As I have mentioned, I have been hard at work on my book and am approaching completion of the raw manuscript. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com. Even better, you can pre-order it already, even though it’s not due out until later this year or early next year.
Yesterday, I finished up the draft of the second section, which is the “where are we now” section (there are three sections in total, and I am part-way through the “investing” section). I really enjoyed writing the following section and I think the charts are fun. So I thought I would include a snippet of Chapter 9 here for you:
If a length of steel is flexed, it is impossible to know exactly when it will fail. We can, however, figure out when that critical point is approaching, and estimate the probabilities of structural failure for a given load. These are just probabilities, and of course such an estimate depends on our knowledge of the structural properties of the piece of steel.
With economies and financial markets, the science has not yet advanced enough for us to say that we know the “structural properties” of economies and markets. And yet, we can measure the stress markets are under by measuring departures from normalcy and make observations about the degree of risk.
Didier Sornette wrote a book in 2003 called Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems.[i] It is a terrific read for anyone interested in studying these questions and exploring the developing science of critical points in financial markets. His work goes a long way towards explaining why it is so easy to identify a bubble and yet so hard to predict the timing of its demise.
So in that spirit, let us look at a few pictures that illuminate the degree of “departures from normalcy” in which economies and markets currently are. Figure 9.6 shows the nice relationship between the increase in GDP-adjusted money supply (M/Q from Figure 3.1) and the increase in the price level (P) over the nice, regular, period between 1962 and 1992. I’ve added to this plot a dot representing the latest ten year period, and (for fun) a dot representing the ten years ending in the heat of the stock market bubble in 1999. Do we appear to be out of normalcy?
Figure 9.6: Compounded money growth versus compounded inflation, 10-year periods
Figure 9.7 shows the relationship between stocks and spot commodity prices, as represented by the S&P 500 and the Bloomberg Commodity Index. The curve is from 1991 to 2007, excluding the period around the equity bubble (1998-2002). The two dots show the current point, and the point from December 1999. Do we appear out of normalcy?
Figure 9.7: Stocks versus spot commodity prices
Let’s try one more. Figure 9.8 shows the same commodity index, but this time against the money supply. It makes sense that spot commodity over time should move more or less in relation to the aggregate amount of money in circulation. 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. In this case, dollars have been raining from the sky and yet their price relative to commodities has not fallen – that is, the nominal price of commodities has not risen, as we would have expected. Figure 9.8 shows that the price of money, relative to hard assets like physical commodities, may be in the greatest bubble it has ever been in. And since, unlike stocks and unlike real estate, everybody holds money, this may be the biggest bubble of them all.
Figure 9.8: Commodity prices versus money supply
All three of these figures – and I could have chosen many others – show a highly-flexed economy and highly-flexed markets. A break in this steel bar is almost assured; the only question is when.
Moreover, while we hear so much today about the “coming deflationary depression,” I have to say that with the quantity of reserves in the system and the direction in which the monetary pictures are flexed, there is in my opinion as much chance of a deflationary outcome as I have of being appointed Prime Minister of Egypt.
[i] Sornette, Didier, Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems, Princeton University Press, 2003.
It is obviously time for another update. I haven’t been an active poster recently, because as many of you know I am busy working on a book for the Wiley label. I am about 80% done; however, it is very time-consuming! The title of the book is (tentatively) What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind, and if you would like to be on the notification list to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com. Even better, you can pre-order it already apparently, even though it’s not due out until later this year or early next year. (No pressure, huh?)
So, I have been embroiled in the writing and editing process, and not posting much. This will change soon, but China’s overnight move to (slightly) devalue the yuan is significant enough to warrant a post. There are also some other topics that need a quick mark-to-market, but I will save those for another day.
China’s move is possibly qualitatively significant, but I don’t believe it is yet quantitatively significant. A two-percent move in a currency is barely worth recording – it is almost within the daily standard deviation band of some currencies! So, when you have read about how this dramatically changes the inflationary concern of the Fed to a deflationary concern…that’s nonsense. The Swiss Franc strengthened by 20% against all currencies, in a single day, back in January. Since then, the core Swiss inflation rate has moved from +0.4% y/y to -0.6% y/y. Also note that Switzerland’s imports amount to about 50% of its GDP.
Let’s take that as a back-of-the-envelope scalar just to do a rationality check. A 20% change in exchange rate affecting about 50% of goods and services caused a 1% move in core CPI.
The U.S. imports about $40bln in goods from China per month, out of an annual GDP of $16.3 trillion. So in this case, we have a 2% move in exchange rate affecting about 2.9% of domestic goods and services. So if the effect was linear, we would expect about 1/10th * 1/17th * 1% of a move in core CPI as a result of the Chinese action. Check my math, but that would seem to be about 0.006% movement in expected core inflation as a result of China’s revaluation. Negligible, in other words.
Now, qualitatively the effect might be higher if, for example, this presages a more-significant move by China. But even assuming that the exchange rate moved ten times as much, you are still talking about rounding error on inflation. Sure, the effect might not be linear but the essential guess is that from a price perspective we don’t care.
Certain companies and industries and goods, of course, will see a much bigger effect (it would be hard to have a much smaller effect), but it shouldn’t be a big deal – even if it is part of a larger move. From the standpoint of economic growth, it may matter more…but even so, a 2% change is unlikely to matter as much as a 10% change in shipping costs, and moves like that happen all the time.
China is a big economy, and a big trading counterparty of ours. But the U.S. is still a significantly-closed economy. While China represents about 20% of all of our imports, imports as a whole only amount to 14% of US GDP. So, in summary: this is an interesting moment politically, if China is signaling a willingness to float her currency. It is not a particularly interesting day macro-economically, at least from the standpoint of the effect on prices of this move.
The recent commodities sell-off has been breathtaking. This is especially true since the most-recent downturn occurred from a level where the expected future returns from commodity index investment were reasonably good – and, as a spread above expected equity or bond returns, probably around the best levels ever.
But investors have a strong tendency to use the current level, rather than some esoteric measure of value, as the level from which expected market moves are evaluated. What I mean by that is this: in theory, if some event happens in the capital markets, the reaction in the market should depend on whether that event has already been “discounted” in the current price. That is, if we are all expecting Microsoft to raise its dividend, then the price of Microsoft should reflect that change already, and when it subsequently actually happens it should have no effect on price. Indeed, if the market has overestimated the change in fundamental value, then the price of Microsoft should retrace somewhat when the news is actually announced. From that, we get the old saw that one should “buy the rumor, sell the news.”
The fact that this isn’t really what happens is not exactly news. In the early 1980s, Bob Shiller demonstrated that the volatility in the equity marketplace was much greater than the changes in the real underlying values should support.
In practice, investors don’t behave rationally. The same event can be discounted over, and over, and over again. Each investor, it seems, hears news and assumes the current price does not incorporate that news, no matter what has happened previously to the price. Based on my own unscientific observation, I think this is more true now that there are more retail investors, and news outlets that benefit from making everything sound like new information. If my supposition is true, one implication is that markets can deviate further and further from fundamental values. In other words, we get more bubbles and inverse bubbles than we would otherwise.
As a great current example, we might consider commodities. The slowdown in China’s economic activity is discounted anew almost every day, as more information comes out from that country that its economic engine is (at least) sputtering. One would think that China was the only consumer of industrial metals and energy, and that its consumption is going to zero, based on the behavior of these markets. And with every tick higher in the dollar, every commodity seems offered. It’s risk-off, then risk-off again, then risk-off again, ad infinitum.
Now, there is no doubt that commodities in 2008 were overvalued, and arguably in 2011 they were also expensive. But the four-year beat-down of commodities – pretty much the only asset class that has declined in value over that time period – is breathtaking in its depth and, as it turns out, its breadth. I was curious about whether the recent break of major commodities indices to new lows – below the lows of 2008, when it felt like the world was ending (see chart above, source Bloomberg) – was broader, in that it seemed like every commodity was participating. So I put together a chart that shows the proportion of commodities (considering only the 27 major traded commodities that are in the Bloomberg Commodity Index) that were above their 200-day moving averages. The chart is below (Source: Enduring Investments).
It isn’t quite as bad as I had thought. The recent slide has taken the proportion back to 18% (meaning 82% are below their 200-day moving averages), but commodity prices have been sliding for so long that the 200-day averages are now generally declining pretty smartly. Notice in general the post-2011 average, compared to the pre-2008 average. Even without seeing the price chart, you can tell the 2011-2015 bear market from the 2002-2008 bull market!
One other observation about commodities, to be fair. The chart I showed, above, of the Bloomberg Commodity Index, incorporates carry in commodities. That is, it adds the futures roll, and collateral return, to the movement in spot commodities. Over the last few years, the collateral return hasn’t been very good and the roll return has actually been substantially negative, so that the return of spot commodities has in fact been better than the return to commodity indices. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the Bloomberg Spot Commodity Index; you can see that we are still above the 2008 lows.
Being “above the 2008 lows” doesn’t strike me as a strong performance. Stocks are also above the 2008-09 lows, by 200% or so. LQD, the investment-grade bond ETF, is about 45% higher. HYG, the high-yield ETF, is 41% higher. Heck, M2 money supply is around 50% higher than it was in early 2009.
And yet, every time we hear more news about China, investors behave as if it is new information, and sell commodities off some more. As I said above, these moves can last longer these days than they did in the past – but this is unsustainable. With commodities, an added complexity is that investors don’t know how to evaluate expected return (since there are no cash flows), and so it is hard for them to compare “value” to other asset classes. But the value is there.
In an excellent (and free!) daily email I receive, the Daily Shot, I ran across a chart that touched off my quant BS alert.
This chart is from here, and is obviously a few years out-of-date, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that the chart suggests that gold prices rise 5.5% every year. If you buy gold in January, at an index value of 100, and hold it through the flat part of January-June, then you reap the 5% rally in the second half of the year.
No wonder people love gold! You can get a 10% annual return simply by buying in July and selling in December!
The problem is that this is not the way you should do a seasonal chart. It has not be detrended. We detrend data because that way, we can express the expected return for any given day as (the normal expected return) plus (the seasonal component). This is valuable because, as analysts, we might have a general forecast for gold but we will want to adjust that forecast to a holding period return based on a seasonal pattern. This is very important, for example, with TIPS yields and breakevens, because inflation itself is highly seasonal.
Now, the seasonal chart done correctly still suggests that the best time to own gold is in the second half of the year, but it no longer suggests that owning gold is an automatic winner. (It is a separate argument whether we can reject the null hypothesis of zero seasonality altogether, but that’s not my point here).
Frankly, I would also use real prices rather than nominal prices, since it is much easier to make a statement about the expected real return to gold (roughly zero over time, although it may be more or less than that based on current valuation metrics) than it is to make a statement about the expected nominal return to gold, since the latter includes an embedded assumption about the inflation rate, which I would prefer to strip out. And I would also include data from the 1970s.
Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments.
- Core CPI +0.18%, y/y rises to 1.77%. Pretty much as-expected on the headline figures.
- Was some market concern about a possible higher print following PPI, but there isn’t much correlation.
- Note that the next two months of CPI will ‘drop off’ an 0.10% and an 0.05%, so we should get to 2% on core inflation by mid-September.
- Of course the Fed’s target is ~2.25% on core CPI (since they tgt core PCE) so Fed can argue it’s still below tgt. Uptrend may concern.
- Housing inflation on the other hand going to the moon
- This is great chart and it’s the reason core never had a chance of entering deflation territory. & will go up. (retweeted Matthew B)
- Housing #CPI overall just hit 2% y/y. Primary rents 3.53%. OER, which is 24% of the whole CPI, rose to 2.95% from 2.79%. Wow!
- …our model for OER is at 3.1%, and the actual number HAD been lagging. I love it when a plan comes together.
- So housing drove core services to +2.5% y/y, core goods -0.4%.
- So if housing busted higher, what was the services offset? Medical care, 2.51% y/y vs 2.84% last month.
- WSJ argued earlier this month that is expected because under Ocare people are actually spending their own money.
- Within medical care, drugs went to 3.44% vs 4.05%, pro svcs went 1.83% from 1.58%, and hospital & related to 3.48% from 4.51%. So maybe?
- Yes, core PCE & core CPI are going to be rising. But core PCE won’t be anywhere close to the Fed’s tgt by Sep.
- Here is core and median CPI (the latter not out yet today) and core PCE.
- core commodities are about where they should (eventually) be, given rally in TW$. A bit ahead of schedule though.
- This chart means either that home prices are overextended or incomes need to catch up, or both.
- Here is our OER model that is based on incomes. Not a tight fit but gets direction right.
- I wondered about this when I paid $180/night for room in S. Dak. Hotel infl driven in part by fracking boom?
- probably would fit better if I used a regional lodging index rather than national, I suspect.
The summary of today’s CPI release is that the underlying pressures remain the same, and the trends remain the same. The really interesting dynamic going forward isn’t in CPI (although at some point when core goods starts to rise again, that will be quite interested), but in how the Fed reacts to the CPI. When they meet in September, core CPI will be around 2%, a bit shy of where the Fed’s target is. But the uptrend will be clearly apparent, and core and median CPI will likely be closer to 2.5% than 2% by the end of the year.
So the interesting dynamic is this: even though inflation is below the Fed’s target, and growth isn’t great shakes, and there are risks to the global economic system in Europe and in China…will the Fed tighten in September anyway? If they do, then it will be surprising if only because the FOMC passed on many opportunities over the last five years which would have been much more accommodating (no pun intended) to a normalization of rates. Sure, if they now recognize that they should have tightened three years ago it shouldn’t color their decision today – the best time to plant a tree may have been thirty years ago, but the best time that we can actually choose from is today – but the Fed hasn’t usually been so limber in its reasoning. Especially with a very dovish makeup of the Committee, I would be surprised to see them hike rates unless inflation has surpassed their target and growth is pretty strong with global risks receding.
However, the strength of my view on that has been slipping recently. Although I think most of the Fed’s talk on this point is mere bluster, we do have to pay attention when Fed speakers – and especially the Chairman – say the same things multiple times. While Yellen has expressed only an expectation that the Fed will raise rates later this year (and we have no idea how conditional that expectation is on stronger growth, on Chinese growth, on European volatility etc, she has said this multiple times and at some point I have to conclude she means it. I still think that the odds of getting rates even up to 1% in a single series of moves is slim, but I admit the more-consistent Fed chatter is worth listening to.
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Greece has voted ‘no.’ It should not surprise us that this has happened. The only surprise is that it took this long for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
I really enjoy reading, and listening to, Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates. He is one of those few people – Cliff Asness is another – who is both really smart, in a cutting-edge-research sense, and really connected to the real world of investing. There are only a handful of these sorts of guys, and you want to align yourself with them when you can.
Rob has written and spoken a number of times over the last few years about the investing implications of the toppling of the demographic pyramid in developed markets. He has made the rather compelling point that much of the strong growth of the last half-century in the US can be attributed to the fact that the population as a whole was moving through its peak production years. Thus, if “natural” real growth was something like 2%, then with the demographic dividend we were able to sustain a faster pace, say 3% (I am making up the numbers here for illustration). The unfortunate side of the story is that as the center of gravity of the population, age-wise, gets closer to retirement, this tailwind becomes a headwind. So, for example, he figures that Japan’s sustainable growth rate over the next few decades is probably about zero. And ours is probably considerably less than 2%.
He wrote a piece that appeared this spring in the first quarter’s Conference Proceedings of the CFA Institute, called “Whither Bonds, After the Demographic Dividend?” It is the first time I have seen him tackle the question from the standpoint of a fixed-income investor, as opposed to an equity investor. I find it a compelling read, and strongly recommend it.
Don’t miss the “Question and Answer Session” after the article itself. You would think that someone who sees a demographic time bomb would be in the ‘deflation’ camp, but as I said Rob is a very thoughtful person and he reaches reasonable conclusions that are drawn not from knee-jerk hunches but from analytical insights. So, when asked about whether he sees an inflation problem, or continued disinflation, or deflation over the next five years, he says:
“I am not at all concerned about deflation. Any determined central banker can defeat deflation. All that is needed is a printing press. Japan has proven that. Japan is mired in what could only be described as a near depression, and it still has 1.5% inflation. So, if a central bank prints enough money, it can create inflation in an economy that is near a depression.”
This, more than anything else, explains why keeping interest rates low to avert deflation is a silly policy. If deflation happens, it is a problem that can be solved. Inflation is a much more difficult problem to solve because collapsing the money supply growth rate runs counter to political realities. I don’t think this Fed is worried about inflation at all, and they’re probably not worried too much about deflation either any longer. But they believe they can force growth higher with accommodative monetary policy, when all available evidence suggests they cannot. Moreover, Arnott’s analysis suggests that we are probably already growing at something near to, or even above, the probable maximum sustainable growth rate in this demographic reality.
Maybe we can get Arnott on the Federal Reserve Board? Probably not – no one who is truly qualified for that job would actually want it.
**Note – If you would like to be on the notification list for my new book, What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind to receive an email when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!