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What’s Bad About the Fed Put…and Does Powell Have One?

January 8, 2019 3 comments

Note: Come hear me speak this month at the Taft-Hartley Benefits Summit in Las Vegas January 20-22, 2019. I will be speaking about “Pairing Liability Driven Investing (LDI) and Risk Management Techniques – How to Control Risk.” If you come to the event I’ll buy you a drink. As far as you know.

And now on with our irregularly-scheduled program.


Have we re-set the “Fed put”?

The idea that the Fed is effectively underwriting the level of financial markets is one that originated with Greenspan and which has done enormous damage to markets since the notion first appeared in the late 1990s. Let’s review some history:

The original legislative mandate of the Fed (in 1913) was to “furnish an elastic currency,” and subsequent amendment (most notably in 1977) directed the Federal Open Market Committee to “maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.” By directing that the Federal Reserve focus on monetary and credit aggregates, Congress clearly put the operation of monetary policy a step removed from the unhealthy manipulation of market prices.

The Trading Desk at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York conducts open market operations to make temporary as well as permanent additions to and subtractions from these aggregates by repoing, reversing, purchasing, or selling Treasury bonds, notes, and bills, but the price of these purchases has always been of secondary importance (at best) to the quantity, since the purpose is to make minor adjustments in the aggregates.

This operating procedure changed dramatically in the global financial crisis as the Fed made direct purchase of illiquid securities (notably in the case of the Bear Stearns bankruptcy) as well as intervening in other markets to set the price at a level other than the one the free market would have determined. But many observers forget that the original course change happened in the 1990s, when Alan Greenspan was Chairman of the FOMC. Throughout his tenure, Chairman Greenspan expressed opinions and evinced concern about the level of various markets, notably the stock market, and argued that the Fed’s interest in such matters was reasonable since the “wealth effect” impacted economic growth and inflation indirectly. Although he most-famously questioned whether the market was too high and possibly “irrationally exuberant” in 1996, the Greenspan Fed intervened on several occasions in a manner designed to arrest stock market declines. As a direct result of these interventions, investors became convinced that the Federal Reserve would not allow stock prices to decline significantly, a conviction that became known among investors as the “Greenspan Put.”

As with any interference in the price system, the Greenspan Put caused misallocation of resources as market prices did not truly reflect the price at which a willing buyer and a willing seller would exchange ownership of equity risks, since both buyer and seller assumed that the Federal Reserve was underwriting some of those risks. In my first (not very good) book Maestro, My Ass!, I included this chart illustrating one way to think about the inefficiencies created:

The “S” curve is essentially an efficient frontier of portfolios that offer the best returns for a given level of risk. The “D” curves are the portfolio preference curves; they are convex upwards because investors are risk-averse and require ever-increasing amounts of return to assume an extra quantum of risk. The D curve describes all portfolios where the investor is equally satisfied – all higher curves are of course preferred, because the investor would get a higher return for a given level of risk. Ordinarily, this investor would hold the portfolio at E, which is the highest curve he/she can achieve given his/her preferences. The investor would not hold portfolio Q, because that portfolio has more risk than the investor is willing to take for the level of expected return offered, and he/she can achieve a ‘better’ portfolio (higher curve) at E.

But suppose now that the Fed limits the downside risk of markets by providing a ‘put’ which effectively caps the risk at X. Then, this investor will in fact choose portfolio Q, because portfolio Q offers higher return at a similar risk to portfolio E. So the investor ends up owning more risky securities (or what would be risky securities in the absence of the Fed put) than he/she otherwise would, and fewer less-risky securities. More stocks, and fewer bonds, which raises the equilibrium level of equity prices until, essentially, the curve is flat beyond E because at any increment in return, for the same risk, an investor would slide to the right.

So what happened? The chart below shows a simple measure of expected equity real returns which incorporates mean reversion to long-term historical earnings multiples, compared to TIPS real yields (prior to 1997, we use Enduring Investments’ real yield series, which I write about here). Prior to 1987 (when Greenspan took office, and began to promulgate the idea that the Fed would always ride to the rescue), the median spread between equity expected returns and long-term real yields was about 3.38%. That’s not a bad estimate of the equity risk premium, and is pretty close to what theorists think equities ought to offer over time. Since 1997, however – and here it’s especially important to use median since we’ve had multiple booms and busts – the median is essentially zero. That is, the capital market line averages “flat.”

If this makes investors happy (because they’re on a higher indifference curve), then what’s the harm? Well, this put (a free put struck at “X”) is not costless even though the Fed is providing it for free. If the Fed could provide this without any negative consequences, then by all means they ought to because they can make everyone happier for free. But there is, of course, a cost to manipulating free markets (Socialists, take note). In this case the cost appears in misallocation of resources, as companies can finance themselves with overvalued equity…which leads to booms and busts, and the ultimate bearer of this cost is – as it always is – the citizenry.

In my mind, one of the major benefits that Chairman Powell brought to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve was that, since he is not an economist by training, he treated economic projections with healthy and reasonable skepticism rather than with the religious faith and conviction of previous Fed Chairs. I was a big fan of Powell (and I haven’t been a big fan of many Chairpersons) because I thought there was a decent chance that he would take the more reasonable position that the Fed should be as neutral as possible and do as little as possible, since after all it turns out that we collectively suck when it comes to our understanding of how the economy works and we are unlikely to improve in most cases on the free market outcome. When stocks started to show some volatility and begin to reprice late last year, his calculated insouciance was absolutely the right attitude – “what Fed put?” he seemed to be saying. Unfortunately, the cost of letting the market re-adjust is to let it fall a significant amount so that there is again an upward slope between E and Q, and moreover let it stay there.

The jury is out on whether Powell does in fact have a price level in mind, or if he merely has a level of volatility in mind – letting the market re-adjust in a calm and gentle way may be acceptable to him, with his desire to intervene only being triggered by a need to calm things rather than to re-inflate prices. I’m hopeful that is the case, and that on Friday he was just trying to slow the descent but not to arrest it. My concern is that while Powell is not an economist, he did have a long career in investment banking, private equity, and venture capital. That might mean that he respects the importance of free markets, but it also might mean that he tends to exaggerate the importance of high valuations. Again, I’m hopeful, and optimistic, on this point. But that translates to being less optimistic on equity prices, until something like the historical risk premium has been restored.

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Spinning Economic Stories

January 4, 2019 5 comments

As economists[1] we do two sorts of things. We do quantitative work, and we tell stories.

One of the problems with economics is that we aren’t particularly regimented about how we convert data into stories and about how we look at stories to decide how to interrogate the data. So what tends to happen is that we have a phenomenon and then we look at what story we like and decide if that’s a reasonable way to explain the data…without asking if there isn’t a more reasonable way to explain the data, or at least another way that’s equally consistent with the data. I’m not saying that everyone does this, just that it’s disturbingly common especially among people being paid to be storytellers and for whom a good story is really important.

So for example, there is a well -known phenomenon that inflation tends to accelerate after the Fed begins raising interest rates.[2] Purporting to explain this phenomenon, here is a popular story that the Fed is just really smart, so they’re ahead of inflation, and when they seeing it moving up just a little bit they can jump on it real quick and get ahead of it and so inflation goes up…but the apparent causality is there because we just knew it was going to go up and acted before the observation of the higher inflation happened. This is basically Keynesian theory combined with “brilliant person” theory.

There is another theory that is consistent with this, of course: monetarism, which explains that increasing interest rates actually causes inflation to move higher, by causing velocity to increase. But, because this isn’t the popular story, this doesn’t get matched up to the data very frequently. In my mind it’s a better theory, because it doesn’t require us to believe that the Fed is super brilliant to make it work. (And, not to get snarky, but the countervailing evidence versus Fed staff economist genius is pretty mountainous). Of course, economists – and the Fed economists in particular – like theories that make them look like geniuses, so they prefer the prior explanation.

But again, as economists we don’t have a good and rigorous way to say that one way is the ‘preferred’ story or to look at other stories that are consistent with our data. We tend to look at what part of the data supports our story – in other words, confirmation bias.

Why this is relevant now is that the Fed is in fact tightening and inflation is in fact heading higher, and the story being pushed by the Fed and some economists is “good thing the Fed is tightening, because it looks like inflation was going up!” The story on the other hand that I have been telling for quite some time (and which I write about in my book) is that it’s partly because the Fed is tightening and interest rates are going up that that inflation is rising, in a feedback loop that is missed in our popular stories. The important part is the next chapter in the story. In the “Fed is getting ahead of it” story, inflation comes down and the Fed is able to stop tightening, achieving a soft landing. In the “rate increase is causing velocity to rise and inflation to rise” story, the Fed keeps chasing the dog which is only running because the Fed is chasing it.

There is another alternative, which really excites the stock market as evidenced by today’s massive – although disturbingly low-volume – rally. That story is that the Fed is going to become more “data dependent” (Chairman Powell suggested something along these lines today), which is great because the Fed has already won on inflation and growth is still okay. So the Fed can stop the autopilot rate hikes. This story unfortunately does require a little suspension of disbelief. For one thing, today’s strong Employment report (Payrolls 370k, including revisions, compared to 184k expectations) is unfortunately a December figure which means it has huge error bars. Moreover, the Unemployment Rate rose to 3.9% from 3.7%, and while a higher Unemployment Rate doesn’t mean the economy is definitely slowing (it could just be that more people are looking for jobs because the job market is so robust – another fun story), it is certainly more consistent with the notion that the economy is slowing at the margin. The fact that the Unemployment Rate went up, while Hourly Earnings rose more than expected and Jobs rose more than expected, should make you suspect that year-end quirkiness might have something to do with the figures. For the decades I’ve watched economic data, I always advise ignoring the January and February Employment Reports since the December/January changes in payroll are so large that the noise swamps the signal. But professional storytellers aren’t really content to say “this doesn’t really mean anything,” even if that’s the quantitative reality. They get paid to spin yarns, so spin yarns they do.

Yeah, about those wages: I’m not really sure why economists were expecting hourly earnings to decelerate this month. All of the anecdotal data, along with other wage measures, are suggesting that wages are rising apace (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker vs AHE). Not really a surprise, even given its compositional challenges, that AHE is also rising.

The thing about all of these stories is that while they can’t change the actual reality, they can change how reality is priced. This is one of the reasons that we get bubbles. The stories are so powerful that trading against them, with a ‘value’ mindset for example, is quixotic. Ultimately, in the long run, the value of the equity market is limited by fundamentals. But in the short run, it is virtually unlimited because of valuation multiples (price as a speculative multiple of fundamental earnings, e.g.) and those valuation multiples are driven by stories. And that’s a big reason that bullish stories are so popular.

But consider this bearish footnote on today’s 3.4% S&P rally: volume in the S&P constituents today was lower than the volume was on December 26! To be fair, the volume yesterday, when the S&P declined 2.5%, was even a bit lower than today’s volume. It’s typical thin and whippy first-week-of-the-year trading. Let’s see what next week brings.


[1] People occasionally ask me why I didn’t go on for my MA or PhD in Economics. I reply that it’s because I learned my Intermediate Microeconomics very well: I stopped going for a higher degree when the marginal costs outweighed the marginal benefits. When you look at it that way, it makes you wonder whether the PhD economists aren’t just the bad students who didn’t absorb that lesson.

[2] It’s referred to as the “price puzzle”; see Martin Eichenbaum, “Interpreting Macroeconomic Time Series Facts: The Effects of Monetary Policy: Comments.” European Economic Review, June 1992. And Michael Hanson, “The ‘Price Puzzle’ Reconsidered,” Journal of Monetary Economics, October 2004.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (December 2018)

December 12, 2018 1 comment

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

  • Been a while since I did a live CPI dive here. Thanks to all of those who voted with their dollars over the last year and supported my private CPI tweets. It wasn’t enough to make a commitment to it, so I’m back to occasionally doing it free on this channel. Hope it helps.
  • I do it anyway for myself and Enduring Investments, so it’s not THAT big a deal to put it here if I happen to be in the mood. Anyway, hope you get some value. If so, think about whether I or Enduring can help your investment processes. Now for the walk-up.
  • Consensus calls for about 0.18% on core CPI today, with the y/y rising to 2.2%. The bouncy PPI helps the mood although the PPI itself doesn’t have much forecasting power for CPI.
  • in PPI there were clear freight and other upstream pressures though. We haven’t really seen much of this in CPI – no real trade/tariff effect yet e.g. Apparel is where I’d expect to see than and in core goods generally. But they’re still slightly in deflation.
  • I think there’s some upward risk to used cars and trucks, but there was a big jump last month so we could get a retracement of that before another move higher next month, or continue the ‘catch up’ to private surveys this month. Hard to tell on a month-to-month basis.
  • Lodging Away from Home took a dip last month and might be upside risk today. Medical Care is due to start rising again too. So in a minute, we will see!
  • Slightly stronger core than expected…0.21% when they were looking for 0.18%. But pretty close.

  • 21% on NSA core y/y.
  • Let’s see. Core goods went up to 0.0% y/y from -0.1%, so that’s moving in the expected direction. Another big month from Used Cars and Trucks, +2.37% m/m after +2.62% last month. y/y now up to 2.30%. It was negative just a few months ago.

  • Lodging Away from Home rose from -2.42% y/y to -1.38% y/y, as we got a small positive this month after a big negative last month. I’m still skeptical that hotel prices are in deflation but someone will yell “AIRBNB” loud enough like that’s an argument, so I’ll leave it there.
  • Hefty lift in Primary Rents. +0.36% m/m, bringing y/y to 3.61% from 3.57%. That’s news because lots of pundits have been decrying the end of the housing market and therefore housing inflation. These aren’t necessarily the same thing.
  • Apparel actually took another large fall m/m. This continues to make little sense in a tariffy world.

  • Some of that is dollar strength, sure. But I’m still surprised.
  • Medical was +0.37% m/m after -0.07%, so that came through as I expected/hoped. Y/y rose to 2.03% vs 1.71%. Both Pharma and Doctor’s Services rose nearly 0.5% m/m after declines last month. Interesting that despite this, and housing, core services were unch at 2.9% y/y.
  • Core inflation, ex-shelter rose to 1.53%, almost at the 2016 highs (1.61%). The disinflationary impulses are deep in the rear-view mirror now.

  • The Apparel breakdown is always so weird. Y/Y, “Boys’ apparel” is +11.9% while “Girls’ apparel” is -0.7%. Hokay.
  • Brace yourself for a big jump in Median. Looks like the median category is a housing subindex so my estimate won’t necessarily be accurate but it won’t be LOWER than 0.28% m/m and my best guess is 0.33% m/m pushing y/y median CPI to 2.83%. Won’t know for a few hours yet.
  • 83% if it happened would be basically back to the highs. So the question is, what’s keep Core Services from a bigger bounce if housing and medical care are both looking strong?
  • Motor Vehicle Insurance? This is 2.4% of CPI.

  • Health insurance rising again…we knew this was true on the wholesale level but seems to be coming thru retail as well. But CPI measures health insurance inflation in an odd way, too much to get into here.

  • Oh no. Are you kidding me? Wireless telephone services -3% y/y down from -0.5%y/y last month. *smh* Here we go again?

  • Currently triumph of hope over experience in stocks. This figure clearly puts the Fed squarely still in tightening mode. And I don’t expect any major easing of inflationary pressures soon.
  • Kind of a good reminder of how out over their skis the inflation shorts are here. With Median at 2.7% or 2.8% after today, here’s the core cpi curve from inflation swaps (calculated by Enduring Investments). X-axis is years. Tremendous confidence that the Fed will win.

  • Now, to be sure the hurdles for y/y core get higher over the next few months, with Dec ’17 at +0.24% m/m and Jan ’18 at +0.35% (remember that??), so core will probably not reach new highs until Q2. But there’s nothing here to give confidence that inflation is about to fall.
  • Let’s do the four pieces. For new followers, these four pieces are each roughly a quarter (0.2%-0.3%) of CPI. The first and most volatile is Food & Energy. We don’t spend a lot of time on this. No forecasting power.

  • Piece 2 is core goods, the smallest of these 4 pieces but the main thing that has kept inflation sedated over last half decade. Now out of deflation even with a strong dollar. Sustainable? In a de-coupling world, maybe.

  • Core services, less rent of shelter. long downtrend still in place. This includes stuff like medical care, but also wireless services. Which really ought to have its own category I’m starting to think!

  • Steadiest piece is Rent of Shelter. This is just coming back to model. No real upstream signs that this is about to roll over – it was just ahead of itself. Latest point is actually an up-wiggle.

  • One more chart. The weight of the distribution of y/y changes. You can see the big bars for housing but the long tail. The bar at left is mostly food, energy, tech, and apparel at the moment. Without those categories, CPI is around 2.8%, right around median.

No real reason to wrap this one up – the numbers speak for themselves. Despite the weakness in energy, which is killing the inflation markets (since energy is most of the volatility in headline inflation, to which TIPS and inflation swaps are tied), prices in general continue to rise and if anything seem to be gaining a little steam even outside of housing. Housing inflation isn’t likely to move very far in either direction for a while from the current level, so the next movement in core or median CPI is going to come from core-ex-shelter categories like Medical Care (possibly looking up), Apparel (quite heavy), and other core goods like autos.

But there’s no reason whatsoever in these numbers to indicate to the Federal Reserve that it’s time to stop raising rates. To the extent that they begin to chirp about a pause, it’s because they want stock prices to go up (or, I guess, more accurately they just don’t want to be blamed for the bear market). Yes, growth is slowing but no formulation of the Taylor Rule is going to give a lot of cover to a decision to ease off of rate hikes when the policy rate is below the current rate of inflation.

The Neatest Idea Ever for Reducing the Fed’s Balance Sheet

September 19, 2018 11 comments

I mentioned a week and a half ago that I’d had a “really cool” idea that I had mentioned to a member of the Fed’s Open Market Desk, and I promised to write about it soon. “It’s an idea that would simultaneously be really helpful for investors and help the Fed reduce a balance sheet that they claim to be happy with but we all really know they wish they could reduce.” First, some background.

It is currently not possible to directly access any inflation index other than headline inflation (in any country that has inflation-linked bonds, aka ILBs). Yet, many of the concerns that people have do not involve general inflation, of the sort that describes increases in the cost of living and erodes real investment returns (hint – people should care, more than they do, about inflation), but about more precise exposures. For examples, many parents care greatly about the inflation in the price of college tuition, which is why we developed a college tuition inflation proxy hedge which S&P launched last year as the “S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index.” But so far, that’s really the only subcomponent you can easily access (or will, once someone launches an investment product tied to the index), and it is only an approximate hedge.

This lack has been apparent since literally the beginning. CPI inflation derivatives started trading in 2003 (I traded the first USCPI swap in the interbank broker market), and in February 2004 I gave a speech at a Barclays inflation conference promising that inflation components would be tradeable in five years.

I just didn’t say five years from when.

We’ve made little progress since then, although not for lack of trying. Wall Street can’t handle the “basis risks,” management of which are a bad use of capital for banks. Another possible approach involves mimicking the way that TIGRs (and CATS and LIONs), the precursors to the Treasury’s STRIPS program, allowed investors to access Treasury bonds in a zero coupon form even though the Treasury didn’t issue zero coupon bonds. With the TIGR program, Merrill Lynch would put normal Treasury bonds into a trust and then issue receipts that entitled the buyer to particular cash flows of that bond. The sum of all of the receipts equaled the bond, and the trust simply allowed Merrill to disperse the ownership of particular cash flows. In 1986, the Treasury wised up and realized that they could issue separate CUSIPs for each cash flow and make them naturally strippable, and TIGRs were no longer necessary.

A similar approach was used with CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations). A collection of corporate bonds was put into a trust[1], and certificates issued that entitled the buyer to the first X% of the cash flows, the next Y%, and so on until 100% of the cash flows were accounted for. Since the security at the top of the ‘waterfall’ got paid off first, it had a very good rating since even if some of the securities in the trust went bust, that wouldn’t affect the top tranche. The next tranche was lower-rated and higher-yielding, and so on. It turns out that with some (as it happens, somewhat heroic) assumptions about the lack of correlation of credit defaults, such a CDO would produce a very large AAA-rated piece, a somewhat smaller AA-rated piece, and only a small amount of sludge at the bottom.

So, in 2004 I thought “why don’t we do this for TIPS? Only the coupons would be tied to particular subcomponents. If I have 100% CPI, that’s really 42% housing, 3% Apparel, 9% Medical, and so on, adding up to 100%. We will call them ‘Barclays Real Accreting-Inflation Notes,’ or ‘BRAINs’, so that I can hear salespeople tell their clients that they need to get some BRAINs.” A chart of what that would look like appears below. Before reading onward, see if you can figure out why we never had BRAINs.

When I was discussing CDOs above, you may notice that the largest piece was the AAA piece, which was a really popular piece, and the sludge was a really small piece at the bottom. So the bank would find someone who would buy the sludge, and once they found someone who wanted that risk they could quickly put the rest of the structure together and sell the pieces that were in high-demand. But with BRAINs, the most valuable pieces were things like Education, and Medical Care…pretty small pieces, and the sludge was “Food and Beverages” or “Transportation” or, heaven forbid, “Other goods and services.” When you create this structure, you first need to find someone who wants to buy a bunch of big boring pieces so you can sell the small exciting pieces. That’s a lot harder. And if you don’t do that, the bank ends up holding Recreation inflation, and they don’t really enjoy eating BRAINs. Even the zombie banks.

Now we get to the really cool part.

So the Fed holds about $115.6 billion TIPS, along with trillions of other Treasury securities. And they really can’t sell these securities to reduce their balance sheet, because it would completely crater the market. Although the Fed makes brave noises about how they know they can sell these securities and it really wouldn’t hurt the market, they just have decided they don’t want to…we all know that’s baloney. The whole reason that no one really objected to QE2 and QE3 was that the Fed said it was only temporary, after all…

So here’s the idea. The Fed can’t sell $115bln of TIPS because it would crush the market. But they could easily sell $115bln of BRAINs (I guess Barclays wouldn’t be involved, which is sad, because the Fed as issuer makes this FRAINs, which makes no sense), and if they ended up holding “Other Goods and Services” would they really care? The basis risk that a bank hates is nothing to the Fed, and the Fed need hold no capital against the tracking error. But if they were able to distribute, say, 60% of these securities they would have shrunk the balance sheet by about $70 billion…and not only would this probably not affect the TIPS market – Apparel inflation isn’t really a good substitute for headline CPI – it would likely have the large positive effect of jump-starting a really important market: the market for inflation subcomponents.

And all I ask is a single basis point for the idea!


[1] This was eventually done through derivatives with no explicit trust needed…and I mean that in the totally ironic way that you could read it.

Inflation-Related Impressions from Recent Events

September 10, 2018 2 comments

It has been a long time since I’ve posted, and in the meantime the topics to cover have been stacking up. My lack of writing has certainly not been for lack of topics but rather for a lack of time. So: heartfelt apologies that this article will feel a lot like a brain dump.

A lot of what I want to write about today was provoked/involves last week. But one item I wanted to quickly point out is more stale than that and yet worth pointing out. It seems astounding, but in early August Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare reported the largest nominal wage increase in 1997. (See chart, source Bloomberg). This month there was a correction, but the trend does appear firmly upward. This is a good point for me to add the reminder that wages tend to follow inflation rather than lead it. But I believe Japanese JGBis are a tremendous long-tail opportunity, priced with almost no inflation implied in the price…but if there is any developed country with a potential long-tail inflation outcome that’s possible, it is Japan. I think, in fact, that if you asked me to pick one developed country that would be the first to have “uncomfortable” levels of inflation, it would be Japan. So dramatically out-of-consensus numbers like these wage figures ought to be filed away mentally.

While readers are still reeling from the fact that I just said that Japan is going to be the first country that has uncomfortable inflation, let me talk about last week. I had four inflation-related appearances on the holiday-shortened week (! is that an indicator? A contrary indicator?), but two that I want to take special note of. The first of these was a segment on Bloomberg in which we talked about how to hedge college tuition inflation and about the S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index (which my company Enduring Investments designed). I think the opportunity to hedge this specific risk, and to create products that help people hedge their exposure to higher tuition costs, is hugely important and my company continues to work to figure out the best way and the best partner with whom to deploy such an investment product. The Bloomberg piece is a very good segment.

I spent most of Wednesday at the Real Return XII conference organized by Euromoney Conferences (who also published one of my articles about real assets, in a nice glossy form). I think this is the longest continually-running inflation conference in the US and it’s always nice to see old friends from the inflation world. Here are a couple of quick impressions from the conference:

  • There were a couple of large hedge funds in attendance. But they seem to be looking at the inflation markets as a place they can make macro bets, not one where they can take advantage of the massive mispricings. That’s good news for the rest of us.
  • St. Louis Fed President James Bullard gave a speech about the outlook for inflation. What really stood out for me is that he, and the Fed in general, put enormous faith in market signals. The fact that inflation breakevens haven’t broken to new highs recently carried a lot of weight with Dr. Bullard, for example. I find it incredible that the Fed is actually looking to fixed-income markets for information – the same fixed-income markets that have been completely polluted by the Fed’s dominating of the float. In what way are breakevens being established in a free market when the Treasury owns trillions of the bonds??
  • Bullard is much more concerned about recession than inflation. The fact that they can both occur simultaneously is not something that carries any weight at the Fed – their models simply can’t produce such an outcome. Oddly, on the same day Neel Kashkari said in an interview “We say that we have a symmetric view of inflation. We don’t mind if it’s 2.1 or 1.9, but in our practice, in what we actually do, we are much more worried about high inflation than we are low inflation. And I think that that is the scar from the 1970s.” That’s ludicrous, by the way – there is no way in the world that the Fed would have done the second and third QEs, with the recession far in the rear view mirror, if the Fed was more concerned with high inflation. Certainly, Bullard showed no signs of even the slightest concern that inflation would poke much above 2%, much less 3%.
  • In general, the economists at the conference – remember, this is a conference for people involved in inflation markets – were uniform in their expectation that inflation is going nowhere fast. I heard demographics blamed (although current demographics, indicating a leftward shift of the supply curve, are actually inflationary it is a point of faith among some economists that inflation drops when the number of workers declines. It’s actually a Marxist view of the economic cycle but I don’t think they see it that way). I heard technology blamed, even though there’s nothing particularly modern about technological advance. Economists speaking at the conference were of the opinion that the current trade war would cause a one-time increase in inflation of between 0.2%-0.4% (depending on who was speaking), which would then pass out of the data, and thought the bigger effect was recessionary and would push inflation lower. Where did these people learn economics? “Comparative advantage” and the gain from trade is, I suppose, somewhat new…some guy named David Ricardo more than two centuries ago developed the idea, if I recall correctly…so perhaps they don’t understand that the loss from trade is a real thing, and not just a growth thing. Finally, a phrase I heard several times was “the Fed will not let inflation get out of hand.” This platitude was uttered without any apparent irony deriving from the fact that the Fed has been trying to push inflation up for a decade and has been unable to do so, but the speakers are assuming the same Fed can make inflation stick at the target like an arrow quivering in the bullseye once it reaches the target as if fired by some dead-eye monetary Robin Hood. Um, maybe.
  • I marveled at the apparent unanimity of this conclusion despite the fact that these economists were surely employing different models. But then I think I hit on the reason why. If you built any economic model in the last two decades, a key characteristic of the model had to be that it predicted inflation would be very low and very stable no matter what other characteristics it had. If it had that prediction as an output, then it perfectly predicted the last quarter-century. It’s like designing a technical trading model: if you design one that had you ‘out’ of the 1987 stock market crash, even if it was because of the phase of the moon or the number of times the word “chocolate” appeared in the New York Times, then your trading model looks better than one that doesn’t include that “factor.” I think all mainstream economists today are using models that have essentially been trained on dimensionless inflation data. That doesn’t make them good – it means they have almost no predictive power when it comes to inflation.

This article is already getting long, so I am going to leave out for now the idea I mentioned to someone who works for the Fed’s Open Market Desk. But it’s really cool and I’ll write about it at some point soon. It’s an idea that would simultaneously be really helpful for investors and help the Fed reduce a balance sheet that they claim to be happy with but we all really know they wish they could reduce.

So I’ll move past last week and close with one final off-the-wall observation. I was poking around in Chinese commodity futures markets today because someone asked me to design a trading strategy for them (don’t ask). I didn’t even know there was such a thing as PVC futures! And Hot Rolled Coils! But one chart really struck me:

This is a chart of PTA, or Purified Terephthalic Acid. What the heck is that? PTA is an organic commodity chemical, mainly used to make polyester PET, which is in turn used to make clothing and plastic bottles. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Here’s what else I don’t know: I don’t know why the price of PTA rose 50% in less than two months. And I don’t know whether it is used in large enough quantities to affect the end price of apparel or plastic bottles. But it’s a pretty interesting chart, and something to file away just in case we start to see something odd in apparel prices.

Let me conclude by apologizing again for the disjointed nature of this article. But I feel better for having burped some of these thoughts out there and I hope you enjoyed the burp as well.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2018)

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

  • half hour to CPI. Welcome again to the private channel. Tell your friends!
  • Another easy comp (0.143%) versus year ago. August 2017 was +0.222%, Sep was 0.132%, Oct was 0.214%, and Nov was 0.121%. So we still have some easy comps ahead although not easy as they were. That means core should keep rising, although slower than over the last 6 mo.
  • Pretty safe economist estimate for 0.2% on core and for y/y to stay 2.3% rounded. As long as m/m core is 0.162%-0.259%, y/y will stay in that range.
  • Rents have been leveling out recently, and not providing as much upward oomph. That passes the baton to core goods and more generally to core ex-shelter.
  • Ironically, even though core goods started to accelerate before any sign of tariffs, investors I think might “look through” inflation like that, which they can explain away by saying “ha ha tariffs trump ha ha.”
  • One other item – I will be especially attentive to Median CPI this month, which jumped to 2.80% y/y last month. That looks a little like an acceleration past the prior trend (meaning 2013-2015), well past merely erasing the 2016-17 dip.
  • I should note that this month’s CPI report is being brought to you from sunny Curacao! Only 20 minutes to the number.
  • Well, 0.23% on core CPI was a bit higher than expected, but oddly got a tick higher in the y/y to 2.354%, rounding up to 2.4%. The SA y/y is still 2.3%, but NSA is 2.4%. This happens from time to time because seasonal factors change year to year.
  • Last 12 Rorschach test.

  • CPI – Used Cars and Trucks +1.31% m/m, pushing y/y to 0.84% y/y FINALLY. Private surveys have been saying this for a while.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent +0.29% (3.395% y/y), up from 3.37%, and primary rents +0.32% to 3.628%, up from 3.58% last month. Lodging away from home +0.4% m/m after -3.7% last month, so some give-back.
  • Core goods back to 0% y/y, first time in 5 years it has been out of deflation!
  • A fair amount of that is cars.

  • But not all is upbeat. Interestingly core services was steady at 3.1% even though Medical Care was weak across the board. Overall Med Care -0.2% m/m, making y/y 1.91% vs 2.45% last month. Pharma -0.96% m/m, 0.92% y/y vs 3.19% last month. Doctors svcs -0.17%/0.64% vs 0.86%
  • …and hospital services 0.36% m/m, 4.59% y/y, vs 4.74% last month.
  • used car chart update.

  • Not much market reaction. It is after all August. 10y breakevens up about 0.5bps from just before the figure. I think for the “look through the number” people the jump in cars is going to scream “steel tariffs” even though I think it’s more.
  • New cars y/y.

  • core ex-shelter now at 1.50%, the highest in 2 years. Inflation isn’t just in housing any more.
  • Biggest m/m declines were two apparel categories (which move around a lot) and Medical Care Commodities. Biggest gainers Public Transport, Car/Truck Rental, Jewelry/Watches, Fresh Fruits/Veggies, and Used Cars & Trucks.
  • My estimate of Median CPI is 0.224%, pushing y/y to 2.84%. Getting perilously close to 3%!
  • Four pieces: food & energy

  • Core goods – it has been a long time since core goods was meaningfully above 0%. It will happen.

 

  • Core services less Rent of Shelter. This is interesting because Medical Care Services is a big part of this and it was weak. But Core Services didn’t soften.

  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter. Stable, high. No real chance for this to substantially slow in the near term.

 

  • I think we’ll stop there for today. All in all an interesting report as core goods is starting to show some worrying strength and core inflation outside of shelter is now getting perky too.

Really, the only important softness in this report was medical care. A lot of that was pharmaceuticals (which is in core goods), and yet core goods still accelerated to flat for the last year. But the core services part of medical care also decelerated, and core services overall didn’t drop. The weakness in medical care matters because PCE – which the Fed uses as its benchmark – exaggerates the importance of medical care so this trend will tend to keep core PCE lower relative to core CPI, and help the Fed believe they are not “behind the curve.” Yet, there are some signs that even dovish FRB members are not wholly on board with that any longer; nor should they be. For a long time, shelter has been the driving force pushing core inflation higher but that is no longer the case. The rise in core-ex-shelter to 1.5%, and the fact that core goods is about to lurch into positive territory, are both contributing to the broadening inflation trend. We see this in median inflation, which should rise again to a further post-crisis high when it is reported in a few hours.

We alternate between modest comps and easy comps for the next few months – but no really difficult comps. Measured inflation should continue to accelerate for the balance of 2018 and make the Fed’s obsession with core PCE increasingly indefensible.

A Real Concern About Over(h)eating

I misread a headline the other day, and it actually caused a market analogy to occur to me. The headling was “Powell Downplays Concern About Overheating,” but I read it as “Powell Downplays Concern About Overeating.” Which I was most delighted to hear; although I don’t normally rely on Fed Chairman for dietary advice[1] I was happy to entertain any advice that would admit me a second slice of pie.

Unfortunately, he was referring to the notion that the economy “has changed in many ways over the past 50 years,” and in fact might no longer be vulnerable to rapidly rising price pressures because, as Bloomberg summarized it, “The workforce is better educated and inflation expectations more firmly anchored.” (I don’t really see how an educated workforce, or consumers who have forgotten about inflation, immunizes the economy from the problem of too much money chasing too few goods, but then I don’t hang out with PhDs…if I can avoid it.) Come to think of it, perhaps the Chairman ought to stick to dietary advice after all.

But it was too late for me to stop thinking about the analogy, which diverges from what Powell was actually talking about. Here we go:

When a person eats, and especially if he eats too much, then he needs to wait and digest before tackling the next course. This is why we take a break at Thanksgiving between the main meal and dessert. If, instead, you are already full and you continue to eat then the result is predictable: you will puke. I wonder if it’s the same with risk: some risk is okay, and you can take on more risk up to a point. But if you keep taking on risk, eventually you puke. In investing/trading terms, you rapidly exit when a small setback hits you, because you’ve got more risk on than you can handle. Believe me: been there, done that. At the dinner table and in markets.

So with this analogy in place, let’s consider the “portfolio balance channel.” In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, the Fed worked to remove low-risk securities from the market in order to push investors towards higher-risk securities. This was a conscious and public effort undertaken by the central bank because (they believed) investors were irrationally scared and risk-averse, and needed a push to restore “animal spirits.” (I’m not making this up – this is what they said). It was like the Italian grandmother who implores, “Eat! Eat! You’re just skin and bones!” And they were successful, just like Grandma. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) plots the slope of the securities market line relating expected real return and expected real risk, quarterly, going back to 2011. It’s based on our own calculations of the expected real return to stocks, TIPS, Treasuries, commodities, commercial real estate, residential real estate, corporate bonds, and cash, but you don’t have to believe our calculations are right. The calculation methodology is consistent over time, so you can see how the relative value in terms of risk and reward evolved.

The Fed succeeded in getting us to eat more and more risky securities, so that they got more and more expensive relative to safer securities (the amount of additional risk required to get an increment of additional return got greater and greater). Thanks Grandma!

But the problem is, we’re still eating. Risk is getting more and more expensive, but we keep reaching for another cookie even though we know we shouldn’t.

Puking is the body’s way of restoring equilibrium quickly. Abrupt market corrections (aka “crashes”) are the market’s way of restoring equilibrium quickly.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. One of my favorite market-related books, “Why Stock Markets Crash” by Didier Sornette, (also worth reading is “Ubiquity” by Mark Buchanan) talks about how markets ‘fracture’ after bending too far, just like many materials; the precise point of fracture is not identifiable but the fact that a fracture will happen eventually if the material continues to bend is indisputable.

My analogy is more colorful. Whether it is any more timely remains to be seen.


[1] To be fair, I also don’t rely on Fed Chairman for economic advice.

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