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

January 8, 2019 3 comments

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

And now on with our irregularly-scheduled program.


Have we re-set the “Fed put”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2018 14 comments

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

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

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

I just didn’t say five years from when.

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

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

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

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

Now we get to the really cool part.

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

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

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


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

Alternative Risk Premia in Inflation Markets

July 25, 2018 1 comment

I’m going to wade into the question of ‘alternative risk premia’ today, and discuss how this applies to markets where I ply my trade.

When people talk about ‘alternative risk premia,’ they mean one of two things. They’re sort of the same thing, but the former meaning is more precise.

  1. A security’s return consists of market beta (whatever that means – it is a little more complex than it sounds) and ‘alpha’, which is the return not explained by the market beta. If rx is the security return and rm is the market return, classically alpha isThe problem is that most of that ‘alpha’ isn’t really alpha but results from model under-specification. For example, thanks to Fama and French we have known for a long time that small cap stocks tend to add “extra” return that is not explained by their betas. But that isn’t alpha – it is a beta exposure to another factor that wasn’t in the original model. Ergo, if “SMB” is how we designate the performance of small stocks minus big stocks, a better model isWell, obviously it doesn’t stop there. But the ‘alpha’ that you find for your strategy/investments depends critically on what model you’re using and which factors – aka “alternative risk premia” – you’re including. At some level, we don’t really know whether alpha really exists, or whether systematic alpha just means that we haven’t identified all of the factors. But these days it is de rigeur to say “let’s pay very little in fees for market beta; pay small fees for easy-to-access risk premia that we proactively decide to add to the portfolio (overweighting value stocks, for example), pay higher fees for harder-to-access risk premia that we want, and pay a lot in fees for true alpha…but we don’t really think that exists.” Of course, in other people’s mouths (mostly marketers) “alternative risk premia that you should add to your portfolio” just means…
  2. Whatever secret sauce we’re peddling, which provides returns you can’t get elsewhere.

So there’s nothing really mysterious about the search for ‘alternative risk premia’, and they’re not at all new. Yesteryear’s search for alpha is the same as today’s search for ‘alternative risk premia’, but the manager who wants to earn a high fee needs to explain why he can add actual alpha over not just the market beta, but the explainable ‘alternative risk premia’. If your long-short equity fund is basically long small cap stocks and short a beta-weighted amount of large-cap stocks, you’re probably not going to get paid much.

For many years, I’ve been using the following schematic to explain why certain sources of alpha are more or less valuable than others. The question comes down to the source of alpha, after you have stripped out the explainable ‘alternative risk premia’.

As an investor, you want to figure out where this manager’s skill is coming from: is it from theoretical errors, such as when some guys in Chicago discovered that the bond futures contract price did not incorporate the value of delivery options that accrued to the contract short, and harvested alpha for the better part of two decades before that opportunity closed? Or is it because Joe the trader is really a great trader and just has the market’s number? You want more of the former, which have high information ratios, are very persistent…but don’t come around that much. You shouldn’t be very confident in the latter, which seem to be all over the place but don’t tend to last very long and are really hard to prove. (I’ve been waiting for a long time to see the approach to fees suggested here in a 2008 Financial Analysts’ Journal article implemented.)

I care about this distinction because in the markets I traffic in, there are significant dislocations and some big honking theoretical errors that appear from time to time. I should hasten to say that in what follows, I will mention some results for strategies that we have designed at Enduring Intellectual Properties and/or manage via Enduring Investments, but this article should not be construed as an offer to sell any security or fund nor a solicitation of an offer to buy any security or fund.

  • Let’s start with something very simple. Here is a chart of the first-derivative of the CPI swaps curve – that is, the one-year inflation swap, x-years forward (so a 1y, 1y forward; a 1y, 2y forward; a 1y, 3y forward, and so on). In developed markets like LIBOR, not only is the curve itself smooth but the forwards derived from that curve are also smooth. But this is not the case with CPI swaps.[1]

  • I’ve also documented in this column from time to time the fact that inflation markets exaggerate the importance of near-term carry, so that big rallies in energy prices not only affect near-term breakevens and inflation swaps but also long-dated breakevens and inflation swaps, even though energy prices are largely mean-reverting.
  • We’ve in the past (although not in this column) identified times when the implied volatility of core inflation was actually larger than the implied volatility of nominal rates…which outcome, while possible, is pretty unlikely.
  • Back in 2009, we spoke to investors about the fact that corporate inflation bonds (which are structured very differently than TIPS and so are hard to analyze) were so cheap that for a while you could assemble a portfolio of these bonds, hedge out the credit, and still realize a CPI+5% yield at time when similar-maturity TIPS were yielding CPI+1%.
  • One of my favorite arbs available to retail investors was in 2012, when I-series savings bonds from the US Treasury sported yields nearly 2% above what was available to institutional investors in TIPS.

But aside from one-off trades, there are also systematic strategies. If a systematic strategy can be designed that produces excess returns both in- and out- of sample, it is at least worth asking whether there’s ‘alpha’ (or undiscovered/unexploited ‘alternative risk premia’) here. All three of the strategies below use only liquid markets – the first one, only commodity futures; the second one, only global sovereign inflation bonds; and the third one, only US TIPS and US nominal Treasuries. The first two are ‘long only’ strategies that systematically rebalance monthly and choose from the same securities that appear in the benchmark comparison. (Beyond that, this public post obviously needs to keep methods undisclosed!). And also, please note that past results are no indication of future returns! I am trying to make the general point that there are interesting risk factors/alphas here, and not the specific point about these strategies per se.

  • Our Enduring Dynamic Commodity Index is illustrated below. It’s more volatile, but not lots more volatile: 17.3% standard deviation compared to 16.1% for the Bloomberg Commodity Index.

That’s the most-impressive looking chart, but that’s because it represents commodity markets that have lots of volatility and, therefore, offer lots of opportunities.

  • Our Global Inflation Bond strategy is unlevered and uses only the bonds that are included in the Bloomberg-Barclays Global ILB index. It limits the allowable overweights on smaller markets so that it isn’t a “small market” effect that we are capturing here. According to the theory that drives the model, a significant part of any country’s domestic inflation is sourced globally and therefore not all of the price behavior of any given market is relevant to the cross-border decision. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

  • Finally, here is a simple strategy that is derived from a very simple model of the relationship between real and nominal Treasuries to conclude whether TIPS are appropriately priced. The performance is not outlandish, and there’s a 20% decline in the data, but there’s also only one strategy highlighted here – and it beats the HFR Global Hedge Fund Index.

I come not to bury other strategies but to praise them. There are good strategies in various markets that deliver ‘alternative risk premia’ in the first sense enumerated above, and it is a good thing that investors are extending their understanding beyond conventional beta as they assemble portfolios. I believe that there are also strategies in various markets which deliver ‘alternative risk premia’ that are harder to access because they require rarer expertise. Finally, I believe that there are strategies – but these are very rare, and getting rarer – which deliver true alpha that derives from theoretical errors or systematic imbalances. I think that as a source of a relatively unexploited ‘alternative risk premium’ and a potential source of unique alphas, the inflation and commodity markets still contain quite a few useful nuggets.


[1] I am not necessarily claiming that this can be exploited easily right now, but the curve has had such imperfections for more than a decade – and sometimes, it’s exploitable.

Categories: Good One, Investing, Theory, TIPS Tags:

Inflation and Corporate Margins

On Monday I was on the TD Ameritrade Network with OJ Renick to talk about the recent inflation data (you can see the clip here), money velocity, the ‘oh darn’ inflation strike, etcetera. But Oliver, as is his wont, asked me a question that I realized I hadn’t previously addressed before in this blog, and that was about inflation pressure on corporate profit margins.

On the program I said, as I have before in this space, that inflation has a strong tendency to compress the price multiples attached to profits (the P/E), so that even if margins are sustained in inflationary times it doesn’t mean equity prices will be. As an owner of a private business who expects to make most of the return via dividends, you care mostly about margins; as an owner of a share of stock you also care about the price other people will pay for that share. And the evidence is fairly unambiguous that inflation inside of a 1%-3% range (approximately) tends to produce the highest multiples – implying of course that, outside of that range, multiples are lower and therefore stock prices tend to adjust when the economy moves to a new inflation regime.

But is inflation good or bad for margins? The answer is much more complex than you would think. Higher inflation might be good for margins, since wage inputs are sticky and therefore producers of consumer goods can likely raise prices for their products before their input prices rise. On the other hand, higher inflation might be bad for margins if a highly-competitive product market keeps sellers from adjusting consumer prices to fully keep up with inflation in commodities inputs.

Of course, business are very heterogeneous. For some businesses, inflation is good; for some, inflation is bad. (I find that few businesses really know all of the ways they might benefit or be hurt by inflation, since it has been so long since they had to worry about inflation high enough to affect financial ratios on the balance sheet and income statement, for example). But as a first pass:

You may be exposed to inflation if… You may benefit from inflation if…
You have large OPEB liabilities You own significant intellectual property
You have a current (open) pension plan with employees still earning benefits, You own significant amounts of real estate
…especially if the workforce is large relative to the retiree population, and young You possess large ‘in the ground’ commodity reserves, especially precious or industrial metals
…especially if there is a COLA among plan benefits You own long-dated fixed-price concessions
…especially if the pension fund assets are primarily invested in nominal investments such as stocks and bonds You have a unionized workforce that operates under collectively-bargained fixed-price contracts with a certain term
You have fixed-price contracts with suppliers that have shorter terms than your fixed-price contracts with customers.
You have significant “nominal” balance sheet assets, like cash or long-term receivables
You have large liability reserves, e.g. for product liability

So obviously there is some differentiation between companies in terms of which do better or worse with inflation, but what about the market in general? This is pretty messy to disentangle, and the following chart hints at why. It shows the Russell 1000 profit margin, in blue, versus core CPI, in red.

Focus on just the period since the crisis, and it appears that profit margins tighten when core inflation increases and vice-versa. But there are two recessions in this data where profits fell, and then core inflation fell afterwards, along with one expansion where margins rose along with inflation. But the causality here is hard to ferret out. How would lower margins lead to lower inflation? How would higher margins lead to higher inflation? What is really happening is that the recessions are causing both the decline in margins and the central bank response to lower interest rates in response to the recession is causing the decline in inflation. Moreover, the general level of inflation has been so low that it is hard to extract signal from the noise. A slightly longer series on profit margins for the S&P 500 companies, since it incorporates a higher-inflation period in the early 1990s, is somewhat more suggestive in that the general rise in margins (blue trend) seems to be coincident with the general decline in inflation (red line), but this is a long way from conclusive.

Bloomberg doesn’t have margin information for equity indices going back any further, but we can calculate a similar series from the NIPA accounts. The chart below shows corporate after-tax profits as a percentage of GDP, which is something like aggregate corporate profit margins.

And this chart shows…well, it doesn’t seem to show much of anything that would permit us to make a strong statement about profit margins. Over time, companies adapt to inflation regime at hand. The high inflation of the 1970s was very damaging for some companies and extremely bad for multiples, but businesses in aggregate managed to keep making money. There does seem to be a pretty clear trend since the mid-1980s towards higher profit margins and lower inflation, but these could both be the result of deregulation, followed by globalization trends. To drive the overall point home, here is a scatterplot showing the same data.

So the verdict is that inflation might be bad for profits as it transitions from lower inflation to higher inflation (we have one such episode, in 1965-1970, and arguably the opposite in 1990-1995), but that after the transition businesses successfully adapt to the new regime.

That’s good news if you’re bullish on stocks in this rising-inflation environment. You only get tattooed once by rising inflation, and that’s via the equity multiple. Inflation will still create winners and losers – not always easy to spot in advance – but business will find a way.

Nudge at Neptune

Okay, I get it. Your stockbroker is telling you not to worry about inflation: it’s really low, core inflation hasn’t been above 3% for two decades…and, anyway, the Fed is really trying to push it higher, he says, so if it goes up then that’s good too. Besides, some inflation isn’t necessarily bad for equities since many companies can raise end product prices faster than they have to adjust wages they pay their workers.[1] So why worry about something we haven’t seen in a while and isn’t necessarily that bad? Buy more FANG, baby!

Keep in mind that there is a very good chance that your stockbroker, if he or she is under 55 years old, has never seen an investing environment with inflation. Also keep in mind that the stories and scenes of wild excess on Wall Street don’t come from periods when equities are in a bear market. I’m just saying that there’s a reason to be at least mildly skeptical of your broker’s advice to own “100 minus your age” in stocks when you’re young, which morphs into advice to “owning more stocks since you’re likely to have a long retirement” when you get a bit older.

Many financial professionals are better-compensated, explicitly or implicitly, when stocks are going up. This means that even many of the honest ones, who have their clients’ best interests at heart, can’t help but enjoy it when the stock market rallies. Conversations with clients are easier when their accounts are going up in size every day and they feel flush. There’s a reason these folks didn’t go into selling life insurance. Selling life insurance is really hard – you have to talk every day to people and remind them that they’re going to die. I’d hate to be an insurance salesman.

And yet, I guess that’s sort of what I am.

Insurance is about managing risks. Frankly, investing should also be about managing risks – about keeping as much upside as you can, while maintaining an adequate margin of safety. Said another way, it’s about buying that insurance as cheaply as you can so that you don’t spend all of your money on insurance. That’s why diversification is such a powerful idea: owning 20 stocks, rather than 1 stock, gets you downside protection against idiosyncratic risks – essentially for free. Owning multiple asset classes is even more powerful, because the correlations between asset classes are generally lower than the correlations between stocks. Diversification works, and it’s free, so we do it.

So let’s talk about inflation protection. And to talk about inflation protection, I bring you…NASA.

How can we prevent an asteroid impact with Earth?

The key to preventing an impact is to find any potential threat as early as possible. With a couple of decades of warning, which would be possible for 100-meter-sized asteroids with a more capable detection network, several options are technically feasible for preventing an asteroid impact.

Deflecting an asteroid that is on an impact course with Earth requires changing the velocity of the object by less than an inch per second years in advance of the predicted impact.

Would it be possible to shoot down an asteroid that is about to impact Earth?

An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact.  No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second.

NASA is also in the business of risk mitigation, and actually their problem is similar to the investor’s problem: find protection, as cheaply as possible, that allows us to retain most of the upside. We can absolutely protect astronauts in space from degradation of their DNA from cosmic rays, with enough shielding. The problem is that the more shielding you add, the harder it is to go very far, very fast, in space. So NASA wants to find the cheapest way to have an effective cosmic ray shield. And, in the ‘planetary defense’ role for NASA, they understand that deflecting an asteroid from hitting the Earth is much, much easier if we do it very early. A nudge when a space rock is out at the orbit of Neptune is all it takes. But wait too long, and there is no way to prevent the devastating impact.

Yes, inflation works the same way.

The impact of inflation on a normal portfolio consisting of stocks and bonds is devastating. Rising inflation hurts bonds because interest rates rise, and it hurts stocks because multiples fall. There is no hiding behind diversification in a ’60-40’ portfolio when inflation rises. Other investments/assets/hedges need to be put into the mix. And when inflation is low, and “high” inflation is far away, it is inexpensive to protect against that portfolio impactor. I have written before about how low commodities prices are compared with equity prices, and in January I also wrote a piece about why the expected return to commodities is actually rising even as commodities go sideways.

TIPS breakevens are also reasonable. While 10-year breakevens have risen from 1.70% to 2.10% over the last 9 months or so, that’s still below current median inflation, and below where core inflation will be in a few months as the one-offs subside. And it’s still comfortably below where 10-year breaks have traded in normal times for the last 15 years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

It is true that there are not a lot of good ways for smaller investors to simply go long inflation. But you can trade out your nominal Treasuries for inflation bonds, own commodities, and if you have access to UCITS that trade in London there is INFU, which tracks 10-year breakevens. NASA doesn’t have a lot of good options, either, for protecting against an asteroid impact. But there are many more plausible options, if you start early, than if you wait until inflation’s trajectory is inside the orbit of the moon.


[1] Your stockbroker conveniently forgets that P/E multiples contract as inflation rises past about 3%. Also, your stockbroker conveniently abandons the argument about how businesses can raise prices before raising wages, meaning that consumer inflation leads wage inflation, when he points to weak wage growth and says “there’s no wage-push inflation.” Actually, your stockbroker sounds like a bit of an ass.

Forward Inflation is Nothing to be Alarmed About (Yet)

February 1, 2018 2 comments

Note: my articles are now released about 8 hours earlier on the blog site and on my private Twitter feed @inflation_guyPV, which you can sign up for here, than they are released on my ‘regular’ Twitter feed.


It’s time to get a little wonky on inflation.

Recently, I saw a chart that illustrated that 5y, 5y forward inflation – “what the Fed watches” – had recently risen to multi-year highs. While a true statement, that chart obscures a couple of important facts that are either useful, or interesting, or both. Although probably just interesting.

First, the fact that 5y, 5y forward inflation (for the non-bond people out there, this is the rate that is implied from the market for 5-year inflation expectations starting 5 years from now) has recently gone to new highs is interesting, but 5y5y breakevens are still at only 2.20% or so. Historically, the Fed has been comfortable with forward inflation (from breakevens) around 2.50%-2.75% even though its own target is 2% on core PCE (which works out to be something like 2.25%-2.35% on core CPI). That’s because yield curves are typically upward-sloping; in particular, inflation risk ought to trade with a forward premium because the inflation process exhibits momentum and so inflation has long tails. Ergo, long-dated inflation protection is much more valuable than shorter-dated inflation protection, not just because there is more uncertainty about the future but because the value of that option increases with time-to-maturity just like any option…but actually moreso since inflation is not naturally mean-reverting, unlike most financial products on which options are struck.

[As an aside, the fact that longer-term inflation protection is much more valuable than shorter-term inflation protection is one of the reasons it is so curious that the Treasury keeps wanting to add to the supply of 5-year TIPS, as it just announced it intends to do, even though the 5-year auction is usually the worst TIPS auction because not many people really care about 5 year inflation. On the other hand, 10-year TIPS auctions usually do pretty well and 30-year TIPS auctions often stop through the screens, because that’s very valuable protection and there isn’t enough of it.]

A second interesting point about 5y5y inflation is that it is only at recent highs if you measure it with breakevens. If you measure it with inflation swaps, forward inflation is still 10bps or so short of the 2016 highs (see chart, source Bloomberg and Enduring Investments calculations).

This chart also illustrates something else that is really important: actual 5y5y forward inflation expectations are up around 2.40%, not down at 2.20%. Inflation swaps are a much better way to measure inflation expectations because they do not suffer from some of the big problems that bond-based breakevens have. For example:

  1. The inflation swaps market is always trading a clean 5-year maturity swap and a clean 10-year maturity swap. By contrast, the ’10-year note’ is a 10-year note for only one day, but remains the on-the-run 10-year note until a new one is auctioned.
  2. The 5-year breakeven consists of a “5-year” TIPS bond and a “5-year” Treasury, even though these may have different maturities. They are always close, but not exact, and the duration of the TIPS bond changes at a different rate as time passes than the duration of the Treasury. In other words, the matching bonds for the breakeven don’t match very well.
  3. A minor quantitative point is that the “breakeven” is typically taken as the difference between the nominal Treasury yield and the real TIPS yield, but since the Fisher equation says (1+n) = (1+r)(1+i), the breakeven (i in this notation) should actually be (1+n)/(1+r)-1. At low yields this is a small error, but the error changes with the level of yields.
  4. A more important quantitative point is that the nominal bond’s yield not only has real rates and expected inflation, but also a risk premium which is unobservable. So, in the construction above, I ignored the fact that the Fisher equation is actually (1+n)=(1+r)(1+i)(1+p), with the breakeven therefore representing both the i and the p. Inflation swaps, on the other hand, represent pure inflation.
  5. But then why is the inflation swap always higher than the breakeven? This is the biggest point of all: the breakeven is created by buying a TIPS bond and shorting a nominal Treasury security. Shorting the Treasury security involves borrowing the bond and lending money in the financing markets; because nominal Treasuries are coveted collateral – especially the on-the-run security used for the breakeven – they very often trade at “special” rates in the financing markets. As a result, nominal Treasury yields are ‘too low’ by the value of this financing advantage, which means in turn that the breakeven is too low. If TIPS also traded “special” at similar rates, then this would be less important as it would average out. However, TIPS almost never trade special and in particular, they don’t trade as deep specials. Consequently, breakevens calculated as the spread between a TIPS bond and nominal bond understate actual inflation expectations.[1]

This is all a very windy way to say this: ignore 5y5y forward breakevens and focus on 5y5y forward inflation swaps. Historically the Fed is comfortable with that up around 2.75%-3.25%, although that’s probably partly because they are iffy on bond math. In any case, there is nothing the slightest bit alarming about the current level of forward inflation expectations; indeed, central bankers had much more cause to be alarmed when forward inflation expectations were down around 1.50% – implying that investors had no confidence that the Fed could get within 50bps of its own stated target when given half a decade to do it – than where they are now.

But check with me again in 50bps!


[1] This is widely known, although I think I get the credit for being the first person to point it out in 2006, only two years after the inflation swaps market in the US got started. I figured it out because I was a market maker in swaps and when I was paying inflation in the swap, and receiving a fixed rate higher than the breakeven, and hedged with the breakeven, I was breaking even. The answer was in the financing. I formalized my argument in this paper although my original article was credited and cited in this much more widely read article by Fleckenstein, Longstaff, and Lustig. But the bottom line is that as the Dothraki say, ‘it is known.’

Why Commodities Are a Better Bet These Days

January 16, 2018 7 comments

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It’s been a long time since an article about commodities felt like ‘click bait.’ After all, commodity indices have been generally declining for about seven years – although 2016 saw a small advance – and the Bloomberg Commodity Index today sits 63% below its all-time high set in the summer of 2008. I’ve written before, quite a bit, about this absurdity of the market, represented in the following chart comparing one real asset (equities) to another real asset (commodities). The commodity index here is the Bloomberg spot index, so it does not include the drag (boost) from contango (backwardation).

This is the fair comparison for a forward-looking analysis. Some places you will see the commodity index plotted against the S&P, as below. Such a chart makes the correct inference about the historic returns to these two markets; the prior chart makes a more poignant point about the current pricing of stocks versus commodities.

There’s nothing that says these two markets should move in lock-step as they did from 2003-2007, but they ought to at least behave similarly, one would think. So it is hard to escape the reasoning that commodities are currently very cheap to equities, as one risk-asset to another.

Furthermore, commodity indices offer inflation protection. Here are the correlations between the GSCI and headline inflation, core inflation, and the change in those measures, since 1970 and 1987 respectively.

Stocks? Not so much!

So, commodities look relatively cheap…or, anyway, they’re relatively cheaper, having gone down for 7 years while stocks went higher for 7 years. And they give inflation protection, while stocks give inflation un-protection. So what’s not to like? How about performance! The last decade has been incredibly rough for commodities index investors. However, this is abnormal. In a watershed paper in 2006 called Facts and Fantasies about Commodity Futures, Gorton and Rouwenhorst illustrated that, historically, equities and commodity futures have essentially equivalent monthly returns and risks over the period from 1959-2004.

Moreover, because the drivers of commodity index returns in the long run are not primarily spot commodity prices[1] but, rather, the returns from collateral, from roll or convenience yield, from rebalancing, and from “expectational variance” that produces positive skewness and kurtosis in commodity return distributions,[2] we can make some observations about how expected returns should behave between two points in time.

For example, over the last few years commodities markets have been heavily in contango, meaning that in general spot prices were below forward prices. The effect of this on a long commodity index strategy is that when futures positions are rolled to a new contract month, they are being rolled to higher prices. This drag is substantial. The chart below shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index spot return, compared to the return of the index as a whole, since 2008. The markets haven’t all been in contango, and not all of the time. But they have been in serious contango enough to cause the substantial drag you can see here.

So here is the good news. Currently, futures market contango is the lowest it has been in quite a while. In the last two years, the average contango from the front contract to the 1-year-out contract has gone from 15% or so to about 2% backwardation, using GSCI weights (I know I keep switching back and forth from BCOM to GSCI. I promise there’s nothing sinister about it – it just depends what data I had to hand when I made that chart or when it was calculated automatically, such as the following chart which we compute daily).

That chart implies a substantial change in the drag from roll yield – in fact, depending on your weights in various commodities the roll yield may currently be additive.

The other positive factor is the increase in short-term interest rates. Remember that a commodity index is (in most cases) represents a strategy of holding and rolling futures contracts representing the desired commodity weights. To implement that strategy, an investor must put up collateral – and so an unlevered commodity index return consists partly of the return on that particular collateral. It is generally assumed that the collateral is three-month Treasury Bills. Since the financial crisis, when interest rates went effectively to zero in the US, the collateral return has approximated zero. However, surprise! One positive effect of the Fed’s hiking of rates is to improve projected commodity index returns by 1.5-2% per year (and probably more this year). The chart below shows 3-month TBill rates.

I hope this has been helpful. For the last 5 years, investing in commodities was partly a value/mean-reversion play. This is no longer so true: the change in the shape of the futures curves, combined with rising interest rates, has added substantially to the expected return of commodity indices going forward. It’s about time!


[1] This is a really important point. When people say “commodities always go down in the long run because of increased production,” they’re talking about spot commodity prices. That may be a good reason not to own spot gold or silver, or any physical commodity. Commodity spot returns are mean reverting with a downward slant in real space, true. But a commodity index gets its volatility from spot returns, but its main sources of long term return are actually not terribly related to spot commodities prices.

[2] In other words while stocks “crash” downwards, commodities tend to “crash” upwards. But this isn’t necessary to understand what follows. I just want to be complete. The term “expectational variance” was coined by Grant Gardner.

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