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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.

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:

The Important Trade Effects Are Longer-Term

The question about the impact of trade wars is really two questions, and I suppose they get conflated a lot these days. First, there’s the near-term market impact; second is the longer-term price/growth impact.

The near-term market impact is interesting. When the market is in a bad mood (forgive the anthropomorphization), then trade frictions are simply an excuse to sell – both stocks and bonds, but mostly stocks. When the market is feeling cheerful, and especially around earnings season, trade wars get interpreted as having very narrow effects on certain companies and consequently there is no large market impact. That is what seems to have happened over the last few weeks – although trade conflicts are escalating and having very concentrated effects in some cases (including on markets, such as in commodities, where they really oughtn’t), it hasn’t dampened the mood of the overall market.

In fact, the risk in these circumstances is that a “happy” market will take any sign of a reduction in these tensions as broadly bullish. So you get concentrated selloffs in single names that don’t affect the market as a whole, and when there’s any sign of thawing you see a sharp market rally. We saw a bit of that in the last day or so as Mexico’s President-elect and US President Trump both expressed optimism about a ‘quick’ NAFTA deal. Honestly, the broad market risk to trade in the near-term is probably upwards, since any increase in tensions will have a minor and concentrated effect while any thawing (especially with China) at all will cause a rally.

But beware in case the mood changes!

As an inflation guy, I’m far more interested in the longer-term impact. And there, the impact is unambiguous and bad. I’ve written about this in the past, in detail (see this article, which is probably my best on the subject and first appeared in our private quarterly), but the salient point is that you don’t need a trade war to get worse inflation outcomes than we have seen in the last 20 years. You only need for progress on advancing global trade to stop. And it seems as though it has.

Not all of the forces pressing on inflation right now are bullish, although most are. Apartment rents have slowed their ascent, and the delayed effect of the dollar’s rally will have a dampening effect next year (arrayed against that, however, are the specific effects of tariffs on particular goods) although globally, FX movements are roughly zero-sum in terms of global inflation. Money growth has slowed, to levels that would tend to contain inflation if velocity were also to remain stable at all-time lows. But velocity recently started to uptick (we will find out on Friday if this uptick continued in Q2) and as interest rates gradually increase around the globe money velocity should also quicken. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows our proprietary model for money velocity.

At this point, trade is pushing inflation higher in two ways. The first is that arresting the multi-decade trend towards more-open markets and more-numerous trade agreements fundamentally changes the inflation/growth tradeoff that central banks globally will face. Rather than having a following wind that made monetary policy relatively simple (although policymakers still found a way to louse it up, potentially beyond repair, largely as a result of believing their own fables about the powerful role that central banks played in saving the world first from inflation, and then from deflation), there will be a headwind that will make monetary much more difficult – more like the 1960s and 1970s than the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The second way that trade conflict is pushing inflation higher is mechanical, by causing higher prices of recorded goods as a direct result of tariff implementation.

But this second way, while it gets all the ink and causes near-term knee-jerk effects in markets, is much less important in the long run.

Gold Has Barely Beaten Inflation, and That’s About Right

July 19, 2018 1 comment

Okay: I’ve checked my door locks, made sure my kids are safe, and braced myself for the inevitable incendiary incoming comments. So, I feel secure in pointing this out:

Gold’s real return for the last 10 years has been a blistering 1.07% per year. And worse, that’s higher than you ought to expect for the next 10 years.

Here’s the math. Gold on July 19, 2008 was at $955. Today it is at $1223, for a gain of 28.1%. But the overall price level (CPI) was at 218.815 in June 2008, and at 251.989 in June 2018 (we won’t get July figures for another month so this is the best we can do at the moment), for a 15.2% rise in the overall price level.

1.07% = [(1+28.1%) / (1 + 15.2%)] ^ 0.1 – 1

It might be even worse than that. Gold bugs are fond of telling me how the CPI is manipulated and there’s really so much more inflation than that; if that’s so, then the real return is obviously much worse than the calculation above implies.

Now, this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. You start with a pile of real stuff, which doesn’t grow or shrink for ten years…your real return is, at least in units of that real stuff, precisely 0%. And that’s what we should expect, in the very long run, from the holding of any non-productive real asset like a hard commodity. (If you hold gold via futures, then you also earn a collateral return of course. And if you hold warehouse receipts for physical gold, in principle you can earn lease income. But the metal itself has an a priori expected real return of zero). Indeed, some people argue that gold should be the measuring stick, in which case it isn’t gold which is changing price but rather the dollar. In that case, it’s really obvious that the real return is zero because the price of gold (in units of gold) is always 1.0.

So, while everyone has been obsessing recently about the surprisingly poor performance of gold, the reality is that over the longer time horizon, it has done about what it is supposed to do.

That’s actually a little bit of a coincidence, deriving from the fact that at $955 ten years ago, gold was reasonably near the fair price. Since then, gold prices soared and became very expensive, and now are sagging and getting cheaper. However, on my model gold prices are still too high to expect positive expected returns over the next decade (see chart, source Enduring Intellectual Properties).

The ‘expected return’ here is derived from a (nonlinear) regression of historical real prices against subsequent real returns. To be sure, because this is a market that is subject to immense speculative pressure both in the bull phases and in the bear phases, gold moves around with a lot more volatility than the price level does; consequently, it swings over time from being very undervalued (1998-2001) to wildly overvalued (2011-2013). I wouldn’t ever use this model to day-trade gold! However, it’s a useful model when deciding whether gold should have a small, middling, or large position in your portfolio. And currently, despite the selloff, the model suggests a small position: gold is much more likely to rise by less than the price level over the next decade, and possibly significantly less as in the 1980-1990 period (although I’d say probably not that bad).


DISCLOSURE: Quantitative/systematic funds managed by Enduring Investments have short positions in gold, silver, and platinum this month.

Categories: Commodities, Gold, Investing

Signs of a Top, OR that I am a Grumpy Old Man

June 20, 2018 4 comments

I was at an alternative investments conference last week. I always go to this conference to hear what strategies are in vogue – mostly for amusement, since the strategies that are in vogue this year are ones they will spit on next year. Two years ago, everyone loved CTAs; last year the general feeling was “why in the world would anyone invest in CTAs?” Last year, the buzzword was AI strategies. One comment by a fund-of-funds manager really stuck in my head, and that was that this fund-of-funds was looking for managers with quantitative PhDs but specifically ones with no market experience so that “they don’t have preconceived notions.” So, you can tell how that worked out, and this year there was no discussion of “AI” or “machine learning” strategies.

This year, credit strategies were in vogue and the key panel discussion involved three managers of levered credit portfolios. Not surprisingly, all three thought that credit is a great investment right now. One audience question triggered answers that were striking. The question was (paraphrasing) ‘this expansion is getting into the late innings. How much longer do you think we have until the next recession or crisis?” The most bearish of the managers thought we could enter into recession two years from now; the other two were in the 3-4 year camp.

That’s borderline crazy.

It’s possible that the developing trade war, the wobbling of Deutsche Bank, the increase in interest rates from the Fed, higher energy prices, Italy’s problems, Brexit, the European migrant crisis, the state pension crisis in the US, Elon Musk’s increasingly erratic behavior, the fact that the FANG+ index is trading with a 59 P/E, and other imbalances might not unravel in the next 3 years. Or 5 years. Or 100 years. It’s just increasingly unlikely. Trees don’t grow to the sky, and so betting on that is usually a bad idea. But, while the tree still grows, it looks like a good bet. Until it doesn’t.

There are, though, starting to be a few peripheral signs that the expansion and markets are experiencing some fatigue. I was aghast that venerable GE was dropped from the Dow Jones to be replaced by Walgreens. Longtime observers of the market are aware that these index changes are less a measure of the composition of the economy (which is what they tell you) and more a measure of investors’ animal spirits – because the index committee is, after all, made up of humans:

  • In February 2008 Honeywell and Altria were replaced in the Dow by Bank of America (right before the largest banking crisis in a century) and Chevron (oil prices peaked over $140/bbl in July 2008).
  • In November 1999, Chevron (with oil at $22) had been replaced in the Dow (along with Sears, Union Carbide, and Goodyear) by Home Depot, Intel, Microsoft, and SBC Communications at the height of the tech bubble, just 5 months before the final melt-up ended.

It isn’t that GE is in serious financial distress (as AIG was when it was dropped in September 2008, or as Citigroup and GM were when they were dropped in June 2009). This is simply a bet by the index committee that Walgreens is more representative of the US economy than GE and coincidentally a bet that the index will perform better with Walgreens than with GE. And perhaps it will. But I suspect it is more about replacing a stodgy old company with something sexier, which is something that happens when “sexy” is well-bid. And that doesn’t always end well.

After the credit-is-awesome discussion, I also noted that credit itself is starting to send out signals that perhaps not all is well underneath the surface. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the S&P 500 in orange, inverted, against one measure of corporate credit spreads in white.

Remember, equity is a call on the value of the firm. This chart shows that the call is getting more valuable even as the first-loss piece (the debt) is getting riskier – or, in other words, the cost to bet on bankruptcy, which is what a credit spread really is, is rising. Well, that can happen if overall volatility increases (if implied volatility rises, both a call and a put can rise in value which is what is happening here), so these markets are at best saying that underlying volatility/risk is rising. But it’s also possible that the credit market is merely leading the stock market. It is more normal for these markets to correlate (inverted) over time – see the chart below, which shows the same two series for 2007-2009.

I’m not good at picking the precise turning points of markets, especially when values start to get really bubbly and irrational – as they have been for some time. It’s impossible to tell when something that is irrational will suddenly become rational. You can’t tell when the sleepwalker will wake up. But they always do. As interest rates, real interest rates, and credit spreads have risen and equity yields have fallen, it is getting increasingly difficult for me to see why buying equities makes sense. But it will, until it doesn’t.

I don’t know whether the expansion will end within the next 2, 3, or 4 years. I am thinking it’s more likely to be 6 months once the tax-cut sugar high has truly worn off. And I think the market peak, if it isn’t already in, will be in within the next 6 months for those same reasons as companies face more difficult comps for earnings growth. But it could really happen much more quickly than that.

However, I recognize that this might really just mean that I am a grumpy old man and you’re all whippersnappers who should get off my lawn.

You Haven’t Missed It

April 26, 2018 2 comments

A question I always enjoy hearing in the context of markets is, “Have I missed it?” That simple question betrays everything about the questioner’s assumptions and about the balance of fear and greed. It is a question which, normally, can be answered “no” almost without any thought to the situation, if the questioner is a ‘normal’ investor (that is, not a natural contrarian, of which there are few).

That is because if you are asking the question, it means you are far more concerned with missing the bus than you are concerned about the bus missing you.

It usually means you are chasing returns and are not terribly concerned about the risks; that, in turn – keeping in mind our assumption that you are not naturally contrary to the market’s animal spirits, so we can reasonably aggregate your impulses – means that the market move or correction is probably underappreciated and you are likely to have more “chances” before the greed/fear balance is restored.

Lately I have heard this question arise in two contexts. The first was related to the stock market “correction,” and on at least two separate occasions (you can probably find them on the chart) I have heard folks alarmed that they missed getting in on the correction. It’s possible, but if you’re worried about it…probably not. The volume on the bounces has diminished as the market moves away from the low points, which suggests that people concerned about missing the “bottom” are getting in but rather quickly are assuming they’ve “missed it.” I’d expect to see more volume, and another wave of concern, if stocks exceed the recent consolidation highs; otherwise, I expect we will chop around until earnings season is over and then, without a further bullish catalyst, the market will proceed to give people another opportunity to “buy the dip.”

The other time I have heard the angst over missing the market is in the context of inflation. In this, normal investors fall into two categories. They’re either watching 10-year inflation breakevens now 100bps off the 2016 lows and 50bps off the 2017 lows and at 4-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg) and thinking ‘the market is no longer cheap’, or they just noticed the well-telegraphed rise in core inflation from 1.7% to 2.1% over the last several months and figuring that the rise in inflation is mostly over, now that the figure is around the Fed’s target and back at the top of the 9-year range.

Here again, the rule is “you didn’t miss it.” Yes, you may have missed buying TIPS 100bps cheap to fair (which they were, and we pointed it out in our 2015Q3 Quarterly Inflation Outlook to clients), but breakevens at 2.17% with median inflation at 2.48% and rising (see chart, source Bloomberg), and still 25bps below where breakevens averaged in the 5 years leading up to the Global Financial Crisis, says you aren’t buying expensive levels. Vis a vis commodities: I’ve written about this recently but the expectations for future real returns are still quite good. More to the point, inflation is one of those circumstances where the bus really can hit you, and concern should be less about whether you’ve missed the gain and more about whether you need the protection (people don’t usually lament that they missed buying fire insurance cheaper, if they need fire insurance!).

(In one way, these two ‘did I miss it’ moments are also opposites. People are afraid of missing the pullback in stocks because ‘the economy still looks pretty strong,’ but they’re afraid they missed the inflation rally because ‘the economy is going to slow soon and the Fed is tightening and will keep inflation under control.’ Ironically, those are both wrong.)

My market view is this:

  • For some time, TIPS have been very cheap to nominal bonds, but rich on an absolute Negative real yields do not a bargain make, even if they look better than other alternatives when lots of asset classes are even more expensive. But as real yields now approach 1% (70bps in 5y TIPS, 80bps in 10y TIPS), and with TIPS still about 35bps cheap to nominal bonds, they are beginning to be palatable to hold on their own right. And that’s without my macro view, which is that over the next decade, one way or the other, inflation protection will become an investment theme that people tout as a ‘new focus’ even though it’s really just an old focus that everyone has forgotten. But the days of <1% inflation are over, and we aren’t going to see very much <2% either. We may not see 4% often, or for long, but at 3% inflation is something that people need to take into account in optimizing a portfolio. I think we’re at that inflection point, but if not then we will be in a year or two. And TIPS are a key, and liquid, component of smart real assets portfolios.
  • Stocks have been outrageously expensive with very poor forward return expectations for a long time. However, these value issues have been overwhelmed by strong momentum (that, honestly, I never gave enough credit to) and the currently in-vogue view that momentum is somehow better than value. But perennially strong momentum is no longer a foregone conclusion. Momentum has stalled in the stock market – the S&P has broken the 50-day, 100-day, and (a couple of times, though only briefly so far) 200-day moving averages. The 50-day has now crossed below the 100-day. And the longer that the market chops sideways the weaker the momentum talisman becomes. Eventually, the value anchor will take over. There may be more chop to come but as I said above, I think another leg down is likely to come after earnings season.

And so, in neither case have you “missed it.”

Being Closer to the ‘Oh Darn’ Inflation Strike

April 19, 2018 5 comments

The time period between spikes of inflation angst seems to be shortening. I am not sure yet about the amplitude of those spikes of angst, but the concern seems to be quickening.

This is not without reason as it seems that concerning headlines are occurring with more frequency. This week the Bloomberg Commodity Index again challenged the 2016 and 2017 highs before backing off today (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Somewhat more alarming than that, to people who watch commodities, is how the commodity indices are rallying. The culprits are energy as well as industrial metals, and each has an interesting story to tell. Energy has been rallying partly because of global tensions, but also partly because US shale oil production appears to be running into some bottlenecks on production (wages, shortages of frack sand) as well as delivery (capacity constraints on pipelines), and part of what has kept a lid on energy prices over the last couple of years was the understanding that shale oil production was improving rapidly and becoming lots more efficient due to improved technology. If shale is limited, the ‘lid’ on prices is not as binding as we had thought. On industrial metals, some of the upward pressure has been due to fallout from US sanctions on Rusal, a major supplier of aluminum and alumina. Since those sanctions were announced, aluminum prices have risen around 25%, and alumina (a raw input to aluminum production) about 50%, with knock-on effects in other industrial metals.

Both of these items bear on the market’s recent fears about new pressures on inflation – capacity constraints (especially rising wages for long-haul truckers) and potential fracturing of the global trade détente.

And 10-year breakevens are at new 4-year highs, although it is worth remembering that this is nowhere near the 10-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Shorter inflation swaps look less alarming, and not at new four-year highs. However, even here the news is not really soothing. The reason that shorter inflation swaps are lower than they have been in the past is because the energy curves are in backwardation – meaning that the market is pricing in lower energy process in the future. In turn, this means that implied core inflation – once we strip out these energy effects – are, in fact, at 4-year highs (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

So there is legitimate cause to be concerned about upside risks to inflation, and that’s one reason the market is a bit jumpier in this regard. But there is also additional premium, volatility, and angst associated with the level of inflation itself. While as I have pointed out before much of the rise in core inflation to date due to optics arising from base effects, that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘oh, rats’ strike is closer now. That is to say that when core inflation is running at 1.5%, stuff can go wrong without hurting you if your pain threshold is at 3%. But when core inflation is at 2.5% (as it will be this summer), not as much “bad stuff” needs to happen to cause financial pain. In other words, both the ‘delta’ and the ‘gamma’ of the exposure is higher now – just as if one were short a call option struck at (say) 3% inflation. Because, implicitly, many investors are.

If inflation is low, then even if it is volatile in a range it can be consistent with high market valuations for stocks and bonds. But when inflation starts to creep above 3%, those markets tend to suffer in non-linear fashion.

And this, I believe, is why the market’s nervousness about inflation (and market volatility resulting from that nervousness) is unlikely to soon abate.

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