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Historical Context Regarding Market Cycles

February 5, 2018 4 comments

I really enjoy listening to financial media outlets on days like this. Six days removed from all-time highs, the equity guys – especially the strategists, who make their money on the way up – talk about “capitulation,” and how “nothing has changed,” and how people need to “invest for the long-term.” If equities have entered a bear market, they will say this all the way down.

It helps to have seen a few cycles. Consider the early-2000s bear market. In 2000, the Nasdaq crested in March. After a stomach-churning setback, it rallied back into August (the S&P actually had its highest monthly close for that cycle in August). The market then dropped again, bounced, dropped again, bounced, and so on. Every bounce on the way down, the stock market shills shrieked ‘capitulation’ and called it a buying opportunity. Eventually it was, of course. But if there is a bear market, there will be plenty of time to buy later. This was also true in ’09, which was much more of a ‘spike’ bottom but let’s face it, you had months and months to get in…except that no one wanted to get in at the time.

If it is not a bear market, then sure – it’s a buying opportunity. But what I know from watching this drama play out several times is that you cannot tell at the time whether it’s a buying opportunity, or a dead-cat bounce. It does not help at all to say “but the economy is okay.” Recalling that the Nasdaq’s peak was in March 2000: the Fed was still hiking rates in May of that year, and didn’t cut rates until 2001.  In late July 2000, GDP printed 5.2% following 4.8% in Q1. In October 2000, GDP for Q3 was reported to still be at 2.2%. Waiting for the economy to tell you that all was not well was very costly. By the time the Fed was alarmed enough to ease, in a surprise move on January 3, 2001, the S&P was down 16%. But fortunately, that ended it as stocks jumped 5% on the Fed’s move. Buy the dip!

By mid-2002, stocks were down about 50% from the high. Buying the dip was in that case precisely wrong.

Then there is the bear market of a decade ago. The October 2007 market high happened when the economy was still strong, although there were clearly underlying stresses in mortgages and mortgage banking and the Fed was already easing. Yet, on January 10, 2008, Fed Chairman Bernanke said “the Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.” On January 18, he said the economy “has a strong labor force, excellent productivity and technology, and a deep and liquid financial market that is in the process of repairing itself.” In June 2008, he said “The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so.” Stocks were already down 19%. It got somewhat worse…and it didn’t take long.

So the thing to remember is this: equities do not wait for earnings to suffer, or for forecasts of earnings to suffer, or for everyone to figure out that growth is flagging, or for someone to ring a bell. By the time we know why stocks are going down, it is too late. This is why using some discipline is important – crossing the 200-day moving average, or value metrics, or whatever. Or, decide you’ll hold through the -50% moves and ignore all the volatility. Good luck…but then why are you reading market commentary?

I don’t know that stocks are going to enter a bear market. I don’t know if they’ll go down tomorrow or next week or next month. I have a pretty strong opinion about expected real returns over the next 10 years. And for that opinion to be realized, there will have to be a bear market (or two) in there somewhere. So it will not surprise me at any time if a bear market begins, especially from lofty valuation levels. But my point in this article is just to provide some historical context. And my general advice, which is not specific to any particular person reading this, is that if anyone tells you that price moves like this are ‘capitulation’ to be followed by ‘v-shaped recoveries,’ then don’t just walk away but run away. They haven’t any idea, and that advice might make you a few percent or lose you 50%.

To be sure, don’t panic and abandon whatever plan you had, simply because other people are nervous. As Frank Herbert wrote, “fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” This is why having a plan is so important! And I also think that plans should focus on the long term, and on your personal goals, and matching your long-term investments to those goals. Rebalancing and compounding are powerful tools, as is a value ethic of buying securities that have a margin of safety.

And, of course, diversification. Bonds today did what they’re supposed to do when ‘risky assets’ take a tumble: they rallied. As I noted on Friday: “I am not saying that interest rates are going directly from 3% to 6%. Indeed, the rates/equity ecosystem is inherently self-dampening to some degree (at least, until we reach a level where we’ve exceeded the range of the spring’s elasticity!) in that if equity prices were to head very much lower, interest rates would respond under a belief that central bankers would moderate their tightening paths in the face of weak equities.” The problem with nominal bonds at this point, though, is that they’re too expensive. At these yields, there is a limit to the diversification they can provide, especially if what is going to drive the bear market in stocks is rising inflation. Bonds will diversify against the sharp selloff, but not against the inflation spiral. (I’ve said it before and I will say it again. If you haven’t read Ben Inker’s piece in the latest GMO quarterly, arguing why inflation is a bigger risk for portfolios right now than recession, do so. “What happened to inflation? And What happens if it comes back?”)

Which brings us to commodities. If the factor driving an equity bear market turns out to be inflation, then commodities should remain uncoupled from equities. For the last few days, commodity indices have declined along with equities – not nearly as much, of course, but the same sign. But if the problem is a fear of inflation then commodities should be taking the baton from stocks.

So there you go. If the problem is rising interest rates, then that is a slow-moving problem that’s self-limiting because central banks will bring rates back down if stocks decline too far. If the problem is rising inflation, then commodities + inflation bonds should beat equities+nominal bonds. Given that commodities and inflation bonds are both relatively cheaper than their counterparts, I’d rather bet that way and have some protection in both circumstances.

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Why Commodities Are a Better Bet These Days

January 16, 2018 3 comments

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It’s been a long time since an article about commodities felt like ‘click bait.’ After all, commodity indices have been generally declining for about seven years – although 2016 saw a small advance – and the Bloomberg Commodity Index today sits 63% below its all-time high set in the summer of 2008. I’ve written before, quite a bit, about this absurdity of the market, represented in the following chart comparing one real asset (equities) to another real asset (commodities). The commodity index here is the Bloomberg spot index, so it does not include the drag (boost) from contango (backwardation).

This is the fair comparison for a forward-looking analysis. Some places you will see the commodity index plotted against the S&P, as below. Such a chart makes the correct inference about the historic returns to these two markets; the prior chart makes a more poignant point about the current pricing of stocks versus commodities.

There’s nothing that says these two markets should move in lock-step as they did from 2003-2007, but they ought to at least behave similarly, one would think. So it is hard to escape the reasoning that commodities are currently very cheap to equities, as one risk-asset to another.

Furthermore, commodity indices offer inflation protection. Here are the correlations between the GSCI and headline inflation, core inflation, and the change in those measures, since 1970 and 1987 respectively.

Stocks? Not so much!

So, commodities look relatively cheap…or, anyway, they’re relatively cheaper, having gone down for 7 years while stocks went higher for 7 years. And they give inflation protection, while stocks give inflation un-protection. So what’s not to like? How about performance! The last decade has been incredibly rough for commodities index investors. However, this is abnormal. In a watershed paper in 2006 called Facts and Fantasies about Commodity Futures, Gorton and Rouwenhorst illustrated that, historically, equities and commodity futures have essentially equivalent monthly returns and risks over the period from 1959-2004.

Moreover, because the drivers of commodity index returns in the long run are not primarily spot commodity prices[1] but, rather, the returns from collateral, from roll or convenience yield, from rebalancing, and from “expectational variance” that produces positive skewness and kurtosis in commodity return distributions,[2] we can make some observations about how expected returns should behave between two points in time.

For example, over the last few years commodities markets have been heavily in contango, meaning that in general spot prices were below forward prices. The effect of this on a long commodity index strategy is that when futures positions are rolled to a new contract month, they are being rolled to higher prices. This drag is substantial. The chart below shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index spot return, compared to the return of the index as a whole, since 2008. The markets haven’t all been in contango, and not all of the time. But they have been in serious contango enough to cause the substantial drag you can see here.

So here is the good news. Currently, futures market contango is the lowest it has been in quite a while. In the last two years, the average contango from the front contract to the 1-year-out contract has gone from 15% or so to about 2% backwardation, using GSCI weights (I know I keep switching back and forth from BCOM to GSCI. I promise there’s nothing sinister about it – it just depends what data I had to hand when I made that chart or when it was calculated automatically, such as the following chart which we compute daily).

That chart implies a substantial change in the drag from roll yield – in fact, depending on your weights in various commodities the roll yield may currently be additive.

The other positive factor is the increase in short-term interest rates. Remember that a commodity index is (in most cases) represents a strategy of holding and rolling futures contracts representing the desired commodity weights. To implement that strategy, an investor must put up collateral – and so an unlevered commodity index return consists partly of the return on that particular collateral. It is generally assumed that the collateral is three-month Treasury Bills. Since the financial crisis, when interest rates went effectively to zero in the US, the collateral return has approximated zero. However, surprise! One positive effect of the Fed’s hiking of rates is to improve projected commodity index returns by 1.5-2% per year (and probably more this year). The chart below shows 3-month TBill rates.

I hope this has been helpful. For the last 5 years, investing in commodities was partly a value/mean-reversion play. This is no longer so true: the change in the shape of the futures curves, combined with rising interest rates, has added substantially to the expected return of commodity indices going forward. It’s about time!


[1] This is a really important point. When people say “commodities always go down in the long run because of increased production,” they’re talking about spot commodity prices. That may be a good reason not to own spot gold or silver, or any physical commodity. Commodity spot returns are mean reverting with a downward slant in real space, true. But a commodity index gets its volatility from spot returns, but its main sources of long term return are actually not terribly related to spot commodities prices.

[2] In other words while stocks “crash” downwards, commodities tend to “crash” upwards. But this isn’t necessary to understand what follows. I just want to be complete. The term “expectational variance” was coined by Grant Gardner.

Gold and TIPS – Related or Not?

September 27, 2017 5 comments

Because I spend so much time digging into inflation data and learning about how inflation works (and how securities and markets work, in different inflation regimes), I am always delighted when I come across something new, especially something simple and new that I could have previously stumbled on, but didn’t.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an article by Scott Grannis (aka Calafia Beach Pundit). I occasionally read Scott’s stuff, and find it to be good quality. I’m not writing this article to either criticize or support most of his column, but rather to point to one particular chart he ran that amazed me. Specifically, he showed the 5-year TIPS yield against the nominal price of gold. Here is his chart:

He also showed the price of gold versus TIPS on a longer-term basis. I’ve replicated that here, although I’ve deflated gold by the CPI since the longer the time frame, the less the nominal price of gold will resemble its real price. It’s still basically the same picture:

This is an amazing chart, even allowing for the divergence in the 2000s (which some people would call prima facie evidence that the Fed eased too much back then). And it just tickles me because I’ve never noticed the correlation at all, and yet it’s really quite good. But here’s the really amazing part: there is no immediately obvious reason these two series should be related at all.

One of them is a price index. In Scott’s version, which isn’t adjusted for inflation, it should march upward to the right forever as long as the general price level continues to rise. Obviously, real yields will not march ever lower forever. When we adjust for the general level of prices, the real price of gold should, like real yields, oscillate (since the long-term real return to gold is approximately zero) so we have removed the tendency for nominal prices (unlike yields) to have a natural drift. But even in real terms, apples-to-apples, it’s an astonishing chart. What this chart seems to say is that when expected growth is poor, gold is worth more and when expected growth is strong, gold is less valuable. But that seems a bit crazy to me.

Okay, one possible interpretation is this: when expected returns from other asset classes such as stocks and bonds and inflation-linked bonds are low, then the expected return from gold should also be low, which means its price should be high. That makes sense, although it is hard to find many gold investors who think as I do that the expected forward-looking real return to gold right now is negative. Heck, I wrote about that last month (see “The Gold Price is Not ‘Too Low’”). It makes some sense, though. But the implication is that as inflation rises, and yields – both real and nominal – rise, then gold prices should fall. I think you’d discover it difficult to find an investor in gold who would think the gold price should fall if inflation picks up!

Where you would think to see more of a relationship is in inflation expectations versus gold. When inflation expectations are high, you’d think you would see gold prices high and vice-versa. But that chart has really nothing suggestive at all, possibly since inflation expectations have really been fairly grounded for the last twenty years. Gold prices, however, have not!

So going back to the original Grannis chart, I am still very suspicious. Fortunately, some time ago we developed a very long history of real interest rates, using a more advanced approach than had previously been applied (you can see the long-term series in this article). That series is derived, rather than observed as the TIPS series is, but it’s probably pretty close to where TIPS yields might have traded had they existed during that period. And when we look at real gold prices versus 5y TIPS yields…

…we get a pretty disappointing chart. What I see is that in the 1970s and early 1980s, high gold prices were associated with high real yields; in the 2000s and 2010s, a high gold price was associated with low real yields.

So, this is a bit of a bummer in one sense but a relief in another sense. That initial chart suggested some very weird dynamics happening between real yields, inflation expectations, and the price of a real commodity. I think this latter chart indicates that the relationship we saw was not some fundamental previously-undiscovered truth – sadly, I guess – but rather something more prosaic: an illustration of how the relative values of all assets tend to move more or less together. TIPS are expensive. Bonds are expensive. Stocks are expensive. Gold is expensive. Unfortunately, I don’t think that tells us a lot that we didn’t already know (although I have strong opinions about the relative ordering of the richness/cheapness of those asset classes).

Categories: Commodities, Gold, TIPS

The Gold Price is Not ‘Too Low’

August 1, 2017 2 comments

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Before I start today’s article, let me say that I don’t like to write about gold. The people who are perennially gold bulls are crazy in a way that is unlike the people who are perennial equity bulls (Abby Joseph Cohen) or perennial bond bulls (Hoisington). They will cut you.

That being said, they are also pretty amusing.

To listen to a gold bull, you would think that no matter where gold is priced, it is a safe haven. Despite the copious evidence of history that says gold can go up and down, certain of the gold bulls believe that when “the Big One” hits, gold will be the most prized asset in the world. Of course, there are calmer gold bulls also but they are similarly dismissive of any notion that gold can be expensive.

The argument that gold is valuable simply because it is acceptable as money, and money that is not under control of a central bank, is vacuous. Lots of commodities are not under the control of a central bank. Moreover, like any other asset in the world gold can be expensive when it costs too much of other stuff to acquire it, and it can be cheap when it costs lots less to acquire.

I saw somewhere recently a chart that said “gold may be forming a major bottom,” which I thought was interesting because of some quantitative analysis that we do regularly (indeed, daily) on commodities. Here is one of the charts, approximately, that the analyst used to make this argument:

I guess, for context, I should back up a little bit and show that chart from a longer-term perspective. From this angle, it doesn’t look quite like a “major bottom,” but maybe that’s just me.

So which is it? Is gold cheap, or expensive? Erb and Harvey a few years ago noticed that the starting real price of gold (that is, gold deflated by the price index) turned out to be strikingly predictive of the future real return of holding (physical) gold. This should not be terribly shocking – although it is hard to persuade equity investors today that the price at which they buy stocks may affect their future returns – but it was a pretty amazing chart that they showed. Here is a current version of the chart (source: Enduring Investments LLC):

The vertical line represents the current price of gold (all historical gold prices are adjusted by the CPI relative to today’s CPI and the future 10-year real return calculated to derive this curve). It suggests that the future real return for gold over the next decade should be around -7% per annum. Now, that doesn’t mean the price of gold will fall – the real return could be this bad if gold prices have already adjusted for an inflationary future that now unfolds but leaves the gold price unaffected (since it is already impounded in current prices). Or, some of each.

Actually, that return is somewhat better than if you attempt to fit a curve to the data because the data to the left of the line is steeper than the data to the right of the line. Fitting a curve, you’d see more like -9% per annum. Ouch!

In case you don’t like scatterplots, here is the same data in a rolling-10-year form. In both cases, with this chart and the prior chart, be careful: the data is fit to the entire history, so there is nothing held ‘out of sample.’ In other words, “of course the curve fits, because we took pains to fit it.”

But that’s not necessarily a damning statement. The reason we tried to fit this curve in the first place is because it makes a priori sense that the starting price of an asset is related to its subsequent return. Whether the precise functional form of the relationship will hold in the future is uncertain – in fact, it almost certainly will not hold exactly. But I’m comfortable, looking at this data, in making the more modest statement that the price of gold is more likely to be too high to offer promising future returns than it is too low and likely to provide robust real returns in the future.

Hard to Sugar-Coat Nonsense Like This

July 20, 2017 3 comments

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One of the things that fascinates me about markets – and one of the reasons I think “Irrational Exuberance”, now in its third edition, is one of the best books on markets that there is – is how ‘storytelling’ takes the place of rational analysis so easily. Moreover, almost as fascinating is how easily those stories are received uncritically. Consider this blurb on Bloomberg from Wednesday (name of the consultant removed so as not to embarrass him):

Sugar: Talk in market is that climate change has pushed back arrival of winter in Brazil and extended the high-risk period for frost beyond July, [name removed], risk management consultant for [company name removed] in Miami, says by telephone.

Sugar futures have recently been bouncing after a long decline. From February through June, October Sugar dropped from 20.40 cents/lb to 12.74¢; since the end of June, that contract has rallied back to 14.50¢ (as of Wednesday), a 14% rally after a 38% decline. There are all sorts of reasons this is happening, or may be happening. So let’s think about ‘climate change’ as an explanation.

There are several layers here but it boils down to this: the consultant is saying (attributing it to “talk in the market,” but even relaying this gem seems like gross negligence) that the rally in the last few weeks is due to a change in the timing of the arrival of winter…a change which, even if you believe the craziest global warming scaremongers, could not possibly have been large enough over the last decade to be measurable against the backdrop of other natural oscillations. Put another way, in late June “the market” thought the price of sugar ought to be about 12.74¢/lb. Then, “the market” suddenly realized that global warming is increasing the risk to the sugar crop. Despite the fact that this change – if it is happening at all – is occurring over a time frame of decades and centuries, and isn’t exactly suffering from a lack of media coverage, the sugar traders just heard the news this month.

Obviously, that’s ridiculous. What is fascinating is that, as I said, in this story there are at least 4 credulous parties: the consultant, the author of the blurb, the editor of the story, and at least part of the readership. Surely, it is a sign of the absolute death of critical thinking that only habitual skeptics are likely to notice and object to such nonsense?

Behavioral economists attribute these stories to the need to make sense of seemingly-random occurrences in our universe. In ancient times, primitive peoples told stories about how one god stole the sun every night and hid it away until the morning, to explain what “night” is. Attributing the daily light/dark cycle to a deity doesn’t really help explain the phenomenon in any way that is likely to be useful, but it is comforting. Similarly, traders who are short sugar (as the chart below, source Floating Path, shows based on June 27th data) may be comforted to believe that it is global warming, and not unusually short positioning, that is causing the rally in sugar.

As all parents know, too much sugar (or at least, being short it) isn’t good for your sleep. But perhaps a nice story will help…

 

Tariffs are Good for Inflation

The news of the day today – at least, from the standpoint of someone interested in inflation and inflation markets – was President Trump’s announcement of a new tariff on Canadian lumber. The new tariff, which is a response to Canada’s “alleged” subsidization of sales of lumber to the US (“alleged,” even though it is common knowledge that this occurs and has occurred for many years), ran from 3% to 24% on specific companies where the US had information on the precise subsidy they were receiving, and 20% on other Canadian lumber companies.

In related news, lumber is an important input to homebuilding. Several home price indicators were out today: the FHA House Price Index for new purchases was up 6.43% y/y, the highest level in a while (see chart, source Bloomberg).

The Case-Shiller home price index, which is a better index than the FHA index, showed the same thing (see chart, source Bloomberg). The first bump in home price growth, in 2012 and 2013, was due to a rebound to the sharp drop in home prices during the credit crisis. But this latest turn higher cannot be due to the same factor, since home prices have nearly regained all the ground that they lost in 2007-2012.

Those price increases are in the prices of existing homes, of course, but I wanted to illustrate that, even without new increases in materials costs, housing costs were continuing to rise faster than incomes and faster than prices generally. But now, the price of new homes will also rise due to this tariff (unless the market is slack and so builders have to absorb the cost increase, which seems unlikely to happen). Thus, any ebbing in core inflation that we may have been expecting as home price inflation leveled off may be delayed somewhat longer.

But the tariff hike is symptomatic of a policy that provokes deeper concern among market participants. As I’ve pointed out previously, de-globalization (aka protectionism) is a significant threat to inflation not just in the United States, but around the world. While I am not worried that most of Trump’s proposals would result in a “reflationary trade” due to strong growth – I am not convinced we have solved the demographic and productivity challenges that keep growth from being strong by prior standards, and anyway growth doesn’t cause inflation – I am very concerned that arresting globalization will. This isn’t all Trump’s fault; he is also a symptom of a sense among workers around the world that globalization may have gone too far, and with no one around who can eloquently extol the virtues of free trade, tensions were likely to rise no matter who occupied the White House. But he is certainly accelerating the process.

Not only do inflation markets understand this, it is right now one of the most-significant things affecting levels in inflation markets. Consider the chart below, which compares 10-year breakeven inflation (the difference between 10-year Treasuries and 10-year TIPS) to the frequency of “Border Adjustment Tax” as a search term in news stories on Google.

The market clearly anticipated the Trumpflation issue, but as the concern about BAT declined so did breakevens. Until today, when 10-year breakevens jumped 5-6bps on the Canadian tariff story.

At roughly 2%, breakevens appear to be discounting an expectation that the Fed will fail to achieve its price inflation target of 2% on PCE (which would be about 2.25% on CPI), and also excluding the value of any “tail outcomes” from protectionist battles. When growth flags, I expect breakevens will as well – and they are of course not as cheap as they were last year (by some 60-70bps). But from a purely clinical perspective, it is still hard to see how TIPS can be perceived as terribly rich here, at least relative to nominal Treasury bonds.

Irrational Lugubriousness on Inflation

Today the 1-year CPI swap rate closed at 1.77%, the highest rate since 2014 (see chart, source Bloomberg).

1ycpiswap

The CPI swap (which, as an aside, is a better indicator of expected inflation than are breakevens, for technical reasons discussed here for people who truly have insomnia) indicates that headline inflation is expected to be about 1.77% over the next year. That’s nearly double the current headline inflation rate, but well below the Fed’s target of roughly 2.3% on a CPI basis. But at least on appearances, investors seem to be adjusting to the reality that inflation is headed higher.

Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. And in this case, they are. The headline inflation rate is of course the combination of core inflation plus food inflation and energy inflation; as a practical matter most of the volatility in the headline rate comes from the volatility endemic in energy markets. I’ve observed before that this leads to unreasonable volatility in long-term inflation expectations, but in short-term inflation expectations it makes perfect sense that they ought to be significantly driven by expectations for energy prices. The market recognizes that energy is the source of inflation volatility over the near-term, which is why the volatility curve for inflation options looks strikingly like the volatility curve for crude oil options and not at all like the volatility curve for LIBOR (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

volcompar

The shape of the energy futures curves themselves also tell us what amount of energy price change we should include in our estimate of future headline inflation (or, alternatively, what energy price change we can hedge out to arrive at the market’s implied bet on core inflation). I am illustrating this next point with the crude oil futures curve because it doesn’t have the wild oscillations that the gasoline futures curve has, but in practice we use the gasoline futures since that is closer to the actual consumption item that drives the core-headline difference. Here is the contract chart for crude oil (Source: Bloomberg):

crudeccrv

So, coarsely, the futures curve implies that crude oil is expected to rise about $4, or about 9%, over the next year. This will add a little bit to core inflation to give us a higher headline rate than the core inflation rate. Obviously, that might not happen, but the point is that it is (coarsely) arbitrageable so we can use this argument to back into what the market’s perception of forward core inflation is.

And the upshot is that even though 1-year CPI swaps are at the highest level since 2014, the implied core inflation rate has been steadily falling. Put another way, the rise in short inflation swaps has been less than the rally in energy would suggest it should have been. The chart below shows both of these series (source: Enduring Investments).

ImpliedCore

So – while breakevens and inflation swaps have been rallying, in fact this rally is actually weaker than it should have been, given what has been happening in energy markets. Investors, in short, are still irrationally lugubrious about the outlook for price pressures in the US over the next few years. Remember, core CPI right now is 2.2%. How likely is it to decelerate 1.5% or more over the next twelve months?

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Categories: Commodities, CPI, Good One, Theory
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