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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?

(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link.)

Categories: Commodities, CPI, Good One, Theory

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

Following is a concatenation of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy. Due to scheduling issues, I don’t have any further development of the observations highlighted below.

  • OK, 4 minutes until CPI. If I had to guess what a theme, I would say the question of whether apparel and medical care trends continue.
  • Is apparel the canary in the coal mine from recent jumps? And is CPI or PPI right about medical care? The latter has been softer.
  • Weak CPI number! 0.1%/0.1% and y/y core slipped to 2.2%!
  • even weaker than that…+0.07%, 2.20% exactly y/y on core. That’s a really big surprise.
  • first glance – medical care y/y slipped, and apparel y/y plunged. getting more detail
  • core services slipped to 3.0% from 3.1%; core goods dropped to -0.4% from +0.1%
  • while i’m waiting for more detail…this CPI doesn’t mean it’s done going up; just that we can’t reject the hypothesis that it’s not.
  • have to remember these are experiments – underlying inflation rate not knowable so we can only reject hypotheses.
  • my suspicion: we may be able to lean more to the “apparel was seasonal” hypothesis but jury is out on medical care normalization.
  • ok – apparel -0.64% from +0.89% y/y. medical care 3.29% from 3.50%. housing up small, recreation, education/comm, other all up small.
  • within apparel: Mens suits/sportcoats/outerwear -7.6% from -4.6%. Mens furnishings -1.2% from +2.2%. Mens pants/shorts -5.8% from +2.4%
  • but WOMENS outerwear 5.5% from 3.2%; suits & separates +0.2% from -0.3%. Dresses down though, -6.3% from -4.3%.
  • so could be seasonal…but we will have to wait to know for sure. weird, anyway.
  • in housing: Primary rents 3.66% vs 3.68%; OER 3.12% vs 3.16%. lodging away from home 2.27% v 4.19%. so rise in housing was HH energy.
  • In Medical: drugs 2.49% v 2.34%. Prof svcs 2.27% vs 2.54%. hospital 4.33% v 4.90%. Insuance 6.20% v 5.97%. Similar read to PPI.
  • PPI and CPI don’t have much overlap, or we would rely more on the earlier PPI. So hard to read much.
  • does mean core PCE not likely to converge as quickly with core/median CPI.
  • ok last tweet: early estimate on median still looks like +0.17%, 2.39%, down vy slightly from 2.43% y/y.

None of this changes the underlying focus: median at 2.4% and core converging upward to it. And there’s still no sign that housing is about to weaken. Core goods had been strengthening; this has been arrested but it may be a function of the early Easter (however, Easter occurred for men, too…). As I suspected early – this is a holding-pattern number, certainly weaker than inflation bulls expected but it doesn’t dash the underlying trends…yet. This makes the April number, released next month, more important!

And none of this changes the underlying points I made in a Marketwatch opinion article that appeared yesterday. You can read that article here.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Book Review: “Where Keynes Went Wrong”

April 11, 2016 1 comment

Last week I mentioned something about what Keynes said in the General Theory, and promised to expand on that a bit this week. I will do so, in the form of a book review.

I can’t remember who it was, and I’m sorry, but one of the people who read my articles suggested a book to me a year or so ago published in 2009 and called Where Keynes Went Wrong: And Why World Governments Keep Creating Inflation, Bubbles, and Busts  by Hunter Lewis, and I finally got around to reading it. I am very glad I did – this book is terrific, and is a must-read if you are either pro-Keynes or anti-Keynes.

Of course, readers will know from my articles that I am anti-Keynes, although more precisely I am anti-Keynesian in the modern sense of that word. I never read very much of the General Theory, because honestly it is poorly written in the sense of its prose, and I always assumed that Keynes probably had some great insights and it was the later Keynesians that screwed up what he said.

Oh, I was so wrong. Keynes was looney tunes. A bona fide lunatic. He proved masterful in manipulating the cult of personality that existed at the time he was writing, however; he was adept at destroying his opponents in ways that sounded erudite and like certain later personalities the media adored him. All of this is well-documented by Mr. Lewis, although the looney tunes conclusion is my own.

The book is put together brilliantly. The author quotes passages from Keynes, using actual quotes interspersed with paraphrasing – which is necessary because, as I said above, the General Theory is poorly written and opaque. But it isn’t the paraphrasing that is damning. When Mr. Lewis wants to indict Keynes, he does it with his own words. For example, in unraveling the absurd (and often self-contradictory) prescriptions that Keynes had for managing the macro economy, Mr. Lewis declares that Keynes thought government should never raise interest rates. That’s right, never.[1] But you needn’t take Lewis’ word for it. Here’s Keynes, cited in the book:

“The remedy for the boom is not a higher rate of interest but a lower rate of interest! For that may enable the boom to last. The right remedy for the trade cycle is not to be found in abolishing booms and thus keeping us permanently in a semi-slump; but in abolishing slumps and thus keeping us permanently in a quasi-boom.”[2]

If you are anything like me, that sent a shiver down your spine right now. Does that sound at all familiar? Keep in mind that Lewis wrote this book in 2009. He could not possibly have anticipated that interest rates would not move away from zero for seven years (and counting, in some countries). And yet this quote sounds to me so much like what the Mount Rushmore of Fed speakers seemed to be suggesting last week. “It worked,” Bernanke was saying. “We’re not in a bubble economy,” said Yellen. None of them saw any signs of serious imbalances, except Volcker (and he was fairly circumspect about how worrisome they were).

In my own book, I indict Keynesianism in the simplest way: I simply point out that the prescription of the Keynesians hasn’t only not worked, it also has failed in every major prediction since, basically forever. But Lewis attacks Keynes himself, with his own words, from the original source. He explains, very clearly, where Keynes went wrong. If you wonder why world governments keep screwing up economies…you should read this book.

[1] Apparently elsewhere Keynes said different things but in the General Theory he was consistent on this point.

[2] Keynes, General Theory, p. 322; quoted on page 20 of Where Keynes Went Wrong by Hunter Lewis.

Categories: Book Review, Economy, Good One

Old Age

April 8, 2016 7 comments

In yesterday’s article, I neglected to mention one remark by a former Fed chair that bothered me at the time. However, I didn’t mention it because I thought the reason it bothered me was that it was vacuous – the sort of throw-away line that someone uses to stall while thinking of the real answer to the question. Since then, I’ve realized what specifically annoyed the subconscious me about the remark.

When Bernanke was asked about whether a recession is coming at some point; he glibly replied “Expansions don’t die of old age,” as if that was obvious and the questioner was being a dolt. Like so much of what Bernanke says, this statement is both true, and irrelevant.

Human beings, also, don’t die of old age. There is a cause of death – something causes a person to die; it isn’t that their library card of corporeality became overdue and they expired. The cause may be a heart attack, a slip-and-fall in the bathtub, cancer, pneumonia, complications from surgery, or the flu, but death is the result of a cause. It just happens that as a person gets older, the number of potential causes multiplies (a newborn rarely has a heart attack) and the number of causes that become fatal to an old person, where they would be merely inconvenient to a hale person, increases as well. As we age, parts of our bodies and immune systems weaken – and that’s where death sneaks in.

Think of those weaknesses as…let’s call them imbalances that have accumulated.

The statement that expansions don’t die of old age is literally true. Something causes them to die. It may be monetary error, but as Volcker pointed out last night in answer to a different question, there were recessions long before there was a Federal Reserve. Expansions also can die from a diminution of credit availability, from energy price spikes, from malinvestment, from an overextension of balance sheets that leads to bankruptcies…from a myriad of things that may not kill a young, vibrant expansion.

The parallel is real, and the point is that while this expansion was never very vibrant the current imbalances are legion. The Fed may not see them, or may believe them to be small (like Bernanke’s Fed felt about the housing bubble and Greenspan’s Fed felt about the equity bubble). But the Fed has a fantastic record on one point: they are nearly flawless at misdiagnosing a patient who is sickening.

Is Apparel the Canary in the Coal Mine?

March 21, 2016 6 comments

(**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.

apparel

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).

apparelcanary

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.

apparelcanary2

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
  Apparel 3.1% 0.892% -0.530%
    Men’s apparel 0.63% -0.445% 0.483%
    Boys’ apparel 0.16% -0.443% 1.350%
    Women’s apparel 1.04% 0.230% -2.127%
    Girls’ apparel 0.21% -1.274% -2.283%
    Men’s footwear 0.21% 2.854% -0.461%
    Boys’ and girls’ footwear 0.17% 2.506% -0.046%
    Women’s footwear 0.31% 0.730% 0.926%
    Watches 0.08% 8.525% 0.805%
    Jewelry 0.13% 6.156% 2.874%

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.

Categories: Causes of Inflation, CPI, Good One Tags:

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

March 16, 2016 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation, just published this month! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All, order from Amazon here.

  • Good morning and welcome to another wonderful CPI day!
  • Three notes before CPI prints in 17 minutes: First, the market is expecting a “soft” 0.2% core (something like 0.16%, rounding up)
  • Second: If we get exactly 0.2% core, then y/y will round higher to 2.3%. Third: if we get exactly 0.3%, y/y core will round to 2.4%.
  • Highest core print since the crisis was 2.32% in 2012. We have a shot of exceeding that today with a robust print.
  • Ten minutes to CPI and time for 1 more coffee and a commercial message: please buy my new book! http://amzn.to/21uYse8
  • whoopsie, core CPI +0.3%. Actually 0.28%, puts y/y at 2.34%. Yayy, a new post-crisis record!
  • Ouch, seems like a big jump in y/y Medical Care, waiting for the breakdown. If so, that makes core PCE jump even more (again).
  • So back to back months we’ve had 0.29% and 0.28%. I hate to say I told you so but…
  • I said 2.33%, Actually 2.34%. We were VERY close to printing 2.4% y/y & setting off panic at the Fed. Which is abt 4 yrs overdue.
  • I should say 4 years and $2 trillion overdue.
  • [retweet from @boes_] Core consumer price inflation ex-shelter really accelerating: was 1.6% year over year in February

Cdq368CW8AALaxb

  • core cpi. What, me worry?

whatmeworry

  • while I wait for my sheets to calculate, let me stress this is not meaningless for the FOMC meeting today.
  • Arguments for waiting another meeting before raising rates are very thin. https://mikeashton.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/feeble-arguments-against-a-rate-hike/
  • i have got to put this database on a faster computer. OK, core services 3.1% from 3% and core goods +0.1% from -0.1%.
  • first positive y/y in core goods in two years.
  • Housing: 2.12% from 2.10%. Primary rents (3.68% from 3.71%) and OER (unch at 3.16%) are NOT the drivers of the core jump.
  • Lodging away from home 4.19% vs 2.67%, but that’s a small piece of CPI (<1%)
  • Apparel had big jump in y/y rate to 0.89% from -0.53%, but again Apparel as a whole is 3% of headline, 4% of core.
  • Medical care: 3.50% from 3.00%. Yep.
  • Drugs 2.34% from 2.21%. Professional svcs 2.54% from 2.08%. Hospital svcs 4.90% from 4.32%. Health insurance 5.97% from 4.76%. Ouch.
  • Med care is ~10% of core, so that 50bp jump is 0.05% on core.
  • And remember, Medical care gets a HIGHER WEIGHT in the Fed’s preferred measure, core PCE.
  • U-G-L-Y CPI ain’t got no alibi. It’s ugly (woot! woot!) it’s ugly.
  • The good news is pretty thin gruel. Median CPI should be +0.22% or so, keeping y/y around 2.42%. At least it isn’t running away yet.
  • Also, NEXT month we roll off an 0.21% from the y/y figure. So the hurdle will be higher for an uptick in core CPI.
  • Like I said, thin gruel. There can be no doubt whatsoever that deflation risks are zero for the foreseeable future.
  • Stocks are doing tremendously well with this, only -9 points or so S&P futures. This is awful news for equities.
  • …but some observers like to spin “rising inflation” as “sign of robust growth.” Nope. See “1970s” in your encyclopedia.
  • The only way this is good news is if you recently wrote a book on inflation. Which, as it turns out, I did: http://amzn.to/1RNTjZu
  • Distribution of price changes. You can be forgiven for seeing this as giving the Fed the finger.

distribution

As much as I like to talk, there’s just not a lot more to say. This number is awful, as it not only was well above expectations (the m/m figure was about double the rise which analysts expected) but also it wasn’t driven by shelter but rather by Apparel (a little) and – worst of all – Medical Care. Here is a chart of y/y Medical Care (Source: Bloomberg).

medcare

Here is a subcomponent of medical care, “Professional Services” (Source: Bloomberg).

proserv

And finally, again, here’s the context. This chart (Source: Bloomberg) shows median inflation (top line), core inflation converging on it (middle line), and core PCE shooting higher (bottom line). Note that the top and bottom lines are not updated for the most-recent month.

threeinflchart

At this hour, stocks  are inexplicably unchanged. This is awful news for stocks, which tend to be most-highly valued when inflation is low and stable and the Fed is quiescent. Now we have inflation that is moderate, but rising, and a Fed which is not only active, but with numbers like this may eventually become more so. If they do not, it is only because growth is weak (and weakening)…and someone please explain to me why that is a positive environment for stocks? One can make an argument that bonds can do okay if growth flags (even though growth does not cause or lead inflation), because real rates are too high for the level of nominal rates and that could conceivably reach equilibrium by TIPS rallying rather than nominal bonds selling off. But it’s a hard argument to be bullish on the big two asset classes. (However, I expect Wall Street to make that argument loudly.)

Roller Skating in a Buffalo Herd

The ECB fired its “bazooka” today, cutting official rates more into negative territory, increasing QE by another €20bln per month, expanding the range of assets the central bank can buy to now include corporate bonds, and creating a new 4-year program whereby the ECB will loan long-term money to banks at rates that could be negative (based on bank credit extended to corporate and personal borrowers).

My point today is not to opine on the power or wisdom of these policy moves. The main thing I want to observe is this: the inflation market is pricing in what amounts to success for global central banks, with consumer inflation averaging something between 1 and 2 percent per year for the next decade (a bit lower in Japan; a bit higher in the UK). Not only are inflation swaps prices much lower than would be expected from a pure monetarists’ standpoint – but options prices are also very low. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows normalized volatilities[1] over the last five years for a 10-year, 2% year-over-year inflation cap. That is, every year you take a look and see if inflation was over 2%. If it was, then the owner of this option is paid the difference between actual inflation and 2%; if it was not, the owner gets zero. So you get to look ten times at whether inflation has gotten above 2%, and get paid each time it has.

uscpi10y2pct

The chart shows that whatever inflation is expected to be, the price to cover the risk that inflation is actually somewhat higher is very low. So, not only is inflation expected to be low, but it is expected to be not volatile either.

Look, we’re talking about bazookas, helicopters…does something not seem right about pricing in very little risk of screwing up?

Whether you believe my thesis in my freshly-released book What’s Wrong With Money?[2]  that the likely course of inflation over the next few years is higher and potentially much higher, or you agree with those who think deflation is imminent, shouldn’t we agree that bazookas introduce volatility?

Central banks are attempting to do something that has never been done. Shouldn’t we at least be a teensy bit nervous, as they line up to perform the first-ever quintuple-lutz, that no one has ever landed one before? That no one has ever landed a commercial passenger jet on an aircraft carrier?

Uncertainty is supposed to lower asset values, all else being equal. So even if you think stocks at these levels are “fair,” in an environment with earnings and interest rates where they are now and projected earnings following a certain path, an increase in the volatility of those outcomes should lower the clearing price of those assets since the buyer of the asset (which has positive value) is also assuming the volatility (which has a negative value).

But the market also says that uncertainty right now is low. Yes, the VIX is well off its lows and seems to suggest greater short-term uncertainty (see chart below, source Bloomberg) – but I would argue that the long-term volatility of the economic fundamentals has rarely been this high.

vix

Supposedly you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd,[3] but we also have never tried to do it. There’s a reason we haven’t tried to do it!

But the Fed, and the rest of the world’s central banks, are not only roller skating in a buffalo herd – the world’s markets seem to be suggesting that investors are sure they’re going to succeed. Regardless of whether you’re optimistic about the outcome, I would argue it’s nearly impossible to be both optimistic and highly confident!

[1] This means something to options traders but can be glossed over by non-options traders. Essentially the point is that you can’t use a regular Black-Scholes model to price options if the strike and/or the forward can have a negative value!

[2] #1 on Amazon in “Economic Inflation,” thanks largely to all of you!

[3] Roger Miller

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