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The Fed Needs More Inflation Nerds

January 30, 2017 5 comments

Earlier today I was on Bloomberg<GO> when the PCE inflation figures were released. As usual, it was an enjoyable time even if Alix Steel did call me a ‘big inflation nerd’ or something to that effect.

The topic was, of course, PCE – as well as inflation in general, how the Fed might respond (or not), and what the effect of the new Administration’s policies may be. You can see the main part of the discussion here, although not the part where Alix calls me a nerd. A man has some pride.

My main point regarding the PCE report was that PCE isn’t terribly low, but rather right on the long-run average as the chart below (all charts source Bloomberg) shows. Of course, PCE has been lagging behind the rise in CPI, but because it had been “too tight” previously this isn’t yet abnormal.

spread

However, in the interview I didn’t get to the really nerdy part. Perhaps my ego was still stinging and so I didn’t want to highlight the nerdiness?[1] No matter. The nerdy part is that the reason PCE is low is actually no longer because of Medical Care, but because of housing. This next chart plots the spread of core CPI over core PCE, through last month’s figures, versus Owners’ Equivalent Rent (OER).

vs-housing

Housing has a much higher weight in the CPI than in the PCE, and as you can see the plodding nature of OER means that the correlation is somewhat persistent because housing inflation is somewhat persistent. Right now, OER (which, frankly, I thought would have leveled off by now) is rising and showing no signs of slowing, and this fact has served to widen the CPI-PCE spread back to its historical average and likely will cause it to widen to an above-average level. I suppose the good news there is that it is still true that outside of housing, core inflation is still not rising aggressively. Core services ex-housing are looking perkier, but core goods continue to languish as the dollar remains strong. The strength of the dollar almost beggars belief if it’s true that the rest of the world hates us now, but it is what it is.

The bigger point, for markets, is “so what?” There is nothing about a 1.7% core PCE that presents any urgency for Chairman Yellen. As I said on the program: as Yellen approaches the end of her chairmanship (in January 2018, since she insists Trump won’t chase her out before), I believe it is much more likely that she wants to be remembered for pushing the unemployment rate very low – because she believes inflation is easily controlled – than that she wants to be remembered for being a hawk that stopped inflation from getting going. She isn’t worried about inflation, and so the question is whether she wants to be criticized for adding “too many” jobs, or not adding enough. Not that monetary policy has much to do with that, but I believe she clearly will err on the side of keeping policy too loose. The Fed isn’t tightening this week, and I find it unlikely that they will tighten in March, unless inflation expectations rise considerably further than they have already (see chart of 5y5y inflation forward from CPI swaps, below). Even after the big rally since late last year, 5y5y is well below the long-term average through 2014.

5y5y

And even if inflation expectations do rise further, the excuse from the chair will be easy: expectations are rising because the end (and possible reversal) of the globalization dividend and the imposition of tariffs will lead to higher prices. But there is nothing that Fed policy can do about this – it is a supply-side effect, just as high oil prices due to OPEC production restraints would represent a supply-side effect that the Fed shouldn’t respond to. So the excuses are all there for Dr. Yellen. History will show that she missed a chance to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet and avert the worst of the next inflationary upturn, but that history will not be written for some time.

[1] Ridiculous, of course. I embrace my nerdiness, at least when it comes to inflation.

Categories: CPI, Economy, Federal Reserve Tags:

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

January 18, 2017 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…buy my book about money and inflation, published in March 2016. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • Last CPI of 2016…fire it up!
  • Core +0.23%, a bit higher than expected. Market was looking for 0.16% or so.
  • y/y core CPI rises to 2.21%. The core print was the second highest since last Feb.
  • For a change, the BLS has the full data files posted so brb with more analysis. Housing subcomponent jumped, looking now.
  • Just saw this. Pretty cool. Our calculator https://www.enduringinvestments.com/calculators/cpi.php … pretty cool too but not updated instantly.
    • BLS-Labor Statistics @BLS_gov: See our interactive graphics on today’s new Consumer Price Index data http://go.usa.gov/x9mMG #CPI #BLSdata #DataViz
  • As I said, housing rose to 3.04% from 2.90% y/y. Primary Rents jumped to 3.96% from 3.88%; OER 3.57% from 3.54%.
  • Household energy was also higher, so some of the housing jump was actually energy. But the rise in primary rents matters.
  • Will come back to that. Apparel y/y slipped back into deflation (dollar effect). Recreation and Education steady. “Other” up a bit.
  • In Medical Care, 4.07% vs 3.98%. That had recently retraced a bit but back on the + side. Drugs, Prof. Svcs, and Hospital Svcs all +
  • Medicinal drugs. Not a new high but maybe the retracement is done.

drugs

  • Core services up to 3.1% from 3.0%; core goods -0.6% vs -0.7%.
  • That’s consistent with our view: stronger USD will keep core goods in or near deflation but it shouldn’t get much worse.
  • The dollar is just not going to cause core deflation in the US. Import/export sector is too small.
  • Core ex-housing rose to 1.20% from 1.12%. Still not exactly alarming!
  • Not from this report, but wages are worrying people and here’s why:

atlfedwages

  • However, wages tend to follow inflation, not lead it. I always add that caveat. But it matters for Fed reaction function.
  • Next few months are the challenge for renewed upward swing in core CPI – Jan and Feb 2016 were both high and drop out of the y/y.

corecpi

  • Early guess at Median CPI, which I think is a better measure of inflation…my back of envelope is 0.24% m/m, 2.61% y/y…new high.
  • CPI in 4 pieces. #1 Food & Energy (about 21%)

fande

  • CPI in 4 pieces. #2 Core Goods (about 20%)

coregoods

  • CPI in 4 pieces. #3 Core Services less Rent of Shelter (about 27%)

coresvcslessros

  • CPI in 4 pieces. #4 Rent of Shelter (about 33%)

ros

  • This is why people are worried re’ inflation AND why people dismiss it. “It’s just housing.” Yeh, but that’s the persistent part.
  • Scary part about rents is that it’s accelerating even above our model, and we have been among the more aggressive forecast.
  • OK, that’s all for this morning. Anyone going to the Inside ETFs conference next week? Look me up.

We end 2016 with the outlook in limbo, at least looking at these charts – unless January and February print 0.3% on core inflation, core CPI will be hanging around 2% for at least the next few months. Median inflation is more worrisome, as it will probably hit a new high when it is reported later today, but it doesn’t get the ink that core CPI or core PCE gets.

To my mind, the underlying trends are still very supportive of a cyclical (secular??) upswing in core inflation. Here’s a summary of two of the pieces that people care about a lot. Housing is much bigger, but slower; Medical Care is more responsive, but smaller.

lastchart

I suspect that chart is enough to keep most consumers jittery with respect to inflation, but as long as retail gasoline prices stay below $3/gallon there won’t be much of an outcry. But that doesn’t matter. M2 money growth accelerated throughout 2016 as the economy improved, and ended the year at 7.6% y/y. Interest rates are rising, which will help push money velocity higher. It’s hard to see how that turns into a disinflationary outcome.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Not So Fast on the Trump Bull Market

December 1, 2016 4 comments

**NOTE – please see the announcement at the end of this article, regarding a series of free webinars that begins next Monday.**


Whatever else the election of Donald Trump to be President of the United States has meant, it has meant a lot of excitement in precincts that worry about inflation. This is usually attributed, among the chattering classes, to the faster growth expected if Mr. Trump’s expressed preference for tax cuts and spending increases obtains. However, since growth doesn’t cause inflation that isn’t the part of a Trump Presidency that concerns me with respect to a continuing rise in inflation.

In our latest Quarterly Inflation Outlook, I wrote a short piece on the significance of the de-globalization movement for inflation. That is an area where, if the President-Elect delivers on his promises, a lot of damage could be done in the growth/inflation tradeoff. I have written before about how a big part of the reason for the generous growth/inflation tradeoff of the 1990s was the rapid globalization of many industries following the end of the Cold War. Deutsche Bank recently produced a research piece (I don’t recall whether it had anything to do with inflation, weirdly) that contained the following chart (Source: as cited).

freetradeagreementsperyearThis chart is the “smoking gun” that supports this version of events, in terms of why the inflation dynamic shifted in the early 1990s. Free trade helped to restrain prices in certain goods (apparel is a great example – prices are essentially unchanged over the last 25 years), by allowing the possibility of significant cost savings on production.

The flip side of a cost savings on production, though, is a loss of domestic manufacturing jobs; it is this loss that Mr. Trump took productive advantage of. If Mr. Trump moves to increase tariffs and other barriers to trade, and to reverse some of the globalization trend that has driven lower prices for the last quarter-century, it is potentially very negative news for inflation. While there was some evidence that the globalization dividend was beginning to get ‘tapped out’ as all of the low-hanging fruit had been harvested – and such a development would cause inflation to be higher than otherwise it would have been – I had not expected the possibility of a reversal of the globalization dividend except as a possible and minor side-effect of tensions with Russia over the Ukraine, or the effect the Syrian refugee problem could have on open borders. The election of Mr. Trump, however, creates the very real possibility that the reversal of this dividend might be a direct consequence of conscious policy choices.

I don’t think that’s the main reason that people are worried about inflation, though. Today, one contributor is the news that OPEC actually agreed to cut production, in January, and that some non-OPEC producers agreed to an additional cut. U.S. shale oil producers are clicking their heels in delight, because oil prices were already high enough that production was increasing again and they are more than happy to take more market share back. Oil prices are up about 15% since the announcement.

But that’s near-term, and I don’t expect the oil rally has legs much beyond current levels. Breakevens have been rallying, though, for weeks. Some of it isn’t related to Trump at all but to other initiatives. One correspondent of mine, who owns an office-cleaning business, sent me this note today:

“Think of you often lately as I’m on the front line out here of the “instant” 25% increase in min wage.  Voters decided to move min wage out here from 8.05 to $10 jan 1.  Anyone close to 10/hr is looking for a big raise.  You want to talk about fast dollars, hand a janitor a 25% pay bump and watch the money move.  Big inflation numbers pending from the southwest.  I’m passing some through but market is understandably reacting slower than the legislation.”

Those increases will definitely increase measured inflation further, though by a lot less than it increases my friend’s costs. Again, it’s an arrow pointing the wrong way for inflation. And, really, there aren’t many pointing the right way. M2 growth continues to accelerate; it is now at 7.8% y/y. That is too fast for price stability, especially as rates rise.

All of these arrows add up to substantial moves in inflation breakevens. 10-year breaks are up 55bps since September and 30bps since the election. Ten-year inflation expectations as measured more accurately by inflation swaps are now at 2.33%. Almost all of that rise has been in expectations for core inflation. The oft-watched 5y5y forward inflation (which takes us away from that part of the curve which is most impacted by energy movements) is above 2.5% again and, while still below the “normal” 2.75%-3.25% range, is at 2-year highs (see Chart, source Bloomberg).

5y5y

So what is an investor to do – other than to study, which there is an excellent opportunity to do for the next three Mondays with a series of educational webinars I am conducting (see details below)? There are a few good answers. At 0.46%, 10-year TIPS still represent a poor real return but a guaranteed positive 1/2% real return beats what is available from many risky assets right now. Commodities remain cheap, although less so. You can invest in a company that specializes in inflation, if you are an accredited investor: Enduring Investments is raising a small amount of money for the management company in a 506(c) offering and is still taking subscriptions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to own inflation expectations directly – and in any event, the easy money there has been made.

What you don’t want to do if you are worried about inflation is own stocks as a “hedge.” Multiples move inversely with inflation.

Unlike prior equity market rallies, I understand this one. It is plausible to me that a very business-friendly President, who cuts corporate and personal taxes and reduces regulatory burdens, might be good for corporate earnings and even for the economic growth rate (although the bad things coming on trade will blunt some of that). But before getting too ebullient about the potential for higher corporate earnings, consider this: if Trump is business-friendly, then surely the opposite must be said about President Obama who did essentially the reverse. But what happened to equities? They tripled over his eight years (perhaps they “only” doubled, depending on when you measure from). That’s because lower interest rates and the Fed’s removal of safe securities in search of a stimulus from the “portfolio balance channel” caused equity multiples to expand drastically. So, valuations went from low, to extremely high. Multiples matter a lot, and right now even if you think corporate earnings over the next four years might be stronger than over the last four you still have to confront the fact that multiples are more likely to move in reverse. In short: if stocks could triple under Obama, there is no reason on earth they can’t halve under a “business-friendly” President. That’s not a prediction. (But here is one: equities four years from now will be no more than 20% higher than they are now, and might well be lower.)

Also, remember Ronald Reagan? He who created the great bull market of the 1980s? Well, stocks rallied in the November he was elected, too. The S&P closed November 1980 at 140.52. Over the next 20 months, the index lost 24%. It wasn’t until almost 1983 before Reagan had a bull market on his hands.


An administrative announcement about upcoming (free!) webinars:

On consecutive Mondays spanning December 5, December 12, and December 19 at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.

Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

November 17, 2016 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…buy my book about money and inflation, published in March 2016. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • CPI consensus is for a “soft” 0.2% on core. With 2 of the last 3 months quite low for one-off reasons, I am a little skeptical.
  • Rolling off an 0.196% m/m core from Oct 2015. Need about 0.23% to get y/y to tick back up to 2.3% on core.
  • Wow, 0.1% m/m on core and y/y goes DOWN to 2.1%! But not as impressive as that. To 3 decimals it’s 0.149% and 2.144%. Still, soft.
  • The doves just got another bullet.
  • Component breakdown very slow coming in….bls hasn’t posted data yet.
  • The overall number doesn’t mean much without the breakdown…still waiting on BLS.
  • Well, this is anticlimactic. BLS just not putting up the data. No data, no analysis.
  • Looks like a sharp fall m/m in some medical care commodities, but BLS report itself only gives 1-decimal rounding and no y/y comparisons.
  • BLS a half hour late now. Wonder if they’re all in “safe spaces” today.
  • Well, I see one reason. Apparently the BLS made an error in prescription drugs and actually revised all of the indices back to May.
  • …including the headline NSA figure. That’s an error with huge implications. It means the Tsy made wrong int payments on some TIPS.
  • NSA was 240.236, 241.038, 240.647, 240.853, and 241.428 for May-Sep. Now 240.229, 241.018, 240.628, 240.849, 241.428
  • Market guys telling me Tsy will use the old numbers for TIPS and derivatives. And hey! Look at that. BLS decided to release figures.
  • Gonna be an interesting breakdown actually. Surge in Housing and jump in Apparel, but plunge in Medical Care, Rec, & Communication.
  • Core services 3% from 3.2% y/y, core goods -0.5% from -0.6%.
  • OK! Housing 2.87% from 2.70%. BIG jump. Apparel 0.68% from -0.09%. Medical 4.26% from 4.89%. All big moves.
  • Primary Rents: 3.79% vs 3.70%; Owners’ Equiv Rent 3.45% vs 3.38%. Lodging away from home 4.37% vs 3.73%. All big jumps.
  • In Apparel (@notayesmansecon ), Women’s 0.27% vs -0.35%, but it was 1.57% 3 months ago. Girls tho: 3.06% vs 1.95%, vs -4.73% 3mo ago.
  • In Med Care: Drugs 5.24% vs 5.38% ok. Med Equip -0.79% vs -0.61% ok. Hospital Svcs 4.06% vs 5.64% !, Health Ins 6.93% vs 8.37% !.
  • Median should be about 0.16%, but median category looks like Midwest Urban OER so there’s seasonal adj I am just estimating.
  • That would keep Median at 2.49%, down from 2.54%. But all this looks temporary.
  • Core ex-housing dropped to 1.20%, lowest since last Nov. But it was as low as 0.87% last year.
  • Here is the summary: Rent of Shelter continues to rise, and actually faster than our traditional model. Services ex-Shelter decelerated.
  • Core goods continues to languish. But here’s the thing: Housing is stickier than the rest of Core Services.
  • So unless somehow hospital prices just started to drop, this isn’t as soothing as the headline.
  • That said, this is the most dovish Fed in history. If the market continues to price 90+% chance of hike, they will…but…
  • …but if we get more weak growth figures, the 2-month moderation in inflation will be enough for them to wait one more meeting.
  • Employment numbr is key. Meanwhile, infl is going to keep rising. Housing worries me. Higher wages might keep housing momentum going.
  • Here are the two categories that constitute 50% of CPI. Housing and Medical Care. Not soothing.

50pct

  • Here’s another 30%. Volatile categories we usually look through.

30pct

  • Last 20% of CPI are these 4 categories. They’re the ones to watch. Nothing too worrisome yet.

20pct

  • Here’s the FRED inflation heat map. Yeah, these were all charts that were SUPPOSED to be in my de-brief.

picture1

  • Compare distributions from last month (smaller bar on far left) and this month (bigger bar on far left).

picture2 picture3

  • More negatives, but some of the longest bar shifted higher too. More dispersion overall.

I keep coming back to the housing number. That jump is disturbing, because most folks expected housing to start decelerating. I thought it would level out too (though at a higher level than others felt – roughly where it is now, 3.5% on OER, but it’s showing no signs of fading). Here’s the reason why. It’s a chart of a model of Owners’ Equivalent Rent:

nominalhsng

This nominal model is simply the average of models based on lags of various measures of home prices. We were supposed to level off and decline some time ago…but certainly by now. And so far there’s no sign of that.

Our model is a bit more sophisticated, but if you rely on lags of nominal variables you’re going to get something like this because housing price increases have leveled off (that is, housing prices are still rising, but they’re rising at a constant, and slightly slower, rate than they were).

Now, here’s the worry. All of these models are calibrated during a time when inflation in general was low, so there’s a real chance that we’re not capturing feedback effects. That is to say, when broad inflation rises it pushes wages up faster, and that tends to support a higher level of housing inflation. We have a pretty coarse model of this feedback loop, and the upshot is that if you model housing inflation as a spread compared to overall or core inflation, rather than as a level, you get different dynamics – and dynamics that are more in tune with what seems to be happening to housing inflation. Now, it’s way too early to say that’s what’s happening here, but with housing at our forecast level and still evidently rising, it’s time to start watching.

*

An administrative announcement about upcoming (free!) webinars:

On consecutive Mondays spanning November 28, December 5, and December 12, at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.

Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.

 

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

October 18, 2016 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…buy my book about money and inflation, published in March 2016. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • CPI coming up in 14 minutes. Consensus on core is for a barely 0.2% print, (more like 0.15%). That would keep the y/y barely at 2.3%.
  • Remember to join me at 9am for a (FREE) live interactive video event at http://events.shindig.com/event/tmenduringinvestments
  • okay, core 0.1%, y/y to 2.2%. Yayy! And by the way it was only 0.11% so not close. y/y to 2.21%.
  • core rate is only 1.8% over last 3 months, vs 2.0% over last 6 and 2.2% over last 9. November tightening is wholly out.
  • Housing accelerated, Medical care roughly unch. Educ/Communication dropped. Getting breakdown now.
  • Headline was also soft. Market was 241.475 bid before the number and 241.428 was the print. Still rounded to 0.3% m/m though.
  • Bonds don’t love this as much as I thought they would. 10y note up about 4 ticks after the data.
  • 10y inflation swaps also didn’t do much. Close to 2% for first time in a long, long time.
  • Primary rents 3.70% from 3.78%, I was reading last month. But OER still up, 3.38% from 3.31%.
  • New and used cars -1.16% vs -0.95%, so more weakness there.
  • In Med care: Drugs 5.38% vs 4.59%, ouch. But prof svcs 3.22% vs 3.35%, and hospitals 5.64% vs 5.81%, and insurance 8.37% vs 9.10%.
  • But those are all retracements within trend.
  • Tuition ebbed to 2.32% vs 2.53%, and “information and info processing” -1.98% vs -0.90%. Those two add up to 7% of CPI.
  • I can see why bonds aren’t super excited. This isn’t a trend change. It looks like a pause.
  • ok, have to go get ready for the video event. See you at http://events.shindig.com/event/tmenduringinvestments … in about 10.
  • Probably good news from Median as well. I see 0.17%, bringing y/y down to 2.54% vs 2.61%. But hsg is median category so I may be off.

I covered some stuff in the Shindig event, but it’s worth showing a couple of charts. Here is health insurance. You can see the little drop this month isn’t exactly something that would make you say “whew! Glad that’s over!”

medins

This next chart, also in medical care, is the year/year change in the cost of medicinal drugs (prescription and non-prescription). Also, not soothing. And these are where the important things are happening in CPI right now.

medicinaldrugs

Finally, the big momma: Owners’ Equivalent Rent. This is not looking like it’s rolling over! And if it’s not rolling over, it’s not likely that inflation overall is rolling over.

oer

In short, the monthly weakness was enough to sooth the Fed and take them off the table for November. And, unless the next figure is really, really bad – like over 0.3% – then they’ll still say “two of the last four are soft.” The December Fed meeting, for what it’s worth, is the day before the CPI is released. The Fed won’t know that number in advance, although nowadays with “nowcasting” they’ll have a clue. But at this point, unless next month’s CPI is very high and/or the Payrolls number is very strong, I think a rate hike in December is also unlikely.

That’s good for markets in the short run. But inflation is rising, and that’s bad for markets in the medium-run!

Why Does the Fed Focus on a Flawed PCE?

On Friday, I was on Bloomberg TV’s “What’d You Miss?” program to talk about the PCE inflation report from Friday morning. You can see most of the interview here.

I like the segment – Scarlet Fu, Oliver Renick, and Julie Hyman asked good questions – but we had to compress a fairly technical discussion into only 5 or 6 minutes. As a result, the segment might be a little “wonky” for some people, and I thought it might be helpful to present and expand the discussion here.

The PCE report itself was not surprising. Core PCE came in as-expected, at 1.7%. This is rising, but remains below the Fed’s 2% target for that index. I think it is interesting to look at how PCE differs from CPI to see why PCE remains below 2%. After all, core PCE is the only inflation index that is still below 2% (see chart, source Bloomberg). And, as we will see, this raises other questions about whether PCE is a reasonable target for Fed policy.

fourmeasuresThere are several differences between CPI and PCE, but the main reasons they differ can be summarized simply: the CPI measures what the consumer buys, out-of-pocket; the PCE measures not only household expenditures but also spending on behalf of consumers, including such things as employer-purchased insurance and some important government expenditures. As pointed out by the BEA on this helpful page, “the CPI is based on a survey of what households are buying; the PCE is based on surveys of what businesses are selling.”

This leads to two major types of differences: weight effects and scope effects.

Weight effects occur because the PCE is a broader index covering more economic activity. Consider housing, which is one of the more steady components of CPI. Primary rents and owners’-equivalent rent constitute together some 32% of the CPI and those two components have been rising at a blended rate of about 3.4% recently. However, the weight of rent-of-shelter in PCE is only 15.5%. This difference accounts for roughly half of the difference between core CPI and core PCE, and is persistent at the moment because of the strength in housing inflation.

However, more intriguing are the “scope” differences. These arise because certain products and services aren’t only bought in different quantities compared to what businesses sell (like in the case of housing), but because the two surveys include and exclude different items in the same categories. So, certain items are said to be “in scope” for CPI but “out of scope” for PCE, and vice-versa. One of the places this is most important is in the category of health care.

Most medical care is not paid for out-of-pocket by the consumer, and therefore is excluded from the CPI. For most people, medical care is paid for by insurance, which insurance is usually at least partly paid for by their employer. Also, the Federal government through Medicare and Medicaid provides a large quantity of medical care goods and services that are different from what consumers buy directly – at least, purchased at different prices than those available to consumers!).

This scope difference is enormously important, and over time accounts for much of the systematic difference between core CPI and core PCE. The chart below (source: BEA, BLS) illustrates that Health Care inflation in the PCE essentially always is lower than Medical Care inflation in the CPI.

pceandcpiMoreover, thanks in part to Obamacare the divergence between the medical care that the government buys and the medical care consumers buy directly has been widening. The following chart shows the spread between the two lines above:

pceandcpispreadIt is important to realize that this is not coincidental, but likely causal. It is because Medicare and other ACA control structures are restraining prices in certain areas (and paid by certain parties) that prices to the consumer are rising more rapidly. Thus, while all of these inflation measures are likely to continue higher, the spread between core CPI and core PCE is probably going to stay wider than normal for a while.

Now we get to the most interesting question of all. Why do we care about PCE in the first place? We care because the Fed uses core PCE as a policy target, rather than the CPI (despite the fact that it has ways to measure market CPI expectations, but no way to measure PCE expectations). They do so because the PCE covers a wider swath of the economy. To the Fed, this means the PCE is more useful as a broader measure.

But hang on! The extra parts that PCE covers are, substantially, in parts of the economy which are not competitive. Medicare-bought prices are determined, at least in the medium-term, by government fiat. The free market does not operate where the government treads in this way. The more-poignant implication is that there is no reason to suspect that these prices would respond to monetary policy! Ergo, it seems crazy to focus on PCE, rather than CPI (or one of the many more-useful flavors of CPI), when setting monetary policy. This is one case where I think the Fed isn’t being malicious; they’re just not being thoughtful enough.

Every “core” inflation indicator, including the ones above (and you can throw in wages and the Employment Cost Index as well!), is at or above the Fed’s target even accounting for the typical spread between the CPI and PCE. Not only that, they are above the target and rising. The Fed is most definitely “behind the curve.” Now, as I have noted before in this space I don’t think there’s anything the Fed can do about it, as raising rates without restraining reserves will only serve to accelerate inflation further since it will not entail a slowing of money supply growth. But it seems to me that, for starters, monetary policymakers should focus on indices that are at least in principle (and in normal times) more responsive to monetary policy!

 

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

September 16, 2016 7 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation, published in March 2016. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • OK, 8 minutes to CPI. Street forecast is 0.14-0.15%, so a “soft” 0.2% or a “firm” 0.2% on core.
  • y/y core wouldn’t fall with that b/c last August’s core CPI was 0.12%. In fact, a clean 0.2% would cause the y/y to round up to 2.3%.
  • Either way, Fed is at #inflation target based on historical CPI/PCE spread. And arguably above it if you rely (as we do) on median.
  • Quick commercial message: our crowdfunder site for the capital raise for Enduring Investments closes in 2 weeks.
  • Commercial message #2: sign up for my articles at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com! And #3: my book!
  • Fed’s job just got a lot harder, with weaker growth but a messy inflation print. 0.25% on core, y/y rises to 2.30%.
  • And looking forward BTW, for the balance of the year we’re rolling off 0.19, 0.20, 0.18, and 0.15 from last year.
  • …so it wouldn’t be hard to get a 2.4% or even 2.5% out of core by year-end.
  • Housing rose to 2.58% y/y from 2.45%. Medical Care to 4.92% from 3.99%. Yipe. The big stories get bigger.
  • checking the markets…whaddya know?! they don’t like it.
  • starting to drill down now. Core services 3.2% from 3.1%; core goods -0.5% from -0.6%.
  • Core goods should start to gradually rise here because the dollar has remained flat for a while.
  • also worth pointing out, reflecting on presidential race: protectionism is inflationary. Unwinding the globalization dividend=bad.
  • Take apparel. Globalizing production lowered prices for 15 years 1994-2009.

apparel

  • Drilling down. Primary rents were 3.78% from 3.77%, no big deal. OER 3.31% from 3.26%, Lodging away from home 3.31% from 1.57%.
  • Lodging away from home was partly to blame for last month’s miss low. Retraced all of that this month.
  • Motor vehicles was a drag, decelerating further to -0.95% from -0.75%.
  • Medical Care: Drugs 4.67% from 3.77%. Professional svcs 3.35% from 2.86%. Hospitals 5.81% from 4.41%. Insurance 9.13% vs 7.78%
  • Insert obvious comment about effect of ACA here.
  • y/y med care highest since spike end of 2007.

medcare

  • CPI Medical – professional services highest since 2008.

prof

  • On the good news side, CPI for Tuition declined to 2.53% from 2.67%. So there’s that.
  • Bottom line: can’t put lipstick on a pig and make it pretty. This is an ugly CPI report. It wasn’t one-offs.
  • I STILL think the Fed doesn’t raise rates next week. But this does make it a bit harder at the margin.
  • Core ex-housing was 1.52%. It was higher than that for one month earlier this year (Feb), but otherwise not since 2013.

coreexshelter

As I noted, this is an ugly report. The sticky components, the ones that have momentum, continue to push inexorably higher (in the case of housing), or aggressively higher (in the case of medical care). The rise in medical care is especially disturbing. While core was being elevated mainly by shelter, it was easier to dismiss. “Yes, it’s a heavily-weighted component but it’s just one component and home-owners don’t actually pay OER out of pocket.” But medical care accelerating (especially a broad-based rise in medical care inflation), makes the inflation case harder to ignore. It is also really hard to argue – since there is a clearly-identifiable cause, and a strong economic case for why medical care prices are rising faster – that medical care inflation is resulting from some seasonal quirk or one-off (like the sequester, which temporarily pushed medical inflation down).

What makes this even more amazing is that inflation markets are priced for core and headline inflation to compound at 1.5%-1.75% for basically the next decade. That’s simply not going to happen, and the chance of not only a miss but a big miss is nonzero. I continue to be flabbergasted at the low prices of TIPS relative to nominal bonds. Sure, a real return of 0% isn’t exciting…but your nominal  bonds are almost certainly going to do worse over the next decade. I can’t imagine why anyone owns nominal bonds at these levels when inflation-linked bonds are an option.

Now, about the Fed.

This report helps the hawks on the Committee. But there aren’t many of them, and the central power structure at the Federal Reserve and at pretty much every other central bank around the world is very, very dovish. Arguably, the Fed has never been led by a more dovish Chairman. I have long believed that Yellen will need to be dragged kicking and screaming to a rate hike. Recent growth data show what appears to be a downshift in growth in an expansion that is already pretty long in the tooth, so her position is strong…unless she cares about inflation. There is no evidence that Yellen cares very much about inflation. I think the Fed believes inflation is low; if it’s rising, it isn’t going to rise very far because “expectations are anchored,” and if it does rise very far they can easily push it lower later. I think they are wrong on all three counts, but I haven’t recently held a voting position on the Committee. Or, actually, ever. Ergo, a Fed hike in my view remains very unlikely, even with this data.

Looking forward, Core and Median inflation look set to continue to rise. PCE will continue to drag along behind them, but there is no question inflation is rising at this point unless everything except PCE is wrong. In the US, core inflation has not been above 3% for twenty years. That is going to change in 2017. And that is not good news for stocks or bonds.

allup

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