The Answer is No

February 18, 2015 2 comments

What a shock! The Federal Reserve as currently constituted is dovish!

It has really amazed me in recent months to see the great confidence exuded by Wall Street economists who were predicting the Fed will begin tightening by mid-year. While a tightening of policy is desperately needed – and indeed, an actual tightening of policy rather than a rate-hike, which would do many bad things but not much good – I was surprised to see economists buying the line being put out by Fed speakers on this (and I took issue with it, just last week).

Yes, the Fed would like us to believe that they stand sentinel over the possibility of overstaying their welcome. Their speeches endeavor to give this impression. But it is easy to say such a thing, and to believe that it should be said, and a different thing altogether to actually do it. Given that the Fed’s “preferred” inflation measure is foundering; market-based measures of inflation expectations were in steady decline until mid-January; the dollar is very strong and global economic growth quite weak; and other central banks uniformly loose, in my view it seemed that it would have required a historically hawkish Federal Reserve to stay the course on a mid-year hiking of rates. Something on the order of a Volcker Fed.

Which this ain’t.

Today the minutes from the end-of-January FOMC meeting were released and they were decidedly unconvincing when it comes to steaming full-ahead towards tightening policy. There was a fairly lengthy discussion of the “sizable decline in market-based measures of inflation compensation that had been observed over the past year and continued over the intermeeting period.” The minutes noted that “Participants generally agreed that the behavior of market-based measures of inflation compensation needed to be monitored closely.”

This is a short-term issue. 10-year breakevens bottomed in mid-January, and are nearly 25bps off the lows (see chart, source Bloomberg).

10ybe

To be sure, much of this reflects the rebound in energy quotes; 5-year implied core inflation is still only 1.54%, which is far too low. But we are unlikely to see those lows in breakevens again. Within a couple of months, 10-year breakevens will be back above 2% (versus 1.72% now). But this isn’t really the point at the moment; the point is that we shouldn’t be surprised that a dovish FOMC takes note of sharp declines in inflation expectations and uses it as an excuse to walk back the tightening chatter.

The minutes also focused on core inflation:

“Several participants saw the continuing weakness of core inflation measures as a concern. In addition, a few participants suggested that the weakness of nominal wage growth indicated that core and headline inflation could take longer to return to 2 percent than the Committee anticipated.”

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, core inflation is simply the wrong way to measure the central tendency of inflation right now. It isn’t that median inflation is just higher, it’s that it is better in that it marginalizes the outliers. As I pointed out in the article last Thursday, Dallas Fed President Fisher seemed to be humming this tune as well, by focusing on “trimmed-mean.” In short, ex-energy inflation hasn’t been experiencing “continuing weakness.” Median inflation is near the highs. Core has been dragged down by Apparel, Education and Communication, and New and used motor vehicles, and these (specifically the information processing part of Education and Communication, not the College Tuition part!) are among the categories most impacted by dollar strength. Unless you expect dramatic further dollar strengthening – and remember, one year ago there were still many people who were bracing for a dollar plunge – you can’t count on these categories continuing to drag down core CPI.

Again, this isn’t the current point. Whether or not core inflation heads higher from here to converge with median inflation (which I expect to head higher as well), and whether or not inflation expectations rise as I am fairly confident they will do over the next few months, the question was whether a Fed looking at this data was likely to be gung-ho to tighten policy in the near-term. The answer was no. The answer is no. And until that data changes in the direction I expect it to, the answer will be no.

Downside for Stocks, But Also for Fed Expectations

February 12, 2015 1 comment

Retail Sales figures today were weak. Retail Sales ex-Auto and Gas (I usually just look ex-auto, but then they look really, really bad because of how far gasoline has moved) just recorded the two worst numbers (0.0% and 0.2%) in a year.

Retail sales are volatile, so one shouldn’t get too exercised by a couple of weak figures. Except for the fact that we also know that overseas sales are going to be suffering, thanks to the strength of the dollar. The disinflationary tendency imparted by a strengthening dollar is mild, and takes some time to be evident in the figures. However, the effect on overseas sales tends to be more rapid, and the effect on earnings more or less instantaneous (because earnings need to be translated back into the reporting currency).

So it isn’t just the weakness retail sales that should give an investor pause here. It is difficult to sell stocks in an environment of abundant liquidity, but perhaps this chart (Source: www.Yardeni.com) is one reason to do so.

sp500earnsests

I am not a fan of Yardeni’s analysis, as a general rule, but this is a great chart package showing the evolution of earnings estimates over time.

I understand that we have become conditioned to buy stocks on every dip, especially when the world’s central banks continue to supply boundless money to the system – an approach which, miraculously, seems to have no downside (leaving us to wonder how much better off the poor benighted peoples of last century would have been if central banks had only discovered this elixir earlier). And I am no bolder than the rest of you, so I won’t short stocks either.

But explain to me why the Fed is going to tighten? Headline inflation is low; core PCE inflation is low; even the measure that Dallas Fed President Fisher prefers (Trimmed-Mean PCE) is low. I have pointed out how the better measure, Median CPI, is actually near the post-crisis highs and is right around the Fed’s target, but if we are taking a vote then I lose. Market-based inflation expectations have recently rebounded, and will continue to do so, but remain very low. Growth appears to be weakening, although not yet alarmingly so. Finally, foreign central banks are all easing, which is one big reason the dollar has risen as it has. I have difficulty with the idea that with all of these arguments, the Federal Reserve is going to choose now to pull back on the reins, simply because they have sorta hinted about it previously.

Incidentally, any impact on growth from the strike over the coming long weekend at West Coast ports  won’t help the argument to ease. Nor will the ongoing strike at nine US oil refineries (the biggest strike of oil workers since 1980).  For all of these reasons, I don’t think the Fed is going to tighten any time soon. I do believe that US stocks are rich compared to European stocks for example, and rich on an absolute basis, but if I were going to play the short side because of the earnings estimates revisions, I would do so with options.

Winter Is Coming

February 10, 2015 5 comments

Sometimes being a value investor, amid overvalued (and ever more so) markets, feels a bit like being a Stark in Westeros. The analogy will be lost on you if you do not follow Game of Thrones, but the Starks hold the largest of the sub-kingdoms in Westeros. This kingdom also happens to be the coldest, and the sober Starks are always reminding people that “Winter is coming.”

I should observe that winter in Westeros is a much more serious affair than it is around here; it comes at odd intervals but can last for years. So being prepared for winter is really important. However, getting people to prepare for winter during the long “summer” is very difficult.

Sound familiar? The thing to keep in mind is that the Starks are always right, eventually, and they’re the ones who come through the winter in the best shape. Such is the case with value investors. (Some people might prefer calling value investors who are bearish on stocks right now “Chicken Littles” but I prefer being compared to Ned Stark, thanks. Although both of them have been known to lose their heads on occasion.)

Fortunately, it does not appear that winter is coming to the U.S. very soon. Friday’s Employment report was strong, despite the beginnings of downsizing in the oil and gas extraction businesses. The chart below shows the Baker Hughes oil and gas rig count, which is falling at a rate every bit as fast as it did in the credit crisis.

rig count

Yet, the U.S. economy as a whole generated 267,000 new jobs last month, which was above expectations. It is unlikely that this pace will continue, since the extraction (and related industry) jobs will be a drag. But in 2008, this happened when every other industry was being squeezed, and in the current case other industries are being squeezed by the strong dollar, but only mildly so. I think this will actually serve to increase the labor force participation rate, which has been in a downtrend for a long time – because laid-off oil workers will still be in the labor force looking for work, while other jobs will be getting filled by (sometimes) discouraged workers coming off the sidelines. So we may well see the Unemployment Rate rise even as jobs growth remains reasonable, even if less robust than the most recent figures.

Winter, though, is still coming.

In the near-term, winter is coming to Europe. Unusually, it is moving from the south to the north because Greece appears to be finally heading for the denouement that has been utterly unavoidable from the beginning. I wrote this in June 2012 (and I wasn’t the only one saying such things – the only real question has been how long it would take before the Greeks decided they’d had enough of sacrifice to hold together the Eurozone for the elites):

Greece will still leave the Euro. Government or no government, austerity or no austerity – the fiscal math simply doesn’t make sense unless Europe wants to pay for Greece forever. In principle, the Greeks can dig themselves out of trouble if they work harder, retire later, pay more taxes, and receive fewer government services. I do believe that people can change, and a society can change, under pressure of crisis. Remember Rosie the Riveter? But the question is whether they can change, whether they will change, do they even want to change, if the benefit of the change flows not to Greece’s people but to the behemoth European institutions that have lent money to Greece?

If a person declares bankruptcy, and the judge declares that he must pay all of his wages for the next thirty years, after deducting enough for food and shelter, to the creditors…do you think that person is going to go looking for a 60-hour workweek?

Am I sure that Greece is going to leave the Euro in a week, or a month, or a year? Not at all. The institutional self-preservation meme is very strong and I am always amazed at how long it takes obvious imperatives to actually happen.[1] But I am quite confident that Greece will eventually leave the Euro, and it does seem as if parties on all sides of the negotiating table are coming to that conclusion as well.

One question that authorities have had to come to peace with first was whether Grexit is really Armageddon. I have argued that default and an exit from the Euro is not bad for Greece, at least when compared to a multi-year depression.

And it’s probably not even horrible for Europe, or the world at large, at least compared to the credit crisis, despite all protestations that this would be “Lehman squared.” Again, this is old news and as I lay out the reasoning here there is no reason to repeat myself.

But it won’t be a positive thing. And it is likely to bring on “winter,” economically. Helpfully, the world’s central banks not only remain in easing mode but are increasing the dovishness of their stance, with the ECB foremost among the central banks that are priming the pumps again. M2 money growth in the Eurozone was up to 4.5% y/y in December (latest data available), with the highest quarter-over-quarter growth rate (8.3%, annualized) in money since the end of 2008! Meanwhile the Fed, while it is no longer adding to reserves, is still watching the money supply grow at 6% y/y with no good way to stop it. For all the talk about the FOMC hiking rates by mid-year, I think the probable rise in the Unemployment Rate discussed above, plus the weak inflation readings (with the notable exception of Median CPI), plus the fact that all other central banks are easing and likely to continue doing so, plus the probability of turbulence in Europe, makes it very unlikely that this Committee, with a very dovish makeup, will be tightening any time soon.

The likely onset of some winter will not help hold down inflation, however. Upward pressures remain, and the fact that the ECB is now running the pumps makes higher prices more likely. Yes, we care about money supply growth in Europe: the chart below shows the M2 growth of the US and Europe combined, against core CPI in the US. The fit is actually better than with US CPI alone.

m2prices

Now, some markets are priced for winter and some are not. We think that real interest rates in Europe are far too low compared to real rates in the US, and stock prices in the US are too high compared to stock prices in Europe. The first chart below shows the spread of 10-year real rates in the US minus Europe (showing US yields are high compared to European yields); the second chart shows the ratio of the S&P 500 to the Eurostoxx 50.

realratespreadUSEU

spxeurostoxx

You can see in the latter chart that the out-performance of the S&P has proceeded since 2009, while the under-performance of US inflation-linked bonds has only happened since 2012, so these are not simply two ways of looking at the same trade. In both cases, these deviations are quite extreme. But the European economy and the US economy are not completely independent of one another; weak European growth affects US corporate entities and vice-versa, and as I suggest above the growth of European money supply tends to affect US inflation as well. We think that (institutional) investors should buy TIPS and sell European linkers, and also buy European stocks against US stocks. By doing both of these things, the exposure to currency flows or general trends in global equity market pricing is lessened. (Institutional investors interested in how we would weight such a trade should contact us.)

[1] As another example, take the shrinking of Wall Street. It was obvious after 2008 that it had to happen; only recently, however, as banks and dealers have been forced to become more and more like utilities have we started to see layoffs while stocks are rising, which is very unusual. But Wall Street defended the bloated structures of the past for more than six years!

The F9 Problem

February 3, 2015 Leave a comment

All around the world, investors and traders and even fancy hedge-fund guys are dealing with something that denizens of the inflation-linked bond world have been dealing with for some time.

I call it the F9 problem. Please come with me as I descend into geekdom.

You would be surprised to learn how many of the world’s major traders of bonds and derivatives rely for a significant amount of their analysis on the infrastructure of Microsoft Excel. While many major dealers have sophisticated calculation engines and desktop applications, nothing has yet been designed that offers the flexibility and transparency of Excel for designing real-time analytical functions on the fly. Bloomberg and other data providers have also built add-ins for Excel such that a subscriber can pull in real-time data into these customized calculation tools, which means that an Excel-based platform can be used to manage real-time trading.

When I have taught bond math, or programs like inflation modeling at the New York Society of Securities Analysts, I have had students design spreadsheets that built yield curves, calculated duration and convexity, valued vanilla derivative products, and so on. There are few better ways to learn the nuts and bolts of bond math than to build a spreadsheet to build a LIBOR swap curve. And, if you are doing anything very unique at all, being able to see and follow the whole calculation (and possibly amend or append additional calculations as necessary) is invaluable. When I was trading at two different Wall Street shops, the inflation book’s risk was pulled into my spreadsheets daily and manipulated so that I could understand all of its dimensions. This is, in short, very common.

It turns out that two very important Excel functions in bond portfolio management are PRICE() and MDURATION(). And it also turns out that these functions return an error at negative bond yields. All over the world, right now, as nominal bonds in various countries are trading at negative yields, whole armies of portfolio managers are saying “why is my spreadsheet saying “#NUM!” everywhere? I call this the F9 problem because when you hit F9 in Excel, it calculates your workbook. And that’s when you see the problem.

There is nothing about the price-from-yield formula that is insoluble at negative yields. The price of a bond is simply the sum of the present values of its cash flows. If using a single yield to maturity to price such a bond, a negative yield simply means that the present-value factors become greater than 1, rather than less than 1, in the future. This is odd, but mathematically speaking so what? There is no reason that PRICE() should produce an error at negative yields. But it does.

There is also nothing about the modified duration formula that is insoluble at negative yields. Macaulay duration is the present-value-weighted average time periods to maturity, which (aside from the weirdness of future cash flows being worth more than present cash flows, which is what a negative yield implies) has a definite solution. And modified duration, which is what MDURATION() is supposed to calculate, is simply Macaulay Duration divided by one plus the yield to maturity. While this does have the weird property that modified duration is less than Macaulay duration unless yields are negative, there’s nothing disqualifying there either. So there is no reason why MDURATION() should produce an error at negative yields. But it does.

I don’t know why Microsoft implemented bond functions that don’t work at negative yields, except that, well, it’s Microsoft and they probably didn’t thoroughly test them.

The good news is that inflation-indexed bonds have long had negative yields, so inflation guys solved this problem some time ago. Indeed, it only recently occurred to me that there’s a whole new cadre of frustrated fixed-income people out there.

Let me help. Here are the Visual Basic functions I use for the price from yield of TIPS or other US Treasuries, and for their modified durations. They’re simply implementations of the standard textbook formulas for yield-to-price and for modified duration. They’re not beautiful – I hadn’t planned to share them. But they work. I believe they require the Analysis Toolpak and Analysis Toolpak – VBA add-ins, but I am not entirely sure of that. No warranty is either expressed or implied!

 

 

Function EnduringPricefromYield(Settlement As Date, Maturity As Date, Coupon As Double, Yield As Double)

Dim price As Double

accumulator = 0

firstcoup = WorksheetFunction.CoupPcd(Settlement, Maturity, 2, 1)

priorcoup = firstcoup

Do Until priorcoup = Maturity

   nextcoup = WorksheetFunction.CoupNcd(priorcoup, Maturity, 2, 1)

   If accumulator = 0 Then

       dCF = (nextcoup – Settlement) / (nextcoup – priorcoup)

       x = dCF / 2

       Else

       x = x + 0.5

   End If

   pvcashflow = Coupon * 100 / 2 / (1 + Yield / 2) ^ (2 * x)

   accumulator = accumulator + pvcashflow

   priorcoup = nextcoup

Loop

‘add maturity flow and last coupon

   accumulator = accumulator + 100 / (1 + Yield / 2) ^ (2 * x)

‘subtract accrued int

   price = accumulator – WorksheetFunction.AccrInt(firstcoup, WorksheetFunction.CoupNcd(firstcoup, Maturity, 2, 1), Settlement, Coupon, 100, 2, 1)

   EnduringPricefromYield = price

End Function

 

Function EnduringModDur(Settlement As Date, Maturity As Date, Coupon As Double, Yield As Double)

Dim price As Double

firstcoup = WorksheetFunction.CoupPcd(Settlement, Maturity, 2, 1)

price = EnduringPricefromYield(Settlement, Maturity, Coupon, Yield) + WorksheetFunction.AccrInt(firstcoup, WorksheetFunction.CoupNcd(firstcoup, Maturity, 2, 1), Settlement, Coupon, 100, 2, 1)

accumulator = 0

priorcoup = firstcoup

Do Until priorcoup = Maturity

   nextcoup = WorksheetFunction.CoupNcd(priorcoup, Maturity, 2, 1)

   If accumulator = 0 Then

       dCF = (nextcoup – Settlement) / (nextcoup – priorcoup)

       x = dCF / 2

       Else

       x = x + 0.5

   End If

   pvcashflow = Coupon * 100 / 2 / (1 + Yield / 2) ^ (2 * x)

   accumulator = accumulator + pvcashflow / price * x

   priorcoup = nextcoup

Loop

‘add maturity flow and last coupon

   accumulator = accumulator + (100 * x / (1 + Yield / 2) ^ (2 * x)) / price

   EnduringModDur = accumulator / (1 + Yield / 2)

End Function

Crazy Spot Curves – Orderly Forwards

January 30, 2015 2 comments

This is an interesting chart I think. It shows the spot CPI swap curve (that is, expected 1y inflation, expected 2y compounded inflation, expected 3y compounded inflation), which is very, very steep at the moment because of the plunge in oil. It also shows the CPI swap curve one year forward (that is, expected inflation for 1y, starting in 1y; expected inflation for 2y, starting in 1y; expected inflation for 3y, starting in 1y – in other words, what the spot curve is expected to look like one year from today). The x-axis is the number of years from now.

efficientThe spot curve is so steep, it is hard to tell much about the forward curve so here is the forward curve by itself.

efficient2Basically, after this oil crash passes through the system, the market thinks inflation will be exactly at 2% (a bit lower than the Fed’s target, adjusting for the difference between CPI and PCE, but still amazingly flat) for 6-7 years, and then rise to the heady level of 2.10-2.15% basically forever.

That demonstrates an amazing confidence in the Fed’s power. Since inflation tails are longest to the high side, this is equivalent to pricing either no chance of an inflation tail, or that the Fed will consistently miss on the low side by just about exactly the same amount, and that amount happens to be equal to the value of the tail more or less.

But what is really interesting to me is simply how the wild spot curve translates so cleanly to the forward curve, at the moment.

Categories: Bond Market, Quick One, Theory Tags: ,

Pre-packaged Baloney

January 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Ten-year nominal rates continue to drift back towards the 2012 lows; the 10y Treasury yields only about 1.75% now. But 2015 is so very different than 2012 in terms of the cause of those low rates.

Nominal bonds are like the packaged sandwich you pick up at a gas station: no special orders. You get the meats in the proportions they were put on the sandwich; in the case of nominal bonds you get real yields plus inflation expectations and the nominal yield moves the same amount whether the cause is a change in real yields or a change in inflation expectations. If you buy nominal bonds because you think the economy is growing weak, and you’re right but at the same time inflation expectations rise, then you’re out of luck. You get what’s in the package.

If you look beyond the packaging, to what is making up that 10-year yield sandwich, then the difference between 2015 and 2012 is stark. When 10-year nominal yields were at 1.50% back in 2012, 10-year real yields were at -0.90% and 10-year inflation expectations were around 2.40%. The bond market was pricing in egregiously weak real growth for the next decade, coupled with fairly reasonable inflation expectations. TIPS were clearly expensive at the time, although I argued that they were less expensive than nominal bonds. (In fact, I may have said that they were expensive to everything except nominal bonds).

Today, on the other hand, nominal yields are low for a different reason. TIPS yields, while low, are positive (10-year real yields are 0.13% as I write this) but inflation expectations are very low. So, in contrast to the circumstance in 2012, we see TIPS as very cheap, rather than rich.

One way to look at this difference in circumstance is to study how the proportions of meats in the sandwich have changed over time. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows the percentage of the nominal yield that is made up of real yields. The percentage which is made up of inflation expectations is approximately 100% minus this number, so one chart suffices. Back in “normal times,” real yields tended to make up 40-50% of nominal yields.

real10ratio

That 40-50% isn’t graven in stone; for example, we can say with some confidence that the ratio should be lower at very high nominal yields: if 10-year rates are at 20%, it isn’t because people expect real growth of 8%, but because inflation expectations are quite high. And another line of reasoning applies when nominal yields are very low, because inflation expectations tend to reach a floor. I mention this because I wouldn’t want someone to look at this chart and say “the ratio ought to get back to 40%, and it’s at 7% now, so TIPS are still very expensive.” In fact the relationship is considerably more complex, and as I said before we see TIPS as very cheap, not rich.

That being said, the point is that while nominal yields are similar now to what they were in 2012, the circumstances are quite different and your trading view of nominal bonds must take this into account. In 2012, to be bearish on nominal bonds you mainly had to be of the view that growth expectations were unlikely to get appreciably worse than the awful expectations which were embedded in the market. In 2015, to be bearish on nominal bonds you mainly have to be of the view that inflation expectations are unlikely to get appreciably lower.

Today the Federal Reserve acknowledged that they are concerned with the state of inflation expectations. In the statement following today’s meeting the FOMC noted that “Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined substantially in recent months” and they repeatedly noted that they need not only inflation but also expectations to move back towards their long-term targets before they start to think about nudging interest rates higher.

It is certainly convenient since median CPI is at 2.2%, which is fairly consistent with where they perceive their target to be. But this is a dovish Fed and they’re not looking anxiously to tighten. Ergo, inflation expectations are now their focus. Beyond that, you can expect them to focus on the 5y forward expectations once spot expectations rise (see chart below, source Enduring Investments, showing 5y and 5y5y forward inflation from CPI swaps).

5y and 5y5y

This is all good for restraining velocity, since lower rates tend to keep money velocity low…except that velocity is already lower than it should be, for this level of rates! And so we come to the last chart of the day: corporate credit growth. To the extent that some part of the decline in money velocity was due to the impairment of banks’ ability to offer credit, this seems to no longer be an issue. Commercial bank credit is up at an 8.7% pace over the last year (11.1% annualized over the last 13 weeks), which looks to be back to normal…if not on the high side of normal.

corpcreditSo, as far as sandwich meats go, the Fed is focusing on a bunch of baloney. There are plenty of reasons to hike rates right now, if they wanted to. They don’t. (Moreover, as I have pointed out before: hiking rates will actually push inflation higher, unless they arrest money growth…which they have little ability to do right now).

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.

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