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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (Oct 2017)

October 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guyPV 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 or get it a little cheaper on our site here.

  • Friday the 13th and a heavy data day. What could go wrong?
  • 10y breakevens at local highs of 1.90% – but that’s the biggest spread over core CPI in several years.
  • …yet we still have 10y TIPS 50bps to fair at this level of interest rates.
  • Economist expectations are for 0.21% on core and 1.78% y/y. Interesting given how low it has been recently.
  • I don’t usually look at headline but the y/y number is forecast to jump to 2.3% from 1.9%. That will get some attention.
  • I think the market forecasts are about right for core, but there’s a wide range of upside risks. Autos are due to catch up, e.g.
  • But that’s why the forecasts make sense. 0.15% for trend plus 0.05% for expected value of risks.
  • …in turn, that means the point forecasts are not the most likely prints. They’re in between the most likely prints.
  • Core +0.13%, 1.69% y/y.
  • Breakdown will be interesting. Housing broad category went to 2.79% y/y from 2.91%. Medical Care fell to 1.56% from 1.81%.
  • Used cars/trucks went to -3.7% vs -3.8% y/y, so that rebound is still ahead of us. Surveys of car prices are up a lot, just not in BLS yet.
  • pulling in the breakdown now…core services 2.6% from 2.5%, but core goods deflation deepens to -1.0% from -0.9%.
  • Core goods deflation, however, ought soon to be rising again after the lagged effect of the dollar’s decline passes in.
  • In Housing, Primary Rents plunged to 3.78% from 3.88%. That’s huge. OER dropped to 3.18% from 3.27%. Also huge. There’s your story.
  • Core ex-housing rose to 0.58% vs 0.52% y/y, so there’s more going on here but the housing. Wow.
  • A few months ago we had y/y OER fall by more, but that was when OER was overextended.
  • Here is primary rents y/y. I guess this isn’t DRAMATIC – just quite contrary to my own expectations for a continuation of the rebound.

  • In Medical Care, Medicinal Drugs fell to 1.01% from 2.51%. Wow! But Professional Services and Hospital Services accelerated slightly.
  • Here’s CPI for pharma. Think we’ve discussed this before – likely compositional in nature, more generics thanks to worse insurance.

  • Professional services (doctors) bounced;not significant. Also somewhat compositional as old doctors quit rather than take ins. headaches.

  • College Tuition 2.08% vs 1.89%. Have I mentioned the new S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index recently? 🙂
  • Just b/c …who can get enough of wireless telecom services? Bounced, mostly base effect of course. Bottom line was that dip was a 1-off.

  • New cars also still deflating, BTW. -1.0% vs -0.68%. Obviously this will change with Houston buying loads of new cars.
  • Speaking of Houston: core CPI in Houston y/y ended June: 1.31%. For y/y ended Aug: 1.90%. But that’s actually before Harvey.
  • In Miami, 2.01% vs. 2.26% (June vs August). Have to wait a bit to get October numbers – they’ll come out in Dec.
  • Bottom line on the storms is that we haven’t seen the impact yet on CPI. Still to come.
  • My early estimate of Median CPI is 0.20%, bringing y/y up to 2.17% from 2.15%.
  • Housing and Medical Care still keeping pressure on core.

  • Interestingly, these other categories, including Food, and Energy too, all saw acceleration this month (except for other).

  • distribution of changes getting more spread out…

  • Percentage of basket over 3% hasn’t changed much, ergo median didn’t change much.

  • Does this change the Fed’s calculus? I don’t think so, especially with wages accelerating. Still waiting for one-offs to unwind.
  • The doves will argue that the unwind of a one-off is itself a one-off and we should therefore look thru and see 0.12-0.14 as the trend.
  • They’re unlikely to carry the day in Dec, even if the data don’t bounce higher. But if core stays weak the mkt will unwind the 3 in 2018.
  • 10y breakevens -3bps since the number. Market had seemed a little long but this is still too low for breakevens.
  • Four pieces. Piece 1: Food & Energy

  • Piece 2: core goods. Won’t go down forever with the dollar well off its highs.

  • Core services less ROS. A bounce. Sustainable? We’ll have to see.

  • Piece 4, Rent of Shelter. Seemingly ignoring continued rise in home prices. Back to model but weaker than I expected.

  • Last chart. here is the argument: do we cheer the weak consumer inflation or worry about higher wages?

  • Yes, wages follow inflation rather than lead…but the Fed doesn’t believe that.

Thanks to everyone who followed my new “premium” (but cheap) channel. I wrote on Wednesday about the reason for changing my Tweet storm; in a nutshell, it’s because research is starting to be priced a la carte at the major dealers and hopefully this means that quality but off-Street analysis might finally be competing on an even footing rather than competing with “free.” If you think there’s value in what I do, I’d appreciate a follow. If not…well, if the market tells me that what I’m producing isn’t worth anything, then I’ll stop producing it of course!

But in the meantime, here is the story of CPI this month. A continuing regression of rents and OER to model levels held core down to recent-trend levels. But there are many one-off and temporary effects that are due to be reversed, and relationships that suggest certain components are due to catch up to underlying realities. For example, here is the picture of Used Cars and Trucks CPI, compared to the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index 4 months prior.

According to the relationship between these series over the last decade, CPI for Used Cars and Trucks should be growing about 5% faster than it is presently, and rise another 3-4% in the next few months. New and Used Motor Vehicles inflation is about 8% of core CPI, so this effect alone could add 0.7% to core CPI! Or, put another way, right now core CPI is about 0.4% lower than it would be if the CPI was measuring the actual price of vehicles the same way that Manheim does it. That’s a big number when the entire core CPI is only 1.7%.

The continued, and actually extended weakness in core goods is also due to reverse. I don’t mean that core goods inflation will go from -1% to +3% but only to 0.5%. But that 150bp acceleration, in one-quarter of the core CPI, would also raise core CPI by 40bps or so. To be sure, there is some double-counting since a third of core commodities is new and used vehicles, but that merely reinforces the message.

So, too, are the effects in medical. Volatility in those series should persist, which means that since they are at a low ebb there’s a better bet that the next volatile swing is to higher prices.

All of which is to say that the hawks on the Federal Reserve Board actually have it right, in a sense. Prices are headed higher, and inflation is accelerating. It would be a truly shocking development if core inflation one year from now was unchanged from the current level. Indeed, I think there is a better chance that core inflation is above 2.7% than below 1.7%. On another level, the hawks aren’t quite right though. By hiking rates before draining excess reserves, the Fed risks kicking off the vicious cycle I have mentioned before: higher rates cause higher money velocity, which causes higher inflation, which causes higher rates etc. Without control of reserves at the margin, the Fed cannot control money supply growth and so the normal offset to rising monetary velocity in a tightening cycle, slowing money growth, comes down to chance. Either way, the Fed is very likely to tighten in December, but beyond that it probably matters more who ends up in the Chairman’s seat than anything economic data.

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The Mystery of Why There’s A Mystery

October 10, 2017 Leave a comment

We have an interesting week ahead, at least for an inflation guy.

Of course, the CPI statistics (released this Friday) are always interesting but with all of the chatter about the “mystery” of inflation, it should draw more than the usual level of attention. That’s especially true since the mystery will cease to be a mystery fairly soon as even flawed indicators of inflation’s central tendency, such as the core CPI, turn back higher. This is not particularly good news for many pundits, who have declared the mystery to be solved with some explanation that implies inflation will stay low.

  • “Amazon effect”
  • Globalization
  • “competition”
  • Etc

The first of these I have addressed previously back in June (“The Internet Has Not Killed, and Will Not Kill, Inflation”). The second is a real effect, but it is a real effect whose effect peaked in the early 1990s and has been waning since then. I wrote something in our quarterly in Q4 last year, which is partly summarized here.

The “competition” objection is a weird one. It seems to posit that competition was pretty lame until recently, which is pretty strange. One argument along these lines is in this article by Steve Wunsch, who considers the increase in airline fees “stark evidence of a deflationary spiral in those ticket prices caused by antitrust-induced competition.” This is odd, since airlines were deregulated in 1978 and have in recent years become less competitive if anything with the mergers of Delta/Northwest in 2009, United/Continental in 2010, Southwest/AirTran in 2011, and US Airways/American Airlines in 2013. A flaccid antitrust response from the Justice Department has allowed quasi-monopolies to develop in some travel hubs, which has tended to push fares higher rather than lower. The chart below shows the relationship between Jet Fuel prices and the CPI for airfares (both seasonally adjusted) for the 20 years ended in 2014, along with the most-recent point from last month.

The highly-explanatory R-squared of 0.81 suggests that there is not much wiggle room in airline pricing. Airfares are, as you would expect under a competitive industry, roughly cost-plus with the main source of variance being jet fuel prices. This is true even though we would expect that spread to vary over time. As Mr. Wunsch would argue, the highly competitive nature of the industry is holding down the non-commodity price pressures in airfares.

The only problem is that if you extend this graph to include the last three years, the R-squared drops about 10 points:

In case it isn’t clear from that chart, the last three years have seen airfares increasingly above what we would expect from the level of jet fuel prices. The next chart makes that clear I hope by plotting the residual (and 12-month moving average to smooth out seasonal issues such as one that evidently happened last month) between the actual CPI-airfare and the level that would be predicted from the 1994-2014 relationship. As you can see, prices have been higher, and increasingly so, than we would have thought, until this last month or two – and I wouldn’t grab a lot of comfort from that yet.

Not only is this not “stark evidence of a deflationary spiral in those ticket prices caused by antitrust-induced competition,” it seems to be stark evidence of inflation in ticket prices caused by a reduction in competition thanks to airline mergers.

In reading these many articles, it always is somewhat striking to me: everybody thinks their answer is “the” answer to the mystery. But most of these authors really don’t sufficiently understand how inflation works, and what the data is showing. This is apparent to those who do understand these nuances, as an author might discuss (as the one mentioned above did) an “aberration” in cell phone inflation as if the experts are stupid for expecting inflation when cell phone services only go down. The author clearly misunderstands what the “aberration” referred to even is; in this case the aberration was an enormous one-month collapse in prices that had never been seen and has not been repeated since. (For those who are curious about the aberration, and why it occurred, and why it is likely a methodology issue rather than sign of spiraling deflation in wireless services you can see my discussion of it here.)

The mystery is simple – the Fed’s models don’t work, and don’t take into account the fact that lower interest rates cause lower money velocity. They rely on a Phillips Curve effect that they think is broken because they don’t understand that the Phillips Curve relates wages and unemployment, not consumer prices and unemployment. They focus on a flawed measure like PCE rather than on something like Median CPI which, coincidentally, is a lot higher and suggests more price pressures. The mystery isn’t why inflation isn’t rising yet – the mystery is why they think there’s a mystery.

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 2 comments

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.

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