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Summary of my Post-CPI Tweets

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can 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.

  • core CPI +0.157%, so it just barely rounded to +0.2%. Still an upside surprise. Y/Y rose to 1.69%, rounding to 1.7%.
  • y/y headline now +0.0%. It will probably still dip back negative until the gasoline crash is done, but this messes up the “deflation meme”
  • (Although the deflation meme was always a crock since core is 1.7% and rising, and median is higher).
  • Core ex-housing +0.78%. Still weak.
  • Core services +2.5%. Core goods -0.5%, which is actually a mild acceleration. So the rise in core actually came from the goods side.
  • Accelerating major cats: Apparel, Transp. Decel: Food/Bev, Housing, Med care, Recreation, Other. Unch: Educ/Comm. But lots of asterisks.
  • Shelter component of housing rose back to 3% (2.98%) y/y; was just fuels & utilities dragging down housing.
  • Primary rents: +3.54% y/y, a new high. Owners’ Equiv Rent: 2.69%, just off the highs.
  • In Medical Care, Medicinal Drugs 4.13% from 4.16%, but pro services +1.47 from +1.71 and hospital services 3.28% from 4.08%.
  • In Education and Communication: Education decelerated to 3.5% from 3.7%; Communication accel to -2.2% from -2.3%.
  • 10y breakevens +3bps. Funny how mild surprises (Fed, CPI) just run roughshod over the shorts who are convinced deflation is destiny.
  • No big $ reaction. FX guys can’t decide if CPI bullish (Fed maybe changes mind and goes hawkish!) or bearish (inflation hurts curncy).
  • Here’s my take: Fed isn’t going to be hawkish. Maybe ever. So this should be a negative for the USD.

This CPI report was a smidge strong, but just a smidge. The market was looking for something around 0.12% or so on core, and instead got 0.16%. To be sure, this is another report that shows no sign of primary deflation, but still it amazes me that inflation breakevens can have such a significant reaction to what was actually just a mild surprise. That reaction tells you how pervasive the “deflation meme” has become – the notion that the economies of the world are headed towards a deflationary debt spiral. I am not saying that cannot happen, but I am saying that it will not happen unless somehow the central banks of the world decide to stop flushing money into the system. And honestly, I see no sign whatsoever that that is about to happen.

As I wrote last week, it should be no surprise that this is a dovish Fed that will perpetually look for reasons to not tighten, and will do so only when the market demands it. My guess is that will happen once inflation, breakevens, and rates rise, and stocks fall. And this doesn’t look imminent.

Outside of housing, core inflation still looks soft. But housing inflation is accelerating further, as has been our core view for some time. The chart below (data source: Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in primary rents is at 3.54%. The median in primary rents for the period for 1995-2008 (the 13 years leading up to the crisis) was 3.20%. And during that time, core inflation ex-housing was 1.72% (median).

primrents

Like most data, you can use this to argue two diametrically-opposed positions. You might argue that the Fed’s loose money policy has helped re-kindle a bubble in housing, as inflation in rents of 3.54% with other core prices rising at 0.78% suggests that housing is in a world of its own. Therefore, the Fed ought to be removing stimulus, and tightening policy, to address the bubble in housing (and the one in equities) and to keep that bubble from bleeding into other markets and pushing general prices higher. But the flip side of the argument is that core inflation outside of housing is only 0.78%, so therefore if the FOMC starts removing liquidity then we may have primary deflation, ex housing. Accordingly, damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead on easing.

The data itself can be used right now to make either argument. Which one do you think the Fed will make?

Follow-up question: given that the Fed has historically one of the worst forecasting records imaginable, which argument do you think is actually closer to correct?

 

That’s Not How Any of This Works

March 18, 2015 1 comment

I wonder how many times the Fed needs to be more dovish than expected before investors realize that this is a dovish Fed?

It may indeed be the most dovish Fed ever, judging from Dr. Yellen’s prior statements and history. And yet, investors seemed to have convinced themselves that with core inflation measured in the Fed’s preferred way far below its target (to be sure, it’s not the right way to measure it, but they’re not looking for excuses to hike), with structural unemployment still high (see chart of “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now,” source Bloomberg, below), with other central banks aggressively easing so that our dollar is aggressively strengthening, and with recent economic indicators surprising on the low side at the most-rapid pace since 2011, the Fed was going to put itself on a track to start hiking rates by early summer.

wanna

In the event, the Fed told us that they are no longer going to be automatically “patient” – which was the word that 90% of economists expected them to remove from the statement – but the Committee’s median projections for the year-end Fed funds rate dropped 50bps since the last meeting, to just above 0.5%.

Why won’t investors listen? It isn’t as if the last Fed Chairman was a renowned hawk. It’s been a generation since we had a real hawk in the Chairman’s seat. So I have no idea why it is a shock to people that the Fed acts dovishly, even as Chairman Yellen says the Fed will need to “monitor inflation developments carefully.”

If they were monitoring inflation developments carefully, they would know that median inflation is already at levels that represent achievement of the Fed’s target. If they were monitoring inflation developments carefully, then they would know that the dollar (which Yellen says will keep inflation lower for longer) has very little impact on domestic pricing, outside of goods that are largely produced overseas (apparel) or certain raw commodities (like energies).

Or, perhaps, just perhaps…they actually do know these things, but prefer to rely on obfuscation to keep rates as low as they can for as long as they can, until the market absolutely demands that they raise them. With market interest rates low, and the dollar strong, there is absolutely no market pressure for the FOMC to raise rates. Therefore, they will not.

At this writing, 10-year breakevens are +11bps on the day. Over the last week or two, after a mild bounce from the beaten-down lows, fast money had been leaning on breakevens again and pushing them inexorably lower. How do I know it was fast money? Because 10-year breakevens are up 11bps in a freaking hour, after a mild adjustment in the “dots.” That isn’t the sort of move that reflects long-term planning.

I continue to be flabbergasted at how the Fed maintains its credibility. We all know that the Fed has been considerably worse than the average economic forecaster over a long period of time. But it even seems to have trouble with current data. On the tape right now, the Chairman is saying that the “residual effects” of the financial crisis are restraining credit. Really? The chart below shows commercial bank credit. Does that look restrained to you? It is rising at better than an 8% pace y/y, the fastest level since May 2008. And it’s 10%-11% annualized on a q/q basis.

cbcredit

Sometimes I want to echo that commercial for Esurance. “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”

When market rates go higher, and/or the dollar weakens because our domestic inflation starts being appreciably more than that of our trading partners, then the Fed will get serious about tightening. But it will have to be serious enough to handle the downward adjustment in securities prices that will happen when they begin to do so. I can’t foresee a time when that’s particularly likely. The Fed eschewed tightening over the last few years with an economy that had good momentum (see the first chart above). How likely is it that the Fed will get ambitious about hiking rates in the late stages of an expansion that is long in the tooth? With this Chairman? I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Categories: Bond Market, Federal Reserve, Rant Tags:

Just One Thing

March 12, 2015 3 comments

The defining characteristics of the markets these days seem to include:

  1. Central bank liquidity matters; central government mistakes do not.
  2. Central bank liquidity matters; economic growth numbers do not.
  3. Central bank liquidity matters; market illiquidity does not.
  4. Central bank liquidity matters; and so does the dollar (but that’s just a manifestation of the fact that central bank liquidity matters).

You may notice some commonality about the four defining characteristics as I have enumerated them above. I will add that this commonality – that seemingly only central bank liquidity operations matter these days – is also the reason that I haven’t been writing as much these last days, weeks, and months. As someone who has watched the Fed for a long time, I might have a decent guess as to when the Fed might change course…but probably no better than many other watchers. (Moreover, as I have said before, whether the Fed actually hikes rates or not probably doesn’t matter either as long as there is adequate liquidity, which is a question independent at the moment from rates. Refer again to the four characteristics.)

Let us take these one at a time.

Central bank mistakes don’t matter as much as the question of whether central banks are adding enough liquidity. Exhibit A is the fact that 10-year yields are negative in Switzerland, under 1% in France, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and under 1.60% in (get this) Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This is despite the fact that Greece is likely to leave the Euro either sooner or later, provoking existential questions about whether Italy, Spain, Portugal, and maybe France can also remain in the Eurozone. We can debate whether “likely to leave the Euro” means 20% chance or 80% chance, but if the chance is not negligible – and it certainly looks to be something more than negligible – then it is incredible that the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish yields are all so low. Yes, it’s largely because of the ECB. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Economic growth numbers do not matter as much as central bank profligacy. The Citigroup Economic Surprise index for the US just fell below -50 for the first time since 2012 (see chart, source Bloomberg).

cesiusd

Now, weaker-than-expected data spelled bad news for stocks in 2008, 2010, and 2011, but not since then. I wonder why? Right: central bank liquidity trumps. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Recently, I have read a fair amount about increasingly-frequent bouts of illiquidity in various markets. The US TIPS market has comfortably more than a trillion dollars’ worth of outstanding issues, but has been whipsawed unmercifully over the last week and a half (after, it should be said, a hellacious rebound from the outrageous selloff in H2 of last year – see chart of 10-year breakevens, source Bloomberg). But that market is not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Energy markets, individual stock names and the stock market generally, and the list goes on.

10y breaks

It isn’t that there has been dramatic volatility – volatility happens. It’s that the effective bid/offer spreads have been widening and the amount of securities that can be moved on the bid and offer has been declining (to say it another way, the real market for size has been widening, or the cost of liquidity has been rising). This in itself is not surprising: some pundits, myself included, predicted five years ago that instituting the Volcker Rule, and other elements of Dodd-Frank that tended to decrease the risk budgets of market liquidity-makers, would diminish market liquidity. (See here, here, and here for some examples of my own statements on the matter). But the other prediction, that markets would fall as a result of the diminished market liquidity – less-liquid stocks for example routinely trade at lower P/E ratios all else being equal – has proven incorrect. Why? I would suggest the central bank’s provision of extraordinary monetary liquidity has helped keep markets elevated despite thinning liquidity. Quod erat demonstrandum.

So what is there to write about? Well, I could talk about the dollar, which at +25% from last June is starting to be in the realm of interesting. But this too is just another manifestation of central bank shenanigans – specifically, the notion that every central bank is being easier than our Federal Reserve. So it comes back to the same thing.

So all roads lead to the question of central bank liquidity provision. This primal single-note drum-beat is, if nothing else, exquisitely boring. But boring isn’t as annoying as the fact that it’s also wrong. The Fed isn’t being any more hawkish this year than it was last year. The growth in the money supply – which is the only metric of significance in the WYSIWYG world of monetary policy – is pretty much at the same level it has been for three years: about 6.0%-6.5% growth year/year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). That’s also exactly where UK M2 growth has been. Japanese money growth, while a lot healthier at 3.5% than it was at 2%, is still not doing anything dramatic despite all of the talk of BOJ money printing (color me surprised, by the way).

M2s

About the only interesting move in money growth has been in the EZ, which is where observers have been the most skeptical. One year ago, M2 growth in the Eurozone was 2.5%; as of January 2015, it was 5.6%.

The weakness in the Euro, in short, makes sense. The supply of Euros is increasing relative to the former growth trajectories, compared to USD, GBP, and JPY. Increase the relative supply; decrease the price. But the dollar’s strength against the rest of the world does not make so much sense. The supply of dollars is still rising at 6.5% per year, and moreover nothing that the Fed is proposing to do with rates is likely to affect the rate of increase in the supply of dollars.

At the end of the day, then, characteristic #4 I listed at the beginning of this article is wrong. It’s the perception of central bank liquidity, and not the liquidity itself, that matters to currencies. And that’s why I think the dollar’s run is going to come to an abrupt end, unless M2 growth inexplicably slows. How soon that run will end I have no idea, but it seems out of bounds to me. At least, if actual central bank liquidity is what matters…and for everything else in the securities markets, it seems to.

Summary (and Extension!) of My Post-CPI Tweets

February 26, 2015 3 comments

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can 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.

  • CPI -0.7%, core +0.2%. Ignore headline. Annual revisions as well.
  • Core +0.18% to two decimals. Strong report compared to expectations.
  • Core rise also off upwardly-revised prior mo. Changing seasonal adj doesn’t affect y/y but makes the near-term contour less negative.
  • y/y core 1.64%, barely staying at 1.6% on a rounded basis.
  • Core for last 4 months now 0.18, 0.08, 0.10, 0.18. The core flirting with zero never made a lot of sense.
  • Primary rents 3.40% from 3.38% y/y, Owners’ Equiv to 2.64% from 2.61%. Small moves, right direction.
  • Overall Housing CPI fell to 2.27% from 2.52%, as a result of huge drop in Household Energy from 2.53% to -0.06%. Focus on the core part!
  • RT @boes_: As always you have to be following @inflation_guy on CPI day >>Thanks!
  • A bit surprising is that Apparel y/y rose to -1.41% from -1.99%. I thought dollar strength would keep crushing Apparel.
  • Also New & Used Motor Vehicles -0.78% from -0.89%. Also expected weakness there from US$ strength. Interesting.
  • Airline fares, recently a big source of weakness, now -2.98% y/y from -4.71% y/y.
  • 10y BEI up 4bps at the moment. And big extension tomorrow. Ouch, would hate to have bet wrong this morning.
  • Medical Care 2.64% y/y from 2.96%.
  • College tuition and fees 3.64% from 3.43%. Child care and nursery school 3.05% from 2.24%. They get you both ends.
  • Core CPI ex-[shelter] rose to 0.72% from 0.69%. Still near an 11-year low.
  • Overall, core services +2.5% (was +2.4%), core goods -0.8% (was -0.8%). The downward pressure on core is all from goods side.
  • …and goods inflation tends to be mean-reverting. It hasn’t reverted yet, and with a strong dollar it will take longer, but it will.
  • That’s why you can make book on core inflation rising.
  • At 2.64% y/y, OER is still tracking well below our model. It will continue to be a source of upward pressure this year.
  • Thank you for all the follows and re-tweets!
  • Summary: CPI & the assoc. revisions eases the appearance that core was getting wobbly. Median has been strong. Core will get there.
  • Our “inflation angst” index rose above 1.5% for the 1st time since 2011. The index measures how much higher inflation FEELS than it IS.
  • That’s surprising, and it’s partly driven by increasing volatility in the inflation subcomponents. Volatility feels like inflation.
  • RT @czwalsh: @inflation_guy @boes_ using surveys? >>no. Surveys do a poor job on inflation. See why here: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/be/journal/v47/n1/abs/be201135a.html  …
  • 10y BEI now up 5.25bps. 1y infl swaps +28bps. Hated days like this when I made these markets. Not as bad from this side.
  • Incidentally, none of this changes the Fed outlook. Median was already at target, so the Fed’s focus on core is just a way to ignore it.
  • Once core rises enough, they will find some other reason to not worry about inflation. Fed isn’t moving rates far any time soon.
  • Median CPI +0.2%. Actually slightly less, keeping the y/y at 2.2%.

What a busy and interesting CPI day. For some months, the inflation figures have been confounding as core inflation (as always, we ignore headline inflation when we are looking at trends) has consistently stayed far away from better measures of the central tendency of inflation. The chart below (source: Bloomberg), some version of which I have run quite a bit in the past, illustrates the difference between median CPI (on top), core CPI (in the middle), and core PCE (the Fed’s favorite, on the bottom).

threecpis

I often say that median is a “better measure of central tendency,” but I haven’t ever illustrated graphically why that’s the case. The following chart (source: Enduring Investments) isn’t exactly correct, but I have removed all of the food and beverages group and the main places that energy appears (motor fuel, household energy). We are left with about 70% of the index, about a third of which sports year-on-year changes of between 2.5% and 3.0%. Do you see the long tail to the left? That is the cause of the difference between core and median. About 12% of CPI, or about one-sixth of core, is deflating. And, since core is an average, that brings the average down a lot. Do you want to guide monetary policy on the basis of that 12%, or rather by the middle of the distribution? That’s not a trick question, unless you are a member of the FOMC.

cpidist

Now, let’s talk about the dollar a bit, since in my tweets I mentioned apparel and autos. Ordinarily, the connection between the dollar and inflation is very weak, and very lagged. Only for terribly large movements in the dollar would you expect to see much movement in core inflation. This is partly because the US is still a relatively closed economy compared to many other smaller economies. The recent meme that the dollar’s modest rally to this point would impress core deflation on us is just so much nonsense.

However, there are components that are sensitive to the dollar. Apparel is chief among them, mainly because very little of the apparel that we consume is actually produced in the US. It’s a very clean category in that sense. Also, we import a lot of autos from both Europe and Asia, and they compete heavily with domestic auto manufacturers. As a consequence, the connection between these categories and the dollar is much better. The chart below shows a (strange) index of New Cars + Apparel, compared to the 2-year change in the broad trade-weighted dollar, lagged by 1 year – which essentially means that the dollar change is ‘centered’ on the change in New Cars + Apparel in such a way that it is really a 6-month lag between the dollar and these items.

cpinewcarsapparel

It’s not a day-trading model, but it helps explain why these categories are seeing weakness and probably will see weakness for a while longer. And guess what: those categories account for around 7% of the “tail” in that chart above. Ergo, core will likely stay below median for a while, although I think both will resume upward movement soon.

One of the reasons I believe the upward movement will continue soon is that housing continues to be pulled higher. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments using Bloomberg data) shows a coarse way of relating various housing price indicators to the owners’ rent component of CPI.

housing

We have a more-elegant model, but this makes the point sufficiently: OER is still below where it ought to be given the movement in housing prices. And shelter is a big part of the core CPI. If shelter prices keep accelerating, it is very hard for core (and median) inflation to decline very much.

One final chart (source Enduring Investments), relating to my comment that our inflation angst index has just popped higher.

angst

This index is driven mainly by two things: the volatility of the various price changes we experience, and the dispersion of the price changes we experience. The distribution-of-price-changes chart above shows the large dispersion, which actually increased this month. Cognitively, we tend to overlook “good” price changes (declines, or smaller advances) and recall more easily the “bad”, “painful” price changes. Also, we tend to encode rapid up-and-down changes in prices as inflation, even if prices aren’t actually going anywhere much. I reference my original paper on the subject above, which explains the use of the lambda. What is interesting is the possibility that the extremely low levels of inflation concern that we have seen over the last couple of years may be changing. If it does, then wage pressures will tend to follow price pressures more quickly than they might otherwise.

Thanks for all the reads and follows today. I welcome all feedback!

The Answer is No

February 18, 2015 2 comments

What a shock! The Federal Reserve as currently constituted is dovish!

It has really amazed me in recent months to see the great confidence exuded by Wall Street economists who were predicting the Fed will begin tightening by mid-year. While a tightening of policy is desperately needed – and indeed, an actual tightening of policy rather than a rate-hike, which would do many bad things but not much good – I was surprised to see economists buying the line being put out by Fed speakers on this (and I took issue with it, just last week).

Yes, the Fed would like us to believe that they stand sentinel over the possibility of overstaying their welcome. Their speeches endeavor to give this impression. But it is easy to say such a thing, and to believe that it should be said, and a different thing altogether to actually do it. Given that the Fed’s “preferred” inflation measure is foundering; market-based measures of inflation expectations were in steady decline until mid-January; the dollar is very strong and global economic growth quite weak; and other central banks uniformly loose, in my view it seemed that it would have required a historically hawkish Federal Reserve to stay the course on a mid-year hiking of rates. Something on the order of a Volcker Fed.

Which this ain’t.

Today the minutes from the end-of-January FOMC meeting were released and they were decidedly unconvincing when it comes to steaming full-ahead towards tightening policy. There was a fairly lengthy discussion of the “sizable decline in market-based measures of inflation compensation that had been observed over the past year and continued over the intermeeting period.” The minutes noted that “Participants generally agreed that the behavior of market-based measures of inflation compensation needed to be monitored closely.”

This is a short-term issue. 10-year breakevens bottomed in mid-January, and are nearly 25bps off the lows (see chart, source Bloomberg).

10ybe

To be sure, much of this reflects the rebound in energy quotes; 5-year implied core inflation is still only 1.54%, which is far too low. But we are unlikely to see those lows in breakevens again. Within a couple of months, 10-year breakevens will be back above 2% (versus 1.72% now). But this isn’t really the point at the moment; the point is that we shouldn’t be surprised that a dovish FOMC takes note of sharp declines in inflation expectations and uses it as an excuse to walk back the tightening chatter.

The minutes also focused on core inflation:

“Several participants saw the continuing weakness of core inflation measures as a concern. In addition, a few participants suggested that the weakness of nominal wage growth indicated that core and headline inflation could take longer to return to 2 percent than the Committee anticipated.”

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, core inflation is simply the wrong way to measure the central tendency of inflation right now. It isn’t that median inflation is just higher, it’s that it is better in that it marginalizes the outliers. As I pointed out in the article last Thursday, Dallas Fed President Fisher seemed to be humming this tune as well, by focusing on “trimmed-mean.” In short, ex-energy inflation hasn’t been experiencing “continuing weakness.” Median inflation is near the highs. Core has been dragged down by Apparel, Education and Communication, and New and used motor vehicles, and these (specifically the information processing part of Education and Communication, not the College Tuition part!) are among the categories most impacted by dollar strength. Unless you expect dramatic further dollar strengthening – and remember, one year ago there were still many people who were bracing for a dollar plunge – you can’t count on these categories continuing to drag down core CPI.

Again, this isn’t the current point. Whether or not core inflation heads higher from here to converge with median inflation (which I expect to head higher as well), and whether or not inflation expectations rise as I am fairly confident they will do over the next few months, the question was whether a Fed looking at this data was likely to be gung-ho to tighten policy in the near-term. The answer was no. The answer is no. And until that data changes in the direction I expect it to, the answer will be no.

Downside for Stocks, But Also for Fed Expectations

February 12, 2015 1 comment

Retail Sales figures today were weak. Retail Sales ex-Auto and Gas (I usually just look ex-auto, but then they look really, really bad because of how far gasoline has moved) just recorded the two worst numbers (0.0% and 0.2%) in a year.

Retail sales are volatile, so one shouldn’t get too exercised by a couple of weak figures. Except for the fact that we also know that overseas sales are going to be suffering, thanks to the strength of the dollar. The disinflationary tendency imparted by a strengthening dollar is mild, and takes some time to be evident in the figures. However, the effect on overseas sales tends to be more rapid, and the effect on earnings more or less instantaneous (because earnings need to be translated back into the reporting currency).

So it isn’t just the weakness retail sales that should give an investor pause here. It is difficult to sell stocks in an environment of abundant liquidity, but perhaps this chart (Source: www.Yardeni.com) is one reason to do so.

sp500earnsests

I am not a fan of Yardeni’s analysis, as a general rule, but this is a great chart package showing the evolution of earnings estimates over time.

I understand that we have become conditioned to buy stocks on every dip, especially when the world’s central banks continue to supply boundless money to the system – an approach which, miraculously, seems to have no downside (leaving us to wonder how much better off the poor benighted peoples of last century would have been if central banks had only discovered this elixir earlier). And I am no bolder than the rest of you, so I won’t short stocks either.

But explain to me why the Fed is going to tighten? Headline inflation is low; core PCE inflation is low; even the measure that Dallas Fed President Fisher prefers (Trimmed-Mean PCE) is low. I have pointed out how the better measure, Median CPI, is actually near the post-crisis highs and is right around the Fed’s target, but if we are taking a vote then I lose. Market-based inflation expectations have recently rebounded, and will continue to do so, but remain very low. Growth appears to be weakening, although not yet alarmingly so. Finally, foreign central banks are all easing, which is one big reason the dollar has risen as it has. I have difficulty with the idea that with all of these arguments, the Federal Reserve is going to choose now to pull back on the reins, simply because they have sorta hinted about it previously.

Incidentally, any impact on growth from the strike over the coming long weekend at West Coast ports  won’t help the argument to ease. Nor will the ongoing strike at nine US oil refineries (the biggest strike of oil workers since 1980).  For all of these reasons, I don’t think the Fed is going to tighten any time soon. I do believe that US stocks are rich compared to European stocks for example, and rich on an absolute basis, but if I were going to play the short side because of the earnings estimates revisions, I would do so with options.

Winter Is Coming

February 10, 2015 5 comments

Sometimes being a value investor, amid overvalued (and ever more so) markets, feels a bit like being a Stark in Westeros. The analogy will be lost on you if you do not follow Game of Thrones, but the Starks hold the largest of the sub-kingdoms in Westeros. This kingdom also happens to be the coldest, and the sober Starks are always reminding people that “Winter is coming.”

I should observe that winter in Westeros is a much more serious affair than it is around here; it comes at odd intervals but can last for years. So being prepared for winter is really important. However, getting people to prepare for winter during the long “summer” is very difficult.

Sound familiar? The thing to keep in mind is that the Starks are always right, eventually, and they’re the ones who come through the winter in the best shape. Such is the case with value investors. (Some people might prefer calling value investors who are bearish on stocks right now “Chicken Littles” but I prefer being compared to Ned Stark, thanks. Although both of them have been known to lose their heads on occasion.)

Fortunately, it does not appear that winter is coming to the U.S. very soon. Friday’s Employment report was strong, despite the beginnings of downsizing in the oil and gas extraction businesses. The chart below shows the Baker Hughes oil and gas rig count, which is falling at a rate every bit as fast as it did in the credit crisis.

rig count

Yet, the U.S. economy as a whole generated 267,000 new jobs last month, which was above expectations. It is unlikely that this pace will continue, since the extraction (and related industry) jobs will be a drag. But in 2008, this happened when every other industry was being squeezed, and in the current case other industries are being squeezed by the strong dollar, but only mildly so. I think this will actually serve to increase the labor force participation rate, which has been in a downtrend for a long time – because laid-off oil workers will still be in the labor force looking for work, while other jobs will be getting filled by (sometimes) discouraged workers coming off the sidelines. So we may well see the Unemployment Rate rise even as jobs growth remains reasonable, even if less robust than the most recent figures.

Winter, though, is still coming.

In the near-term, winter is coming to Europe. Unusually, it is moving from the south to the north because Greece appears to be finally heading for the denouement that has been utterly unavoidable from the beginning. I wrote this in June 2012 (and I wasn’t the only one saying such things – the only real question has been how long it would take before the Greeks decided they’d had enough of sacrifice to hold together the Eurozone for the elites):

Greece will still leave the Euro. Government or no government, austerity or no austerity – the fiscal math simply doesn’t make sense unless Europe wants to pay for Greece forever. In principle, the Greeks can dig themselves out of trouble if they work harder, retire later, pay more taxes, and receive fewer government services. I do believe that people can change, and a society can change, under pressure of crisis. Remember Rosie the Riveter? But the question is whether they can change, whether they will change, do they even want to change, if the benefit of the change flows not to Greece’s people but to the behemoth European institutions that have lent money to Greece?

If a person declares bankruptcy, and the judge declares that he must pay all of his wages for the next thirty years, after deducting enough for food and shelter, to the creditors…do you think that person is going to go looking for a 60-hour workweek?

Am I sure that Greece is going to leave the Euro in a week, or a month, or a year? Not at all. The institutional self-preservation meme is very strong and I am always amazed at how long it takes obvious imperatives to actually happen.[1] But I am quite confident that Greece will eventually leave the Euro, and it does seem as if parties on all sides of the negotiating table are coming to that conclusion as well.

One question that authorities have had to come to peace with first was whether Grexit is really Armageddon. I have argued that default and an exit from the Euro is not bad for Greece, at least when compared to a multi-year depression.

And it’s probably not even horrible for Europe, or the world at large, at least compared to the credit crisis, despite all protestations that this would be “Lehman squared.” Again, this is old news and as I lay out the reasoning here there is no reason to repeat myself.

But it won’t be a positive thing. And it is likely to bring on “winter,” economically. Helpfully, the world’s central banks not only remain in easing mode but are increasing the dovishness of their stance, with the ECB foremost among the central banks that are priming the pumps again. M2 money growth in the Eurozone was up to 4.5% y/y in December (latest data available), with the highest quarter-over-quarter growth rate (8.3%, annualized) in money since the end of 2008! Meanwhile the Fed, while it is no longer adding to reserves, is still watching the money supply grow at 6% y/y with no good way to stop it. For all the talk about the FOMC hiking rates by mid-year, I think the probable rise in the Unemployment Rate discussed above, plus the weak inflation readings (with the notable exception of Median CPI), plus the fact that all other central banks are easing and likely to continue doing so, plus the probability of turbulence in Europe, makes it very unlikely that this Committee, with a very dovish makeup, will be tightening any time soon.

The likely onset of some winter will not help hold down inflation, however. Upward pressures remain, and the fact that the ECB is now running the pumps makes higher prices more likely. Yes, we care about money supply growth in Europe: the chart below shows the M2 growth of the US and Europe combined, against core CPI in the US. The fit is actually better than with US CPI alone.

m2prices

Now, some markets are priced for winter and some are not. We think that real interest rates in Europe are far too low compared to real rates in the US, and stock prices in the US are too high compared to stock prices in Europe. The first chart below shows the spread of 10-year real rates in the US minus Europe (showing US yields are high compared to European yields); the second chart shows the ratio of the S&P 500 to the Eurostoxx 50.

realratespreadUSEU

spxeurostoxx

You can see in the latter chart that the out-performance of the S&P has proceeded since 2009, while the under-performance of US inflation-linked bonds has only happened since 2012, so these are not simply two ways of looking at the same trade. In both cases, these deviations are quite extreme. But the European economy and the US economy are not completely independent of one another; weak European growth affects US corporate entities and vice-versa, and as I suggest above the growth of European money supply tends to affect US inflation as well. We think that (institutional) investors should buy TIPS and sell European linkers, and also buy European stocks against US stocks. By doing both of these things, the exposure to currency flows or general trends in global equity market pricing is lessened. (Institutional investors interested in how we would weight such a trade should contact us.)

[1] As another example, take the shrinking of Wall Street. It was obvious after 2008 that it had to happen; only recently, however, as banks and dealers have been forced to become more and more like utilities have we started to see layoffs while stocks are rising, which is very unusual. But Wall Street defended the bloated structures of the past for more than six years!

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