The IMF Tries to Cause Japanese Unemployment

August 15, 2016 2 comments

It is rare that I write early on a Monday morning, but today there is this. A story on Bloomberg highlighted the pressure that the IMF is putting on Japan to institute an “incomes policy” designed to nudge (and force, if necessary) companies to increase wages. IMF mission chief for Japan told reporters a couple of weeks ago that “we need policies to support wage increases in Japan;” the Bloomberg article also names a former IMF chief economist and the current president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics as proposing an immediate boost of salaries of 5-10% for unionized workers.

It is truly appalling that global economic policymakers are essentially illiterate when it comes to economic history. The IMF suggestion to institute wage hikes as part of triggering inflation is not a question of misunderstanding macroeconomic models (although it manages to do this as well, since wages follow prices and thus increasing wages won’t cause inflation unless other conditions obtain). At some level, it is a question of ignorance of history. After the stock market crash in 1929, President Hoover persuaded major industrial firms (such as GM, U.S. Steel, and the like) to hold wages constant or raise them. Since prices were falling generally, this had the effect of raising the real cost of production, which of course worsened the subsequent Depression. According to one analysis, this single decision caused GDP loss in the Great Depression to be triple what it otherwise would have been if wages were allowed to adjust (because, again, wages follow prices and are the main mechanism by which a surplus or shortage of labor is cleared). It wasn’t just Hoover, of course: later, FDR established the National Recovery Administration to administer codes of “fair competition” for every industry that established minimum wages and prices. The NRA was struck down in large part by the Supreme Court, but the notion of arresting deflation by adjusting wages was quickly reintroduced in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

There is wide agreement, although I am sure it is not universal, that preventing markets from adjusting is a big part of what made the Great Depression so Great. And this isn’t theory…it’s history. There is no excuse, other than ignorance, for policymakers to whiff on this one.

Deflation can be bad, but it doesn’t need to come with massive unemployment. In Japan, it has not: the unemployment rate is 3.1%, the lowest it has been since 1995. But push wages higher artificially, and Japan can have the massive unemployment as well. Thanks, IMF.

August, Productivity, and Prices

August 11, 2016 4 comments

I really don’t like August. It’s nothing about the weather, or the fact that the kids are really ready to be back in school (but aren’t). I just really can’t stand the monkey business. August is, after December, probably the month in which liquidity is the thinnest; in a world with thousands of hedge funds this means that if there is any new information the market tends to have dramatic swings. More to the point, it means that if there is not any new information, the speculators make their own swings. A case in point today was the massive 5% rally in energy futures from their lows of the day back to the recent highs. There was no news of note – the IEA said that demand will balance the oil market later this year, but they have said that in each of the last couple of months too. And the move was linear, as if there had been news.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care if traders monkey around with prices in the short run. They can’t change the underlying supply and demand imbalance and so it’s just noise trading for noise trading’s sake. What bothers me is that I have to take time out of my day to go and try to find out whether there is news that I should know. And that’s annoying.

But my whining is not the main reason for this column today. I am overdue to write about some of the inflation-related developments that bear comment. I’ll address one of them today. (Next week, I will probably tackle another – but Tuesday is also CPI day, so I’ll post my usual tweet summary. Incidentally, I’m scheduled to be on What Did You Miss? on Bloomberg TV at 4pm ET on Tuesday – check your local listings).

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about productivity (other than my own, and that of my employees). We are so bad at measuring productivity that the official data are revised for many years after their release. For example, the “productivity miracle” of the late 1990s, which drove the Internet bubble and the equity boom into the end of the century, was eventually revised away almost completely. It never happened.

The problem that a lot of people have with thinking about productivity is that they confuse the level of productivity with its pace of increase. So someone will say “of course the Internet changed everything and we got more productive,” when the real question is whether the pace of productivity increase accelerated. We are always getting more productive over time. There are always new innovations. What we need to know is whether those innovations and cost savings are happening more quickly than they used to, or more slowly. And, since the national accounts are exquisitely bad at picking up new forms of economic activity, and at measuring things like intellectual property development, it is always almost impossible to reject in real time the hypothesis that “nothing is changing about the rate of productivity growth.” Therefore, I don’t spend much time worrying about it.

But, that being said, we should realize that if there is a change in the rate of productivity growth it has implications for growth, but also for inflation. And recent productivity numbers, combined with the a priori predictions in some quarters that the global economy is entering a slow-productivity phase, have started to draw attention.

Most of that attention is focused on the fact that poor productivity growth lowers overall real output. The mechanism there is straightforward: productivity growth plus population growth equals real economic output growth. (Technically, more than just population growth it is working-age population growth times labor force participation, but the point is that it’s an increase in the number of workers, compounded by the increase in each worker’s productivity, that increases real output). Especially if a populist backlash in the US against immigration causes labor force growth to slow, a slower rate of productivity growth would compound the problem of how to grow real economic growth at anything like the rate necessary to support equity markets or, for that matter, the national debt.

But there hasn’t been as much focus on the other problem of low productivity growth, if indeed we are entering into that sort of era. The other problem is that low productivity growth causes higher prices, all else equal. That mechanism is also straightforward. We know that money growth plus the change in money velocity equals real output growth plus an increase in prices: that is, MV≡PQ. If velocity is mean-reverting, then the decline in real growth precipitated by a decline in labor productivity, in the context of an unchanged rate of increase in the money supply, implies higher prices. That is, if ΔM is constant and ΔV is zero and ΔQ declines, then ΔP must increase.

One partial offset to this is the fact that a permanent decline in productivity growth rates would lower the equilibrium real interest rate, which would lower the equilibrium money velocity. But that is a one-time shift while the change in trend output would be lasting.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suppose that the change in interest rates we have seen in the last few years is mostly cyclical but may also be partly secular. This would imply a lower equilibrium level of interest rates (although I don’t mean to imply that anything is near equilibrium these days), and a lower equilibrium level of monetary velocity. But there are a lot of “ifs” in that statement.

The biggest “if” of all, of course, is whether there really is a permanent or semi-permanent down-shift in long-term productivity growth. I don’t have a strong opinion on that, although I suspect it’s more likely true that the current angst over low productivity growth rates is just the flip side of the 1990s ebullience about productivity. We’ll know for sure…in about a decade.

Shooting Blanks

August 2, 2016 4 comments

Almost eight years after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the first of many central bank quantitative easing programs, it appears the expansion – the weakest on record by several measures – is petering out. The Q2 growth rate of GDP was 1.2% annualized, meaning that the last three quarters were +0.9%, +0.8%, +1.2%. That’s not a recession, but it’s also not an expansion to write home about.

But why? Why after all of the quantitative easing? Is the effectiveness waning? Is it time for more?

I read recently about how many economists are expecting the Bank of England to increase asset purchases (QE) this Thursday in an attempt to counteract the depressing effects of Brexit on growth. Some think the increase will be as much as £150 billion. That’s impressive, but will it help?

I also read recently about how the Bank of Japan “disappointed investors” by not increasing asset purchases except incrementally. The analysts said this was disappointing because the BOJ’s action was “not enough to cause growth.”

That’s because no amount of money printing is enough to cause growth. No amount.

It seems like people get confused with this concept, including many economists, because we use units of currency. So let’s try illustrating the point a different way. Suppose I pay you in candy bars for the widgets you produce. Suppose I pay you 10 candy bars, each of which is 10 ounces, for each widget. Now, if I start paying you 11 candy bars instead of 10, then the price has risen and you want to produce more widgets, right? This, indirectly, is what economists are thinking when they think about the effect of monetary policy.

But suppose that I pay you 11 candy bars, but now each candy bar is 9.1 ounces instead of 10 ounces? I suspect you will not be fooled into producing more widgets. You will realize that I am still paying you 100 ounces of candy per widget. You are not fooled by the fact that the unit of account changed in intrinsic value.

Now, when the central bank adds to the money supply, but doesn’t change the amount of stuff the economy produces (they don’t have the power to direct production!), then all that changes is the size of the unit of account – the candy bar, or in this case the dollar – and the number of dollars you need to buy a widget goes up. That’s called inflation. And the only way that printing more money can cause production to increase is if you don’t notice that the value of any given unit of currency has declined. That is, only if I say I’m paying you 11 candy bars – but you haven’t noticed they are smaller – will you respond to the change in terms. This is called “money illusion,” and it is why money printing does not cause growth in theory…and, as it turns out, in practice.[1]

There is nothing terribly strange or unpredictable about what is going on in global growth in terms of the response to monetary policy. The only thing strange is that eight years on, with numerous observations on which to evaluate the efficacy of quantitative easing, the conclusion appears to be that it might not be quite as effective as policymakers had thought. And therefore, we need to do lots more of it, the thought process seems to go. But anything times zero is zero. Central banks are not shooting an inaccurate, awkward weapon in the fight to stimulate growth, which just needs to be fired a lot more so that something eventually hits. They are shooting blanks. And no amount of shooting blanks will bring down the bad guy.

[1] I address this aspect of money, and other aspects that affect inflation, in my book What’s Wrong With Money: The Biggest Bubble of All.

August: More Esther, Less Mester

The last two weeks of July felt a lot like August typically does. Thin, lethargic trading; somewhat gappy but directionless. Ten-year Treasury note futures held a 1-point range except for a few minutes last Thursday. The S&P oscillated (and it really looks like a simple oscillation) between 2160 and 2175 for the most part (chart source Bloomberg):

dull

In thinking about what August holds, I’ll say this. What the stock market (and bond market) has had going for it is momentum. What these markets have had going against them is value. When value and momentum meet, the result is indeterminate. It often depends on whether carry is penalizing the longs, or penalizing the shorts. For the last few years, with very low financing rates across a wide variety of assets, carry has fairly favored the longs. In 2016, that advantage is lessening as short rates come up and long rates have declined. The chart below shows the spread between 10-year Treasury rates and 3-month LIBOR (a reasonable proxy for short-term funding rates) which gives you some idea of how the carry accruing to a financed long position has deteriorated.

carry

So now, dwelling on the last few weeks’ directionless trading, I think it’s fair to say that the markets’ value conditions haven’t much changed, but momentum generally has surely ebbed. In a situation where carry covers fewer trading sins, the markets surely are on more tenuous ground now than they have been for a bit. This doesn’t mean that we will see the bottom fall out in August, of course.

But add this to the consideration: markets completely ignored the Fed announcement yesterday, despite the fact that most observers thought the inserted language that “near-term risks to the economic outlook have diminished” made this a surprisingly hawkish statement. (For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine that any reasonable assessment of the change in risks from before the Brexit vote to after the Brexit vote could conclude anything else). Now, I certainly don’t think that this Fed, with its very dovish leadership, is going to tighten imminently even though prices and wages (see chart below of the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker and the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI, source Bloomberg) are so obviously trending higher that even the forecasting-impaired Federal Reserve can surely see it. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Fed cannot afford to be ignored.

wagesandprices

Accordingly, something else that I expect to see in August is more-hawkish Fed speakers. Kansas City Fed President Esther George dissented in favor of a rate hike at this meeting. So in August, I think we will hear more Esther and less Mester (Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester famously mused about helicopter money a couple of weeks ago). The FOMC doesn’t want to crash the stock and bond markets. But it wants to be noticed.

The problem is that in thin August markets – there’s no escaping that, I am afraid – it might not take much, with ebbing momentum in these markets, to cause some decent retracements.

Categories: Federal Reserve, Trading, Wages

Homes Are Where the Heat Is

July 26, 2016 1 comment

This week’s main event is supposed to be the FOMC meeting. Certainly, for some time now that has been the case: in a week with a Fed meeting, nothing else matters. Knowing this, many investors will probably over-parse the language from the FOMC statement following the meeting, even though there is little to no chance of any policy change at this meeting nor at any of the next few meetings (it certainly would be a huge surprise if the Fed were either to tighten, or even to indicate a growing likelihood of a future tightening, after Cleveland Fed President Mester recently mused about helicopter drops).

In the meantime, though, we have some housing data that is somewhat interesting. New Home Sales were released today, showing a new seasonally-adjusted post-crisis high. To be sure, sales are still well off the bubble highs, but they are back to roughly average for the period prior to the bubble (see chart, source Bloomberg).

nhsl

New Home Sales is more regular (outside of a bubble) than Existing Home Sales, because additions to the housing stock are partly driven by household formation and that’s reasonably constant over long periods of time. The more important number (in part because it is also it is much larger) is Existing Home Sales, which was released last week and looks even stronger (see chart, source Bloomberg).

ehsl

Existing Home Sales is also affected by household formation, but the level of the aggregate stock of housing matters as well so this measure tends to rise over time. Even so, it looks to be at least back on the long-run trend.

Now, as an inflation scout I spend a lot of time looking at housing. Housing is the largest part of the consumption basket almost everywhere in the world, whether the shelter is owned or rented, and it is an even larger part of the more-stable core inflation basket. If you get housing right, in short, it is hard to be very wrong on inflation overall. This is why I’ve been persistent in saying that deflation in the US, outside of the energy price collapse, isn’t coming any time soon. The rise of home prices in the US, as measured by the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index (which becomes more of a mouthful every time someone new buys the index!), has eased to around 5% per annum versus a rebound-inspired 10% in late 2013/early 2014 (see chart, source Bloomberg).

corelogic

Here is where it pays to be a bit careful. A simple-lag model would predict that rents and owners-equivalent-rents should shortly be declining from current 9-year high rates of increase. But logically, that can’t make sense – if home prices rose 5% forever, then obviously rents would eventually rise something like 5% per year as well. This is a case for a distributed-lag model (even better would be distributed lags on real prices, reflecting the fact that if overall inflation rises then the same real home price increase would reflect a higher nominal home price increase, but there isn’t enough “exciting” inflation in the last couple decades of data to calibrate that well). And one simple such model, shown below (source: Enduring Investments),[1] suggests that the current level of OER is sustainable even though it currently incorporates the lagged effects of that post-2013 deceleration.

oerfromehsl

Now, of interest is that all of our models currently predict that rents will continue to rise for a bit, but only for a bit. Shelter inflation seems baked-in-the-cake through 2017, which is as far as our models project, but doesn’t seem to have a lot of acceleration left (maybe 0.25%) before levelling off. Having said that, there is another consideration that bears comment. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the S&P CoreLogic CS Index again, this time plotted against the number of “Existing Homes Available for Sale” (and a 12-month moving average of that not-seasonally-adjusted index).

homeinventory

The relationship here is a bit loose, for a bunch of reasons, but the point to be made is this: the inventory of homes for sale has returned to levels that prevailed in the late-90s and early-00s, leading to home price increases in excess of the current 5%-per-annum level. When inventories first fell to this level, there was some fear that a large “shadow inventory” of homes that would have been sold at higher prices would be released into the market, holding down prices. If that has happened, it has been gradual as the inventory of homes actually listed has not risen appreciably in the last three years; moreover, it hasn’t held down home prices very well. The upshot is, I think, that home prices are likely to continue to rise by around 5% per year, or possibly faster; this will likely keep upward pressure on rents for the next couple of years.

But, as noted above, the upward pressure on rents will probably be limited from these levels, unless and until prices ex-housing begin to rise more aggressively. We expect them to do so; in any case, current CPI swaps quotes that imply core inflation will be at or below 1.5% for the next three or four years remain egregiously mispriced.

[1] Please contact me, or contact us through our website, if you’re interested in inflation-related products and services, including institutional consulting arrangements. Interested in investing in Enduring Investments? We are currently raising equity in the firm through a Crowdfunding campaign. See https://www.crowdfunder.com/enduring-investments-llc/ or contact me for more details as we expect to close subscriptions soon.

Categories: CPI, Housing

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

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. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation, just published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • Ah, CPI day!
  • Writing today from the skies above…Pennsylvania maybe? Hi Pennsylvania!
  • Not sure how well this will work…bear with me.
  • Street forecast for core is 0.182% or so m/m, rounding to 0.2% and 2.2% y/y.
  • But if core is only 0.187% m/m, y/y will rise to 2.3% after rounding. So a low hurdle for a “surprise”
  • Since this year core has averaged 0.208% (and 0.243% ex-March), I suspect a good chance of a 2.3% y/y print.
  • Over the next 2 months we have comparisons of 0.173% and 0.155% from year-ago, so core likely rises further.
  • As a reminder, median CPI is already at 2.53% and a 7-year high so such a move in core isn’t a shock.
  • But all that is in the future. We get today’s CPI in 14 minutes.
  • Note my response to tweet messages will be worse than normal today… from 35,000 feet this is a bit wonky.
  • 17% on core. y/y to 2.23% from 2.24%. Be still my heart.
  • Have to wait for the breakdown…not trusting numbers at this altitude. But looks like Medical Care jumped. Not sure what went dn then.
  • OK, Housing 2.39% from 2.38%. Apparel 0.42% from 0.53%; Medical Care – 3.65% from 3.17%! Small drips elsewhere.
  • Core services stayed 3.2% and core goods dripped to -0.6% y/y.
  • Within Housing: Primary rents 3.81% from 3.80%. Should keep rising. OER 3.25% from 3.26% ditto.
  • Big jump in Lodging Away from Home: small category and volatile but excites some people. Not me.
  • Motor vehicles -0.82% from -0.50%, still dragging on core goods.
  • In Medical Care: Drugs 3.40% from 2.34%. Yes, >1% acceleration in y/y. Volatile but…
  • Balancing that a bit was Professional Services 2.60% from 2.81%. But Hospital Services 4.12% from 3.25%.
  • And Health Insurance? +7.10% vs 6.30%. Thanks, ACA.
  • With drugs pushing core goods higher, not sure what was going the other way enough to make core goods decelerate some.
  • Good Lord they just said we’re over Wisconsin. Already?
  • Take this projection for Median CPI with a grain of salt, but looks to me like +0.19% and the annual rate stays 2.5%.
  • biggest monthly declines were toddlers’ apparel, jewelry and watches, footwear, and used cars/trucks.
  • biggest monthly gains in fuel oil, motor fuel, car and truck rental, and medical care commodities (drugs).
  • core ex-housing still fairly low at 1.37%.
  • Overall – core and median inflation still are in rising trends, but nothing particularly alarming about this month’s figure.
  • Certainly, nothing that is going to turn Pres. Mester from talking about helicopter drops to talking about tightening.
  • That’s all for now…thanks for bearing with me.
  • Be sure to look at our Crowdfunder equity raise: https://www.crowdfunder.com/enduring-investments-llc … The subscription package is up and live!

Last month’s core inflation number was not pretty. Medical care rose, rents jumped, and in general it was a sloppy mess. This month is not like that. The story is one of continuing trends: a trend to higher rents, higher medical care inflation; continued weakness in apparel and transportation and other core goods. The key point though is that there is no sign that inflation is about to fall. Whether bottom-up, aggregated from the detailed pricing data, or top-down, looking at money supply growth and possible velocity outcomes, the uptrend in prices looks steady.

While that could change, if interest rates continue to decline and depress money velocity even further, it can’t be the null hypothesis at this point. What is amazing is that the market, in its pricing of inflation, has made that the null hypothesis. Breakeven inflation is low, low, low for more than a decade in the future according to the market. Considerably lower than today’s core inflation. It is a bet that looks increasingly out-of-whack.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

UK Property Price Declines – Rational or Overdone?

July 7, 2016 5 comments

A couple of weeks after Brexit, and the world has not ended. Indeed, in the UK the fallout seems relatively tame. Sterling has weakened substantially, which will increase UK inflation relative to global inflation; but it will also help UK growth relative to global growth. That’s not a bad tradeoff, compared to predictions of the end-of-days. Although I am not so sure I like the tradeoff from Europe’s perspective…

There are a number of UK property funds that have been gated – but this appears to be not so much a Reserve Fund moment, and certainly not a Lehman moment, but just a natural reaction when a fund gives broader liquidity terms than the market for the underlying securities offers.

I think the property panic is probably overdone. It is partly triggered by fears that the financial center is going to leave London. This strikes me as absurd, having worked for several of the institutions that have offices in Canary Wharf. I checked my gut reaction with a friend who actually headed up a large banking institution for a time. His answer was “you are right to be very skeptical: English, availability of workforce, taxation, labor laws, contract law and legal framework. There will be some shifting at the margin but that’s it.” Brittania is not about to sink beneath the waves, folks.

Were UK property values overinflated? At least UK home prices don’t appear much more out-of-whack than US home prices do. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the UK national average home price from the Nationwide Building Society (in white) versus the US median existing home sales price.

USUKhomeprices

The picture looks more concerning if, instead of median home sales, you use the Case-Shiller Home Price Index as a comparison (see chart, source: Bloomberg). But while the CS20 is a superior measure of home prices, I’m always a bit wary of comparing two series that are constructed methodologically very differently. Still, this comparison would suggest UK prices have risen more than their US counterparts.

ukvsshiller

These comparisons are all on residential property, and I am comparing two markets which are likely both a bit overheated. But the scale of decline in the UK property funds seems to me to be too large relative to the overpricing that may exist, and I suspect it is more due (as I noted above) to the structure of the funds holding the property – which would suggest, in turn, that halting redemptions is the right thing to do to protect existing investors who would be disadvantaged if the portfolio was liquidated into a market that is not designed to have daily liquidity. Of course, the right answer is to not offer those liquidity terms in the first place…

One little niggling detail, however, deserves mention. I noted that UK home prices do not appear terribly out-of-whack relative to US home prices. The problem is that US home prices themselves appear out-of-whack by roughly 15-20%. The chart below (source: Bloomberg; Enduring Investments calculations and estimates) shows median home prices as a multiple of median incomes. What is apparent is that for many years these two series moved in lock-step, until the bubble; the popping of the bubble sent everything back to “normal” but we’re back to looking bubbly.

darndata

That said, I don’t believe the current drop in listed UK property funds is a rational response to correcting bubble pricing, and it’s probably a good opportunity for cool-headed investors…and, more to the point, cool-headed investors who aren’t expecting to liquidate investments overnight.

Categories: Housing, UK
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