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As They Do, Not As They Say

Over the past week or two we have seen and heard from the Fed (in the minutes released on Wednesday), the ECB (after their April 3rd meeting), the BOJ (after their April 7th meeting), and the Bank of England (today). Having heard from the “big four,” I think it’s very interesting to compare what they seem to be indicating they will do to what they probably ought to do. (I am actually going to neglect the BOE, since their situation is quite complex at the moment and probably too much for a reasonable-length article).

In the US, the latest surprise – for some people – was the dovish tenor of the FOMC minutes when they were released yesterday. I shake my head in wonder at anyone who has managed to convince themselves that Chairman Yellen is a closet hawk even after years of evidence to the contrary (not least being the fact that she was nominated at all – not since Volcker has any Fed chief with remotely hawkish credentials been nominated to the Chairman’s position). After the FOMC meeting itself, a few weeks ago, TIPS had been clobbered and some (although not me) attributed that to the hawkish tone of the statement and the fact that Yellen had mentioned offhand that a lengthy period of low rates after QE has ended might be something like six months. The Fed is not hawkish at this point in its history; this is not to say that it does not have hawkish members but on the whole it is a dovish institution and I maintain that the Fed will likely tighten too late, and too little. For now, the Fed seems to be trying to make clear that they are concerned about low inflation and not likely to step on the brakes any more than they have.

What ought the Fed to be doing right now? The Fed ought to be tightening. Though growth is not robust, “robust” growth cannot be the standard demanded before starting a tightening of monetary policy, especially when there are tremendous excess reserves. The monetary policy car has no traction with such huge reserves, and the Fed needs to start trying to get control so that when it is time to steer, it can do so. Moreover, with disinflation fears waxing – incredibly – at the FOMC, inflation is in fact heading higher. Median inflation should approach or exceed 3% this year, despite the Fed’s belief that it will be well below 2% for a very long time. In a few months, the fear of disinflation and deflation will seem quaint.

No increase in policy rates is going to be coming any time soon. The Fed will continue to tighten very slowly, by winding down QE and then possibly starting to mop up some of the trillions in extra liquidity. That’s a sine qua non to rates going up, unless the Fed decides to establish a floor with the interest rate on excess reserves and to ship big boxes of money to Wall Street. But the interesting part will be when the Fed starts to mop up that liquidity either by outright bond sales (unlikely) or by some sort of massive reverse repo operation. It will get interesting because this classic tightening maneuver won’t be met with rising short rates – making it clear even to non-Fed-watchers that the Fed has no control over short rates at the moment. Again, I seriously doubt that the Fed will move with alacrity towards a tighter policy, and as it is they are at least a couple of years behind. But even if they do continue to tighten it will take years, not months, for the system to approach a normal state of liquidity.

The ECB talks like it is ready to ease further. ECB President Draghi was perceived as extremely bullish at his post-meeting presser last week, and recently there has been more chatter about negative deposit rates or other ways to increase the money supply.

And they need to do it. Disinflation, and possibly even deflation, actually probably is the threat in Europe, because the ECB has allowed money growth to slow back to the too-slow range that characterized the post-credit-crisis period (see chart, source ECB).

EUM2

This obvious failure to keep money growth up is one reason for the strength of the Euro since 2012 – while the Fed talks about tightening, but does so in a way that only a dove could love, the ECB talks about easing, but does so in a way that can only appeal to hawks. Currency traders can smell it – European monetary policy may be as poorly managed as US monetary policy is, but holders of a currency prefer when the central bank is printing 2% more every year, rather than 6-8% as in the US. (Which would you prefer, a 2% dilution of your equity ownership, or an 8% dilution?)

The problem for the ECB is that their legal structures have been set up so that, at least officially, they don’t have the same tools for QE that other central banks have. Theoretically, they are prohibited from purchasing government bonds without sterilizing the intervention since that would mean effectively financing member governments. What ought the ECB to do? Well, I suppose it ought to follow its charter, but in a perfect world it is the ECB, and not the BOE or Fed, which would be doing QE. I suppose it will not surprise any reader to discover that I am a cynic, and I suspect that the ECB will at some point conclude that ceasing to sterilize the OMT bond portfolio is somehow allowed, even though practically speaking that would be the same as buying new government bonds without sterilization. We have already found out that in a pinch, the Federal Reserve is willing to be moderately “flexible” when it comes to its legal mandates. It would not surprise me a bit to see the ECB take a similar step. I suspect this will not happen in the next few months, since core European inflation for the year ended February has risen to 1.0% after being as low at 0.7% at year-end, but if that figure doesn’t continue to rise – and there’s no reason I can see that it should – then the ECB may test its flexibility later this year.

In Japan, the Bank of Japan has lifted core inflation to 0.8%, and it will continue to rise. Money supply growth is over 4% y/y, but only just barely. I believe that in Japan, what they profess to want and what they actually will act to secure are one and the same: increased QE, in increasing amounts, until everyone realizes that they are serious, the Yen declines markedly, and deflation is finally banished from the nation.

So in the race for weaker currencies, I suspect Japan will eventually win, with the US placing second and Europe having – annoyingly for its central bank, who would like a weaker currency to spur growth – the strongest unit.

Categories: ECB, Federal Reserve, Japan Tags:

Gravity

April 7, 2014 1 comment

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).

vixekg

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).

cbc_mb

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.

A Curve Ball

I saw a story on MarketWatch on Monday which declared that the “Treasurys most sensitive to rising interest rates” had been ditched by investors while those investors instead were “gobbling up longer-term securities,” causing the curve to reach its flattest level since 2009. I thought that was interesting, since an inverted yield curve is a valuable indicator of potential recession.[1]

However, the MarketWatch article concerns the slope between the 5-year and 30-year Treasuries (see chart, source Bloomberg).

5y30y

Ordinarily, I watch the 2y-10y spread rather than the 5y-30y spread, because the 2-year rate is more responsive to near-term adjustments in Fed policy and the 10y note is more liquid than the 30y bond. And that spread hasn’t done anything of particular note (see chart, source Bloomberg).
2s10s

Obviously, the charts look similar, and as you can tell in both cases a flat or inverted curve is a precursor to recession. But I think in this case it may well make sense to look at the 5y-30y spread, as MarketWatch implicitly suggests. The 2-year note, which normally responds rapidly to changes in Fed policy, may not do so as much in this cycle because when the Fed starts to attempt to increase overnight interest rates, it is going to find it difficult to do. The 2-year note, which ordinarily impounds the expected tightening of monetary policy, must now also incorporate the fact that with trillions of dollars in excess reserves, overnight rates cannot be easily increased by the Fed except by increasing interest on excess reserves (IOER). Accordingly, as the Fed continues to tighten policy – first, by decreasing QE3 and then by trying to mop up the excess reserves – short rates themselves may not rise.

That is, people waiting for a curve inversion of 3m bills or 2-year notes to 10-year notes to signal the next recession are going to be late in reacting. The curve cannot invert, at least from 3-month or 2-year Treasuries to longer Treasuries, when the Fed is pinning short rates at zero. But it is possible that the curve could invert from 5-year notes, and I will be paying more attention than usual to that possibility now.

——-
Along with yesterday’s article I should have included the following chart (source: Bloomberg).

prch

This is a chart of the Mortgage Bankers’ Association Purchase index, and it illustrates that mortgage origination activity for the purpose of purchasing, rather than refinancing, a home has remained quite low ever since the bubble initially burst. This speaks again to my point from that article: the Fed’s purchases of MBS did not result in a surge in home-buying activity. There has been plenty of refi business, but the Fed didn’t need to buy MBS to cause an uptick in refi activity – they only needed to force interest rates generally lower (I concede that, early on, they were concerned about the MBS basis, but that hasn’t been an issue for several years).

But refinancing doesn’t increase home prices. New buying activity does, and the data seem to suggest that the marginal price here is being set by the cash buyer, whom the Fed’s MBS purchase program did nothing to help.

So the Fed’s buying of MBS did not do what it said it would do. In the event, all that it did was to remove risky securities from the market so that investors seeking risk were pushed into riskier securities (read: stocks). Was that its true purpose? Who knows…but what I am sure of is that the Fed didn’t do this for the avowed purpose of causing the one result they actually got: reducing negative convexity in the market.

And, in general, I find it disingenuous that the Fed claims credit for one clearly-unintended consequence, while disavowing all of the other unintended consequences, many of which haven’t yet been seen since the policy hasn’t ended.


 

[1]However, be clear on this: an inverted yield curve, specifically from the 3-month bill to the 10-year note, is highly predictive of a recession. But the opposite is not true. That is, you do not need an inverted curve to get a recession.

We’re the Government, and We’re Here to Help

March 24, 2014 1 comment

Today’s article will be brief (some might say blessedly so). The topic is the publication of an article on the NY Fed’s blog entitled “Convexity Event Risks in a Rising Interest Rate Environment.”

Long-time readers may recall that I wrote an article last year, with 10-year notes at 2.12%, called “Bonds and the ‘Convexity Trade’,” in which I commented that “the bond market is very vulnerable to a convexity trade to higher yields…the recent move to new high yields for the last 12 months could trigger such a phenomenon. If it does, then we will see 10-year note rates above 3% in fairly short order.” Within a few weeks, 10-year note yields hit 2.60% and eventually topped out at 3%.

Now, the Fed tells me that this selloff was “more gradual and therefore inconsistent with a sell-off driven primarily by convexity hedging.” I suppose in a way I can agree. The sell-off was primarily driven by the fact that the Fed had abused the hell out of the bond market and pushed it to unsustainable levels. But I don’t think that’s what they’re saying.

Indeed, the Fed is actually claiming credit for the fact that the selloff was only 140bps. You see, the reason that we didn’t get a convexity-based selloff – or at least, we only got the one, and not the one I was really concerned about, on a push over 3% – is because the Fed had bought so many mortgage-backed securities that there weren’t enough current-coupon MBS left to cause a debacle!

How wonderfully serendipitous it is that even the most egregious failures of the Federal Reserve turn out to benefit society in heretofore unexpected ways. You will recall that one of the main reasons given by the Federal Reserve to purchase mortgages in the first place was to help unfreeze the mortgage market, and to provoke additional mortgage origination. In that, it evidently failed, for if it had succeeded then the total amount of negative convexity in public hands would not have changed very dramatically. In fact, it would have been worse since the new origination would have been current coupons and replacing higher coupons.

The real reason that the convexity-spurred selloff wasn’t worse isn’t because the Fed had taken all of the current coupon MBS out of the market, but because the Fed continued to buy even in the move to higher yields. A negative-convexity selloff has two parts: the increased demand for hedging, and the decreased supply of counterparties to take the other side as the ball gets rolling. In this case, one big buyer remained, which emboldened dealers who knew they wouldn’t be stuck “holding the bag.” That is the reason that the selloff was “only” 140bps and not worse.

However, the observation that the Fed’s policy was a failure, as it did not stimulate vast amounts of new mortgage activity, remains. It is true that there is less negative convexity in the mortgage market than there would otherwise have been in the absence of Fed buying. But that’s an indictment, not exoneration.

Ex-Communication Policy

March 19, 2014 6 comments

Well, I guess it would be hard to have a clearer sign that investors are over their skis than to have the Fed drop the portion of their communique that was most-binding – in a move that was fully anticipated by almost everyone and telegraphed ahead of time by NY Fed President Dudley – and watch markets decline anyway.

To be sure, the stock market didn’t exactly plunge, but bonds took a serious hit and TIPS were smacked even worse. TIPS were mainly under pressure because there is an auction scheduled for tomorrow and it was dangerous to set up prior to the Fed meeting, not because there was something secretly hawkish about the Fed’s statement. Indeed, they took pains to say that “a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy remains appropriate,” and apparently they desire for policy to remain highly accommodative for longer relative to the unemployment threshold than they had previously expressed.

The next Fed tightening (let us pretend for a moment that the taper is not a tightening – it obviously is, but let’s pretend that we’re only talking about overnight interest rates) was never tied to a calendar, and it would be ridiculous to do so. But it seems that maybe some investors had fallen in love with the idea that the Fed would keep rates at zero throughout 2015 regardless of how strong or how weak the economy was at that time, so that when the Fed’s members projected that rates might reach 1% by the end of 2015 – be still, my heart! – these investors had a conniption.

Now, I fully expect the Fed to tighten too little, and too late. I also expect that economic growth will be sufficiently weak that we won’t see interest rates rise in 2015 despite inflation readings that will be borderline problematic at that time. But that view is predicated on my view of the economy and my assessment of the FOMC members’ spines, not on something they said. You should largely ignore any Fed communication unless it regards the very next meeting. They don’t know any better than you do what the economy is going to be doing by then. If they did, they would only need one meeting a year rather than eight. Focus on what the economy is likely to be doing, and you’ll probably be right more often than they are.

Arguably, this was not the right theory when the Fed was simply pinning rates far from the free-market level, but as the Fed’s boot comes off the market’s throat we can start acting like investors again rather than a blind, sycophantic robot army of CNBC-watching stock-buying machines.

Now, I said above that “the stock market didn’t exactly plunge,” and that is true. On the statement, it dropped a mere 0.3% or so. The market later set back as much as 1%, with bonds taking additional damage, when Chairman Yellen said that “considerable period” (as in “a considerable period between the end of QE and the first rate increase) might mean six months.

Does that tell you anything about the staying power of equity investors, that a nuance of six months rather than, say, nine or twelve months of low rates, causes the market to spill 1%? There are a lot of people in the market today who don’t look to own companies, but rather look to rent them. And a short-term rental, at that, and even then only because they are renting them with money borrowed cheaply. For the market’s exquisite rally to unravel, we don’t need the Fed to actually raise rates; we need markets to begin to discount higher rates. And this, they seem to be doing. Watch carefully if 10-year TIPS rates get back above 0.80% – the December peak – and look for higher ground if those real yields exceed 1%. We’re at 0.60% right now.

Stocks will probably bounce over the next few days as Fed speakers try and downplay the importance of the statement and of Yellen’s press conference remarks (rhetorical question: how effective is a communication strategy if you have to re-explain what you were communicating)? If they do not bounce, that ought also to be taken as a bad sign. Of course, I continue to believe that there are many more paths leading to bad outcomes for equities (and bonds!) than there are paths leading to good outcomes. Meanwhile, commodity markets were roughly unchanged in aggregate today…

Don’t Bank on it

February 17, 2014 7 comments

Here is a post from Sober Look that has some really good charts on the changing asset mix at US banks. I was a little surprised that they didn’t point out the obvious connection in the charts, although they do make some key points in a previous post.

To summarize: the charts show that the loan-to-deposit ratio in the banking system recently hit a 35-year low, and that the proportion of cash on the balance sheet of banks has gone from maybe 5% to around 20% (eyeballing it) in the last ten years.

Obviously, these two facts are not unconnected, since loans and cash are both assets to banks. The reason for the shift from loans to cash is very simple: QE. Banks don’t want to hold as much cash (reserves) as they are carrying, but the alternative is to lend it to people in sub-optimal loans – that is, where the interest rate charged does not compensate for the risk that the loan will not be paid back, so that the lending has a negative NPV. Moreover, the cash itself has a positive return because the Fed is paying interest on excess reserves, so that the lending has a higher hurdle to achieve than it would if this was just “normal” cash or reserves.

Understanding this dynamic is really important. So here’s how this works: if interest rates rise, but reserves have the same yield, then lending becomes more profitable and loans will increase – that is, the money multiplier will rise, with less money in the vault and more money in transactional accounts. If, on the other hand, the Fed raises the interest on excess reserves while lending rates stay unchanged, then even fewer loans will be made and banks will hold more cash relative to loans. This is one mechanism by which higher interest rates initially encourage higher inflation.

(And yes, while the total amount of reserves in the system is fixed, the total amount of loans is not, so while the Fed controls the former they do not control the latter except indirectly).

So, consider the “exit” strategy. As interest rates rise, the multiplier will increase unless the Fed hikes interest on excess reserves. But since interest rates move more flexibly, more rapidly, and often further than do policy rates, this probably means the multiplier will be determined mostly by the market (I wonder if the Fed declared the IOER to be “10-year yields minus 250bps” if that would change things?). The gap is the thing. And, if Yellen actually cuts the IOER to zero, as she has intimated is possible, then the multiplier would rise…and we don’t know by how much.

On the flip side, if the Fed tapers QE to zero, and lending rates fall, then the multiplier would tend to fall further because that gap narrows. In that case, you really could get a disinflationary scenario…though I am skeptical that long rates can fall very much when public debt is so high and the Fed is withdrawing its support for the bond market. Still, a crisis could do it. To be clear: you’d need the Fed to stop adding reserves, to neglect the IOER – or increase it – and long rates to decline substantially (at least 100bps, say). So if you are a deflationist, there are your signposts. I don’t anticipate that any of that happening, except that I imagine they will screw up the IOER strategy and they could screw that up in either direction.

And by the way, I don’t think any of that would affect inflation much in 2014, since higher housing prices are already going to be pressing core inflation higher. But it could affect 2015.

However, I digress from the other point I wanted to make that was suggested by the Sober Look article, and that is this: it continues to amaze me how well bank stocks are trading. I’ve been saying this for years – which helps to illustrate that I am a strategic investor, not a twitchy tactical guy. Return on equity equals gross margin (profit/revenue), times asset turnover (revenue/assets), times leverage (assets/equity), and for banks all three of these components are under pressure. Gross margin is under pressure from the movement of more products to electronic trading and from increasing legal bills at banks (the FX trading scandal is the latest threat of multibillion-dollar fines, adding to the LIBOR scandal and probes of the gold and silver price fixing system as sources of legal headaches for banks). Banks have been forced via the crisis to shed leverage, as a chart I recently ran illustrated. And low interest rates combined with large amounts of cash compared to loans on the balance sheet pressures the asset turnover statistic. So it isn’t surprising that bank ROEs are low (see chart of the NASDAQ bank index ROEs, source Bloomberg). roebanksWhat is surprising is that they even got this high, and market pricing seems to anticipate that they’ll keep rising. Bank stocks are actually outperforming the S&P since late 2011, and their P/E ratios are essentially where they have always been, excluding the spike when earnings collapsed in the crisis, causing P/Es to skyrocket (see chart, source Bloomberg).

bankpeMaybe all the bad news is already in the price of bank stocks, but it doesn’t look like it to me.

The Marie Antoinette Rule

February 11, 2014 5 comments

The biggest surprise of the day on Tuesday did not come from new Fed Chairman Janet Yellen, nor from the fact that she didn’t offer dovish surprises. Many observers had expected that after a mildly weak recent equity market and slightly soft Employment data, Yellen (who has historically been, admittedly, quite a dove) would hold out the chance that the “taper” may be delayed. But actually, she seemed to suggest that nothing has changed about the plan to incrementally taper Fed purchases of Treasuries and mortgages. I had thought that would be the likely outcome, and said so yesterday when I supposed “she will be reluctant to be a dove right out of the gate.”

The surprise came in the market reaction. Since there had been no other major (equity) bullish influences over the last week, I assumed that the stock market rally had been predicated on the presumption that Yellen would give some solace to the bulls. When she did not, I thought stocks would have difficulty – and on that, I was utterly wrong. Now, whether that means the market thinks Yellen is lying, or whether there is some other reason stocks are rallying, or whether they are rallying for no reason whatsoever, I haven’t a clue.

I do know though that the DJ-UBS commodity index reached its highest closing level in five months, and that commodities are still comfortably ahead of stocks in 2014 even with this latest equity rally. This rally has been driven by energy and livestock, with some precious metals improvements thrown in. So, lest we be tempted to say that the rally in commodities is confirming some underlying economic strength, reflect that industrial metals remain near 5-year lows (see chart, source Bloomberg, of the DJUBS Industrial Metals Subindex).

indmet

One of the reasons I write these articles is to get feedback from readers, who forward me all sorts of articles and observations related to inflation. Even though I have access to many of these same sources, I don’t always see every article, so it’s helpful to get a heads up this way. A case in point is the article that was on Business Insider yesterday, detailing another quirky inflation-related report from Goldman Sachs.http://www.businessinsider.com/goldman-fed-should-target-wage-growth-2014-2

Now, I really like much of what Jan Hatzius does, but on inflation the economics team at Goldman is basically adrift. It may be that the author of this article doesn’t have the correct story, but if he does then here is the basic argument from Goldman: the Fed shouldn’t target inflation or employment, but rather on wage growth, because wage growth is a better measure of the “employment gap” and will tie unemployment and inflation together better.

The reason the economists need to make this argument is because “price inflation is not very responsive to the employment gap at low levels of inflation,” which is a point I have made often and most recently in my December “re-blog” series.

But, as has happened so often with Goldman’s economists when it comes to inflation, they take a perfectly reasonable observation and draw a nonsensical conclusion from it. The obvious conclusion, given the absolute failure of the “employment gap” to forecast core price inflation over the last five years, is that the employment gap and price inflation are not particularly related. The experimental evidence of that period makes the argument that they are – which is a perversion of Phillips’ original argument, which related wages and unemployment – extremely difficult to support. Hatzius et. al. clearly now recognize this, but they draw the wrong conclusion.

There is no need to tie unemployment and inflation together …unless you are a member of the bow-tied set, and really need to calibrate parameters for the Taylor Rule. So it isn’t at all a concern that they aren’t, unless you really want your employment gap models to spit out useful forecasts. Okay, so if you can’t forecast prices, then use the same models and call it a wage forecast!

But the absurdity goes a bit farther. By suggesting that the Fed set policy on the basis of wage inflation, these economists are proposing a truly abhorrent policy of raising interest rates simply because people are making more money. Wage inflation is a good thing; end product price inflation is a bad thing. Under the Goldman rule, if wages were rising smartly but price inflation was subdued, then the Fed should tighten. But why tighten just because real wages are increasing at a solid pace? That is, after all, one of society’s goals! If the real wage increase came about because of an increase in productivity, or because of a decrease in labor supply, then it does not call for a tightening of monetary policy. In such cases, it is eminently reasonable that laborers take home a larger share of the real gains from manufacture and trade.

On the other hand, if low nominal wage growth was coupled with high price inflation, the Goldman rule would call for an easing of monetary policy…even though that would tend to increase price inflation while doing nothing for wages. In short, the Goldman rule should probably be called the Marie Antoinette rule. It will tend to beat down wage earners.

Whether or not the Goldman rule is an improvement over the Taylor Rule is not necessarily the right question either, because the Taylor Rule is not the right policy rule to begin with. Returning to the prior point: the employment gap has not demonstrated any useful predictive ability regarding inflation. Moreover, monetary policy has demonstrated almost no ability to make any impact on the unemployment rate. The correct conclusion here is a policy rule should not have an employment gap term. The Federal Reserve should be driven by prospective changes in the aggregate price level, which are in turn driven in the long run almost entirely by changes in the supply of money. So it isn’t surprising that the Goldman rule can improve on the Taylor rule – there are a huge number of rules that would do so.

Two Types of People?

February 10, 2014 2 comments

Investors have learned the same wrong lessons over the last couple of years that they learned in the run-up to 2000, evidently. I remember that in the latter part of 1999, every mild equity market setback was met immediately with buying – the thought was that you had to jump quickly on the train before it left the station again. There was no thought about whether the bounce was real, or whether it “made sense”; for quite a number of them in a row, the bounce was absolutely real and the train really did leave the station.

Then, the train reached the end of the line and rolled backwards down the mountain, gathering speed and making it very difficult to jump off. I remember getting a call from my broker at the time, recommending Lucent at around $45 – quite the discount from the $64 high. I noted that I was a value investor and I didn’t see value in that stock, and to not call me again until he had a decent value idea. He next called with a recommendation later that year, with a stock that had just hit $30…a real bargain! And, as it turned out, that stock was also Lucent. The lesson he had learned was that any stock at a discount from the highs was a “value” stock. (Lucent ended up bottoming at about $0.55 in late 2002 and was eventually acquired by Alcatel in 2006).

This lesson appears to have been learned as well. On Thursday and Friday a furious rally took stocks up, erasing a week and a half of decline. This happened despite the fact that Friday’s Employment number was just about the worst possible number for equities: weak enough to indicate that the December figure was not just about seasonal adjustment, but represented real weakness, but nowhere near weak enough to influence the Federal Reserve to consider pausing the recent taper. We will confirm this fact tomorrow, before the market open, when new Fed Chairman Janet Yellen delivers the Monetary Policy Report (neé Humphrey-Hawkins) testimony to the House Financial Services Committee (her comments to be released at 8:30ET). While I believe that Yellen will be very reluctant to raise rates any time soon, and likely will seize on signs of recession to stop the taper in its tracks, she will be reluctant to be a dove right out of the gate.

And that might upset the apple cart tomorrow, if I’m right.

I have been fairly clear recently that I see a fairly significant risk of market volatility to come, both on the fixed-income side but especially on the equity side. I think stocks are substantially overvalued and could fall markedly even without any important change in the underlying economic dynamics. But there is actually good news which should be considered along with that fact: when markets were last egregiously overpriced, financial institutions were also substantially more-levered than they are today. The chart below (source: Federal Reserve) shows that as a percentage of GDP, domestic financial institutions are about one third less levered than they were at the 2008 peak.

debtdelevNow, this exaggerates the deleveraging to some extent – households, for example, appear to have deleveraged by about 20% on this chart, but the actual nominal amount of debt outstanding has only declined from about $14 trillion to about $13.1 trillion. Corporate entities have actually put on more debt (which made sense for a while but probably doesn’t now that equity is so highly valued relative to earnings), but in terms of a percentage of GDP they are at least not any more levered than they were in 2008.

The implication of this fact is some rare good news: since the banking system has led the deleveraging, the systemic risk that could follow on the heels of a significant market decline is likely to be much less, at least among U.S. domestic financial institutions. So, in principal, while it was clear that a decline in equity and real estate prices in 2007-2008 would eventually cause damage to the real economy as the financial damage was amplified through the financial system, this is less true today. We can, in other words, have some reasonable market movements without having that automatically lead to recession. The direct wealth effect of equity price movements is very small, on the order of a couple of percent. It’s the indirect effects that we have to worry about, and the good news is that those indirect effects are smaller now – although I wouldn’t say those risks are absent.

Now for the bad news. The bad news is that significant market volatility – say, a 50% decline in stock prices – would likely be met with “help” from the federal government and monetary authorities. It is that help which likely would hurt the economy by increasing business uncertainty further. It is probably not a coincidence that the last couple of months, which correspond to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, have led to some weaker growth figures. Whether change is perceived as positive or negative, it’s the constant changing of the rules – and especially now that these rules are increasingly changed by executive fiat without the moderating influence of Congress (I never thought I would write that) – that damages business confidence.

In other words, I wouldn’t be concerned about the direct economic effect of a 50% decline in equity prices; but I would be concerned if such a decline led to meddling from the Fed, the Congress, or the White House.

While investors learned the hard lessons after 2000 and 2008 about the wisdom of automatically buying dips, they eventually forgot those lessons. But that makes them almost infinitely smarter than policymakers, who have refused to learn the obvious lesson of the last few years: your ministrations do little to help, and most likely hurt. So, maybe it really is true that there are two types of people: those who listen to everybody, and those who listen to nobody. The former become investors, and the latter enter government service!

Do Data Matter Again?

February 3, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

ismpric and gasoline

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.

ismvsgas

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.

natty

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.

coffee

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).

stockscomm

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.

Shots Fired

January 29, 2014 8 comments

This isn’t the first time that stocks have corrected, even if it is the first time that they have corrected by as much as 4% in a long while. I point out that rather obvious fact because I want to be cautious not to suggest that equities are guaranteed to continue lower for a while. Yes, I have noted often that the market is overvalued and in December put the 10-year expected real return for stocks at only 1.54%. Earlier in that month, I pointed out and remarked on Hussman’s observation that the methods of Didier Sornette suggested a market “singularity” between mid-December and January. And, earlier this month, I followed up earlier statements in which I said I would be negative on stocks when momentum turned and added that I would sell new lows below the lows of the week of January 17th.

But none of that is a forecast of an imminent decline of appreciable magnitude, and I want to be clear of that. The high levels of valuation make any decline potentially dangerous since the levels that will attract serious value investors are so far away. But that is not tantamount to forecasting a waterfall decline, which I have not done and will not do. How does one forecast animal spirits? And that is exactly what a waterfall decline is all about. Yes, there may be precipitating events, but these are rarely known in prospect. Sure, stocks fell sharply after Bear Stearns in the summer of 2007 liquidated two mortgage-backed funds, but stocks reached new highs in October 2007. What happened in mid-October 2007 to trigger the top? Here is a crisis timeline assembled by the St. Louis Fed. There is basically nothing in October 2007. Similarly, as Bob Shiller has documented, at the time of the 1987 crash there was no talk whatsoever about portfolio insurance. The explanation came later. How about March 2000, the high on the Nasdaq (although the S&P 500 didn’t top until September)?

What two of these episodes – 2000 and 2007 – have in common is that valuations were stretched, but I think it’s important to note that there was no obvious precipitating factor at the time. It wasn’t until well into the stock market debacle in 2007-08 that it became obvious (even to Bernanke!) that the subprime crisis wasn’t just a subprime crisis.[1]

Here is my message, then: when you hear shots fired, it isn’t the best idea to wait around to figure out why people are shooting before you put your head down. Because as the saying goes: if the enemy is in range, so are you.

And, although it may not end up being a full-fledged firefight, shots are being fired, mere days before Janet Yellen takes the helm of the Fed officially (which may be ominous since Fed Chairmen are traditionally tested by markets early in their tenure). Last night, Turkey was forced to crank up money rates by about 450bps, depending which rate you look at. When Argentina was having currency issues, it wasn’t surprising – when you have runaway inflation, even if you declare inflation to be something else, the currency generally gets hit eventually. And Russia’s central bank was established only in 1990. But Turkey, about 65% larger in GDP terms than Argentina, is relatively modern economically and has a central bank that was established in the 1930s and has been learning lessons basically in parallel with our Fed since the early 1980s. Heck, it’s almost a member of the EU. So when that central bank starts cranking up rates to defend the currency, I take note. It may well mean nothing, but since global economics has been somewhat dull for the last year or so (and that’s a good thing), it stands out as something different.

What was not different today was the Fed’s statement, compared to its prior statement. The FOMC decided to continue the taper, down to “only” $65bln in purchases monthly now. This was never really in question. It would have been incredibly shocking if the Fed had paused tapering because of a mild ripple in global equity markets. The only real surprise was actually on the hawkish side, as Minnesota Fed President Kocherlakota did not dissent in favor of maintaining unchanged (or increased) stimulus – something he has been agitating for recently. Don’t get too used to the Fed being on the hawkish side of expectations, however. As noted above, Dr. Yellen takes the helm starting next week.

The Treasury held its first auction of floating rate notes (FRNs) today, and the auction was highly successful. And why should they not be? They are T-bill credits that reset to the T-bill rate quarterly, plus 4.5bps. In the next few days I will post an article explaining, however, why floating rate notes don’t provide “inflation protection;” there has been a lot of misinformation about that point, and while I explained why this isn’t true in a post from May 2012 when the concept of the FRN program was first mooted, it is worth reiterating in more detail.

So we now have a new class of securities. Why? What constituency was not being sufficiently served by the existing roster of 1-month, 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year TBills, and 2 year notes?

I will ask another “why” question. Why is the President proposing the “myRA” program, which is essentially a way to push savings bonds (the basics of the program is that if you sign up and meet certain income requirements, the government will give you the splendid opportunity to put your money in an account that returns a low, guaranteed rate of interest). This is absolutely nothing new. You can already set up an account with http://www.TreasuryDirect.gov and have your employer make a payroll direct deposit to that account. And there’s no income maximum, and no requirement to ever roll it into an IRA. Yes, it’s true – with Treasury Direct, you will have to pay federal taxes on the interest, but the target audience for the myRA program is not likely to be paying much in the way of taxes so that’s pretty small beer.[2]

The answer to the “why” in both cases is that the Treasury, noticing that one regular trillion-dollar buyer of its debt is leaving the trough, is looking rather urgently for new buyers. FRNs, and a new way to push Treasuries on middle-class America.

Interest rates have declined since year-end, partly because equities have been weak, partly because some growth indicators have been weak recently, and partly because the carry on long Treasury securities is positively terrific. But the Treasury is advertising fairly loudly that they are concerned about whether they’ll be able to raise enough money, at “reasonable” rates, through conventional auctions. Both of these “innovations” cause interest payments to be pegged at the very short end of the curve, where the Fed has pledged to control interest rates for now, but I think interest rates will rise eventually.

Probably not, however, while the bullets fly.


[1] In a note to Natixis clients on December 4th, 2007, entitled “Tragedy of the Commons,” I commented that “M2 has grown only at a 4.4% annual rate over the last 13 weeks, and that’s egregiously too little considering the credit mess (not just subprime, as I am sure my readers are aware, but Alt-A and Prime mortgages, auto loans and credit cards too),” but the idea that the crisis was broader than subprime wasn’t the general consensus at the time by any means. Incidentally, in that same article I said “We have not entered a recession with core inflation this low in many decades, and this recession looks to be a doozy. I believe that by late 2008 we will be confronting the possibility of deflation once again. And, as in the last episode, the Fed will face a stark choice: if short rates don’t get to zero before inflation gets to zero, the Fed loses as they will never be able to get short rates negative,” which I mention since some people think I have always been bullish on inflation.

[2] I wonder how the money is treated for purposes of the debt ceiling. If the Treasury is no longer able to issue debt, then surely it won’t be able to do what amounts to issuing debt in the “myRA” program? So if they hit the debt ceiling, does interest on the account go to zero?

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