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Who Keeps Selling These Free Options?

November 22, 2016 Leave a comment

It seems that recently I’ve developed a bit of a theme in pointing out situations where the market was pricing one particular outcome so completely that it paid to take the other side even if you didn’t think that was going to be the winning side. The three that spring to mind are: Brexit, Trump, and inflation breakevens.

Why do these opportunities exist? I think partly it is that investors like to be on the “winning side” more than they like ending up with more money than they started. I know that sounds crazy, but we observe it all the time: it is really hard (especially if you are a fund manager that gets paid quarterly) to take losses over and over and over, even if one win in ten tries is all you need to double your money. It’s the “wildcatter” mindset of drilling a bunch of dry holes but making it back on the gusher. It’s how venture capital works. There are all kinds of examples of this behavioral phenomenon. I am sure someone has done the experiment to prove that people prefer many small gains and one large loss to many small losses and one large gain. If they haven’t, they should.

I mention this because we have another one.

December Fed Funds futures settled today at 99.475. Now, Fed funds futures settle to the daily weighted average Fed funds effective for the month (specifically, they settle to 100 minus the average annualized rate). Let’s do the math. The Fed meeting is on December 14th. Let’s assume the Fed tightens from the current 0.25%-0.50% range to 0.50%-0.75%. The overnight Fed funds effective has been trading a teensy bit tight, at 0.41% this month, but otherwise has been pretty close to rock solid right in the middle except for each month-end (see chart, source Bloomberg) so let’s assume it trades in the middle of the 0.50%-0.75% range for the balance of the month, except for December 30th (Friday) and 31st (Saturday), where we expect the rate to slip about 16bps like it did in 2015.

fedl01

So here’s the math for fair value.

14 days at 0.41%  (December 1st -14th)

15 days at 0.625% (December 15th-29th)

2 days at 0.465% (December 30th-31st)

This averages to 0.518%, which means the fair value of the contract if the Fed tightens is 99.482. If the Fed does not tighten, then the fair value is about 99.60. So if you buy the contract at 99.475, you’re risking…well, nothing, because you’d expect it to settle higher even if the Fed tightens. And your upside is 12.5bps. This is why Bloomberg says the market probability of a 25bp hike in rates is now 100% (see chart, source Bloomberg).

fedprob

There is in fact some risk, because theoretically the Fed could tighten 50bps or 100bps. Or 1000bps. Actually, those are all probably about equally likely. And it is possible the “turn” could trade tight, rather than loose. If the turn traded at 1%, the fair value if the Fed tightened would be 99.448. So it isn’t a riskless trade.

But we come back to the same story – it doesn’t matter if you think the Fed is almost certainly going to tighten on December 14th. Unless you think there’s a chance they go 50bps or that overnight funds start trading significantly higher before the meeting, you’re supposed to be long December Fed funds futures at 99.475.

The title of this post is a question, because remember – for everyone who is buying this option at zero (or negative) there’s someone selling it too. This isn’t happening on zero volume: 7207 contracts changed hands today. That seems weird to me, until I remember that it has been happening a lot lately. Someone is losing a lot of money. What is this, Brewster’s Millions?

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An administrative announcement about upcoming (free!) webinars:

On consecutive Mondays spanning December 5, December 12, and December 19 at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.

Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.

Brexit and Trump and Free Options

November 9, 2016 1 comment

As the evening developed, and it began to dawn on Americans – and the world – that Donald Trump might actually win, markets plunged. The S&P was down 100 points before midnight; the dollar index was off 2%. Gold rose about $70; 10-year yields rose 15bps. Nothing about that was surprising. Lots of people predicted that if Trump somehow won, markets would gyrate and move in something close to this way. If Clinton won, the ‘status quo’ election would mean much calmer markets.

So, we got the upset. Despite the hyperbole, it was hardly a “stunning” upset.[1] Going into yesterday, the “No Toss Ups” maps had Trump down about 8 electoral votes. Polls in all of the “battleground” states were within 1-2 points, many with Trump in the lead. Yes, the “road to victory” was narrow, requiring Trump to win Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and a few other hotly-contested battlegrounds, but no step along that road was a long shot (and it wasn’t like winning 6 coin flips, because these are correlated events). Trump’s victory odds were probably 20%-25% at worst: long odds, but not ridiculous odds. (And I believe the following wind to Trump from the timing of Obamacare letters was underappreciated; I wrote about this effect on October 27th).

And yet, stock markets in the two days prior to the election rose aggressively, pricing in a near-certainty of a Clinton victory. Again, recall that pundits thought that a Clinton victory would see little market reaction, but a violent reaction could obtain if Trump won. Markets, in other words, were offering tremendous odds on an event that was unlikely, but within the realm of possibility. The market was offering nearly-free options. The same thing happened with Brexit: although the vote was close to a coin-flip, the market was offering massive odds on the less-likely event. Here is an important point as well – in both cases, the error bars had to be much wider than normal, because there were dynamics that were not fully understood. Therefore, the “out of the money” outcome was not nearly as far out of the money as it seemed. And yet, the market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before the Brexit vote. The market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before yesterday’s election results were reported. And, patting myself on the back, I said so.

capture

This is not a political blog, but an investing blog. And my point here about investing is simple: any competent investor cannot afford to ignore free, or nearly-free, options. Whatever you thought the outcome of the Presidential election was likely to be, it was an investing imperative to lighten up longs (at least) going into the results. If the status-quo happened, you would not have lost much, but if the status quo was upset, you would have gained much. As I’ve been writing recently about inflation breakevens (which was also a hard-to-lose trade, though less dramatic), the tail risks were really underpriced. Investing, like poker, is not about winning every hand. It is about betting correctly when the hand is played.

At this hour, stock markets are bouncing and bond markets are selling off. These next moves are the difficult ones, of course, because now we all have the same information. I suspect stocks will recover some, at least temporarily, because investors will price a Federal Reserve that is less likely to tighten and the knee-jerk response is to buy stocks in that circumstance. But it is interesting that at the moment, while stocks remain lower the bond market gains have completely reversed and are turning into a rout. 10-year inflation breakevens are wider by about 9-10bps, which is a huge move. But there will be lots of gyrations from here. The easy trade was the first one.

[1] And certainly not “the greatest upset in American political history.” Dewey Defeats Truman, anyone?

Why Are Inflation Expectations Rising?

November 2, 2016 5 comments

A persistent phenomenon of the last couple of months has been the rise in inflation expectations, in particular market-based measures. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows that 10-year inflation swap quotes are now above 2% for the first time in over a year and up about 25-30bps since the end of summer.

usswit10

The same chart shows that inflation expectations remain far below the levels of 2014, 2013, and…well, actually the levels since 2004, with the exception of the crisis. This is obviously not a surprise per se, since I’ve been beating the drum for months, nay quarters, that breakevens are too low and TIPS too cheap relative to nominals. But why is this happening now? I can think of five solid reasons that market-based measures of inflation expectations are rising, and likely will continue to rise for some time.

  • Inflation itself is rising. What is really amazing to me – and I’ve written about it before! – is that 10-year inflation expectations can be so low when actual levels of inflation are considerably above 2%. While headline inflation oscillates all the time, thanks to volatile energy (and to a lesser extent, food) markets, the middle of the inflation distribution has been moving steadily higher. Median inflation (see chart, source Bloomberg) is over 2.5%. Core inflation is 2.2%. “Sticky” inflation is 2.6%.

medcpia

Moreover, as has been exhaustively documented here and elsewhere, these slow-moving measures of persistent inflationary pressures have been rising for more than two years, and have been over the current 2% level of 10-year inflation swaps since 2011. At the same time inflation expectations have been declining. So why are inflation expectations rising? One answer is that investors are now recognizing the likelihood that the inflation dynamic has changed and inflation is not going to abruptly decelerate any time soon.

  • It is also worth pointing out, as I did last December in this article, that the inflation markets overreact to energy price movements. Some of this recovery in inflation quotes is just unwinding the overreaction to the energy swoon, now that oil quotes are rising again. To be sure, I don’t think oil prices are going to continue to rise, but all they have to do is to level off and inflation swap quotes (and TIPS breakevens) will continue to recover.
  • Inflation tail risk is coming back. This is a little technical, but bear with me. If your best-guess is that inflation over the next 10 years will average 2%, and the distribution of your expectations around that number is normal, then the fair value for the inflation swap is also 2%. But, if the length of the tail of “outliers” is longer to the high side than to the low side, then fair value will be above 2% even though you think 2% is the “most likely” figure. As it turns out, inflation outcomes are not at all normal, and in fact demonstrate long tails to the upside. The chart below is of the distribution of overlapping 1-year inflation rates going back 100 years. You can see the mode of the distribution is between 2%-4%…but there is a significant upper tail as well. The lower tail is constrained – deflation never goes to -12%; if you get deflation it’s a narrow thing. But the upper tail can go very high.

longtailsWhen inflation quotes were very low, it may have partly been because investors saw no chance of an inflationary accident. But it is hard to look at what has been happening to inflation over the last couple of years, and the extraordinary monetary policy actions of the last decade, and not conclude that there is a possibility – even a small possibility – of a long upside tail. As with options valuation, even an improbable event can have an important impact on the price, if the significance of the event is large. And any nonzero probability of double-digit inflation should raise the equilibrium price of inflation quotes.

  • The prices that are changing the most right now are highly salient. Inflation expectations are inordinately influenced, as noted above, by the price of energy. This is not only true in the inflation markets, but in forming the expectations of individual consumers. Gasoline, while it is a relatively small part of the consumption basket, has high salience because it is a purchase that is made frequently, and as a purchase unto itself (rather than just one more item in the basket at the supermarket), and its price is in big numbers on every corner. But it is not just gasoline that is moving at the moment. Also having high salience, although it moves much less frequently for most consumers: medical care. No consumer can fail to notice the screams of his fellow consumers when the insurance letter shows up in the mail explaining how the increase in insurance premiums will be 20%, 40%, or more. While I do not believe that an “expectations anchoring” phenomenon is important to inflation dynamics, there are many who do. And those people must be very nervous because the movement of several very salient consumption items is exactly the sort of thing that might unanchor those expectations.
  • Inflation markets were too low anyway. When 10-year inflation swaps dipped below 1.50% earlier this year, it was ridiculous. With actual inflation over 2% and rising, someone going short inflation markets at 1.50% had to assess a reasonable probability of an extended period of core-price disinflation taking hold after the first couple of years of inflation over 2%. By our proprietary measure, TIPS this year have persistently been 80-100bps too cheap (see chart, source Enduring Investments). This is a massive amount. The only times TIPS have been cheaper, relative to nominal bonds, were in the early days when institutions were not yet investing in TIPS, and in the teeth of the global financial crisis when one defaulting dealer was forced to blow out of a massive inventory of them. We have never seen TIPS as cheap as this in an environment of at least acceptable liquidity.

tipscheap

So, why did breakevens rally? Among the other reasons, they rallied because they were ridiculously too low. They’re still ridiculously too low, but not quite as ridiculously too low.

What happens next? Well, I look at that list and I see no reason that TIPS shouldn’t continue to outperform nominal bonds for a while since none of those factors looks to be exhauster. That doesn’t mean TIPS will rally – indeed, real yields are ridiculously low and I don’t love TIPS on their own. But, relative to nominal Treasuries (which impound the same real rate expectation), it’s not even a close call.

Why Does the Fed Focus on a Flawed PCE?

On Friday, I was on Bloomberg TV’s “What’d You Miss?” program to talk about the PCE inflation report from Friday morning. You can see most of the interview here.

I like the segment – Scarlet Fu, Oliver Renick, and Julie Hyman asked good questions – but we had to compress a fairly technical discussion into only 5 or 6 minutes. As a result, the segment might be a little “wonky” for some people, and I thought it might be helpful to present and expand the discussion here.

The PCE report itself was not surprising. Core PCE came in as-expected, at 1.7%. This is rising, but remains below the Fed’s 2% target for that index. I think it is interesting to look at how PCE differs from CPI to see why PCE remains below 2%. After all, core PCE is the only inflation index that is still below 2% (see chart, source Bloomberg). And, as we will see, this raises other questions about whether PCE is a reasonable target for Fed policy.

fourmeasuresThere are several differences between CPI and PCE, but the main reasons they differ can be summarized simply: the CPI measures what the consumer buys, out-of-pocket; the PCE measures not only household expenditures but also spending on behalf of consumers, including such things as employer-purchased insurance and some important government expenditures. As pointed out by the BEA on this helpful page, “the CPI is based on a survey of what households are buying; the PCE is based on surveys of what businesses are selling.”

This leads to two major types of differences: weight effects and scope effects.

Weight effects occur because the PCE is a broader index covering more economic activity. Consider housing, which is one of the more steady components of CPI. Primary rents and owners’-equivalent rent constitute together some 32% of the CPI and those two components have been rising at a blended rate of about 3.4% recently. However, the weight of rent-of-shelter in PCE is only 15.5%. This difference accounts for roughly half of the difference between core CPI and core PCE, and is persistent at the moment because of the strength in housing inflation.

However, more intriguing are the “scope” differences. These arise because certain products and services aren’t only bought in different quantities compared to what businesses sell (like in the case of housing), but because the two surveys include and exclude different items in the same categories. So, certain items are said to be “in scope” for CPI but “out of scope” for PCE, and vice-versa. One of the places this is most important is in the category of health care.

Most medical care is not paid for out-of-pocket by the consumer, and therefore is excluded from the CPI. For most people, medical care is paid for by insurance, which insurance is usually at least partly paid for by their employer. Also, the Federal government through Medicare and Medicaid provides a large quantity of medical care goods and services that are different from what consumers buy directly – at least, purchased at different prices than those available to consumers!).

This scope difference is enormously important, and over time accounts for much of the systematic difference between core CPI and core PCE. The chart below (source: BEA, BLS) illustrates that Health Care inflation in the PCE essentially always is lower than Medical Care inflation in the CPI.

pceandcpiMoreover, thanks in part to Obamacare the divergence between the medical care that the government buys and the medical care consumers buy directly has been widening. The following chart shows the spread between the two lines above:

pceandcpispreadIt is important to realize that this is not coincidental, but likely causal. It is because Medicare and other ACA control structures are restraining prices in certain areas (and paid by certain parties) that prices to the consumer are rising more rapidly. Thus, while all of these inflation measures are likely to continue higher, the spread between core CPI and core PCE is probably going to stay wider than normal for a while.

Now we get to the most interesting question of all. Why do we care about PCE in the first place? We care because the Fed uses core PCE as a policy target, rather than the CPI (despite the fact that it has ways to measure market CPI expectations, but no way to measure PCE expectations). They do so because the PCE covers a wider swath of the economy. To the Fed, this means the PCE is more useful as a broader measure.

But hang on! The extra parts that PCE covers are, substantially, in parts of the economy which are not competitive. Medicare-bought prices are determined, at least in the medium-term, by government fiat. The free market does not operate where the government treads in this way. The more-poignant implication is that there is no reason to suspect that these prices would respond to monetary policy! Ergo, it seems crazy to focus on PCE, rather than CPI (or one of the many more-useful flavors of CPI), when setting monetary policy. This is one case where I think the Fed isn’t being malicious; they’re just not being thoughtful enough.

Every “core” inflation indicator, including the ones above (and you can throw in wages and the Employment Cost Index as well!), is at or above the Fed’s target even accounting for the typical spread between the CPI and PCE. Not only that, they are above the target and rising. The Fed is most definitely “behind the curve.” Now, as I have noted before in this space I don’t think there’s anything the Fed can do about it, as raising rates without restraining reserves will only serve to accelerate inflation further since it will not entail a slowing of money supply growth. But it seems to me that, for starters, monetary policymakers should focus on indices that are at least in principle (and in normal times) more responsive to monetary policy!

 

Need a Jedi to Blow Up the R-Star

September 6, 2016 Leave a comment

I haven’t written an article for a couple of weeks. This is not entirely unusual: I have written this commentary, in some form, since about 1996 and there are occasional breaks in the series. It happens for several reasons. Sometimes it is simple ennui, as writing an analysis/opinion article for twenty years can occasionally get boring especially when markets are listless as they frequently are in August. Other times, it is because work – the real work, the stuff we get paid for – is too consuming and I have not time or energy left to write  a few hundred words of readable prose. Maybe that’s part of the reason here, since the number of inflation-investing-related inquiries has definitely increased recently, along with some new client flows (and not to mention that we are raising capital for Enduring Investments through a 506(c) offering – you can find details on Crowdfunder or contact me through our website). Finally, in recent years as the ability to track the number of clicks/eyeballs on my writing has improved, I’ve simply written less during those times…such as August…when I know that not many people will read the writing.

But this time is a little different. While some of those excuses apply in some measure, I’ve actually skipped writing over the last two weeks because there is too much to say. (Fortunately, I said some of it on two Bloomberg TV appearances, which you can see here and here.)

Well, my list of notes is not going to go away on its own so I am going to have to tackle some of them or throw them away. Unfortunately, a lot of them have to do with the inane nattering coming out of Federal Reserve mouthpieces. Let’s start today with the publication that gathered a lot of ink a couple of weeks ago: San Francisco Fed President John Williams’ FRBSF Economic Letter called “Monetary Policy in a Low R-star World.”

The conclusion that Williams reached was sensational, especially since it resonates with the “low return world” meme. Williams concluded that “The time has come to critically reassess prevailing policy frameworks and consider adjustments to handle new challenges, specifically those related to a low natural real rate of interest.” This article was grating from the first paragraph, where Williams casts the Federal Reserve as the explorer/hero:

“As nature abhors a vacuum, so monetary policy abhors stasis. Instead of being a rigid set of precepts, it follows the adage, that which survives is that which is most adaptive to change… In the wake of the global financial crisis, monetary policy has continued to evolve… As we move forward, economic conditions require that central banks and governments throughout the world carefully reexamine their policy frameworks and consider further adjustments in terms of monetary policy strategy—both in its own right and as it relates to other policy arenas—to successfully navigate these new seas.”

One might give the Federal Reserve more credit if subsequent evolutions of policy prescriptions were not getting progressively worse rather than better. Constructive change first requires critical evaluation of the shortcomings of current policy, doesn’t it?

Williams carries on to argue that the natural rate of interest (R-star) is lower now than it has been in the past. Now, Fed watchers should note that if true, this implies that current monetary policy is not as loose as has been believed. This is a useful conclusion for the Fed, since it would explain – within their existing model framework – why exceptionally low rates have not triggered better growth; it also would allow the Fed to raise rates more slowly than otherwise. I’ve pointed out before the frustrating tendency of groupthinking economists to attribute persistent poor model predictions to calibration issues rather than specification issues. This is exactly what Williams is doing. He’s saying “there’s nothing wrong with our model! If we had simply known that the natural rate was lower, we would have understood that we weren’t as stimulative as we thought.” Possible, but it might also be that the whole model sucks, and that the monetarists are right when they say that monetary policy doesn’t move real variables very well. That’s a hypothesis that at least bears examining, but I haven’t seen any fancy Fed papers on it.

What is really remarkable is that the rest of the paper is largely circular, and yet no one seems to mind. Williams attributes the current low r-star to several factors, including “a more general global savings glut.” Note that his estimates of r-star take a sharp turn lower in 2008-9 (see chart below, source FRBSF Economic Letter, figure 1).

williams

Wow, I wonder what could have caused an increase in the global savings glut starting in 2008? Could it be because the world’s central banks persistently added far more liquidity than was needed for the proper functioning of the economy, leading to huge excess reserves – aka a savings glut?

So, according to Williams, the neutral interest rate is lower at least in part because…central banks added a lot of liquidity. Kind of circular, ain’t it?

Since according to Williams this fact explains “uncomfortably low inflation and growth despite very low interest rates,” it must mean he is bravely taking responsibility – since, after all, quantitative easing caused the global savings glut which, in his construct, caused low growth and inflation. Except that I don’t think that’s what he wants us to conclude.

This isn’t research – it’s a recognition that what they did didn’t work, so they are backfilling to try and find an excuse for why their theories are still good. To the Fed, it is just that something happened they didn’t realize and take account of. Williams wants to be able to claim “see, we didn’t get growth because we weren’t as stimulative as we thought we were,” because then they can use their old theories to explain how moving rates around is really important…even though it didn’t work this time. But the problem is that low rates don’t cause growth. The model is wrong. And no amount of calibration can fix a mis-specified model.

Twits and Brits

June 27, 2016 1 comment

I want to talk today about some of the really important pieces of information that circulated this weekend. First, I am certain that everyone is familiar with the following chart, which made the rounds after the Brexit vote. It shows an enormous surge in the search term “What is the EU” after the Brexit vote was completed:

noaxisThis chart, or something very much like it, was all over the place. Oh, wait! I just realized that I forgot to put the axes on the chart! Here it is with a few more relevant pieces of information – incidentally the same information that was left off the original chart. It turns out that it wasn’t the chart I thought it was. Sorry about that…they looked the same.

waxis

(For the record, after an extended period of indolence, on Thursday I went for a run; on Friday I went for a run before putting on any other shoes first; on Saturday I went for a run and then later put on different shoes to go to a cocktail party.)

Is it too much to ask that people seeking to insult the British voters at least put some effort into their attempt? Ignore for a moment the simple fact that we don’t know who was searching this – it might well have been the people who voted to Remain, after all – and so the story line that the people who voted Leave were just morons gets no support from this chart. It also turns out that this was the second-most-searched term only for one small time segment: early in the morning after the vote. By 5am it was eclipsed by questions about the weather. Oh my – it seems the Britons also don’t know what weather is! Also, as the Telegraph’s skeptical story (linked above) points out, the raw number of people asking the question was only on the order of 1,000 – it was just a massive increase since it hadn’t been previously asked very much. This is where not having axes matters…it turns out this is a non-story, and nonsense.

Another piece of nonsense I want to point out is more general. I have seen several Twitter polls and other polls in something like this form:

Q: What effect do you think that Brexit will have on the global economy?

a) Deeply contractionary

b) Moderately contractionary

c) Somewhat contractionary

d) Expansionary

Now this is nonsense because the actual result not only has nothing to do with opinion, it’s not even clear why we would care about people’s opinion in this case (unless we are trying to show how pervasive the negative news stories are, or something). Polls work comparatively well when there is not a lot of information inequality – for example, when each person is asked about his or her own vote. But the poll above is analogous to this poll:

I submit that only me, and my valet, have the information sought by this poll; all other respondents have zero information. Therefore…what’s the value of the poll? Unless I or my valet are respondents, precisely zero; if we are, then the value is inverse to the number of other respondents diluting the response of the people who know.

Similarly, there is likely some information asymmetry among respondents to the poll about the effect of Brexit on the global economy. I would respectfully suggest that most people who are responding are saying what they have heard, or what they fear, or what they hope, while some people – macroeconomists, for example – might have actual models. To be sure, those models are probably only slightly better than the fearful and hopeful assumptions put into them, but the point is that this poll is nonsense in the same way that polling people about what they expect inflation next year to be is nonsense. The vast majority of respondents have no way to evaluate the question in a structured way, so what you are capturing is no more and no less than what people are worried about, which is itself just a reflection of what they’re seeing and hearing…for example, on Twitter.

(For what it’s worth, I think that thanks to the weakening of sterling Brexit is likely to be mildly stimulative to the UK economy, as well as somewhat inflationary, and slightly contractionary and disinflationary to the rest of the world. But the question about global effects is a trick question. Obviously, global production and consumption are unlikely to change much in real terms just due to the arrangement of trade flows. More friction in the system to the extent that Europe puts up significant trade barriers against the UK – something I don’t view as terribly likely – will lower global output slightly and raise global prices.)

These flash polls and Google trends data are part and parcel of the Twitterization of discourse. They have in common the fact that they can be snapshot and draw eyeballs and clicks, whether or not there is any content to the observations. In these cases, and in many others, there isn’t.

Here’s a thought: why don’t we wait a few months, or better yet a few years, before we judge the impact of Brexit? Sometimes, having actual data is even better than a Twitter poll.

Categories: Analogy, Europe, Good One, Rant, UK

Obamacare, Monopsonies, and Inflation – Nice Try!

June 9, 2016 1 comment

Recently, the San Francisco Federal Reserve published an Economic Letter in which they described why “Medicare Payment Cuts Continue to Restrain Inflation.” Their summary is:

“A steady downward trend in health-care services price inflation over the past decade has been a major factor holding down core inflation. Much of this downward trend reflects lower payments from public insurance programs. Looking ahead, current legislative guidelines imply considerable restraint on future public insurance payment growth. Therefore, overall health-care services price inflation is unlikely to rebound and appears likely to continue to be a drag on inflation.”

The article is worth reading. But I always have a somewhat uncomfortable reaction to pieces like this. On the one hand, what the authors are discussing is well known: healthcare services held down PCE inflation, and core CPI inflation, due to sequestration. Even Ben Bernanke knew that, and it was one reason that it was so baffling that the Fed was focused on declining core inflation in 2012-2014 when we knew why core was being dragged lower – and it was these temporary effects (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing core and Median CPI).

baffling

But okay, perhaps the San Francisco Fed is now supplying the reason: these were not one-off effects, they suggest; instead, “current legislative guidelines” (i.e., the master plan for Obamacare) are going to continue to restrain payments in the future. Ergo, prepare for extended lowflation.

This is where my discomfort comes in. The article combines these well-known things with questionable (at best) assumptions about the future. In this latter category the screaming assumption is the Medicare can affect prices simply by choosing to pay different prices. In a static analysis that’s true, of course. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely in the long run.

It’s a classic monopsonist pricing analysis. Just as “monopoly” is a term to describe a market with just one dominant seller, “monopsony” describes a market with just one dominant buyer. The chart below (By SilverStar at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13863070) illustrates the classic monopsony outcome.

217px-Monopsony-static-partial-equilibrium.svg

The monopsonist forces an equilibrium based on the marginal revenue product of what it is buying, compared to the marginal cost, at point A. This results in the market being cleared at point M, at a quantity L and a price w, as distinct from the price (w’) and quantity (L’) that would be determined by the competitive-market equilibrium C. So, just as the San Fran Fed economists have it, a monopsonist (like Medicare) forces a lower price and a lower quantity of healthcare consumed (they don’t talk so much about this part but it’s a key to the ‘healthcare cost containment’ assumptions of the ACA neé Obamacare). Straight out of the book!

But that’s true only in a static equilibrium case. I admit that I wasn’t able to find anything relevant in my Varian text, but plain common-sense (and observation of the real world) tells us that over time, the supply of goods and services to the monopsonist responds to the actual price the monopsonist pays. That is, supply decreases because period t+1 supply is related to the reward offered in period t. There is no futures market for medical care services; there is no way for a medical student to hedge future earnings in case they fall. The way the prospective medical student responds to declining wages in the medical profession is to eschew attending medical school. This changes the supply curve in period t+1.

Any other outcome, in fact, would lead to a weird conclusion (at least, I think it’s weird; Bernie Sanders may not): it would suggest that the government should take over the purchase and distribution of all goods, since they could hold prices down by doing so. In other words, full-on socialism. But…we know from experience that pure socialist regimes tend to produce higher rates of inflation (Venezuela, anyone?), and one can hardly help but notice that when the government competes with private industry – for example, in the provision of express mail service – the government tends to lose on price and quality.

In short, I find it very hard to believe that mere “legislative guidelines” can restrain inflation in medical care, in the long run.

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