Money, Commodities, Balls, and How Much Deflation is Enough?

January 22, 2015 2 comments

Money: How Much Deflation is Enough?

Once again, we see that the cure for all of the world’s ills is quantitative easing. Since there is apparently no downside to QE, it is a shame that we didn’t figure this out earlier. The S&P could have been at 200,000, rather than just 2,000, if only governments and central banks had figured out a century ago that running large deficits, combined with having a central bank purchase large amounts of that debt in the open market, was the key to rallying assets without limit.

That paragraph is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but on a narrow time-scale it really looks like it is true. The Fed pursued quantitative easing with no yet-obvious downside, and stocks blasted off to heights rarely seen before; the Bank of Japan’s QE has added 94% to the Nikkei in the slightly more than two years since Abe was elected; and today’s announcement by the ECB of a full-scale QE program boosted share values by 1-2% from Europe to the United States.

The ECB’s program, to be sure, was above expectations. Rather than the €50bln per month that had been mooted over the last couple of days with little currency-market reaction, the ECB pledged €60bln. And they promised to continue until September 2016, making the total value of QE around €1.1 trillion. (That’s about $1.3 trillion at today’s exchange rate, but of course if it works then it will be much less than $1.3 trillion at the September 2016 exchange rate). To be sure, a central bank always has the prerogative to change its mind, but on the risks of a sudden change in policy please see “Swiss National Bank”. It really is remarkable that Draghi was able to drag the Bundesbank kicking and screaming into this policy choice, and it is certain to end the threat of primary deflation in Europe just as it did in the U.S. and in Japan. It will likely also have similar effects on growth, which is to say “next to nothing.” But in Europe, deflation risks stemming from slow money growth had been a risk (see chart, source Bloomberg).

EUM2

Interestingly, y/y money growth had already been accelerating as of late last year – the ECB releases M2 with a very long lag – but this puts the dot on the exclamation point. The ECB has said “enough!” There will be no core deflation in Europe.

Commodities: How Much Deflation is Enough?

Last week, in “Commodities Re-Thunk” and “Little Update on Commodities Re-Thunk”, I presented the results of using a generalization of the Erb & Harvey approach to forecast expected long-term real returns for commodities. It occurred to me that, since I have previously played with long-term real equity returns, and we have the real yield on 10-year TIPS as well, that it would be interesting to see if using these figures might produce a useful strategy for switching between assets (which doesn’t change the fact that I am a long-term investor; this is still based on long-term values. We merely want to put our assets in whatever offers the best long term value at the moment so as to maximize our expected long-term return).

The answer is yes. Now, I did a more-elegant version of what I am about to show, but the chart below shows the results of switching 100% of your assets between stocks, commodities, and TIPS based on which asset class had the highest expected real yield at a given month-end. Each line is an asset class, except for the blue line which shows the strategy result.

realswitch

The labels at the top show the asset class that dominated for a long period of time. In 2005 there were a couple of quick crossovers that had little impact, but by and large there were three main periods: from 1999-2005, commodities offered excellent expected real returns; from mid-2005 through early-2008 the strategy would have been primarily in TIPS, and subsequent to that the strategy would have been primarily in equities. Fascinating to me is that the overall strategy does so well even though it would have been invested in equities throughout the crash in 2008. The crash in commodities was worse.

Now what is really interesting is that there is a vertical line at the far right-hand side of the chart. That is because at the end of December, the expected real return to commodities finally exceeded that of equities for the first time in a very long time. For this “selling out” strategy, that means you should be entirely out of stocks and TIPS and entirely in commodities.

As I said, that is the coarse version of this approach. My more-elegant version optimized the portfolio to have a constant expected risk in real terms. It was much less risky as a result (10.5% annualized monthly standard deviation compared to 15.5% for the strategy shown above), had lower turnover, but still sported returns over this period of 9.5% compounded compared to 11.2% for the strategy above. I am not, in other words, suggesting that investors put 100% of their assets in commodities. But this method (along with lots of other signals) is now suggesting that it is time to put more into commodities.

Balls: How Much Deflation is Enough?

Being a football fan, I can’t keep from weighing in on one mystery about deflate-gate (incidentally, why do we need to put ‘gate’ on the end of every scandal? It wasn’t Water-gate, it was the Watergate Hotel that proved Nixon’s undoing. “Gate” is not a modifier). Really, this part isn’t such a mystery but I have seen much commentary on this point: “How did the balls get deflated during the game since they were approved before the game?”

The answer is really simple in the real world: the official picked up one of the balls, said “fine”, and put them back in the bag. He has a million things to do before the championship game and in years of refereeing he has probably never found even one ball out of spec. This sort of error happens everywhere there are low reject rates, and it’s why good quality control is very difficult. (Now, if you fired the ref every time a bad ball got through, you damn betcha those balls would be measured with NASA-like precision – which is perhaps a bad metaphor, since similar issues contributed to the Challenger disaster). The real mystery to me is: if the Patriots truly think they are the better team, why would they cheat, even a little? As with the CHF/EUR cross that we discussed yesterday, the downside is far worse than the gain on the upside.

Or, is it? The NFL will have a chance to establish the cost of recidivism in cheating. Maybe the Patriots were simply betting that the downside “tail” to their risky behavior was fairly short. If the NFL wants to put a stop to nickel-and-dime cheats, it can do that by dropping the hammer here.

Swiss Jeez

January 21, 2015 2 comments

The focus over the last few days has clearly been central bank follies. In just the last week:

  1. The Swiss National Bank (SNB) abruptly stopped trying to hold down the Swiss Franc from rising against the Euro; the currency immediately rose 20% against the continental currency (see chart, source Bloomberg). More on this below.

chfeur

  1. The ECB, widely expected to announce the beginnings of QE tomorrow (Jan 22nd), have quietly mooted about the notion of buying approximately €600bln per year, focused on sovereign bonds, and lasting for a minimum of one year. This is greater than most analysts had been expecting, and somewhat open-ended to boot.
  2. The Bank of Canada announced today a surprise cut in interest rates, because of the decline in oil prices. Unlike the U.S., which would see an oil decline as stimulative and therefore something the central bank would be more inclined to lean against, Canada’s exports are significantly more concentrated in oil so they will tend to respond more directly to disinflation caused by oil prices. This explains the very high correlation between oil prices and the Canadian Dollar (see chart below, source Bloomberg).

cadusd

Back to the SNB: the 20% spike in the currency provoked an immediate 14% plunge in the Swiss Market Index, and after a few days of volatility the market there is still flirting with those spike lows. The Swiss economy will shortly be back in deflation; the SNB’s addition of vast amounts of Swiss Francs to the monetary system had in recent months caused core inflation in Switzerland to reach the highest levels since 2011: 0.3% (see chart, source Bloomberg).

swisscpi

The good news for Europe, of course, is that the reversal will cause a small amount of inflation in the Eurozone – although probably not enough to notice, at least the sign is right.

Clearly the SNB had identified that trying to keep the Swissy weak while the ECB was about to add hundreds of billions of Euro to the system was a losing battle. In the long history of central bank FX price controls, we see failures more often than successes, especially when the exchange-rate control is trying to repress a natural trend.

But the point of my article today is not to discuss the SNB move nor the effect of it on local or global inflation. The point of my article is to highlight the fact that the sudden movement in the market has caused several currency brokers (including FXCM, Alpari Ltd., and Global Brokers NZ Ltd.)  to declare insolvency and at least two hedge funds, COMAC Global Macro Fund and Everest Capital’s Global Fund, to close. More to the point, I want to highlight that fact and ask: what in God’s name were they doing?

Let’s review. In order to lose a lot of money in this trade, you need to be short the Swiss Franc against the Euro. Let’s analyze the potential risks and rewards of this trade. The good news is that the SNB is going your way, adding billions of Swissy to the market. The bad news is that if they win, it is likely to be a begrudging movement in the market – the underlying fundamentals, after all, were heavily the other direction which is why the SNB was forced to intervene – and if they lose, as they ultimately did, it is almost certainly going to be a sudden snap in the other direction since the only major seller of Swiss was exiting. Folks, this is like when a commodity market goes limit-bid, because everyone wants to buy at the market’s maximum allowable move and no one wants to sell. When that market is opened for trading again, it is very likely to continue to move in that direction hard. See the chart below (source: Bloomberg) of one of my favorite examples, the early-1993 rally in Lumber futures after a very strong housing number. The market was limit-up for weeks, most of the time without trading. If you were short, you were carried out.

lumber

Of course, there was at least a rationale for being short lumber in early 1993. No one knew that there was about to be a huge housing number. There’s very little rationale to being short Swiss Francs here that I can fathom. This is a classic short-options trade. If you win, you make a tiny amount. If you lose, then you blow up. If you do that with a tiny amount of money, and make lots of small bets that are not only uncorrelated but will be uncorrelated in a crisis (it is unclear how one does this), then it can be a reasonable strategy. But how this is a smart strategy in this case escapes me. And as a broker, I would not allow my margining system to take the incredibly low volatility in the Euro/Swiss cross as a sign that even lower margins are appropriate. VaR here is obviously useless because the distribution of possible returns is not even remotely normal. Again, as a broker I am short options: I might make a tiny amount from customer trading or carry on their cash positions; or I might be left holding the bag when the margin balances held by customers prove to be too little and they walk away.

And I suppose the bottom line is this: you cannot know for certain that your broker or hedge fund manager is being wise about this sort of thing. But you sure as heck need to ask.

Summary (and Extension!) of My Post-CPI Tweets

January 16, 2015 5 comments

Below is a summary and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy:

  • Core CPI unchanged – which is amazing. I can’t wait to see the breakdown on this one.
  • Core 0.003%, taken out one more decimal. I thought y/y had a chance of rising to 1.8%; instead it fell to 1.61%.
  • Last Dec, core was 0.10%, so part of this may be faulty seasonal adjustment. It is December, after all.
  • Core services +2.4%, down from 2.5%. Core goods down to -0.8%, worst since mid-2007.
  • Medical Care Commodities +4.8%! Biggest increase since 1993. Oh ACA, we hardly knew ye.
  • Housing weakened, which isn’t insignificant. Primary rents 3.38% from 3.48%; OER 2.61% from 2.71%.
  • We still think housing is headed higher but that was part of the surprise. Apparel too, -2.0% y/y from -0.3% previous.
  • The apparel move is likely related to dollar strength. Most apparel isn’t made here.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/Bev, Med Care, Rec (28.2%). Decel: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Educ/Comm, Other (71.8%)
  • Decline in apparel prices may be a story. In recent yrs Apparel had been rising after many years of dis/deflation. Weakness in Asia…
  • Apparel y/y decline was largest since 2003.
  • Core ex-housing down to 0.69%. Much lower than crisis lows. That’s where to look if you’re worried about deflation, not the headline.
  • Very interesting core goods. Our three-item proxy is Apparel (-2%), New cars (-0.1%), and Medical Care commodities (+4.8%). Figure THAT out.
  • This CPI is hard to dismiss. Hsng dip is most concerning (think it’s temporary tho), but broadening of decel categories worrisome.
  • Core ex-housing looking really soft. Now, some of that is probably energy sneaking thru…not a prob normally but for BIG moves – maybe.
  • That being said, market is pricing in 1% core for next yr, 1.25% for 2 years, 1.37% for 3 years…so infl market has overshot. A lot.
  • number of categories at least 1 std dev above deflation went from 43% to 20% in one month.
  • Now here’s something to not be worried about yet: our “relative inflation angst” index reached its highest level since 2011. Still low.

This was a wild report, full of interesting items. Let’s start with Apparel. In recent years, I have watched Apparel closely because one of my theses was that the domestic benefit from exporting production to cheap-labor countries was ending. Apparel is a nice clean category that went from normal inflation dynamics when most apparel was produced domestically (prior to 1993), to disinflation/deflation over the years where virtually all production was moved offshore, to normal inflation again once the cost savings on labor had been fully realized and so no longer a source of disinflation (at which time, costs ought to begin to track wage inflation in the exporting country, adjusted for currency moves).

apparel

While it seems that the recent decline should challenge that thesis (and that was my knee-jerk reaction), I think that perhaps it isn’t quite as clear-cut as I thought. In the past I had ignored the effect of foreign exchange movements, since (a) it didn’t matter when we were mostly domestic production and (b) over the last few years currencies have been broadly stable. I think the latest decline in apparel is almost surely related to the dollar’s strength, which unfortunately means that it isn’t as pure a test of my thesis as I had hoped. In any event, apparel is one place (one of few, in the US) where dollar strength manifests clearly in core goods prices, so this is a dollar effect.

The next chart is the chart of Medical Care Commodities (mainly pharmaceuticals). Remember when we had that quaint notion that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was going to permanently reduce inflation in medical care? (Actually, we didn’t all have that quaint notion – in particular, I did not – but it was certainly a view pushed very hard by the Administration). It turns out that the decline in medical care inflation was mostly due to the effects of the sequester on Medicare payments, and now prices seem to be catching up. This is an ugly chart.

medcarecomm

Ex-medical care commodities, however, it doesn’t appear that disinflation in core commodities will be in for much of a respite unless the dollar rally is arrested.

dollarvscorecommod

And now for one of the scariest charts: core inflation ex-shelter is as low as it has been since the early 2000s, when the uptick in housing costs (like now) hid a close scrape with deflation. I think the causes of that deflationary scrape were similar to those of today, if in fact we are going to head that way: too much private debt. Although the higher level of public debt makes the answer more indeterminate, high private debt imparts a disinflationary tendency. The “deleveraging” was supposed to get rid of the disinflationary tendency by moving private debt onto the public balance sheet. It really didn’t happen, except for auto companies and some large financial institutions like Fannie Mae.

corex

The important difference between now and then is that in the early 2000s we had higher rates, higher velocity (which is correlated to rates) and no excess reserves. Today, all the Fed would need to do to arrest this tendency would be to lower the interest on excess reserves to a significant penalty rate and those excess reserves would quickly enter the money supply. Interestingly, a movement the other way – to raise interest rates – will likely also cause inflation to rise as it will raise money velocity. So I am not particularly concerned we will get into deflation even ex-housing. There are lots of ways out of that pickle. I am much more worried about overreaction. Once again, the Fed might have stumbled into the right policy: doing nothing. If you can’t be good…be lucky.

One final remark on our “inflation angst” index (not shown here): the rise in the index, which manifests itself in a perception that inflation is actually higher than reported, is driven by the increasing volatility of index components (such as airfares, gasoline, and apparel) and the increased dispersion of index components (such as apparel and medical care commodities). These both have the impact of making inflation feel higher than it actually is. It is nothing to worry about at these levels of inflation, because “higher than it actually is” still feels low. But if inflation volatility continues to pick up as the level picks up (as it eventually will), then it will feel much worse for consumers than it actually is. That’s not a 2015 story, however.

Keep in mind that the market has already discounted really bad core inflation for a long time. We are very unlikely to get such a bad outcome, unless housing collapses – which it might, since prices are getting back into bubble territory, but I don’t think it’s very likely. As a consequence, even such a bearish inflation report as this one has been followed by a rally in inflation swaps and breakevens. I think this is a wonderful time to be buying inflation. It’s hard to do in the retail market, although the Proshares UINF ETF is a reasonably clean way to be long 10-year breakevens. It is $28.80, and I expect it to be at $36 within 6-9 months. [Disclosure: Neither I nor any entity or fund owned or controlled by me owns this ETF or has any current plans to buy or sell it.] [Additional Disclosure: That would be difficult it seems. While Bloomberg says it has NAV it also seems to have been liquidated. Pity if true. But RINF, a 30-year breakeven, still exists. From $30.57, I would expect $37 over a similar period.]

Little Update on Commodity Re-Thunk

January 13, 2015 4 comments

Reading some of the comments people have posted in various places, I thought it would make sense to spend the time to re-create the projected-index chart in the prior article, but using something approximating GSCI weights. The GSCI is production-weighted, which means it is very heavily energy-linked (I used 2008 weights just because they were the first ones I found: 78% energy, 10% agriculture, 6% industrial metals, 3% meats, 3% precious metals), yet I was comparing its 10-year real return to an equal-weighted “prediction.” How much does this change the picture?

As it happens, quite a bit. Here is the new chart (sourced: Enduring Investments).

GSCIindexproj

Commodities Re-Thunk

January 13, 2015 12 comments

I want to talk about commodities today.

To be sure, I have talked a lot about commodities over the last year. Below I reprise one of the charts I have run in the past (source: Bloomberg), which shows that commodities are incredibly cheap compared to the GDP-adjusted quantity of money. It was a great deal, near all-time lows this last summer…until it started creating new lows.

gdpadjcommod

Such an analysis makes sense. The relative prices of two items are at least somewhat related to their relative scarcities. We will trade a lot of sand for one diamond, because there’s a lot of sand and very few diamonds. But if diamonds suddenly rained down from the sky for some reason, the price of diamonds relative to sand would plummet. We would see this as a decline in the dollar price of diamonds relative to the dollar price of sand, which would presumably be stable, but the dollar in such a case plays only the role of a “unit of account” to compare these two assets. The price of diamonds falls, in dollars, because there are lots more diamonds and no change in the amount of dollars. But if the positions were reversed, and there were lots more dollars, then the price of dollars should fall relative to the price of diamonds. We call that inflation. And that’s the reasoning behind this chart: over a long period of time, nominal commodities prices should grow with as the number of dollars increases.

Obviously, this has sent a poor signal for a while, and I have been looking for some other reasonable way to compute the expected return on commodities.[1] Some time ago, I ran across an article by Erb and Harvey called The Golden Dilemma (I first mentioned it in this article). In it was a terrific chart (their Exhibit 5) which showed that the current real price of gold – simply, gold divided by the CPI price index – is a terrific predictor of the subsequent 10-year real return to gold. That chart is approximately reproduced, albeit updated, below. The data in my case spans 1975-present.

realgoldproj

The vertical line indicates the current price of gold (I’ve normalized the whole series so that the x-axis is in 2015 dollars). And the chart indicates that over the next ten years, you can expect something like a -6% annualized real return to a long-only position in gold. Now, that might happen as a result of heavy inflation that gold doesn’t keep up with, so that the nominal return to gold might still beat other asset classes. But it would seem to indicate that it isn’t a great time to buy gold for the long-term.

This chart was so magnificent and made so much sense – essentially, this is a way to think about the “P/E ratio” for a commodity” that I wondered if it generalized to other commodities. The answer is that it does quite well, although in the case of many commodities we don’t have enough history to fill out a clean curve. No commodities work as well as does gold; I attribute this to the role that gold has historically played in investors’ minds as an inflation hedge. But for example, look at Wheat (I am using data 1970-present).

realwheatproj

There is lots of data on agricultural commodities, because we’ve been trading them lots longer. By contrast, Comex Copper only goes back to 1988 or so:

realcopperproj

Copper arguably is still somewhat expensive, although over the next ten years we will probably see the lower-right portion of this chart fill in (since we have traded higher prices, but only within the last ten years so we can’t plot the subsequent return).

Now the one I know you’re waiting for: Crude oil. It’s much sloppier (this is 1983-present, by the way), but encouraging in that it suggests from these prices crude oil ought to at least keep up with inflation over the next decade. But do you know anyone who is playing oil for the next decade?

realcrudeproj

For the sake of space, here is a table of 27 tradable commodities and the best-fit projection for their next 10 years of real returns. Note that most of these fit a logarithmic curve pretty reasonably; Gold is rather the exception in that the historical record is more convex (better expectation from these levels than a pure fit would indicate; see above).

tableofproj

I thought it was worth looking at in aggregate, so the chart below shows the average projected returns (calculated using only the data available at each point) versus the actual subsequent real returns of the S&P GSCI Excess Return index which measures only the return of the front futures contract.

realindexproj

The fit is probably better in reality, because the actual returns are the actual returns of the commodities which were in the index at the time, which kept changing. At the beginning of our series, for example, I am projecting returns for 20 commodities but the 10-year return compares an index that has 20 commodities in 1998 to one that has 26 in 2008. Also, I simply equal-weighted the index while the S&P GSCI is production-weighted. And so on. But the salient point is that investing in spot commodities has been basically not pretty for a while, with negative expected real returns for the spot commodities (again, note that investing in commodity indices adds a collateral return plus an estimate 3-4% rebalancing return over time to these spot returns).

Commodities are, no surprise, cheaper than they have been in a long while. But what is somewhat surprising is that, compared to the first chart in this article, commodities don’t look nearly as cheap. What does that mean?

The first chart in this article compares commodities to the quantity of money; the subsequent charts compare commodities to the price level. In short, the quantity of money is much higher than has historically been consistent with this price level. This makes commodities divided by M2 look much better than commodities divided by the price level. But it merely circles back to what we already knew – that monetary velocity is very low. If money velocity were to return to historical norms, then both of these sets of charts would show a similar story with respect to valuation. The price level would be higher, making the real price of commodities even lower unless they adjusted upwards as well. (This is, in fact, what I expect will eventually happen).

So which method would I tend to favor, to consider relative value in commodities? Probably the one I have detailed here. There is one less step involved. If it turns out that velocity reverts higher, then it is likely that commodities real returns will be better than projected by this method; but this approach ignores that question.

Even so, a projected real return now of -2% to spot commodities, plus a collateral return equal to about 1.9% (the 10-year note rate) and a rebalancing return of 3-4% produces an expected real return of 2.9%-3.9% over the next decade. This is low, and lower than I have been using as my assumption for a while, but it is far higher than the expected real returns available in equities of around 1.2% annualized, and it has upside risk if money velocity does in fact mean-revert.

I will add one final point. This column is never meant to be a “timing” column. I am a value guy, which means I am always seen to be wrong at the time (and often reviled, which goes with the territory of being a contrarian). This says absolutely nothing about what the returns to commodities will be over the next month and very little about returns over the next year. But this analysis is useful for comparing other asset classes on similar long-term horizons, and for using useful projections of expected real returns in asset allocation exercises.

[1] In what follows, I will focus on the expected return to individual spot commodities. But remember that an important part of the expected return to commodity indices is in rebalancing and collateral return. Physical commodities should have a zero (or less) real return over time, but commodity indices still have a significantly positive return.

Winter is Coming … But Not Here, Not Yet

January 12, 2015 5 comments

We began 2014 with the perspective that the economy was limping along, barely surviving. A recession looked possible simply because the expansion was long in the tooth, but there weren’t any signs of it yet. Equity markets were priced for robust growth, which was clearly not likely to happen, but commodities and fixed-income markets were priced for disaster which was also not likely to happen. The investing risks were clearly tilted against stocks and bonds, given starting valuations, but although the economic landscape appeared weak it was not horrible.

Beginning 2015, the economic news is much better – at least, domestically. Unemployment is back to near levels associated with mid-cycle expansions, although there are still far too many people not in the workforce and a still-disturbing number of people who say they “want a job now” and would take one if offered (see chart, source Bloomberg).

wannajob

More encouraging still, commercial bank credit growth is back to near 8% y/y, which is consistent with the booms of the past 30 years (see chart, source FRB). And this number excludes peer-to-peer lending and other sorts of credit growth that occur outside of the commercial bank framework, which is likely additive on a multi-year time frame.

cbc

The dollar is up and commodities are down, both of which are good for the US economy generally although bad for some groups of course (notably the oil patch). But the US is a net consumer of commodities, so commodity bear markets are good for US growth.

Outside of the US, though, things are looking decidedly worse. Although European core inflation recently surprised on the high side, it is still only at 0.8% and with GrExit a real possibility it is very hard to get bullish economically on the continent. China’s growth is softening. Emerging markets are not behaving well, especially the dollarized economies.

This recent development of the US as an island of relative tranquility in a sea of disquiet is interesting to me. Why are interest rates in the US so low, given that our economy is growing? 30-year interest rates at 2.5% and 10-year rates at 1.90%, with core inflation at 1.7% (and median inflation, as I like to point out because it isn’t influenced by outliers, at 2.3%) seems dissonant as the economy grows at 2.5%-3% and inflation in the US seems reasonably floored in the long run at 1.5%-2.0% as long as the Fed is credible.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but I think the causes are new. Over the last five years, nominal interest rates were lower than they ought otherwise have been because the Fed was buying trillions of Treasuries and squeezing investors who needed to own fixed income. But the Fed is no longer buying and the Treasury is still issuing them. So I believe the causes of low interest rates now are different than the causes were over the last half-decade. Specifically, the causes of low interest rates in the last five years were sluggish global growth and extensive central bank QE; the causes currently are flight-to-quality related.

It seems weird to talk about a “flight to quality” in US bonds without stocks also plunging. But we have an analog for this period. Here is where I depart totally into intuition, which is in this case driven by experience. This period of interest rates declining while growth rises, as the economy continues a rebound after a long recession, with commodities declining and stocks rising, feels to me like late 1997. It feels like “Asian Contagion.”

Back in 1997, there was a lot of concern about how the Asian financial crisis would spill into US markets. Rates dropped (100bps in the 10y between July 1, 1997 and January 12, 1998), commodities dropped (the index now known as the Bloomberg Commodity Index fell 25% between October 1997 and June 1998), the S&P rallied (+23% from November 1997-April 1998), and GDP growth printed 5.2%, 3.1%, 4.0%, and 3.9% from 1997Q3 to 1998Q3. Meanwhile, Asian markets and economies were all but collapsing.

There was much fear at the time about the impact that the Asian Contagion would have on the US, but this country never caught a cold partly because (a) interest rates were depressed by the flight-to-quality and (b) declining commodities, especially energy, are bullish for US growth overall. We did not, of course, escape unscathed – later in 1998, a certain large hedge fund (which was small compared to some hedge funds today) threatened to cause large losses at some money center banks, and the Fed stepped in to save the day. That was a painful period in the equity market, but the effect from the Asian crisis was indirect rather than direct.

The parallels aren’t perfect; for one thing, bond yields are much lower and equity multiples much higher than their equivalents of the time, and commodities had already fallen very far before the recent slide. I would be reluctant to expect another hundred basis point rally in bonds and another large rally in stocks from these levels, although 1997-1999 saw these things. But history doesn’t repeat – it rhymes. I seem to hear this rhyme today.

Why does it matter? I think it matters because if I am right it means we are witnessing the end of long-term crisis-related markets, but they are masked by the arrival of short-term crisis-related markets. This means the unwind that we would have expected from the Fed’s ending of the purchase program – a slow return to normalcy – might instead end up looking like the unwind that we can get from short-term flight-to-quality crisis flows, which can be much more rapid. Again, this is all speculation and intuition, and I present no proof that I am right. I am merely proposing this speculation for my readers’ consumption and consideration.

Call Off the Deflation Warning

January 7, 2015 9 comments

Today’s column is a brief one, as I need to post a correction. Not a correction to my stuff, mind you, but to others.

Pictures like the below have been circulating now for a couple of weeks. This is a chart of the 2-year inflation “breakeven” on Bloomberg, illustrating how a “deflation warning” is sounding as they go negative.

bad2y

Unfortunately, it ain’t so. I wrote to the authors of the original Bloomberg piece referenced above, and called Bloomberg (more on that later), and figured that when I pointed out that 2-year inflation expectations are nowhere near zero, the story would at least die quietly even if pride prevented a retraction. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and other “analysts” and news outlets have picked up the story. So, I need to print a correction for them. Unconventional, I know, but I stand for Truth.

The simple fact is that 2-year inflation expectations have fallen deeply, but remain well above zero. The chart below, also from Bloomberg, shows 2-year inflation swaps over the same period. You will notice that it has fallen mightily but remains at about 0.70%.

2yinflswap

It turns out that the difference between the Jan-17 TIPS (which have 2 years to maturity) and the Jan-17 nominal Treasuries that are their comparator bond – taking the difference between real and nominal rates gives you the “breakeven” inflation rate that makes them equivalent investments; thus the name – is also about 0.70%.

So why does Bloomberg say the 2-year breakeven is negative? Well, Bloomberg’s “policy” is to track the April-2016 TIPS as the “2-year” TIPS until the new April-2020 TIPS are auctioned in April At that time, they will roll to using the April-2017 TIPS, which will have two years to maturity, and will use that bond for a year. While I applaud Bloomberg for having a policy, that’s no excuse for a stupid policy. There is no place in this universe where the April-16s are a 2-year note. Not even close. And not the “best we can do.”

In truth, especially for short-dated inflation expectations there is no reason not to use inflation swaps. The 2-year inflation swap is evergreen each day with a new 2-year maturity, and there are no idiosyncrasies (such as the fact that the April issues often trade cheap because of the bad seasonality associated with them, so they will usually understate true inflation expectations if you use them) to worry about.

So the story is false. The market is not discounting two years of deflation. Indeed, the reality is quite a bit different. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments – we know stuff like this) shows the 1-year inflation rate, starting 1 year from now (the 1y1y or 1×2 if you like), derived from CPI swaps. While it has come down substantially since the summer, it is not particularly out of line. In fact, it’s pretty much right where core inflation is, which makes sense: the energy spike lower is not going to continue year after year, which means that once it stops then headline inflation will return to the neighborhood of core…unless there’s a rebound in gasoline, of course. But the point is that the best guess of inflation one year from now has little to do with gasoline.

1y1yswapActually, the even-deeper point is that it is appalling how little general knowledge there is about inflation, and how journalists and even many analysts have scant idea how to get to the real story. (Hint: calling an inflation expert is a good start.)

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