Is there anything different about the current downturn in stocks, already two whole days old?
It is difficult to get terribly concerned about this latest setback when in one sense it is right on schedule. The modest down-swings have occurred at such regular intervals that the chart of the VIX looks quite a bit like an EKG (see chart, source Bloomberg).
A rise in the VIX to the 19-21 zone happens approximately quarterly, with minor peaks at the same intervals. Eerie, ain’t it?
So is there anything particularly ominous about the current pullback? There is no clear catalyst – I am reading that the selloff is being “led” by tech shares, but the tech-heavy indices look to me as though they have fallen similarly (adjusted for the fact that they have higher vol to begin with. The S&P is down around 3%, and the NDX is down 4.6% over the same period. To be sure, the NDX’s recent peak wasn’t a new high for the year, and it has penetrated the 100-day moving average on the downside, but it doesn’t look unusual to me.
Nor do the economic data look very different to me. The Payrolls number on Friday was in line with expectations, and beat it comfortably when including the upward revisions to the prior two months. The generation of 200k new jobs is not exciting, but it is pretty standard for a normal expansion. My main concern had been that the “hours worked” figure in the employment report had plunged last month, but it rebounded this month and assuaged my concerns (although Q1 growth is probably still going to be low when it is reported later this month, it will be reasonably explained away by the weather).
Two things are different now from previous setbacks, but one is positive and one is negative. They are related, but one is somewhat bullish for the economy and the other is somewhat bearish for risky assets.
We will start with the negative, because it segues nicely into the positive. It is nothing new, of course, to point out that the Fed is tapering, and will be steadily continuing to taper over the next several meetings. Despite the well-orchestrated chorus of “tapering is not tightening,” such Fed action clearly is a “negative loosening” of policy – if you don’t want to call that tightening, then invent a new language, but in English it is tightening.
Now, I never want to short sell the notion that President Clinton taught us all, including market denizens, that if you say something ridiculous often enough, it comes to be regarded as the truth. At times, the market meme clearly has kept the market moving upward even though rational analysis argued for a different outcome. For example, in the early part of the equity bear market that started in 2000, the market meme was that this was a “corporate governance” crisis or a “tech selloff”, when in fact it was a broad-based and deep bear market. In the more-recent credit crisis, it started off as a “subprime” crisis even though it was clearly much more, from the beginning.
So I am loathe to bet about how long markets can run on air before the market meme falters. The challenge, obviously, is being able to distinguish between times when the market meme is correct; when the market meme is incorrect, but harmless; and when the market meme is incorrect, and obfuscating a deeper, more dangerous reality.
“Tapering is not tightening” is one of those thoughts that, while not as serious as “this is a corporate governance problem” or “this is about subprime,” is also clearly mistaken, and possibly dangerous. The reason it might actually be dangerous is because the effect of tightening doesn’t happen because people are thinking about it. Monetary policy doesn’t act primarily through the medium of confidence, any more than gravity does. And, just as gravity is still acting on those aboard the “Vomit Comet,” monetary tightening still acts to diminish liquidity (or, more precisely, the growth rate of liquidity) even when it appears to be doing nothing special at the moment.
The eventual effect of diminished liquidity is to push asset prices lower, and (ironically) also may be to push money velocity higher since velocity is correlated with interest rates.
Now, don’t be overly alarmed, because even as Fed liquidity provision is slowing down there is no sign that transactional money growth is about to slow. Indeed (and here is the positive difference), commercial bank credit has begun to rise again after remaining nearly static for approximately a year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). (As an aside, I corrected the pre-2010 part of this chart to reflect the effect of recategorizations of credit as of March 2010 that caused a jump in the official series).
If you look carefully at this chart, by the way, you will see something curious. Notice that during QE2, as the monetary base rose commercial bank credit stagnated – and then began to rise as soon as the Fed stopped buying Treasuries. It rose steadily during late 2011 and for most of 2012. Then, commercial bank credit began to flatline as soon as the Fed began to buy Treasuries again (recall that QE3 started with mortgages for a few months before the Fed added Treasuries to the purchase order), and began to climb again at just about the same time that the taper began in December.
I don’t have any idea why these two series should be related in this way. I am unsure why expanding the monetary base would “crowd out” commercial bank credit in any way. Perhaps the Fed began QE because they forecast that commercial bank credit would flatline (in QE1, credit was obviously in decline), so the causality runs the other way…although that gives a lot of credit to forecasters who have not exhibited much ability to forecast anything else. But regardless of the reason, the fact that bank credit is expanding again – at an 8% annualized pace over the last quarter, the highest rate since 2008 – is positive for markets.
Of course, an expansion and/or a market rally built on an expansion of credit is not entirely healthy in itself, as to some extent it is borrowing from the future. But if credit can expand moderately, rather than rapidly, then the “gravity” of the situation might be somewhat less dire for markets. Yes, I still believe stocks are overvalued and have been avoiding them in preference to commodities (the DJ-UBS is 7.3% ahead in that race, this year), but we can all hope to avoid a repeat of recent calamities.
The problem with that cheerful conclusion is that it depends so much on the effective prosecution of monetary policy not just from the Federal Reserve but from other monetary policymakers around the world. I will have more to say on that, later this week.
The following is a summary and extension of my post-Employment tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy (and tell your friends!)
- 175k +25k revisions, nice jobs figure. Oh, but Unemployment up to 6.7%. Love how these seem to always provide opposite surprises.
- One of my favorite labor charts. Want a Job Now, versus the Unemployment Rate:
- 1 way to add more jobs is to have em all work less. Is this an Obamacare effect since part-timers don’t count?
- …regardless, fewer hours worked –>lower output. Expect more downward revisions to Q1 growth ests. Q2 too, if this is ACA.
- If we all end up with jobs, but we’re all working only 30 hours per week, is that better than if only 93% have jobs, working 40?
It will be interesting over the next few months to see if the Hours Worked figures are weather-related (as will be claimed). I suspect that for the most part, they are not. Notice that if there was any weather effect over the last few years, it is not noticeable in the data (nor is it apparent in the unrevised data, incidentally). So, while this year’s weather was colder and snowier than usual, I am skeptical that this can account for more than a small downtick in the hours worked figures.
I rather suspect that the drop is more likely to be attributable to the definition of what constitutes a “full time worker” under the Affordable Care Act. And the question I asked rhetorically above is actually worth thinking about seriously because, looked at one way, the ACA is a jobs program: it will tend to cause businesses to cut back on full-time work and replace those people with more part-time work. The effect should be to cause the Jobless Rate to decline along with Hours Worked. But is that a good thing (because more people have some job) or a bad thing (because people who formerly had a full-time job now only have a part-time job)?
That’s a normative question, not a positive question. But I would think that one effect would be to push more people from what we think of today as “middle class” to lower-middle class, while perhaps raising some who were previously in poverty to be also lower-middle class. I don’t think this was one of the purposes of the law – because frankly, it doesn’t seem that much economic thought went into the design of the ACA – but it is interested to reflect on.
I don’t know what to make of the “Want a Job Now” chart. Let me explain that series, first. “Not in the Labor Force” implies that these people aren’t even looking for jobs, because if they were then they would be counted as unemployed. But, despite the fact that they are not looking, they would like to have a job and would take one if it was offered. While the Unemployment Rate is falling, almost as many people are in the “not in labor force but want a job now” category as were in that category at the beginning of 2011. Why aren’t these people looking?
A fair number of these workers, some 2.3mm of them, are described as “marginally attached” because they’ve looked for work in the last 12 months, and want a job, but haven’t looked in the last 4 weeks so that they aren’t counted as part of the work force. And those are the ones who are holding the category up (see Chart, source Bloomberg).
Some of those workers are not looking because they are “discouraged”, but that only represents about 750k of the 2.3 million or so in this category (and discouraged workers have fallen from about 1 million in 2011, so the decline is consistent with the Unemployment Rate).
So, we are left with a category of people who have looked for work in the past, and would take a job if it was offered, but haven’t looked in the last month. Or the month before. Or the month before. But, at some point, they had at least done a cursory search of the wanted ads.
I think the story of these “marginally attached” workers is worth studying. Are these structurally-unemployed people, who should be counted as such? Are they incentivized to remain out of the work force due to governmental benefits they receive? Or are they, and the decline in the labor force participation rate generally, telling us that the jobs aren’t coming back (or that the newly-created jobs are of lower quality than the old jobs)? I don’t know, but none of the answers is good. We want to see this number decline.
The story of the declining hours worked is potentially much more serious, though – partly because it is a new effect. The nation’s total output is number of employees, times average hours worked, times output per hour. If the number of employees is rising, but they’re working less, then unless productivity rises the total output (that is, GDP) won’t grow very quickly. This could be an early recession sign, or it could be a consequence of the ACA…or it could be a sign that the ACA is pushing a fairly non-robust economy towards the recessionary tipping point. Again, none of these things are good.
So, while the stock market roars its approval about this Employment number, I growl my displeasure. But this is normal.
In normal times, by which I mean before actions of the Federal Reserve became the only data point that mattered, the monthly ISM report was important because it was the first broad-based look at the most-recent month’s data.
Now that the Fed’s taper has begun – right about the time that the uncertainty of the impact of Obamacare implementation was at its peak, curiously enough – the ISM data seems to have taken on importance once again. I must say that I did not see that coming, but since guessing at the Fed’s actions every six weeks and ignoring all intervening data was so all-fired boring, I suppose I am glad for it. Looking at economic data and trying to figure out what is happening in the economy is more like analysis and less like being on The People’s Court trying to rule on a he-said, she-said case where the hes and shes are Federal Reserve officials. And that is welcome.
That being said, the January ISM report isn’t one I would necessarily place at the head of the class of importance, mainly because it is January. Still, it was an interesting one with the Manufacturing PMI dropping 5.2 points, matching the steepest decline since October 2008. The New Orders subindex plunged to 51.2 versus 64.4 last month, and Employment and Production indices also declined significantly. It’s clearly bad news, but I would be careful ascribing too much value to any January number – especially one based on a survey.
Also standing out in the report was the increase in the (non-seasonally adjusted) “Prices Paid” subcomponent, to 60.5. the jump was initially somewhat surprising to me because as the chart below – which I tweeted shortly after the number – seems to show, we have had a jump in Prices Paid that is not being driven by a concomitant jump in gasoline prices – and Prices Paid is predominantly driven by gasoline prices.
However, as I noted in that tweet, the Prices Paid index is measuring the rate of change of prices (the question posed to purchasing managers is whether prices are increasing faster, slower, or about the same as the month before), so just eyeballing it may not be enough. The chart below plots the 3-month change in gasoline prices versus the ISM Prices Paid subindex. What you can see is that the first chart is slightly deceiving. The change in gasoline prices has accelerated – back to zero after having been declining since February of 2013. And “unchanged” gasoline prices is roughly consistent with about 60 on the Prices Paid indicator. So, this isn’t as much of a surprise as it looked like, initially.
Still, whether it was the data or because of continued concern about emerging markets (though the S&P fell nearly as far in percentage terms as did the EEM today, leaving open the question of which is following which), stocks didn’t enter February with much cheer. But never fear, I am sure there is “cash on the sidelines” that will come charging to the rescue soon.
The past week has given a great illustration of one important difference between the price behavior of equities and commodities. That is that stocks are negatively skewed and positively kurtotic, while commodities are positively skewed and negatively kurtotic. That is to say, in layman’s terms, that stocks tend to crash downward, while commodities more frequently crash upwards. This happens because what tends to drive severe movements in commodities is shortages, where the short-term supply curve becomes basically vertical so that any increase in demand pushes up prices sharply. Exhibit one is Natural Gas (see chart, source Bloomberg), where inventories were above normal as recently as October and now are the lowest in a decade.
Exhibit two is Coffee (see chart, source Bloomberg), where drought in Brazil has lifted coffee prices 8-9% today and 35% from the five-year lows set in November. There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, I understand, but there may be less this year.
In my view, stocks remain very expensive even after this quick 5.75% loss (-2.3% today). Obviously, less so! Commodities have outperformed stocks by basically remaining unchanged, but remain very cheap. Bonds have rallied, as money has shifted from stocks to bonds. This is fine, except that 10-year notes at 2.57% with median inflation at 2.1% and rising is not a position to own, only to rent. The question is, when investors decide that it’s time to take their profits in bonds, do they go to cash, back to equities, or to commodities? If you are one of the people mulling this very question, I have another chart to show you. It is the simple ratio of the S&P to the DJ-UBS (source: Bloomberg).
I think that makes where I stand fairly clear. If both stocks and commodities represent ownership in real property, and both have roughly the same long-term historical returns (according to Gorton & Rouwenhorst), then the ratio of current prices should be a coarse (and I stress coarse) relative-value indicator, right?
But let’s shift from the long-view lens back to the short view, now that a retreating Fed makes this more worthwhile. I am not sanguine about the outlook for stocks, obviously (and here’s one for the technicians: for the first time in years, exchange volume in January was higher than last year’s January volume). However, bulls may get a brief reprieve later this week when the Employment Report is released. Yes, it’s another January data point that ought to be ignored or at least averaged with December’s figure. And that’s the point here. Last month’s Employment Report showed only a 74k rise in Nonfarm Payrolls. That weakness was likely due to the fact that the seasonal adjustments (which dwarf the net number of jobs, in December and January) assumed more year-end and holiday hiring than actually occurred. But the flip side of that is that if fewer were hired in December, it probably means fewer were fired in January. Thus, I expect that the 185k consensus guess for new jobs is likely to be too low and we will have a bullish surprise on Friday. That might help the bulls get a foothold…but it is a long three trading days away.
Tomorrow’s Employment Report offers something it hasn’t offered in a very long time: the chance to actually influence the course of monetary policy, and therefore markets.
Now that the taper has started, its continuation and/or acceleration is very “data dependent.” While many members of the FOMC are expecting for the taper to be completely finished by the middle of this year (according to the minutes released yesterday), investors understand that view is contingent on continued growth and improvement. This is the first Payrolls number in a very long time that could plausibly influence ones’ view of the likely near-term course of policy.
I don’t think that, in general, investors should pay much attention to this report in December or in January. There is far too much noise, and the seasonal adjustments are much larger than the net underlying change in jobs. Accordingly, your opinion of whether the number is “high” or “low” is really an opinion about whether the seasonal adjustment factors were “low” or “high.” Yes, there is a science to this but what we also know from science is that the rejection of a null hypothesis gets very difficult as the standard deviation around the supposed mean increases. And, for this number and next months’ number, the standard deviation is very high.
That will not prevent markets from trading on the basis of whatever number is reported by the BLS tomorrow. Especially in fixed-income, a figure away from consensus (197k on Payrolls, 7.0% on the Unemployment Rate will likely provoke a big trade. On a strong figure, especially coupled with a decline in the Unemployment Rate below 7%, you can expect bonds to take an absolute hiding. And, although it’s less clear with equities because of the lingering positive momentum from December, I’d expect the same for stocks – a strong number implies the possibility of a quicker taper, less liquidity, and for some investors that will be sufficient sign that it’s time to head for the hills.
I think a “weak” number will help fixed-income, and probably quite a lot, but I am less sure how positive it will be for the equity market.
In any event, welcome back to volatility.
Meanwhile, with commodities in full flight, inflation breakevens are shooting higher. Some of this is merely seasonal – over the last 10 years, January has easily been the best month for breakevens with increases in the 10-year breakeven in 7 of the 10 years with an overall average gain of 15bps – and some of it is due to the reduction of bad carry as December and January roll away, making TIPS relatively more attractive. Ten-year breakevens have risen about 18bps over the last month, which is not inconsistent with the size of those two effects. Still, as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, 10-year breakevens are back to the highest level since before the summer shellacking.
Indeed, according to a private metric we follow, TIPS are now back almost to fair value (they only very rarely get absolutely rich) compared to nominal bonds. This means that the benefit from being long breakevens at this level solely consists of the value that comes from the market’s mis-evaluating the likelihood of increasing inflation rather than decreasing inflation – that is, a speculation – and no longer gets a “following wind” from the fact that TIPS themselves were cheap outright. I still prefer TIPS to nominal Treasuries, but that’s because I think inflation metrics will increase from here and, along with those metrics, interest in inflation products will recover and push breakevens higher again.
Note: The following blog post originally appeared on February 3, 2011 (with an additional reference that was referred to in a February 17, 2012 post) and is part of a continuing year-end ‘best of’ series, calling up old posts that some readers may have not seen before. I have removed some of the references to then-current market movements and otherwise cut the article down to the interesting bits. You can read the original post here.
Rising energy prices, if they rise for demand-related reasons, needn’t be a major concern. Such a price rise acts as one of the “automatic stabilizers” and, while it pushes up consumer prices, it also acts to slow the economy. This helps reduce the need for the monetary authority to meddle (not that anything has stopped them any time recently). It doesn’t need to respond to higher (demand-induced) energy prices, because those higher prices are serving the usual rationing function of higher prices vis a vis scarce resources.
But when energy prices (or, to a lesser extent, food prices) rise because of supply-side constraints – say, reduced traffic through the Suez Canal, or fewer oil workers manning the pumps in a major oil exporting region – then that’s extremely difficult for the central bank to deal with. More-costly energy will slow the economy inordinately, and higher prices also translate into higher inflation readings so that if the central bank responds to the economic slowdown they risk adding to the inflationary pressures.
One of the ways that we can restrain ourselves from getting too excited, too soon, about the upturn in employment is to reflect on the fact that surveys still indicate considerable uncertainty and pessimism among the people who are vying for those jobs (or clinging to the ones they have, hoping they don’t have to compete for those scarce openings). This is illustrated by the apparent puzzle that Unit Labor Costs (reported yesterday) remain under serious pressure and Productivity continues to rise at the same time that profit margins are already extremely fat. Rising productivity is normal early in an expansion, but the bullish economists tell us that the expansion started a year and a half ago. We’re about halfway through the duration of the average economic expansion (if you believe the bulls). And fat profit margins are not as normal early in an expansion.
Now, we don’t measure Productivity and Unit Labor Costs very well at all. Former Fed Chairman Greenspan used to say that we need 5 years of data before we can spot a change in trend, and he may be low. But it seems plausible that there remains downward pressure on wages. Call it the “industrial reserve army of the unemployed” effect. While job prospects are improving, they are apparently not improving enough yet for employed people to start pressing their corporate overlords to spread more of the profits around to the proletariat.
Fear not, however, that this restrains inflation. The evidence that wage pressures lead to price pressures (and conversely, the absence of wage pressures suggest an absence of price pressures) is basically non-existent. Let me present two quick charts that make the point simply.
The chart above (Source for data: Bloomberg) shows the relationship between the Unemployment Rate and the (contemporaneous) year-on-year rise in Average Hourly Earnings. I have divided the chart into four phases: 1975-1982 (a period which runs from roughly the end of wage-and-price controls in mid-1974 until the abandoning of the monetarist experiment near the end of 1982), a “transition period” of 1983-1984, the period of 1985-2007 (the “modern pre-crisis experience”), and a rump period of the crisis until now. Several interesting results obtain.
First of all, there should be no surprise that that the supply curve for labor has the shape it does: when the pool of available labor is low, the price of that labor rises more rapidly; when the pool of available labor is high, the price of that labor rises more slowly. Labor is like any other good or service; it gets cheaper if there’s more of it for sale! What is interesting as well is that abstracting from the “transition period,” the slopes of these two regressions are very similar: in each case, a 1% decline in the Unemployment Rate increases wage gains by about ½% per annum. Including the rump period changes the slope of the relationship slightly, but not the sign. This may well be another “transition” period leading to a permanent shift in the tradeoff of Unemployment versus wage inflation.
But clearly, then, when Unemployment is high we can safely conclude that since there are no wage pressures there should be no price pressures, right?
The second chart puts paid to that myth. It shows the same periods, but plots changes in core CPI, rather than Hourly Earnings, as a function of the Unemployment Rate. This is the famous “Phillips Curve” that postulates an inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation. The problem with this elegant and intuitive theory is that the facts, inconveniently, refuse to provide much support. [Note: the above chart is very similar to one appearing in this excellent article by economist John Cochrane, which appeared in the Fall of 2011.]
Why does it make sense that wages can be closely related to unemployment, but inflation is not? Well, labor is just one factor of production, and retail prices are not typically set on a labor-cost-plus basis but rather reflect (a) the cost of labor, (b) the cost of capital, (c) the proportion of labor to capital, and importantly (d) the rate of substitution between labor and capital. This last point is crucial, and it is important to realize that the rate of labor/capital substitution is not constant (nor even particularly stable). When capital behaves more like a substitute for labor, a plant owner can keep customer prices in check and sustain margins at the same time by deepening capital. This shows up as increased productivity, and causes the relationship between wages and end product prices to decouple. Indeed, in the second chart above the R2s for both periods is…zero!
This isn’t some discovery that no one has stumbled upon before. In a wonderful paper published in 2000, Gregory Hess and Mark Schweitzer at the Cleveland Fed wrote that
It turns out that the vast majority of the published evidence suggests that there is little reason to believe that wage inflation causes price inflation. In fact, it is more often found that price inflation causes wage inflation. Our recent research, which updates and expands on the current literature, also provides little support for the view that wage gains cause inflation. Moreover, wage inflation does a very poor job of predicting price inflation throughout the 1990s, while money growth and productivity growth sometimes do a better job. The policy conclusion to be drawn is that wage inflation, whether measured using labor compensation, wages, or unit-labor-costs growth, is not a reliable predictor of inflationary pressures. Inflation can strike unexpectedly without any evidence from the labor market.
The real mystery is why million-dollar economists, who have access to the exact same data, continue to propagate the myth that wage-push inflation exists. If it does, there is no evidence of it.
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The data has started to arrive.
Tuesday’s Employment report (gosh, it seems strange to write that) was weaker-than-expected with Payrolls +148k versus expectations for +180k. As I wrote back at the beginning of August, something in the realm of 200k is about as good as you’re going to get, so we’re not very short of that…we’re just very far short of what the consensus seems to expect we’re eventually going to get. No doubt, 148k isn’t 200k, and the six-month average of 163k is the lowest of the year. But it is also not a calamity, on the growth front.
And yet, 10-year interest rates are 50bps below the highs of early September. (Real yields are actually down 60bps, which means inflation expectations have risen slightly during that period). Interest rates are down because everyone knows that the trajectory of policy, with Yellen as likely to be the next Chairman of the Fed, is going to be “lower for longer.” But why? This goes back to the observation that growth is not far short of the best that it is likely to get. The only point of “lower for longer” is to support asset markets – housing, equity, and the bond market whence our nation’s interest burden is determined – and it seems to be doing this quite well. The alternate theory is that the Fed still fears deflation, despite all evidence (and copious theory) that the risk arrow is pointing in the other direction. In neither case does the Federal Reserve come out looking particularly on top of things, but more and more we are expecting that from Washington whether the officials are elected or appointed.
I really thought at one point that the bond market was going to be where the profligate monetary policy was going to first come unglued, but I am now wondering if it isn’t that denizen of hair-trigger shooters, the foreign exchange markets. The dollar index is plumbing the lows of the last two years, although it remains considerably above the lows of 2008 and 2011. As the chart below shows, the dollar has actually left behind the commodity markets where, as we know, investors suffer from the delusion that growth is more important for the nominal price of commodities than is the overall price level. Weak-ish growth means that commodities are only weakly above its August lows, although the buck is quite a bit lower since then.
I don’t think we can learn much right now watching stocks, where investors are simply playing Icarus. We all know where it leads, but any words of warning are laughed off as they soar with Fed-induced wings. Of course they’ll turn away in time!
I think housing is interesting. Having gotten back barely to fair, or maybe just a smidge cheap, compared to incomes, housing is expensive once again. But it isn’t in bubble territory yet, at least in the sense that when it cracks it could cause the carnage it did once before.
Bonds are on tenuous footing. With the consensus currently in place that the Fed might keep QE in place more or less forever, there are a lot of ways to disappoint the status quo: Fed speakers might suddenly try to start sounding stern again and imply that QE might not last forever; inflation might continue to tick higher and make obvious the unsustainability of the current course; or growth numbers might surprise to the high side.
The barbarians are already overrunning the dollar, and I suspect only the fact that Japanese monetary policy is far worse is keeping the descent slow. But people plugged into the supply and demand for currency are probably most likely to understand what happens when too much is supplied (hint: it’s the same thing that happens to the price of corn when too much corn is supplied). For a while, monetary authorities have been chasing each other to see which could be the least respectable, but it now seems that Japan wins that race and the US is likely to place.
As the chart above shows, reasons for increasing exposure to broad-based commodity indices (especially those that do not overweight energy, as the GSCI does) continue to accumulate.
There is much more data to come, of course, but to me it seems the battle lines have been more or less drawn in this fashion.
Now, now, children! Stop fighting! This is unbecoming!
It is apparent now that the disagreements in the FOMC – while nothing new – are becoming more significant and the hurly-burly is spilling into the public eye. It is somewhat amazing to me that the Fed is allowing this argument to be conducted in public (traditionally, all remarks by Fed officials are first vetted by the Chairman’s office). Today Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher actually questioned the Fed’s credibility! This article is worth reading, and not just for the part where Fisher says that Yellen is “dead wrong on policy.” It’s also fascinating that Fisher attributed the decision to delay the taper to “a perceived ‘tenderness’” in the housing recovery.
Below is a chart (source: Enduring Investments) of the ratio of median existing home sale prices to median household income. If this is “tenderness” in a recovery, it only shows a lack of knowledge of history: this is the second highest ratio of home prices to income we have since this particular data begins…and the first highest ratio sunk the global economy for a half-decade and counting.
On the other side of the fence were the New York Fed’s Bill Dudley and the Atlanta Fed’s Dennis Lockhart, who lamented that (Dudley) there has been no pickup in the economy’s “forward momentum” and asked (Lockhart) “Is America losing its economic mojo?” These questions, and the result of these questions during the recent FOMC meeting, illustrate two points. First, that the bar for removing never-before-seen levels of monetary accommodation has been raised so high that doves believe it is appropriate to keep the foot on the accelerator until growth is drastically above-average. As I illustrated back at the beginning of August, it is unreasonable to expect more than about 200,000 new jobs per month to be created by the economy. Repairing all of the damage is simply going to take time. We would all love to see 5% growth, but is the Fed’s job really to make sure that happens, or to try and manage the downside (or, as I personally believe, to merely manage the price level)?
The second point that the Fisher/Dudley/Lockhart comments illustrate is that the doves at the Fed are clearly in control. The hawks were completely unable even to get a marginal tapering, although the Fed had clearly indicated previously that such a taper was likely to happen.
It is a Dudley/Bernanke/Yellen Fed (and they have allies too!), and anyone who thinks that the Fed is abruptly going to find religion once CPI peeks above 2% is fighting against all historical indications. One need only consider the fact that the post-FOMC meeting statement pointed out a “tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months,” a clear reference to the rapid rise in interest rates that accompanied the initial talk about tapering. But if the Fed begged off on the taper partly because of the tightening of financial conditions, that is the rise in interest rates that was caused by an expectation that the taper would stop, then the argument circular, isn’t it? It’s impossible for them to stop, since any indication that they were going to stop is obviously going to cause interest rates to rise, which would be a tightening of financial conditions, which would keep them from stopping… Does anyone seriously think that a core inflation print of 2.1% would change that?
To the extent that cutting from 20 cups of coffee per day to 19 cups of coffee per day could be called a “bold step,” wouldn’t the best time to take such a “bold step” with monetary policy be when the equity markets are at their highs and real estate markets back above their long-term value anchors?
And yet, the initial enthusiasm for the stock market for the continuation of QE seems to have faded rapidly. The entire post-FOMC rally that caused such joy around the offices of CNBC last Wednesday has been erased. Interestingly, the initial spike in commodities prices has also been erased, which is more curious since commodities prices don’t depend on growth as much as they do on inflation. And 10-year inflation expectations are back around 2.25%, basically the highest level they have seen since the Q2 swoon (see chart, source Bloomberg). So, as usual, I am flummoxed by the behavior of commodities.
I know that there is a great deal of confidence in some quarters that the Federal Reserve can keep its foot on the gas until such time as inflation actually rises to a level that concerns them. I cannot imagine the reason for such confidence when the drivers of the car are such committed doves. There are multiple problems undermining my confidence in such a possibility. There is the “Wesbury hypothesis” that the Fed will adjust its definition of what worries them about inflation – a hypothesis which, after this month’s FOMC meeting, should be even more compelling. There is the fact that there is no evidence I am aware of that the Fed was able to easily restrain inflation after it came unglued in any prior episode (and no one knows where and when and how it will come unglued). And finally, it isn’t clear to me how the Fed would go about restraining inflation anyway, given the overabundance of excess reserves and the fact that those reserves insulate any inflation process against the tender ministrations of the central bank.
One thing seems to be sure. The food fight at the Fed is not likely to end soon, and together with the dysfunction on Capitol Hill is raises the very real question of whether anything economically helpful is going to be accomplished in Washington DC this year.
Here are my post-Employment tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Pretty weak NFP number since the payrolls figure (169k) plus revisions (-74k) is way worse than forecast. Decline in rate irrelevant.
- Actually think Fed spent so much time talking about starting taper that they may do it anyway, but have an excuse now to delay.
- Nothing like a weak NFP number to help the beleaguered bond market. Bounce may temporary but in Sep you don’t wanna fade rallies.
- I don’t watch it much, but avg hrly earns at 2.2% is highest since brief pop to 2.3% in mid-2011. Y do people hate TIPS here?
So 10-year note yields broke above 3% overnight, the highest level since 2011. More importantly, 10-year real yields had been approaching 1% (reaching 0.93% overnight) as fear-of-taper has investors quite reasonably fleeing fixed-income.
I said above that I don’t look much at average hourly earnings. This is because the evidence is that wages follow prices, rather than prices following wages in a mythical “wage-push” inflation. Moreover, we can intuit that this is the case because if wages led inflation, we would really like inflation since we would tend to see our wages increase before inflation did…we would be doing better all the time, rather than worse. In fact, we know intuitively that is wrong.
With that giant caveat, it is worth pointing out that average hourly earnings are above median CPI (which right now is a better measure of the central tendency of inflation because of the large one-off effects in medical care) by the most they have been since 2011 (see chart below, source Bloomberg).
The unemployment rate declined, but only because the Participation Rate plumbed a new post-Carter low at 63.2%. You have to go back to July 1978 to find participation rates this low, and back then there were a lot fewer women in the workforce.
All in all, this is a pretty ugly employment report, but the FOMC has carefully lined up its doves and even gotten a few hawks to say that tapering ought to begin this month. I suspect it is still likely that they start down that path, but probably the first steps are fairly small. Still, given how far rates have risen and the possibility that this will lead to some “taper: off” talk, and given the strong seasonal tendency for rates to decline in September and early October, I would not want to fade a bond market rally.
Yes, I understand that it is an absolute blast to be long stocks when they are ripping higher. Everyone has fun, everyone feels wealthy, and all it took was for the Fed to defer a statement on the taper plan for at least a couple of months. For equity folks, that was equivalent to sounding the “all clear” signal to keep the party going for another couple of months. Add to that great news the fact that the ISM manufacturing index unexpectedly leapt today to two-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg, below), and you have the possibility of good growth, with a supportive Fed. It isn’t that surprising that in the short term the equity folks are happy and the bond folks are a bit concerned.
But the worst threat to stocks isn’t the taper, it isn’t an incipient slowdown in China, and it isn’t the fact that margins appear to be compressing. It’s that they will, some day, face competition for investment dollars from interest rates, commodities, real estate, and all of those other things that haven’t been exciting to invest in for a while.
Ten-year interest rates at 2.70% are not an exciting investment, but they are definitely more exciting than 1.60% rates were. However, you don’t really need to think about whether marginal investment dollars will flow to bonds since rates are 110bps higher now. You know that, no matter what the yield, more investment dollars are going to be flowing to fixed income going forward.
How do we know this? We know it because the Fed isn’t going to be buying $85bln per month, at some point in the not-too-distant future. So we know that, even if the Fed doesn’t sell, the bond market will be soaking up another $85bln of investment dollars compared to what it has been doing during QE3. And those dollars will need to come from somewhere. After all, this is just the ‘portfolio balance channel’ in reverse. The Fed pushed risky markets higher by buying all the safe stuff, so as to force investors to move out the risk spectrum. By taking away the “safe” alternatives, in other words, the Fed substituted for “animal spirits” in the market. (I discussed and illustrated this back in January.)
The opposite also occurs, though. When the Fed steps out, some investors will buy those “safer” investments at the higher yields where those markets clear. Those investors will be coming out of stocks, mainly. By substituting for animal spirits, the Fed pushed the stock market higher when investors didn’t feel much like pushing it there. And, once they start to taper that policy, they need investors with real animal spirits to step in and take risky positions in stocks because they want to.
The head-scratcher for me is, why would I want to take a risky position in stocks now, when interest rates and in particular real interest rates, are higher…if I didn’t want to take that position before? Does growth suddenly look that much better?
I ought to reiterate here that I still think a bond rally is due, despite today’s shellacking in a fairly illiquid-seeming market. I will change that view if 10-year yields rise another 5-10bps, however. I frankly think that while Bernanke likely wants to take the first step towards tapering while he is still Chairman – since it’s the polite thing to do to take the riskiest step of unwinding his policy before the next Chairman is forced to do it – I doubt he wants to get so far down the tapering road that the next Chairman feels locked in to a certain course of policy. So I suspect we will not see as much tapering this year as the market expects. Investors clearly thought we would get some indication about tapering at this meeting, and we didn’t. Bond folks know we will, eventually. Equity folks also know we will, but they all think they can get out as soon as the Fed gives the signal.
The problem, of course, is that some investors won’t wait for the explicit signal. To be fair, it has been a losing trade to be early on the Fed taper story, but that just means the ultimate comeuppance is going to be worse.
There is a ton of data due out on Friday, but my attention will not be on the Payrolls figure (Consensus: 185k). It is perhaps frightening to think about this, but Payrolls in the neighborhood of 200k is about all that we can expect. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the BLS Nonfarm Payrolls statistics along with a 24-month moving average. Ignore the swings from month to month. Instead, notice that in the expansion in the mid-2000s the 2-year average never got above 200k, and even in the robust expansion of the late 1990s the average was only about 250k (and we’re not about to have a robust expansion any time soon!). So, whether you like it or not, 200k per month is about all you’re going to get.
The Unemployment Rate is expected to decline back to 7.5% after rising to 7.6% last month. And again, here, the rate of decline in the Unemployment Rate is about as fast as you’re going to get it (see chart below, source Bloomberg). In fact, if anything the decline in the ‘Rate is slightly faster than in recoveries past, although as has been well documented the unemployment rate is much higher if you discount the increased prevalence in this recovery of part-time work.
So, on growth the sad truth is that we have been waiting for economic improvement, but none is coming. This is about as good as it is likely to get, economically speaking (at least, in terms of the pace of improvement, though with time this will pull the Unemployment Rate gradually lower).
Indeed, much faster growth would likely incline the Fed to taper faster, and even to consider additional tightening measures. And much slower growth would probably dampen the rather ebullient earnings estimates of the sell-side analysts. The dividend yield is less than 2% with inflation-linked bonds paying around 0.5%. So I won’t be looking at the numbers very closely. We are already in the sweet spot. What I am going to be looking for, tomorrow and going forward, is any sign that investors are getting a sour taste.
It was an interesting week. Considerable volatility in the foreign exchange markets (the dollar fell 5.5 handles from 105.50 yen to 95 yen before bouncing to 97.5 yen at week’s end) and a slide in several foreign equity markets (chiefly the Nikkei, -6.5%, but also the UK -2.6%, Italy -3.0%, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey -9%, etc) impacted the U.S. bourse at the margin but not severely. On Monday, a weak ISM helped push US stocks lower and bonds higher; but on Friday an as-expected Employment report led to a massive equity rally and sharp losses on bonds with the 10-year yield reaching a new high for the move.
The reaction from bonds isn’t terribly surprising. Bond funds are seeing near-record outflows as everyone knows that yields would not be near these levels without Fed backing, and no one wants to be the last one out. Any fear that “taper” is going to happen soon was going to send yields higher, and as I wrote on May 29th there is some risk for much higher yields.
The equity reaction on Friday is a little more confusing. Sure, the airwaves were full of news of the “better than expected” payrolls, although the combination of the May positive surprise (+12k) and the revisions to the prior two months (-12k) puts the Jobs number precisely on the consensus estimates while the Unemployment Rate rise slightly due to a rise in the participation rate. To be sure, there is nothing in the number to force the Fed to consider a “taper” with any kind of urgency, but considering that Bernanke and Dudley have already signaled that no taper is imminent, this is hardly news: the data on Friday was almost exactly as-expected.
Going forward, the market continues to face the same hurdles: higher rates mean more competition for investment dollars and will pressure equity prices. Lower unemployment implies that the current ratio of real wage growth relative to gross margins – which reflects the great power of capital right now relative to labor, with margins at record highs while real wages stagnate – will begin to shift back in favor of wages and away from capital. Higher rates also imply higher money velocity and hence, higher inflation. (See chart, source Bloomberg.)
If 5-year rates went to, say, 2%, and M2 velocity rose to 1.732 as the regression suggests, it would represent a 12.9% rise in money velocity. If M2 merely ticks along at the current (high, but not as high as it was) rate of 6.6% growth year-on-year, and GDP grows at an optimistic 4% rate, then it implies inflation of roughly 15.7% (1.129 * 1.066 / 1.04).
There are a lot of “ifs” in that statement, and I want to make clear that I am not forecasting 15.7% inflation over the next year, or even the next two years combined. But the point is that the risks are not insignificant. It isn’t a rise of core CPI to 2.5% by year-end that is the potential problem, although stocks might not take that well. It is a rise above that, which causes rates to rise, which causes velocity to accelerate further, etcetera in a spiral that the Fed is powerless to do anything about since it must first remove $1.9 trillion in excess reserves from the banking system…
And in that sort of inflationary environment, equities would be roundly trashed. A reader asked me to expound further on my prior observations about equities and inflation, and this seems like the right place to do it. However, so as to limit the length of this article, I am posting that further discussion/article separately here.