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Summary (and Extension) of My Post-CPI Tweets

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

  • 5 minutes to CPI. Consensus is for core to barely round to 0.2%, and for y/y core to remain at a soft 2.3%
  • I have the “over” there, but the “under” against my friend who thinks it’s gonna be 0.24%.
  • Core CPI +0.09%, y/y drops to 2.20%.
  • Waiting for the breakdown to dig deeper. Housing accelerated y/y, as did Medical care, but Apparel, Rec, Educ/comm all lower.
  • …Housing and Medical care are the big longer-term concerns so the internals might not be as weak as the headline. Taking a look now.
  • Meanwhile Dudley on the tape saying “probably don’t have to do a lot of tightening over time.” Echoes Williams. When doves cry.
  • At the same time Dudley says rate hike is possible in September. Sure, anything is possible. But not with core printing 0.1% m/m.
  • ..in Housing, Primary Rents fell to 3.77% from 3.81% y/y. OER rose to 3.26% vs 3.25%, continuing flat patterns.
  • Those are the biggest parts of housing. Lodging away from home plunged y/y. Where did the rise in housing come from? Household energy.
  • HH energy -1.37% y/y vs -3.02%. That’s 3.8% of the CPI, but not in core obviously. So housing ex-energy was basically flat.
  • Overall Medical Care category rose to 3.99% from 3.65% and 3.17% the month before that. Jumps in every category:
  • Drugs 3.77% (vs 3.40%). Equipment/supplies 0.1% (-0.62%). Prof Svcs 2.86% (2.60%). Hospital 4.41% (4.12%). Health Ins 7.78% (7.10%)
  • Large jumps everywhere in Medical Care. *Discuss.*
  • Apparel still rising y/y, at 0.35%, but won’t really take off until the dollar declines.
  • Overall, core services +3.1% (was 3.2%) and core goods -0.6% (unch).
  • Popular number is core ex-housing. 1.36% y/y vs 1.37%.
  • So overall, despite the weak m/m core number, the big trends remain in place. Housing flat to higher. Medical Care starting to ramp up.
  • A broad array of volatile components dragged m/m CPI down. But 59% of the basket is still accelerating faster than 3%.
  • Biggest monthly falls: motor fuel, car and truck rental, public transp, lodging away from home, and misc pers goods. All <-20% m/m
  • Only category over 20% annualized m/m increase was Infants and toddler’s apparel.
  • These last few facts mean that MEDIAN inflation, a better measure of inflation, will be up 0.24% or so m/m. 2.48% y/y.
  • Ugly pic #1: Health Insurance y/y

insurance

  • Ugly picture #2: medicinal drugs y/y.

drugs

  • ugly picture the worst: Medical Care overall, y/y

medicaltot

  • Owners’ Equiv Rent, largest part of CPI. Certainly high and stable. Maybe tapering? But at 3.3%! Ugly or no?

oer

  • FWIW our forecast is for OER to rise a little bit further, but less dramatically unless core ex-housing starts to move.
  • I’m not sure it’s comforting to have rents up “only” 3-4% in context of rising med care. In any event: core ain’t falling soon.
  • note that in August 2015, core was +0.12% m/m. So we’ll see some re-acceleration (and possible catch-up) next month.
  • I actually think there’s a chance for an 0.3% print next month. which would make the FOMC more interesting.
  • Right now, it’s not interesting. With m/m core at 0.09% and 3 quarters of 1% GDP, Fed not tightening in Sept.
  • Thanks for all the new follows and the re-tweets. Good time to mention a couple of things:
  • I’m thrilled to be on “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg TV at 3:30ET today. With @scarletfu @thestalwart and @OJRenick
  • Here’s my book: What’s Wrong With Money? The Biggest Bubble of All
  • My company, Enduring Investments, is raising a small amount of capital in the management co. Details here: https://www.crowdfunder.com/enduring-investments-llc/

So, while PPI is not usually much of a predictor of CPI, in this case it gave early warning that we were about to see a weak print from the more-important indicator. But that weakness came from a couple of smaller categories. I have shown this chart a number of times before, but I think it’s especially instructive this time. Compare the distribution of price changes in categories (by the weight in the category) this month…

distrib

To the same distribution from last October.

cpidist

Note that the left tail, which holds the laggards, has more weight this time. There is not quite as much weight in the deep deflation tail, but there are more 0% and 0.5% categories. Yes, there is also one really big increase on the right although it still doesn’t add up to much. The biggest piece of the upper tail is Health Insurance – which as you can tell from the chart above is fairly persistent. In short, I think there’s a better chance of the lower tail reverting to the mode of the distribution than there is of the upper tail doing the same. (This is why Median CPI is a better measure).

The bottom line for markets in the near-term is that nothing about this number scares policymakers. While Dudley says that September is still on the table for an FOMC tightening, the reality is that the data will present them with no urgency – even if, as I think likely, next month’s core CPI corrects for this month’s weakness. And Williams’ ridiculous paper gives them academic cover to ignore the fact that median CPI is at 2.5% and likely will continue to rise. Moreover, LIBOR has been rising because of changes in money market regulations, so FOMC members can argue that financial conditions are tightening automatically. In short, it is very unlikely in my opinion that the Fed hikes rates in September. Or November. Or December.

Shooting Blanks

August 2, 2016 4 comments

Almost eight years after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the first of many central bank quantitative easing programs, it appears the expansion – the weakest on record by several measures – is petering out. The Q2 growth rate of GDP was 1.2% annualized, meaning that the last three quarters were +0.9%, +0.8%, +1.2%. That’s not a recession, but it’s also not an expansion to write home about.

But why? Why after all of the quantitative easing? Is the effectiveness waning? Is it time for more?

I read recently about how many economists are expecting the Bank of England to increase asset purchases (QE) this Thursday in an attempt to counteract the depressing effects of Brexit on growth. Some think the increase will be as much as £150 billion. That’s impressive, but will it help?

I also read recently about how the Bank of Japan “disappointed investors” by not increasing asset purchases except incrementally. The analysts said this was disappointing because the BOJ’s action was “not enough to cause growth.”

That’s because no amount of money printing is enough to cause growth. No amount.

It seems like people get confused with this concept, including many economists, because we use units of currency. So let’s try illustrating the point a different way. Suppose I pay you in candy bars for the widgets you produce. Suppose I pay you 10 candy bars, each of which is 10 ounces, for each widget. Now, if I start paying you 11 candy bars instead of 10, then the price has risen and you want to produce more widgets, right? This, indirectly, is what economists are thinking when they think about the effect of monetary policy.

But suppose that I pay you 11 candy bars, but now each candy bar is 9.1 ounces instead of 10 ounces? I suspect you will not be fooled into producing more widgets. You will realize that I am still paying you 100 ounces of candy per widget. You are not fooled by the fact that the unit of account changed in intrinsic value.

Now, when the central bank adds to the money supply, but doesn’t change the amount of stuff the economy produces (they don’t have the power to direct production!), then all that changes is the size of the unit of account – the candy bar, or in this case the dollar – and the number of dollars you need to buy a widget goes up. That’s called inflation. And the only way that printing more money can cause production to increase is if you don’t notice that the value of any given unit of currency has declined. That is, only if I say I’m paying you 11 candy bars – but you haven’t noticed they are smaller – will you respond to the change in terms. This is called “money illusion,” and it is why money printing does not cause growth in theory…and, as it turns out, in practice.[1]

There is nothing terribly strange or unpredictable about what is going on in global growth in terms of the response to monetary policy. The only thing strange is that eight years on, with numerous observations on which to evaluate the efficacy of quantitative easing, the conclusion appears to be that it might not be quite as effective as policymakers had thought. And therefore, we need to do lots more of it, the thought process seems to go. But anything times zero is zero. Central banks are not shooting an inaccurate, awkward weapon in the fight to stimulate growth, which just needs to be fired a lot more so that something eventually hits. They are shooting blanks. And no amount of shooting blanks will bring down the bad guy.

[1] I address this aspect of money, and other aspects that affect inflation, in my book What’s Wrong With Money: The Biggest Bubble of All.

August: More Esther, Less Mester

The last two weeks of July felt a lot like August typically does. Thin, lethargic trading; somewhat gappy but directionless. Ten-year Treasury note futures held a 1-point range except for a few minutes last Thursday. The S&P oscillated (and it really looks like a simple oscillation) between 2160 and 2175 for the most part (chart source Bloomberg):

dull

In thinking about what August holds, I’ll say this. What the stock market (and bond market) has had going for it is momentum. What these markets have had going against them is value. When value and momentum meet, the result is indeterminate. It often depends on whether carry is penalizing the longs, or penalizing the shorts. For the last few years, with very low financing rates across a wide variety of assets, carry has fairly favored the longs. In 2016, that advantage is lessening as short rates come up and long rates have declined. The chart below shows the spread between 10-year Treasury rates and 3-month LIBOR (a reasonable proxy for short-term funding rates) which gives you some idea of how the carry accruing to a financed long position has deteriorated.

carry

So now, dwelling on the last few weeks’ directionless trading, I think it’s fair to say that the markets’ value conditions haven’t much changed, but momentum generally has surely ebbed. In a situation where carry covers fewer trading sins, the markets surely are on more tenuous ground now than they have been for a bit. This doesn’t mean that we will see the bottom fall out in August, of course.

But add this to the consideration: markets completely ignored the Fed announcement yesterday, despite the fact that most observers thought the inserted language that “near-term risks to the economic outlook have diminished” made this a surprisingly hawkish statement. (For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine that any reasonable assessment of the change in risks from before the Brexit vote to after the Brexit vote could conclude anything else). Now, I certainly don’t think that this Fed, with its very dovish leadership, is going to tighten imminently even though prices and wages (see chart below of the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker and the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI, source Bloomberg) are so obviously trending higher that even the forecasting-impaired Federal Reserve can surely see it. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Fed cannot afford to be ignored.

wagesandprices

Accordingly, something else that I expect to see in August is more-hawkish Fed speakers. Kansas City Fed President Esther George dissented in favor of a rate hike at this meeting. So in August, I think we will hear more Esther and less Mester (Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester famously mused about helicopter money a couple of weeks ago). The FOMC doesn’t want to crash the stock and bond markets. But it wants to be noticed.

The problem is that in thin August markets – there’s no escaping that, I am afraid – it might not take much, with ebbing momentum in these markets, to cause some decent retracements.

Categories: Federal Reserve, Trading, Wages

The Destination Currency in the Global Carry Trade: USD?

If you are an investor of the Ben Graham school, you’ve lived your life looking for “value” investments with a “margin of safety.” Periodically, if you are a pure value investor, then you go through long periods of pulling your hair out when momentum rules the day, even if you believe – as GMO’s Ben Inker eloquently stated in last month’s letter – that in the long run, no factor is as important to investment returns as valuation.

This is one of those times. Stocks have been egregiously overvalued (using the Shiller CAPE, or Tobin’s Q, or any of a dozen other traditional value metrics) for a very long time now. Ten-year Treasuries are at 1.80% in an environment where median inflation is at 2.5% and rising, and where the Fed’s target for inflation is above the long-term nominal yield. TIPS yields are significantly better, but 10-year real yields at 0.23% won’t make you rich. Commodities are very cheap, but that’s just a bubble in the other direction. The bottom line is that the last few years have not been a great time to be purely a value investor. The value investor laments “why?”, and tries to incorporate some momentum metrics into his or her approach, to at least avoid the value traps.

Well, here is one reason why: the US is the destination currency in the global carry trade.

A “carry trade” is one in which regular returns can be earned simply on the difference in yields between different instruments. If I can borrow at LIBOR flat and lend at LIBOR+2%, I am in a carry trade. Carry trades that are riskless and result from one’s market position (e.g., if I am a bank and I can borrow from 5-year CD customers at 0.5% and invest in 5-year Treasuries at 1.35%) are usually more like accrual trades, and are not what we are talking about here. We are talking about positions that imply some risk, even if it is believed to be small. For example, because we are pretty sure that the Fed will not tighten aggressively any time soon, we could simply buy 2-year Treasuries at 0.88% and borrow the money in overnight repo markets at 0.40% and earn 48bps per year for two years. This will work unless overnight interest rates rise appreciably above 88bps.

We all know that carry trades can be terribly dangerous. Carry trades are implicit short-option bets where you make a little money a lot of the time, and then get run over with some (unknown) frequency and lose a lot of money occasionally. But they are seductive bets since we all like to think we will see the train coming and leap free just in time. There’s a reason these bets exist – someone wants the other side, after all.

Carry trades in currency-land are some of the most common and most curious of all. If I borrow money for three years in Japan and lend it in Brazil, then I expect to make a huge interest spread. Of course, though, this is entirely reflected in the 3-year forward rate between yen and real, which is set precisely in this way (covered-interest arbitrage, it is called). So, to make money on the Yen/Real carry bet, you need to carry the trade and reverse the exchange rate bet at the end. If the Real has appreciated, or has been stable, or has declined only a little, then you “won” the carry trade. But all you really did was bet against the forward exchange rate. Still, lots and lots of investors make precisely this sort of bet: borrowing money is low-interest rate currencies, investing in high-interest-rate currencies, and betting that the latter currency will at least not decline very much.

How does this get back to the value question?

Over the last several years, the US interest rate advantage relative to Europe and Japan has grown. This should mean that the dollar is expected to weaken going forward, so that someone who borrows in Euro to invest in the US ought to expect to lose on the future exchange rate when they cash out their dollars. And indeed, as the interest rate advantage has widened so has the steepness of the forward points curve that expresses this relationship. But, because investors like to go to higher-yielding currencies, the dollar in fact has strengthened.

This flow is a lot like what happens to people on a ship that has foundered on rocks. Someone lowers a lifeboat, which looks like a great deal. So people begin to pour into the lifeboat, and they keep doing so until it ceases, suddenly, to be a good deal. Then all of those people start to wish they had stayed on the ship and waited for help.

In any event, back to value: the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the difference between the 10-year US$ Libor swap rate minus the 10-year Euribor swap rate, in white and plotted in percentage terms on the right-hand scale. The yellow line is the S&P 500, and is plotted on the left-hand scale. Notice anything interesting?

carry1

The next chart shows a longer time scale. You can see that this is not a phenomenon unique to the last few years.

carry2

Yes, the correlation isn’t perfect but to me, it’s striking. And we can probably do better. After all, the chart above is just showing the level of equity prices, not whether they are overvalued or undervalued, and my thesis is that the fact that the US is the high-yielding currency in the carry trade causes the angst for value investors. We can show this by looking at the interest rate spread as above, but this time against a measure of valuation. I’ve chosen, for simplicity, the Shiller Cyclically-Adjusted P/E (CAPE) (Source: http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data.htm)

capevsspread

Now, I should take pains to point out that I have not proven any causality here. It may turn out, in fact, that the causality runs the other way: overheated markets lead to tight US monetary policy that causes the interest rate spread to widen. I am skeptical of that, because I can’t recall many episodes in the last couple of decades where frothy markets led to tight monetary policy, but the point is that this chart is only suggestive of a relationship, not indicative of it. Still, it is highly suggestive!

The implication, if there is a causal relationship here, is interesting. It suggests that we need not fear these levels of valuation, as long as interest rates continue to suggest that the US is a good place to keep your money (that is, as long as you aren’t afraid of the dollar weakening). That, in turn, suggests that we ought to keep an eye on rates of change: if the ECB tightens more, or eases less, than is priced into European markets (which seems unlikely), or the Fed tightens less, or eases more, than is priced into US markets (which seems more likely, but not super likely since not much is presently priced in), or the dollar trend changes clearly. When one of those things happens, it will be a sign that not only are the future returns to equities looking unrewarding, but the more immediate returns as well.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

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

  • In prep for CPI: Econs forecasting about 0.15% core; Cleveland Fed’s Nowcast is 0.18%; avg of last 4 months is 0.20%.
  • So, econs which have been too bullish on econ for a year (see citi surprise index) are bearish on CPI.
  • If we get any m/m core less than 0.20% (even 0.19%), y/y will round to 2.1% b/c dropping off high 2015 April.
  • But after that, next 8 months from 2015 were <0.20% so any downtick wouldn’t be start of something new.
  • Hard to tell but the core CPI print was SLIGHTLY above expectations. 0.195%, so y/y was 2.147%.
  • In other words, if someone charged another nickel for a candy bar somewhere we would have had 2.2% again. <<hyperbole
  • That 0.195% m/m was lower than April 2015, but higher than May, June, July, Aug, Sep, Nov, and Dec.
  • Core services unch at 3.0%; core goods downticked to -0.5% y/y.
  • y/y Medical Care decelerated for second month in a row, down to 2.98% y/y; still looks to be in a broad uptrend from 2% in 2014. [ed note: chart added for clarity]

medcarecpi

  • Within Medical Care, medicinal drugs accelerated, prof svcs was flat. Hospital svcs dropped from 4.33 to 3.15% y/y
  • Hospital services oscillates – we’ll probably get that back to 4%-4.5% which will push med care back up.
  • Primary Rents 3.73% from 3.66%. OER 3.15% from 3.12%. Some were expecting deceleration there. Not us!
  • Lodging Away from Home dropped to 1.32% from 2.27%. That, and various home furnishings, is why Housing subcat went to 2.12 vs 2.14.
  • But Rents and OER are the stable measures…not Lodging, not furnishings.
  • Core ex-housing fell to 1.39% from 1.48%, but again that’s due to elements of med care and housing that are likely to rebound.
  • Lots of movement within Apparel but overall nothing. The February pop looks like a one-off.
  • Overall, a more buoyant number than expected and the stuff holding core CPI down are the transient things.
  • Biggest m/m declines: infants’/toddlers’ apparel (-26.5% annualized), fresh fruits & veggies; women’s apparel; Lodging away from home.
  • Biggest m/m outliers: Motor Fuel (+152.3% annualized), Fuel Oil, Processed Fruits & Veggies; Motor Vehicle Insurance.
  • My estimate of median CPI is actually 0.28% m/m and 2.46% y/y. But…
  • …but the median category this month may be affected by regional housing, and I don’t have the BLS factors. So grain of salt needed.
  • This summarizes the inflation story. Rents and Services ex-rents both rising ~3%. Core goods is the anchor.

threecat

Discussion: after last month’s surprising m/m core CPI print of +0.07%, many were questioning whether that was the outlier, or whether the +0.29% and +0.28% of January and February were the outliers. The answer might be that they are all outliers, as this month’s print was very close to the 4-month average. But even so, +0.2% m/m would produce a 2.4% core inflation number by the year’s end. That’s consistent with what we are being told by Median inflation. Both figures would suggest core PCE, after all of the temporary effects are removed, is essentially at or slightly above the Fed’s 2% target.

There are two pertinent questions at this juncture. The first is whether the Fed will feel any urgency to raise rates more quickly because of this data. The answer to that, I think, is clearly “no.” This Federal Reserve’s reaction function seems to be overly (and overtly) tilted towards growth indicators – and even more than that, their forecast of growth indicators. The majority of the Committee also believes that inflation expectations are “anchored” and so inflation can’t really move higher very quickly. They only pay lip service to inflation concerns, and honestly they aren’t even very good at the lip service.

The second question is where inflation goes next. Whether the Federal Reserve raises the target overnight rate or not, the question of inflation is relevant for markets. And the indicators seem to be fairly clear: the larger and more persistent categories are seeing price increases of around 3% or more, while the main drag comes from a “core goods” component that is highly influenced by the lagged effect of dollar strength (see chart, source Bloomberg).

coregoodsvsusd

Recently, the dollar has been weakening marginally but still is in a broad uptrend (looking at the broad, trade-weighted dollar). But if the buck merely goes flat, core goods will start to move higher. And that means even if core services remain steady, core inflation should push towards 3% later this year.

This doesn’t sound like much but it would be highly significant (and surprising) for many observers, investors, and consumers. Core inflation has not been above 3% for two decades (see chart, source Bloomberg).

coreCPIunder3

This means – incredibly – that many students in college today have never seen core inflation above 3%, and more importantly many investors have not seen core inflation above 3% during their investment lives. When core inflation breaches that level, it will feel like hyperinflation to some people! And I do not think markets will like it.

A Broken Clock That is Persistently Wrong

Durable goods orders, ex-transportation, showed a negative print today for the second time in a row. This was expected, in most senses of the word, but while I don’t put too much weight on short-term wiggles in Durables it is hard to ignore the fact that the year/year change in Durables has now been negative for more than a year (see chart, source Bloomberg).

coredurables

So the weakness in Durables is not new. But it bears noting that the last time core Durables went negative, in August 2012, the Fed followed with QE3 almost immediately. To be sure, at the time core inflation was all the way down at 1.9%, whereas today it is a heady 2.2%…

Look, any Fed watcher right now is and should be confused. Conditions which provoked QE just four years ago are now apparently spurring a tightening bias. Bill Gross can be excused for thinking that the Fed will go back to the old playbook and employ new QE, as he apparently did in his latest Investment Outlook – it is harder to excuse his saying that the Fed should drop money, given that it hasn’t worked yet.

But clearly, something is different in the way the central bank is approaching monetary policy. After all, nothing about this weakness is new. As noted, Durables have been negative on a year-over-year basis for a full year, and the Citi Economic Surprise index shows that economists have managed to be surprised on the negative side for an unprecedented fifteen months in a row (see chart, source Bloomberg).

cesi

Okay, the index technically turned positive once or twice for a day or two, but this is still the longest run of persistently optimistic errors that economists have had in a very long time. So this isn’t new – the economy is weak.

Unless…unless what is different is that in 2012, economists were pessimistic (the Citi Economic Surprise index turned positive right before the Fed started QE, which means that either the data was too strong or economists were too negative) whereas today they are more generally optimistic? It would be entirely consistent with how the Fed has been run for the last couple of decades if monetary policy was not being guided by actual data, but by forecasts of data. (See my book for more on monetary policy errors!)

Evidence is pretty clear that recently economists as a whole have not only been wrong, but wrong in a biased way, which is much worse. If you are merely a bad shot, you miss the target in all kinds of directions. But if you persistently miss the target in one direction, then it may well be that your weapon sights are not properly calibrated. The first sort of unbiased miss is not as dangerous, even if too much confidence is placed on the shot, because the errors will even out over time. You might eventually hit the target, by accident. But if the target sights are biased, then you will never hit the target until you realize you’re wrong. You would be tightening when you should be easing. A broken clock is right twice per day, but only if it is stopped and not just systematically two hours off.

Now, regular readers of these columns will understand that I don’t think the Fed should be easing. I don’t think the Fed can fix what ails growth, since monetary policy only affects the price variable, and easy money has only created the conditions for the inflationary upswing we are currently experiencing (Gross also acknowledges this, but sees the inflationary upswing somewhere in the unthreatening future while in fact it is here now). The Fed should have eschewed QE2 and QE3, and have long since begun to drain excess reserves. But what I think the Fed should do and forecasting what I think they will do are two very different things.

I suspect Gross is close to right. Absent some recovery in the real economy – something other than payrolls, which as we know lag – it strikes me as unlikely the Fed will be hiking rates again. Ironically, that may help keep inflation leashed for longer since it will help keep monetary velocity constrained – but I am not confident of that, given how low interest rates already are. Since inflation is very unlikely to wane any time soon, I think we are more likely to see the yield curve steepen from these levels, rather than flatten. A yield curve inversion is not a prerequisite for recession. Inverted yield curves tend to precede recessions only because the Fed is typically slow to lower interest rates in response to obvious weakness. In this case, rates are already low and the Fed isn’t likely to raise them and force a curve inversion. Yield curve inversions are not causal! This next recession may catch some people wrong-footed because they keep waiting for the inversion that never comes.

In my next article, I am going to revisit an issue I first addressed a couple of years ago and which might be especially relevant as recession possibilities increase: the question of how we can have both deflation and inflation, and how these concepts are often confused by those people who are stuck in the nominal world.

Old Age

April 8, 2016 7 comments

In yesterday’s article, I neglected to mention one remark by a former Fed chair that bothered me at the time. However, I didn’t mention it because I thought the reason it bothered me was that it was vacuous – the sort of throw-away line that someone uses to stall while thinking of the real answer to the question. Since then, I’ve realized what specifically annoyed the subconscious me about the remark.

When Bernanke was asked about whether a recession is coming at some point; he glibly replied “Expansions don’t die of old age,” as if that was obvious and the questioner was being a dolt. Like so much of what Bernanke says, this statement is both true, and irrelevant.

Human beings, also, don’t die of old age. There is a cause of death – something causes a person to die; it isn’t that their library card of corporeality became overdue and they expired. The cause may be a heart attack, a slip-and-fall in the bathtub, cancer, pneumonia, complications from surgery, or the flu, but death is the result of a cause. It just happens that as a person gets older, the number of potential causes multiplies (a newborn rarely has a heart attack) and the number of causes that become fatal to an old person, where they would be merely inconvenient to a hale person, increases as well. As we age, parts of our bodies and immune systems weaken – and that’s where death sneaks in.

Think of those weaknesses as…let’s call them imbalances that have accumulated.

The statement that expansions don’t die of old age is literally true. Something causes them to die. It may be monetary error, but as Volcker pointed out last night in answer to a different question, there were recessions long before there was a Federal Reserve. Expansions also can die from a diminution of credit availability, from energy price spikes, from malinvestment, from an overextension of balance sheets that leads to bankruptcies…from a myriad of things that may not kill a young, vibrant expansion.

The parallel is real, and the point is that while this expansion was never very vibrant the current imbalances are legion. The Fed may not see them, or may believe them to be small (like Bernanke’s Fed felt about the housing bubble and Greenspan’s Fed felt about the equity bubble). But the Fed has a fantastic record on one point: they are nearly flawless at misdiagnosing a patient who is sickening.

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