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Last Time Was Different

April 4, 2020 2 comments

They say that the four most dangerous words in investing/finance/economics are “This time it’s different.”

And so why worry, the thinking goes, about massive quantitative easing and profound fiscal stimulus? “After all, we did it during the Global Financial Crisis and it didn’t stoke inflation. Why would you think that it is different this time? You shouldn’t: it didn’t cause inflation last time, and it won’t this time. This time is not different.”

That line of thinking, at some level, is right. This time is not different. There is not, indeed, any reason to think we will not get the same effects from massive stimulus and monetary accommodation that we have gotten every other time similar things have happened in history. Well, almost every time. You see, it isn’t this time that is different. It is last time that was different.

In 2008-10, many observers thought that the Fed’s unlimited QE would surely stoke massive inflation. The explosion in the monetary base was taken by many (including many in the tinfoil hat brigade) as a reason that we would shortly become Zimbabwe. I wasn’t one of those, because there were some really unique circumstances about that crisis.[1]

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC hereafter) was, as the name suggests, a financial crisis. The crisis began, ended, and ran through the banks and shadow banking system which was overlevered and undercapitalized. The housing crisis, and the garden-variety recession it may have brought in normal times, was the precipitating factor…but the fall of Bear Stearns and Lehman, IndyMac, and WaMu, and the near-misses by AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Merrill, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, RBS (and I am missing many) were all tied to high leverage, low capital, and a fragile financial infrastructure. All of which has been exhaustively examined elsewhere and I won’t re-hash the events. But the reaction of Congress, the Administration, and especially the Federal Reserve were targeted largely to shoring up the banks and fixing the plumbing.

So the Federal Reserve took an unusual step early on and started paying Interest on Excess Reserves (IOER; it now is called simply Interest on Reserves or IOR in lots of places but I can’t break the IOER habit) as they undertook QE. That always seemed like an incredibly weird step to me if the purpose of QE was to get money into the economy: the Fed was paying banks to not lend, essentially. Notionally, what they were doing was shipping big boxes of money to banks and saying “we will pay you to not open these boxes.” Banks at the time were not only liquidity-constrained, they were capital-constrained, and so it made much more sense for them to take the riskless return from IOER rather than lending on the back of those reserves for modest incremental interest but a lot more risk. And so, M2 money supply never grew much faster than 10% y/y despite a massive increase in the Fed’s balance sheet. A 10% rate of money growth would have produced inflation, except for the precipitous fall in money velocity. As I’ve written a bunch of times (e.g. here, but if you just search for “velocity” or “real cash balances” on my blog you’ll get a wide sample), velocity is driven in the medium-term by interest rates, not by some ephemeral fear against which people hold precautionary money balances – which is why velocity plunged with interest rates during the GFC and remained low well after the GFC was over. The purpose of the QE in the Global Financial Crisis, that is, was banking-system focused rather than economy-focused. In effect, it forcibly de-levered the banks.

That was different. We hadn’t seen a general banking run in this country since the Great Depression, and while there weren’t generally lines of people waiting to take money out of their savings accounts, thanks to the promise of the FDIC, there were lines of companies looking to move deposits to safer banks or to hold Treasury Bills instead (Tbills traded to negative interest rates as a result). We had seen many recessions, some of them severe; we had seen market crashes and near-market crashes and failures of brokerage houses[2]; we even had the Savings and Loan crisis in the 1980s (and indeed, the post-mortem of that episode may have informed the Fed’s reaction to the GFC). But we never, at least since the Great Depression, had the world’s biggest banks teetering on total collapse.

I would argue then that last time was different. Of course every crisis is different in some way, and the massive GDP holiday being taken around the world right now is of course unprecedented in its rapidity if not its severity. It will likely be much more severe than the GFC but much shorter – kind of like a kick in the groin that makes you bend over but goes away in a few minutes.

But there is no banking crisis evident. Consequently the Fed’s massive balance sheet expansion, coupled with a relaxing of capital rules (e.g. see here, here and here), has immediately produced a huge spike in transactional money growth. M2 has grown at a 64% annualized rate over the last month, 25% annualized over the last 13 weeks, and 12.6% annualized over the last 52 weeks. As the chart shows, y/y money growth rates are already higher than they ever got during the GFC, larger than they got in the exceptional (but very short-term) liquidity provision after 9/11, and near the sorts of numbers we had in the early 1980s. And they’re just getting started.

Moreover, interest rates at the beginning of the GFC were higher (5y rates around 3%, depending when you look) and so there was plenty of room for rates, and hence money velocity, to decline. Right now we are already at all-time lows for M2 velocity and it is hard to imagine interest rates and velocity falling appreciably further (in the short-term there may be precautionary cash hoarding but this won’t last as long as the M2 will).  And instead of incentivizing banks to cling to their reserves, the Fed is actively using moral suasion to push banks to make loans (e.g. see here and here), and the federal government is putting money directly in the hands of consumers and small businesses. Here’s the thing: the banking system is working as intended. That’s the part that’s not at all different this time. It’s what was different last time.

As I said, there are lots of things that are unique about this crisis. But the fundamental plumbing is working, and that’s why I think that the provision of extraordinary liquidity and massive fiscal spending (essentially, the back-door Modern Monetary Theory that we all laughed about when it was mooted in the last couple of years, because it was absurd) seems to be causing the sorts of effects, and likely will cause the sort of effect on medium-term inflation, that will not be different this time.


[1] I thought that the real test would be when interest rates normalized after the crisis…which they never did. You can read about that thesis in my book, “What’s Wrong with Money,” whose predictions are now mostly moot.

[2] I especially liked “The Go-Go Years” by John Brooks, about the hard end to the 1960s. There’s a wonderful recounting in that book about how Ross Perot stepped in to save a cascading failure among stock brokerage houses.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (March 2020)

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 (updated site coming soon). Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • CPI day, coronavirus edition! Meaning that no matter what this month’s number is, next month’s number will be more “infected” and lots more interesting.
  • The consensus today is for core CPI to be a ‘soft’ +0.2%, with y/y core coming in at 2.3%.
  • Last month’s CPI figure was above expectations, but following a couple of weak months. Economists’ forecasts suggest they think the strength, not the weakness, was the outlier. I’m not so sure.
  • In last month’s CPI, core goods were weak, especially Used Cars and Pharmaceuticals. Both of those effects look to have recently reversed…altho question in both cases is whether it will be captured in the Feb number. Black Book figures have turned higher.
  • Important to note is the easy comparison of today’s CPI print to Feb 2019, which was only +0.127% core. So even a slightly strong 0.2% m/m could cause an uptick to 2.4% rounded on the y/y core.
  • Going forward, I’m really interested in housing, which has been resilient – if 10-year inflation markets are “right” at 1.0%, then Housing will have to collapse. I don’t see that.
  • And I think we are all more aware now that our supply chain of pharmaceuticals, specifically APIs, runs through China; efforts to bring back some drug manufacturing to the US will put upward pressure there.
  • That’s probably not this month’s story, but the Big Story to watch I think.
  • That’s all for now. 5 minutes to go…good luck with the number.
  • Well, core was +0.2% and the y/y was 2.4%, so that implies a strong core. But core figures being really slow to post to Bloomberg. That’s why the unnatural pause from me..
  • Weirdly getting entire breakdown except for core index level. Not sure if it’s a Bloomberg or a BLS issue but we’ll proceed. In any event looks like it was above 0.2% on core, and rounded down.
  • …and as I type that it comes in at +0.22%. That puts y/y core at 2.37%. That’s not QUITE the high for the cycle, but pretty close.
  • here is y/y core. I don’t see deflation yet, do you?

  • Last 12…the Oct and Dec figures looking more like the outliers.

  • Context for that. Here is the median CPI (which doesn’t come out until later) vs the 10y CPI swap rate. Clearly, market participants expect something big and negative.

  • Candidates for big and negative? It would have to be housing. But Owners’ Equivalent Rent this month was +0.246%. That’s softer than last month and the y/y fell to 3.28% from 3.35%…but not exactly weak.
  • Primary rents were unchanged y/y at 3.76%. Lodging Away from Home – to be sure, we ought to soon see that drop on the COVID-19 effect, was +2.03% m/m, but that only puts y/y at +0.78% from -0.21%. Lodging AFH hasn’t been a driver of inflation prints.
  • Now, possibly interesting, except that this is now a really volatile number, was the +0.43% jump in Apparel. China effect? Prob not yet. But y/y rose to -0.91% from -2.24% as recently as Oct. But the new survey method has made this volatile.
  • On Medical care – Pharma was -0.43% m/m, but that kept the y/y at 1.85% (was 1.80%). Last month Pharma was negative too. I’ll come back to drugs in a moment but Doctors’ Services rose to +0.83% y/y from +0.70% and Hospital Svcs to 4.28% from 3.84%.
  • Hospital Services y/y.

  • Recall 1 reason I’ve been expecting rise in Med Care is b/c insurance costs in the CPI have been soaring. But b/c of the way BLS measures insurance, as a residual, my hypothesis was that this was just proxying for stuff they hadn’t caught yet. But insurance STILL soaring!

  • So if I am right about the proxying effect, the recent rise in medical care pieces still leaves more to go.
  • I haven’t mentioned used cars yet. M/M used cars were +0.39%, moving y/y to -1.33% from -1.97%. The dip seems to be over. Recent surveys in last few weeks especially have seen surge in used car buying. Might be b/c auto manufacturing is having supply chain issues, or not.

  • Core CPI ex-housing rose to 1.70% y/y. That’s the highest level since Feb 2013. Again, I refer you to 10-year inflation breakevens, DOWN this morning to 0.99%. Just not seeing anything that even suggests a turn lower. Housing solid, and ex-housing at the highs.
  • …that doesn’t mean inflation can’t fall, and headline inflation in the near term is going to drop HARD because of energy, but to sell 10-year inflation at 1% you have to believe in more than an energy effect. Oil can’t fall 30% every month.
  • Again to sort of make the point that last month…while stronger than expected…was actually dragged LOWER by core goods: y/y core services stayed at 3.1%; y/y core goods rose to 0.0% vs -0.3% last month (but +0.1% month before).
  • One element of core goods is pharma. In the news recently b/c China supplies something like 90% of our APIs that go into drugs. This index has become lots more VOLATILE in recent yrs. Does that have anythng to do w/ the China part of supply chain becoming more important?

  • So biggest declining core categories this month: car/truck rental, misc personal goods, jewelry and watches. All down more than 10% annualized. Gainers: Lodging AFH, Women’s/Girls’ Apparel, Dairy (??), Personal Care Products. (Dairy not core, but unusual).
  • As if i didn’t already have enough reasons to give up ice cream. Here’s Dairy inflation, y/y. Come on, man.

  • Here is a little stealth inflation for you, although I suspect this will turn around. Here is y/y airfares, up at 2.35% y/y.

  • Why is that stealth inflation? Because airfares usually have a decent relationship to jet fuel. Except recently, they’ve been reluctant to fall. This is thru Feb since this is Feb CPI. Last point in red.

  • But here is jet fuel futures. This isn’t in CPI because consumers don’t buy jet fuel. Notice it was already declining in January and February before falling off a cliff this month. We OUGHT to be seeing this in airfares. Not yet, but soon.

  • last subcomponent pic today. This is college tuition & fees, y/y. This is going to start heading up unless the stock market starts to recover. When endowments take a beating, they share the pain.

  • Median CPI this month looks like it ought to be up around 0.26%ish. If that’s right, y/y median will be steady at 2.88% y/y.
  • Let’s see, why don’t we do the four pieces charts and then wrap up. Didn’t realize I’d been yammering for an hour.
  • Piece 1 is food & energy. Guess what: this is about to roll over, and hard. But it isn’t core, so it moves around a ton. We look through this volatility. Note the y axis scale!

  • Piece 2 is core goods. Back to roughly flat. Close to our model, but I’m still amazed this hasn’t seen more of an upswing yet with trade frictions. But I am pretty sure it will with COVID-19, because that’s a major supply shock and this is where it will tend to hit.

  • Still, of more concern is core services less rent-of-shelter. Significant weight here to medical care services, which as I showed earlier (see hospital services chart) is in a steady rise. Pharma shows up in core goods. The rest of medical shows up here.

  • Last but not least, rent of shelter. Solid as a rock. By the way, 10-year breakevens are down another 8bps today, to 0.95%. This makes zero sense. 1y CPI swaps? Different story. But 10y is nonsense.

  • Wrapping up: another stronger-than-expected number. I said last month that core CPI will be above 2.5% by summer, and we are still on track for that. COVID-19 might eventually pull prices lower if it becomes more demand shock than supply shock. We’re nowhere close to that now.
  • Of course, that doesn’t change the Fed’s decision. They’ll ease, aggressively. And the Federal government will spend like crazy. Folks, welcome to MMT. This is exactly what the MMT prescription is: deficit spend, and print money to cover it. We’ll see how it works out.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in.

Nothing really further to add to this string of tweets. None of this stops the Fed from easing aggressively, but it wouldn’t have changed their decision much anyway because the Fed pretty much ignores inflation. But it should affect investment decisions. Really incredible to me is the way inflation bonds are underperforming so dramatically when they were already cheap and inflation is still rising. You have to be massively bearish, looking for a global collapse of monumental proportions, to want to sell 10-year inflation below 1% when housing is above 3% and ex-housing is at 7-year highs, and when the government is implementing MMT (effectively) and businesses are going to be under tremendous pressure to shorten supply chains and produce in higher-cost areas that are geographically safer/closer. It’s really hard to understand the TIPS market at the moment. (Some people say that it is always hard to understand the TIPS market!)

Categories: CPI, TIPS, Tweet Summary

COVID-19 in China is a Supply Shock to the World

February 25, 2020 2 comments

The reaction of much of the financial media to the virtual shutdown of large swaths of Chinese production has been interesting. The initial reaction, not terribly surprising, was to shrug and say that the COVID-19 virus epidemic would probably not amount to much in the big scheme of things, and therefore no threat to economic growth (or, Heaven forbid, the markets. The mere suggestion that stocks might decline positively gives me the vapors!) Then this chart made the rounds on Friday…

…and suddenly, it seemed that maybe there was something worth being concerned about. Equity markets had a serious slump yesterday, but I’m not here to talk about whether this means it is time to buy TSLA (after all, isn’t it always time to buy Tesla? Or so they say), but to talk about the other common belief and that is that having China shuttered for the better part of a quarter is deflationary. My tweet on the subject was, surprisingly, one of my most-engaging posts in a very long time.

The reason this distinction between “supply shock” and “demand shock” is important is that the effects on prices are very different. The first stylistic depiction below shows a demand shock; the second shows a supply shock. In the first case, demand moves from D to D’ against a stable supply curve S; in the latter case, supply moves from S to S’ against a stable demand curve D.

Note that in both cases, the quantity demanded (Q axis) declines from c to d. Both (negative) demand and supply shocks are negative for growth. However, in the case of a negative demand shock, prices fall from a to b; in the case of a negative supply shock prices rise from a to b.

Of course, in this case there are both demand and supply shocks going on. China is, after all, a huge consumption engine (although a fraction of US consumption). So the growth picture is unambiguous: Chinese growth is going to be seriously impacted by the virtual shutdown of Wuhan and the surrounding province, as well as some ports and lots of other ancillary things that outsiders are not privy to. But what about the price picture? The demand shock is pushing prices down, and the supply shock is pushing them up. Which matters more?

The answer is not so neat and clean, but it is neater and cleaner than you think. Is China’s importance to the global economy more because of its consumption, as a destination for goods and services? Or is it more because of its production, as a source of goods and services? Well, in 2018 (source: Worldbank.org) China’s exports amounted to about $2.5trillion in USD, versus imports of $2.1trillion. So, as a first cut – if China completely vanished from global trade, it would amount to a net $400bln in lost supply. It is a supply shock.

When you look deeper, there is of course more complexity. Of China’s imports, about $239bln is petroleum. So if China vanished from global trade, it would be a demand shock in petroleum of $240bln (about 13mbpd, so huge), but a bigger supply shock on everything else, of $639bln. Again, it is a supply shock, at least ex-energy.

And even deeper, the picture is really interesting and really clear. From the same Worldbank source:

China is a huge net importer of raw goods (a large part of that is energy), roughly flat on intermediate goods, and a huge net exporter of consumer and capital goods. China Inc is an apt name – as a country, she takes in raw goods, processes them, and sells them. So, if China were to suddenly vanish, we would expect to see a major demand shock in raw materials and a major supply shock in finished goods.

The effects naturally vary with the specific product. Some places we might expect to see significant price pressures are in pharmaceuticals, for example, where China is a critical source of active pharmaceutical ingredients and many drugs including about 80% of the US consumption of antibiotics. On the other hand, energy prices are under downward price pressure as are many industrial materials. Since these prices are most immediately visible (they are commodities, after all), it is natural for the knee-jerk reaction of investors to be “this is a demand shock.” Plus, as I said in the tweet, it has been a long time since we have seen a serious supply shock. But after the demand shock in raw goods (and possibly showing in PPI?), do not be surprised to see an impact on the prices of consumer goods especially if China remains shuttered for a long time. Interestingly, the inflation markets are semi-efficiently pricing this. The chart below is the 1-year inflation swap rate, after stripping out the energy effect (source: Enduring Investments). Overall it is too low – core inflation is already well above this level and likely to remain so – but the recent move has been to higher implied core inflation, not lower.

Now, if COVID-19 blossoms into a true global contagion that collapses demand in developed countries – especially in the US – then the answer is different and much more along the lines of a demand shock. But I also think that, even if this global health threat retreats, real damage has been done to the status of China as the world’s supplier. Although it is less sexy, less scary, and slower, de-globalization of trade (for example, the US repatriating pharmaceuticals production to the US, or other manufacturers pulling back supply chains to produce more in the NAFTA bloc) is also a supply shock.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (February 2020)

February 13, 2020 1 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 (updated site coming soon). Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • Welcome to CPI day! Before we get started, note that at about 9:15ET I will be on @TDANetwork with @OJRenick to discuss the inflation figures etc. Tune in!
  • In leading up to today, let’s first remember that last month we saw a very weak +0.11% on core CPI. The drag didn’t seem to come from any one huge effect, but from a number of smaller effects.
  • The question of whether there was something odd with the holiday selling calendar, or something else, starts to be answered today (although I always admonish not to put TOO much weight on any single economic data point).
  • Consensus expectations call for +0.2% on core, but a downtick in y/y to 2.2% from 2.3%. That’s not wildly pessimistic b/c we are rolling off +0.24% from last January.
  • Next month, we have much easier comparisons on the y/y for a few months, so if we DO drop to 2.2% y/y on core today that will probably be the low for a little while. Feb 2019 was +0.11%, March was +0.15%, April was +0.14%, and May was +0.11%.
  • So this month we are looking to see if we get corrections of any of last month’s weakness. Are they one-offs? We are also going to specifically watch Medical Care, which has started to rise ominously.
  • One eye also on core goods, though this should stay under pressure from Used Cars more recent surveys have shown some life there. Possible upside surprise because low bar. Don’t expect Chinese virus effect yet, but will look for signs of it.
  • That’s all for now…good luck with the number!
  • Small upside surprise this month…core +0.24%, and y/y went up to 2.3% (2.27% actually).
  • We have changes in seasonal adjustment factors and annual and benchmark revisions to consumption weights this month…so numbers are rolling out slowly.
  • Well, core goods plunged to -0.3% y/y. A good chunk of that was because Used Cars dropped -1.2% this month, down -1.97% y/y.
  • Core services actually upticked to 3.1% y/y. So the breakdown here is going to be interesting.
  • Small bounce in Lodging Away from Home, which was -1.37% m/m last month. This month +0.18%, so no big effect. But Owners Equivalent Rent jumped +0.34% m/m, to 3.35% y/y from 3.27%. Primary Rents +0.36%, 3.76% y/y vs 3.69%. So that’s your increase in core services.
  • Medical Care +0.18% m/m, 4.5% y/y, roughly unchanged. Pharma fell -0.29% m/m after +1.25% last month, and y/y ebbed to 1.8% from 2.5%. That goes the other way on core goods. Also soft was doctors’ services, -0.38% m/m. But Hospital Services +0.75% m/m.
  • Apparel had an interesting-looking +0.66% m/m jump. But the y/y still decelerated to -1.26% from -1.12%.
  • Here is the updated Used Cars vs Black Book chart. You can see that the decline y/y is right on model. But should reverse some soon.

  • here is medicinal drugs y/y. You can see the small deceleration isn’t really a trend change.

  • Hospital Services…

  • Primary Rents…now, this and OER are worth watching. It had been looking like shelter costs were flattening out and possibly even decelerating a bit (not plunging into deflation though, never fear). This month is a wrinkle.

  • Core ex-housing 1.53% versus 1.55% y/y…so no big change there. The upward pressure on core today is mostly housing.
  • Whoops, just remembered that I hadn’t shown the last-12 months’ chart on core CPI. Note that the next 4 months are pretty easy comps. We’re going to see core CPI accelerate from 2.3%.

  • So worst (core) categories on the month were Used Cars and Trucks and Medical Care Commodities, which we’ve already discussed. Interesting. Oddly West Urban OER looks like it was down m/m although my seasonal adjustment there is a bit rough.
  • Biggest gainers: Miscellaneous Personal Goods, +41% annualized! Also jewelry, footwear, car & truck rental, and infants/toddlers’ apparel.
  • Oddly, it looks like median cpi m/m will be BELOW core…my estimate is +0.22% m/m. That’s curious – it means the long tails are more on the upside for a change.
  • Now, we care about tails. If all the tails start to shift to the high side, that’s a sign that the basic process is changing.
  • One characteristic of disinflation and lowflation…how it happens…is that prices are mostly stable with occasional price cuts. If instead we go to mostly stable prices with occasional price hikes, that’s an inflationary process. WAY too early to say that’s what’s happening.
  • Appliances (0.2% of CPI, so no big effect) took another big drop. Now -2.08% y/y. Wonder if this is a correction from tariff stuff.
  • Gotta go get ready for air. Last thing I will leave you with is this: remember the Fed has said they are going to ignore inflation for a while, until it gets significantly high for a persistent period. We aren’t there yet. Nothing to worry about from the Fed.

Because I had to go to air (thanks @OJRenick and @TDAmeritrade for another fun time) I gave a little short shrift on this CPI report. So let me make up for that a little bit. First, here’s a chart of core goods. I was surprised at the -0.3% y/y change, but it actually looks like this isn’t too far off – maybe just a little early, based on core import prices (see chart). Still, there has been a lot of volatility in the supply chain, starting with tariffs and now with novel coronavirus, with a lot of focus on the growth effects but not so much on the price effects.

It does remain astonishing to me that we haven’t seen more of a price impact from the de-globalization trends. Maybe there is some kind of ‘anchored inflation expectations’ effect? To be sure, it’s a little early to have seen the effect from the virus because ships which left before the contagion got started are still showing up at ports of entry. But I have to think that even if tariffs didn’t encourage a shortening of supply chains, this will. It does take time to approve new suppliers. Still I thought we’d see this effect already.

Let’s look at the four pieces charts. As a reminder, this is just a shorthand quartering of the consumption basket into roughly equal parts. Food & Energy is 20.5%; Core Goods is 20.1%; Rent of Shelter is 32.8%; and Core services less rent of shelter is 26.6%. From least-stable to most:

We have discussed core goods. Core Services less RoS is one that I am keeping a careful eye on – this is where medical care services falls, and those indices have been turning higher. Seeing that move above 3% would be concerning. The bottom chart shows the very stable Rents component. And here the story is that we had expected that to start rolling over a little bit – not deflating, but even backing off to 3% would be a meaningful effect. That’s what our model was calling for (see chart). But our model has started to accelerate again, so there is a real chance we might have already seen the local lows for core CPI.

I am not making that big call…I’d expected to see the local highs in the first half of 2020, and that could still happen (although with easy comps with last year, it wouldn’t be much of a retreat until later in the year). I’m no longer sure that’s going to happen. One of the reasons is that housing is proving resilient. But another reason is that liquidity is really surging, so that even with money velocity dripping lower again it is going to be hard to see prices fall. M2 growth in the US is above 7% y/y, and M2 growth in the Eurozone is over 6%. Liquidity is at least partly fungible when you have global banks, so we can’t just ignore what other central banks are doing. Over the last decade, sometimes US M2 was rising and sometimes EZ M2 was rising, but the last time we saw US>7% and EZ>6% was September 2008-May 2009. Before that, it happened in 2001-2003. So central banks are providing liquidity as if they are in crisis mode. And we’re not even in crisis mode.

That is an out-of-expectation occurrence. In other words, I did not see it coming that central banks would start really stepping on the gas when global growth was slowing, but still distinctly positive. We have really defined “crisis” down, haven’t we? And this isn’t a response to the virus – this started long before people in China started getting sick.

So, while core CPI is currently off its highs, it will be over 2.5% by summertime. Core PCE will be running up on the Fed’s 2% target, too. If the Fed maintains its easy stance even then, we will know they are completely serious about letting ‘er rip. I can’t imagine bond yields can stay at 2% in that environment.

I Dream of GINI – Is Inequality a Function of Longevity?

January 31, 2020 Leave a comment

Before I get into a distinctly non-inflation thought, I want to add another non-inflation thought and offer my congratulations to the UK on the occasion of her independence. Congratulations for throwing off the oppressive yoke of her Continental overlords. We did that once, and it worked out really well. I heartily believe that every society should refresh its independence at least every thousand years or so. So good job, mates! Sorry about that Rugby World Cup, but after all this was more important.

I should also point out that the sky does not seem to be falling in the UK, or elsewhere for that matter for any reason related to Brexit. I should also point out that I told you so.

Now, on an wholly different topic – inequality. I had a thought a few days ago and after mulling it for a bit I concluded that there might be something useful in the concept so I thought I would share it. I first discussed it briefly with an eminent retired economist of my acquaintance, and he thought the proposition was intriguing, so here goes…

There has been a lot of teeth-grinding and navel-gazing about the idea that societal inequality seems to be growing worse over time. One way to measure this is with the GINI Coefficient, which ranges from 0 (everyone in society shares income, or wealth, depending on what is measured, equally) to 100 (one household gets all the income for the society).  The calculation of the coefficient isn’t important for my purposes, nor is dwelling on its imperfections. Clearly it is an imperfect measure, but for my musing it suffices. The GINI coefficient has been rising steadily for some time in the US, and in most other countries in fact.

But consider this: does the fact that lifespans are also lengthening have anything to do with the growing measurement of inequality? After all, the longer someone is in the workforce the higher we would expect their income to be and, assuming any savings discipline at all the more wealth we would expect them to have. If the average lifespan is 50, then the oldest in society have less time to accumulate than if the average lifespan is 80. (Hey, look at all the billionaires. None of them are spring chickens.) Moreover, when a wealthy old person dies their wealth gets distributed and diluted, rather than remaining concentrated – the Vanderbilts and Carnegies are not as wealthy now as they were in the 1800s. So my hypothesis is that while I don’t claim this explains all of the apparent increase in inequality, I suspect it explains part of it.

Further, I wonder if the increased concentration of corporate value and power in larger and larger megacorporations might also be related to the relatively longer lifespans of corporations – the diminished frequency with which companies are broken up by antitrust crusaders or corporate raiders, or allowed to go bust (see GM et. al. in the Global Financial Crisis) allows them to accumulate “value” over longer and longer periods of time. I’m not talking market cap – Tesla, Facebook, Amazon, etc are all worth far more in the market than their actual economic heft. But a lot of the big banks might fall into this category today – heck, big finance companies on both sides: e.g. Blackrock! In short, I wonder if a lot of the problems with corporate ‘greed’ that Bernie Sanders and his ilk decry could be solved by the simple expedient of making the system more capitalist rather than less. Break them all up!

Of course, I wouldn’t argue for killing people at their retirement parties, so the same solution doesn’t exactly apply. But here, too, there might be merit in an alternate prescription that is essentially the opposite of the socialist path. Rather than trying to suck up all of a millionaire’s wealth when he/she dies, preventing him/her from passing along wealth to another generation, give more incentives for distributing wealth earlier. Give larger deductions for charitable contributions, larger gift exemptions, and so on. Distribute earlier and the concentration at the top won’t be as large.

One final point, and that is about inflation. Greater inflation also tends to cause wealth to concentrate more at the top since the wealthy tend to own more real property and consume a smaller proportion of their incomes. And autocratic regimes tend towards higher inflation. So I suppose what I am saying (and I didn’t know I was going to say this when I started to write this column) is that the prescription for less inequality is to have more creative destruction and for society to lean more towards freedom and capitalism than towards government intervention and socialism. I might even argue that this country’s lurch away from true capitalism, especially since the Global Financial Crisis, is a key reason that income and wealth has become less well-distributed. (And, as I wrap up with that statement, I do one more Google search and discover that others have already made some of these points. See this article for some historical perspective of inequality under non-capitalist regimes).

Discuss.


P.S. I feel like I ought to give some credit here to my teenage son, Andy, whose flirtations with questions of inequality has caused me to ruminate on these issues more than I might otherwise have done. Keep on questioning, son!

Categories: Economy, Government Tags: ,

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (January 2020)

January 14, 2020 3 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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties (updated sites coming soon). Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • The first CPI day of 2020! Although technically, this is the last print from the 20-teens.
  • The next decade ought to be very different from the last decade, from an inflation perspective. No more wondering if deflation is sneaking up on us, which is how 2010 began. I suspect we will spend more time worrying about how to put the inflation genie back in the bottle.
  • As the saying goes, letting the cat out of the bag is a heck of a lot easier than gettin’ him back in.
  • But let’s be more myopic for now: month on month. Consensus on core CPI is for +0.18% or so, which would keep y/y at 2.3% unchanged from last month.
  • To tick y/y core back to rounding to 2.4%, we only need 0.22% m/m on core CPI, so that’s more likely than the weakness we would need to see it tick down to 2.2%.
  • Last month in fact we saw 0.23%, which is right on the 6-month average core print. The only reason y/y is as low as it is, is because Feb-May last year were all 0.11-0.15% prints. Which is to say that the comps get easier starting in March (with Feb’s number).
  • Last month’s +0.23% came with softish housing, too. So there are some underlying upward pressures beyond housing. Medical Care has been getting the most attention so we will be attentive to any continued upward pressure there.
  • Also watch this month for an apparel bounce-back. Big drop last month, most likely due to the placement of Thanksgiving and the BLS’s new methodology which has induced lots of volatility to the series.
  • Downwardly, Used Cars remain a risk with private surveys showing softness there. And we’ll watch housing again. A sea change in housing would be a big deal. No real sign of that yet, and in fact housing has been running hotter than our forecasts by a tiny bit.
  • That’s all for now…good luck with the number. 5 minutes.
  • Weak CPI print, +0.11% on core…y/y just barely rounded up to 2.3% y/y. I said a downtick would be hard…but this was weak enough that it was very close.

  • Used Cars was quite weak, at +0.76% m/m, but that’s not super-surprising. The y/y at -0.68% (from -0.44%) is roughly in line.
  • Another usual suspect, Lodging Away from Home, plunged -1.75% m/m, putting the y/y to -0.28% from +3.26%. So a big, anti-seasonal move there. But LAfH is only 1% of CPI.
  • Overall housing was okay…OER +0.24% and Primary Rents +0.23% m/m, meaning that they upticked slightly y/y to 3.28% (vs 3.26%) and 3.69% (vs 3.66%) respectively. So it isn’t the big components there.
  • Yet Housing as a whole subgroup was only +0.10%. Was that all LAfH? Need to check.
  • Medical Care accelerated further, +0.57% m/m.

  • Medical care jump led by a large +1.25% m/m rise in Pharma (Medicinal Drugs).

  • The increases in the broad medical care components tends to support my prior suspicions that the big rise in CPI for health care insurance was a case of BLS not catching what was actually moving, so it appeared to show up in the insurance residual. That residual is still high…

  • Struggling finding anything (other than used cars and lodging away from home) that was really weak. Apparel was +0.40% m/m, so we got some of the bounceback. Recreation was a little weak, +0.15% m/m, and “Other” was -0.13% m/m…I need to dig deeper in housing though.
  • Overall core goods was steady at +0.10% y/y; overall core services was steady at +3.0% y/y. So no super clues there.
  • Here’s supporting chart for what I said about the weakness in Used Cars. Weak, but not surprisingly weak.

  • Well, in Housing…Shelter, which includes rents but also includes Lodging Away from Home, decelerated to 3.25% from 3.32% y/y. Fuels and Utilities is -0.23% y/y vs +0.74%. And Household Furnishings/Operations +0.98% vs 1.61%.
  • Looks like major appliances were heavy, down 1% m/m or so. But we’re talking a pretty small weight.
  • So biggest m/m decliners (and annualized changes) were Lodging AfH (-19.1%), Public Transport (-16.3%), Car and Truck Rental (-14.7%), and Personal Care Products (-12.9%). Cumulatively that’s only 2.8% of the CPI, but big changes.
  • Biggest m/m gainers aren’t in core: Motor Fuel (+39.6%) and Fuel Oil/Other Fuels (+27.4%). Medical Care Commodities (drugs) were +19.3%, and are in core, but as we have seen probably not a one-off. Then Meat, Poultry, Fish, and Eggs (can we just call this “protein?”) +16.7%.
  • So we’re talking about a lot of left-tail things in core especially. Median looks to be over 0.2% again, though a little hard to say because one of the regional OERs looks like the median category. But y/y Median CPI should stay roughly steady at 2.92% is my guess.
  • So core ex-shelter dropped a bit to 1.55% from 1.61% y/y. Still well off the lows. But if these left-tail one-offs are really one-offs, we would expect to see that rebound next month. Bottom line though is that 1.55% from non-housing isn’t very alarming yet.
  • To kinda state the obvious, nothing here will have the slightest impact on the Fed. They’ve basically said they don’t care about inflation at these levels. “Wake me when it hits 3% on core PCE, then hit the snooze button for a year.”
  • “In order to move rates up, I would want to see inflation that’s persistent and that’s significant. A significant move up in inflation that’s also persistent before raising rates to address inflation concerns: That’s my view.” – Powell, Dec 11 2019
  • Let’s look at the four pieces charts in order from most-volatile to least. First, Food and Energy.

  • Second, Core goods. This includes pharma, but also used cars, so right now the cars are beating drugs. (Don’t drink and drive, kids.)

  • Core Services less Rent of Shelter. Now, this month overall was weak but this is starting to look more concerning thanks to Medical Care. I think we might be seeing this over 3% before long, given the signals from health care.

  • And 4th piece: rent of shelter. So, flip side of the other core services is that rents might be softening..but at least aren’t showing an urgency to accelerate further. This was the reason I thought we’d see core peak in the 1st part of this year. I’m no longer confident.

  • Ever feel like inflation was giving you the finger? Here is the distribution of price changes. The big one in the middle is OER. The one at the far right is gasoline. You can see there are a lot of left tail events still.

  • Last one. Same data as the last chart, but this just sums all the categories over 3% y/y inflation. Obviously, when this goes over 50%, median is at least 3%. Because of rents, this is going to be close to 50%…but enough other categories are starting to scooch it there.

  • Scooch being a technical term.
  • OK, that’s all for today. The summary is that while the monthly number was soft, the underlying pressures are if anything getting a little firmer. Of course, the summary if you’re on the FOMC is, “CPI came out today? Really?”

As I said, nothing here will affect the Fed, at least for a while. I am sure some of them still pay attention to the CPI but they’ve made very clear that the only way inflation would affect monetary policy is if it went a lot higher, or a little bit lower. It may go a lot higher, but it won’t get there quickly. And core PCE, which is what the Fed supposedly focuses on (insider tip: they focus on whichever index is confirming their thesis), is more likely to accelerate from here since it overweights medical care – which is now trending higher – and underweights housing – which is looking soft – compared to private consumption. So, write off the Fed.

However, the “cyclical” ebbing of inflationary pressures that I had been expecting in Q1-Q2, mainly because I expected more softening in rents and I thought bond yields would be declining more in reaction to the slowdown in growth, aren’t apparent. It looks as if inflation might peak later than I had expected. Now, I never thought such a peak would mean inflation rolls over and goes to the lows of the last recession. Absent another collapse in housing, which does not appear to be in the offing, that isn’t going to happen. I thought inflation would stage a small retreat and then move to new highs when rates headed back up again. So far, though, I don’t even see much reason to think the peak is about to happen. Yes, rents are squishier than they were but it appears that medical care is moving fairly aggressively higher and interest rates don’t appear to be responding to the global slowdown in growth. So we might well be looking at a recession where inflation doesn’t slow very much.

In any event, the Fed’s response function make potential tail events a mostly one-way affair right now. They’ve warned you. Take appropriate precautions – which is relatively easy now as most inflation hedges (exception precious metals) are quite cheap!

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (December 2019)

December 11, 2019 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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties (updated sites coming soon). Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • Okay, about 10 minutes to CPI showtime so let’s review last month.
  • We have had a couple of soft prints (<0.2% before rounding, one all the way to 0.1%, on core), but those followed 3 months of 0.3% monthly core prints. This month, consensus is for a soft 0.2% on core, something around 0.18%.
  • last month, we saw weak core goods, a lot of that being vehicles and NOT surprising but general softness outside of vehicles mildly surprising.
  • the bigger surprise was in housing, where Lodging Away from Home was very soft and both Primary and Owners’ Equivalent Rents were soft. That was the main story from last month.
  • But of course we are also watching Medical Care carefully. The prior rise in Medical Insurance inflation, because of the way the BLS measures, might (or might not) be a proxy for as-yet-unsurveyed strength in other medical subcomponents.
  • Those other medical care subcomponents HAVE been seeing some recent strength. So Core-Services-ex-Rents is something we are very interested in.
  • Two other points. The first is that November had a very late Thanksgiving, so depending on when retailers adjusted prices for the retail season (generally lowering them) and when the survey mostly happened, there could be some seasonal volatility.
  • If they did not lower their prices as early in the month, because Black Friday was later, that COULD mean we see strength that’s not seasonally expected. Don’t know but something to keep in mind. Built-in caveat for today.
  • Second point is: the Fed doesn’t care. Powell says they’re not going to tighten unless inflation goes significantly higher and stays there a long time. So, you’re on your own!
  • That’s all – grab a coffee and see you in 3 min.
  • 2% on core, but stronger than expected…really 0.23% before rounding. Y/Y core stays at 2.32%
  • Here are the last 12 core prints. Funny how one print can make the whole chart look more ominous.

  • OK, first housing. Lodging Away from Home was +1.1% m/m after -3.84% last month, so as-expected bounce. Primary Rents were +0.26% vs 0.14% last mo and OER was +0.24% vs +0.18%. So softness was not repeated in housing.
  • That said, the y/y figures in housing still declined, with Primary going to 3.66% vs 3.74% and OER 3.26% vs 3.31% prior. So those are big effects holding down y/y core. But core was unchanged y/y. So where were the gains?
  • I should say those are the effects holding down further acceleration in core. Drippy housing means th other parts need to pick up the slack.
  • Some of that is Medical Care. This month overall Medical Care CPI was +0.32% m/m, 4.24% y/y. That’s with soft Pharma CPI, -0.16% m/m and a scant 0.58% y/y.
  • You can see Pharma is still rising, this is y/y.

  • Doctors’ Services and Hospital Services also softer this month than last, but not huge.
  • Core Goods overall slumped to +0.1% y/y from 0.8% just a few months ago. This month, the weakness in pharma helped but the y/y for Used Cars also fell to -0.44% from +1.43% previously. Expected some weakness, but that might be a bit overdone.
  • Here is core commodities vs lagged import prices. Not super surprising that it is slowing.

  • Core inflation ex-shelter basically unchanged, at 1.61% vs 1.60%.
  • Unfortunately having some computer “issues” that is preventing my usual deeper dive in some of these categories.
  • Oh, Apparel -2.29% y/y vs -0.34%. Again, the BLS’s new survey methodology is introducing IMO a lot of extra volatility in this series.
  • Well, found the computer issue but it’s really that the BLS posted the subcomponents a little later than usual today. Won’t be fixed in the next few minutes and I have to go meet clients in Minneapolis. So I’ll wrap it up, a little short this month – sorry.
  • I think the bottom line is that there isn’t anything super surprising here. The softness we had seen in housing took at least a temporary hiatus. Overall core was stronger than expected, but hard to be sure that’s meaningful.
  • As I said up top, there’s no real reason to think that the Fed cares…so from a markets perspective, TODAY and this month, these numbers don’t mean much. Except for you, because the Fed isn’t going to try and restrain inflation so you better make sure you’re prepared.

Late post of today’s summary, since I had customer meetings during the day. Up above, I sort of flippantly commented about how the chart of monthly changes looks totally different when you add the latest point. I’m always fascinated about examples like this. Clearly, we didn’t add 12 monthly points, but only one today. So there is no more information in that chart than we had new today – what happens is that we change the context a little bit. Prior to today’s figure, the question was “are the three high numbers the aberration, or are the last two points an aberration from a higher trend?” The latest point makes it seem more likely that the two low ones are the aberration, but I’d be cautious about reading too much into that. First, there’s a ton of noise in any economic series. Second, I mentioned in my walk-up to the number in the bullet points above that there’s some chance the late Thanksgiving could result in a higher-than-expected CPI if retailers lowered their prices for the Christmas season later than normal. And third, there wasn’t anything super-alarming about this data.

By the same token, “nothing super-alarming” could also be read as “no big outliers, just a generally faster pace of inflation.” So if you’re bullish on inflation, you might read the composition that way. Moreover, it should be pointed out that while the consensus forecast was for +0.2% on core CPI, and we got +0.2%, there was actually a pretty decent miss: the consensus was more like +0.18% before rounding up, and core CPI was +0.23% before rounding down. Economists were further off than they appear to be if you just look at the rounded figures.

My view continues to be that inflation ought to peak early next year, but that the cyclical low won’t be that low. However, I am becoming a bit less confident that the peak is that near, especially given how Medical Care is behaving. The key point though is the last one I raised today. The Fed has changed the rules of the game…or I guess a better analogy is that it has changed which team it is playing for in a very vocal way. It is one thing for the Fed to say “we want inflation higher and are going to push it higher,” which implies a level of control (to be sure, it is control they don’t actually have), but something else entirely to say “we really don’t care if it goes up,” which implies abdication of responsibility for the results. Investors should beware of this. I don’t think it is the small thing it sounds like.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary
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