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Inflation and Corporate Margins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the M2 Slowdown Doesn’t Blunt My Inflation Concern

April 12, 2018 1 comment

We are now all good and focused on the fact that inflation is headed higher. As I’ve pointed out before, part of this is an illusion of motion caused by base effects: not just cell phones, but various other effects that caused measured inflation in the US to appear lower than the underlying trend because large moves in small components moved the average lower even while almost half of the consumption basket continues to inflate by around 3% (see chart, source BLS, Enduring Investments calculations).

But part of it is real – better central-tendency measures such as Median CPI are near post-crisis highs and will almost certainly reach new highs in the next few months. And as I have also pointed out recently, inflation is moving higher around the world. This should not be surprising – if central banks can create unlimited amounts of money and push securities prices arbitrarily higher without any adverse consequence, why would we ever want them to do anything else? But just as the surplus of sand relative to diamonds makes the former relatively less valuable, adding to the float of money should make money less valuable. There is a consequence to this alchemy, although we won’t know the exact toll until the system has gone back to its original state.

(I think this last point is underappreciated. You can’t measure an engine’s efficiency by just looking at the positive stroke. It’s what happens over a full cycle that tells you how efficient the engine is.)

I expect inflation to continue to rise. But because I want to be fair to those who disagree, let me address a potential fly in the inflationary ointment: the deceleration in the money supply over the last year or so (see chart, source Federal Reserve).

Part of my thesis for some time has been that when the Fed decided to raise interest rates without restricting reserves, they played a very dangerous game. That’s because raising interest rates causes money velocity to rise, which enhances inflation. Historically, when the Fed began tightening they restrained reserves, which caused interest rates to rise; the latter effect caused inflation to rise as velocity adjusted but over time the restraint of reserves would cause money supply growth (and then inflation) to fall, and the latter effect predominated in the medium-term. Ergo, decreasing the growth rate of reserves tended to cause inflation to decline – not because interest rates went up, which actually worked against the policy, but because the slow rate of growth of money eventually compounded into a larger effect.

And so my concern was that if the Fed moved rates higher but didn’t do it by restraining the growth rate of reserves, inflation might just get the bad half of the traditional policy result. The reason the Fed is targeting interest rates, rather than reserves, is that they have no power over reserves right now (or, at best, only a very coarse power). The Fed can only drain the inert excess reserves, which don’t affect money supply growth directly. The central bank is not operating on the margin and so has lost control of the margin.

But sometimes they get lucky, and they may just be getting lucky. Commercial bank credit growth (see chart, source Federal Reserve) has been declining for a while, pointing to the reason that money supply growth is slowing. It isn’t the supply of credit, which is unconstrained by reserves and (at least for now) unconstrained by balance sheet strength. It’s the demand for credit, evidently.

Now that I’ve properly laid out that M2 is slowing, and that declining M2 growth is typically associated with declining inflation (and I haven’t even yet pointed out that Japanese and EU M2 growth are both also at the lowest levels since 2014), let me say that this could be good news for inflation if it is sustained. But the problem is that since the slowing of M2 is not the result of a conscious policy, it’s hard to predict that money growth will stay slow.

The reason it needs to be sustained is that we care about percentage changes in the stock of money plus the percentage change in money velocity. For years, the latter term has been a negative number as money velocity declined with interest rates. But M2 velocity rose in the fourth quarter, and my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests it probably rose in Q1 as well and will rise again in Q2 (we won’t know Q1’s velocity until the advance GDP figures are reported later this month). If interest rates normalize, then it implies a movement higher in velocity to ‘normal’ levels represents a rise of about 12-14% from here (see chart, source Bloomberg.[1])

If money velocity kicks in 12-14% over some period to the “MVºPQ” relationship, then you need to have a lot of growth, or a pretty sustained decline in money growth, to offset it. The following table is taken from the calculator on our website and you can play with your own assumptions. Here I have assumed the economy grows at 2.5% per year for the next four years (no mean feat at the end of a long expansion).

The way to read this chart is to say “what if velocity over the next four years returns to X. Then what money growth is associated with what level of inflation?” So, if you go down the “1.63” column, indicating that at the end of four years velocity has returned to the lower end of its long-term historical range, and read across the M2 growth rate row labeled “4%”, you come to “4.8%,” which means that if velocity rises to 1.63 over the next four years, and growth is reasonably strong, and money growth remains as slow as 4%, inflation will average 4.8% per year over those four years.

So, even if money growth stays at 4% for four years, it’s pretty easy to get inflation unless money velocity also stays low. And how likely is 4% money growth for four years? The chart below shows 4-year compounded M2 growth rates back thirty or so years. Four percent hasn’t happened in a very long time.

Okay, so what if velocity doesn’t bounce? If we enter another bad recession, then it’s conceivable that interest rates could go back down and keep M2 velocity near this level. This implies flooding a lot more liquidity into the economy, but let’s suppose that money growth is still only 4% because of tepid credit demand growth and velocity stays low because interest rates don’t return to normal. Then what happens? Well, in this scenario presumably we’re no longer looking at 2.5% annual growth. Here’s rolling-four-year GDP going back a ways (source: BEA).

Well, let’s say that it isn’t as bad as the Great Recession, and that real growth only slows a bit in fact. If we get GDP growth of 1.5% over four years, velocity stays at 1.43, and M2 grows only at 4%, then:

…you are still looking at 2.5% inflation in that case.

I’m going through these motions because it’s useful to understand how remarkable the period we’ve recently been through actually is in terms of the growth/inflation tradeoff, and how unlikely to be repeated. The only reason we have been able to have reasonable growth with low inflation in the context of money growth where it has been is because of the inexorable decline in money velocity which is very unlikely to be repeated. If velocity just stops going down, you might not have high inflation numbers but you’re unlikely to get very low inflation outcomes. And if velocity rises even a little bit, it’s very hard to come up with happy outcomes that don’t involve higher inflation.

I admit that I am somewhat surprised that money growth has slowed the way it has. It may be just a coin flip, or maybe credit demand is displaying some ‘money illusion’ and responding to higher nominal rates even though real rates have not changed much. But even then…in the last tightening cycle, the Fed hiked rates from 1% to 5.25% over two years in 2004-2006, and money growth still averaged 5% over the four years ended in 2006. While I’m surprised at the slowdown in money growth, it needs to stay very slow for quite a while in order to make a difference at this point. It’s not the way I’d choose to bet.


[1] N.b. Bloomberg’s calculation for M2 velocity does not quite match the calculation of the St. Louis Fed, which is presumably the correct one. They’re ‘close enough,’ however, for this purpose, and this most recent print is almost exactly the same.

Trade Surplus and Budget Deficit? Ouch.

The market gyrations of late are interesting, especially during the NCAA Basketball tourney. Normally, volatility declines when these games are on during the week, as traders watch their brackets as much as they do the market (I’ve seen quantitative analysis that says this isn’t actually true, but I’m skeptical since I’ve been there and I can promise you – the televisions on the trading floor are tuned to the NCAA, not the CNBC, on those days). Higher volatility not only implies that lower prices are appropriate in theory but it also tends to happen in practice: higher actual volatility tends to force leveraged traders to reduce position size because their calculation of “value at risk” or VAR generally uses trailing volatility; moreover, these days we also need to be cognizant of the small, but still relevant, risk-parity community which will tend to trim the relative allocation to equities when equity vol rises relative to other asset classes.

My guess is that the risk-parity guys probably respond as much to changes in implied volatility as to realized volatility, so some of that move has already happened (and it’s not terribly large). But the VAR effect is entirely a lagging effect, and it’s proportional to the change in volatility as well as to the length of time the volatility persists (since one day’s sharp move doesn’t change the realized volatility calculation very much). Moreover, it doesn’t need to be very large per trader in order to add up to a very large effect since there are many, many traders who use some form of VAR in their risk control.

Keep in mind that a sharp move higher, as the market had yesterday, has as much effect on VAR as a sharp move lower. The momentum guys care about direction, but the VAR effect is related to the absolute value of the daily change. So if you’re bullish, you want a slow and steady move higher, not a sharp move higher. Ideally, that slow and steady move occurs on good volume, too.

The underlying fundamentals, of course, haven’t changed much between Friday and Monday. The chance of a trade war didn’t decline – the probability of a trade war is now 1.0, since it has already happened. Unless you want to call an attack and counterattack a mere skirmish, rather than a trade war, there is no longer any debate about whether there will be conflict on trade; the only discussion is on magnitude. And on that point, nothing much has changed either: it was always going to be the case that the initial salvo would be stridently delivered and then negotiated backwards. I’m not sure why people are so delighted about the weekend’s developments, except for the fact that investors love stories, and the story “trade war is ended!” is a fun story to tell the gulli-bulls.

As a reminder, it isn’t necessary to get Smoot/Hawley 2.0 to get inflation. Perhaps you need Smoot/Hawley to get another Depression, but not to get inflation. The mere fact that globalization is arrested, rather than continuing to advance, is enough to change the tradeoff between growth and inflation adversely. And that has been in the cards since day 1 of the Trump Administration. A full-on trade war, implying decreased globalization, changes the growth/inflation tradeoff in a very negative way, implying much tighter money growth will be required to tamp down inflation, which implies higher interest rates. I’m not sure we aren’t still headed that way.

But there is a much bigger issue on trade, which also implies higher interest rates…perhaps substantially higher interest rates. We (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘he’) are trying to reduce the trade deficit while increasing the budget deficit sharply. This can only happen one way, and that is if domestic savings increases drastically. I wrote about this point first in 2010, and then re-blogged it in 2013, here. I think that column is worth re-reading. Here’s a snippet:

“And this leads to the worry – if the trade deficit explodes, then two other things are going to happen, although how much of each I can’t even guess: (I) protectionist sentiment is going to become very shrill, and fall on the ears of a President who is looking to burnish his populist creds, and (II) the dollar is going to be beaten like a red-headed stepchild (being a red-headed stepchild, I use that simile grudgingly).”

Well, it took a while to happen and I never dreamed the “President looking to burnish his populist creds” would be a (supposed) Republican…but that’s what we have.

Here’s the updated chart showing the relationship between these two variables.

It’s important to remember that you can’t have a trade account surplus and a financial account surplus. If someone sells a good to a US consumer, that seller holds dollars and they can either sell the dollars to someone else (in which case the problem just changes hands), buy a US good (in which case there’s no trade deficit), or buy a US security. If we need non-US persons to buy US securities, then we need to run a trade deficit. If we want to run flat on trade, then we either need to run a balanced budget or fund the difference out of domestic savings. A large increase in domestic savings implies a large decrease in domestic spending, especially if the Fed is now ‘dissaving’ by reducing its balance sheet. Inducing extra domestic savings also implies higher real interest rates. Now, this isn’t a cataclysmic result – more domestic savings implies more long-term domestic growth, although perhaps not if it’s being sopped up by the federal government – but it’s a very large shift to what the current balances are.

If you want to run a flat balance of trade, the best way to do it is to run a balanced federal budget. Going opposite directions in those two accounts implies uncomfortably large shifts in the account that makes up the difference: domestic savings, and large shifts in interest rates to induce that savings.

Kicking Tails

February 12, 2018 5 comments

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Like many people, I find that poker strategy is a good analogy for risk-taking in investing. Poker strategy isn’t as much about what cards you are dealt as it is about how you play the cards you are dealt. As it is with markets, you can’t control the flop – but you can still correctly play the cards that are out there.[1] Now, in poker we sometimes discover that someone at the table has amassed a large pile of chips by just being lucky and not because they actually understand poker strategy. Those are good people to play against, because luck is fickle. The people who started trading stocks in the last nine years, and have amassed a pile of chips by simply buying every dip, are these people.

All of this is prologue to the observation I have made from time to time about the optimal sizing of investment ‘bets’ under conditions of uncertainty. I wrote a column about this back in 2010 (here I link to the abbreviated re-blog of that column) called “Tales of Tails,” which talks about the Kelly Criterion and the sizing of optimal bets given the current “edge” and “odds” faced by the bettor. I like the column and look back at it myself with some regularity, but here is the two-sentence summary: lower prices imply putting more chips on the table, while higher volatility implies taking chips off of the table. In most cases, the lower edge implied by higher volatility outweighs the better odds from lower prices, which means that it isn’t cowardly to scale back bets on a pullback but correct to do so.

When you hear about trading desks having to cut back bets because the risk control officers are taking into account the higher VAR, they are doing half of this. They’re not really taking into account the better odds associated with lower prices, but they do understand that higher volatility implies that bets should be smaller.

In the current circumstance, the question merely boils down to this. How much have your odds improved with the recent 10% decline in equity prices? Probably, only a little bit. In the chart below, which is a copy of the chart in the article linked to above, you are moving in the direction from brown-to-purple-to-blue, but not very far. But the probability of winning is moving left.

Note that in this picture, a Kelly bet that is less than zero implies taking the other side of the bet, or eschewing a bet if that isn’t possible. If you think the chance that the market will go up (edge) is less than 50-50 you need better payoffs on a rally than on a selloff (odds). If not, then you’ll want to be short. (In the context of recent sports bets: prior to the game, the Patriots were given a better chance of winning so to take the Eagles at a negative edge, you needed solid odds in your favor).

Now if, on the other hand, you think the market selloff has taken us to “good support levels” so that there is little downside risk – and you think you can get out if the market breaks those support levels – and much more upside risk, then you are getting good odds and a positive edge and probably want to bet aggressively. But that is to some extent ignoring the message of higher implied volatility, which says that a much wider range of outcomes is possible (and higher implied volatility moves the delta of an in-the-money option closer to 0.5).

This is why sizing bets well in the first place, and adjusting position sizes quickly with changes in market conditions, is very important. Prior to the selloff, the market’s level suggested quite poor odds such that even the low volatility permitted limited bets – probably a lot more limited than many investors had in place, after many years of seeing bad bets pay off.


[1] I suspect that Bridge might be as good an analogy, or even better, but I don’t know how to play Bridge. Someday I should learn.

Categories: Analogy, Investing, Theory, Trading

Are Rising Yields Actually a Good Thing?

February 6, 2018 2 comments

I’ve recently been seeing a certain defense of equities that I think is interesting. It runs something like this:

The recent rise in interest rates, which helped cause the stock market swoon, is actually a good thing because interest rates are rising due to a strong economy and increasing demand for capital, which pushes up interest rates. Therefore, stocks should actually not mind the increase in interest rates because it’s an indication of a strong economy.

This is a seductive argument. It’s wrong, but it’s seductive. Not only wrong, in fact, but wrong in ways that really shouldn’t confuse any economist or strategist writing in the last twenty years.

Up until the late 1990s, we couldn’t really tell the main reason that nominal interest rates were rising or falling. For an increase in market rates there are two main potential causes: an increase in real interest rates, which can be good if that increase is being caused by an increasing demand for credit rather than by a decreasing supply, and an increase in inflation expectations, which is an unalloyed negative. But in 1995, we would have had to just guess which was causing the increase in interest rates.

But since 1997, we’ve had inflation-linked bonds, which trade on the basis of real yield. So we no longer have to guess why nominal rates are rising. We can simply look.

The chart below shows the decomposition of 10-year nominal yields since early December. The red line, which corresponds to the left scale, shows “breakevens,” or the simple difference between real yields and nominal yields; the blue line, on the right-hand scale, shows real yields. So if you combine the two lines at any point, you get nominal yields.

Real yields represent the actual supply and demand for the use of capital. That is, if I lend the government money for ten years, then in order to entice me to forego current consumption the government must promise that every year I will accumulate about 0.68% more ‘stuff.’ I can consume more in the future by not consuming as much now. To turn that into a nominal yield, I then have to add some premium to represent how much the dollars I will get back in the future, and which I will use to buy that ‘stuff’, will have declined in value. That of course is inflation expectations, and right now investors who lend to the government are using about 2.1% as their measure of the rate of deterioration of the value of the dollar.[1]

So, can we say from this chart that interest rates are mainly rising for “good” reasons? On the contrary! The increase in inflation expectations has been much steadier; only in the last month have real interest rates risen (and we don’t know, by the way, whether they’re even rising because of credit demand, rather than credit supply). Moreover – although you cannot see this from the chart, I can tell you based on proprietary Enduring Intellectual Properties research that at this level of yields, real yields are usually responsible for almost all of the increase or decrease in nominal yields.[2] So the fact that real yields are providing a little less than half of the selloff? That doesn’t support the pleasant notion of a ‘good’ bond selloff at all.

As I write this, we are approaching the equity market close. For most of the day, equities have been trading a bit above or a bit below around Monday’s closing level. While this beats the heck out of where they were trading overnight, it is a pretty feeble technical response. If you are bullish, you would like to see price reject that level as buyers flood in. But instead, there was pretty solid volume at this lower level. That is more a bearish sign than a bullish sign. However, given the large move on Friday and Monday it was unlikely that we would close near unchanged – so the last-hour move was either going to be significantly up or significantly down. Investors chose up, which is good news. But the bad news is that the end-of-day rally never took us above the bounce-high from yesterday’s last hour, and was on relatively weak volume…and I also notice that energy prices have not similarly rallied.


[1] In an article last week I explained why we tend to want to use inflation swaps rather than breakevens to measure inflation expectations, but in this case I want to have the two pieces add up to nominal Treasury yields so I am stuck with breakevens. As I noted in that article, the 2.1% understates what actual inflation expectations are for 10 years.

[2] TIPS traders would say “the yield beta between TIPS and nominals is about 1.0.”

Forward Inflation is Nothing to be Alarmed About (Yet)

February 1, 2018 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But check with me again in 50bps!


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

Point Forecast for Real Equity Returns in 2018

January 3, 2018 2 comments

Point forecasts are evil.

Economists are asked to make point forecasts, and they oblige. But it’s a dumb thing to do, and they know it. Practitioners, who should know better, rely on these point forecasts far more than they should. Because, in economics and especially in markets, there are enormous error bars around any reasonable point forecast, and those error bars are larger the shorter-term the forecast is (if there is any mean-reversion at all). I can no more forecast tomorrow’s change in stock market prices than I can forecast whether I will draw a red card from a deck of cards that you hand me. I can make a reasonable 5-year or 10-year forecast, at least on a compounded annualized basis, but in the short term the noise simply swamps the signal.[1]

Point forecasts are especially humorous when it comes to the various year-end navel-gazing forecasts of stock market returns that we see. These forecasts almost never have fair error bars around the estimate…because, if they did, there would be no real point in publishing them. I will illustrate that – and in the meantime, please realize that this implies the forecast pieces are, for the most part, designed to be marketing pieces and not really science or research. So every sell-side firm will forecast stock market rallies every year without fail. Some buy side firms (Hoisington springs to mind) will predict poor returns, and that usually means they are specializing in something other than stocks. A few respectable firms (GMO, e.g.) will be careful to make only long-term forecasts, over periods of time in which their analysis actually has some reasonable predictive power, and even then they’ll tend to couch their analysis in terms of risks. These are good firms.

So let’s look at why point forecasts of equity returns are useless. The table below shows Enduring’s year-end 10-year forecast for the compounded real return on the S&P 500, based on a model that is similar to what GMO and others use (incorporating current valuation levels and an assumption about how those valuations mean-revert).[2] That’s in the green column labeled “10y model point forecast.” To that forecast, I subtract (to the left) and add (to the right) one standard deviation, based on the year-end spot VIX index for the forecast date.[3] Those columns are pink. Then, to the right of those columns, I present the actual subsequent real total return of the S&P 500 that year, using core CPI to deflate the nominal return; the column the farthest to the right is the “Z-score” and tells how many a priori standard deviations the actual return differed from the “point forecast.” If the volatility estimate is a good one, then roughly 68% of all of the observations should be between -1 and +1 in Z score. And hello, how about that? 14 of the 20 observations fall in the [-1,1] range.

Clearly, 2017 was remarkable in that we were 1.4 standard deviations above the 12/31/2016 forecast of +1.0% real. Sure, that “forecast” is really a forecast of the long-term average real return, but that’s not a bad place to start for a guess about next year’s return, if we must make a point forecast.

This is all preliminary, of course, to the forecast implied by the year-end figures in 2017. The forecast we would make would be that real S&P returns in 2018 have a 2/3 chance of being between -10.9% and +11.1%, with a point forecast (for what that’s worth) of +0.10%. In other words, a rally this year by more than CPI rises is still as likely as heads on a coin flip, even though a forecast of 0.10% real is a truly weak forecast and the weakest implied by this model in a long time.

It is clearly the worst time to be invested in equities since the early 2000s. Even so, there’s a 50-50 chance we see a rally in 2018. That’s not a very good marketing pitch. But it’s better science.[4]


[1] Obligatory Robert Shiller reference: his 1981 paper “Do Stock Prices Move Too Much to be Justified by Subsequent Changes in Dividends” formulated the “excess volatility puzzle,” which essentially says that there’s a lot more noise than signal in the short run.

[2] Forecasts prior to 2009 predate this firm and are arrived at by applying the same methodology to historical data. None of these are discretionary forecasts and none should be taken as implying any sort of recommendation. They may differ from our own discretionary forecasts. They are for illustration only. Buyer beware. Etc.

[3] The spot VIX is an annualized volatility but incorporating much nearer-term option expiries than the 1-year horizon we want. However, since the VIX futures curve generally slopes upward this is biased narrow.

[4] And, I should hasten point out: it does have implications for portfolio allocations. With Jan-2019 TIPS yielding 0.10% real – identical to the equity point forecast but with essentially zero risk around that point – any decent portfolio allocation algorithm will favor low-risk real bonds over stocks more than usual (even though TIPS pay on headline CPI, and not the core CPI I am using in the table).

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