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Some Further (Minor) Thoughts on the Phillips Curve

September 6, 2017 3 comments

Before I begin, let me say that if you haven’t read yesterday’s article, please do because it represents the important argument: the Phillips Curve doesn’t need rehabilitating, because it is working fine. In fact, I would argue that the Phillips Curve – relating wages to unemployment – is a remarkably accurate economic model prediction. The key chart from that article I reproduce here, but the article (which is brief) is worth reading.

Following my publication of that article, I had a few more thoughts that are worth discussing on this topic.

The first is historical. It’s incredibly frustrating to read article after article incorrectly stating what the Phillips Curve is supposed to relate. Of course one writer learns from another writer until what is incorrect becomes ‘common knowledge.’ I was fortunate in that, 30 years ago, I had excellent Economics professors at Trinity University in San Antonio, and I was reflecting on that fact when I said to myself “I wonder if Samuelson had it right?”

So I dug out my copy of Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus (the best-selling textbook of all time, I believe, and the de rigeur Intro to Economics textbook for generations of economists). My copy is the 12th Edition, so perhaps they have corrected this since then…but on page 247, there it is – the Phillips Curve illustrated as a “tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.” Maybe that is where this error really propagated – with a Nobel Prize-winning economist making an error in his incredibly widely-read text! Interestingly, the authors don’t reference the original Phillips work, but refer to “writers in the 1960s” who made that connection, so to be fair to Samuelson and Nordhaus they were possibly already repeating an error that had been made even earlier.

My second point is artistic. In yesterday’s article, I said “The Phillips Curve…simply says that when labor is in short supply, its price goes up. In other words: labor, like everything else, is traded in the context of supply and demand,…” But students of economics will note that the Phillips Curve seems to obfuscate this relationship, because it is sloping the wrong way for a supply curve – which should slope up and to the right rather than down and to the right. This can be remedied by expressing the x-axis of the Phillips Curve differently – making it the quantity of labor demanded rather than the quantity of labor not demanded…which is what the unemployment rate is. So the plot of wage inflation as a function of the Employment Rate (as opposed to the Unemployment Rate) has the expected shape of a supply curve. More labor is supplied when the prices rise.

Again, this is nuance and not a really important point unless you want your economics to be pretty.

My third point, though, is important. One member of the bow-tied fraternity of Ph.D. economists told me through a friend that “the Phillips Curve has evolved to the relationship between Unemployment and general prices, not simply wages.” I am skeptical of any “evolution” that causes the offspring to be worse-adapted to the environment, but moreover I would argue that whoever led this “evolution” (and as I said above, it looks like it happened in the 1960s) didn’t really understand the way the economy (and in particular, business) works.

There is every reason to think that wages should be tied to available labor supply because one is the price of the other. That’s Microeconomics 101. But if unemployment is going to be a good indicator of generalized price inflation too, then it means that prices in the economy are essentially set as the price of the labor input plus a spread for profit. That is not at all how prices are set. Picture the businessperson deciding how to set prices. According to the “evolved Phillips Curve” understanding, this business owner looks at the wages he/she is paying and then sets the price of the product. But that’s crazy. A business owner considers labor as one input, as well as all of the other inputs, improvements in productivity in producing this good or service in question, competitive pressures, and the general state of the national and local economy. It would be incredible if all of these factors canceled out except for wage inflation, wouldn’t it? So in short, while I would expect that unemployment might have some explanatory power for inflation, I wouldn’t expect that explanatory power to be very strong. And, in fact, it isn’t. (But this isn’t new – it never has had any power.)

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The Phillips Curve is Working Just Fine, Thanks

September 5, 2017 1 comment

I must say that it is discouraging how often I have to write about the Phillips Curve.

The Phillips Curve is a very simple idea and a very powerful model. It simply says that when labor is in short supply, its price goes up. In other words: labor, like everything else, is traded in the context of supply and demand, and the price is sensitive to the balance of supply and demand.

Somewhere along the line, people decided that what Phillips really meant was that low unemployment caused consumer price inflation. It turns out that doesn’t really work (see chart, source BLS, showing unemployment versus CPI since 1997).

Accordingly, since the Phillips Curve is “broken,” lots of work has been done to resurrect it by “augmenting” it with expectations. This also does not work, although if you add enough variables to any model you will eventually get a decent fit.

And so here we are, with Federal Reserve officials and blue-chip economists alike bemoaning that the Fed has “only one model, and it’s broken,” when it never really worked in the first place. (Incidentally, the monetary model that relates money and velocity (via interest rates) to the price level works quite well, but apparently they haven’t gotten around to rediscovering monetarism at the Fed).

But the problem is not in our stars, but in ourselves. There is nothing wrong with the Phillips Curve. The title of William Phillips’ original paper is “The Relation between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wage Rates in the United Kingdom, 1861-1957.” Note that there is nothing in that title about consumer inflation! Here is the actual Phillips Curve in the US over the last 20 years, relating the Unemployment Rate to wages 9 months later.

The trendline here is a simple power function and actually resembles the shape of Phillips’ original curve. The R-squared of 0.91, I think, sufficiently rehabilitates Phillips. Don’t you?

I haven’t done anything tricky here. The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker is a relevant measure of wages which tracks the change in the wages of continuously-employed persons, and so avoids composition effects such as the fact that when unemployment drops, lower-quality workers (who earn lower wages) are the last to be hired. The 9-month lag is a reasonable response time for employers to respond to labor conditions when they are changing rapidly such as in 2009…but even with no lag, the R-squared is still 0.73 or so, despite the rapid changes in the Unemployment Rate in 2008-09.

So let Phillips rest in peace with his considerable contribution in place. Blame the lack of inflation on someone else.

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Avoiding the Rattlesnakes in Monetary Policy

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And now on to today’s rant.

Today we got the minutes from the last FOMC meeting, but that is of course old news by now. The nuance of whether the central bankers at the meeting were a little more dovish or a little more hawkish used to matter more when every utterance of every Fed official wasn’t carried live on television. By the time we get the FOMC minutes, even the nuance is outdated if Fed speakers have been active at all.

Make no mistake: I once would stop what I was doing when the minutes came out, and pored over the fine detail to pick out that nuance; but it’s no longer necessary. I am less intrigued by the wording in today’s minutes than I am by what Neel Kashkari said a few days ago.

Mr. Kashkari, who is President of the Minneapolis Fed despite his tender age of 44, declared last Friday that his colleagues’ desire to raise interest rates is attributable to a “ghost story” they are telling themselves:

 “People are worried that, if wages start to climb, if businesses have to compete with each other, you may not get gradual wage growth. You might all of a sudden get an acceleration in wages.

“I call this — and I mean this with no disrespect — I call this a ghost story, meaning, I cannot prove to you that there’s not a ghost underneath this table. I cannot prove it definitively. There may be. But there is no evidence that there is a ghost under this table. There is no evidence in any of the data that wages have this acceleration factor and are all of a sudden going to take off.”

I guess perhaps I am getting old and so am more easily irritated when young whippersnappers are blatantly disrespectful to their elders. Sure, at every age we think we have the answers. But Mr. Kashkari is so far off base here it is fair to wonder how the hell he got this job in the first place…because he clearly doesn’t understand one of the basic principles of monetary policy.

It is true what he says. There is no evidence that wages are about to take off, and I sympathize with his frustration about the Phillips-Curve cult at the Fed. I would go further and say that even if wages were to suddenly accelerate, moving higher before inflation moves higher in what is a fairly unusual occurrence, there’s very little support for the notion that this would in turn push prices higher. The data supporting “wage driven” inflation is very thin indeed. This is why the Phillips Curve tends to work fairly well on wages, but not very well on inflation. That is, low unemployment rates tend to precede increases in wages, but aren’t particularly predictive when it comes to increases in inflation.

But despite the fact that what he says is true, he is wrong about the implications for policy because he doesn’t appreciate the nonlinear effects of forecasting errors here. One of the basic rules of monetary policy is (or at least should be) this: because there are large error bars on your forecasts, try to nudge policy in the direction least likely to &*@#$^@ it up.

Kashkari is saying that there’s no reason not to keep rates low, because we haven’t seen any sign of wage inflation. But that’s not the right question. The right question is this: is it more likely that we will &*@#$^@ it up by keeping rates too low, or by moving them too high? Being wrong and being slightly too tight when you’re already incredibly accommodative is probably a small error. Being wrong and being slightly too loose when you’re already incredibly accommodative has at least the potential to be a massive error, because inflation has long tails – so making that error could have nonlinearly bad results.

One might argue that being too tight could crack the stock and bond markets. This is true, but it will always be true unless the markets crack on their own. It’s true because markets are ridiculously overvalued, so there will always be a risk of nonlinearly bad moves in asset markets. But that risk is inescapable: at some point, rates will have to be normalized, and it is likely to move the equilibrium prices for those markets lower. The Fed is trying to address that part of the risk by being so outlandishly incremental that asset markets won’t care. So far, so good.

(There is an additional irony here, and that is that raising interest rates is the action which is more likely to ignite inflation as money velocity moves up so that you might also get nonlinearly bad outcomes in inflation by raising rates. But that is not what Kashkari is saying.)

No one, it seems, is worried about the nonlinear outcomes these days. If they were, implied volatilities would be much higher, since it is through options that you can best protect your assets from nonlinear market moves. As investors, we can choose to take that risk with our own little piece of the pie. Policymakers don’t have access to option hedges on economy-wide economic variables, though. Their best strategy is to try and walk the course least likely to result in their stepping on a rattlesnake.

Categories: Federal Reserve

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2017)

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

  • about 15 mins to CPI. Consensus on core is 0.15% or 0.16% m/m, which would see y/y rise to ~1.74% vs 1.71%.
  • Few see upside risks to that forecast. Indeed, most pundits are braced for a lower print. 0.15% on core would have beaten last 4 mo.
  • Last 4 core CPI: -0.12%, 0.07%, 0.06%, 0.12%. But the 4 before that were 0.18%, 0.22%, 0.31%, and 0.21% so it’s a fair bet.
  • Though the NKor situation dominates market concerns, today’s CPI garnering more than normal interest. Potential for some volatility.
  • We’ve heard dovish Fed govs floating idea of pausing rate hikes (though continuing balance sheet reduction). That’s what doves do, but…
  • …but another weak CPI will be seen as “sealing the deal” for removing rate hikes from the calendar.
  • STRONG core CPI print is a much bigger surprise to most. Might be less mkt risk though – want to sell Tsys with NKor situation hot?
  • Core CPI 0.11%, y/y: 1.70%. Actually slightly down v 1.71% last mo. Think we can take rate hikes off table but will look @ breakdn.
  • Core goods steady at -0.6%, no dollar effect pushing it higher yet. Core services 2.4%, lowest in 2yrs.
  • Just quick glance I see new cars -1.1% y/y down from -0.3%. If this is autos I’d not be as worried.
  • Core ex-Shelter rose slightly, actually, to 0.63% from 0.60% y/y. But that’s obviously not alarming.
  • Dropping the full data set at the moment. Please hold.
  • In Housing, Primary Rents decelerated to 3.81% from 3.86%. OER slipped to 3.21% vs 3.23%. Small moved but big categories.
  • Lodging Away from Home -2.36% vs -0.07%. Big move, small category. But that category often has big moves.
  • Apparel went to -0.44% vs -0.67%. Again, not really seeing the dollar effect – apparel is one of the first places it would show up.
  • New cars -0.63% vs 0.01%, weight of 3.68% of CPI. Not only the lowest in 8 years but…recession leader? See chart.

  • Used cars -4.08% vs -4.30%, so the effect is in new.
  • That new cars decel is worth 3bps on core, so if was still at 0.01% we’d have had core right at expectations even w/ shelter slowdn.
  • Medical Care 2.58% vs 2.66% y/y. Pharma rose (3.84% vs 3.31%) but Prof Svcs dropped to 0.21% vs 0.58%
  • Medical – Professional Services starting to look like Telecommunications. What’s the one-off here?

  • Again with rents…decelerating but right about back on schedule.

  • For those playing at home: wireless telephone services -13.25% vs -13.19%. After the huge drop a few months ago, not much add’l.
  • Incidentally, Land Line Phone Services is 0.73% weight in CPI while Wireless is 1.74%. Gone is the ubiquitous creamcicle on the wall.
  • A little hard to guess at Median b/c median category looks like Midwest Urban OER, which gets a 2nd seasonal adj, but my est is 0.18%.
  • Here’s the inflation story over the last year, in two important chunks.

  • US #Inflation mkt pricing: 2017 1.3%;2018 1.8%;then 2.1%, 2.1%, 2.1%, 2.2%, 2.1%, 2.1%, 2.3%, 2.4%, & 2027:2.4%.
  • Here’s a little teaser from our quarterly. These are not forecasts, but entirely derived from mkt data.

  • Inflation in four pieces: Food & Energy

  • Piece 2: Core Goods, nothing to see here.

  • Core Services Less RoS – this is the core CPI story.

  • …though don’t forget piece 4. As noted earlier, this is just going back to model but some will forecast collapse.

  • This might be the bigger story – declining core CPI is all about the weight in the left tail, which is why median is still at 2.2%.

  • Despite core CPI slowdown, 44% of components are still inflating faster than 3%.

  • …this makes it more likely the recent CPI slowdown reverses, b/c it’s being caused by left-tail outcomes that probly mean-revert.

Coming into today the market thought the probability of a December rate hike was only 38%, which seemed very low to me. But there is nothing here that suggests the doves are going to lose the fight to slow down the already-timid pace of rate hikes. It isn’t surprising to see markets rally on this data.

However, it is also easy to get carried away with the story that inflation is decelerating. Those left-tail categories are what is driving core inflation lower (and it’s the reason I focus on median CPI, because it ignores the outliers). Shelter has come off the boil a bit, and if that rolled over I would be more concerned about seeing much lower CPI. But there is no sign of that happening, and it seems unlikely to given that home prices themselves continue to rise at a better-than-5% clip (see chart, source Bloomberg).

So, if shelter isn’t going to continue to decelerate much more, then the risk going forward is mean-reversion of those left-tail categories. I don’t think Physician Services are going to go into deflation. (To be sure, some of that is probably a measurement issue as the mode of hiring and paying for doctors is changing, and it is hard to predict mean reversion from measurement issues). Thus, if the market starts to price a near-zero chance of higher rates come December, I’d be interested in buying that option on the chance that one or two of these next four CPI prints (the December CPI report is out the day of the December FOMC meeting) is tilted the other way.

Two Disturbing Trends

July 27, 2017 2 comments

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Today I want to mention two disturbing trends – one of which may have some minor implications for inflation.

The first is the six-month downtrend in the US Dollar (see chart, source Bloomberg).

I’ve included the last several years’ worth of pricing for the broad trade-weighted dollar so as to help avoid any alarmist conclusions. While the trade-weighted dollar is down more than 7% since the beginning of 2017, it is unchanged on a trailing-two-year basis and still quite a bit above the level of three years ago. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before – when the question concerned the effect of the dollar’s rise on inflation – the dollar doesn’t have a huge impact on US inflation. The US economy is much more closed than, for example, the economies of the Eurozone, the UK, or Switzerland – while the US is a major trade partner for virtually every country in the world, exports and imports as a percentage of GDP are less important than they are for most other countries in the world. Consequently, while movements in currency pairs will cause the declining currency to absorb more of the joint inflationary impulse of the two countries, the effect is fairly small in the US. A 15% dollar appreciation over a two-year period is associated with roughly a 1% deflation in core goods, nine months later, which is close to where core goods inflation has been (actually between 0 and -0.8% for the last few years). Core goods themselves are only about ¼ of core inflation overall. Since the dollar’s appreciation or depreciation has almost no discernable effect on core services a 15% dollar appreciation over two years only nudges core CPI down 0.25%.

So the effect is not large. However, it’s worth noting when the two-year rate of change goes from +16% (which it was one year ago) to 0%. This should start to add incrementally to core goods inflation, and provide a small upward lift to core inflation over the next year or so. But that assumes the dollar does not continue to slide. Continued dollar weakness might be attributed to the US political situation, but it isn’t as if most of our major trading partners are experiencing striking political stability (UK? Europe?). But dollar weakness could also be associated with a reversal in the relative hawkishness of the US Fed compared to other global central banks.

The run-up in the dollar corresponded with the end of Quantitative Easing in the US in 2014, combined with the continuation of QE (and more to the point, LSAP) in Europe and Japan. As hard as it is to think of Janet Yellen as being a hawk, on a global, relative basis her Fed was comparatively hawkish and this helped push the dollar higher.

Which brings us to the second disturbing trend, which may help to explain why the dollar is weakening: commercial bank credit growth has slowed markedly over the last year. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the year-over-year change in commercial bank credit, based on data reported by the Federal Reserve.

The current y/y rate of credit growth, at 3.4%, is a number much more consistent with recession than with expansion as the chart above illustrates. To be sure, it is hard to see many overt signs of weakness in the domestic economy, although auto sales have been weakening (see chart, source Bloomberg) and they can sometimes be an early harbinger of economic difficulties.

It is also worth noting that credit growth hasn’t translated into slower money growth – M2 is still rising at 6% per year – so there is not an implication of slower inflation from the deceleration in corporate credit (at least, so far). But, between the suggestion the dollar is making that Federal Reserve policy may not be as hawkish going forward as the market had assumed, and the interesting and possibly disturbing sign from slowing growth in corporate credit, I’m starting to become alert for other early signs of recession.

Of course, the dollar’s slide might instead indicate that the ECB and/or BOJ are about to become less dovish, more rapidly than the market had expected. While core Euro inflation has been a little more buoyant than many had expected (1.1% in the last release), it seems unlikely to drastically change Draghi’s course. However, I will keep an open mind on that point. I’m not saying a recession is imminent; I’m just saying that I’m starting to watch more carefully.

Reversing the “Portfolio Balance Channel”

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Today I want to write about something that’s been bothering me a bit recently. It’s about the Fed’s impending decision to start drawing down its balance sheet over some number of years (whether or not we have an announcement about that at tomorrow’s meeting, it seems likely that “balance sheet reduction” is on tap for later this year). Something had been gnawing at me about that, and until now I haven’t been able to put my finger on it.

It concerns the ‘portfolio balance channel.’ This bit of Fed arcana is part of how the central bank explained the importance of the practice of buying trillions in Treasury bonds. Remember that back when the Fed first started doing Large-Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP), they were concerned that a lack of ‘animal spirits’ were causing investors to shy away from taking risk in the aftermath of the credit crisis. Although this is entirely normal, to the FOMC it was something to be corrected – if people and firms aren’t willing to take risk, then it is difficult for the economy to grow.

So, as the Fed explained it, part of the reason that they were buying Treasuries is that by removing enough safe securities from the market, people would be forced to buy riskier securities. When QE1 started, 10-year TIPS were yielding 2.5%, and that’s a pretty reasonable alternative to equities in a high-risk environment. But the Fed’s ministrations eventually pushed TIPS yields (along with other yields, but by focusing on real rates we can abstract from the part of that decline that came from declining inflation expectations rather than the forced decline in real yields) down to zero in 2011, and eventually deeply negative. As expected, despite the risk aversion being experienced by investors they began to move into equities as the “only game in town” – think about how many times you’ve heard people lament they own equities because ‘there’s nothing else worth owning’? The eventual result, of course, was that expected returns to equities began to fall in line with the (manipulated) expected returns to other securities, until we got the current situation where, according to our calculations, TIPS now have a higher expected real return than equities again (but at a much lower level).

What was bothering me, of course, was that shrinking the balance sheet also implies reversing the “portfolio balance channel.” Via QE, the Fed forced investors into stocks because there were fewer Treasury securities outstanding; every time the Fed bought $1 of bonds, some fraction of that went into stocks. The reverse must also be true – for every $1 of bonds the Fed sells, some fraction of that money must come out of stocks.

I’m not the first person to note that reducing the balance sheet should be a negative for equities since it “reduces liquidity.” But I was always uncomfortable with the vagueness of the “liquidity” mechanism…after all, lots of people predicted cataclysm when the Fed “tapered” QE. The reversal of the portfolio balance channel, though, is a real effect. The money to buy the extra bonds that will be on the market – bonds not held by the Fed must be held by someone, after all – will come from somewhere. And some of that “somewhere” will be from equities, some from real estate, some from cash, etc. I don’t know how big an effect it will be, but I know the sign.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2017)

June 14, 2017 3 comments

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

  • CPI day! People looking past CPI at 8:30 but…not me!
  • Last 2 CPI prints were very low. The first was a 1-off wireless telecom debacle, read about that effect here.
  • Last month’s CPI weakness was in core services – in medical care & rent of shelter. Harder to ignore but unlikely to be in freefall.
  • Consensus core CPI is for another weak print, only 0.16% or so. Economists believe disinflation is upon us. I think that’s premature.
  • Last May’s core CPI was 0.21%, so that’s the hurdle to get acceleration in y/y figures.
  • WOW! At this rate I will have to change my Twitter handle. Each month is more shocking. m/m core 0.1%, not sure on the rounding yet.
  • 06% m/m on core CPI, so again incredibly weak. y/y at 1.74%, producing the scary optic of a drop from 1.9% to 1.7% on the rounded core
  • This is an amazing chart.

  • waiting for the data dump, but housing, medical care, apparel subcomponents all decelerated.
  • So the upshot is…core prices overall are unchanged from February. That’s right, 0% core inflation over 3 months.
  • Yes, it was telecom that made 0% possible and that won’t be repeated. But still striking. Here is the index itself.

  • So Dec, Jan, Feb core inflation is rising at a 3% annualized pace. next 3 months, zero. That’s not supposed to happen to core.
  • Breakdown now. In Housing, Primary rents remain solid at 3.85% y/y, unch. But Owners’ Equiv plunged (for it) to 3.25% from 3.39%.
  • Picture of OER: this is a dramatic shift in this index, and frankly hard to explain given home price increases.

  • Medical Care decelerated to 2.66% from 2.95%. But w/in MC, drugs rose to 3.34% vs 2.62%. Professional svcs flopped to 1.00% from 1.58%
  • CPI/Med Care/Professional Services, y/y. Doctors suddenly don’t need to be paid.

  • Apparel had been at 0.45% y/y, fell to -0.94%.
  • The Fed funds rate is too low and almost certainly rises today. But with a sudden zig in CPI…it wouldn’t SHOCK me if they delayed.
  • Back to housing – we’ve believed OER was ahead of itself for awhile. Adjustment is just really sudden.

  • in the biggest-pieces breakdown, core goods is at -0.8% y/y while core services is down to 2.6%.
  • US$’s recent decline (2y change in trade-weighted $ is only +7%) means core goods are losing the downward pressure of last few yrs.
  • But the dollar’s effect is lagged significantly. We’re still seeing effect of prior strength.

  • Here are the four pieces of CPI, most volatile to least. Starting with Food & Energy (21% of CPI)

  • Core goods (33%)

  • Core services less Rent of Shelter. Yipe!

  • Got my percentages wrong. Food & Energy is 21%. Core goods is 19%, core services less ROS is 27%. Rent of Shelter is 33%.
  • Rent of Shelter. 27% of overall CPI. I still find it hard to believe this is going to collapse, but as I tweeted earlier it was ahead.

  • My early estimate of Median CPI is 0.18% m/m, 2.28% y/y down from 2.37%.
  • One thing to keep in mind is that in June and July we drop off 0.15% and 0.13% from y/y core. So core should bounce back some. (??)
  • I mean, we can’t average 0% core going forward, right?!? Otherwise @TheStalwart and @adsteel will never have me on again.
  • core ex-shelter down to 0.59% y/y. Lowest since JANUARY 2004!

  • Interestingly, the weight of categories inflating more than 3% remains high. The pullback is in the far left tail.

Well, it’s getting harder to put lipstick on this pig. The telecom-induced drop of a couple of months ago was clearly a one-off. But the slowdown in owners’-equivalent rents is merely putting it back in line with our model, and so it’s hard to believe that’s going to be reversed. And I’m really, really skeptical that there has been an abrupt collapse in the rate of increase of doctors’ wages.

Except, what if there is a shift happening from higher-priced doctors to lower-priced doctors? This sort of compositional shift happens all the time in the data and it’s devilishly hard to tease out – for example, in the Existing Home Sales report it is sometimes difficult to tell if a change in home prices is coming from a broad change in home prices, or because more high-priced or low-priced homes are being sold this month, skewing the average. So this kind of composition shift is possible, in which case each individual doctor could see his wages increasing while the average declines due to the composition effect. I have no idea if this is what is happening – I’m just making the point that if it is, then this effect could be more persistent and not the one-off that the telecom change was. However, I am skeptical.

I do not believe that we have seen a turn in the inflation cycle. With money growth persistently above 6%, it would take a further collapse in money velocity from already-record-low levels to get that to happen. Forget about the micro question, about whether movements in this index or that index look like they’re rolling over. The macro question is that it is hard to get disinflation if there’s too much money sloshing around, whether or not the economy is growing.

But that being said, the Fed doesn’t necessarily believe that. There is a tendency to believe one’s own fable, and the fable the FOMC tells itself is that raising interest rates causes growth to slow and inflation to decline. Although the effect is spurious, we are currently seeing somewhat slower growth (for example, in the recent slowing of payrolls) and we are seeing lower core inflation. It is a low hurdle for the Fed to believe that their policy moves are an important part of the cause of these effects. Of course, they’re not – the tiny changes the FOMC has made in the overnight rate, even if it had been propagated to significant changes in longer rates – which it hasn’t been – or resulted in slower month growth – it hasn’t, especially if you look globally – would not have had much effect at all. But that won’t stop them from thinking so. Ergo, the chance that the Fed skips today’s meeting, while small, are non-zero. And there is a much greater chance that the “dot plot” shifts lower as dovish members of the Fed (and that’s most of them) back away from the feeble pace of increases they’d been anticipating.

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