I was convinced last week that the stock markets, as well as the inflation markets, were underestimating the importance of the Ukrainian conflict. I thought that I had a little more time to write about that before the crisis came to a head, which turned out not to be true. However, it seems that markets are still underestimating the importance of the Ukrainian conflict.
About the best possible outcome at this point is that Putin stops with an annexation of the Russian equivalent of the Sudetenland, with the episode merely pointing out (again) the impotence of Western leaders to respond to Russian aggression but not actually damaging much besides our pride. Even in that case, to me this signals a dangerous new evolution in the development of Russia’s relationship with the West. But the worse cases are far worse.
The angry fist-shaking of the old democracies is moderately amusing; less amusing are the stupid threats being made about economic sanctions. Let us stop for a minute and review what the West imports from Russia.
According to this article from Miyanville (from early 2013), Russia is the world’s largest producer of chromium (30% of the world market), nickel (19%), and palladium (43%), and is the second-largest producer of aluminum (10%), platinum (12%), and zirconium (19%). It has the largest supply of natural gas (although we are gaining rapidly), the second largest supply of coal, and the 8th-largest endowment of crude oil. The Ukraine itself is the third largest exporter of corn and the sixth-largest exporter of wheat. Meanwhile, the top 10 exports to Russia include engines, aircraft, vehicles, meat, electronic equipment, plastics, live animals, and pharmaceuticals.
So, we are fundamentally exporting “nice to haves” while importing “must haves.” Who needs trade more?
Let me make a further, suggestive observation. I maintain that the tremendous, positive trade-off of growth and inflation (high growth, low inflation) that the U.S. has experienced since the 1990s is at least partly a story of globalization following the end of the Cold War. Over the last couple of years, I have grown fond of showing the graph of apparel prices, which shows a steady rise until the early 1990s, a decline until 2012 or so, and then what appears to be a resumption of the rise. The story with apparel is very clear – as we moved from primarily domestically-sourced apparel to almost completely overseas-sourced apparel, high-cost production was replaced by low-cost production, which dampened the price increases for American consumers. It is a very clear illustration of the “globalization dividend.”
Of course, mainstream economic theory holds that the inflation/growth tradeoff suddenly became attractive for the U.S. in 1991 or so because inflation expectations abruptly became “anchored.” Why look for a good reason, when you can simply add a dummy variable to an econometric model??
But suppose that I am right, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 played a role in the terrific growth/inflation tradeoff we have experienced since then. Incidentally, here are some data:
- Cold War (1963, immediately following the Cuban missile crisis, until the fall of the USSR): U.S. annual growth averaged 3.4% (not compounded); inflation averaged 5.4%. The DJIA rose at a compounded nominal rate of 5.6%.
- Post-Cold-War (1991-2013, including three recessions): U.S. annual average growth 2.6%; annual average inflation 2.4%. The DJIA rose at a compounded nominal rate of 7.5%.
This is not to say that globalization is about to end, or go into reverse, necessarily. It is to illustrate why we really ought to be very concerned if it appears that the Bear appears to be back in expansion mode – whether it is something we can prevent or not. And it is also to illustrate why putting a firm end to that expansion mode, rather than sacrificing global trade and cheap energy to a resurrection of the Cold War, is probably worth considering.
I still don’t think that equity investors understand the significance of what is going on in the Ukraine.
The biggest surprise of the day on Tuesday did not come from new Fed Chairman Janet Yellen, nor from the fact that she didn’t offer dovish surprises. Many observers had expected that after a mildly weak recent equity market and slightly soft Employment data, Yellen (who has historically been, admittedly, quite a dove) would hold out the chance that the “taper” may be delayed. But actually, she seemed to suggest that nothing has changed about the plan to incrementally taper Fed purchases of Treasuries and mortgages. I had thought that would be the likely outcome, and said so yesterday when I supposed “she will be reluctant to be a dove right out of the gate.”
The surprise came in the market reaction. Since there had been no other major (equity) bullish influences over the last week, I assumed that the stock market rally had been predicated on the presumption that Yellen would give some solace to the bulls. When she did not, I thought stocks would have difficulty – and on that, I was utterly wrong. Now, whether that means the market thinks Yellen is lying, or whether there is some other reason stocks are rallying, or whether they are rallying for no reason whatsoever, I haven’t a clue.
I do know though that the DJ-UBS commodity index reached its highest closing level in five months, and that commodities are still comfortably ahead of stocks in 2014 even with this latest equity rally. This rally has been driven by energy and livestock, with some precious metals improvements thrown in. So, lest we be tempted to say that the rally in commodities is confirming some underlying economic strength, reflect that industrial metals remain near 5-year lows (see chart, source Bloomberg, of the DJUBS Industrial Metals Subindex).
One of the reasons I write these articles is to get feedback from readers, who forward me all sorts of articles and observations related to inflation. Even though I have access to many of these same sources, I don’t always see every article, so it’s helpful to get a heads up this way. A case in point is the article that was on Business Insider yesterday, detailing another quirky inflation-related report from Goldman Sachs.http://www.businessinsider.com/goldman-fed-should-target-wage-growth-2014-2
Now, I really like much of what Jan Hatzius does, but on inflation the economics team at Goldman is basically adrift. It may be that the author of this article doesn’t have the correct story, but if he does then here is the basic argument from Goldman: the Fed shouldn’t target inflation or employment, but rather on wage growth, because wage growth is a better measure of the “employment gap” and will tie unemployment and inflation together better.
The reason the economists need to make this argument is because “price inflation is not very responsive to the employment gap at low levels of inflation,” which is a point I have made often and most recently in my December “re-blog” series.
But, as has happened so often with Goldman’s economists when it comes to inflation, they take a perfectly reasonable observation and draw a nonsensical conclusion from it. The obvious conclusion, given the absolute failure of the “employment gap” to forecast core price inflation over the last five years, is that the employment gap and price inflation are not particularly related. The experimental evidence of that period makes the argument that they are – which is a perversion of Phillips’ original argument, which related wages and unemployment – extremely difficult to support. Hatzius et. al. clearly now recognize this, but they draw the wrong conclusion.
There is no need to tie unemployment and inflation together …unless you are a member of the bow-tied set, and really need to calibrate parameters for the Taylor Rule. So it isn’t at all a concern that they aren’t, unless you really want your employment gap models to spit out useful forecasts. Okay, so if you can’t forecast prices, then use the same models and call it a wage forecast!
But the absurdity goes a bit farther. By suggesting that the Fed set policy on the basis of wage inflation, these economists are proposing a truly abhorrent policy of raising interest rates simply because people are making more money. Wage inflation is a good thing; end product price inflation is a bad thing. Under the Goldman rule, if wages were rising smartly but price inflation was subdued, then the Fed should tighten. But why tighten just because real wages are increasing at a solid pace? That is, after all, one of society’s goals! If the real wage increase came about because of an increase in productivity, or because of a decrease in labor supply, then it does not call for a tightening of monetary policy. In such cases, it is eminently reasonable that laborers take home a larger share of the real gains from manufacture and trade.
On the other hand, if low nominal wage growth was coupled with high price inflation, the Goldman rule would call for an easing of monetary policy…even though that would tend to increase price inflation while doing nothing for wages. In short, the Goldman rule should probably be called the Marie Antoinette rule. It will tend to beat down wage earners.
Whether or not the Goldman rule is an improvement over the Taylor Rule is not necessarily the right question either, because the Taylor Rule is not the right policy rule to begin with. Returning to the prior point: the employment gap has not demonstrated any useful predictive ability regarding inflation. Moreover, monetary policy has demonstrated almost no ability to make any impact on the unemployment rate. The correct conclusion here is a policy rule should not have an employment gap term. The Federal Reserve should be driven by prospective changes in the aggregate price level, which are in turn driven in the long run almost entirely by changes in the supply of money. So it isn’t surprising that the Goldman rule can improve on the Taylor rule – there are a huge number of rules that would do so.
In normal times, by which I mean before actions of the Federal Reserve became the only data point that mattered, the monthly ISM report was important because it was the first broad-based look at the most-recent month’s data.
Now that the Fed’s taper has begun – right about the time that the uncertainty of the impact of Obamacare implementation was at its peak, curiously enough – the ISM data seems to have taken on importance once again. I must say that I did not see that coming, but since guessing at the Fed’s actions every six weeks and ignoring all intervening data was so all-fired boring, I suppose I am glad for it. Looking at economic data and trying to figure out what is happening in the economy is more like analysis and less like being on The People’s Court trying to rule on a he-said, she-said case where the hes and shes are Federal Reserve officials. And that is welcome.
That being said, the January ISM report isn’t one I would necessarily place at the head of the class of importance, mainly because it is January. Still, it was an interesting one with the Manufacturing PMI dropping 5.2 points, matching the steepest decline since October 2008. The New Orders subindex plunged to 51.2 versus 64.4 last month, and Employment and Production indices also declined significantly. It’s clearly bad news, but I would be careful ascribing too much value to any January number – especially one based on a survey.
Also standing out in the report was the increase in the (non-seasonally adjusted) “Prices Paid” subcomponent, to 60.5. the jump was initially somewhat surprising to me because as the chart below – which I tweeted shortly after the number – seems to show, we have had a jump in Prices Paid that is not being driven by a concomitant jump in gasoline prices – and Prices Paid is predominantly driven by gasoline prices.
However, as I noted in that tweet, the Prices Paid index is measuring the rate of change of prices (the question posed to purchasing managers is whether prices are increasing faster, slower, or about the same as the month before), so just eyeballing it may not be enough. The chart below plots the 3-month change in gasoline prices versus the ISM Prices Paid subindex. What you can see is that the first chart is slightly deceiving. The change in gasoline prices has accelerated – back to zero after having been declining since February of 2013. And “unchanged” gasoline prices is roughly consistent with about 60 on the Prices Paid indicator. So, this isn’t as much of a surprise as it looked like, initially.
Still, whether it was the data or because of continued concern about emerging markets (though the S&P fell nearly as far in percentage terms as did the EEM today, leaving open the question of which is following which), stocks didn’t enter February with much cheer. But never fear, I am sure there is “cash on the sidelines” that will come charging to the rescue soon.
The past week has given a great illustration of one important difference between the price behavior of equities and commodities. That is that stocks are negatively skewed and positively kurtotic, while commodities are positively skewed and negatively kurtotic. That is to say, in layman’s terms, that stocks tend to crash downward, while commodities more frequently crash upwards. This happens because what tends to drive severe movements in commodities is shortages, where the short-term supply curve becomes basically vertical so that any increase in demand pushes up prices sharply. Exhibit one is Natural Gas (see chart, source Bloomberg), where inventories were above normal as recently as October and now are the lowest in a decade.
Exhibit two is Coffee (see chart, source Bloomberg), where drought in Brazil has lifted coffee prices 8-9% today and 35% from the five-year lows set in November. There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, I understand, but there may be less this year.
In my view, stocks remain very expensive even after this quick 5.75% loss (-2.3% today). Obviously, less so! Commodities have outperformed stocks by basically remaining unchanged, but remain very cheap. Bonds have rallied, as money has shifted from stocks to bonds. This is fine, except that 10-year notes at 2.57% with median inflation at 2.1% and rising is not a position to own, only to rent. The question is, when investors decide that it’s time to take their profits in bonds, do they go to cash, back to equities, or to commodities? If you are one of the people mulling this very question, I have another chart to show you. It is the simple ratio of the S&P to the DJ-UBS (source: Bloomberg).
I think that makes where I stand fairly clear. If both stocks and commodities represent ownership in real property, and both have roughly the same long-term historical returns (according to Gorton & Rouwenhorst), then the ratio of current prices should be a coarse (and I stress coarse) relative-value indicator, right?
But let’s shift from the long-view lens back to the short view, now that a retreating Fed makes this more worthwhile. I am not sanguine about the outlook for stocks, obviously (and here’s one for the technicians: for the first time in years, exchange volume in January was higher than last year’s January volume). However, bulls may get a brief reprieve later this week when the Employment Report is released. Yes, it’s another January data point that ought to be ignored or at least averaged with December’s figure. And that’s the point here. Last month’s Employment Report showed only a 74k rise in Nonfarm Payrolls. That weakness was likely due to the fact that the seasonal adjustments (which dwarf the net number of jobs, in December and January) assumed more year-end and holiday hiring than actually occurred. But the flip side of that is that if fewer were hired in December, it probably means fewer were fired in January. Thus, I expect that the 185k consensus guess for new jobs is likely to be too low and we will have a bullish surprise on Friday. That might help the bulls get a foothold…but it is a long three trading days away.
Note: The following blog post originally appeared on April 4th, 2012 and is part of a continuing year-end ‘best of’ series, calling up old posts that some readers may have not seen before. I have removed some of the references to then-current market movements and otherwise cut the article down to the interesting bits. You can read the original post here.
I routinely deride economists who rely on the discredited notion that growth in excess of a nation’s productive capacity is what causes inflation – and, conversely, a surplus of productive capacity is what causes deflation. See, for example, here, here, and here. And that is just in the last month!
I want to point out that it isn’t that I don’t believe in microeconomics (where an increase in supply causes prices to fall and a decrease in supply causes prices to rise). I believe deeply in the supply-demand construct.
But the problem with applying these ideas to the macroeconomy is that people get confused with real and nominal quantities, and they think of the “productive frontier” of an economy as being one thing rather than a multi-dimensional construct.
When an economy reaches “productive capacity,” it isn’t because it has used up all of its resources. It is because it has used up the scarcest resource. Theory says that what should happen isn’t that all prices should rise, but that the price of the scarce resource should rise relative to the prices of other resources. For example, when labor is plentiful relative to capital, then what should happen is that real wages should stagnate while real margins increase – that is, because productivity is constrained by the scarce resource of capital, more of the economy’s gains should accrue to capital. And so Marx was right, in this sort of circumstance: the “industrial reserve army of the unemployed” should indeed increase the share of the economic spoils that go to the kapitalists.
And that is exactly what is happening now. In the banking crisis, the nation’s productive capacity declined because of a paucity of available capital, in particular because banks were forced to de-lever. Output declined, and after the shock adjustments the margins of corporate America rose sharply (which I recently illustrated here), near record levels from earlier in the decade of the 00s. And real wages stagnated. Be very clear on this point: it is real wages which are supposed to stagnate when labor is plentiful, not nominal wages.
Now, what should happen next in a free market system is that the real cost of capital should decline, or real wages should increase, or both, as labor is substituted for capital because of the shortage of capital. We indeed see that the real cost of capital is declining, because real rates are sharply negative out to 10 years and equities are trading at lusty multiples. But real wages are stagnating, going exactly nowhere over the last 36 months. Why is the adjustment only occurring on the capital side, with bull markets in bonds and stocks?
We can thank central bankers, and especially Dr. Bernanke and the Federal Reserve, for working assiduously to lower the cost of capital – also known as supporting the markets for capital. This has the effect, hopefully unintended, of lowering the level at which the convergence between real wages and the real cost of capital happens; and of course, it obviously also favors the existing owners of capital. By defending the owners of capital (and, among other things, refusing to let any of them go out of business), the Fed is actually helping to hold down real wages since there is no reason to substitute away from capital to labor!
But all of this happens in real space. One way that the real cost of capital and the real wage can stay low is to increase the price level, which is exactly what is happening. We call this inflation.
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This will be my last “live” post of 2013. As such, I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to read my articles, recommend them, re-tweet them, and re-blog them. Thanks, too, for your generous and insightful comments and reactions to my writing. One of the key reasons for writing this column (other than for the greater glory of Enduring Investments and to evangelize for the thoughtful use of inflation products by individual and institutional investors alike) is to force me to crystallize my thinking, and to test that thinking in the marketplace of ideas to find obvious flaws and blind spots. Those weaknesses are legion, and it’s only by knowing where they are that I can avoid being hurt by them.
In my writing, I try to propose the ‘right questions,’ and I don’t claim to have all the right answers. I am especially flattered by those readers who frequently disagree with my conclusions, but keep reading anyway – that suggests to me that I am at least asking good questions.
So thank you all. May you have a blessed holiday season and a happy new year. And, if you find yourself with time to spare over the next few weeks, stop by this blog or check your email (if you have signed up) as I will be re-blogging some of my (subjectively considered) “best” articles from the last four years. Included in that list is an article on long-run returns to equities, one on Yellen’s defense of large-scale asset purchases, an article on the Phillips Curve, one on why CPI isn’t a bogus construct of a vast governmental conspiracy, and so on. Because I don’t expect some of the places where this column is ‘syndicated’ to post the re-blogs, you should consider going to the source site to sign up for these post, or follow me @inflation_guy on Twitter.
And now, on to my portfolio projections as of December 13th, 2013.
Last year, I said “it seems likely…that 2013 will be a better year in terms of economic growth.” It seems that will probably end up being the case, marginally, but it is less likely that 2014 improves measurably in terms of most economic variables on 2013 and there is probably a better chance that it falls short. This expansion is at least four years old. Initial Claims have fallen from 650k per week in early 2009 to a pace of just barely more than half that (335k) in the most-recent 26 weeks. About the best that we can hope for, plausibly, is for the current pace of improvement to continue. The table below illustrates the regularity of this improvement over the last four years, using the widely-followed metric of the Unemployment Rate:
Sure, I know that there are arguments to be made about whether the Unemployment Rate captures the actual degree of pain in the jobs market. It plainly does not. But you can pick any one of a dozen other indicators and they all will show roughly the same pattern – slow, steady improvement. There is no doubt that things are better now than they were four years ago, and no doubt that they are still worse than four years before that. My point is simply that we have been on the mend for four years.
Now, perhaps this expansion will last much longer than the typical expansion. But I don’t find terribly compelling the notion that the expansion will last longer because the recession was deeper. Was this recession deeper because the previous expansion was longer? If so, then the argument is circular. If not, then why would that connection only work in one direction? What I know is that the Treasury has spent the last four years running up large deficits to support the economy, and the Fed has nailed interest rates at zero and flooded the economy with liquidity. Those two things will at best be repeated in 2014, not increased; and there is a decent chance that one or the other is reversed. Another 0.8% improvement in the Unemployment Rate would put it at 6.2%, and I expect inflation to head higher as well. A taper will be called for; indeed, it should never have been necessary because policy is far too loose as it is. Whether or not an extremely dovish Fed Chairman will actually acquiesce to taper is an open question, but economically speaking it is already overdue and certainly will appear that way by the middle of the year, absent a crack-up somewhere.
Global threats to growth do abound. European growth is sluggish because of the condition of the financial system and the pressures on the Euro (but they think growth is sluggish because money isn’t free enough). UK growth has been improving, but much of that – as in the U.S. – has been on the back of housing markets that are improving too quickly to make me comfortable. Chinese growth has recently been downshifting. Japanese growth has been irregularly improving but enormous challenges persist there. Globally, the bright spot is a modest retreat in Brent Crude prices and lower prices of refined products (although Natural Gas prices seem to be on the rise again despite what was supposed to be a domestic glut). Some observers think that a lessening of tensions with Iran and recovery of capacity in Libya, along with increasing US production of crude, could push these prices lower and provide a following wind to global growth, but I am less sanguine that geopolitical tensions will remain relaxed for long and, in any event, depending on a calm Iran as the linchpin of 2014 optimism seems pretty cavalier to me.
Note that the muddled growth picture contains some elements of risk to price inflation. The ECB has been kicking around the idea of doing true QE or experimenting with negative deposit rates. The UK housing boom, like ours, keeps the upward pressure on measures of core inflation. There is no sign of an end to Japanese QE, and the PBOC seems willing to let the renmimbi rise more rapidly than it has in the past. And all of these global risks to domestic price inflation are in addition to the internally-generated pressures from rapid housing price growth in the United States.
The good news on inflation domestically is that M2 money growth has slackened from the 8%-10% pace of last year to more like 6%-8% (see chart, source Bloomberg). This is still too fast unless money velocity continues to slide, but it is certainly an improvement. But the bad news is that money growth remains rapid in the UK and is accelerating in Japan. The only place it is flagging, in Europe, has a central bank that is anxious not to be last place on the global inflation scale. I expect core inflation (and median inflation) in the U.S. to rise throughout 2014 and for core inflation to end up above 3% for the year.
Now, I have just made a number of near-term forecasts but I need to change gears when looking at the long-term projections. In what follows, I make no effort to predict the 3-month, 6-month, or 12-month returns of any market. Indeed, although I will present long-term risk and return outlooks, and they are presented as point estimates, I want to make it very clear that these are not predictions but rather statements of relative risk and return possibilities. For many types of instruments, the error bars around the average annual performance are so large as to make point estimates (in my view) nearly useless. The numbers come from models of how markets behave when they are priced “like they are now” in terms of several important metrics. They are not prescient. However, that is what investing is really all about: not making the “right” bet in terms of whether you can call the next card off the deck, but making the “right” bet with respect to the odds offered by the game, and betting the right amount given the odds and the edge.
I also will not make portfolio allocation recommendations here. The optimal portfolio allocation for you depends on more variables than I have at my disposal: your age, your career opportunities, your lifestyle, your goals, any insurance portfolio and your risk tolerance, to name just a few.
What I will do here, though, is to give top-down estimates of the long-run returns and risks of some broad asset classes, and make some general observations. I don’t analyze every possible asset class. For this exercise, I limit the universe to stocks, TIPS, nominal bonds (both long Treasury and corporate bonds), commodity indices and (since many of us already own it) residential real estate. My estimates and some notations about the calculations are in the table below.
|Inflation||2.50%||Current 10y CPI Swaps|
|TIPS||0.68%||Current 10y TIPS. This is not at equilibrium, but it is what we can lock in today. It is the highest rate available at year-end since 2010.|
|Treasuries||0.37%||Nominal bonds and inflation-linked bonds ought to have the same a priori expectation, but Treasuries trade rich to TIPS because of their value as repo collateral. Current 10y nominal rate is 2.87%, implying 0.37% real.|
|T-Bills||-0.50%||Is less than for longer Treasuries because of liquidity preference.|
|Corp Bonds||-0.69%||Corporate bonds earn a spread that should compensate for expected credit losses. A simple regression of Moody’s “A”-Rated Corporate yields versus Treasury yields suggests the former are about 45bps rich to what they should be for this level of Treasury yields.|
|Stocks||1.54%||2.25% long-term real growth + 1.83% dividend yield – 2.54% per annum valuation convergence 2/3 of the way from current 24.3 Shiller P/E to the long-run mean. Note that I am using long-run growth at equilibrium, not what TIPS are implying. This is the worst prospective 10 year real return we have seen in stocks since December 2007. Now, to be fair in 1999 we did get to almost -2%, which would imply up to another 35-40% upside to stocks before we reached an equivalent height of bubbliness. That is a 35-40% that I am happy to miss.|
|Commodity Index||6.26%||Various researchers have found that commodity futures indices have a long-run diversification return of about 3.5%. To this we add 1-month LIBOR to represent the return on the collateral behind the futures, and a ‘relative value’ factor to reflect the performance (relative to the expected model) of hard assets relative to currency.|
|Real Estate (Residential)||-0.19%||The long-run real return of residential real estate is around +0.50%. Current metrics have Existing Home Sales median prices at 3.79x median income, versus a long-term average of 3.55x. Converging to the mean over 10 years would imply an 0.69% per annum drag to the real return. This is the first time since 2008 that housing prices have offered a negative real return on a forward-looking basis.|
The results, using historical volatilities calculated over the last 10 years (and put in terms of ‘real annuitized income,’ a term that means essentially the variance compared to a fixed 10-year real annuity, which in this analysis would be the risk-free instrument), are plotted below. (Source: Enduring Investments).
Return as a function of risk is, as one would expect, positive. For each 0.33% additional real return expectation, an investor must accept a 1% higher standard deviation of annuitized real income. However, note that this is only such a positive trade-off because of the effect of commodities and TIPS. If you remove those two asset classes, which are the cheap high-risk and the cheap low-risk asset classes, respectively, then the tradeoff is worse. The other assets lie much more closely to the resulting line, which is flatter: you only gain 0.19% in additional real return for each 1% increment of real risk. Accordingly, I think that the best overall investment portfolio using public securities – which has inflation protection as an added benefit – is a barbell of broad-based commodity indices and TIPS.
TIPS by themselves are not particularly cheap; it is only in the context of other low-risk asset classes that they appear so. Our Fisher model is long inflation expectations and flat real rates, which merely says that TIPS are strongly preferable to nominal rates but not a fabulous investment in themselves (although 10-year TIPS yields are better now than they have been for a couple of years). Our four-asset model remains heavily weighted towards commodity indices; and our metals and miners model is skewed heavily towards industrial metals (50%, e.g. DBB) with a neutral weight in precious metals (24%, e.g. GLD) and underweight positions in gold miners (8%, e.g. GDX) and industrial miners (17%, e.g. PICK). (Disclosure: We have long positions in each of the ETFs mentioned.)
Feel free to send me a message (best through the Enduring website http://www.enduringinvestments.com ) or tweet (@inflation_guy) to ask about any of these models and strategies. In the new year, I plan to offer an email “course”, tentatively entitled “Characteristics of Inflation-Protecting Asset Classes,” that will discuss how these different assets behave with respect to inflation and give some thoughts on how to put an arm’s-length valuation on them. Keep an eye out for the announcement of that course. And in the meantime, have a happy holiday season and a merry new year!
The data has started to arrive.
Tuesday’s Employment report (gosh, it seems strange to write that) was weaker-than-expected with Payrolls +148k versus expectations for +180k. As I wrote back at the beginning of August, something in the realm of 200k is about as good as you’re going to get, so we’re not very short of that…we’re just very far short of what the consensus seems to expect we’re eventually going to get. No doubt, 148k isn’t 200k, and the six-month average of 163k is the lowest of the year. But it is also not a calamity, on the growth front.
And yet, 10-year interest rates are 50bps below the highs of early September. (Real yields are actually down 60bps, which means inflation expectations have risen slightly during that period). Interest rates are down because everyone knows that the trajectory of policy, with Yellen as likely to be the next Chairman of the Fed, is going to be “lower for longer.” But why? This goes back to the observation that growth is not far short of the best that it is likely to get. The only point of “lower for longer” is to support asset markets – housing, equity, and the bond market whence our nation’s interest burden is determined – and it seems to be doing this quite well. The alternate theory is that the Fed still fears deflation, despite all evidence (and copious theory) that the risk arrow is pointing in the other direction. In neither case does the Federal Reserve come out looking particularly on top of things, but more and more we are expecting that from Washington whether the officials are elected or appointed.
I really thought at one point that the bond market was going to be where the profligate monetary policy was going to first come unglued, but I am now wondering if it isn’t that denizen of hair-trigger shooters, the foreign exchange markets. The dollar index is plumbing the lows of the last two years, although it remains considerably above the lows of 2008 and 2011. As the chart below shows, the dollar has actually left behind the commodity markets where, as we know, investors suffer from the delusion that growth is more important for the nominal price of commodities than is the overall price level. Weak-ish growth means that commodities are only weakly above its August lows, although the buck is quite a bit lower since then.
I don’t think we can learn much right now watching stocks, where investors are simply playing Icarus. We all know where it leads, but any words of warning are laughed off as they soar with Fed-induced wings. Of course they’ll turn away in time!
I think housing is interesting. Having gotten back barely to fair, or maybe just a smidge cheap, compared to incomes, housing is expensive once again. But it isn’t in bubble territory yet, at least in the sense that when it cracks it could cause the carnage it did once before.
Bonds are on tenuous footing. With the consensus currently in place that the Fed might keep QE in place more or less forever, there are a lot of ways to disappoint the status quo: Fed speakers might suddenly try to start sounding stern again and imply that QE might not last forever; inflation might continue to tick higher and make obvious the unsustainability of the current course; or growth numbers might surprise to the high side.
The barbarians are already overrunning the dollar, and I suspect only the fact that Japanese monetary policy is far worse is keeping the descent slow. But people plugged into the supply and demand for currency are probably most likely to understand what happens when too much is supplied (hint: it’s the same thing that happens to the price of corn when too much corn is supplied). For a while, monetary authorities have been chasing each other to see which could be the least respectable, but it now seems that Japan wins that race and the US is likely to place.
As the chart above shows, reasons for increasing exposure to broad-based commodity indices (especially those that do not overweight energy, as the GSCI does) continue to accumulate.
There is much more data to come, of course, but to me it seems the battle lines have been more or less drawn in this fashion.
I am disinclined to take victory laps when most people are losing money, but the recovery in commodities prices over the last week at the same time that bond and equity prices are both declining is a taste of success for my view that has been rare enough lately. That is, of course, the burden that a contrarian investor bears: to be wrong when everyone else is having fun, and to be right when no one wants to go out and celebrate. In fact, if you find yourself sharing your successes too often with other people who are having the same successes, I would submit you should be wary.
It is worth noting that the commodities rally has not been led by energy, despite the terrible violence in Egypt which threatens, again, to ignite a spark in the region. Today, the rise in commodities was led by gold and grains; yesterday by cows and copper (well, livestock and industrials).
I don’t think that this is because of a sudden epiphany about inflation. In fact, although breakevens have been recovering from the oversold condition in June (more on that in a moment), the inflation data today did nothing to persuade inflation investors that more protection is needed. I gave some thoughts about the CPI report earlier today in this post, but suffice it to say that it was not an upside surprise. (And yet, there are starting to appear more-frequent smart articles on inflation risks. I commend this article by Allan Meltzer to you as being unusually clear-eyed.)
And commodities are not moving higher because of renewed enthusiasm about growth, I don’t think. Today economic bell cow Wal-Mart cut its profit forecast because higher taxes are causing shoppers to be more conservative (perhaps in more ways that one). And, while today’s Initial Claims figure was good news (320k versus expectations for 335k), weakness was seen in Industrial Production (flat, with downward revisions, versus expectations for +0.3%) and both Empire Manufacturing and Philly Fed came in slightly weaker than expectations. None of this is apocalyptic, but neither is it cause for elation about domestic or global growth prospects.
While the nascent commodity rally makes me personally feel warm and fuzzy, the more-momentous move is in what is happening to interest rates. And here I need to recognize that until very recently, I thought that bonds would follow the typical pattern of a convexity-exacerbated selloff: after a rapid decline, the market would consolidate for a few weeks and then recover once the overhang had cleared. I’ve seen it aplenty in the past, and that was the model I was operating on.
But I believe rates are heading higher. Although the overhang from the prior convexity selloff has probably been distributed, there is a new problem as illustrated by the news today about Bridgewater’s “All Weather” fund. The All-Weather Fund is an example of a “risk parity” strategy in which, in simplified form, “low-volatility” strategies are levered up to have the same natural volatility as “high volatility” strategies. The problem is that levering up an asset class with a poor risk-adjusted return, as fixed-income is now, doesn’t improve returns or risks of the portfolio at large. The -8% return of the AWF in Q2 illustrates that point, and makes clear to anyone who bought the great marketing of “risk parity” strategies that they probably have much more rate risk than they want (although according to the Bloomberg article linked to above, Bridgewater “hadn’t fully grasped the interest-rate sensitivity” of being long 70% of net assets in inflation-linked bonds and another 48% in nominal bonds. I do hope that’s a mis-quote).
The unwinding of some of that rate risk (Bloomberg called the panicky dumping of a relatively cheap asset class, TIPS, into the teeth of a retail and convexity-led selloff “patching” the risk) helped TIPS bellyflop in May and June, and to the extent that institutional investors wake up and reduce their levered long bets on fixed income we might see lower prices much sooner than I expected across the entire spectrum of fixed-income. Indeed, without the Fed or highly levered buyers, it’s not entirely clear what the fair clearing price might be for the Treasury’s debt. I was at one time optimistic that we would get a bounce to lower yields after a period of consolidation, but this news is potentially a game-changer. Although the seasonal patterns favor buying bonds in August and early September, the potential downside is much worse than the potential upside.
Before I descend into the mundane discussion of economies and markets, let me first congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son. In watching the pictures of the royals leaving the hospital with their child, I was struck at the fact that when his wife passes off the child, Prince William looks as uncomfortable holding a baby as most first-time fathers are. He did, however, have more luck with the mechanics of the car seat…as, again, most new fathers do.
However, when he drives home, he won’t have to worry about the rising cost of housing, and probably doesn’t fret much about whether his child will be able to afford a comfortable life in an inflationary future. “Will my son be better off than I am?” is a question for non-royals!
I have no idea what the rents are for a Kensington Palace apartment, but I will bet they are rent-controlled. Meanwhile, housing prices in the U.S. continue to rise rapidly. Today’s announcement of the FHA Home Price Index suggested prices have risen 7.3% over the last year (the fourth month in a row over 7%), while the median price of a home in the Existing Home Sales report yesterday was 13.2% above the year-ago level (see chart).
Aside from inflation, however, where the future trajectory is clear, the performance of the economy is probably best characterized by the word “muddled” (thank you, John Mauldin). Last Thursday, the Philly Fed index was published at 19.8 – a two-year high – versus expectations for 8.0; on Monday the Chicago Fed index showed -0.13 versus expectations for flat, and today the Richmond Fed index was -11 (the second-worst since 2009) versus expectations for +9.
And, in the meantime, Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) missed earnings badly and Detroit declared bankruptcy. Apple (AAPL) is just out with earnings and pulled the old trick of “beat on current earnings, match on revenues, but guide lower for next quarter.” The current consensus for Q2 GDP (the advance estimate is due out next week) is a mere 1.3%.
With all of this, equity prices are doing well with stocks up 5.4% for the month. Bond yields are fairly flat, with 10-year yields up 4bps from the end of June, but TIPS are doing relatively well (10y real yields -14bps; 10y breakevens +18bps). And even the DJ-UBS Commodity index is +4.3%. Gold is up nearly 10%.
Three weeks do not a turn in sentiment make, but I do find it interesting that real estate, inflation breakevens, gold, and commodities generally are all enjoying a renaissance right after inflation-linked bonds and commodities were buried in late June, with large outflows especially from TIPS funds (the shares outstanding of the TIP ETF went from 183 million at year-end, to 165 million in late May, to just 139 million now). It got so bad that my company reached out to customers in late June with a thorough explanation and presentation of why we thought the market was ‘getting it wrong.” Investors were throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
To be sure, I think real yields, breakevens, and nominal yields will eventually be much higher. But if nominal yields can simply avoid breaking higher for the next few weeks, I think the stage will be set for a fixed-income rally into September and October. As I have written before, in the aftermath of a convexity event such as we have just seen, a “cool down” period of a few weeks is usually necessary to work off the bad positions induced and trapped by the market’s sudden slide. Once these positions are worked off, I think the weak economic growth and weakening corporate internals will pressure stocks lower and the stock and bond markets will get back into some semblance of what static-equilibrium types think of as “fair value” relative to one another.
Even so, I think that commodities, breakevens, and even gold might have already seen the worst of their markets. In this suspicion I have been wrong before. Money velocity in Q2 will have declined further (probably to about 1.50 from 1.53 in Q1), but I think it will be higher – or at least not much lower – in Q3. And once velocity turns, time has run out. I am reminded of an old quote from Milton Friedman, from his book Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History.
“When the helicopter starts dropping money in a steady stream – or, more generally, when the quantity of money starts unexpectedly to rise more rapidly – it takes time for people to catch on to what is happening. Initially, they let actual balances exceed long-run desired balances, partly out of inertia; partly because they may take initial price rises as a harbinger of subsequent price declines, an anticipation that raises desired balances; and partly because the initial impact of increased money balances may be on output rather than on prices, which further raises desired balances. Then, as people catch on, prices must for a time rise even more rapidly, to undo an initial increase in real balances as well as to produce a long-run decline.” (p.36)
When this happens, stocks will take a beating. But it may be the final beating in this long, drawn out, secular bear. I guess it is far too early to say that, but I recently saw two news items that I have long been waiting for. The first is that CNBC is having ratings “issues,” and it is starting to get bad enough that the producers are thinking about “tinkering with primetime.” The second, which is clearly related, is that Maria Bartriromo is thinking of leaving business news to take her inestimable talents elsewhere.
As with commodities and inflation breakevens recently, a sine qua non for the start of a new bull market of substantial magnitude – not a 100% rally from the lows, but a 100% rally above the old highs – is that everyone stops thinking that stocks are smart and exciting investments, that they are “where it’s at,” and that all the cool people are buying stocks. And I have never been able to figure out how an environment sufficiently depressing to germinate a new bull market can occur if the cheerleaders are televised 24/7. Honestly, I had just about given up. While we still need cheap valuations and rotten sentiment to start a bull market (and we are very far from both of those standards in equities), a move towards general indifference among investors would be a good start.
 As the quote marks suggest, I don’t think that they will be right when you hear people declare that “stocks now offer good value relative to bonds again.” I think the people who use the “Fed model” tend to overprice stocks generally…and they tend to be much more diligent disciples of the model when yields are falling than when they are rising. When yields rise, they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because bond yields are going to rise, while when yields are low they tend to say that stocks are better values than bonds because of the current level of bond yields.
In our business, one must be very careful of confirmation bias of course (as well as all of the other assorted biases that can adversely affect one’s decision-making processes). And so I want to be very careful about reading too much into today’s CPI report. That being said, there were some hints and glimmers that the main components of inflation are starting to look more perky.
Headline (“all items”) inflation rose in June to 1.75% y/y, with core inflation 1.64%. About 20% of the weights in the major groups accelerated on a year-on-year basis; about 20% declined, and 60% were roughly flat. However, two thirds of the “unchanged” weight was in Housing, which moved from 2.219% to 2.249% y/y…but the devil is in the details. Owner’s Equivalent Rent, which is fully 24% of the overall CPI and about one-third of core CPI, rose from 2.13% to 2.21%, reaching its highest rate of change since November 2008. Primary Rents (that is, if you are a renter rather than a homeowner) rose from 2.83% to 2.89%, which is also a post-crisis high. Since much of my near-term expectations for an acceleration in inflation in the 2nd half of the year relies on the pass-through of home price dynamics into rentals, this is something I am paying attention to.
This is what I expected. But can I reject a null hypothesis that core inflation is, in fact, in an extended downtrend – that perhaps housing prices are artificially inflated by investor demand and will not pass through to rents, and the deflation in core goods (led by Medicare-induced declines in Medical Care) will continue? I cannot reject that null hypothesis, despite the fact that the NAHB index today surprised with a leap to 57, its highest since 2006 (see chart, source Bloomberg, below). It may be, although I don’t think it is, that the demand is for houses, rather than housing and thus the price spike might not pass into rents. So, while my thesis remains consistent with the data, the real test will be over the next several months. The disinflationists fear a further deceleration in year-on-year inflation, while I maintain that it will begin to rise from here. I still think core inflation will be 2.5%-2.8% by year-end 2013.
In fact, I think there is roughly an even chance that core inflation will round to 1.8% next month (versus 1.6% this month), although the 0.2% jump will be more dramatic than the underlying unrounded figures. The following month, it will hit 1.9%. That is still not the “danger zone” for the Fed, but it will quiet the doves somewhat.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI remained at 2.1%, the lowest level since 2011. The Median CPI continues to raise its hand and say “hello? Don’t forget about me!” If anyone is terribly concerned about imminent deflation, they should reflect on the fact that the Median CPI is telling us the low core readings are happening because a few categories have been very weak, but that there is no general weakness in prices.
Although I maintain that the process of inflation will not be particular impacted by what the Fed does from here – and, if what they do causes interest rates to rise, then they could unintentionally accelerate the process – the direction of the markets will be. And not, I think, in a good way. We saw today what happens when an inflation number came in fairly close to expectations: stocks down, bonds flat, inflation-linked bonds up, and commodities up. Now, imagine that CPI surprises on the high side next month?
Speaking of the fact that commodities have had (so far at least) their best month in a while, there was a very interesting blog entry posted today at the “macroblog” of the Atlanta Fed. The authors of the post examined whether commodity price increases and decreases affect core inflation in a meaningful way. Of course, the simple answer is that it’s not supposed to, because after all that’s what the BLS is trying to do by extracting food and energy (and doing that across all categories where explicit or implicit food and energy costs are found, such as in things like primary rents). But, of course, it’s not that simple, and what these authors found is that when commodity prices are increasing, then businesses tend to try and pass on these cost increases – and they respond positively to a survey question asking them about that – and it tends to show up in core inflation. But, if commodity prices are decreasing, then businesses tend to try and hold the line on prices, and take bigger profit margins. And that, also, shows up in the data.
To the extent this is true, it means that commodity volatility itself has inflationary implications even if there is no net movement in commodity prices over some period. That is because it acts like a ratchet: when commodity prices go up, core inflation tends to edge up, but when commodity prices go down, core inflation tends not to edge down. Higher volatility, by itself, implies higher inflation (as well, as I have pointed out, as increasing the perception of higher volatility: see my article in Business Economics here and my quick explanation of the main points here). It’s a very interesting observation these authors make, and one I have not heard before.
Imagine an island on which magic trees grow. These trees, as it turns out, are exactly like the trees everywhere else, except for three things. First, these trees never die. Second, the trees always grow to exactly 100 feet tall eventually. And third, to pass time on this boring island the villagers place bets on which specific trees in a given acre of land (on which all trees were planted at the same time) will grow the fastest over the next ten years.
Right after an acre is planted, there is much activity that can only be termed purely speculative. Without any obvious difference in the first shoots, the villagers place their bets based on which of the tree-market brokers tells the best story about a particular tree. These brokers do tend to change their minds frequently, however, so it turns out that there is rapid trading.
After a few years, some trees have clearly started to grow faster than other trees. Villagers tend to invest more on these trees that have “momentum.” And this trend continues, because the further in the lead a given tree is over its rivals, the more momentum it clearly has. There is, however, a class of investors who like to invest in the smaller trees, since the bet is on the rate of growth over time, and these investors think that the smaller trees are likely to revert to the mean (indeed, because all of these magic trees end up at the same height, they are correct on average).
The villagers who “own” the taller trees are generally happy, since their trees are “in the lead.” They don’t much care for the villagers who “own” the smaller trees, because they think these folk are just negative ninnies. The value-villagers are fairly confident, though, because they understand the math; and many of them are dismissive of the momentum-villagers and call them “lemmings.”
The odd thing is that both of these “investors” have their time in the sun. Early on in a tree’s growth pattern, the ones quickly out of the gate do tend to grow more rapidly. Consequently, momentum is a viable strategy. But the bigger the lead gets for these trees, the worse the bet becomes that the rate of growth will continue. Once the tree reaches 99 feet, for example, there are not many ways that it can beat a 20-foot tree going forward (remember – all of these magic trees always grow to be exactly 100 feet in time). And yet, the momentum-villagers remain true to their investment style, saying “the 20-foot tree must just be sick. And it can’t get as much sun because the 99-foot tree is shading it. The 99-foot tree may only grow 1 foot over the next ten years, but the 20-foot tree might not grow at all.” And, after all, it is fun to have your bet on the biggest tree in the forest. However, the value-villagers almost always win that bet.
This allegory isn’t really about growth versus value in equity investing. It is about asset class performance and, more specifically, the performance of equities versus commodities. There is a significant amount of history to suggest that over long periods of time, the average growth rate of equities and the average growth rate of commodity indices is approximately equal. This happens because the basic sources of both asset classes are fairly steady: aggregate economic growth, in the case of equities, and collateral return plus rebalancing effect, plus some other smaller sources of return, in commodities. So regardless of what you think about equities or commodities, in general when equities are dramatically outperforming commodities, you should be selling them to buy commodities, and vice-versa. But that isn’t how most investors bet. Most investors make up a story about why the tree is stunted, and will never grow, will never catch up, and then turn to bet on the tall tree.
It is a mistake.
It is a mistake, though, that the Street actively encourages because where the broker makes his money is on frenzy. Rallying markets tend to produce more volume and excitement, and that means more money for the broker. This is especially true when the market is equities, since there isn’t much underwriting of commodities to be done but there is quite a lot of underwriting of new equity issues.
Frankly, this over-exuberant cheerleading sometimes results in lies being disseminated to investors. Consider the following snapshot of a Bloomberg page describing the characteristics, including the P/E ratio, of the Russell 2000 index. You will see it says the Price/Earnings ratio is about 18.41. We all know that means that if you pay $18.41, you will get a set of stocks that will have $1 in earnings, collectively. Right?
Well, the following chart is also from Bloomberg, and you get it if you type RTY<Index>FA<GO>. What it says is that the Price/Earnings Ratio is actually 54.86, which means that your $18.41 actually only gets you $0.33 of earnings! What’s going on here? Well, the next line shows you that what Bloomberg considers the “real” P/E ratio – important enough to have on the front page – is really the Price/Earnings ratio if we only count the positive earnings.
So, that $18.41 does in fact get us $1 in earnings. Wall Street doesn’t want us to focus on the fact that it also gets us $0.67 in losses, so that the net is only $0.33. Because surely, those losses were one-time events, and obviously all 2000 companies will make money next year, right?
It may be that stocks are a great bargain here, and that multiples will expand further, the economy will surge in a way we haven’t seen in a decade or two, in an environment of tame inflation but ample liquidity. If that is the case, then equity investors will win over the next five years because they’re betting on the trees that have grown the most in the last two years. But in all other cases, commodity indices should grow faster than stocks as both revert to their long-term growth rates.