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COVID-19 in China is a Supply Shock to the World

February 25, 2020 2 comments

The reaction of much of the financial media to the virtual shutdown of large swaths of Chinese production has been interesting. The initial reaction, not terribly surprising, was to shrug and say that the COVID-19 virus epidemic would probably not amount to much in the big scheme of things, and therefore no threat to economic growth (or, Heaven forbid, the markets. The mere suggestion that stocks might decline positively gives me the vapors!) Then this chart made the rounds on Friday…

…and suddenly, it seemed that maybe there was something worth being concerned about. Equity markets had a serious slump yesterday, but I’m not here to talk about whether this means it is time to buy TSLA (after all, isn’t it always time to buy Tesla? Or so they say), but to talk about the other common belief and that is that having China shuttered for the better part of a quarter is deflationary. My tweet on the subject was, surprisingly, one of my most-engaging posts in a very long time.

The reason this distinction between “supply shock” and “demand shock” is important is that the effects on prices are very different. The first stylistic depiction below shows a demand shock; the second shows a supply shock. In the first case, demand moves from D to D’ against a stable supply curve S; in the latter case, supply moves from S to S’ against a stable demand curve D.

Note that in both cases, the quantity demanded (Q axis) declines from c to d. Both (negative) demand and supply shocks are negative for growth. However, in the case of a negative demand shock, prices fall from a to b; in the case of a negative supply shock prices rise from a to b.

Of course, in this case there are both demand and supply shocks going on. China is, after all, a huge consumption engine (although a fraction of US consumption). So the growth picture is unambiguous: Chinese growth is going to be seriously impacted by the virtual shutdown of Wuhan and the surrounding province, as well as some ports and lots of other ancillary things that outsiders are not privy to. But what about the price picture? The demand shock is pushing prices down, and the supply shock is pushing them up. Which matters more?

The answer is not so neat and clean, but it is neater and cleaner than you think. Is China’s importance to the global economy more because of its consumption, as a destination for goods and services? Or is it more because of its production, as a source of goods and services? Well, in 2018 (source: Worldbank.org) China’s exports amounted to about $2.5trillion in USD, versus imports of $2.1trillion. So, as a first cut – if China completely vanished from global trade, it would amount to a net $400bln in lost supply. It is a supply shock.

When you look deeper, there is of course more complexity. Of China’s imports, about $239bln is petroleum. So if China vanished from global trade, it would be a demand shock in petroleum of $240bln (about 13mbpd, so huge), but a bigger supply shock on everything else, of $639bln. Again, it is a supply shock, at least ex-energy.

And even deeper, the picture is really interesting and really clear. From the same Worldbank source:

China is a huge net importer of raw goods (a large part of that is energy), roughly flat on intermediate goods, and a huge net exporter of consumer and capital goods. China Inc is an apt name – as a country, she takes in raw goods, processes them, and sells them. So, if China were to suddenly vanish, we would expect to see a major demand shock in raw materials and a major supply shock in finished goods.

The effects naturally vary with the specific product. Some places we might expect to see significant price pressures are in pharmaceuticals, for example, where China is a critical source of active pharmaceutical ingredients and many drugs including about 80% of the US consumption of antibiotics. On the other hand, energy prices are under downward price pressure as are many industrial materials. Since these prices are most immediately visible (they are commodities, after all), it is natural for the knee-jerk reaction of investors to be “this is a demand shock.” Plus, as I said in the tweet, it has been a long time since we have seen a serious supply shock. But after the demand shock in raw goods (and possibly showing in PPI?), do not be surprised to see an impact on the prices of consumer goods especially if China remains shuttered for a long time. Interestingly, the inflation markets are semi-efficiently pricing this. The chart below is the 1-year inflation swap rate, after stripping out the energy effect (source: Enduring Investments). Overall it is too low – core inflation is already well above this level and likely to remain so – but the recent move has been to higher implied core inflation, not lower.

Now, if COVID-19 blossoms into a true global contagion that collapses demand in developed countries – especially in the US – then the answer is different and much more along the lines of a demand shock. But I also think that, even if this global health threat retreats, real damage has been done to the status of China as the world’s supplier. Although it is less sexy, less scary, and slower, de-globalization of trade (for example, the US repatriating pharmaceuticals production to the US, or other manufacturers pulling back supply chains to produce more in the NAFTA bloc) is also a supply shock.

A Generous Fed Isn’t Really the Good News it Sounds Like

October 31, 2019 12 comments

I understand why people are delighted about Powell’s remarks yesterday, about how the Fed would need to see a significant and sustained increase in inflation before hiking rates again. This generation, and the last, does not see inflation as a significant threat, nor a significant cost should it get going, and believes firmly that the Fed can easily squelch it if it gets going. (They believe this because, after all, the Fed told them so).

Older investors might be more reticent to believe that there’s a pony in there somewhere, since the evidence suggests that not only does inflation erode purchasing power (thereby demanding even more nominal return be provided by portfolios that are already overstretched valuation-wise) but it also ruins the diversification effect of bonds relative to stocks. The main reason that 60:40 is a dramatically lower risk portfolio (and more efficient in an investing sense) than 100% stocks is that stock and bond returns have tended to be inversely correlated for a long time. When stocks go up, bonds go down, in general (and vice-versa). But that’s because they have inverse sensitivities to the economic growth factor. In recent years, that has been the only factor that matters, but stocks and bonds have the same sensitivity to the inflation factor: when inflation goes up, both stocks and bonds tend to decline (and vice-versa). Consequently, when inflation becomes an important element in investors’ calculations the correlation of stocks and bonds tends to be positive and in the immortal words of Billy Joel in “Goodnight Saigon,” “We would all go down together.” Along these lines I recently prepared this chart for Real Asset Strategies,[1] illustrating that when inflation is over about 2.5%, correlations tend to flip. This is a 3-year average of y/y inflation (and shown on the chart as inflation minus 2.5% so the zero line is what matters, not the line at 2.5%) versus 3-year correlations; the point is that you don’t need 4% inflation to drastically change the value of the 60:40 portfolio.

I also think that people give the Fed much more credit for their ability to squelch inflation – which after all they haven’t had to do for more than 30 years after spending 15 years squelching the last round – than they deserve. But that’s a ‘show me’ situation and it’s hard to prove my suspicion that they won’t be so successful when push comes to shove.

So, I understand why people are partying about a Fed that is even looser than it had been. I don’t think that’s the correct response, but I understand it.

I also understand why people are somewhat morose about trade frictions. It isn’t for the right reason, that in the long run it will hurt real growth a smidge and increase inflation a smidge-and-a-half, but because they think it will have a drastic effect on near-term growth. That’s why everyone gets so excited about any inkling the US and China are nearing a trade détente and so depressed when it looks like they aren’t. We are told that the current global slowdown is being caused largely by the trade war.

In my view that’s nonsense. The global economy has been expanding for a decade on exceptionally loose liquidity but no tree grows to the sky. The global economy was slowing well before the trade frictions could possibly have had any impact. But it is hard to convince people of that, because everyone knows that:

GDP = C + I + G + (X-M),

or consumption plus investment plus government spending plus trade. And we learned in school about Ricardian comparative advantage and how trade enriches (or anyway, can enrich) both parties at the same time. So if China doesn’t import anything from the US and doesn’t export anything to the US, growth is going to be crushed, right?

But that’s not how trade works. Frankly, that’s not how anything in the GDP equation works. If you remove the final term, you don’t reduce GDP by (X-M). Sure, if this was an algebra problem you would, but it’s not. In the real world, what you lose from trade gets partially replaced by an increase in consumption, investment, or government. Just as I pointed out last year with soybeans, if China buys zero from us it means they have to buy them from someone else, which means that supplier doesn’t have them to sell to one of their traditional customers…who then buys them from us. Incidentally, neither beans nor corn went to zero after mid-2018 (see chart, source Bloomberg, normalized to December 2017=100).

The rest of trade works the same way if the two parties are “internal customers” and “external customers.” Though there will always be winners and losers, if we don’t have international trade then we won’t have a destination for our merchandise overseas…but we will also have consumers who don’t have Chinese goods to buy and so need to buy something from a domestic producer instead. This is not a zero sum game; it clearly results in a loss for all players. But the order of magnitude of this loss in the short run is not very big at all, especially for a country with a large fraction of its domestic production going to domestic consumption, as in the US but not even for the world at large. The world economy has lots of reasons to slow and go into recession, and trade frictions are one of those reasons, but certainly not the only one and not even the largest reason.

An overreaction by markets to anything in a stream of economic news is not unique or new, of course; those overreactions won Robert Shiller a Nobel Prize after all for his work pointing out the “excess volatility puzzle” as an early highlight of the nascent field of behavioral economics. But there’s a good reason to ignore most of these wiggles and focus on the long-term effect of these developments. Which, in the case of both the general climate of trade and the Fed’s reaction function to inflation, are negatives for both stocks and bonds.


[1] As part of Enduring Intellectual Properties’ investment in Real Asset Strategies, I serve as Director of Research for the firm. Real Asset Strategies LLC offers liquid real asset strategies focused on diversification benefits and inflation protection at reasonable fees.

Tariffs Don’t Hurt Domestic Growth

August 28, 2019 7 comments

I really wish that economics was an educational requirement in high school. It doesn’t have to be advanced economics – just a class covering the basics of micro- and macroeconomics so that everyone has at least a basic understanding of how an economy works.

If we had that, perhaps the pernicious confusion about the impact of tariffs wouldn’t be so widespread. It has really gotten ridiculous: on virtually any news program today, as well as quite a few opinion programs (and sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference), one can hear about how “the trade war is hurting the economy and could cause a recession.” But that’s ridiculous, and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what tariffs and trade barriers do, and what they don’t do.

Because to the extent that people remember anything they were taught about tariffs (and here perhaps we run into the main problem – not that we weren’t taught economics, but that people didn’t think it was important enough to remember the fine points), they remember “tariffs = bad.” Therefore, when tariffs are implemented or raised, and something bad happens, the unsophisticated observer concludes “that must be because of the tariffs, because tariffs are bad.” In the category of “unsophisticated observer” here I unfortunately have to include almost all journalists, most politicians, and most alarmingly a fair number of economists and members of the Fed. Although, to be fair, I don’t think the latter two groups are making the same error as the former groups; they’re probably just confusing the short-term and the long-term or thinking globally rather than locally.

In any event, this reached a high enough level of annoyance for me that I felt the need to write this short column about the effects of tariffs. I actually wrote some of this back in June but needed to let it out again.

The effect of free trade, per Ricardo, is to enlarge the global economic pie. (Ricardo didn’t speak in terms of pie, but if he did then maybe people would understand this better.) However, in choosing free trade to enlarge the pie, each participating country surrenders its ability to claim a larger slice of the pie, or a slice with particular toppings (in this analogy, choosing a particular slice means selecting the particular industries that you want your country to specialize in). Clearly, this is good in the long run – the size of your slice, and what you produce, is determined by your relative advantage in producing it and so the entire system produces the maximum possible output and the system collectively is better off.

However, that does not mean that this is an outcome that each participant will like. Indeed, even in the comparative free trade of the late 1990s and 2000s, companies carefully protected their champion companies and industries. Even though the US went through a period of truly sucking at automobile manufacturing, we still have the big three automakers. On the other hand, the US no longer produces any apparel to speak of. In fact, I would suggest that the only way that free trade works at all in a non-theoretical world is if (a) all of the participants are roughly equal in total capability or (b) the dominant participant is willing to concede its dominant position in order to enrich the whole system, rather than using that dominant position to secure its preferred slices for itself. Many would argue that (b) is what happened, as the US was willing to let its manufacturing be ‘hollowed out’ in order to make the world a happier place on average. Enter President Trump, who suggested that as US President, it was sort of his job to look out for US interests. And so we have tariffs and a trade war.

What is the effect of tariffs?

  1. Tariffs are good for the domestic growth of the country imposing them. There is no question about it in a static equilibrium world: if you raise the price of the overseas competitor, then your domestic product will be relatively more attractive and you will be asked to make more of it. If other countries respond, then the question of whether it is good or bad for growth depends on whether you are a net importer or exporter, and on the relative size of the Ex-Im sector of your economy. The US is a net importer, which means that even if other countries respond equally it is still a gain…but in any event, the US economy is relatively closed so retaliatory tariffs have a comparatively small effect. The effect is clearly uneven, as some industries benefit and some lose, but tariffs are a net gain to growth for the US in the short term (at least).
  2. Tariffs therefore are good for US employment. In terms of both growth and employment, recent weakness has been blamed on tariffs and the trade war. But this is nonsense. The US economy and the global economy have cycles whether or not there is a trade war, and we were long overdue for a slowdown. The fact that growth is slowing at roughly the same time tariffs have been imposed is a correlation without causality. The tariffs are supporting growth in the US, which is why Germany is in a recession and the US is not (yet). Anyone who is involved with a manufacturing enterprise is aware of this. (I work with one manufacturer which has suddenly started winning back business that had previously been lost to China in a big way).
  3. Tariffs are bad for global growth. The US-led trade war produces a shrinkage of the global pie (well, at least a slowing of its growth) even as the US slice gets relatively larger. But for countries with big export-import sectors, and for our trade partners who are net exporters to the US and have tariffs applied to their goods, this is an unalloyed negative. And as I said, more-fractious trade relationships reduce the Ricardian comparative advantage gain for the system as a whole. It’s just really important to remember that the gains accrue to the system as a whole. The question of whether a country imposing tariffs has a gain or a loss on net comes down to whether the growth of the relative slice outweighs the shrinkage of the overall pie. In the US case, it most certainly does.
  4. Trade wars are bad for inflation, everywhere. I’ve written about this at length since Trump was elected (see here for one example), and I’d speculated on the effect of slowing trade liberalization even before that. In short, the explosion of free trade agreements in the early 1990s is what allowed us to have strong growth and low inflation, even with a fairly profligate monetary policy, as a one-off that lasted for as long as trade continued to open up. That train was already slowing – partly because of the populism that helped elect Mr. Trump, and partly because the 100th free trade agreement is harder than the 10th free trade agreement – and it has gone into reverse. Going forward, the advent of the trade war era means we will have a worse tradeoff of growth and inflation for any given monetary policy. This was true anyway as the free-trade-agreement spigot slowed, but it is much more true with a hot trade war.
  5. Trade wars are bad for equity markets, including in the US. A smaller pie means smaller profits, and a worse growth/inflation tradeoff means lower growth assumptions need to be baked into equity prices going forward. Trade wars are of course especially bad for multinationals, whose exported products are the ones subject to retaliation.

In the long run, trade wars mean worse growth/inflation tradeoffs for everyone – but that doesn’t mean that every country is a net loser from tariffs. In the short run, the effect on the US of the imposition of tariffs on goods imported to the US is clearly positive. Moreover, because the pain of the trade war is asymmetric – a country that relies on exports, such as China, is hurt much more when the US imposes tariffs than the US is hurt when China does – it is not at all crazy to think that trade wars in fact are winnable in the sense of one country enlarging its slice at the expense of another country or countries’ slices. To the extent that the trade war is “won,” and the tariffs are not permanent, then they are even beneficial (to the US) in the long run! If the trade war becomes a permanent feature, it is less clear since slower global growth probably constrains the growth of the US economy too. Permanent trade frictions would also produce a higher inflation equilibrium globally.

In this context, you can see that the challenge for monetary policy is quite large. If the US economy were not weakening anyway, for reasons exogenous to trade, then the response to a trade war should be to tighten policy since tariffs lead to higher prices and stronger domestic growth. However, the US economy is weakening, and so looser policy may be called for. My worry is that the when the Federal Reserve refers to the uncertainty around trade as a reason for easing, they either misapprehend the problem or they are acting as a global central bank trying to soften the global impact of a trade war. I think a decent case can be made for looser monetary policy – but it doesn’t involve trade. (As an aside: if central bankers really think that “anchored inflation expectations” are the reason we haven’t had higher inflation, then why are they being so alarmist about the inflationary effects of tariffs? Shouldn’t they be downplaying that effect, since as long as expectations remain anchored there’s no real threat? I wonder if even they believe the malarkey about anchoring inflation expectations.)

Do I like tariffs? Well, I don’t hate them. I don’t think the real economy is the clean, frictionless world of the economic theorists; since it is not, we need to consider how real people, real industries, real companies, and real regimes behave – and play the game with an understanding that it may be partially and occasionally adversarial, rather than treating it like one big cooperative game. There are valid reasons for tariffs (I actually first enumerated one of these in 1992). I won’t make any claims about the particular skill of the Trump Administration at playing this game, but I will say that I hope they’re good at it. Because if they are, it is an unalloyed positive for my home country…whatever the pundits on TV think about the big bad tariffs.

Tariffs and Subsidies…on Money

June 7, 2019 1 comment

Many, many years ago (27, actually) I wrote a paper on how a tariff on oil actually has some beneficial effects which needed to be balanced against the beneficial effect that a lower oil price has on economic growth. But since the early 1990s until 2015 or so I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times the issue of tariffs came up in thoughts about the economy and markets. To the extent that anyone thought about them at all, it was to think about how lowering them has an unalloyed long-term positive effect. Which, for the most part, it does.

But the economics profession can sometimes be somewhat shamanistic on the topic of tariffs. Tariffs=bad; time for the next chapter in the book. There is much more complexity to the topic than that, as there is with almost any economic topic. Reducing economics to comic-book simplicity only works when there is one overwhelmingly correct idea, like “when demand for a good goes up, so does the equilibrium price.” The end: next chapter.

Tariffs have, though, both short-term and long-term effects. In the long-term, we all agree, the effects of raising tariffs are deleterious. For any given increase in money and velocity, we end up with lower growth and higher inflation, all else equal. It is important to realize that these are largely one-time effects although smeared out over a long period. That is, after equilibrium is reached if tariffs are not changed any longer, tariffs have no large incremental effect. It is the change in tariffs that matters, and the story of the success of the global economy in terms of having decent growth with low inflation for the last thirty years is largely a story of continuously opening trade. As I’ve written previously, this train was just about running out of track anyway so that we were likely to go back to a worse combo of growth and inflation, but reversing that trend would lead to significantly worse combinations of growth and inflation in the medium-to-long term.

In the short-term, however, tariffs can have a positive effect (if they are expected to remain) on the tariff-imposing country, assuming no retaliation (or even with retaliation, if the tariff-imposing country is a significant net importer). They raise employment, and they raise the wage of the employed. They even may raise the real wage of the employed if there is economic slack. The chart below shows the y/y change in manufacturing jobs, and ex-manufacturing jobs, for the last 40 years. Obviously, the manufacturing sector has been shrinking – a story of increased productivity, but also of trade liberalization as manufacturing was offshored. The Obama-era work programs (e.g. “Cash for Clunkers”) temporarily reversed some of that differential decline, but since 2016 – when we got a new President – manufacturing payrolls growth has caught up to non-manufacturing. That’s not a surprise – it’s the short-term effect of tariffs.

The point is that tariffs are a political winner in the short-term, which is one reason I think that people are overestimating the likelihood that “Tariff Man” is going to rapidly concede on trade and lower tariffs. If the Administration gets a clear “win” in trade negotiations, then I am sure the President is amenable to reversing tariffs. But otherwise, it doesn’t hurt him in the heavy manufacturing states. And those states turn out to be key.

(This is a relative observation; it doesn’t mean that total payrolls will rise. The economic cycle still has its own momentum, and while tariffs can help parts of the economy in the short term it doesn’t change the fact that this cycle was very long in the tooth with lots of imbalances that are overdue for correction. It is no real surprise that employment is softening, even though it is a lagging indicator. The signs of softening activity have been accumulating for a while.)

But in the long run, we all agree – de-liberalizing trade is a bad deal. It leads among other things to bloat and inefficiency in protected sectors (just as any decrease in competition tends to do). It leads to more domestic capacity than is necessary, and duplicated capacity in country A and country B. It promotes inefficiency and unbalanced growth.

So why, then, are investors and economists so convinced that putting tariffs or subsidies on money has good (or even neutral) long-term effects? When the Fed forces interest rates higher or lower, by arbitrarily setting short-term rates or by buying or selling long-term bonds – that’s a tariff or a subsidy. It is protecting interest-rate sensitive sectors from having interest rates set by competition for capital. And, as we have seen, it leads in the long run to inefficient building of capacity. The Fed evinces concern about the amount of leverage in the system. Whose fault is that? If you give away free ice cream, why are you surprised when people get fat?

The only way that tariffs, and interest rate manipulations, have a chance of being neutral to positive is if they are imposed as a temporary rebalancing (or negotiating) measure and then quickly removed. In the case of Federal Reserve policy, that means that after cutting rates to address a temporary market panic or bank run, the central bank quickly moves back to neutral. To be clear, “neutral” means floating, market-determined rates where the supply and demand for capital determines the market-clearing rate. If investors believed that the central bank would pursue such a course, then they could evaluate and plan based on long-term free market rates rather than basing their actions on the expectation that rates would remain controlled and protective.

It is no different than with tariffs. So for central bankers criticizing the trade policy of the Administration, I say: let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone.

Inflation-Related Impressions from Recent Events

September 10, 2018 2 comments

It has been a long time since I’ve posted, and in the meantime the topics to cover have been stacking up. My lack of writing has certainly not been for lack of topics but rather for a lack of time. So: heartfelt apologies that this article will feel a lot like a brain dump.

A lot of what I want to write about today was provoked/involves last week. But one item I wanted to quickly point out is more stale than that and yet worth pointing out. It seems astounding, but in early August Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare reported the largest nominal wage increase in 1997. (See chart, source Bloomberg). This month there was a correction, but the trend does appear firmly upward. This is a good point for me to add the reminder that wages tend to follow inflation rather than lead it. But I believe Japanese JGBis are a tremendous long-tail opportunity, priced with almost no inflation implied in the price…but if there is any developed country with a potential long-tail inflation outcome that’s possible, it is Japan. I think, in fact, that if you asked me to pick one developed country that would be the first to have “uncomfortable” levels of inflation, it would be Japan. So dramatically out-of-consensus numbers like these wage figures ought to be filed away mentally.

While readers are still reeling from the fact that I just said that Japan is going to be the first country that has uncomfortable inflation, let me talk about last week. I had four inflation-related appearances on the holiday-shortened week (! is that an indicator? A contrary indicator?), but two that I want to take special note of. The first of these was a segment on Bloomberg in which we talked about how to hedge college tuition inflation and about the S&P Target Tuition Inflation Index (which my company Enduring Investments designed). I think the opportunity to hedge this specific risk, and to create products that help people hedge their exposure to higher tuition costs, is hugely important and my company continues to work to figure out the best way and the best partner with whom to deploy such an investment product. The Bloomberg piece is a very good segment.

I spent most of Wednesday at the Real Return XII conference organized by Euromoney Conferences (who also published one of my articles about real assets, in a nice glossy form). I think this is the longest continually-running inflation conference in the US and it’s always nice to see old friends from the inflation world. Here are a couple of quick impressions from the conference:

  • There were a couple of large hedge funds in attendance. But they seem to be looking at the inflation markets as a place they can make macro bets, not one where they can take advantage of the massive mispricings. That’s good news for the rest of us.
  • St. Louis Fed President James Bullard gave a speech about the outlook for inflation. What really stood out for me is that he, and the Fed in general, put enormous faith in market signals. The fact that inflation breakevens haven’t broken to new highs recently carried a lot of weight with Dr. Bullard, for example. I find it incredible that the Fed is actually looking to fixed-income markets for information – the same fixed-income markets that have been completely polluted by the Fed’s dominating of the float. In what way are breakevens being established in a free market when the Treasury owns trillions of the bonds??
  • Bullard is much more concerned about recession than inflation. The fact that they can both occur simultaneously is not something that carries any weight at the Fed – their models simply can’t produce such an outcome. Oddly, on the same day Neel Kashkari said in an interview “We say that we have a symmetric view of inflation. We don’t mind if it’s 2.1 or 1.9, but in our practice, in what we actually do, we are much more worried about high inflation than we are low inflation. And I think that that is the scar from the 1970s.” That’s ludicrous, by the way – there is no way in the world that the Fed would have done the second and third QEs, with the recession far in the rear view mirror, if the Fed was more concerned with high inflation. Certainly, Bullard showed no signs of even the slightest concern that inflation would poke much above 2%, much less 3%.
  • In general, the economists at the conference – remember, this is a conference for people involved in inflation markets – were uniform in their expectation that inflation is going nowhere fast. I heard demographics blamed (although current demographics, indicating a leftward shift of the supply curve, are actually inflationary it is a point of faith among some economists that inflation drops when the number of workers declines. It’s actually a Marxist view of the economic cycle but I don’t think they see it that way). I heard technology blamed, even though there’s nothing particularly modern about technological advance. Economists speaking at the conference were of the opinion that the current trade war would cause a one-time increase in inflation of between 0.2%-0.4% (depending on who was speaking), which would then pass out of the data, and thought the bigger effect was recessionary and would push inflation lower. Where did these people learn economics? “Comparative advantage” and the gain from trade is, I suppose, somewhat new…some guy named David Ricardo more than two centuries ago developed the idea, if I recall correctly…so perhaps they don’t understand that the loss from trade is a real thing, and not just a growth thing. Finally, a phrase I heard several times was “the Fed will not let inflation get out of hand.” This platitude was uttered without any apparent irony deriving from the fact that the Fed has been trying to push inflation up for a decade and has been unable to do so, but the speakers are assuming the same Fed can make inflation stick at the target like an arrow quivering in the bullseye once it reaches the target as if fired by some dead-eye monetary Robin Hood. Um, maybe.
  • I marveled at the apparent unanimity of this conclusion despite the fact that these economists were surely employing different models. But then I think I hit on the reason why. If you built any economic model in the last two decades, a key characteristic of the model had to be that it predicted inflation would be very low and very stable no matter what other characteristics it had. If it had that prediction as an output, then it perfectly predicted the last quarter-century. It’s like designing a technical trading model: if you design one that had you ‘out’ of the 1987 stock market crash, even if it was because of the phase of the moon or the number of times the word “chocolate” appeared in the New York Times, then your trading model looks better than one that doesn’t include that “factor.” I think all mainstream economists today are using models that have essentially been trained on dimensionless inflation data. That doesn’t make them good – it means they have almost no predictive power when it comes to inflation.

This article is already getting long, so I am going to leave out for now the idea I mentioned to someone who works for the Fed’s Open Market Desk. But it’s really cool and I’ll write about it at some point soon. It’s an idea that would simultaneously be really helpful for investors and help the Fed reduce a balance sheet that they claim to be happy with but we all really know they wish they could reduce.

So I’ll move past last week and close with one final off-the-wall observation. I was poking around in Chinese commodity futures markets today because someone asked me to design a trading strategy for them (don’t ask). I didn’t even know there was such a thing as PVC futures! And Hot Rolled Coils! But one chart really struck me:

This is a chart of PTA, or Purified Terephthalic Acid. What the heck is that? PTA is an organic commodity chemical, mainly used to make polyester PET, which is in turn used to make clothing and plastic bottles. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Here’s what else I don’t know: I don’t know why the price of PTA rose 50% in less than two months. And I don’t know whether it is used in large enough quantities to affect the end price of apparel or plastic bottles. But it’s a pretty interesting chart, and something to file away just in case we start to see something odd in apparel prices.

Let me conclude by apologizing again for the disjointed nature of this article. But I feel better for having burped some of these thoughts out there and I hope you enjoyed the burp as well.

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.

Tariffs Do Not Cause Price Declines

July 5, 2018 7 comments

Adding to a good’s price does not make its price decline.

It’s worth repeating that a couple of times, because it seems to be getting lost in the discussion about tariffs – in particular, in the discussion about tariffs levied on US commodities. Grains prices have been plummeting, as the chart below showing front corn and soybean prices (source: Bloomberg) illustrates.

There are many reasons that grains prices may be declining, but if “tariffs have been levied on US production” is one of them then there is some really weird economics happening. Corn and soybeans are commodities. Specifically, this means that they are essentially fungible – corn from site “A” is essentially the same as corn from site “B.” So what does this mean for the results of a tariff?

If China stops buying soybeans from the US altogether, it means that unless they’re going to stop eating soybeans they will buy soybeans from Brazil. But if Brazil sells all of their soybeans to China, it means that Germany can no longer soybeans from Brazil. So where does Germany buy its soybeans from? Well, it seems that the US has beans that are not spoken for in this scenario…in other words, when we are talking about commodities a tariff mostly just reorganizes the list of who is buying from whom. If soybean prices are falling because China isn’t buying our soybeans, it means a great deal for Russia or Germany or whoever else is going to buy beans from us instead of from China’s new supplier. More than that, if global soybeans prices are falling because of tariffs then it means that everyone is getting cheaper soybeans because China is changing who they’re buying from. If that’s the case, then we really need to slap tariffs on everything and watch prices decline!

Let’s go back to elementary microeconomics. Adding a tariff is reflected in our product market supply and demand curves as a shift in the supply curve to the left: the quantity that producers are willing to supply at any price declines, because the price to the producer declines. Put a different way, the market price required to induce any particular quantity supplied rises by the amount of the tariff. Now, whether that causes market prices to rise a lot or a little, or quantity supplied to fall by a lot or a little, depends on the elasticities of supply and demand. If demand if fairly inelastic (which seems reasonable – you may be able to substitute for “beans” but it’s hard to substitute for “grains”), then you will see more of a price response than a quantity response, at least in the short run where the supply of beans is fairly inelastic. But that price response is up, not down.

By the way, this gets a little hard to illustrate with supply and demand curves, because with a tariff what you have are now two separate markets and separate prices for the same good. This is what confuses some people – if China is no longer buying from the US, doesn’t that mean that demand for US beans has declined, and therefore prices should decline? The crucial point is that we are talking here about commodity goods, and supplies are fairly interchangeable. If we are talking about Harley Davidson motorcycles, the answer is different because if Europe stops buying Harleys, they have to buy a different product altogether. In that case, the global price of “motorcycles” might be relatively unaffected, but the price of Harleys will rise (and the output decline) relative to other motorcycles. So, a tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles definitely hurts the US, but a tariff on soybeans – or even “US soybeans” since that is not a universal distinction – should have virtually no effect on US producers. And certainly, no effect on the global price of soybeans.

There are other reasons that grains prices may be declining. Since Brazil is a major producer of beans, the sharp decline in the Brazilian Real has pushed the US dollar price of beans lower (see chart, source Bloomberg). In the chart below, the currency is shown in Reals per dollar, and inverted. This is a much more important factor explaining the decline in grains prices, as well as one that could easily get worse before it gets better.

I think the discussion of the effects of tariffs has gotten a bit polluted since the decline in grains seems to coincide with the announcement of tariffs from China. I think the price decline here has fed that story, but it’s bad economics. Piecemeal tariffs on commodity products are not likely to appreciably change the supply and demand outcome, although it will result in rearranging the sources of product for different countries. Tariffs on non-commodity product, especially branded products with few close substitutes, can have much larger effects – although we ought to remember that from the consumer’s perspective (and in the measurement of consumer inflation), tariffs never lower prices faced by consumers although they can lower prices received by producers. This is why tariffs are bad – they cause higher prices and lower output, and the best case is no real change.


DISCLOSURE: Quantitative/systematic funds managed by Enduring Investments have both long and short positions in grains, and in particular long positions in Beans and Corn, this month.

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