Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Why We’re Wrong About Restaurants

Figuring out the macro impact of the virus, while not easy, is in some ways easier than figuring out a lot of the micro. In some cases the impact seems pretty obvious, and probably is: airlines are likely to carry fewer passengers, and more of them will be business travelers, for a while (resulting, by the way, in higher airfares in CPI). But some of the effects are much harder to figure out than we think, and a lot of it comes down to the fact that people who are idly speculating about these things tend to be pretty poor about defining what the substitutes are for any product or service.

Actually, the question of ‘what is a substitute’ turns out to be hugely important in economic modeling, because it directly impacts the question of demand elasticity. If I am the only person who sells widgets, and you need a widget, then I probably have a lot of control over what you pay. But if someone else sells something that works about as well as a widget (but isn’t a Widget™), then I as the supplier likely have a lot less flexibility and I face a more elastic demand curve. This is one reason that salespeople are taught to remember that the customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill bit; they want a quarter-inch hole. In a more formal setting: it is enormously important in antitrust economics that the market is defined clearly when considering if a firm is monopolizing or attempting to monopolize[1], so much so that there is an index called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index with which industry concentration can be expressed. But I digress.

We read that many restaurants will fail as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, because quite aside from the question of the financial damage done to the restaurant owner from a two-month hiatus in revenues there is the question of “will people even come back?” And, if people do come back, but the restaurant-owner can only fit half as many people in the restaurant due to social distancing, then many restaurants can’t survive. Right?

So we are told, but there are a ton of assumptions there and some of them don’t hold. One of the biggest assumption is the question of what consumers use as a substitute for restaurant meals. With airlines, there is a clear substitute for the vacation traveler and that’s the automobile. Moreover, a vacation is not a necessity per se. But everyone needs to eat, so we can say with some confidence that if the average American ate 2.5 meals per day before the crisis they will probably eat 2.5 meals per day after the crisis. Somehow, they need to get those meals. If they are not going to restaurants for some of those meals, what are the alternatives? The argument that restaurants will fail hinges partly on the idea that these alternatives are convenient enough and enough competition for restaurant meals that consumers will eschew eating out and so restaurants won’t be able to sell their product. But will they? The alternatives to a restaurant meal are (a) a meal cooked at home or (b) a meal delivered. Many restaurants might fail for financial reasons, but that happens all the time in the food preparation biz. The question is whether the total number of restaurants in the country will be dramatically lower in the post-virus world. If so, it means that people are choosing en masse to make a significantly higher percentage of their meals at home. Anyone reading this who is doing a lot of their own cooking these days will realize why that’s probably not a tenable outcome as long as we continue to need two incomes in most families! Some, surely, will cook more. But when this is over, I suspect that meals not prepared at home will be a similar portion of our diets as it was before.

“Meals not prepared at home” includes both restaurant meals and delivery meals. Since the total number of meals consumed will be roughly the same, I think we’ll see a bit more home-cookin’ and a lot more delivery. It will be the restaurants, even those that did not previously deliver, cooking those meals. Maybe more delivery-only restaurants will start up. But I really think that we will see almost as many restaurants a year from now as we do now.

A separate question is what happens to the price of a meal-not-cooked-at-home, and it seems to me that the answer must be that it goes a lot higher. A delivered meal requires more manpower (for delivery), especially if delivery is going to be efficient at all. And in-restaurant meals (for those dinners, like your anniversary dinner, for which there are no good substitutes) are going to be higher-priced both because the demand curve will be more inelastic in the same way that the demand curve for business air passengers is more inelastic, and because the supply will be constrained. But my point is that if the restaurant used to plate 100 meals per hour, they’ll still plate pretty close to 100 meals per hour. It’s just that 50 of those meals will be going out the door.

Is there a substitute for movie theaters? Absolutely, and it was already winning. Good-bye movie theaters (although I have seen something about drive-ins making a comeback). A substitute for sports venues? Not so much, so I think we’ll see some innovation about how we safely attend such events but we haven’t seen the last of major league baseball at Citi Field or rugby at Twickenham. I think that international visitors to Disney World will probably decline, but domestic visitors will probably increase, as Disney for the latter is a substitute for an island vacation. But those islands that depend on tourism – there will be some pain there as there aren’t many convenient ways to get to Martinique that don’t involve flying.

But while I’m sure some restaurants will close because they cannot figure out delivery or because their product doesn’t translate well to delivery (see this story about a high-end restaurant that is facing this dilemma), I think consumption of meals-not-cooked-at-home will ensure that we will have a similar number of restaurants in the future. The broader point is this: be careful when you’re thinking about the damage that certain businesses will experience. Be sure to think about what the market for the good or service is, and what the relevant competitors are. Again, this doesn’t mean that existing companies will always survive, but if you know that the market for (for example) automobiles is still going to be there then there will be companies that serve that market. If they are different companies than today’s companies, that’s just creative destruction and it isn’t a bad thing for the consumer. (And, personal pitch: if you or your company needs help navigating these waters, visit our new website at and drop me a line.)

[1] See Tasty Baking Company and Tastykake, Inc. v. Ralston Purina, Inc. and Continental Banking Co. (1987) in which the plaintiffs argued that the relevant market was premium snack cakes and pies and defendants argued that their products competed in the market for ‘all sweet snacks,’ because obviously their combination was less dominant if there were lots of substitutes.

Categories: Economics, Economy, Virus

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: 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 14 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.

How Not to Do Income-Disparity Statistics

June 10, 2019 4 comments

I am a statistics snob. It unfortunately means that I end up sounding like a cynic most of the time, because I am naturally skeptical about every statistic I hear. One gets used to the fact that most stats you see are poorly measured, poorly presented, poorly collected, or poorly contexted. I actually play a game with my kids (because I want them to be shunned as sad, cynical people as well) that I call “what could be wrong with that statistic.” In this game, they have to come up with reasons that the claimed implication of some statistic is misleading because of some detail that the person showing the chart hasn’t mentioned (not necessarily nefariously; most users of statistics simply don’t understand).

But mostly, bad statistics are harmless. I have it on good authority that 85% of all statistics are made up, including that one, and another 12.223% are presented with false precision, including that one. As a result, the only statistic that anyone believes completely is the one they are citing themselves. So, normally, I just roll my eyes and move on.

Some statistics, though, because they are widely distributed or widely re-distributed and have dramatic implications and are associated with a draconian prescription for action, deserve special scrutiny. I saw one of these recently, and it is reproduced below (original source is Ray Dalio, who really ought to know better, although I got it from John Mauldin’s Thoughts from the Frontline).

Now, Mr. Dalio is not the first person to lament how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, or some version of the socialist lament. Thomas Piketty wrote an entire book based on bad statistics and baseless assertions, after all. I don’t have time to tackle an entire book, and anyway such a work automatically attracts its own swarm of critics. But Mr. Dalio is widely respected/feared, and as such a simple chart from him carries the anti-capitalist message a lot further.[1]

I quickly identified at least four problems with this chart. One of them is just persnickety: the axis obviously should be in log scale, since we care about the percentage deviation and not the dollar deviation. But that is relatively minor. Here are three others:

  1. I suspect that over the time frame covered by this chart, the average age of the people in the top group has increased relative to the average age of the people in the bottom group. In any income distribution, the top end tends to be more populated with older people than the bottom end, since younger people tend to start out being lower-paid. Ergo, the bottom rung consists of both young people, and of older people who haven’t advanced, while the top rung is mostly older people who have Since society as a whole is older now than it was in the 1970s, it is likely that the average age of the top earners has risen by more than the average age of the bottom earners. But that means the comparison has changed since the people at the top now have more time to earn, relative to the bottom rung, than they did before. Dalio lessens this effect a little bit by choosing 35-to-64-year-olds, so new graduates are not in the mix, but the point is valid.
  2. If your point is that the super-wealthy are even more super-wealthier than they were before, that the CEO makes a bigger multiple of the line worker’s salary than before, then the 40th percentile versus 60th percentile would be a bad way to measure it. So I assume that is not Dalio’s point but rather than there is generally greater dispersion to real earnings than there was before. If that is the argument, then you don’t really want the 40th versus the 60th percentile either. You want the bottom 40% versus the top 40 percent except for the top 1%. That’s because the bottom of the distribution is bounded by zero (actually by something above zero since this chart only shows “earners”) and the top of the chart has no bound. As a result, the upper end can be significantly impacted by the length of the upper tail. So if the top 1%, which used to be centi-millionaires, are now centi-billionaires, that will make the entire top 40% line move higher…which isn’t fair if the argument is that the top group (but not the tippy-top group, which we all agree are in a category by themselves) is improving its lot more than the bottom group. As with point 1., this will tend to exaggerate the spread. I don’t know how much, but I know the direction.
  3. This one is the most insidious because it will occur to almost nobody except for an inflation geek. The chart shows “real household income,” which is nominal income (in current dollars) deflated by a price index (presumably CPI). Here is the issue: is it fair to use the same price index to deflate the incomes of the top 40% as we use to deflate the income of the bottom 40%? I would argue that it isn’t, because they have different consumption baskets (and more and more different, as you go higher and higher up the income ladder). If the folks at the top are making more money, but their cost of living is also going up faster, then using the average cost of living increase to deflate both baskets will exaggerate how much better the high-earners are doing than the low-earners. This is potentially a very large effect over this long a time frame. Consider just two categories: food, and shelter. The weights in the CPI tell us that on average, Americans spend about 13% of their income on food and 33% on shelter (these percentages of course shift over time; these are current weights). I suspect that very low earners spend a higher proportion of their budget on food than 13%…probably also more than 33% on shelter, but I suspect that their expenditures are more heavily-weighted towards food than 1:3. But food prices in real terms (deflated by the CPI) are basically unchanged over the last 50 years, while real shelter prices are up about 37%. So, if I am right about the relative expenditure weights of low-earners compared to high-earners, the ‘high-earner’ food/shelter consumption basket has risen by more than the ‘low-earner’ food/shelter consumption basket. Moreover, I think that there are a lot of categories that low-earners essentially consume zero of, or very small amounts of, which have risen in price substantially. Tuition springs to mind. Below I show a chart of CPI-Food, CPI-Shelter, and CPI-College Tuition and Fees, deflated by the general CPI in each case.

The point being that if you look only at incomes, then you are getting an impression from Dalio’s chart – even if my objection #1 and #2 are unimportant – that the lifestyles of the top 40% are improving by lots more than the lifestyles of the bottom 40%. But there is an implicit assumption that these two groups consume the same things, or that the prices of their relative lifestyles are changing similarly. I think that would be a hard argument. What should happen to this chart, then, is that each of these lines should be deflated by a price index appropriate to that group. We would find that the lines, again, would be closer together.

None of these objections means that there isn’t a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our country. My point is simply that the disparity, and moreover the change in the disparity, is almost certainly less than it is generally purported to be with the weakly-assembled statistics we are presented with.

[1] Mr. Mauldin gamely tried to object, but the best he could do was say that capitalists aren’t good at figuring out how to share the wealth. Of course, this isn’t a function of capitalists. The people who decide how to distribute the wealth in capitalism are the consumers, who vote with their dollars. Bill Gates is not uber-rich because he decided to keep hundreds of billions of dollars away from the huddling masses; he is uber-rich because consumers decided to pay hundreds of billions of dollars for what he provided.

Categories: Economics, Politics, Rant, Theory

Spinning Economic Stories

January 4, 2019 5 comments

As economists[1] we do two sorts of things. We do quantitative work, and we tell stories.

One of the problems with economics is that we aren’t particularly regimented about how we convert data into stories and about how we look at stories to decide how to interrogate the data. So what tends to happen is that we have a phenomenon and then we look at what story we like and decide if that’s a reasonable way to explain the data…without asking if there isn’t a more reasonable way to explain the data, or at least another way that’s equally consistent with the data. I’m not saying that everyone does this, just that it’s disturbingly common especially among people being paid to be storytellers and for whom a good story is really important.

So for example, there is a well -known phenomenon that inflation tends to accelerate after the Fed begins raising interest rates.[2] Purporting to explain this phenomenon, here is a popular story that the Fed is just really smart, so they’re ahead of inflation, and when they seeing it moving up just a little bit they can jump on it real quick and get ahead of it and so inflation goes up…but the apparent causality is there because we just knew it was going to go up and acted before the observation of the higher inflation happened. This is basically Keynesian theory combined with “brilliant person” theory.

There is another theory that is consistent with this, of course: monetarism, which explains that increasing interest rates actually causes inflation to move higher, by causing velocity to increase. But, because this isn’t the popular story, this doesn’t get matched up to the data very frequently. In my mind it’s a better theory, because it doesn’t require us to believe that the Fed is super brilliant to make it work. (And, not to get snarky, but the countervailing evidence versus Fed staff economist genius is pretty mountainous). Of course, economists – and the Fed economists in particular – like theories that make them look like geniuses, so they prefer the prior explanation.

But again, as economists we don’t have a good and rigorous way to say that one way is the ‘preferred’ story or to look at other stories that are consistent with our data. We tend to look at what part of the data supports our story – in other words, confirmation bias.

Why this is relevant now is that the Fed is in fact tightening and inflation is in fact heading higher, and the story being pushed by the Fed and some economists is “good thing the Fed is tightening, because it looks like inflation was going up!” The story on the other hand that I have been telling for quite some time (and which I write about in my book) is that it’s partly because the Fed is tightening and interest rates are going up that that inflation is rising, in a feedback loop that is missed in our popular stories. The important part is the next chapter in the story. In the “Fed is getting ahead of it” story, inflation comes down and the Fed is able to stop tightening, achieving a soft landing. In the “rate increase is causing velocity to rise and inflation to rise” story, the Fed keeps chasing the dog which is only running because the Fed is chasing it.

There is another alternative, which really excites the stock market as evidenced by today’s massive – although disturbingly low-volume – rally. That story is that the Fed is going to become more “data dependent” (Chairman Powell suggested something along these lines today), which is great because the Fed has already won on inflation and growth is still okay. So the Fed can stop the autopilot rate hikes. This story unfortunately does require a little suspension of disbelief. For one thing, today’s strong Employment report (Payrolls 370k, including revisions, compared to 184k expectations) is unfortunately a December figure which means it has huge error bars. Moreover, the Unemployment Rate rose to 3.9% from 3.7%, and while a higher Unemployment Rate doesn’t mean the economy is definitely slowing (it could just be that more people are looking for jobs because the job market is so robust – another fun story), it is certainly more consistent with the notion that the economy is slowing at the margin. The fact that the Unemployment Rate went up, while Hourly Earnings rose more than expected and Jobs rose more than expected, should make you suspect that year-end quirkiness might have something to do with the figures. For the decades I’ve watched economic data, I always advise ignoring the January and February Employment Reports since the December/January changes in payroll are so large that the noise swamps the signal. But professional storytellers aren’t really content to say “this doesn’t really mean anything,” even if that’s the quantitative reality. They get paid to spin yarns, so spin yarns they do.

Yeah, about those wages: I’m not really sure why economists were expecting hourly earnings to decelerate this month. All of the anecdotal data, along with other wage measures, are suggesting that wages are rising apace (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker vs AHE). Not really a surprise, even given its compositional challenges, that AHE is also rising.

The thing about all of these stories is that while they can’t change the actual reality, they can change how reality is priced. This is one of the reasons that we get bubbles. The stories are so powerful that trading against them, with a ‘value’ mindset for example, is quixotic. Ultimately, in the long run, the value of the equity market is limited by fundamentals. But in the short run, it is virtually unlimited because of valuation multiples (price as a speculative multiple of fundamental earnings, e.g.) and those valuation multiples are driven by stories. And that’s a big reason that bullish stories are so popular.

But consider this bearish footnote on today’s 3.4% S&P rally: volume in the S&P constituents today was lower than the volume was on December 26! To be fair, the volume yesterday, when the S&P declined 2.5%, was even a bit lower than today’s volume. It’s typical thin and whippy first-week-of-the-year trading. Let’s see what next week brings.

[1] People occasionally ask me why I didn’t go on for my MA or PhD in Economics. I reply that it’s because I learned my Intermediate Microeconomics very well: I stopped going for a higher degree when the marginal costs outweighed the marginal benefits. When you look at it that way, it makes you wonder whether the PhD economists aren’t just the bad students who didn’t absorb that lesson.

[2] It’s referred to as the “price puzzle”; see Martin Eichenbaum, “Interpreting Macroeconomic Time Series Facts: The Effects of Monetary Policy: Comments.” European Economic Review, June 1992. And Michael Hanson, “The ‘Price Puzzle’ Reconsidered,” Journal of Monetary Economics, October 2004.

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.

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.

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.”

The Mystery of Why There’s A Mystery

October 10, 2017 Leave a comment

We have an interesting week ahead, at least for an inflation guy.

Of course, the CPI statistics (released this Friday) are always interesting but with all of the chatter about the “mystery” of inflation, it should draw more than the usual level of attention. That’s especially true since the mystery will cease to be a mystery fairly soon as even flawed indicators of inflation’s central tendency, such as the core CPI, turn back higher. This is not particularly good news for many pundits, who have declared the mystery to be solved with some explanation that implies inflation will stay low.

  • “Amazon effect”
  • Globalization
  • “competition”
  • Etc

The first of these I have addressed previously back in June (“The Internet Has Not Killed, and Will Not Kill, Inflation”). The second is a real effect, but it is a real effect whose effect peaked in the early 1990s and has been waning since then. I wrote something in our quarterly in Q4 last year, which is partly summarized here.

The “competition” objection is a weird one. It seems to posit that competition was pretty lame until recently, which is pretty strange. One argument along these lines is in this article by Steve Wunsch, who considers the increase in airline fees “stark evidence of a deflationary spiral in those ticket prices caused by antitrust-induced competition.” This is odd, since airlines were deregulated in 1978 and have in recent years become less competitive if anything with the mergers of Delta/Northwest in 2009, United/Continental in 2010, Southwest/AirTran in 2011, and US Airways/American Airlines in 2013. A flaccid antitrust response from the Justice Department has allowed quasi-monopolies to develop in some travel hubs, which has tended to push fares higher rather than lower. The chart below shows the relationship between Jet Fuel prices and the CPI for airfares (both seasonally adjusted) for the 20 years ended in 2014, along with the most-recent point from last month.

The highly-explanatory R-squared of 0.81 suggests that there is not much wiggle room in airline pricing. Airfares are, as you would expect under a competitive industry, roughly cost-plus with the main source of variance being jet fuel prices. This is true even though we would expect that spread to vary over time. As Mr. Wunsch would argue, the highly competitive nature of the industry is holding down the non-commodity price pressures in airfares.

The only problem is that if you extend this graph to include the last three years, the R-squared drops about 10 points:

In case it isn’t clear from that chart, the last three years have seen airfares increasingly above what we would expect from the level of jet fuel prices. The next chart makes that clear I hope by plotting the residual (and 12-month moving average to smooth out seasonal issues such as one that evidently happened last month) between the actual CPI-airfare and the level that would be predicted from the 1994-2014 relationship. As you can see, prices have been higher, and increasingly so, than we would have thought, until this last month or two – and I wouldn’t grab a lot of comfort from that yet.

Not only is this not “stark evidence of a deflationary spiral in those ticket prices caused by antitrust-induced competition,” it seems to be stark evidence of inflation in ticket prices caused by a reduction in competition thanks to airline mergers.

In reading these many articles, it always is somewhat striking to me: everybody thinks their answer is “the” answer to the mystery. But most of these authors really don’t sufficiently understand how inflation works, and what the data is showing. This is apparent to those who do understand these nuances, as an author might discuss (as the one mentioned above did) an “aberration” in cell phone inflation as if the experts are stupid for expecting inflation when cell phone services only go down. The author clearly misunderstands what the “aberration” referred to even is; in this case the aberration was an enormous one-month collapse in prices that had never been seen and has not been repeated since. (For those who are curious about the aberration, and why it occurred, and why it is likely a methodology issue rather than sign of spiraling deflation in wireless services you can see my discussion of it here.)

The mystery is simple – the Fed’s models don’t work, and don’t take into account the fact that lower interest rates cause lower money velocity. They rely on a Phillips Curve effect that they think is broken because they don’t understand that the Phillips Curve relates wages and unemployment, not consumer prices and unemployment. They focus on a flawed measure like PCE rather than on something like Median CPI which, coincidentally, is a lot higher and suggests more price pressures. The mystery isn’t why inflation isn’t rising yet – the mystery is why they think there’s a mystery.

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