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Summary of my Post-CPI Tweets

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can 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.

  • core CPI +0.157%, so it just barely rounded to +0.2%. Still an upside surprise. Y/Y rose to 1.69%, rounding to 1.7%.
  • y/y headline now +0.0%. It will probably still dip back negative until the gasoline crash is done, but this messes up the “deflation meme”
  • (Although the deflation meme was always a crock since core is 1.7% and rising, and median is higher).
  • Core ex-housing +0.78%. Still weak.
  • Core services +2.5%. Core goods -0.5%, which is actually a mild acceleration. So the rise in core actually came from the goods side.
  • Accelerating major cats: Apparel, Transp. Decel: Food/Bev, Housing, Med care, Recreation, Other. Unch: Educ/Comm. But lots of asterisks.
  • Shelter component of housing rose back to 3% (2.98%) y/y; was just fuels & utilities dragging down housing.
  • Primary rents: +3.54% y/y, a new high. Owners’ Equiv Rent: 2.69%, just off the highs.
  • In Medical Care, Medicinal Drugs 4.13% from 4.16%, but pro services +1.47 from +1.71 and hospital services 3.28% from 4.08%.
  • In Education and Communication: Education decelerated to 3.5% from 3.7%; Communication accel to -2.2% from -2.3%.
  • 10y breakevens +3bps. Funny how mild surprises (Fed, CPI) just run roughshod over the shorts who are convinced deflation is destiny.
  • No big $ reaction. FX guys can’t decide if CPI bullish (Fed maybe changes mind and goes hawkish!) or bearish (inflation hurts curncy).
  • Here’s my take: Fed isn’t going to be hawkish. Maybe ever. So this should be a negative for the USD.

This CPI report was a smidge strong, but just a smidge. The market was looking for something around 0.12% or so on core, and instead got 0.16%. To be sure, this is another report that shows no sign of primary deflation, but still it amazes me that inflation breakevens can have such a significant reaction to what was actually just a mild surprise. That reaction tells you how pervasive the “deflation meme” has become – the notion that the economies of the world are headed towards a deflationary debt spiral. I am not saying that cannot happen, but I am saying that it will not happen unless somehow the central banks of the world decide to stop flushing money into the system. And honestly, I see no sign whatsoever that that is about to happen.

As I wrote last week, it should be no surprise that this is a dovish Fed that will perpetually look for reasons to not tighten, and will do so only when the market demands it. My guess is that will happen once inflation, breakevens, and rates rise, and stocks fall. And this doesn’t look imminent.

Outside of housing, core inflation still looks soft. But housing inflation is accelerating further, as has been our core view for some time. The chart below (data source: Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in primary rents is at 3.54%. The median in primary rents for the period for 1995-2008 (the 13 years leading up to the crisis) was 3.20%. And during that time, core inflation ex-housing was 1.72% (median).

primrents

Like most data, you can use this to argue two diametrically-opposed positions. You might argue that the Fed’s loose money policy has helped re-kindle a bubble in housing, as inflation in rents of 3.54% with other core prices rising at 0.78% suggests that housing is in a world of its own. Therefore, the Fed ought to be removing stimulus, and tightening policy, to address the bubble in housing (and the one in equities) and to keep that bubble from bleeding into other markets and pushing general prices higher. But the flip side of the argument is that core inflation outside of housing is only 0.78%, so therefore if the FOMC starts removing liquidity then we may have primary deflation, ex housing. Accordingly, damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead on easing.

The data itself can be used right now to make either argument. Which one do you think the Fed will make?

Follow-up question: given that the Fed has historically one of the worst forecasting records imaginable, which argument do you think is actually closer to correct?

 

Summary (and Extension!) of My Post-CPI Tweets

February 26, 2015 2 comments

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can 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.

  • CPI -0.7%, core +0.2%. Ignore headline. Annual revisions as well.
  • Core +0.18% to two decimals. Strong report compared to expectations.
  • Core rise also off upwardly-revised prior mo. Changing seasonal adj doesn’t affect y/y but makes the near-term contour less negative.
  • y/y core 1.64%, barely staying at 1.6% on a rounded basis.
  • Core for last 4 months now 0.18, 0.08, 0.10, 0.18. The core flirting with zero never made a lot of sense.
  • Primary rents 3.40% from 3.38% y/y, Owners’ Equiv to 2.64% from 2.61%. Small moves, right direction.
  • Overall Housing CPI fell to 2.27% from 2.52%, as a result of huge drop in Household Energy from 2.53% to -0.06%. Focus on the core part!
  • RT @boes_: As always you have to be following @inflation_guy on CPI day >>Thanks!
  • A bit surprising is that Apparel y/y rose to -1.41% from -1.99%. I thought dollar strength would keep crushing Apparel.
  • Also New & Used Motor Vehicles -0.78% from -0.89%. Also expected weakness there from US$ strength. Interesting.
  • Airline fares, recently a big source of weakness, now -2.98% y/y from -4.71% y/y.
  • 10y BEI up 4bps at the moment. And big extension tomorrow. Ouch, would hate to have bet wrong this morning.
  • Medical Care 2.64% y/y from 2.96%.
  • College tuition and fees 3.64% from 3.43%. Child care and nursery school 3.05% from 2.24%. They get you both ends.
  • Core CPI ex-[shelter] rose to 0.72% from 0.69%. Still near an 11-year low.
  • Overall, core services +2.5% (was +2.4%), core goods -0.8% (was -0.8%). The downward pressure on core is all from goods side.
  • …and goods inflation tends to be mean-reverting. It hasn’t reverted yet, and with a strong dollar it will take longer, but it will.
  • That’s why you can make book on core inflation rising.
  • At 2.64% y/y, OER is still tracking well below our model. It will continue to be a source of upward pressure this year.
  • Thank you for all the follows and re-tweets!
  • Summary: CPI & the assoc. revisions eases the appearance that core was getting wobbly. Median has been strong. Core will get there.
  • Our “inflation angst” index rose above 1.5% for the 1st time since 2011. The index measures how much higher inflation FEELS than it IS.
  • That’s surprising, and it’s partly driven by increasing volatility in the inflation subcomponents. Volatility feels like inflation.
  • RT @czwalsh: @inflation_guy @boes_ using surveys? >>no. Surveys do a poor job on inflation. See why here: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/be/journal/v47/n1/abs/be201135a.html  …
  • 10y BEI now up 5.25bps. 1y infl swaps +28bps. Hated days like this when I made these markets. Not as bad from this side.
  • Incidentally, none of this changes the Fed outlook. Median was already at target, so the Fed’s focus on core is just a way to ignore it.
  • Once core rises enough, they will find some other reason to not worry about inflation. Fed isn’t moving rates far any time soon.
  • Median CPI +0.2%. Actually slightly less, keeping the y/y at 2.2%.

What a busy and interesting CPI day. For some months, the inflation figures have been confounding as core inflation (as always, we ignore headline inflation when we are looking at trends) has consistently stayed far away from better measures of the central tendency of inflation. The chart below (source: Bloomberg), some version of which I have run quite a bit in the past, illustrates the difference between median CPI (on top), core CPI (in the middle), and core PCE (the Fed’s favorite, on the bottom).

threecpis

I often say that median is a “better measure of central tendency,” but I haven’t ever illustrated graphically why that’s the case. The following chart (source: Enduring Investments) isn’t exactly correct, but I have removed all of the food and beverages group and the main places that energy appears (motor fuel, household energy). We are left with about 70% of the index, about a third of which sports year-on-year changes of between 2.5% and 3.0%. Do you see the long tail to the left? That is the cause of the difference between core and median. About 12% of CPI, or about one-sixth of core, is deflating. And, since core is an average, that brings the average down a lot. Do you want to guide monetary policy on the basis of that 12%, or rather by the middle of the distribution? That’s not a trick question, unless you are a member of the FOMC.

cpidist

Now, let’s talk about the dollar a bit, since in my tweets I mentioned apparel and autos. Ordinarily, the connection between the dollar and inflation is very weak, and very lagged. Only for terribly large movements in the dollar would you expect to see much movement in core inflation. This is partly because the US is still a relatively closed economy compared to many other smaller economies. The recent meme that the dollar’s modest rally to this point would impress core deflation on us is just so much nonsense.

However, there are components that are sensitive to the dollar. Apparel is chief among them, mainly because very little of the apparel that we consume is actually produced in the US. It’s a very clean category in that sense. Also, we import a lot of autos from both Europe and Asia, and they compete heavily with domestic auto manufacturers. As a consequence, the connection between these categories and the dollar is much better. The chart below shows a (strange) index of New Cars + Apparel, compared to the 2-year change in the broad trade-weighted dollar, lagged by 1 year – which essentially means that the dollar change is ‘centered’ on the change in New Cars + Apparel in such a way that it is really a 6-month lag between the dollar and these items.

cpinewcarsapparel

It’s not a day-trading model, but it helps explain why these categories are seeing weakness and probably will see weakness for a while longer. And guess what: those categories account for around 7% of the “tail” in that chart above. Ergo, core will likely stay below median for a while, although I think both will resume upward movement soon.

One of the reasons I believe the upward movement will continue soon is that housing continues to be pulled higher. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments using Bloomberg data) shows a coarse way of relating various housing price indicators to the owners’ rent component of CPI.

housing

We have a more-elegant model, but this makes the point sufficiently: OER is still below where it ought to be given the movement in housing prices. And shelter is a big part of the core CPI. If shelter prices keep accelerating, it is very hard for core (and median) inflation to decline very much.

One final chart (source Enduring Investments), relating to my comment that our inflation angst index has just popped higher.

angst

This index is driven mainly by two things: the volatility of the various price changes we experience, and the dispersion of the price changes we experience. The distribution-of-price-changes chart above shows the large dispersion, which actually increased this month. Cognitively, we tend to overlook “good” price changes (declines, or smaller advances) and recall more easily the “bad”, “painful” price changes. Also, we tend to encode rapid up-and-down changes in prices as inflation, even if prices aren’t actually going anywhere much. I reference my original paper on the subject above, which explains the use of the lambda. What is interesting is the possibility that the extremely low levels of inflation concern that we have seen over the last couple of years may be changing. If it does, then wage pressures will tend to follow price pressures more quickly than they might otherwise.

Thanks for all the reads and follows today. I welcome all feedback!

Winter Is Coming

February 10, 2015 5 comments

Sometimes being a value investor, amid overvalued (and ever more so) markets, feels a bit like being a Stark in Westeros. The analogy will be lost on you if you do not follow Game of Thrones, but the Starks hold the largest of the sub-kingdoms in Westeros. This kingdom also happens to be the coldest, and the sober Starks are always reminding people that “Winter is coming.”

I should observe that winter in Westeros is a much more serious affair than it is around here; it comes at odd intervals but can last for years. So being prepared for winter is really important. However, getting people to prepare for winter during the long “summer” is very difficult.

Sound familiar? The thing to keep in mind is that the Starks are always right, eventually, and they’re the ones who come through the winter in the best shape. Such is the case with value investors. (Some people might prefer calling value investors who are bearish on stocks right now “Chicken Littles” but I prefer being compared to Ned Stark, thanks. Although both of them have been known to lose their heads on occasion.)

Fortunately, it does not appear that winter is coming to the U.S. very soon. Friday’s Employment report was strong, despite the beginnings of downsizing in the oil and gas extraction businesses. The chart below shows the Baker Hughes oil and gas rig count, which is falling at a rate every bit as fast as it did in the credit crisis.

rig count

Yet, the U.S. economy as a whole generated 267,000 new jobs last month, which was above expectations. It is unlikely that this pace will continue, since the extraction (and related industry) jobs will be a drag. But in 2008, this happened when every other industry was being squeezed, and in the current case other industries are being squeezed by the strong dollar, but only mildly so. I think this will actually serve to increase the labor force participation rate, which has been in a downtrend for a long time – because laid-off oil workers will still be in the labor force looking for work, while other jobs will be getting filled by (sometimes) discouraged workers coming off the sidelines. So we may well see the Unemployment Rate rise even as jobs growth remains reasonable, even if less robust than the most recent figures.

Winter, though, is still coming.

In the near-term, winter is coming to Europe. Unusually, it is moving from the south to the north because Greece appears to be finally heading for the denouement that has been utterly unavoidable from the beginning. I wrote this in June 2012 (and I wasn’t the only one saying such things – the only real question has been how long it would take before the Greeks decided they’d had enough of sacrifice to hold together the Eurozone for the elites):

Greece will still leave the Euro. Government or no government, austerity or no austerity – the fiscal math simply doesn’t make sense unless Europe wants to pay for Greece forever. In principle, the Greeks can dig themselves out of trouble if they work harder, retire later, pay more taxes, and receive fewer government services. I do believe that people can change, and a society can change, under pressure of crisis. Remember Rosie the Riveter? But the question is whether they can change, whether they will change, do they even want to change, if the benefit of the change flows not to Greece’s people but to the behemoth European institutions that have lent money to Greece?

If a person declares bankruptcy, and the judge declares that he must pay all of his wages for the next thirty years, after deducting enough for food and shelter, to the creditors…do you think that person is going to go looking for a 60-hour workweek?

Am I sure that Greece is going to leave the Euro in a week, or a month, or a year? Not at all. The institutional self-preservation meme is very strong and I am always amazed at how long it takes obvious imperatives to actually happen.[1] But I am quite confident that Greece will eventually leave the Euro, and it does seem as if parties on all sides of the negotiating table are coming to that conclusion as well.

One question that authorities have had to come to peace with first was whether Grexit is really Armageddon. I have argued that default and an exit from the Euro is not bad for Greece, at least when compared to a multi-year depression.

And it’s probably not even horrible for Europe, or the world at large, at least compared to the credit crisis, despite all protestations that this would be “Lehman squared.” Again, this is old news and as I lay out the reasoning here there is no reason to repeat myself.

But it won’t be a positive thing. And it is likely to bring on “winter,” economically. Helpfully, the world’s central banks not only remain in easing mode but are increasing the dovishness of their stance, with the ECB foremost among the central banks that are priming the pumps again. M2 money growth in the Eurozone was up to 4.5% y/y in December (latest data available), with the highest quarter-over-quarter growth rate (8.3%, annualized) in money since the end of 2008! Meanwhile the Fed, while it is no longer adding to reserves, is still watching the money supply grow at 6% y/y with no good way to stop it. For all the talk about the FOMC hiking rates by mid-year, I think the probable rise in the Unemployment Rate discussed above, plus the weak inflation readings (with the notable exception of Median CPI), plus the fact that all other central banks are easing and likely to continue doing so, plus the probability of turbulence in Europe, makes it very unlikely that this Committee, with a very dovish makeup, will be tightening any time soon.

The likely onset of some winter will not help hold down inflation, however. Upward pressures remain, and the fact that the ECB is now running the pumps makes higher prices more likely. Yes, we care about money supply growth in Europe: the chart below shows the M2 growth of the US and Europe combined, against core CPI in the US. The fit is actually better than with US CPI alone.

m2prices

Now, some markets are priced for winter and some are not. We think that real interest rates in Europe are far too low compared to real rates in the US, and stock prices in the US are too high compared to stock prices in Europe. The first chart below shows the spread of 10-year real rates in the US minus Europe (showing US yields are high compared to European yields); the second chart shows the ratio of the S&P 500 to the Eurostoxx 50.

realratespreadUSEU

spxeurostoxx

You can see in the latter chart that the out-performance of the S&P has proceeded since 2009, while the under-performance of US inflation-linked bonds has only happened since 2012, so these are not simply two ways of looking at the same trade. In both cases, these deviations are quite extreme. But the European economy and the US economy are not completely independent of one another; weak European growth affects US corporate entities and vice-versa, and as I suggest above the growth of European money supply tends to affect US inflation as well. We think that (institutional) investors should buy TIPS and sell European linkers, and also buy European stocks against US stocks. By doing both of these things, the exposure to currency flows or general trends in global equity market pricing is lessened. (Institutional investors interested in how we would weight such a trade should contact us.)

[1] As another example, take the shrinking of Wall Street. It was obvious after 2008 that it had to happen; only recently, however, as banks and dealers have been forced to become more and more like utilities have we started to see layoffs while stocks are rising, which is very unusual. But Wall Street defended the bloated structures of the past for more than six years!

Summary (and Extension!) of My Post-CPI Tweets

January 16, 2015 5 comments

Below is a summary and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy:

  • Core CPI unchanged – which is amazing. I can’t wait to see the breakdown on this one.
  • Core 0.003%, taken out one more decimal. I thought y/y had a chance of rising to 1.8%; instead it fell to 1.61%.
  • Last Dec, core was 0.10%, so part of this may be faulty seasonal adjustment. It is December, after all.
  • Core services +2.4%, down from 2.5%. Core goods down to -0.8%, worst since mid-2007.
  • Medical Care Commodities +4.8%! Biggest increase since 1993. Oh ACA, we hardly knew ye.
  • Housing weakened, which isn’t insignificant. Primary rents 3.38% from 3.48%; OER 2.61% from 2.71%.
  • We still think housing is headed higher but that was part of the surprise. Apparel too, -2.0% y/y from -0.3% previous.
  • The apparel move is likely related to dollar strength. Most apparel isn’t made here.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/Bev, Med Care, Rec (28.2%). Decel: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Educ/Comm, Other (71.8%)
  • Decline in apparel prices may be a story. In recent yrs Apparel had been rising after many years of dis/deflation. Weakness in Asia…
  • Apparel y/y decline was largest since 2003.
  • Core ex-housing down to 0.69%. Much lower than crisis lows. That’s where to look if you’re worried about deflation, not the headline.
  • Very interesting core goods. Our three-item proxy is Apparel (-2%), New cars (-0.1%), and Medical Care commodities (+4.8%). Figure THAT out.
  • This CPI is hard to dismiss. Hsng dip is most concerning (think it’s temporary tho), but broadening of decel categories worrisome.
  • Core ex-housing looking really soft. Now, some of that is probably energy sneaking thru…not a prob normally but for BIG moves – maybe.
  • That being said, market is pricing in 1% core for next yr, 1.25% for 2 years, 1.37% for 3 years…so infl market has overshot. A lot.
  • number of categories at least 1 std dev above deflation went from 43% to 20% in one month.
  • Now here’s something to not be worried about yet: our “relative inflation angst” index reached its highest level since 2011. Still low.

This was a wild report, full of interesting items. Let’s start with Apparel. In recent years, I have watched Apparel closely because one of my theses was that the domestic benefit from exporting production to cheap-labor countries was ending. Apparel is a nice clean category that went from normal inflation dynamics when most apparel was produced domestically (prior to 1993), to disinflation/deflation over the years where virtually all production was moved offshore, to normal inflation again once the cost savings on labor had been fully realized and so no longer a source of disinflation (at which time, costs ought to begin to track wage inflation in the exporting country, adjusted for currency moves).

apparel

While it seems that the recent decline should challenge that thesis (and that was my knee-jerk reaction), I think that perhaps it isn’t quite as clear-cut as I thought. In the past I had ignored the effect of foreign exchange movements, since (a) it didn’t matter when we were mostly domestic production and (b) over the last few years currencies have been broadly stable. I think the latest decline in apparel is almost surely related to the dollar’s strength, which unfortunately means that it isn’t as pure a test of my thesis as I had hoped. In any event, apparel is one place (one of few, in the US) where dollar strength manifests clearly in core goods prices, so this is a dollar effect.

The next chart is the chart of Medical Care Commodities (mainly pharmaceuticals). Remember when we had that quaint notion that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was going to permanently reduce inflation in medical care? (Actually, we didn’t all have that quaint notion – in particular, I did not – but it was certainly a view pushed very hard by the Administration). It turns out that the decline in medical care inflation was mostly due to the effects of the sequester on Medicare payments, and now prices seem to be catching up. This is an ugly chart.

medcarecomm

Ex-medical care commodities, however, it doesn’t appear that disinflation in core commodities will be in for much of a respite unless the dollar rally is arrested.

dollarvscorecommod

And now for one of the scariest charts: core inflation ex-shelter is as low as it has been since the early 2000s, when the uptick in housing costs (like now) hid a close scrape with deflation. I think the causes of that deflationary scrape were similar to those of today, if in fact we are going to head that way: too much private debt. Although the higher level of public debt makes the answer more indeterminate, high private debt imparts a disinflationary tendency. The “deleveraging” was supposed to get rid of the disinflationary tendency by moving private debt onto the public balance sheet. It really didn’t happen, except for auto companies and some large financial institutions like Fannie Mae.

corex

The important difference between now and then is that in the early 2000s we had higher rates, higher velocity (which is correlated to rates) and no excess reserves. Today, all the Fed would need to do to arrest this tendency would be to lower the interest on excess reserves to a significant penalty rate and those excess reserves would quickly enter the money supply. Interestingly, a movement the other way – to raise interest rates – will likely also cause inflation to rise as it will raise money velocity. So I am not particularly concerned we will get into deflation even ex-housing. There are lots of ways out of that pickle. I am much more worried about overreaction. Once again, the Fed might have stumbled into the right policy: doing nothing. If you can’t be good…be lucky.

One final remark on our “inflation angst” index (not shown here): the rise in the index, which manifests itself in a perception that inflation is actually higher than reported, is driven by the increasing volatility of index components (such as airfares, gasoline, and apparel) and the increased dispersion of index components (such as apparel and medical care commodities). These both have the impact of making inflation feel higher than it actually is. It is nothing to worry about at these levels of inflation, because “higher than it actually is” still feels low. But if inflation volatility continues to pick up as the level picks up (as it eventually will), then it will feel much worse for consumers than it actually is. That’s not a 2015 story, however.

Keep in mind that the market has already discounted really bad core inflation for a long time. We are very unlikely to get such a bad outcome, unless housing collapses – which it might, since prices are getting back into bubble territory, but I don’t think it’s very likely. As a consequence, even such a bearish inflation report as this one has been followed by a rally in inflation swaps and breakevens. I think this is a wonderful time to be buying inflation. It’s hard to do in the retail market, although the Proshares UINF ETF is a reasonably clean way to be long 10-year breakevens. It is $28.80, and I expect it to be at $36 within 6-9 months. [Disclosure: Neither I nor any entity or fund owned or controlled by me owns this ETF or has any current plans to buy or sell it.] [Additional Disclosure: That would be difficult it seems. While Bloomberg says it has NAV it also seems to have been liquidated. Pity if true. But RINF, a 30-year breakeven, still exists. From $30.57, I would expect $37 over a similar period.]

Winter is Coming … But Not Here, Not Yet

January 12, 2015 5 comments

We began 2014 with the perspective that the economy was limping along, barely surviving. A recession looked possible simply because the expansion was long in the tooth, but there weren’t any signs of it yet. Equity markets were priced for robust growth, which was clearly not likely to happen, but commodities and fixed-income markets were priced for disaster which was also not likely to happen. The investing risks were clearly tilted against stocks and bonds, given starting valuations, but although the economic landscape appeared weak it was not horrible.

Beginning 2015, the economic news is much better – at least, domestically. Unemployment is back to near levels associated with mid-cycle expansions, although there are still far too many people not in the workforce and a still-disturbing number of people who say they “want a job now” and would take one if offered (see chart, source Bloomberg).

wannajob

More encouraging still, commercial bank credit growth is back to near 8% y/y, which is consistent with the booms of the past 30 years (see chart, source FRB). And this number excludes peer-to-peer lending and other sorts of credit growth that occur outside of the commercial bank framework, which is likely additive on a multi-year time frame.

cbc

The dollar is up and commodities are down, both of which are good for the US economy generally although bad for some groups of course (notably the oil patch). But the US is a net consumer of commodities, so commodity bear markets are good for US growth.

Outside of the US, though, things are looking decidedly worse. Although European core inflation recently surprised on the high side, it is still only at 0.8% and with GrExit a real possibility it is very hard to get bullish economically on the continent. China’s growth is softening. Emerging markets are not behaving well, especially the dollarized economies.

This recent development of the US as an island of relative tranquility in a sea of disquiet is interesting to me. Why are interest rates in the US so low, given that our economy is growing? 30-year interest rates at 2.5% and 10-year rates at 1.90%, with core inflation at 1.7% (and median inflation, as I like to point out because it isn’t influenced by outliers, at 2.3%) seems dissonant as the economy grows at 2.5%-3% and inflation in the US seems reasonably floored in the long run at 1.5%-2.0% as long as the Fed is credible.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but I think the causes are new. Over the last five years, nominal interest rates were lower than they ought otherwise have been because the Fed was buying trillions of Treasuries and squeezing investors who needed to own fixed income. But the Fed is no longer buying and the Treasury is still issuing them. So I believe the causes of low interest rates now are different than the causes were over the last half-decade. Specifically, the causes of low interest rates in the last five years were sluggish global growth and extensive central bank QE; the causes currently are flight-to-quality related.

It seems weird to talk about a “flight to quality” in US bonds without stocks also plunging. But we have an analog for this period. Here is where I depart totally into intuition, which is in this case driven by experience. This period of interest rates declining while growth rises, as the economy continues a rebound after a long recession, with commodities declining and stocks rising, feels to me like late 1997. It feels like “Asian Contagion.”

Back in 1997, there was a lot of concern about how the Asian financial crisis would spill into US markets. Rates dropped (100bps in the 10y between July 1, 1997 and January 12, 1998), commodities dropped (the index now known as the Bloomberg Commodity Index fell 25% between October 1997 and June 1998), the S&P rallied (+23% from November 1997-April 1998), and GDP growth printed 5.2%, 3.1%, 4.0%, and 3.9% from 1997Q3 to 1998Q3. Meanwhile, Asian markets and economies were all but collapsing.

There was much fear at the time about the impact that the Asian Contagion would have on the US, but this country never caught a cold partly because (a) interest rates were depressed by the flight-to-quality and (b) declining commodities, especially energy, are bullish for US growth overall. We did not, of course, escape unscathed – later in 1998, a certain large hedge fund (which was small compared to some hedge funds today) threatened to cause large losses at some money center banks, and the Fed stepped in to save the day. That was a painful period in the equity market, but the effect from the Asian crisis was indirect rather than direct.

The parallels aren’t perfect; for one thing, bond yields are much lower and equity multiples much higher than their equivalents of the time, and commodities had already fallen very far before the recent slide. I would be reluctant to expect another hundred basis point rally in bonds and another large rally in stocks from these levels, although 1997-1999 saw these things. But history doesn’t repeat – it rhymes. I seem to hear this rhyme today.

Why does it matter? I think it matters because if I am right it means we are witnessing the end of long-term crisis-related markets, but they are masked by the arrival of short-term crisis-related markets. This means the unwind that we would have expected from the Fed’s ending of the purchase program – a slow return to normalcy – might instead end up looking like the unwind that we can get from short-term flight-to-quality crisis flows, which can be much more rapid. Again, this is all speculation and intuition, and I present no proof that I am right. I am merely proposing this speculation for my readers’ consumption and consideration.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

December 17, 2014 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy :

  • 1y inflation swaps and gasoline futures imply a 1-year core inflation rate of 0.83%. Wonder how much of that we will get today.
  • Very weak CPI on first blush: headline -0.3%, near expectations, but core 0.07%, pushing y/y core down to 1.71% from 1.81%.
  • Ignore the “BIGGEST DROP SINCE DECEMBER 2008″ headlines. That’s only headline CPI, which doesn’t matter. Core still +1.7% and median ~2.3%
  • Amazing how core simply refuses to converge with median. Whopping fall in used cars and trucks and apparel – which is dollar related.
  • Core services +2.5%, unch; core goods -0.5%, lowest since 2008. But this time, we’re in a recovery.
  • Medical Care Commodities, which had been what was dragging down core, back up to 3.1% y/y. So we’re taking turns keeping core below median.
  • Core ex-housing declines to +0.800%, a new low.
  • That’s a new post-2004 low on core ex-shelter.
  • Accel major groups: Food, Med Care (22.5%) Decel: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Recreation, Educ/Comm, Other (77.5%). BUT…
  • But in housing, Primary Rents 3.482% from 3.343%, big jump. Owners’ Equiv to 2.707% from 2.723%, but will follow primaries.
  • Less-persistent stuff in housing responsible for decline: Lodging away from home, Household insurance, household energy, furnishings.
  • Real story today is probably Apparel, which is clearly a dollar story. Y/y goes to -0.4% from +0.6%. Small weight, but outlier.
  • Similarly used cars and trucks, -3.1% from -1.7% y/y (new vehicles was unch at 0.6% y/y).
  • On the other hand, every part of Medical Care increased. That drag on core is over.
  • Curious is that airfares dropped: -3.9% from -2.8%. SHOULD happen due to energy price declines, but in my own shopping I haven’t seen it.
  • I don’t see persistence in the drags on core CPI. There’s a rotation in tail-event drags, which is why median is still well above 2%.
  • We continue to focus on median as a better and more stable measure of inflation.
  • Back of the envelope calc for median CPI is +0.23% m/m, increasing y/y to 2.34%. Let’s see how close I get. Number around noon. [Ed. note: figure actually came in around 0.15%, 2.25% y/y. Not sure where I am going wrong methodologically but the general point remains: Median continues to run hotter than core, and around 2.3%.]

Quite a few tweets this morning! The number was clearly roughly in-line on a headline basis: gasoline prices have dropped sharply, in line with crude oil prices. How much? Motor Fuel dropped from -5.0% y/y to -10.5% y/y. The monthly decline was over 6%, and so a decline in headline inflation on a month/month basis was all but certain. Had core inflation been as low now as it was in 2010, we would have seen a year-on-year headline price decline (as it is, headline CPI is +1.3% y/y).

However, core inflation is not as low as it was in 2010. It continues to surprise us by failing to converge upwards to median CPI. Last year, the reason core CPI was inordinately low compared to the better measure of central tendency (median) was that Medical Care inflation was weak thanks to the effects of the sequester. But that effect is now gone. Medical Care inflation is back to 2.5% on a year-on-year basis; this month’s print was the highest in over a year. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in Medical Care Commodities (e.g. pharmaceuticals) – back to normal.

medcarecommod

The 2013 dip is very clear there, and the return to form is what we expected, and the reason we expected core inflation to return to median CPI. But it hasn’t yet; indeed, core is below median by around 0.6%, the biggest spread since 2009. Now, it may be that core is simply going to stay below median for an extended period of time as one category after another takes turns dragging core lower. From 1994-2009, core was almost always lower than median. That was a period of disinflationary tendencies, and the fact that different categories kept trading off to drag core CPI lower was one sign of these tendencies.

I do not think we are in the same circumstances today. Although private debt levels remain very high (weren’t we supposed to have had deleveraging over the past six years? Hasn’t happened!), public debt levels have risen dramatically and the latter tends to be associated with inflation, not deflation. Money supply, especially here in the US, has also been growing at a pace that is unsustainable in the long run and it seems unlikely that the Fed can really restrain it until they drain all of the excess reserves from the system. These are inflationary tendencies. The risk, though, is that the feeble money growth in Europe could suck much of this liquidity away and move global inflation lower. This is an especially acute risk if Japan’s monetary authorities lose their nerve or if other central banks rein in money growth. In such a case, global inflation would decline so that, while US inflation rises relatively, it falls absolutely. I don’t consider this a major risk, but it is a risk which is growing in significance.

Of course, all of that and more is priced into inflation-linked bond and derivative markets, as well as in commodities. Only a massive and inexplicable plunge in core inflation could render the market-based forecasts correct – and there is no sign of that. Housing inflation continues to rise, and the soonest we can see that peaking is late next year. Getting core inflation to decline appreciably while housing inflation is 2.6% and rising is very unlikely! Accordingly, we see inflation-linked assets as extremely cheap currently.

Growth-Sapping Effect of the Minimum Wage

December 10, 2014 1 comment

I just saw this interesting article in Econbrowser called “New estimates of the effects of the minimum wage.” It is both good news, and bad news.

It is good news because it clarifies a debate about the effect of the minimum wage which has been raging for a long time, but without much actual data. This article summarizes a clever approach by a couple of academic economists to examine the actual effects of increasing the minimum wage. The research produces solid numbers and confirms some theories about the effects of the minimum wage.

The bad news is that the effect of the minimum wage is just what theory says it should be, but liberal politicians have insisted isn’t true in practice. And that’s a net negative effect on overall welfare, albeit divided between winners and losers. However, even that ought to be good news, because this analysis also means that we can reverse the policy and reap immediate gains in consumer welfare.

First, the theory: microeconomics tells us that an increase in the minimum wage, if it is above the equilibrium wage for some types of labor, should decrease employment while increasing the wages of those who actually retain their jobs. (The usual argument for increasing the minimum wage is that the people who earn minimum wage aren’t making enough to live on, and supporters tend to forget that if people lose their jobs because the minimum wage is raised, then those people are making even less.) We often say things are “Econ 101,” but this really is Econ 101 in the sense that it is taught in every introductory economics class. There is no excuse not to know this:

sdoflaborIn the chart above, the supply of labor is S and the demand for labor is D. In the absence of a floor (minimum wage), the clearing wage and quantity of jobs is at the intersection; at a minimum wage of a, however, there is a shortage of jobs equal to c-b. If the minimum wage is raised to a’, then the shortage of jobs increases to c’-b’. The question for society is whether the increase in joblessness is an acceptable cost to accept, in order to increase the minimum wage from a to a’. (Of course, the political calculation might also include the fact that people who become unemployed will be supported by the welfare state, and potentially vote to preserve and expand those public institutions that constitute it).

The problem for those who argue against the minimum wage, or for it being increased, is that they can point out this economic truism until they are blue in the face, while the other side simply says “nuh-uh” and denies it is true with the same fervor that they insist that Obamacare has actually lowered premiums and deductibles. The façade only cracks, maybe, when actual data is presented that shows the argument to be bankrupt.

This academic study does that cleverly, by examining changes in employment and wages in states where the federal minimum wage was binding (because the state minimum wage was lower, or non-existent) and states where it was not binding (because the state minimum wage was higher, so the federal minimum wage didn’t matter). Their conclusion:

“Over the late 2000s, the average effective minimum wage rose by 30 percent across the United States. We estimate that these minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point.”

That’s the sterile conclusion. Now let’s count the cost. Between July 2007 and December 2009, the national employment-to-population ratio (which is similar to, but not the same as, the labor force participation rate) declined from 62.7% to 58.3%; it has since risen to 59.2%. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, the labor force participation rate (in yellow) shows a more gradual decline but no recovery – as has been well-documented.

labor

Now, some numbers. In November, the Civilian noninstitutional population (the denominator for the employment-to-population rate) was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to be 248,844,000. That means that if the authors are correct, the minimum wage has boosted the wages of unemployed workers at the bottom of the scale at the cost of about 1.74 million jobs (0.007 * 248,844,000).

Imagine what having another 1.74 million workers would do for GDP? Do you think it could make a difference for one of the worst recoveries on record?

It probably isn’t fair to assume that all of those 1.74 million workers is currently “unemployed” by the BLS definition. Many of them are likely not looking for work, in which case they would not be counted as unemployed. It is interesting to note, although surely spurious, that the series “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” is about 1.7 million higher than would be expected given the unemployment rate (see chart, source BLS).

wannajobAlternatively, we could consider what it would mean to the Unemployment Rate if those 1.74 million workers were employed. This means they would also be in the Civilian Labor Force, so the participation rate (see above) would be 63.5% rather than 62.8%. If instead of coming from the “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” group they came from the “Unemployed” group, the Unemployment Rate would be 4.7% instead of 5.8%. (Personally, I think that most of them are probably in the former category, as the Unemployment Rate has declined at approximately the rate we would expect from past recoveries, despite tepid GDP growth.) That is not inconsistent, of course, if GDP growth is lower because the labor force is simply smaller than it should be – and that is exactly the implication of this bit of research.

Again, the good news is that we can help the country and the downtrodden “structurally” unemployed with the same simple policy: reverse all increases in the Minimum Wage that have happened since 2007.

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