A persistent phenomenon of the last couple of months has been the rise in inflation expectations, in particular market-based measures. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows that 10-year inflation swap quotes are now above 2% for the first time in over a year and up about 25-30bps since the end of summer.
The same chart shows that inflation expectations remain far below the levels of 2014, 2013, and…well, actually the levels since 2004, with the exception of the crisis. This is obviously not a surprise per se, since I’ve been beating the drum for months, nay quarters, that breakevens are too low and TIPS too cheap relative to nominals. But why is this happening now? I can think of five solid reasons that market-based measures of inflation expectations are rising, and likely will continue to rise for some time.
- Inflation itself is rising. What is really amazing to me – and I’ve written about it before! – is that 10-year inflation expectations can be so low when actual levels of inflation are considerably above 2%. While headline inflation oscillates all the time, thanks to volatile energy (and to a lesser extent, food) markets, the middle of the inflation distribution has been moving steadily higher. Median inflation (see chart, source Bloomberg) is over 2.5%. Core inflation is 2.2%. “Sticky” inflation is 2.6%.
Moreover, as has been exhaustively documented here and elsewhere, these slow-moving measures of persistent inflationary pressures have been rising for more than two years, and have been over the current 2% level of 10-year inflation swaps since 2011. At the same time inflation expectations have been declining. So why are inflation expectations rising? One answer is that investors are now recognizing the likelihood that the inflation dynamic has changed and inflation is not going to abruptly decelerate any time soon.
- It is also worth pointing out, as I did last December in this article, that the inflation markets overreact to energy price movements. Some of this recovery in inflation quotes is just unwinding the overreaction to the energy swoon, now that oil quotes are rising again. To be sure, I don’t think oil prices are going to continue to rise, but all they have to do is to level off and inflation swap quotes (and TIPS breakevens) will continue to recover.
- Inflation tail risk is coming back. This is a little technical, but bear with me. If your best-guess is that inflation over the next 10 years will average 2%, and the distribution of your expectations around that number is normal, then the fair value for the inflation swap is also 2%. But, if the length of the tail of “outliers” is longer to the high side than to the low side, then fair value will be above 2% even though you think 2% is the “most likely” figure. As it turns out, inflation outcomes are not at all normal, and in fact demonstrate long tails to the upside. The chart below is of the distribution of overlapping 1-year inflation rates going back 100 years. You can see the mode of the distribution is between 2%-4%…but there is a significant upper tail as well. The lower tail is constrained – deflation never goes to -12%; if you get deflation it’s a narrow thing. But the upper tail can go very high.
When inflation quotes were very low, it may have partly been because investors saw no chance of an inflationary accident. But it is hard to look at what has been happening to inflation over the last couple of years, and the extraordinary monetary policy actions of the last decade, and not conclude that there is a possibility – even a small possibility – of a long upside tail. As with options valuation, even an improbable event can have an important impact on the price, if the significance of the event is large. And any nonzero probability of double-digit inflation should raise the equilibrium price of inflation quotes.
- The prices that are changing the most right now are highly salient. Inflation expectations are inordinately influenced, as noted above, by the price of energy. This is not only true in the inflation markets, but in forming the expectations of individual consumers. Gasoline, while it is a relatively small part of the consumption basket, has high salience because it is a purchase that is made frequently, and as a purchase unto itself (rather than just one more item in the basket at the supermarket), and its price is in big numbers on every corner. But it is not just gasoline that is moving at the moment. Also having high salience, although it moves much less frequently for most consumers: medical care. No consumer can fail to notice the screams of his fellow consumers when the insurance letter shows up in the mail explaining how the increase in insurance premiums will be 20%, 40%, or more. While I do not believe that an “expectations anchoring” phenomenon is important to inflation dynamics, there are many who do. And those people must be very nervous because the movement of several very salient consumption items is exactly the sort of thing that might unanchor those expectations.
- Inflation markets were too low anyway. When 10-year inflation swaps dipped below 1.50% earlier this year, it was ridiculous. With actual inflation over 2% and rising, someone going short inflation markets at 1.50% had to assess a reasonable probability of an extended period of core-price disinflation taking hold after the first couple of years of inflation over 2%. By our proprietary measure, TIPS this year have persistently been 80-100bps too cheap (see chart, source Enduring Investments). This is a massive amount. The only times TIPS have been cheaper, relative to nominal bonds, were in the early days when institutions were not yet investing in TIPS, and in the teeth of the global financial crisis when one defaulting dealer was forced to blow out of a massive inventory of them. We have never seen TIPS as cheap as this in an environment of at least acceptable liquidity.
So, why did breakevens rally? Among the other reasons, they rallied because they were ridiculously too low. They’re still ridiculously too low, but not quite as ridiculously too low.
What happens next? Well, I look at that list and I see no reason that TIPS shouldn’t continue to outperform nominal bonds for a while since none of those factors looks to be exhauster. That doesn’t mean TIPS will rally – indeed, real yields are ridiculously low and I don’t love TIPS on their own. But, relative to nominal Treasuries (which impound the same real rate expectation), it’s not even a close call.
Some days – well, on days like today, and for the last few days – it seems like there are far too many TIPS. Although energy has slipped only mildly, and (let’s not forget!) core and median inflation are both over 2% and rising, today ten-year breakeven inflation fell to only 1.48%, the lowest level since early March (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The panicky-feeling downtrade is exacerbated by the thin risk budgets on the Street in inflation trading. From an investment standpoint, with inflation over the next few years highly likely to exceed the current breakeven rate (unless energy prices go to zero, or median inflation and wages abruptly reverse their multi-year accelerations), investors who buy TIPS in preference to nominal Treasuries (which is the bet you’re putting on in a breakeven trade, but works from a long-only perspective as well) are likely to outperform unless US inflation comes in below, say, 1.25% for the seven years starting in three years. And even if inflation does come in below that, the underperformance will be slight in comparison to the potential outperformance if inflation rises from its current level. TIPS don’t continue to underperform worse and worse in deflationary outcomes; their principal amounts are guaranteed in nominal terms.
But that doesn’t help at times like these. We have to remember, core inflation has been below 3% for twenty years. There are people in college today who have never seen core inflation with a 3-handle, and a generation of investors who have never had to factor the possibility of higher inflation into their calculations. (See chart, source Bloomberg).
If that seems incredible, then consider that it may be even more incredible to ignore inflation-linked bonds at these levels even if you think inflation will stay low! Core inflation has not been lower than 1.9% compounded, over a ten-year period, since the 1960s. Even trailing 10-year headline inflation, which is currently 1.73% only since Crude Oil is -35% over the last ten years (remember all of the smack talk about how the Fed should stop focusing on core inflation since energy was no longer mean-reverting?), hasn’t been as low at 1.5% for an entire decade since 1964, and hasn’t been below 1.25% since 1942.
But prices at any moment are about supply and demand, and there are about $1.27trillion in TIPS outstanding right now while investors struggle to remember what 3% inflation felt like.
I am here to tell, though, that there is a terrible shortage of TIPS.
So we know the supply number. About $1.25 trillion, and only $310bln is over 10 years in maturity. Not all of that is float, mind you – many of these bonds are held as long-term hedges by investors who know better. We don’t have to add corporate inflation-linked bonds (ILBs), municipal ILBs, or infrastructure-backed ILBs, because the aggregate outstanding of those markets is rounding error.
How about demand? Let’s tick off some of the inflation exposures that exist institutionally, which admittedly completely ignores demand by individual investors (who are also inflation-exposed by nature).
- Total US endowment and foundation assets: ~$1 trillion as of 2013 (latest I have handy)
- Endowments and foundations’ liabilities are almost wholly inflation-sensitive
- Total US pension fund assets: ~$16 trillion
- Most pension funds in the US don’t have COLAs, but they still have large exposures to inflation if they still have employees earning benefits
- Insurance companies: exposure to inflation in 125mm workers’ compensation policies covering $6 trillion in wages, and very long-dated to boot
- Post-employment medical (OPEB) benefits liabilities: $567bln as of 2014, for US states alone (that is, ignoring corporate OPEBs)
- OPEB exposures are completely “real” exposures, as I illustrated some years ago in a paper for a Society of Actuaries Monograph.
I will stop counting here. I didn’t have to look very hard to get inflation-linked liabilities that are a multiple of available ILB supply – and a very large multiple of long-dated ILB float. I am sure someone will complain that I left something out, or have old data, or something…but this isn’t an accounting class: I am just pointing out orders of magnitude. And, by an order of magnitude, there are not enough TIPS to go around if investors decide that inflation is a salient risk.
But if there is already such an imbalance, then why don’t TIPS trade as if there is a shortage? For the answer, we go back to the chart above. The people managing these liabilities (and you may be one!) haven’t had to worry about inflation exposure for a very long time. To the extent that savvy institutional investors buy TIPS, they dislike them because the nominal and real returns are awful. Therefore, they seek to replace these bonds with other real assets which may provide some protection if inflation rises. Among these are commodities – which are also loathed at present – as well as illiquid assets like real estate or private equity.
I have had insurance company risk managers say to me, “we cannot own enough TIPS to matter if inflation rises to a level that would concern us, because the return if inflation does not rise is so horrible. And, in fact, our hedge ratio would probably be above 100%.” I am not sure that is a great excuse to do nothing at all (and we try to help them square that circle) but I present the comment to give some notion of the mindset.
The mindset will change. It will not change overnight, probably, but when inflation exceeds 3% and then starts the assault on 4%, it will change. And then, abruptly, it will all too obvious that a trillion in TIPS doesn’t go as far as you think.
(Interested in what we do? Take a look at Enduring Investments’ Crowdfunder campaign, which is open to accredited investors who are willing to be verified as accredited by a third party verification agent.)
I am sure that in my career I have seen weirder reactions, but when the Durable Goods number came out and plainly was significantly weaker-than-expected and energy rallied I must admit it was hard to think of one.
Presumably the reaction was an indirect one: weaker growth means the Fed is less likely to tighten, which means a lower dollar and hence, higher global demand for oil. But that seems a wild overthink. If there is a recession in the offing, and if we care about demand in oil markets (and I think we should), then weak economic growth from one of the world’s largest economies probably ought to be reflected in lower oil prices.
There is part of me that wants to say “maybe investors have finally realized that any given month of Durable Goods Orders is almost meaningless because the volatility of the number makes it hard to reject any particular null hypothesis.” I haven’t done this recently, but many years ago I discovered that a forecast driven by the mechanical rule of -0.5 times last month’s Durables change had a better forecasting record than Street economists. Flip the sign, divide by two. However, I don’t really think the market suddenly got wise.
I also don’t think it’s that a bunch of people got the API report, which came out at 4:30pm to subscribers only, early. That report supposedly showed a large draw in crude inventories when a build was expected – but I’m not into conspiracy theories. That would be too obvious, anyway.
The perspective of analysts on Bloomberg was that the oil market will “rebalance” this year, a point which isn’t very far from the point I made last week in my article “Don’t Forget Oil Demand Elasticity!” But rebalancing doesn’t mean that prices should go higher. They have, after all, already gone quite a bit off the lows. By our proprietary measure, the real price of oil is at a level which implies a 10-year expected real return of about 1% per annum. In other words, it’s within about 10% of fair value quantitatively; given the immense supply overhang that doesn’t seem to promise lots of upside from these levels.
It isn’t just energy. The Bloomberg Commodity Index is 15% off its January lows (see chart, source Bloomberg). Precious metals, industrial metals, softs, grains, and meats are all above their lows of the last 1-2 quarters.
Unfortunately, much of this is simply a function of the dollar’s retracement. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index (left axis, inverted) against the broad trade-weighted dollar. Heck, arguably commodities are still lagging.
But the winds of change do seem to be about. Last week, the Treasury auctioned 5y TIPS; though this isn’t an event in and of itself, the fact that the auction was strongly bid is certainly unusual. The 5y TIPS are a difficult sell. People who are concerned about inflation are typically looking to protect against the long-term. But TIPS also represent real interest rate risk, and if you think inflation is going to be rising near-term then you probably don’t want to own lots of interest rate risk. Sure, you’ll prefer inflation-linked real rates to nominal rates (see my timely comment from January, “No Strategic Reason to Own Nominal Bonds Now”: since then, 10y real yields have fallen 40bps while 10y nominal yields have fallen 7bps), but if you really think inflation is about to rear its ugly head then you don’t want any real or nominal duration but only inflation duration.
And inflation duration has lately been doing really well. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the marked rebound in the 10-year breakeven inflation rate since February 9th.
I think there’s some evidence that the pendulum of complacency on inflation has begun finally to swing back the other way. Core inflation is rising in Europe, the UK, Japan, and the US, and it was inevitable that someone would notice. Ironically, it took energy’s rally to make people notice (and energy, of course, isn’t in core inflation). But what do I care?
If in fact the pendulum of complacency and concern has finally reversed, then both stocks and bonds are in for a rough ride. Bonds may be marginally protected by a dovish Fed, but that only works as long as the inscrutable Fed stays dovish…or inscrutable.
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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.
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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.
Today I presented our 2016 inflation forecast to the investment committee for a multifamily office, and when I was putting the presentation together I developed one slide that really is a must-see for investors in my opinion.
For some time, TIPS have been too cheap. Really, it has been more than a year that our metrics have shown inflation-linked bonds as not just cheap, but really cheap compared to nominal bonds. I don’t mean that real yields will fall – so this isn’t a statement about whether I am bullish or bearish on fixed-income. Frankly, I am somewhat conflicted on that point at this moment.
Rather, it is a statement about what sort of fixed-income instruments to own, for that part of your portfolio that needs to be in fixed-income. If you are running a diversified portfolio, then you can’t really avoid owning some bonds even if you are bearish on the bond market. For risk-reduction reasons if for no other, it makes sense to own some bonds.
But you don’t have to own fixed-coupon nominal bonds (or, for that matter, floating-coupon nominal bonds which are still exposed to inflation through the principal of the instrument). In fact, right now it is hard for me to imagine betting on nominal bonds for the portion of my portfolio that is in fixed-income.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is the picture:
The chart shows rolling, compounded 10-year inflation rates for as far back as we have reasonable data. And it shows the current level of 10-year inflation “breakevens.” What this means is that if you are long Treasuries, rather than TIPS, you will do better over the next ten years if inflation is below 1.34% and above roughly zero. If we have big deflation, TIPS will do just about as well since they are also principal protected; if we have any inflation over 1.34%, TIPS will do better.
And as the chart points out, since the Fed has been formed we have literally had almost zero 10-year periods in which inflation was in the 0-1.34% zone. Perhaps the 10-year periods ending early in the Great Depression, en route to big deflation, or coming out of the Great Depression heading into WWII. But otherwise, inflation has always been either higher or, in a Fed-screw-up scenario, much lower.
Put another way, it means that if you choose to own nominal bonds instead of inflation-linked bonds for the next 10 years, you are short a straddle on inflation, and you’re not being paid much to be short it. (Technically, you’re short a zero-cost ratio call spread since you don’t lose in deflation, but I’m trying to keep it simple!)
There may be tactical reasons to prefer nominal bonds to inflation-linked bonds. But to me, there is no clear strategic reason to be long nominal bonds for that portion of your portfolio that you intend to keep in fixed-income.
The illiquid trading of December is already well in evidence – and we haven’t even reached the bad part yet. One we are past the CPI report and the Fed meeting, there will be a few days where serious traders are squaring up based on what they now believe after those data points. After that, it will get truly quiet for the last couple of weeks.
A little quiet is what the energy market needs. On Monday front Crude broke to new six-year lows. Not since oil bottomed at $32.40 in December 2008 have prices been this low. Prior to that, the last time we saw sub-$40 oil was in July 2004. Ditto with gasoline prices, which are averaging just a touch above $2/gallon nationwide. This is truly amazing, and is causing all sorts of carnage in energy and energy service companies as has been widely reported.
What is interesting, though, and has been widely unreported has been the impact these recent price declines have had on inflation expectations as impounded in the price of inflation derivatives and TIPS breakevens. In short: not very much.
In prior episodes, such as last year at about this time, plunging energy quotations affected not only near-term inflation expectations but also long-term inflation expectations. The reason that near-term breakevens, or say 1-year inflation swaps, respond to energy prices is very simple: these contracts are pegged to headline inflation, which includes energy; while the market tends to overreact to the energy effect it tends to price fairly efficiency the near-term effect of movements in gasoline on actual inflation outturns.
But it makes very little sense that even very large moves in gasoline prices should be reflected in long-term inflation expectations. This is for two reasons: first, energy prices are mean-reverting, so declining prices in one year are more likely to see appreciating prices the following year (or, at least, big declines tend not to be followed by big declines). Second, even a significant change in energy prices, amortized over ten years for example, ends up not being a very big movement per year when you then also take into account how low the pass-through is from energy prices to inflation swap prices.
A bunch of this is sort of “inside baseball” talk to inflation traders, which I know isn’t my audience for the most part. But you can readily understand, I think, that if gasoline prices drop 50% in one year – and if we don’t expect them to continue to drop 50% in every year – then that’s only around a 5% movement per year in energy prices, averaged over ten years. That’s like saying gasoline prices rise a dime per year for ten years. Do you think that would have, or should have, a big effect on your overall inflation expectations?
In practice, it turns out to affect the market. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the national average gasoline price (in white) from the American Automobile Association versus the 10-year breakeven (that is, the difference in the 10-year Treasury yield minus the 10-year TIPS yield, a number that approximates the inflation required to break even between these two investments). You can see that this is a fairly tight relationship in the grand scheme of things. When gasoline prices fell from $3.60 to $2.00 in 2014-15, breakevens plunged from 2.20% to 1.60%. As I have just pointed out, that’s larger than makes sense but the direction makes sense.
This phenomenon, incidentally, is why we (meaning me, and my company when we are doing analysis) strip out the implied energy effect by using futures quotes, so as to come up with an implied core inflation curve. (And you can actually hedge, so you can create something that looks very much like core inflation rather than headline inflation). By doing this, we can often see when the inflation market is overpricing the energy effect or underpricing it, and indeed this can be traded as part of an institutional investment strategy.
But recently, we haven’t really needed to be so fine with the calculation. Notice on the right side of the chart above that over the last couple of months inflation expectations (breakevens) have risen even as crude and gasoline prices have continued to slide. The chart illustrates how unusual this is. What this means is that expectations for long-term core inflation have been rising – investors are actually looking past the near-term energy washout and saying “we don’t believe this will be sustained, and even if it is we don’t believe that core inflation will average 1.25% for five years.” That’s what was being priced in late October; now that figure is a still low but much more-sensible 1.5%.
Will investors be right? I must say that we have been aggressive in saying that being long at these breakeven levels leaves few ways to lose, at least for investors who can hold through the bumps. And inflation has long upper tails, so that even if you think 1.50% for five years is fair, you should be willing to pay a bit more simply because a miss on the high side is likely to be a worse miss than a miss on the low side.
Sadly, the only way for retail investors to position explicitly for this is through the ETF RINF, which is the Proshares 30y breakeven spread, and the bid/offer is intimidating as is the expense ratio. But it’s something.
What I find fascinating is that this is happening at all. Everyone professes to believe that the Fed is ahead of the curve and will surely squash inflation. But that isn’t how they’re positioning.