A new paper that was presented last week at the 2017 U.S. Monetary Policy Forum has garnered, rightly, a lot of attention. The paper, entitled “Deflating Inflation Expectations: The Implications of Inflation’s Simple Dynamics,” has spawned news articles such as “Research undercuts Fed’s two favorite U.S. inflation tools”(Reuters) and “Everything the Market Thinks About Inflation Might Be Wrong,”(Wall Street Journal) the titles of which are a pretty decent summary of the impact of the article. I should note, because the WSJ didn’t, that the “five top economists” are Stephen Cecchetti, Michael Feroli, Peter Hooper, Anil Kashyap, and Kermit Schoenholtz, and the authors themselves summarize their work on the FiveThirtyEight blog here.
The main conclusion – but read the FiveThirtyEight summary to get it in their own words – is that the momentum of the inflation process is the most important variable (last year’s core inflation is the best predictor of this year’s core inflation), which is generally known, but after that they say that the exchange rate, M2 money supply growth, total nonfinancial credit growth, and U.S. financial conditions more broadly all matter more than labor market slack and inflation expectations.
Whoops! Who farted in the Fed’s elevator?
The Fed and other central banks have, for many years, relied predominantly on an understanding that inflation was caused by an economy running “too hot,” in that capacity utilization was too high and/or the unemployment rate too low. And, at least since the financial crisis, this understanding has been (like Lehman, actually) utterly bankrupt and obviously so. The chart below is a plain refutation of the notion that slack matters – although much less robust than the argument from the top economists. If slack matters, then why didn’t the greatest slack in a hundred years cause deflation in core prices? Or even get us at least close to deflation?
I’ve been talking about this for a long time. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that! Chapters 7-10 of my book “What’s Wrong With Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All” concerns the disconnect between models that work and the models the Fed (and most Wall Street economists) insist on using. In fact, the chart above is from page 91. I have talked about this at conferences and in front of clients until I am blue in the face, and have become accustomed to people in the audience staring at me like I have two heads. But the evidence is, and has long been, incontrovertible: the standard “expectations-augmented-Phillips-Curve” makes crappy predictions. And that means that it is a stupid way to manage monetary policy.
I am not alone in having this view, but until this paper came out there weren’t too many reputable people who agreed.
Now, I don’t agree with everything in this paper, and the authors acknowledge that since their analysis covers 1984-present, a period of mostly quiescent inflation, it may essentially overstate the persistence of inflation. I think that’s very likely; inflation seems to have long tails in that once it starts to rise, it tends to rise for some time. This isn’t mysterious if you use a monetary model that incorporates the feedback loop from interest rates to velocity, but the authors of this paper didn’t go that far. However, they went far enough. Hopefully, this stink bomb will at last cause some reflection in the halls of the Eccles building – reflection that has been resisted institutionally for a very long time.
 And that, my friends, is the first time I have ever used “crap” and “fart” in the same article – and hopefully the last. But my blood pressure is up, so cut me some slack.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
(**Administrative Note: Get your copy of my new book What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All! Here is the Amazon link).
I am often critical of central banks these days, and especially the Federal Reserve. But that doesn’t mean I think the entire institution is worthless. While quite often the staff at the Fed puts out papers that use convoluted and inscrutable mathematics to “prove” something that only works because the assumptions used are garbage, there are also occasionally good bits of work that come out. While it is uneven, I find that the Atlanta Fed’s “macroblog” often has good content, and occasionally has a terrific insight.
The latest macroblog post may fall into the latter category. Before I talk about the post, however, let me as usual admonish readers to remember that wages follow inflation; they do not lead or cause inflation. That reminder is very important to keep in mind, along with the realization that some policymakers do think that wages lead inflation and so don’t get worried about inflation until wages rise as well.
With that said, John Robertson and Ellyn Terry at the Atlanta Fed published this great macroblog article in which they present the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker. Here’s the summary of what they say: most wage surveys have significant composition effects, since the group of people whose wages you are surveying now are very different from the group you surveyed last year. Thus, measures like Average Hourly Wages from the Employment report (which has been rising, but not alarmingly so) are very noisy and moreover might miss important trends because, say, high-wage people are retiring and being replaced by low-wage people (or industries).
But the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker estimates the wage growth of the same worker’s wage versus a year ago. That is, they avoid the composition effect.
It turns out that the Wage Growth Tracker has been rising much more steadily and at a higher rate than average hourly earnings. Here is the drop-the-mic chart:
With this data, the Phillips curve works like a charm. Higher employment is not only related, but closely related to higher wage growth. (For the record, Phillips never said that broad inflation was related to the unemployment rate. He said wage inflation was. See my post on the topic here.) The good news is that this doesn’t really say anything about future inflation, and what it means is that the worker who is actually employed right now is still keeping pace with inflation (barely) thanks to relatively strong employment dynamics.
The bad news, for Yellen and the other doves on the FOMC, is that if they were hiding behind the “tepid wage growth” argument as a reason to be suspicious that inflation will not be maintained, the Atlanta Fed just took a weed-whacker to their argument.
I almost never do this, but I am posting here some remarks from another writer. My friend Andy Fately writes a daily commentary on the FX markets as part of his role at RBC as head of US corporate FX sales. In his remarks this morning, he summed up Yellen’s speech from yesterday more adroitly than I ever could. I am including a couple of his paragraphs here, with his permission.
Yesterday, Janet Yellen helped cement the view that the Fed is going to raise rates at the next FOMC meeting with her speech to the Washington Economic Club. Here was the key paragraph:
“However, we must also take into account the well-documented lags in the effects of monetary policy. Were the FOMC to delay the start of policy normalization for too long, we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from significantly overshooting both of our goals. Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession. Moreover, holding the federal funds rate at its current level for too long could also encourage excessive risk-taking and thus undermine financial stability.” (Emphasis added).
So after nearly seven years of zero interest rates and massive inflation in the size of the Fed balance sheet, the last five of which were in place after the end of the Financial Crisis induced recession, the Fed is now concerned about encouraging excessive risk-taking? Really? REALLY? That may be the most disingenuous statement ever made by a Fed Chair. Remember, the entire thesis of QE was that it would help encourage economic growth through the ‘portfolio rebalancing channel’, which was a fancy way of saying that if the Fed bought up all the available Treasuries and drove yields to historic lows, then other investors would be forced to buy either equities or lower rated debt thus enhancing capital flow toward business, and theoretically impelling growth higher. Of course, what we observed was a massive rally in the equity market that was based largely, if not entirely, on the financial engineering by companies issuing cheap debt and buying back their own shares. Capex and R&D spending have both lagged, and top-line growth at many companies remains hugely constrained. And the Fed has been the driver of this entire outcome. And now, suddenly, Yellen is concerned that there might be excessive risk-taking. Sheesh!
Like Andy, I have been skeptical that uber-dove Yellen would be willing to raise rates unless dragged kicking and screaming to that action. And, like Andy, I think the Chairman has let the market assume for too long that rates will rise this month to be able to postpone the action further. Unless something dramatic happens between now and the FOMC meeting this month, we should assume the Fed will raise rates. And then the dramatic stuff will happen afterwards. Actually I wouldn’t normally expect much drama from a well-telegraphed move, but in an illiquid market made more illiquid by the calendar in the latter half of December, I would be cutting risk no matter which direction I was trading the market. I expect others will too, which itself might lead to some volatility.
There is also the problem of an initial move of any kind after a long period of monetary policy quiescence. In February 1994, the Fed tightened to 3.25% after what was to that point a record period of inaction: nearly one and a half years of rates at 3%. In April 1994, Procter & Gamble reported a $102 million charge on a swap done with Bankers Trust – what some at the time said “may be the largest ever” swaps charge at a US industrial company. And later in 1994, in the largest municipal bankruptcy to that point, Orange County reported large losses on reverse repurchase agreements done with the Street. Robert Citron had seen easy money betting that rates wouldn’t rise, and for a while they did not. Until they did. (It is sweetly sentimental to think of how the media called reverse repos “derivatives” and were up in arms about the leverage that this manager was allowed to deploy. Cute.)
The point of that trip down memory lane is just this: telegraphed or not (it wasn’t like the tightening in 1994 was a complete shocker), there will be some firms that are over-levered to the wrong outcome, or are betting on the tightening path being more gradual or less gradual than it will actually turn out to be. Once the Fed starts to raise rates, the tide will be going out and we will find out who has been swimming naked.
And the lesson of history is that some risk-taker is always swimming naked.
A reader pointed out to me today a piece by Amy Higgins and Randal Verbrugge on the Cleveland Fed’s website entitled “Is a Nonseasonally Adjusted Median CPI a Useful Signal of Trend Inflation?” I will let readers draw their own conclusions about the new measure that Higgins and Verbrugge are proposing, but I wanted to point out the research because I often cite Median CPI as the best way to look at the central tendency of inflation (what the researchers call “trend inflation”) and this article confirms and reinforces that point of view.
And it is worth looking, therefore, at the recent movements in Median CPI. Yes, I know you’ve seen this over and over from me, but take a look anyway (chart is sourced from Bloomberg).
I don’t believe for a second that the FOMC is unaware of this picture; nor, however, do I believe they really care equally about inflation and growth. The talk right now is moderately hawkish, and with growth fair and inflation heading higher it is time to withdraw reserves. Indeed, it is long past time. As I have said for a while, the time to withdraw reserves was roughly when the Fed was busy implementing their last QE. Also note that I am not saying “raise rates,” since raising rates is an effect of withdrawing reserves and it is the withdrawal of reserves, not the raising of rates, that matters.
Practically speaking, since growth is slowing, the Fed is now back in a pickle of its own making. Inflation is clearly heading higher; growth is probably heading lower. If the FOMC had a balanced mandate (inflation and employment equal) then they would probably be at a neutral rate right now, so that would argue for tightening. But the FOMC has nothing remotely close to a balanced mandate. Against all evidence that monetary policy can affect inflation but not growth, the Fed is totally biased to act to support growth. The bankers believe that slow growth solves the inflation problem, so they should fight recession and just worry about inflation when growth gets “too hot.” Therefore, I currently do not expect the Fed to tighten in December.
Moreover, this increase in core or median inflation is happening in most major economies (with the notable exception of the UK, where it was nearing 4% in 2011 but has gradually come back to around 1%). This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom being propagated that inflation is falling everywhere. Consider the chart below, which is of core Japanese CPI (with the effect of the one-off tax increase in 2014 smoothed out).
Core inflation in Japan is the highest it has been in more than 17 years. Seventeen years. Tell me again how the BOJ’s money printing is having no effect? It is having no effect on growth, but it is doing what we would expect it to do on inflation.
Eurozone inflation is rising less impressively (see chart), but still rising. But then, the ECB has been less aggressive on monetary policy than either the US or Japan. Still, Europe is not, as the popular press would have you believe, flirting with deflation.
All of these economies are only flirting with deflation if you include energy quotes (these pictures may be worse if we had median CPI rather than core CPI for these economies). Now, energy quotes matter, just as much when they are going down as when they are going up, but it is a separate question whether including energy is at all helpful for predicting future inflation. And the answer is, as the Higgins and Verbrugge point out: no, it really isn’t. We are entering a period with weakening growth and strengthening inflation.
This should be “fun.”
I really enjoy reading, and listening to, Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates. He is one of those few people – Cliff Asness is another – who is both really smart, in a cutting-edge-research sense, and really connected to the real world of investing. There are only a handful of these sorts of guys, and you want to align yourself with them when you can.
Rob has written and spoken a number of times over the last few years about the investing implications of the toppling of the demographic pyramid in developed markets. He has made the rather compelling point that much of the strong growth of the last half-century in the US can be attributed to the fact that the population as a whole was moving through its peak production years. Thus, if “natural” real growth was something like 2%, then with the demographic dividend we were able to sustain a faster pace, say 3% (I am making up the numbers here for illustration). The unfortunate side of the story is that as the center of gravity of the population, age-wise, gets closer to retirement, this tailwind becomes a headwind. So, for example, he figures that Japan’s sustainable growth rate over the next few decades is probably about zero. And ours is probably considerably less than 2%.
He wrote a piece that appeared this spring in the first quarter’s Conference Proceedings of the CFA Institute, called “Whither Bonds, After the Demographic Dividend?” It is the first time I have seen him tackle the question from the standpoint of a fixed-income investor, as opposed to an equity investor. I find it a compelling read, and strongly recommend it.
Don’t miss the “Question and Answer Session” after the article itself. You would think that someone who sees a demographic time bomb would be in the ‘deflation’ camp, but as I said Rob is a very thoughtful person and he reaches reasonable conclusions that are drawn not from knee-jerk hunches but from analytical insights. So, when asked about whether he sees an inflation problem, or continued disinflation, or deflation over the next five years, he says:
“I am not at all concerned about deflation. Any determined central banker can defeat deflation. All that is needed is a printing press. Japan has proven that. Japan is mired in what could only be described as a near depression, and it still has 1.5% inflation. So, if a central bank prints enough money, it can create inflation in an economy that is near a depression.”
This, more than anything else, explains why keeping interest rates low to avert deflation is a silly policy. If deflation happens, it is a problem that can be solved. Inflation is a much more difficult problem to solve because collapsing the money supply growth rate runs counter to political realities. I don’t think this Fed is worried about inflation at all, and they’re probably not worried too much about deflation either any longer. But they believe they can force growth higher with accommodative monetary policy, when all available evidence suggests they cannot. Moreover, Arnott’s analysis suggests that we are probably already growing at something near to, or even above, the probable maximum sustainable growth rate in this demographic reality.
Maybe we can get Arnott on the Federal Reserve Board? Probably not – no one who is truly qualified for that job would actually want it.
**Note – If you would like to be on the notification list for my new book, What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!