Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

November 17, 2015 5 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…sign up to receive notice when my book is published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to You can also pre-order online.

  • +0.2% on core CPI…as expected…waiting for breakdown
  • With Median CPI running 2.5% as of last month, we should be expecting 0.2% as the “normal” core going fwd.
  • 20% was core to 2 decimal places. 1.91% y/y. [ed note: mistweeted as 0.19% first]
  • Note that the next two months, we roll off +0.08% and +0.06% from last year. This means core will be about 2.2% by dec CPI.
  • (Though there’s some evidence of missed seasonality in core CPI these days, through airfares e.g.)
  • Primary Rents 3.74% vs 3.71%. OER unch at 3.09%. So Housing roughly unch at 2.12% y/y
  • Medicinal drugs 2.95%, up a bit, but Hospital Services 4.87% vs 3.28% and Health Insurance 2.99% vs 1.74%.
  • No big surprise that there’s a jump in medical care services if you’ve looked at your bills recently! Probably not temporary.
  • core services at +2.8% mainly due to medical; core goods -0.7%, weakest since Jan.
  • Apparel -1.91% vs -1.37%, a non-negligible part of core goods.
  • New vehicles also soft: +0.14% from +0.47%. Some will say this is a VW effect, but also a general dollar effect.
  • The dollar effect, overall, is very small but in a few categories like Apparel it is large and in cars it is measurable.
  • First cut at Median, looks to me like ~0.21%, unchanged at 2.5% y/y. That’s the number that matters but not due out for hours.
  • I think I mistweeted the core to 2 decimal places…was 0.20%, not 0.19%. still 1.91% y/y, I just typoed. Why? It’s a mistwee. [ed note: har har!]
  • Summary is there’s still no sign of deflation! The pop in medical services inflation joins housing as concerns to the upside.
  • The rise in Medical care will also tend to make PCE catch back up with core, since it has 3x the weight in PCE as in CPI.
  • I don’t care about PCE, but the Fed does.

There is not a lot here to be very happy about if you want the Fed to stay on hold. The best argument for the Fed to not tighten, at this point, is that it doesn’t wanna. Growth isn’t great, and is weakening, and we may well enter a recession in a few months (we won’t know that for a year, of course, when the NABE announces it). But that won’t stop inflation from rising. Money supply growth is still rolling along at 6.7% (the highest in 15 months), but the Fed doesn’t really care about that as far as anyone can tell. At this point, the argument for the Fed to move is strong, but it has been almost this strong for a couple of years (and arguably stronger, when growth was less tenuous a year or two ago). The only argument that is stronger now is that they are even further behind the curve.

However, I am still skeptical that the Fed will tighten in December. They need to walk back their rhetoric, and I expect they will do so over the next few weeks (if they do not, then I am wrong and they will tighten in December). Even if they tighten, though, I do not expect them to tighten more than a couple of token times, before slowing growth makes them ‘pause’ – and that will be an interminable pause.

One chart here that is the most disturbing of the report: medical care services.


If you have been shopping for healthcare recently, you know that there are steep increases in insurance (which doesn’t show up very much in CPI but is more meaningful in PCE) and direct services that you pay prior to using up your deductible are also rising significantly. Medical care is a mess. For a while, the reorganization of payment streams hid the actual increased costs of Obamacare, but the real costs are starting to be felt. It may be that the cost curve eventually turns down because consumers have to pay for more of the care themselves. But this hasn’t happened yet, and it will take time. In the meantime, medical care services will add to housing services as the main pressures for higher prices.

It’s only softness in goods prices that is holding down overall core CPI now, and that won’t last forever!

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Median Inflation vs Mediocre Growth

November 5, 2015 3 comments

A reader pointed out to me today a piece by Amy Higgins and Randal Verbrugge on the Cleveland Fed’s website entitled “Is a Nonseasonally Adjusted Median CPI a Useful Signal of Trend Inflation?” I will let readers draw their own conclusions about the new measure that Higgins and Verbrugge are proposing, but I wanted to point out the research because I often cite Median CPI as the best way to look at the central tendency of inflation (what the researchers call “trend inflation”) and this article confirms and reinforces that point of view.

And it is worth looking, therefore, at the recent movements in Median CPI. Yes, I know you’ve seen this over and over from me, but take a look anyway (chart is sourced from Bloomberg).


I don’t believe for a second that the FOMC is unaware of this picture; nor, however, do I believe they really care equally about inflation and growth. The talk right now is moderately hawkish, and with growth fair and inflation heading higher it is time to withdraw reserves. Indeed, it is long past time. As I have said for a while, the time to withdraw reserves was roughly when the Fed was busy implementing their last QE. Also note that I am not saying “raise rates,” since raising rates is an effect of withdrawing reserves and it is the withdrawal of reserves, not the raising of rates, that matters.

Practically speaking, since growth is slowing, the Fed is now back in a pickle of its own making. Inflation is clearly heading higher; growth is probably heading lower. If the FOMC had a balanced mandate (inflation and employment equal) then they would probably be at a neutral rate right now, so that would argue for tightening. But the FOMC has nothing remotely close to a balanced mandate. Against all evidence that monetary policy can affect inflation but not growth, the Fed is totally biased to act to support growth. The bankers believe that slow growth solves the inflation problem, so they should fight recession and just worry about inflation when growth gets “too hot.” Therefore, I currently do not expect the Fed to tighten in December.

Moreover, this increase in core or median inflation is happening in most major economies (with the notable exception of the UK, where it was nearing 4% in 2011 but has gradually come back to around 1%). This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom being propagated that inflation is falling everywhere. Consider the chart below, which is of core Japanese CPI (with the effect of the one-off tax increase in 2014 smoothed out).


Core inflation in Japan is the highest it has been in more than 17 years. Seventeen years. Tell me again how the BOJ’s money printing is having no effect? It is having no effect on growth, but it is doing what we would expect it to do on inflation.

Eurozone inflation is rising less impressively (see chart), but still rising. But then, the ECB has been less aggressive on monetary policy than either the US or Japan. Still, Europe is not, as the popular press would have you believe, flirting with deflation.


All of these economies are only flirting with deflation if you include energy quotes (these pictures may be worse if we had median CPI rather than core CPI for these economies). Now, energy quotes matter, just as much when they are going down as when they are going up, but it is a separate question whether including energy is at all helpful for predicting future inflation. And the answer is, as the Higgins and Verbrugge point out: no, it really isn’t. We are entering a period with weakening growth and strengthening inflation.

This should be “fun.”

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

October 15, 2015 Leave a comment

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…sign up to receive notice when my book is published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to You can also pre-order online.

  • core CPI +0.21%, higher than expected. y/y core to 1.89%.
  • core services up to 2.7%; core goods remains at -0.5%
  • The rise in core CPI #inflation is no surprise to anyone watching Median. But a surprise to many apparently.
  • Owners’ Equiv (3.09% from 3.02%), Primary Rent (3.71% v 3.62%), Lodging Away from Home (1.94% v 1.69%).
  • Overall housing 2.12% vs 2.02% last month. All in keeping with established trends and unsurprising; this has further to go.
  • Medical Care approx unch (2.45% y/y); Recreation unch (0.64%); Apparel down slightly.
  • within Medical, medical drugs decelerated to 2.9% from 3.5%, but professional services and health insurance counteracted that.
  • Core #inflation ex-housing up to 1% vs 0.9%. That’s low but highest it has been since last July.
  • Worth pointing out: derivatives markets are pricing core CPI to be below 1.5%, compounded, for 8yrs. It’s above that now.
  • …and implied core for the next year is below zero (even after today’s rally so far). Core deflation is not happening.
  • US (headline) #Inflation mkt pricing: 2015 0.5%;2016 1.3%;then 1.6%, 1.7%, 1.7%, 1.8%, 2.0%, 2.1%, 2.2%, 2.3%, & 2025:2.3%.
  • So Fed, what do you believe? the market or your own lying eyes? They’re focused on headline now so their deflation worries persist.
  • This is a fun chart. Note that about half of the weight of CPI is inflating >3%. But 12% is deflating.


  • That’s why median matters.
  • Warning: Back of the envelope on Median CPI suggests chance of +0.3%; would imply Median would go to post-crisis high near 2.5%.
  • My back-of-the-envelope lacks seasonal adjustment for regional housing indices but it has been pretty close recently.
  • Cleveland Median CPI +0.3%, +2.5% y/y. QED.
  • inflation is now officially higher than it has been since 2009, on the way down.
  • And Fed to continue to do nothing about it.
  • Median CPI thru this month. In line with what we have been forecasting. Any questions?


At 2.5%, median inflation is not only at or above the equivalent level on core PCE, given historical spreads, but also is clearly rising as the chart above shows. However, this Fed believes very strongly that inflation cannot go up if the economy is slowing, despite generations’ worth of counterevidence (the 1970s, anyone?). The economy does seem to be slowing, not just domestically but globally. Therefore, whether the Fed thinks Median CPI is relevant or not, they will continue to focus on headline inflation numbers that flirt with deflation because of the drastic decline in energy quotes. If they talk about the central tendency of inflation, they will talk about core PCE (and ignore the question of whether the slowdown in medical care which shows up there is illusory or transitory). If pressed, they may mention core CPI, which is still below target because of the “tail” categories.

You will not hear them talk about Median CPI at 2.5% and rising.

Inflation is headed higher. How much higher, and how quickly, depends on several factors such as how quickly the Fed raises rates (I have already said this is unlikely, but note that I think raising rates would initially accelerate inflation) and whether bank lending slows for reasons unrelated to monetary policy. But the sign is clear. Inflation is headed higher.

Walmart Traffic may be Down but Wall Street Traffic is Up

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Walmart (WMT) didn’t have its best day today. The bellwether retailer forecast a profit decline of 6-12% in its 2017 fiscal year, in some part because of a $1.5bln increase in wage expenses; the stock dropped 10% to its lowest level since 2012 and off about 33% from the highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).


I mention Walmart neither to recommend it nor to pan it, but only because in the absence of news from WMT I would have been inclined to ignore the modest downside surprise in Retail Sales today; September Retail Sales ex-auto-and-gasoline were unchanged versus expectations for a +0.3% rise. But Retail Sales, like Durable Goods, is a wildly volatile number (see chart, source Bloomberg).


This was a bad month, but it wasn’t the worst month in 2015. It wasn’t even the second or third-worst month in 2015. Looking at a monthly figure, it is difficult to reject any null hypothesis; put another way, you really cannot discern whether +0.5% is statistically different from +0.0%. [I didn’t actually do the test…I am just making the general statistical observation.] Today’s data will tweak the Q3 forecasts a bit lower, but isn’t anything to be upset about. Except, that is, for the fact that Walmart is bleeding.

There is something else that is different about this decline, and really about this whole year. I have documented in the past the steady decline in equity volumes that has been occurring for almost a decade now. The chart below shows the cumulative NYSE volume, by trading day of the year, for 2006 through present. Note the steady march lower in volumes year after year after year. 2014 and 2013 were almost mirror images, so you can’t see 2014. But notice the thicker black line: that is 2015.

volslongtermHere is another way to illustrate the same thing. By year, here is the number of days that less than 1 billion shares traded in NYSE Composite Volume.

Number of sub-billion share days
2005 4
2006 7
2007 7
2008 18
2009 35
2010 113
2011 166
2012 240
2013 246
2014 246

In 2015, we are on pace for a mere 228 sub-billion share days.

I guess by now my point is plain, but here is one more chart and that is the rolling 20-day composite volume for 2014 (lower line) and 2015 (upper line).


In general, volumes have been higher this year, but the real divergence began at the end of July, when the lines began to move away from each other more rapidly. The equity breakdown started on August 20th.

What does this all mean? Rising trading volumes while markets are declining suggests we should consider imputing more significance to what many are calling a correction but which may be the beginning of something deeper. There are re-allocations happening, and outright sales – not just fast money slinging positions around. Technically, this is supposed to put more weight on the “damage” done by this correction, and raise a bit of a warning flag about the medium-term set-up.

Incidentally, you can buy warning flags cheaply at Walmart.

Recession Won’t Be Fun…But Better than Last Time

October 6, 2015 4 comments

Yesterday, I mentioned the likelihood that a recession is coming. The indicators for this are mostly from the manufacturing side of the economic ledger, and they are at this point merely suggestive. For example, the ISM Manufacturing Index is at 50.2, below which level we often see deeper downdrafts (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Capacity Utilization, which never got back to the level over 80% that historically worries the Fed about inflation, has been slipping back again (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Now, we have to be a bit careful of these “classic” indicators because of the increased weight of mining and exploration in GDP compared with the last few cycles. A good part of the downturn in Capacity Utilization, I suspect, could be traced to weakness in the oil patch. But at the same time, we cannot blithely dismiss the manufacturing weakness as being “all about oil” in the same way that Clinton supporters once dismissed Oval Office shenanigans as being “all about sex.” Oil matters, in this economy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while historically a declining oil price was a boon to the nation as a whole (which is why we never suffered much from the Asian Contagion: the plunge in commodity prices tended to support the U.S., which is generally a net consumer of resources), in this cycle low oil prices are probably neutral at best, and may even be contractionary for the country as a whole.

Whether we have a recession in the near term (meaning beginning in the next six months or so) or further in the future, here is one point that is important to make. It will not be a “garden variety” recession, in all likelihood. That is not because we have boomed so much, but because we are levered so much. There are no more “garden variety” recessions.

Financial leverage in an economy, just as in individual businesses, increases economic volatility. So does operational leverage (which means: deploying fixed capital rather than variable inputs such as labor – technology, typically). And our economy has both in spades. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the debt of domestic businesses as a percentage of GDP. Businesses are currently more levered than they were in 2007, both in raw debt figures and as a percentage of GDP.


Investors fearing recession should shift equity allocations (to the extent some equity allocation is retained) to less-levered businesses. But be careful: some investors think of growth companies as being low-leverage but tech companies (for example) in fact have very high operating leverage even if financial leverage is low. Both are bad when earnings decline – and growth firms typically have less of a margin of safety on price. I tried to do a screen on low-debt, low-PE, high-dividend non-tech companies with decent market caps and didn’t find very much. Canon (CAJ), Guess? Inc (GES) to name a couple of examples…and neither of those have low P/E ratios. (I don’t like to invest in individual stocks in any event but I mention these for readers who do – these aren’t recommendations and I neither own them nor plan to, but may be worth some further research if you are looking for names.)

On the plus side, economically-speaking, relatively heavy personal income taxation also acts as an automatic stabilizer. On the minus side, this is less true if the tax system is heavily progressive, since it isn’t the higher-paid employees who tend to be the ones who are laid off (except on Wall Street, where it is currently de rigueur to cut experienced, expensive staff and retain less-experienced, cheaper staff). Back on the plus side, a large welfare system tends to be an automatic stabilizer as well. On the minus side, all of these fiscal stabilizers merely move growth from the future to the present, so the deeper the recession the slower the future growth.

And, of course – there is nothing that central banks can really do about this, unless it is to make policy rates negative to spur additional extension of negative-NPV loans (that is, loans to less-creditworthy borrowers). I am not sure that even our central bank, with its unhealthy fear of the cleansing power of recession, thinks that’s a good idea.

There is some good news, as we brace for this next recession: while overall levels of debt are higher for businesses, financials, and households, the debt burden compared to GDP is lower for households and especially for domestic financial institutions (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Our banks are in relatively good health, compared with their condition headed into the last downturn. So this will not be a calamity, as in 2008. But I don’t expect it to only be a “mild” recession, either – as if any recession ever feels mild to individuals!

The Sky is Not Falling…Yet

October 5, 2015 2 comments

The Employment Report on Friday was bad – but it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that the consensus seems to have spun it into. It is true that there were no bright spots. It is true that the net number of new jobs added was worse than consensus and indeed worse than some of the more pessimistic expectations. But 142k new jobs is not a recessionary collapse (yet). Let us remember that one or two months every year fall below that figure (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Folks, it’s just not a robust recovery and never has been. It has been slow and steady, and now it is probably petering out, but…let’s not jump off the buildings just yet. In fact, one of my favorite indicators during this period while the Unemployment Rate has been falling but the general perception of the employment picture has been poor has been the “Not in labor force, want a job now” series, which shows people who are discouraged enough to not be looking for work, but would take a job if it was offered. As the chart below shows, that number is far above the lows from the last couple of expansions, and so has been a good check on the improvement in the Unemployment Rate. Now, however, we must also recognize that it is near the recent lows.


So not all of the “job market internals” are flashing red. True, none of them are exactly flashing green, either! Nor have they really ever been, in this cycle.

At the same time, it is incredible to me that the ex-Chairman of the Fed is taking a victory lap, claiming in the Wall Street Journal today that his policies led to a non-inflationary decline in the unemployment rate. Surely a professional economist ought to know the difference between correlation and causality. It is absolute madness to claim that the Fed’s policies did nothing for the price level but had a huge effect on the real economy. That is almost exactly opposite of what generations of monetary policy experience teaches us: that monetary policy has almost no effect on real variables but only affects the price level. A more thorough retort will be given in “What’s Wrong with Money?”, which you can pre-order now! (If you prefer, send a note to and I will email you when it is published).

The unemployment rate declined for two reasons: the first is that just as no tree grows to the sky, no hole is bottomless. Eventually, even without any intervention at all, the business cycle takes over and recessions end. The second reason in this case is that the federal government ran (and continues to run) massive fiscal deficits, which demonstrably affect near-term growth. Yes, those deficits merely rearrange growth, stealing growth from the future to improve growth today, but if current growth is given by Y=C+I+G+(X-M) there is no way that the Fed can claim what is the biggest contribution over the last few years, percentage-wise. Madness, I say.

Is the economy headed for recession? In all likelihood, yes. But this employment number was not the first nor even the best sign of that possibility.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

September 16, 2015 Leave a comment

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. And sign up to receive notice when my book is published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to

Also note that I have been invited to be a guest on “What’d You Miss?” today at 4pm ET. Catch it!

  • Core CPI +0.1%, but y/y stays at +1.8% as it was a “soft” 0.1%. Specifically 0.07%, weaker than expected.
  • Core services remains +2.6%; core goods -0.5% y/y.
  • The -0.5% drag in core goods remains about what we can expect from the dollar’s current strength.
  • But remember core goods is the smaller part of core inflation (and the more volatile part).
  • Bottom line on Fed has been: plenty of argument either way. This number doesn’t affect the argument either way. Doves will be doves.
  • No idea if Fed hikes tomorrow, but SHOULD have removed extraordinary accommodation when extraordinary risks were past. Years ago.
  • Speaking of housing: Primary rents 3.62% from 3.56%; OER at 3.02% from 3.00%. This acceleration will continue.
  • Lodging away from home is a small piece (0.8% of total CPI) but always fascinates me. 1.7% y/y versus 5.7% six months ago.
  • Medical care was unch, 2.47% vs 2.49%, but pharmaceuticals was 3.5% vs 3.2% while professional services 1.7% vs 2.1%.
  • The weakness in medical care continues to be the main story holding down core vs median, since 2013.
  • Motor fuel of course a big drag on headline, but New and used motor vehicles also still weak (a dollar effect): -0.1% vs +0.2%.
  • I actually think Median stands a decent chance of an 0.2% month, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculation.
  • If I am right, then Median may be at the highest level since the crisis ended. Currently 2.28%; 2012 high was 2.38%.
  • We won’t know for a few hours and my calculator doesn’t seasonally adjust the regional housing indexes so don’t take that to the bank.
  • But even if median just stays at 2.3%, that’s consistent with PCE inflation being at the Fed’s target.
  • Really looking forward to this: On Bloomberg TV at 4pm ET with Joe and Alix.
  • Good time to mention my book “What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All” due out in Feb. Can preorder:
  • We don’t even have cover art yet! But the manuscript is done.
  • Much more interesting discussion [than OER] is medical care. MUCH harder to measure than OER, because consumers don’t pay for it directly.
  • We all know insurance costs are going up, but part of this is a price effect and part is a utilization effect.
  • Part of the effect of the ACA is to get people to consume less health care by making them pay for smaller costs directly.
  • …of course, that lessens overall welfare since your tradeoffs are worse. But I don’t want to get too ‘inside baseball’ in 140 char.
  • BTW, it occurs to me I never mentioned y/y core CPI is 1.83% from 1.80%, so it rose a smidge even though a weak core #.

There wasn’t a lot that was new or different in this figure. Housing continues to be the main strain on consumer budgets, as housing costs continue to rise and, given the rise in housing prices generally, this ought to continue. On the other hand, the main drag to core continues to be in the core goods component, and this ought to continue for a while. However, I don’t believe it will intensify, so for a while core (and more importantly, median) inflation will just creep up gradually. At some point, core goods will revert higher, and at that point core inflation will move with more alacrity. The timing on this appears somewhat far off, however.

That said, two other points need to be made today.

The first point is that the Federal Reserve will either raise rates tomorrow, or they will not, and this number has virtually no bearing on that. This Fed does not care very much about inflation, which is why they focus on a number (core PCE) which is not only the softest of the available series but also currently is very clearly too low based on a number of temporary effects. Core PCE has a lot to recommend it theoretically. But myopic focus on it (and any discussion at all of headline inflation, which is near zero only because of the oil price crash) can only mean that Federal Reserve policymakers are biased to be doves. But we already knew that. Moreover, if the Fed raises rates tomorrow and does it without removing the quantities of excess reserves in the system, they really aren’t doing much. At least, not much that is helpful.

The second point is that the inflation market continues to price dramatically different inflation over the next few years than we are likely to get. Either energy prices are going to continue to crash – in which case buoyant core inflation will still result in low headline inflation, which is what trades in the market – or they are going to stop crashing, in which case inflation expectations are far too low. There is virtually no chance that core inflation declines any time soon. I can make a case that core will only converge to near median, and then go flat, but unless housing collapses suddenly and unexpectedly core inflation is not going lower. (Of course, one-off effects like the medical care effect can still pervert the core numbers from time to time, which is why I focus on median, but this is inherently difficult to forecast and the one-off effects of course might also be in the upward direction).


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