings are now clearly rising. The latest year-on-year number was 2.5%, well above consensus estimates, and last month’s release was revised to 2.7%. So now, the chart of wage growth looks like this.
Of course, I always point out that wages follow inflation, rather than leading it, but since so many people obsess about the wrong inflation metric this may not be readily apparent. But here is Average Hourly Earnings, y/y, versus Median CPI. I have shown this chart before.
The salient point is that whether you are looking at core CPI or PCE or Median CPI, and whether you think wages lead prices or follow prices, this number significantly increases the odds that the Fed raises rates again. Yes, there are lots of reasons the Fed’s intended multi-year tightening campaign is unlikely to unfold, and I am one of those who think that they may already be regretting the first one. But a number like this will tend to convince the hawks among them otherwise.
Speaking of the Fed, last night I attended a speech by Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, sponsored by Market News International. Every time I hear a Fed speaker speak, afterwards I want to put my head into a vise to squeeze all of the nonsense out – and last night was no different. Now, Dr. Mester is a classically-trained, highly-accomplished economist with a Ph.D. from Princeton, but I don’t hold that against her. Indeed, credit where credit is due: unlike many such speakers I have heard in the past, Dr. Mester seemed to put more error bars around some of her answers and, in one of the best exchanges, she observed that we won’t really know whether the QE tool is worth keeping in the toolkit until after monetary conditions have returned to normal. That’s unusual; most Fed speakers have long been declaring victory. She is certainly a fan and an advocate of QE, but at least recognizes that the chapter on QE cannot yet be written (although I make what I think is a fair attempt at such a chapter in my book, due out in a month or so).
But the problem with the Federal Reserve boils down to two things. First, like any large institution there is massive groupthink going on. There is little true and significant diversity of opinion. For example there are, for all intents and purposes, no true monetarists left at the Fed who have any voice. Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed was the last one who ever published pieces expressing the important role of money in monetary policy, and he retired a little while back. As another example, it is taken as a given that “transparency” is a good thing, despite the fact that many of the questions posed last night to Dr. Mester boiled down to problems that are actually due to too much transparency. I doubt seriously whether there has ever been a formal discussion, internally, of the connection between increased financial leverage and increased Fed transparency. Many of the problems with “too big to fail” institutions boil down to too much leverage, and a transparent Fed that carefully telegraphs its intentions will tend to increase investor confidence in outcomes and, hence, tend to increase leverage. But I cannot imagine that anyone at the Fed has ever seriously raised the question whether they should be giving less, rather than more, information to the market. It is significantly outside of chapter-and-verse.
The second problem is that the denizens of the Fed overestimate their knowledge and their ability to know certain things that may simply not be knowable. Again, Dr. Mester was a mild exception to this – but very mild. When someone says “We think the overnight rate should normalize more slowly than implied by the Taylor Rule,” but then doesn’t follow that up with an explanation of why you think so, I grow wary. Because economics in the real world, practiced honestly, should produce a lot of “I don’t know” answers. It may be boring, but this is how the question-and-answer with Dr. Mester should have gone:
Q: What do you think inflation will do in 2016?
A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.
Q: What do you think short rates will do in 2016?
A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.
Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2016?
A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.
Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2017?
A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really, really wide error bars.
Q: What do you think the consensus is at the Fed about the optimal pace of raising rates?
A: I don’t know. Each person on the Committee has a point estimate, each of which has really wide error bars. Collectively, we have an average that has even wider error bars. We cannot therefore usefully characterize what the path of the short rate will look like. At all.
Indeed, this is part of the problem with transparency. If you are going to be transparent, there is going to be pressure to provide “answers.” But a forecast without an error bar is just a guess. The error bars are what cause a guess to become an estimate. So we get a “dot plot” with a bunch of guesses on it. The actual dot plot, from December, looks like this:
But the dot plot should look more like this, where the error bars are all included.
Obviously, we would take the latter chart as meaning…correctly…that the Fed really has very little idea of where the funds rate is going to be in a couple of years and cannot convincingly reject the hypothesis that rates will be basically unchanged from here. That’s simultaneously transparent, and very informational, and colossally unhelpful to fast-twitch traders.
And now I can release the vise on my head. Thank you for letting me get the nonsense out.
The news on Friday that the Bank of Japan had joined the ECB in pushing policy rates negative was absorbed with brilliant enthusiasm on Wall Street. At least, much of the attribution for the exceptional rally was given to the BoJ’s move. I find it implausible, arguably silly, to think that a marginal change in monetary policy by a desperate central bank on the other side of the world – however unexpected – would have a massive effect on US stocks. Subsequent trading, which has reversed almost all of that ebullience in two days, suggests that other investors also may agree that just maybe the sorry state of earnings growth rates in this country, combined with a poor economic outlook and still-lofty valuations, should matter more than Kuroda’s gambit.
To be sure, this is a refrain that Ben Bernanke (remember him? Of helicopter infamy?) was singing last month, before the Federal Reserve hiked rates impotently, and clearly the Fed is investigating whether negative rates is a “tool” they should add to their oh-so-expansive toolbox for fighting deflation.
Scratch that. The Fed no longer needs to fight deflation; inflation is at 2.4% and rising. The toolbox the Fed is interested in adding to is the one that contains the tools for goosing growth. That toolbox, judging from historical success rates, is virtually empty. And always has been.
Back to Japan: let me point out that if the BOJ goal has been to extinguish deflation, it has already done so. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows core inflation in Japan for the last 20 years or so. Abstracting from the sales-tax-related spike, core inflation has risen fairly steadily from -1.5% to near 1.0% since mid-2010.
They did this, very simply, by working to accelerate money supply growth from the 1.5%-2.0% growth that was the standard in the late pre-crisis period to over 4% by 2014 and 2015 (see chart, source: Bloomberg).
Not rocket science, folks. Monetary science.
Now, recently money supply growth has begun to fall off, so the BoJ likely was concerned by that and wants to find a way to ensure that inflation doesn’t slip back. If that was their intention, then cutting rates was exactly the wrong thing to do. The regression below (source: Bloomberg) illustrates in a different way what I have shown here before: interest rates and money velocity are closely tied (as Friedman explained decades ago). The r-squared of this relationship – assuming that functionally a linear fit is appropriate, which I am not sure of – is a heady 0.822.
You may notice the data is from the US; that’s because Bloomberg doesn’t have a good velocity series for Japan’s M2 but the causal relationship is the same: lower term interest rates imply less reason not to hold cash.
Now, it may be the case that this relationship ceases to apply at negative rates even though the idea is based on the relative difference between cash yielding zero and longer-term investments or consumption alternatives. The reason that velocity might behave differently at sub-zero rates is that people respond asymmetrically to losses and gains. That is, the pleasure of a gain is dominated by the pain of the same-sized loss, in most people. This cognitive bias may cause savers/investors to behave strikingly different if they are charged for deposits than if they are merely paid zero on those deposits (even if zero is lower than other available rates). In that case, we might see a spike in money velocity once rates go through zero as cash balances become hot-potatoes, just as if investment opportunities suddenly appeared. And rates, not just overnight but term rates, just went negative in Japan. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the 5y JGB rate.
- The speculation that sub-zero rates might cause a rise in velocity is just that: speculation. There’s no data to suggest that this effect exists.
- Frankly, I suspect it doesn’t, but it’s possible. However, if it does I would expect it to be a spot discontinuity in the relationship between rates and velocity. That is, the behavior should change between 0% and some negative rate, but then be somewhat linear thereafter. Cognitively, the reaction is both a general loss aversion, which is linear but no different at negative rates from zero, and a behavioral “endowment” reaction that is to the “taking” of money from a person and not necessarily related to the size of the theft.
- If it does exist, it still doesn’t mean that cutting rates to a negative rate was wise. After all, quantitative easing has done a fine job of pushing up inflation, and so there is no reason to take a speculative gamble like this to keep inflation moving higher. Just do more of the same. Lots more.
- More likely, the BoJ is doing this because they believe that negative rates will stimulate growth. This is much more speculative than you might think, and I may be overgenerous in phrasing the point that way. In any case, any growth benefit would stem either from weakening the currency (which QE would also do, with less risk) or from provoking investment in more marginal ventures that become acceptable at lower financing rates. We call that malinvestment, and it isn’t a good thing.
- Whatever the point of the BoJ’s move, the size of any growth effect from currency reactions is utterly dependent on the reaction function of trading counterparties. If other countries seek to devalue their currencies as well, then the whole operation will be inert.
So, will the BoJ’s move save US stocks? Heck, it won’t even save the Japanese economy.