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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2019)

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 (updated sites coming soon). 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.

  • Welcome to another CPI day. The tone going into this one is soooo much different than last month. We are coming off of a surprising jump in core CPI of 0.29%, rather than three straight weak numbers, for starters.
  • For another, the Fed is already in easing mode; last month we were just preparing for it. Despite the high inflation print, and median CPI near its highs y/y (2.84%), the Fed eased anyway.
  • (If you needed any more evidence that the Fed cares more about the stock market and “risk management” of forward growth expectations, than about inflation, that was an exhibit for you.)
  • With global growth sliding, protests in Hong Kong, the Argentinian peso collapsing…this CPI number today won’t change the Fed’s trajectory. They’re going to keep easing for a while.
  • I expect inflation to peak later in Q4 or in Q1, but in the meantime it may make the Fed feel a bit uncomfortable. List 4 tariffs being implemented will probably finally result in a tariff effect (not for a few months, as they take effect Sep 1).
  • As for today: last month’s jump was fueled by housing, and by used (not new, not leased) cars and trucks. Most of that was catch-up although housing’s strength is a little surprising.
  • I don’t expect retracements there. And there’s upside risk from medical care, especially hospital services, though it’s hard to time.
  • Recent increases in the CPI for health insurance, which is a residual, may indicate coming acceleration in inflation for drugs and/or hospital services, which are due. Hard to time this though.
  • Consensus on the Street is for roughly 0.19% on core CPI. That would keep y/y steady, right at 2.1%. Good luck.
  • Well whoopsie. Another 0.29% on core CPI. That brings y/y core to 2.21%
  • This makes the lull earlier this year look decidedly different.

  • Let’s see. Lodging Away from Home jumps out, retracing a -0.64% fall last month to +0.94% this month, but that’s only 1% of CPI.
  • Primary Rents and OER both were better behaved this month, +0.28% and +0.25%, but that actually lowers the y/y for both of them.
  • Heh heh…did someone say hospital services? It rose 0.46% m/m, pushing the y/y to 0.77% from 0.50%. No real victory lap for me yet…it’s got a long way to go.

  • Pharma was also positive, +0.29% m/m versus -0.46% m/m last. Overall, Medical Care rose to 2.57% y/y versus 1.96% last month. Medical Care is about 9% of CPI.
  • Used cars and trucks accelerated to 1.47% y/y versus 1.25%. So no retracement to the bounce last month. I hadn’t expected any since the move last month looked like a return to fair.
  • Apparel +0.44% m/m. That takes the y/y to -0.55% versus -1.29% last month. Couple of months ago there was a sharp fall as BLS shifted to a new methodology. Looks like this is catching up. Still mild deflation in apparel, no tariff effects.
  • Overall, Core Goods was +0.40% y/y. Wait, what?? About time! HIGHEST Y/Y CORE GOODS SINCE 2013. The persistent-deflation-in-goods narrative just took a hickey.

  • However, hold the victory lap on that. Model says we may be close to the highs on core goods. (But the model doesn’t know about tariffs.)

  • This is rare…Other Goods and Services, the eighth of eight major subgroups in CPI, rose 0.52% m/m. That category (only 3% of CPI) is a dog’s breakfast so unusual to see a m/m jump that large. Will be worth looking into.
  • Core inflation ex-shelter rose to 1.31% y/y from 1.16% last month.
  • New Vehicles and Leased Cars and Trucks both decelerated further. So if anyone ‘blames’ used cars for the strong print, point out that overall “New and used motor vehicles” decelerated to 0.30% y/y from 0.43%. This kind of talk will make you popular at parties.
  • CPI for health insurance continued to surge, now up 15.88% y/y. Remember, this is a residual, but I think that means it may signal changes that the BLS hasn’t picked up yet. It’s the highest on record.

  • Back to that dog’s breakfast of “Other”. Nothing really stands out. This category has cigarettes, personal care products (cosmetics, etc), personal care services (haircuts, e.g.), funeral expenses, legal services, financial services, dry cleaning…pretty balanced increases.
  • Biggest declines this month are jewelry and watches (-17% annualized) and infants’ and toddlers’ apparel (-12.8% annualized). Bunch of annualized >10% gains tho: Mens’ & boys’ and womens’ & girls’ apparel, public transportation, lodging away from home, tobacco, motor fuel.
  • Early look at median CPI…my estimate is 0.28% m/m, which would put y/y to 2.88% and a new high.
  • OK, time for the four-pieces charts. And then a wrap-up. First, Food & Energy.

  • Second piece: Core goods. This is really where the story is, and where it’s likely to be going forward. A reminder here about how long the inflation process can take! Folks were looking for tariff effects the moment they went into effect. But businesses wait-and-see first.

  • Now businesses have seen, and the tariffs look to be pretty sturdy, and they’re moving prices. And more to come probably.
  • Core services less rent of shelter. Medical Care maybe has stopped going down, but it isn’t going up yet.

  • And the stable Rent of Shelter. A little surprised it’s so buoyant still.

  • Well, the wrap-up is obvious here. Second 0.3% core month in a row, and no obvious outliers. The acceleration seems to be concentrated in core goods, but fairly broad. I still think we will see inflation peak later 2019 or early 2020, but…there are no signs of it yet.
  • So this is what the Fed faces: slowing global growth, political unrest, and rising inflation. In that circumstance, will they keep easing? OF COURSE THEY WILL, THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT INFLATION. Haven’t for a decade at least.
  • And what about markets? 10-year inflation swaps are shown below, compared to Median CPI (last point estimated). There’s a serious disconnect here.

  • So as Porky says, “That’s all, folks!” Thanks for tuning in. I’ll put the summary of these tweets up on my site mikeashton.wordpress.com within the hour.

What is amazing about inflation is both how slowly it changes and also how quickly it changes. Three months ago we were looking at four soft months in a row on core CPI and people were starting to chirp about the coming deflation. Then we get two of the highest core prints in a long time – and broad-based at that – and the story will be 180 degrees different. (Another reason to watch Median CPI rather than Core CPI is that the head fakes aren’t very good in Median – there was never much question that the broad trend was staying higher).

To be sure, the Fed doesn’t really care about inflation, and markets don’t much care either. Unless, that is, it causes the Administration to slow its march toward tariffs. As I write this, the Trump Administration has announced they will delay the tariffs on “some” products – including cell phones, laptops, video game consoles, some toys, and some apparel – until December 15th (just in time for Christmas, but it means that these goods won’t see prices higher during the holiday shopping season since everything on store shelves will have already been imported. Thanks Wal-Mart!). Stocks have taken that as a signal to rip higher because the fact that inflation is rising on 98% of the consumption basket is so one-hour-ago. Happy days are here again!

But make no mistake. The inflation pressures are not all from tariffs. In fact, few of them seem to be specifically traceable to tariffs. This is a continuation of a broad accelerating trend we have seen for several years. See above: inflation changes slowly. The Federal Reserve will ignore this because they believe the slower global growth will restrain inflation so that there is nothing they need to do about it. In some sense they are right, because the market has already lowered interest rates by so much it is likely to push money velocity lower again. I still think inflation will peak later this year or early next year, but if I were on the FOMC…I’d be somewhat nervous about that projection today.

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Be Quiet! Let the Man Stop Speaking!

July 31, 2019 3 comments

I continue to get more and more disappointed in Powell as a Fed chairman. When he came in, as someone who was not an economist by training and therefore not (yet, as it turns out) captured by the economic orthodoxy, I was optimistic that he might be able to break the cycle of tragic decisions by the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s path has (along with errors in other central banks mirroring the Fed’s “leadership”) led to a series of bubbles and busts, with the busts not even being allowed to cleanse the system and so defer future bubbles. It has led to an overleveraged consumer, overleveraged business, and overleveraged public accounts, and this has in turn helped produce an exceptionally fragile financial economy.

The Fed has now embarked on a new easing program, as “insurance” and “risk management” against a future slowdown. Considering that it isn’t the Fed’s job to prevent business cycles, this represents enormous hubris – but that’s what happens when you take a bunch of people and put them in a really fancy building and tell them how smart they are.

For years, the Fed has been telegraphing their moves, so that the sort of Fed watching I used to do as a fixed-income strategist is almost moot. The amount of market volatility around the Fed’s rate cut today – or, really, around Powell’s ham-handed presser afterwards – is remarkable considering that the market got exactly what it expected, except for some mild adjustments to possible paths forward in the distant future. But let’s face it: relying on what the Chairman says today about what monetary policy might be next year (for the record, he said it is unlikely the Fed could hike rates again) is like relying on today’s weather forecast for next Tuesday. There is just so much other stuff that has yet to happen that you really shouldn’t put any weight at all on that future forecast. If you’re canceling next week’s picnic because the meteorologist today said it could rain next week, you haven’t been paying much attention to the efficacy of meteorological forecasts. Count that double for economists.

But for whatever reason, I found myself listening to part of the Q&A period and instead of continuing to scream at the television I thought I’d write down a couple of the things that annoyed me. But just a couple.

  1. Powell said “Global disinflationary pressures persist.” This seems to be more of a slogan than analysis. Let’s take more than three seconds to examine it. Pray tell, what are these “disinflationary pressures?” Here are some popular candidates.
  • Aging populations in developed countries – this certainly isn’t it. Aging populations are of course inflationary, not disinflationary. An aging population implies lower potential output, all else equal, and a leftward shift of the aggregate supply curve is plainly inflationary. To be sure, this isn’t economic orthodoxy, but the economic orthodoxy in this case (as in so many cases) is simply wrong.
  • Trade – Globalization of trade has been the dominant disinflationary force for thirty years. Unfortunately, it seems to have run its course. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any sign that global trade is continuing to broaden and in fact it seems to be recently in reverse. At best, it is going nowhere fast after many years of being in fact a disinflationary force.
  • Lower interest rates – It is plain to monetarists that lower interest rates cause lower inflation, since lower interest rates cause a decline in monetary velocity by increasing the demand for real cash balances (decreasing the prevalence of attractive substitutes). However, it also seems pretty plain that the Fed is not arguing this, both because they aren’t really monetarists any longer but more importantly because it this was their argument then it’s weirdly circular: “we’re lowering interest rates because of global disinflationary pressures, such as the fact that interest rates are going down.”
  • Global debt overhang – this seems to be the only reasonable argument about a possible source of  global disinflationary pressures. A high level of private debt tends to be disinflationary because it increases the value of cash flow compared to profit. You can go broke realizing profits, if you don’t have enough cash flow to service your debt; this causes heavily-indebted companies to be more reluctant to risk market share by raising prices and causes heavily-indebted individuals to be more reluctant to risk continuous employment by asking for pay increases. On the other side, though, we know that heavy public debt loads have historically tended to be inflationary once they reach some difficult-to-define tipping point, because central authorities have increased incentives to let inflation run a bit hot to help grow out of obligations. But again, this is sort of circular as well since one reason that there is so much debt is because real interest rates are so low. And real interest rates are so low because central banks keep easing. So it would seem weird to be making the argument about too much debt causing disinflation and then lowering interest rates.

I don’t think he is thinking about the “AirBnB effect” (not real) or the “Amazon effect” (not real) or any of the various other postulated effects stemming from gee-whiz technology that never seems to hold up to actual scrutiny. In the end, I don’t think he really had anything in particular in mind. For the Fed, the fact that inflation hasn’t gone up means that there are disinflationary forces. Q.e.d.

Powell also noted: “If you look at the economy right now there’s no sector that’s booming and therefore might bust.”

Nope.

Sources: GuruFocus, Bloomberg, DOE, Enduring Investments.

 

Categories: Federal Reserve

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (July 2019)

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.

  • Big, big CPI day today. After four straight 0.1s (rounded down to that, in each case) on core CPI, the importance here is hard to overstate.
  • With the Fed gearing up to ease, partly because of low inflation, these prints all matter more.
  • (…although the Fed minutes suggested the Fed is taking a “risk management” approach, which makes the hurdle for NOT easing a lot higher since they can always say they’re addressing future risks, not current data.)
  • The problem is that better measures of inflation, like Median or Trimmed Mean, are not really showing the same slowdown as core. That is, these are still one-offs, or “transitory” in Fed-speak.
  • But that’s one way that inflation involves – as one-offs that become more frequent until those one-offs are the median. Still, while I expect inflation to peak later this year I don’t think that’s happening yet.
  • There is an underlying mystery in all of this and that is: where is the tariff effect?! The markets have moved on from worrying about it because it hasn’t shown up yet.
  • But the short-term bump from the actual tariffs was never the real threat with de-globalization. The important effects are long-term, not short term. Still, it makes investors more confident that China tariffs don’t really matter much.
  • OK, just a few minutes until the number. After the number and my reactions to it, tune in to @TDANetwork where I will be talking with @OJRenick at about 9:15ET. The consensus is for 0.2% on core CPI, keeping y/y at 2.0%. Good luck out there.
  • Well, that’s more like it. Core CPI +0.29%, pushing y/y from 2.00 to 2.13%.
  • Breakdown in a moment but first thing it’s really important to remember: this does not mean the Fed won’t ease this month. Almost surely, they still will. Remember, this is “risk management” to them. They’ve set it up to ease anyway.
  • Last 12 core CPI.

  • OK, big m/m jump in Primary Rents and Owners’ Equivalent are the obvious culprits. Rents went to 3.87% y/y from 3.73% y/y on a +0.424% m/m jump. OER rose from 3.34% y/y to 3.41% y/y.
  • Used Cars and Trucks also finally caught up a bit…they’d been way below where private surveys had them, but this month +1.59% m/m, vs -1.37% last month. y/y goes from +0.28% to 1.25%.
  • Apparel +1.13% m/m. Y/y it’s still in deflation at -1.3%, but last month that was -3.1%. Tariff effect or just the new method adjustment starting to smooth out? I expect the new method will show more volatility, FWIW.
  • You can see the main trend in apparel hasn’t really changed; this month’s bump just moves it back towards the prior flat-to-slightly-down trend.

  • CPI-Used cars and trucks vs Blackbook. Had been a bit below, now spot on.

  • Core ex-shelter rises to 1.16% from 1.04%. That’s still well below the highs from late last year but underscores that this is not JUST housing (although…housing is a big part of it).
  • This is interesting. Hospital Services (part of Medical Care) continues to plunge. -0.1% m/m and down to +0.50% y/y.

  • also medicinal drugs continues to decline. And Doctor’s services was stable. But Medical Care as a whole drooped to 1.96% from 2.08% y/y. Those are the three big pieces, but…

  • …Medical Care CPI didn’t decline further because Dental Services (0.79% weight, about half of doctors’ services) had a big jump, y/y to 1.94% from 1.15%. Get those teeth taken care of, people.
  • College tuition and fees ebbed to 3.45% from 3.81% y/y.
  • Back to Transportation…while Used Cars jumped (mostly just getting back to trend), New vehicles continued to droop. 0.58% y/y from 0.90% y/y. And leased cars got cheaper.
  • My early estimate of Median CPI is +0.27%, bringing y/y back up slightly to 2.81%. Note the monthly series is much more stable than core, which is one reason to like Median.

  • The largest negative changes this month were in Motor Fuel, Fuel Oil, Miscellaneous Personal Goods, Infants’ and Toddlers’ Apparel, and Public Transportation. All -10% or more on an annualized basis, but mostly small too.
  • Largest increases were Jewelry and Watches, Car and Truck Rental (both of those over 60% annualized), Footwear, Used Cars and Trucks, and Men’s and Boys’ Apparel.
  • I think that’s enough for today as I have to go get on air for @TDANetwork in 15 minutes. Tune in! Bottom line here is: keep focusing on Median, inflation isn’t headed down YET, but…Fed is still going to ease this month.
  • Totally forgot to do the four-pieces charts. Will have to skip this month.
  • OK, the four-pieces charts – I’ll have them in my tweet summary so might as well post them here. As a reminder these are four pieces that add up to CPI, each 1/5 to 1/3 of the total.
  • First up, Food and Energy.

  • Core goods. Now, this is interesting because it shows the reversal of some of the ‘transitory’ effects. Our model has this going to 1%, but recent outturns had been discouraging. Now back on track.

  • Core services, though, continues to be drippy. A lot of the sogginess is medical care. I wonder what happens if the Administration wins and Obamacare is repealed? Short term, probably higher, but in the long-term less government involvement is also less inflationary.

  • Finally, rent of shelter. Running a bit hotter than I expected it to be, and due to start fading a little. But no sign of a sharp deceleration in core while this is stable.

(I had to end this earlier this month because of the TD Ameritrade Network appearance, but went back and added the four-pieces charts later.)

The bottom line here is that nothing has changed in terms of what we should expect from central banks. They’re willing to let inflation run hot anyway because they thing low inflation was the problem. So they will ease this month, and probably will continue to ease as growth wanes. They will feel like they are ahead of the curve, and when inflation ebbs as I expect it to, they will say “see? We were right and we were even pre-emptive!”

Indeed, this is really the biggest risk in the longer-term. The Fed is going to be “right” but for all the wrong reasons. Inflation is not going to be declining because growth is slowing; these are merely coincident at the moment. Lower interest rates causing lower money velocity (since the opportunity cost of holding cash is going to go back towards zero) is the cause of the coming ebb in inflation which, by the way, won’t be as severe as in the last recession. But the risk is that the Fed becomes more confident in their models because they “worked,” and rely on them later.

Here’s an analogy. I just tossed a coin and the Fed went off, and ran complicated models factoring in gravity, wind resistance, the magnetism of the metals in the coin, biometric analyses about the strength of my thumb, and they concluded and called “heads.” It turned out to be heads, and the Fed is very happy about how well their models worked. Now, I know that it was “heads” because I tossed a two-headed coin.

So later, when I toss the coin again, the Fed runs the same model and calls “tails.” But this time, they are much more confident in their call, because of the model’s past success. Of course, since they didn’t actually get the right answer for the right reason the first time, there’s no more chance of being right than there was before…they’re just going to rely on it much more. And that’s the risk here. When the next inflation upturn happens, which I think will happen in the next cycle, the Fed will be very confident that their ‘expectations-augmented Phillips curve’ and Keynesian models will work…and they’ll be very, very late when inflation goes up.

But a really important point is: that’s not today’s trade. I doubt it’s even this year’s trade, although if I’m wrong and the peak isn’t happening yet it may be. The market realities remain:

  1. The Fed is going to ease this month, almost certainly 25bps.
  2. The Fed and other central banks are likely to keep easing preemptively, and then keep easing when the recession begins, and keep policy rates too low once the next expansion starts (although market rates will signal when that’s happening).
  3. Equities are too high for this growth regime; TIPS are way, way too cheap for any reasonably likely inflation regime…at least, relative to nominal bonds. But equities will probably take a while to figure that out.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2019)

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.

  • OK, CPI day at last. We get to find out if Powell meant “transitory” in the one-month sense (probably not) or in the 3-6 month sense (more likely).
  • After all we have had three weak core CPI figures in a row: 0.110% for Feb, 0.148% in March, 0.138% in April. Three 0.1%s, rounded.
  • Last month the culprit was used cars, -1.3% m/m, and Apparel at -0.8% m/m, the latter due to a methodology change. These are both short-term transitory, probably.
  • Meanwhile, the evidence that core is being infected these last three months by tail events is in the median CPI, which was +0.26%, +0.27%, and +0.20% the last 3 months.
  • Housing, on the other hand, remains strong, and this should continue for a bit; Medical Care remains weak with pharma especially (+0.1% y/y)…and I think that is “longer-term transitory” that should start to retrace higher.
  • I am expecting a return to normalcy, not so much a rebound, in autos and apparel. But that should be enough to hit the consensus figures of 0.21% on core, 2.09% y/y.
  • Longer-term, the fact that interest rates have fallen so far suggests that the small rebound we have seen over the last year and a half in money velocity may have trouble extending.
  • So I think Median probably peaks late this year or early next, though I don’t expect it to fall off a cliff, either, in this recession.
  • Grabbing coffee. Back in 11 minutes.
  • So maybe a liiiiiittle more transitory than we thought! Core +0.11% m/m, +2.00% y/y.
  • Last 12 months. The comp is easier next month, but none of the last 4 months would have exceeded it anyway!

  • Apparel basically flat m/m, which is approximately what I expected…-3.06% y/y though, which includes the methodology change.
  • CPI-Used Cars and Trucks was again down sharply m/m. -1.38%. That’s unlikely. Pushes y/y to +0.28%, Black Book has it about 1% above that.

  • Housing: OER +0.26% m/m, Primary Rents +0.24%. Actually those aren’t far from the trends (y/y in each case declined a couple of hundredths, to 3.34% and 3.73% respectively), but last month had been chippier.
  • Medical Care (and then I’m going to take a few minutes and dig deeper on some of these)…Medicinal Drugs (pharma) went into deflation. -0.11% m/m, -0.82% y/y. Chart in a moment. Doctor’s Services roughly unch, but only 0.30% y/y. Hospital Services bounced a bit, 1.30% y/y.
  • Even with the bounce, Hospital Services is lower than two months ago, 3 months ago, etc. One year ago it was 4.70% y/y. Hospital Services is the largest component of the Medical Care subindex.
  • Here is the y/y chart for drugs. Now, it’s very hard to measure this because there is tremendous dispersion in consumer costs for prescription drugs…massive differences based on which outlet, formulary, insurance, etc you have. Doing a lot of work on this. Sooo…

  • this is the y/y picture for NONprescription drugs, which are much easier to measure. Basically no chg. So either prescriptn drug mkt is getting much more competitive (I doubt it), there is some change in collection method (possible), or a shift showing up as change.

  • there is no lower-level index for drugs so we can’t really dig any deeper on that unfortunately. But it’s significant, not only for the CPI of course but for consumers generally (and the budget deficit) if health care costs really ARE slowing in a permanent way.
  • CPI – College Tuition and Fees, essentially unch at 3.81% vs 3.86% y/y. But well off the lows.

  • Now what does that last picture look like…oh, yeah, the S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index (my baby).

  • Core inflation ex-housing down to 1.04%, the lowest level since February 2018. Still nowhere near the lows, nowhere near deflation, and with lots of transitory stuff in it.

  • Core goods prices still in deflation, -0.2%. But lagged effect of the dollar’s 2017 selloff should just now be starting to wash into the core goods data. And we still haven’t seen the tariff effect yet. So this is still to come and the reason I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.

  • WEIRD: Biggest declines on the month were used cars & trucks (-15.3% annualized), Leased cars & trucks (-13.8%). Biggest gainers: Car and Truck Rental (+26.5%), Public Transportation (+24.8%).
  • Early estimate for Median CPI is +0.21% m/m, making y/y 2.81%. So, again, it’s a tails story.
  • Sorry, didn’t calculate the sheet for y/y. Should be 2.76% y/y for median, down from 2.80%.
  • Here is m/m Median CPI. Notice there’s really no major slowdown here. It’s been pretty steady and rising slightly y/y for a while. Nothing below 0.2% m/m since last August.

  • OK, four pieces and then we’ll sum up. Piece 1 is food and energy.

  • Piece 2 is core goods. As I said, I expect this to turn back higher. This is where you find Used Cars and Apparel…so transitory stuff is big here. This is also where tariffs fall heaviest.

  • Piece 3 is Core Services less Rent of Shelter. Same story here: “What is up with medical care?” It may be that since consumers under the ACA end up paying out of pocket for a much larger share, they’re bargaining harder. That could be why it feels so much worse than this.

  • Finally, rent of shelter – same old same old. No deflation while this remains steady as a rock.

  • So, in sum. I do think that Powell is right in focusing on the “transitory” inflation slowdown. Better measures, such as Median (see below for Median vs core), show no significant slowdown yet.

  • …and it’s hard to see where a slowdown would come from. Medical Care is already very slow. Core goods is already very slow, with negative tails already in the data but not much sign yet of the tariff effect sure to come. Housing is solid.
  • So for now, I expect median inflation to continue to crawl higher. As we get later in the year, though, unless interest rates rebound a lot higher there’s a decent chance that money velocity droops again.
  • Now, money velocity is already REALLY low so it may not. This chart isn’t our best model but it suggests velocity is already too low for the level of int rates (I’m not sure it’s a linear function near zero though). It was responding, but lower int rates may truncate a bounce.

Nothing more really to add – I will say that although Powell is right and these are transitory factors, I have lost faith that the Chairman is a “different sort” of Fed Chair since he doesn’t have an academic background. He was at first, but appears to have been captured by the econocognoscenti. Ergo, I expect the Fed will ignore the fact that inflation is still drifting higher, and start to cut rates as the growth figures make it ever clearer that the economy is heading towards (if not already in) recession. Long-end yields are already 110bps or more off the highs, so I think the bond market already has more than half its recession-rally finished (I don’t think we’ll have new low yields this cycle since I don’t think inflation will collapse and I don’t think the recession will be as bad). But stocks haven’t even begun their earnings-recession selloff, so…

Tariffs and Subsidies…on Money

Many, many years ago (27, actually) I wrote a paper on how a tariff on oil actually has some beneficial effects which needed to be balanced against the beneficial effect that a lower oil price has on economic growth. But since the early 1990s until 2015 or so I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times the issue of tariffs came up in thoughts about the economy and markets. To the extent that anyone thought about them at all, it was to think about how lowering them has an unalloyed long-term positive effect. Which, for the most part, it does.

But the economics profession can sometimes be somewhat shamanistic on the topic of tariffs. Tariffs=bad; time for the next chapter in the book. There is much more complexity to the topic than that, as there is with almost any economic topic. Reducing economics to comic-book simplicity only works when there is one overwhelmingly correct idea, like “when demand for a good goes up, so does the equilibrium price.” The end: next chapter.

Tariffs have, though, both short-term and long-term effects. In the long-term, we all agree, the effects of raising tariffs are deleterious. For any given increase in money and velocity, we end up with lower growth and higher inflation, all else equal. It is important to realize that these are largely one-time effects although smeared out over a long period. That is, after equilibrium is reached if tariffs are not changed any longer, tariffs have no large incremental effect. It is the change in tariffs that matters, and the story of the success of the global economy in terms of having decent growth with low inflation for the last thirty years is largely a story of continuously opening trade. As I’ve written previously, this train was just about running out of track anyway so that we were likely to go back to a worse combo of growth and inflation, but reversing that trend would lead to significantly worse combinations of growth and inflation in the medium-to-long term.

In the short-term, however, tariffs can have a positive effect (if they are expected to remain) on the tariff-imposing country, assuming no retaliation (or even with retaliation, if the tariff-imposing country is a significant net importer). They raise employment, and they raise the wage of the employed. They even may raise the real wage of the employed if there is economic slack. The chart below shows the y/y change in manufacturing jobs, and ex-manufacturing jobs, for the last 40 years. Obviously, the manufacturing sector has been shrinking – a story of increased productivity, but also of trade liberalization as manufacturing was offshored. The Obama-era work programs (e.g. “Cash for Clunkers”) temporarily reversed some of that differential decline, but since 2016 – when we got a new President – manufacturing payrolls growth has caught up to non-manufacturing. That’s not a surprise – it’s the short-term effect of tariffs.

The point is that tariffs are a political winner in the short-term, which is one reason I think that people are overestimating the likelihood that “Tariff Man” is going to rapidly concede on trade and lower tariffs. If the Administration gets a clear “win” in trade negotiations, then I am sure the President is amenable to reversing tariffs. But otherwise, it doesn’t hurt him in the heavy manufacturing states. And those states turn out to be key.

(This is a relative observation; it doesn’t mean that total payrolls will rise. The economic cycle still has its own momentum, and while tariffs can help parts of the economy in the short term it doesn’t change the fact that this cycle was very long in the tooth with lots of imbalances that are overdue for correction. It is no real surprise that employment is softening, even though it is a lagging indicator. The signs of softening activity have been accumulating for a while.)

But in the long run, we all agree – de-liberalizing trade is a bad deal. It leads among other things to bloat and inefficiency in protected sectors (just as any decrease in competition tends to do). It leads to more domestic capacity than is necessary, and duplicated capacity in country A and country B. It promotes inefficiency and unbalanced growth.

So why, then, are investors and economists so convinced that putting tariffs or subsidies on money has good (or even neutral) long-term effects? When the Fed forces interest rates higher or lower, by arbitrarily setting short-term rates or by buying or selling long-term bonds – that’s a tariff or a subsidy. It is protecting interest-rate sensitive sectors from having interest rates set by competition for capital. And, as we have seen, it leads in the long run to inefficient building of capacity. The Fed evinces concern about the amount of leverage in the system. Whose fault is that? If you give away free ice cream, why are you surprised when people get fat?

The only way that tariffs, and interest rate manipulations, have a chance of being neutral to positive is if they are imposed as a temporary rebalancing (or negotiating) measure and then quickly removed. In the case of Federal Reserve policy, that means that after cutting rates to address a temporary market panic or bank run, the central bank quickly moves back to neutral. To be clear, “neutral” means floating, market-determined rates where the supply and demand for capital determines the market-clearing rate. If investors believed that the central bank would pursue such a course, then they could evaluate and plan based on long-term free market rates rather than basing their actions on the expectation that rates would remain controlled and protective.

It is no different than with tariffs. So for central bankers criticizing the trade policy of the Administration, I say: let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone.

What if ‘Excess Reserves’ Aren’t Really Excess?

March 4, 2019 1 comment

One intriguing recent suggestion I have heard recently is that the “Excess” reserves that currently populate the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve aren’t really excess after all. Historically, the quantity of reserves was managed so that banks had enough to support lending to the degree which the Fed wanted: when economic activity was too slow, the Fed would add reserves and banks would use these reserves to make loans; when economic activity was too fast, the Fed would pull back on the growth of reserves and so rein in the growth of bank lending. Thus, at least in theory the Open Markets Desk at the New York Fed could manage economic activity by regulating the supply of reserves in the system. Any given bank, if it discovered it had more reserves than it needed, could lend those reserves in the interbank market to a bank that was short. But there was no significant quantity of “excess” reserves, because holding excess reserves cost money (they didn’t pay interest) – if the system as a whole had “too many” reserves, banks tended to lend more and use them up. So, when the Fed wanted to stuff lots of reserves into the system in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and especially wanted the banks to hold the excess rather than lending it, they had to pay banks to do so and so they began to pay interest on reserves. Voila! Excess reserves appeared.

But there is some speculation that things are different now because in 2011, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision recommended (and the Federal Reserve implemented, with time to comply but fully implemented as of 2015) a rule that all “Systematically Important Financial Institutions” (mainly, really big banks) be required to maintain a Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) at a certain level. The LCR is calculated by dividing a bank’s High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) by a number that represents its stress-tested 30-day net outflows. That is, the bank’s liquidity is expressed as a function of the riskiness of its business and the quantity of high-quality assets that it holds against these risks.

In calculating the HQLA, most assets the bank holds receive big discounts. For example, if a bank holds common equities, only half of the value of those equities can be considered in calculating this numerator. But a very few types of assets get full credit: Federal Reserve bank balances and Treasury securities chief among them.[1]

So, since big banks must maintain a certain LCR, and reserves are great HQLA assets, some observers have suggested that this means the Fed can’t really drain all of those excess reserves because they are, effectively, required. They’re not required because they need to be held against lending, but because they need to be held to satisfy the liquidity requirements.

If this is true, then against all my expectations the Fed has, effectively, done what I suggested in Chapter 10, “My Prescription” of What’s Wrong with Money? (Wiley, 2016). I quote an extended section from that book, since it turns out to be potentially spot-on with what might actually be happening (and, after all, it’s my book so I hereby give myself permission to quote a lengthy chunk):

“First, the Federal Reserve should change the reserve requirement for banks. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain. In this case, the Fed has the power (and the authority) to, at a stroke, redefine reserves so that all of the current “excess” reserves essentially become “required” reserves, by changing the amount of reserves banks are required to hold against loans. No longer would there be a risk of banks cracking open the “boxes of currency” in their vaults to extend more loans and create more money than is healthy for an economy that seeks noninflationary growth. There would be no chance of a reversion to the mean of the money multiplier, which would be devastating to the inflation picture. And the Open Markets Desk at the Fed would immediately regain power over short-term interest rates, because when they add or subtract reserves in open market operations, banks would care.

“To be sure, this would be awful news for the banks themselves and their stock prices would likely take a hit. It would amount to a forcible deleveraging, and impair potential profitability as a result. But we should recognize that such a deleveraging has already happened, and this policy would merely recognize de jure what has already happened de facto.

“Movements in reserve requirements have historically been very rare, and this is probably why such a solution is not being considered as far as I know. The reserve requirement is considered a “blunt instrument,” and you can imagine how a movement in the requirement could under normal circumstances lead to extreme volatility as the quantity of required reserves suddenly lurched from approximate balance into significant surplus or deficit. But that is not our current problem. Our current problem cries out for a blunt instrument!

“While the Fed is making this adjustment, and as it prepares to press money growth lower, they should work to keep medium-term interest rates low, not raise them, so that money velocity does not abruptly normalize. Interest rates should be normalized slowly, letting velocity rise gradually while money growth is pushed lower simultaneously. This would cause the yield curve to flatten substantially as tighter monetary conditions cause short-term interest rates in the United States to rise.

“Of course, in time the Fed should relinquish control of term rates altogether, and should also allow its balance sheet to shrink naturally. It is possible that, as this happens, reserve requirements could be edged incrementally back to normal as well. But those decisions are years away.”

If, in fact, the implementation of the LCR is serving as a second reserve requirement that is larger than the reserve requirement that is used to compute required and “excess” reserves, then the amount of excess reserves is less than we currently believe it to be. The Fed, in fact, has made some overtures to the market that they may not fully “normalize” the balance sheet specifically because the financial system needs it to continue to supply sufficient reserves. If, in fact, the LCR requirement uses all of the reserves currently considered “excess,” then the Fed is, despite my prior beliefs, actually operating at the margin and decisions to supply more or fewer reserves could directly affect the money supply after all, because the reserve requirement has in effect been raised.

This would be a huge development, and would help ameliorate the worst fears of those of us who wondered how QE could be left un-drained without eventually causing a move to a much higher price level. The problem is that we don’t really have a way to measure how close to the margin the Fed actually is; moreover, since Treasuries are a substitute for reserves in the LCR it isn’t clear that the margin the Fed wants to operate on is itself a bright line. It is more likely a fuzzy zone, which would complicate Fed policy considerably. It actually would make the Fed prone to mistakes in both directions, both over-easing and over-tightening, as opposed to the current situation where they are mostly just chasing inflation around (since when they raise interest rates, money velocity rises and that pushes inflation higher, but raising rates doesn’t also lower money growth since they’re not limiting bank activities by reining in reserves at the margin).

I think this explanation is at least partly correct, although we don’t think the condition is as binding as the more optimistic assessments would have it. The fact that M2 has recently begun to re-accelerate, despite the reduction in the Fed balance sheet, argues that we are not yet “at the margin” even if the margin is closer than we thought it was previously.


[1] The assumption in allowing Treasuries to be used at full value seems to be that in a crisis the value of those securities would go up, not down, so no haircut is required. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, especially if the crisis were to be caused, for example, by a failure of the government to pay interest on Treasuries due to a government shutdown. The more honest reason is that if the Fed were to haircut Treasuries, banks would hold drastically fewer Treasuries and this would be destabilizing – not to mention bad for business on Capitol Hill.

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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