Today the 1-year CPI swap rate closed at 1.77%, the highest rate since 2014 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The CPI swap (which, as an aside, is a better indicator of expected inflation than are breakevens, for technical reasons discussed here for people who truly have insomnia) indicates that headline inflation is expected to be about 1.77% over the next year. That’s nearly double the current headline inflation rate, but well below the Fed’s target of roughly 2.3% on a CPI basis. But at least on appearances, investors seem to be adjusting to the reality that inflation is headed higher.
Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. And in this case, they are. The headline inflation rate is of course the combination of core inflation plus food inflation and energy inflation; as a practical matter most of the volatility in the headline rate comes from the volatility endemic in energy markets. I’ve observed before that this leads to unreasonable volatility in long-term inflation expectations, but in short-term inflation expectations it makes perfect sense that they ought to be significantly driven by expectations for energy prices. The market recognizes that energy is the source of inflation volatility over the near-term, which is why the volatility curve for inflation options looks strikingly like the volatility curve for crude oil options and not at all like the volatility curve for LIBOR (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
The shape of the energy futures curves themselves also tell us what amount of energy price change we should include in our estimate of future headline inflation (or, alternatively, what energy price change we can hedge out to arrive at the market’s implied bet on core inflation). I am illustrating this next point with the crude oil futures curve because it doesn’t have the wild oscillations that the gasoline futures curve has, but in practice we use the gasoline futures since that is closer to the actual consumption item that drives the core-headline difference. Here is the contract chart for crude oil (Source: Bloomberg):
So, coarsely, the futures curve implies that crude oil is expected to rise about $4, or about 9%, over the next year. This will add a little bit to core inflation to give us a higher headline rate than the core inflation rate. Obviously, that might not happen, but the point is that it is (coarsely) arbitrageable so we can use this argument to back into what the market’s perception of forward core inflation is.
And the upshot is that even though 1-year CPI swaps are at the highest level since 2014, the implied core inflation rate has been steadily falling. Put another way, the rise in short inflation swaps has been less than the rally in energy would suggest it should have been. The chart below shows both of these series (source: Enduring Investments).
So – while breakevens and inflation swaps have been rallying, in fact this rally is actually weaker than it should have been, given what has been happening in energy markets. Investors, in short, are still irrationally lugubrious about the outlook for price pressures in the US over the next few years. Remember, core CPI right now is 2.2%. How likely is it to decelerate 1.5% or more over the next twelve months?
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The big story of the weekend was that a meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC producers, at which an agreement was supposed to be signed to freeze oil production at recent levels, ended without an agreement being signed. This was not an enormous surprise, since Iran didn’t even attend the conference and the Saudis had said they wouldn’t sign unless Iran agreed, but oil prices initially took a significant hit before recovering some later in the day.
The economic significance of the lack of agreement is fairly small; most producers are producing near their maximum output, except for important non-attendees like the United States and Iran. (The Saudis claim to be able to put 1mm barrels per day online in short order, too). But the psychological significance was thought to be important.
I’m not so sure about the importance of mind-games in an efficient global market for a commodity product. The market is oversupplied, by a significant amount, and no amount of posturing will change that. However, basic economics may.
Overlooked by many is the fact that OPEC’s problem is one that automatically diminishes over time even if OPEC does nothing. This is because the demand for oil is short-term inelastic, but long-term elastic.
The elasticity of demand describes how quickly the quantity demanded responds to price. If demand is very elastic, then changes in price cause large changes on the quantity demanded. On the other hand, inelastic demand curves indicate that the quantity demanded changes very little when the price on offer changes.
The elasticity of demand has a very significant consequence for the question of how revenues change when prices change. Revenue is simply price times quantity. So, if a small change in price causes a large change in quantity (that is, an elastic demand curve), it is a good strategy (for example, as an individual company) to cut one’s price: the company will sell lots more product and give up only a little revenue on each one, so that total revenues rise with price declines if a producer faces an elastic demand curve. On the other hand, if demand is inelastic, then a price cut doesn’t change the quantity sold very much, but decreases revenue on each unit. If a producer faces an inelastic supply curve, total revenues decline with price decreases. And, conversely, total revenues increase with price increases in such a case. This is the reason that cartelization of the oil industry is an apparently attractive strategy: oil demand is, at least in the short-run, price inelastic. If gasoline prices rise $1 per gallon next week, you will still drive almost as much as before.
But static equilibria cannot fully describe dynamic markets! It turns out that for most products, demand elasticity in the long-run is higher, and often much higher, than in the short run. Consumers adjust to changing prices by adjusting their consumption mix! This is also true with energy markets: while you won’t drive a lot less next week if gasoline prices are much higher, if they stay higher you will start to carpool, buy more energy-efficient vehicles, and so on. This is one reason that cartelization ends up failing. In the short run, it makes sense to band together and hike prices, raising overall revenue, but this has deleterious effects on long-run revenue and creates incentives to cheat to grab more of the (diminishing) demand.
Analysis of the energy markets tends to focus on supply, but as prices increase and decrease over extended periods of time, it is important to remember that demand eventually responds. From 2011 until mid-2014, retail gasoline averaged about $3.50 per gallon (see chart, source Bloomberg). But it has been below that level for almost two years, and averaged more like $2.30 per gallon since then.
Similarly, WTI crude oil averaged around $100/bbl in 2011-mid2014, but only about $60 since then. And most of that was well below $60. The picture for Brent is of course very similar.
In the short run, with inelastic demand, these large declines represent a very large drop in OPEC producer revenues. But in the long run – and after two years, we are much closer to the long run – demand will increase even if the global economy doesn’t grow at all because there is a demand response to lower prices. OPEC, in other words, initially sold the same amount of oil at lower prices, but as time passes they will sell larger amounts of oil at these lower prices. While that’s not as good as selling those larger amounts of oil at higher prices, it is better than what it had been after the initial, sharp decline.
So oil producers will have more total revenue over the next year, even if price doesn’t change and even if the global economy stops growing, than they did last year. The need for a production freeze becomes less urgent all the time.
Of course, the supply overhang is huge, and it won’t go away overnight and probably won’t go away from demand response alone. But, as we are dealing with the long run, we shouldn’t neglect the demand response, either.
A longtime reader (and friend) today forwarded me a chart from a well-known technical analyst showing the recent correlation between TIPS (via the TIP ETF) and gold; the analyst also argued that the rising gold price may be boosting TIPS. I’ve replicated the chart he showed, more or less (source: Bloomberg).
Ordinarily, I would cite the analyst directly, but in this case since I’m essentially calling him out I thought it might be rude to do so! His mistake is a pretty common one, after all. And, in fact, I am going to use it to illustrate an important point about TIPS.
The chart shows a great correlation between TIPS and gold, especially since the beginning of the year. But here’s the problem with drawing the conclusion that rising inflation fears are boosting TIPS – TIPS are not exposed to inflation.
Bear with me, because this is a key point about TIPS that is widely misunderstood. Recall that nominal interest rates represent two things: first, an amount that represents the return, in real terms, that the lender needs to realize in order to defer consumption and instead lend to the borrower. This is called the real interest rate. The second component of the nominal interest rate represents the compensation the lender demands for the fact that he will be paid back in dollars that (in normal times) will be able to buy less. This is the inflation compensation. Irving Fisher said that nominal interest rates are approximately equal to the sum of these two components, or
n ≈ r + i
where n is the nominal interest rate, r is the real interest rate, and i is the inflation compensation.
In a world without TIPS, you can only trade nominal bonds, which means you can only access the whole package and nominal interest rates may change when real rates change, expected inflation changes, or both change. (And when interest rates are negative, this leads to weird theoretical implications – see my recent and fun post on the topic.) Thus changes in real interest rates and changes in expected inflation affect nominal bonds, and roughly equally at that.
But once you introduce TIPS, then you can now separate out the pieces. By buying TIPS, you can isolate the real interest rate; and by trading a long/short package of TIPS and nominal bonds (or by trading an inflation swap) you can isolate the inflation expectations. This is a huge advance in interest rate management, because an investor is no longer constrained to own a fixed-income portfolio where his exposure to changes in real rates happens to be equal to his exposure to changes in inflation expectations. Siegel and Waring made this argument in a famous paper called TIPS, the Dual Duration, and the Pension Plan in 2004, although it should be noted that inflation derivatives books were already being managed using this insight by then.
Which leads me in a roundabout way to the point I originally wanted to make: if you own TIPS, then you have no exposure to changes in inflation expectations except inasmuch as there is a (very unstable) correlation between real rates and expected inflation. If inflation expectations change, TIPS will not move unless real rates change.
So, if gold prices are rising and TIPS prices are rising, it isn’t because inflation expectations are rising. In fact, if inflation expectations are rising it is more likely that real yields would also be rising, since those two variables tend to be positively correlated. In fact, real yields have been falling, which is why TIP is rising. The first chart in this article, then, shows a correlation between rising inflation expectations (in gold) and declining real interest rates, which is certainly interesting but not what the author thought he was arguing. It’s interesting because it’s unusual and represents a recovery of TIPS from very, very cheap levels compared to nominal bonds, as I pointed out in January in a piece entitled (argumentatively) “No Strategic Reason to Own Nominal Bonds Now.”
Actually (and the gold bugs will kill me), gold has really outstripped where we would expect it to go, given where inflation expectations have gone. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the front gold contract again, but this time instead of TIP I have shown it against 10-year breakevens.
No, I don’t hate gold, or apple pie, or America. Actually, I think the point of the chart is different. I think gold is closer to “right” here, and breakevens still have quite far to go – eventually. The next 50bps will be harder, though!
 I abstract here from the third component that some believe exists systematically, and that is a premium for the uncertainty of inflation. I have never really understood why the lender needed to be compensated for this but the borrower did not; uncertainty of the real value of the repayment is bad for both borrower and lender. I believe this is an error, and interestingly it’s always been very hard for researchers to prove this value is always present and positive.
 It’s technically (1+n)=(1+r)(1+i), but for normal levels of these variables the difference is minute. It matters for risk management, however, of large portfolios.
 I expanded this in a much less-famous paper called TIPS, the Triple Duration, and the OPEB Liability: Hedging Medical Care Inflation in OPEB Plans in 2011.
 What the heck, one more footnote. I had a conversation once with the Assistant Treasury Secretary for Financial Markets, who was a bit TIPS booster. I told him that TIPS would never truly have the success they deserve unless the Treasury starts calling ‘regular’ bonds “Treasury Inflation-Exposed Securities,” which after all gets to the heart of the matter. He was not particularly amused.
(**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.
The ECB fired its “bazooka” today, cutting official rates more into negative territory, increasing QE by another €20bln per month, expanding the range of assets the central bank can buy to now include corporate bonds, and creating a new 4-year program whereby the ECB will loan long-term money to banks at rates that could be negative (based on bank credit extended to corporate and personal borrowers).
My point today is not to opine on the power or wisdom of these policy moves. The main thing I want to observe is this: the inflation market is pricing in what amounts to success for global central banks, with consumer inflation averaging something between 1 and 2 percent per year for the next decade (a bit lower in Japan; a bit higher in the UK). Not only are inflation swaps prices much lower than would be expected from a pure monetarists’ standpoint – but options prices are also very low. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows normalized volatilities over the last five years for a 10-year, 2% year-over-year inflation cap. That is, every year you take a look and see if inflation was over 2%. If it was, then the owner of this option is paid the difference between actual inflation and 2%; if it was not, the owner gets zero. So you get to look ten times at whether inflation has gotten above 2%, and get paid each time it has.
The chart shows that whatever inflation is expected to be, the price to cover the risk that inflation is actually somewhat higher is very low. So, not only is inflation expected to be low, but it is expected to be not volatile either.
Look, we’re talking about bazookas, helicopters…does something not seem right about pricing in very little risk of screwing up?
Whether you believe my thesis in my freshly-released book What’s Wrong With Money? that the likely course of inflation over the next few years is higher and potentially much higher, or you agree with those who think deflation is imminent, shouldn’t we agree that bazookas introduce volatility?
Central banks are attempting to do something that has never been done. Shouldn’t we at least be a teensy bit nervous, as they line up to perform the first-ever quintuple-lutz, that no one has ever landed one before? That no one has ever landed a commercial passenger jet on an aircraft carrier?
Uncertainty is supposed to lower asset values, all else being equal. So even if you think stocks at these levels are “fair,” in an environment with earnings and interest rates where they are now and projected earnings following a certain path, an increase in the volatility of those outcomes should lower the clearing price of those assets since the buyer of the asset (which has positive value) is also assuming the volatility (which has a negative value).
But the market also says that uncertainty right now is low. Yes, the VIX is well off its lows and seems to suggest greater short-term uncertainty (see chart below, source Bloomberg) – but I would argue that the long-term volatility of the economic fundamentals has rarely been this high.
Supposedly you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but we also have never tried to do it. There’s a reason we haven’t tried to do it!
But the Fed, and the rest of the world’s central banks, are not only roller skating in a buffalo herd – the world’s markets seem to be suggesting that investors are sure they’re going to succeed. Regardless of whether you’re optimistic about the outcome, I would argue it’s nearly impossible to be both optimistic and highly confident!
 This means something to options traders but can be glossed over by non-options traders. Essentially the point is that you can’t use a regular Black-Scholes model to price options if the strike and/or the forward can have a negative value!
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Yesterday I wrote about the crowded short trade that boosted energy futures 40-50% from the lows of only a few weeks ago. A related crowded trade was the short-inflation trade, and it also was related to carry.
TIPS, as many readers will know, accumulate principal value based on realized inflation; the real coupon rate is then paid on this changing principal amount. As a rough shorthand, TIPS thus earn something like the real interest rate plus the realized inflation (which goes mainly to principal, but slowly affects the coupon over time). So, if the price level is declining, then although you will be receiving positive coupons your principal amount will be eroding (TIPS at maturity will always pay at least par, but can have a principal amount less than par on which coupons are calculated). And vice versa, of course – when the price level is increasing, so does your principal value and you still receive your positive coupons.
This means that, neglecting the price change of TIPS, the earnings that look like interest – those paid as interest, and those paid as accumulation of principal, which an owner receives when he/she sells the bond or it matures – will be lower when inflation is lower and higher when inflation is higher. It acts a little bit like a floating-rate security, which is one reason that many people believe (incorrectly) that FRNs hedge inflation almost as well as TIPS. They don’t, but that’s something I’ve addressed previously and it’s not my point today.
My point is that TIPS investors behave as if this carry is a hot potato. When carry is increasing, everyone wants to own TIPS; when carry is decreasing no one wants to own TIPS. The chart below (Source: BLS) shows the seasonal adjustment factor used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to adjust the CPI. The figure implies that prices tend to rise into the summer and then decline into year-end, compared to the average trend of the year, so we should expect higher increases in nonseasonally-adjusted CPI in the summer and lower increases or even outright decreases late in the year.
Now, the next chart (Source: Enduring Investments) shows what 10-year breakevens have done over the last 16 years, on average, compared to the year’s average.
Do these two pictures look eerily similar?
From a capital markets theory perspective, this is nuts. It says that breakevens expand (TIPS outperform) when everyone knows carry should be increasing, and narrow (TIPS underperform) when everyone knows carry should be decreasing. And from a P&L perspective, a 30bp increase in 10-year breakevens swamps the change in accruals that happens as the result of seasonal changes in CPI. Moreover, these are known seasonal patterns; one should not be able to ‘outsmart’ the market by buying breakevens in January and shorting them in May. Theory says that while you’re owning negative carry, you should make it up in the rise of the price of the bond to meet the forward price implied by the carry. Nevertheless, for years you were able to beat the carry, at least if you were a first mover. (Incidentally, an investor doesn’t try to beat the average seasonal, but the actual carry implied by movements in energy too – which are also reasonably well-known in advance).
But as liquidity in the market has suffered (not just in TIPS, but in many non-benchmark securities, thanks to Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule), it has become harder for large accounts to do this. More importantly, the market has tended to drastically overshoot carry – either because less-sophisticated investors were involved, or because momentum traders (aka hedge funds) were involved, or because investor sentiment about inflation tends to overshoot actual inflation. Accordingly, as energy has fallen over the last year-and-a-half, TIPS have gotten cheaper, and cheaper, and cheaper relative to fair value. In early January 2015, I put out a trade recommendation (to select institutional clients) as breakevens were about 90bps cheap. The subsequent rally never extinguished the cheapness, but it was a profitable trade.
On February 11th of this year, TIPS reached a level of cheapness that we had only seen in the teeth of the global financial crisis (ignoring the period prior to 2002, when TIPS were not yet a widely-held asset class). The chart below shows that TIPS recently reached, by our proprietary measure, 120bps cheap.
But, as with energy, the short trade was overdone. 10-year breakevens got to 1.20% – an almost inconceivable level that would signal a massive failure not only of Fed policy, but of monetarism itself. Monetarism doesn’t make many claims, but one of these is that if you print enough money then you can create inflation. Since then, as the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, 10-year breakevens rallied about 35 bps before falling back over the last couple of days. And we still show breakevens as about 100bps cheap at this level of nominal yields.
Yesterday I noted that the structural negative carry for energy markets at present was likely to limit the rally in crude oil, as short futures positions get paid to stay short. But this is a different type of carry than the carry we are talking about with TIPS. With TIPS, the carry is caused by movement in spot energy (mostly gasoline) prices; with crude oil markets, the carry is caused by rolling futures positions forward. The TIPS carry, in short, will eventually stop being so miserable – spot gasoline is unlikely to continue to decline without bound. But even if spot gasoline stabilizes, short futures positions can still be profitable if oversupply into the spot market keeps futures curves in contango. Accordingly, while I think energy futures will slip back down, I am much more confident that TIPS breakevens have seen the worst levels we are likely to see.
Unfortunately, for the non-institutional investor it is hard to be long breakevens. The CME has never re-launched CPI futures, despite my many pleadings, and most ETF products related to breakevens have been dissolved – with the notable, if marginal, exception of RINF, which tracks 30-year breakevens but has a very small float. It appears to be approximately fair, however. Other than that – your options are to be long a TIPS product and long an inverse-Treasury product, but the hedge ratios are not simple, not static, and the fees would make this unpleasant.
However, as I wrote recently what this means for the individual investor is that there is no strategic reason to own nominal bonds now. If I own nominal Treasury bonds, I would be moving into TIPS in preference to such a low-coupon, naked-short-inflation-risk position.
Would you rather have a bar of chocolate today, or one year from today?
Most of us, if we like chocolate, would prefer to have a bar of chocolate today rather than at some point in the future. If you don’t care for chocolate, how about money? Would you rather have $100 today, or $100 next year?
The reason that Wimpy’s “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” ploy doesn’t work is that we would prefer to have the money today compared to the money on Tuesday. If Wimpy wants his burger today, but doesn’t have the money for it, then he must borrow the money and pay that money back on Tuesday. Because of our time preference for money, this will cost Wimpy something extra, as he needs to incentivize us to part with the money today so that he can get his burger now.
This is where it gets weird.
We are now in a Wimpy world. Not only can Wimpy get his burger today, it costs him less if he borrows the money because interest rates are negative. That is, “I’ll gladly pay you less money than the burger costs, and not until Tuesday, for the burger today.” And we are enthusiastically answering, “Sure! Sounds like a great deal!”
This is one weird implication of negative interest rates. If the yield curve was flat at a negative interest rate, it would imply that the further in the future something is, the more valuable it is. A dollar next week is worth more than a dollar today. With negative discount rates, a chocolate bar next year is preferable to a chocolate bar today. And poor Wimpy…being forced to have a hamburger today when a hamburger on Tuesday would be so much better!
It gets even weirder if the yield curve is initially negative but slopes upwards and eventually becomes positive. That implies that discount rates (time preferences) are negative at first, but then flip around and become normal at some point in the future. So there is one day in the future where value is maximized, and it’s less valuable to get money after that date or before that date.
You think this is mere theory, but this is happening internally to derivatives books even as we speak. The models are implying that money later is worth more than money now, because money now costs money to have. And from the standpoint of bank funding, that is absolutely true.
Another strange implication: in general, stocks that do not pay dividends should trade at lower multiples (relative to the firm’s growth) because, being valued only on some terminal cash flow date (when a dividend is paid or when the company is bought out), they’re worth less. But now it is better for a stock to not pay dividends; those dividends have negative value. Technically speaking, this means that companies which cut their dividends should trade at higher prices after the cut.
I can think of more! Ordinarily, if your child enters college the institution will offer you an incentive to pay four years’ tuition at a reduced rate, up front (or at a frozen rate). But, if interest rates are negative, the college should demand a premium if you want to pay up front. Similarly, car companies should insist that you take out a zero-interest-rate loan or else pay a premium if you feel you must pay cash.
In this topsy-turvy world, it is good to be in debt and bad to have a nest egg.
Neighbors appreciate you borrowing a cup of sugar and frown at you when you return it.
Burglars put off burglaries. Baseball teams sign the worst players to the longest deals. Insurance companies pay out life insurance before you die.
And all thanks to negative interest rate policies from your friendly neighborhood central bank. I will thank them tomorrow, when they’ll appreciate it more.