The Employment Report on Friday was bad – but it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that the consensus seems to have spun it into. It is true that there were no bright spots. It is true that the net number of new jobs added was worse than consensus and indeed worse than some of the more pessimistic expectations. But 142k new jobs is not a recessionary collapse (yet). Let us remember that one or two months every year fall below that figure (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Folks, it’s just not a robust recovery and never has been. It has been slow and steady, and now it is probably petering out, but…let’s not jump off the buildings just yet. In fact, one of my favorite indicators during this period while the Unemployment Rate has been falling but the general perception of the employment picture has been poor has been the “Not in labor force, want a job now” series, which shows people who are discouraged enough to not be looking for work, but would take a job if it was offered. As the chart below shows, that number is far above the lows from the last couple of expansions, and so has been a good check on the improvement in the Unemployment Rate. Now, however, we must also recognize that it is near the recent lows.
So not all of the “job market internals” are flashing red. True, none of them are exactly flashing green, either! Nor have they really ever been, in this cycle.
At the same time, it is incredible to me that the ex-Chairman of the Fed is taking a victory lap, claiming in the Wall Street Journal today that his policies led to a non-inflationary decline in the unemployment rate. Surely a professional economist ought to know the difference between correlation and causality. It is absolute madness to claim that the Fed’s policies did nothing for the price level but had a huge effect on the real economy. That is almost exactly opposite of what generations of monetary policy experience teaches us: that monetary policy has almost no effect on real variables but only affects the price level. A more thorough retort will be given in “What’s Wrong with Money?”, which you can pre-order now! (If you prefer, send a note to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will email you when it is published).
The unemployment rate declined for two reasons: the first is that just as no tree grows to the sky, no hole is bottomless. Eventually, even without any intervention at all, the business cycle takes over and recessions end. The second reason in this case is that the federal government ran (and continues to run) massive fiscal deficits, which demonstrably affect near-term growth. Yes, those deficits merely rearrange growth, stealing growth from the future to improve growth today, but if current growth is given by Y=C+I+G+(X-M) there is no way that the Fed can claim what is the biggest contribution over the last few years, percentage-wise. Madness, I say.
Is the economy headed for recession? In all likelihood, yes. But this employment number was not the first nor even the best sign of that possibility.
Yesterday, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans gave a speech in which he said that he probably leaned towards making the first tightening early next year, as there is “no compelling reason for us to be in a hurry to tighten financial conditions.” The Fed, he said, probably shouldn’t raise rates until there’s a “greater confidence” that inflation one-to-two years ahead will be at or above 2%. This isn’t a surprising view, as Evans is the progenitor of the “Evans Rule” that says rates should stay near zero until unemployment has fallen below 6.5% (it has) or inflation has risen above 2.5%. Yes, those bounds have been walked about; in particular the 6.5% unemployment rate is obviously no longer binding (he sees the “natural rate” as being 5% again). But the very fact that he promoted a rule that set restraints on a mere return to normal policy means that he is a dove, through and through. So, it should not be surprising that he isn’t in a hurry to tighten.
What I found amusing is the sop he threw to the bears. Fed speakers often try to do the “on the one hand, on the other hand” maneuver, but in Evans’ case his heart clearly isn’t in it. He said that “you could imagine a case being made for a rate increase in June.” Notice that he doesn’t say he could imagine a case being made! I am also unclear about which June he means. Does he mean…
|(thru Apr)||(thru May)|
|Q1 GDP||Q2 GDP||Median CPI||M2 growth|
|June 2015?||0.2%||1.0% (e)||2.2%||5.4%|
I am not sure exactly what he thinks those darn hawks are looking at, but it seems to me the case for tightening in June is getting worse every year.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I didn’t include the Unemployment Rate in the table above. That particular metric has been improving each year, but we know that the labor situation tends to lag the economic situation. The Unemployment Rate is a big political football, but it isn’t particularly useful for policy unless you believe in the concept of a “natural rate” with respect to accelerating unemployment in the overall economy. I don’t: low unemployment tends to increase wages, but has no discernible effect on consumer inflation. Moreover, it appears that the “natural rate” shifts quite a bit over time (6.5% down to 5% in Evans’ formulation, in only a few years’ time), making it look to me like a fairly useless concept.
Yes, of course it makes it more difficult politically to tighten when people are out of work, but since monetary policy is quite useful for affecting prices and not particularly useful for affecting growth, this should be a secondary effect at best. The Fed simply can’t help the unemployed worker, except by holding down inflation for him. In the real world, of course, the Fed Chair is not going to countenance an uptick in rates when unemployment is above 5% or so.
Let me be clear: I think the Fed ought to have tightened in 2012, 2013, or 2014, and they ought to tighten now. I don’t necessarily mean they should guide rates higher, but they should reduce the size of the mountain of reserves via any means a their disposal. But if you are going to argue one year over another year, I think it is hardest to argue that now is the time unless you are merely being guided by the old James Carville adage that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is right now.
One thing that Evans said that quickens my heart, as an inflation-watcher, is that the Fed “ought to allow” a chance that inflation overshoots 2% that is symmetrical to its chance of falling below it. While he is quintessentially unclear about how he would establish these probabilities – as I have just shown, he seems blissfully unaware that consumer price inflation is already above 2% – the mere fact of treating the costs of inflation misses as symmetrical is dangerous territory. The costs are not symmetrical. The costs of an inflation rate around 0% are very low; some frictions, perhaps, created by wage “stickiness” (even this possibility hasn’t been conclusively established until inflation gets convincingly below zero). The costs of an inflation rate of 4% are much higher, since inflation has historically had long “tails.” That is, once inflation goes up a little, it not infrequently rises a lot. Over the last 100 years, if you take the set of all year-on-year inflation rates above 4%, you find that about one-third of them are also above 10%. This means the costs of a loss of inflation vigilance is must greater than the costs of a loss of deflation vigilance.
Sometimes being a value investor, amid overvalued (and ever more so) markets, feels a bit like being a Stark in Westeros. The analogy will be lost on you if you do not follow Game of Thrones, but the Starks hold the largest of the sub-kingdoms in Westeros. This kingdom also happens to be the coldest, and the sober Starks are always reminding people that “Winter is coming.”
I should observe that winter in Westeros is a much more serious affair than it is around here; it comes at odd intervals but can last for years. So being prepared for winter is really important. However, getting people to prepare for winter during the long “summer” is very difficult.
Sound familiar? The thing to keep in mind is that the Starks are always right, eventually, and they’re the ones who come through the winter in the best shape. Such is the case with value investors. (Some people might prefer calling value investors who are bearish on stocks right now “Chicken Littles” but I prefer being compared to Ned Stark, thanks. Although both of them have been known to lose their heads on occasion.)
Fortunately, it does not appear that winter is coming to the U.S. very soon. Friday’s Employment report was strong, despite the beginnings of downsizing in the oil and gas extraction businesses. The chart below shows the Baker Hughes oil and gas rig count, which is falling at a rate every bit as fast as it did in the credit crisis.
Yet, the U.S. economy as a whole generated 267,000 new jobs last month, which was above expectations. It is unlikely that this pace will continue, since the extraction (and related industry) jobs will be a drag. But in 2008, this happened when every other industry was being squeezed, and in the current case other industries are being squeezed by the strong dollar, but only mildly so. I think this will actually serve to increase the labor force participation rate, which has been in a downtrend for a long time – because laid-off oil workers will still be in the labor force looking for work, while other jobs will be getting filled by (sometimes) discouraged workers coming off the sidelines. So we may well see the Unemployment Rate rise even as jobs growth remains reasonable, even if less robust than the most recent figures.
Winter, though, is still coming.
In the near-term, winter is coming to Europe. Unusually, it is moving from the south to the north because Greece appears to be finally heading for the denouement that has been utterly unavoidable from the beginning. I wrote this in June 2012 (and I wasn’t the only one saying such things – the only real question has been how long it would take before the Greeks decided they’d had enough of sacrifice to hold together the Eurozone for the elites):
Greece will still leave the Euro. Government or no government, austerity or no austerity – the fiscal math simply doesn’t make sense unless Europe wants to pay for Greece forever. In principle, the Greeks can dig themselves out of trouble if they work harder, retire later, pay more taxes, and receive fewer government services. I do believe that people can change, and a society can change, under pressure of crisis. Remember Rosie the Riveter? But the question is whether they can change, whether they will change, do they even want to change, if the benefit of the change flows not to Greece’s people but to the behemoth European institutions that have lent money to Greece?
If a person declares bankruptcy, and the judge declares that he must pay all of his wages for the next thirty years, after deducting enough for food and shelter, to the creditors…do you think that person is going to go looking for a 60-hour workweek?
Am I sure that Greece is going to leave the Euro in a week, or a month, or a year? Not at all. The institutional self-preservation meme is very strong and I am always amazed at how long it takes obvious imperatives to actually happen. But I am quite confident that Greece will eventually leave the Euro, and it does seem as if parties on all sides of the negotiating table are coming to that conclusion as well.
One question that authorities have had to come to peace with first was whether Grexit is really Armageddon. I have argued that default and an exit from the Euro is not bad for Greece, at least when compared to a multi-year depression.
And it’s probably not even horrible for Europe, or the world at large, at least compared to the credit crisis, despite all protestations that this would be “Lehman squared.” Again, this is old news and as I lay out the reasoning here there is no reason to repeat myself.
But it won’t be a positive thing. And it is likely to bring on “winter,” economically. Helpfully, the world’s central banks not only remain in easing mode but are increasing the dovishness of their stance, with the ECB foremost among the central banks that are priming the pumps again. M2 money growth in the Eurozone was up to 4.5% y/y in December (latest data available), with the highest quarter-over-quarter growth rate (8.3%, annualized) in money since the end of 2008! Meanwhile the Fed, while it is no longer adding to reserves, is still watching the money supply grow at 6% y/y with no good way to stop it. For all the talk about the FOMC hiking rates by mid-year, I think the probable rise in the Unemployment Rate discussed above, plus the weak inflation readings (with the notable exception of Median CPI), plus the fact that all other central banks are easing and likely to continue doing so, plus the probability of turbulence in Europe, makes it very unlikely that this Committee, with a very dovish makeup, will be tightening any time soon.
The likely onset of some winter will not help hold down inflation, however. Upward pressures remain, and the fact that the ECB is now running the pumps makes higher prices more likely. Yes, we care about money supply growth in Europe: the chart below shows the M2 growth of the US and Europe combined, against core CPI in the US. The fit is actually better than with US CPI alone.
Now, some markets are priced for winter and some are not. We think that real interest rates in Europe are far too low compared to real rates in the US, and stock prices in the US are too high compared to stock prices in Europe. The first chart below shows the spread of 10-year real rates in the US minus Europe (showing US yields are high compared to European yields); the second chart shows the ratio of the S&P 500 to the Eurostoxx 50.
You can see in the latter chart that the out-performance of the S&P has proceeded since 2009, while the under-performance of US inflation-linked bonds has only happened since 2012, so these are not simply two ways of looking at the same trade. In both cases, these deviations are quite extreme. But the European economy and the US economy are not completely independent of one another; weak European growth affects US corporate entities and vice-versa, and as I suggest above the growth of European money supply tends to affect US inflation as well. We think that (institutional) investors should buy TIPS and sell European linkers, and also buy European stocks against US stocks. By doing both of these things, the exposure to currency flows or general trends in global equity market pricing is lessened. (Institutional investors interested in how we would weight such a trade should contact us.)
 As another example, take the shrinking of Wall Street. It was obvious after 2008 that it had to happen; only recently, however, as banks and dealers have been forced to become more and more like utilities have we started to see layoffs while stocks are rising, which is very unusual. But Wall Street defended the bloated structures of the past for more than six years!
I just saw this interesting article in Econbrowser called “New estimates of the effects of the minimum wage.” It is both good news, and bad news.
It is good news because it clarifies a debate about the effect of the minimum wage which has been raging for a long time, but without much actual data. This article summarizes a clever approach by a couple of academic economists to examine the actual effects of increasing the minimum wage. The research produces solid numbers and confirms some theories about the effects of the minimum wage.
The bad news is that the effect of the minimum wage is just what theory says it should be, but liberal politicians have insisted isn’t true in practice. And that’s a net negative effect on overall welfare, albeit divided between winners and losers. However, even that ought to be good news, because this analysis also means that we can reverse the policy and reap immediate gains in consumer welfare.
First, the theory: microeconomics tells us that an increase in the minimum wage, if it is above the equilibrium wage for some types of labor, should decrease employment while increasing the wages of those who actually retain their jobs. (The usual argument for increasing the minimum wage is that the people who earn minimum wage aren’t making enough to live on, and supporters tend to forget that if people lose their jobs because the minimum wage is raised, then those people are making even less.) We often say things are “Econ 101,” but this really is Econ 101 in the sense that it is taught in every introductory economics class. There is no excuse not to know this:
In the chart above, the supply of labor is S and the demand for labor is D. In the absence of a floor (minimum wage), the clearing wage and quantity of jobs is at the intersection; at a minimum wage of a, however, there is a shortage of jobs equal to c-b. If the minimum wage is raised to a’, then the shortage of jobs increases to c’-b’. The question for society is whether the increase in joblessness is an acceptable cost to accept, in order to increase the minimum wage from a to a’. (Of course, the political calculation might also include the fact that people who become unemployed will be supported by the welfare state, and potentially vote to preserve and expand those public institutions that constitute it).
The problem for those who argue against the minimum wage, or for it being increased, is that they can point out this economic truism until they are blue in the face, while the other side simply says “nuh-uh” and denies it is true with the same fervor that they insist that Obamacare has actually lowered premiums and deductibles. The façade only cracks, maybe, when actual data is presented that shows the argument to be bankrupt.
This academic study does that cleverly, by examining changes in employment and wages in states where the federal minimum wage was binding (because the state minimum wage was lower, or non-existent) and states where it was not binding (because the state minimum wage was higher, so the federal minimum wage didn’t matter). Their conclusion:
“Over the late 2000s, the average effective minimum wage rose by 30 percent across the United States. We estimate that these minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point.”
That’s the sterile conclusion. Now let’s count the cost. Between July 2007 and December 2009, the national employment-to-population ratio (which is similar to, but not the same as, the labor force participation rate) declined from 62.7% to 58.3%; it has since risen to 59.2%. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, the labor force participation rate (in yellow) shows a more gradual decline but no recovery – as has been well-documented.
Now, some numbers. In November, the Civilian noninstitutional population (the denominator for the employment-to-population rate) was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to be 248,844,000. That means that if the authors are correct, the minimum wage has boosted the wages of unemployed workers at the bottom of the scale at the cost of about 1.74 million jobs (0.007 * 248,844,000).
Imagine what having another 1.74 million workers would do for GDP? Do you think it could make a difference for one of the worst recoveries on record?
It probably isn’t fair to assume that all of those 1.74 million workers is currently “unemployed” by the BLS definition. Many of them are likely not looking for work, in which case they would not be counted as unemployed. It is interesting to note, although surely spurious, that the series “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” is about 1.7 million higher than would be expected given the unemployment rate (see chart, source BLS).
Alternatively, we could consider what it would mean to the Unemployment Rate if those 1.74 million workers were employed. This means they would also be in the Civilian Labor Force, so the participation rate (see above) would be 63.5% rather than 62.8%. If instead of coming from the “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” group they came from the “Unemployed” group, the Unemployment Rate would be 4.7% instead of 5.8%. (Personally, I think that most of them are probably in the former category, as the Unemployment Rate has declined at approximately the rate we would expect from past recoveries, despite tepid GDP growth.) That is not inconsistent, of course, if GDP growth is lower because the labor force is simply smaller than it should be – and that is exactly the implication of this bit of research.
Again, the good news is that we can help the country and the downtrodden “structurally” unemployed with the same simple policy: reverse all increases in the Minimum Wage that have happened since 2007.
The Employment number these days is sometimes less interesting than the response of the markets to the number over the ensuing few days. That may or may not be the case here. Thursday’s Employment report was stronger than expected, although right in line with the sorts of numbers we have had, and should expect to have, in the middle of an expansion.
As the chart illustrates, we have been running at about the rate of 200k per month for the last several years, averaged over a full year. I first pointed out last year that this is about the maximum pace our economy is likely to be able to sustain, although in the bubble-fueled expansion of the late 1990s the average got up to around 280k. So Thursday’s 288k is likely to be either revised lower, or followed by some weaker figures going forward, but is fairly unlikely to be followed by stronger numbers.
This is why the lament about the weak job growth is so interesting. It isn’t really very weak at all, historically. It’s merely that people (that is, economists and politicians) were anticipating that the horrible recession would be followed by an awe-inspiring expansion.
The fact that it has not been is itself informative, although you are unlikely to see economists drawing the interesting conclusion here. That’s because they don’t really understand the question, which is “is U.S. growth unit root?” To remember why this really matters, look back at my article from 2010: “The Root of the Problem.” Quoting from that article:
“what is important to understand is this: if economic output is not unit root but is rather trend-stationary, then over time the economy will tend to return to the trend level of output. If economic output is unit root, then a shock to the economy such as we have experienced will not naturally be followed by a return to the prior level of output.”
In other words, if growth is unit root, then we should expect that expansions should be roughly as robust when they follow economic collapses as when they follow mild downturns. And that is exactly what we are seeing in the steady but uninspiring job growth, and the steady if not-unusual return to normalcy in the Unemployment Rate (once we adjust for the participation rate). So, the data seem to suggest that growth is approximately unit root, which matters because among other things it makes any Keynesian prescriptions problematic – if there is no such thing as “trend growth” then the whole notion of an output gap gets weird. A gap? A gap to what?
Now, it is still interesting to look at how markets reacted. Bonds initially sold off, as would be expected if the Fed cared about the Unemployment Rate or the output gap being closed, but then rallied as (presumably) investors discounted the idea that the Federal Reserve is going to move pre-emptively to restrain inflation in this cycle. Equities, on the other hand, had a knee-jerk selloff on that idea (less Fed accommodation) but then rallied the rest of the day on Thursday before retracing a good part of that gain today. It is unclear to me just what news can actually be better than what is already impounded in stock prices. If the answer is “not very darn much,” then the natural reaction should be for the market to tend to react negatively to news even if it continues to drift higher in the absence of news. But that is counterfactual to what happened on Thursday/Monday. I don’t like to read too much into any day’s trading, but that is interesting.
Commodities were roughly unchanged on Thursday, but fell back strongly today. Well, a 1.2% decline in the Bloomberg Commodity Index (formerly the DJ-UBS Commodity Index) isn’t exactly a rout, but since commodities have been slowly rallying for a while this represents the worst selloff since March. The 5-day selloff in commodities, a lusty 2.4%, is the worst since January. Yes, commodities have been rallying, and yet the year-to-date change in the Bloomberg Commodity Index is only 2% more than the rise in M2 over the same period (5.5% versus 3.5%), which means the terribly oversold condition of commodities – especially when compared to other real assets – has only barely begun to be corrected.
I do not really understand why the mild concern over inflation that developed recently after three alarming CPI reports in a row has vanished so suddenly. We can see it in the commodity decline, and the recent rise in implied core inflation that I have documented recently (see “Awareness of Inflation, But No Fear Yet”) has largely reversed: currently, implied 1 year core inflation is only 2.15%, which is lower than current median inflation – implying that the central tendency of inflation will actually decline from current levels.
I don’t see any reason for such sanguinity. Money supply growth remains around 7%, and y/y credit growth is back around 5%. I am not a Keynesian, and I believe that growth doesn’t matter (much) for inflation, but the recent tightening of labor markets should make a Keynesian believe that inflation is closer, not further away! If one is inclined to give credit in advance to the Federal Reserve, and assume that the Committee will move pre-emptively to restrain inflation – and if you are assuming that core inflation will be lower in a year from where it (or median inflation, which is currently a better measure of “core” inflation) is now, you must be assuming preemption – then I suppose you might think that 2.15% core is roughly the right level.
But even there, one would have to assume that policy could affect inflation instantly. Inflation has momentum, and it takes time for policy – even once implemented, of which there is no sign yet – to have an effect on the trajectory of inflation. Maybe there can be an argument that 2-year forward or 3-year forward core inflation might be restrained by a pre-emptive Fed. But I can’t see that argument for year-ahead inflation.
Of course, markets don’t always have to make sense. We have certainly learned this in spades over the last decade! I suppose that saying markets aren’t making a lot of sense right now is merely a headline of the “dog bites man” variety. The real shocker, the “man bites dog” headline, would be if they started making sense again.
If it seems that the frequency of my posts has diminished of late, it is no illusion. There are many reasons for that, many business-related, but there is at least one which is market-related: a three-month-long, 20bp range in real and nominal yields and a year-to-date S&P return that seems locked between +2% and -2% with the exception of the January dip offers precious little to remark upon. Along with those listless markets, we have had plenty of economic data that it was very evident the market preferred to ignore and blame on “severe weather.” And, to the Fed’s lasting credit (no pun intended), the decision to start the taper under Bernanke and thus give Yellen a few months of simply sitting in the captain’s chair with the plane on autopilot has short-circuited the usual rude welcome the markets offer to new Fed Chairmen.
These sedate markets irritate momentum traders (you can’t trade what doesn’t exist) and bore value traders – at least, when the markets are sedate at levels that offer no value. For individual investors, this is a boon if they are able to take advantage of the quiet to pull their attention away from CNBC and back to their real lives and jobs, but for professional investment managers it is frustrating since it is hard to add value when markets are becalmed. Yes, successful investing – which is presumably what successful investment managers should be practicing – is very much about patience, and this is doubly or trebly true for value managers who eschew investing heavily into overvalued markets. I am sympathetic with the frustrations of great investors like Jeremy Grantham at GMO, but I will point out that his frustrations are more acute among less-legendary managers. It is, after all, much easier to pursue the patient style of a Hussman or Grantham…if you are Hussman or Grantham.
Again, I’m not whining too much about our own difficulty in securing good performance, because we’ve done well to be overweight commodities and with some of our other position preferences. I’m more whining about the difficulty of writing about these markets!
But let’s reset the picture, now.
The very weak Q1 GDP figure from last Wednesday (a mere +0.1%, albeit with strong consumption) is old news, to be sure, and investors are right to underweight this information since we already knew Q1 growth was weak. But at the same time, I would admonish investors who wish to patiently take the long view not to get too ebullient about Friday’s jobs figure. Payrolls of +288k, with solid upward revisions, sounds great, but it only keeps us on the 200k/month growth path that we have had since the recovery reached full throttle back in late 2011 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
As I wrote back in August, 200k is what you can expect once the expansion is proceeding at a normal pace, and that’s exactly what you’ve gotten for a couple of years now. Similarly, if you project a simple trend on the Unemployment Rate from late 2011 (see chart, source Bloomberg) you can see that the remarkable plunge in the ‘Rate merely operated as a ‘catch-up’ from the winter bounce higher.
If you believe that inflation is caused when economies run out of slack (I don’t), then the low unemployment rate should concern you – not because it fell rapidly, because it is nearer to whatever threshold matters for inflation. If you rather think that inflation is caused by too much money chasing too few goods, then you’ve already been alarmed by the continued healthy rise in M2 and the fact that median inflation rose to 2.1% this month. So, either way, people (and policymakers) ought to be getting at least more concerned about inflation, no matter what their theoretical predilections. And, in fact, we see some evidence of that. Implied core inflation for the next 12 months (taking 1-year inflation swaps and hedging energy) has risen in the past month to about 2.25% from 1.75%. To some extent, this seems to be seasonal, as that measure has risen and peaked in the last three March/April periods. Investors tend to mistake the rise in gasoline prices that normally happens in the spring to be inflation, even though it ordinarily falls back later in the year. But right now, the implied acceleration in core inflation from the current level of 1.7% is the highest it’s been in three years (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
The bigger spike, on the left side of that chart, corresponds with the significant fears around the time of QE2. But what’s interesting now, of course, is that the Fed is actually tightening (providing less liquidity is the definition of tightening) rather than easing. Some of this is probably attributable to base effects, as last year’s one-off price decline in medical care services due to sequestration-induced Medicare spending cuts is about to begin passing out of the data. But some of it, I suspect, reflects a true … if modest … rising concern about the near-term inflation trajectory.
 Unless, that is, you are overweight commodities…which we are. The DJ-UBS is +8.9% year-to-date.
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.