Bitcoin Versus Tesla

July 18, 2017 3 comments

Last night, over drinks – a detail that will gain more salience when I describe the discussion – several friends and I were talking about lots of market-related items (as well as, of course, many non-market items).

The topics were as diverse as bitcoin, New Jersey Transit, and Tesla. However…and here’s where the drinks may have played a role…we also explored intersections of the elements of this set. For example, one of our party pointed out that fifteen Teslas would produce about the same power as a diesel locomotive, but at a fraction of the price. Given the recent record of New Jersey Transit’s locomotive fleet (among other problems), perhaps this is worth considering. Not only that, going to work in a train pulled by 15 Teslas would be much more stylish.[1]

A more interesting connection is between Bitcoin and Tesla.

In my book, I reflect at length about the significance of having money which is backed by something concrete (no matter what that is) compared to something backed only by faith – faith that other people will accept our money as a medium of exchange, in exchange for goods or services at rates reasonably predictable and not terribly volatile. Inflation is caused by too much money in the system; hyperinflation is what happens when a currency loses its anchor of confidence and people lose faith that these things will be true in the future. I talk a bit about how high rates of inflation, by eroding confidence, can lead to hyperinflation – but that’s only true of fiat currencies. If money is backed by something tangible, whether it is a precious metal or a bushel of rice, there are limits to how much it can depreciate in real terms and hyperinflation is difficult to come by in these circumstances.

In this context, consider Bitcoin or any of its crypto-currency brethren. Bitcoin is not backed by anything; indeed, it is backed by even less than the “classic” fiat currencies that issuing governments at least promise to accept in payment of citizen obligations to the government. This is not a critique – it simply is. Evidently, the inflation issue is not currently a problem with Bitcoin…as the chart below (source: Bloomberg) suggests, everything in the world is deflating in Bitcoin-equivalents.

But the fact remains that if something were to happen – such as the MtGox scandal a few years ago, at the left side of that chart – that affected people’s confidence that someone else would take Bitcoin in payment, then the value of Bitcoin could (and did) drop precipitously. At the extreme, Bitcoin could go to zero if no one was willing to accept it in exchange – for example, if for some reason it became impossible to confirm that the contents of your Bitcoin wallet was really yours.[2] There is no one you can turn to who is guaranteed to give you something real in exchange.

Now, no one thinks of Tesla as a currency. But, actually, equity securities representing ownership in Tesla could be considered a form of currency – you can exchange them for other items of value, although the usual way is to exchange them for dollars which can then be used to buy other items of value. I am not sure I would call  its price in exchange reasonably stable…but it’s certainly more stable than Bitcoin. Here’s the salient commonality, however: at the current price, representing a 11x price-to-book ratio, 6x price to sales ratio, and undefinable price to free cash flow (-$9.74/share free cash flow) or earnings, on a stock with negative net margins, ROA, ROE, and ROC, the price of Tesla is almost entirely faith-based. It is based on a quasi-religious belief by the equity owners that the CEO will manage to produce cars at a positive margin and maintain a large market share, which it will be able to maintain even once large auto manufacturers start to compete.

Far be it from me to question whether investors’ faith will prove well- or ill-founded. I will leave that to my friend @markbspiegel. I don’t own Tesla and have no plans to be long it or short it. My point, though, is that it is remarkably like Bitcoin in that it is backed primarily by faith and, as with any faith-based currency, is entirely based on that faith remaining unshaken. For the implications of having that faith shaken, see Enron in 2001 (chart below, source Bloomberg).

Interestingly, in the battle of Bitcoin versus Tesla it is the former that is winning. A share of Tesla in 2015 was worth 1 Bitcoin. Today, that share is only worth 0.14 Bitcoins (see chart, showing the ratio of Tesla to Bitcoin).[3]

All of which goes mainly to show – be careful when you go out for drinks with quant finance friends!

[1] We thought perhaps Elon Musk is just being coy, playing the long game before he springs this brilliant idea on the public. But today another friend of mine pointed out that it isn’t just the power you’re paying for but the sustainability of that power, and he estimated that 15 Teslas could only pull the train for about 8 miles. Oh well.

[2] “Preposterous!” shout the supporters of Bitcoin. Relax, I’m not saying this is something that will or could happen. It’s not a prediction. It’s merely a thought experiment.

[3] This is a ridiculous chart and it means nothing. But it’s fun. You should see what it looks like if you go back farther. In 2010, one share of Tesla was worth 300 Bitcoins!

Categories: Analogy, Bitcoin, Silly

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (July 2017)

July 14, 2017 2 comments

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. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • quick CPI review: last 3 months have been -0.12%, +0.07%, and +0.06% on core CPI – that is, basically flat.
  • three months before that were 0.22%, 0.31%, and 0.21%. Basically a 3% annualized rate. Which of these is “right”?
  • Market has become convinced something around the current 1.75% average is “right.” But we’ve had big misses both sides.
  • Consensus for today is for 0.2% on core, 1.7% y/y, but that’s a very narrow range. Basically 0.15% m/m gets both of those.
  • If we get 0.16%, then y/y should round up to 1.8% y/y. If we get 0.14%, then m/m rounds down to 0.1%.
  • Of course, recent months have shown us something wildly different is possible!
  • core CPI 0.119%, again below consensus…y/y drops to 1.71%.
  • This is closer to the summer lull we’ve seen recently. But still low. Here are the last 12 months of core CPI.

  • That chart is weird, looks like there was a dramatic effect in March that’s wearing off. But it’s actually been a series of one-offs.
  • Core services at 2.5% y/y, down from 2.6% (and down from 3.1% as recently as Feb). Core goods -0.6%, up from -0.8%.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter was basically unchanged at 0.6% y/y, matching 13-year lows.

  • Owners Equiv Rent was +3.23% y/y, Primary Rents 3.86% vs 3.85%. So the low print isn’t main part of housing.
  • But housing overall – the major subgroup – decelerated to 3.02% from 3.12%. So that deceleration is elsewhere.
  • Medical Care CPI was unchanged at 2.66% y/y.
  • Pharma inflation 3.31% from 3.34%. Professional Services 0.58% from 1.0%. But hospital services 5.65% from 4.95%.
  • This chart is physician’s services. I’m really curious about this.

  • An optimist could say ‘this is b/c high deductibles under Ocare force consumers to negotiate aggressively with doctors.”
  • Pessimist: “even if that’s true, it means fewer doctors tomorrow, ergo higher prices.” & where is this effect in hospital prices?
  • I don’t see anything very quirky in these numbers unlike past months. OER still converging with our model.

  • If there’s “nothing unusual,” it suggests underlying core rate is something near 1.5%. But inflation always on the way to somewhere.
  • Four-pieces breakdown: Food & Energy

  • Four-pieces breakdown: Core Goods. Still bumping along, but this will turn higher as USD weakens.

  • Four-pieces breakdown: Core Svcs less Rent of Shelter. This continues to be The Story.

  • Four-pieces breakdown: Rent of Shelter – as I said, ebbing but just because it was ahead of itself. Housing isn’t about to deflate.

  • As @pearkes points out, core services ex-housing largely a medical story, and that’s likely temporary. Chart for CPI medical care:

  • I find it ironic: if Ocare IS helping to contain health care, it’s b/c consumers negotiate harder when they don’t really have health care.
  • …which would seem to run counter to the professed reason for the ACA, which was to increase coverage. Is it working b/c it’s not working?
  • Enough CPI for today. Don’t forget to buy my book!
  • Also, good friend just published a thriller: He’s a very engaging author if you like fiction.

It was just a few months ago that we worried about whether core inflation was about to accelerate past 3%. Then, we had a few months where some people (not me!) worried that we were suddenly plunging into deflation and core inflation was around 0%. The reality seems to be somewhere in the middle. The recent ultra-low prints are clearly the results of one-offs, but it also seems as if the ongoing upward pressures – for example, in housing – have come off the boil as well. Back when rents were surging, I was worried that our model was perhaps not capturing some other dynamic and that rents would run away to the upside; in the event, it was probably just noise.

So what is the true underlying dynamic? We have to remember that economic statistics are just experiments – samples of an unknowable distribution. And, since economic data is very noisy, it usually takes a lot of data to be able to say for sure that something has changed. Economists and other prognosticators are usually not so patient. We got a weak number, and we want to say right now that something fundamental has changed. It doesn’t work that way.

Inflation data are usually fairly stable (once you strip out food and energy), so a couple of surprising figures is often enough to signal a changing dynamic. But one curious aspect of the last year’s worth of core inflation data is that it has been very volatile – in fact close to being the most volatile in the last twenty years:

There are a couple of implications to that observation, but the key one here is that it means it’s harder to reject any particular null hypothesis when the data are all over the place.

So here’s the summary: the main contributor to lower core inflation that is difficult to shrug off completely is the abrupt plunge in medical care inflation. This also happens to be the category that is most difficult to measure, since most consumers do not directly pay for much of their health care…or, anyway, they didn’t until Obamacare led to dramatic increases in deductibles. But that change in who pays for health care makes it very difficult to disentangle what the price of health care is actually doing, as opposed to the quantity of health care consumed. Very, very difficult.

My suspicion, based on direct observation and conversations with professionals in hospital and practice management, is that there are indeed pressures to contain healthcare costs, part of which are being caused by the fact consumers are having to negotiate directly with doctors for care and part of which are the result of other institutional pressures, such as the effect of Medicare/Obamacare legislation on formulary negotiations. Does that mean Obamacare is “succeeding?” If the sole purpose of the ACA was to lower health care costs by reducing the consumption of health care – maybe it is, at least in the short run. Certainly, there is a lot of energy on the entrepreneurial side dedicated to finding ways to cut costs, and lots of inefficiencies that can be wrung out…and, if “angry consumers” is the impetus for organizations finally wringing out these inefficiencies, I suppose that’s not a bad thing.

As I said earlier, I think it’s too early and there’s too much noise to say that something fundamental has changed. Heck, a year ago I thought medical inflation was about to run away on the upside (and I wasn’t alone, as the Republican sweep of Congress attests). I am not about to be fooled in the opposite direction as easily. What I will say is that I have trouble believing that inflation in the cost of physicians’ services is going to go negative, or stay near zero for a long time. I could be wrong, but I suspect that part of the pendulum will start to swing back over the next six months.

Categories: ACA, CPI, Tweet Summary

Horse Racing and Value Investing

June 28, 2017 1 comment

Momentum and value investing are two classes of strategies that, historically, alternate ascendancy in terms of which strategy is dominating the other. They are largely opposite strategies: a momentum investor buys a security because it has gone higher (because prices aren’t really a random walk, something which has gone up in price is more likely to continue to go up in price) while a value investor buys a security because it has gone lower (since the lower the buying price, the better the return on a security).

You can imagine the two strategies in the context of horse racing. The “momentum” strategy would be represented by betting on the “favorite,” the horse with the best odds to win as determined by the prior betting. (Some people think the track sets the odds on the horses, but that’s not the case. The payouts are based on the proportion of the entire betting pool allocated to bets on a particular horse, less the track’s vig. So, a horse with “good odds of winning” is simply the horse that has the most money bet on it to win.) That’s pretty close to exactly what a momentum investor in stocks is doing, right? A “value” investor, in the context of horse racing, is the person who bets on the long shots because they have big payoffs when they hit (and the bettor believes, obviously, that these unloved horses are irrationally disliked because most people like betting on favorites and winning frequent, small amounts instead of winning infrequent, large amounts.)

So at the track, sometimes the favorites win and sometimes the long shots win, and there are people in each camp that will tell you their strategy is the better one in the long run. I don’t know that there have been many studies of whether “value” or “momentum” investing in horse racing is the better strategy, but there have been numerous such studies in finance. Both value and momentum have been shown to improve investing strategies, with better risk-adjusted returns than simply buying and holding a capitalization-weighted basket of securities. They tend to have “seasons,” by which I mean long periods when one or the other of these strategies tends to be dominant. But it is very unlikely that either of these strategies could ever be the winner over the long run.

To see why, think of the horse track. Suppose everyone noticed that the favorites were winning, and so more and more money came in on the favorites. What would happen then is that the payoffs on the favorite would get worse and worse, and the payoff on the long shots would get better and better. Eventually, it would be very hard to make money betting the favorites unless they always won. On the other hand, if lots of money were to come in on the long shots, they wouldn’t be long shots for long. So neither strategy can dominate forever.

The same is true in finance. If everyone is betting on the previous winners, then eventually the “losers” become easy money, and vice-versa. The chart below (which is imperfect for a reason I’ll mention in a moment) illustrates the give-and-take. It shows the Russell 1000 “growth” index (RLG, in white) and the Russell 1000 “value” index (RLV, in orange). The source of the chart is Bloomberg.

You can see clearly how “growth” (which has similarities to momentum) outperformed in the Y2k bubble, depressing the heck out of value investors. But then value beat growth for a while, until the next bubble in 2007. The ensuing bear market crushed both strategies.

One caveat here is that the composition of the “growth” and “value” indices doesn’t change every day, and isn’t based on momentum, so that at the peak in 2007 a lot of stocks in the “value” index were not truly value stocks. But you get the general point.

The second, and more important caveat, applies to the years since 2009. This chart would lead one to believe that both value and growth stocks are doing equally well. And they are, given this definition of growth and value. But what this chart really means is that the distinction of “growth” and “value” are now less important than the single factor “momentum.” Whether you have a growth stock with momentum, or a value stock with momentum, is less important than if you compare performance to something else that does not have momentum.

We can illustrate this concept by calculating portfolios that are built to maximize momentum or value for a given risk constraint, and comparing the performance of the portfolios. I’ve done this for a bunch of different types of portfolios (different commodities, equities only, broad investor stock/bond/cash/commodity portfolios, etc) and they all look something like this chart, which shows the total returns of these two competing portfolios:

What I’m doing here is for the security universe in question, I’m calculating for each security a “momentum” score that is simply the year-on-year percentage change in price, and a simple “value” score that is the inverse of the four-year price change.[1] Then I optimize two portfolios, one which maximizes the value score and one which maximizes the momentum score, and then track that portfolio’s performance for the following month (whereupon the portfolios are reconstructed). If there was no memory to the momentum or value processes, these lines would wander around 100…a high momentum score would not increase next month’s performance, e.g.. But, evidently, it does and it has. Over the last three years, for this security universe, the “momentum” portfolio outperformed the “value” portfolios 78% of the time by a cumulative 50%. And this happens for every universe of securities I test. Even within commodities, which are universally hated, the high-momentum commodities are hated less.

Note that this is at the same time that in the first chart above the “growth” and “value” stocks have been performing about the same. This just means that the dispersion between growth and value has been narrow, which is another way that volatility is low.

As a value investor, this situation has been tortuous, and has led me to change the way we do certain things to keep from being purely value all the time. But as I said before, the situation cannot remain this way forever. Every computer is chasing every other computer, for now. But at some point, one of the computers will decide it’s time to lean the other way, and the first ones that do so will be the winners while the other computers start to chase momentum lower.

That might not be as fun for investors as the recent period has been, unless you’re the one who was getting paid on the nag at 200-1 odds.

[1] In this I am taking a cue from Asness, Moskowitz, and Pedersen, “Value and Momentum Everywhere,” Journal of Finance Vol LXVIII, #3, June 2013.

Inflation-Linked Bonds: For the Wary, but the “Wise?”

Only a quick article at the moment. This is longer than a tweet-length answer, but didn’t need to be super long.

A friend sent me the link to the following article from the FT:

Will UK inflation-linked bonds be the choice of the wise?

I must confess I don’t know about the answer to that question, although it is true that UK linkers – especially long linkers – are perennially rich thanks to pension fund demand. Below is a chart (source: Enduring Investments) that shows our analytical rich/cheap series for 10-year UK linkers.

But the article also includes a common gripe about inflation-linked bonds that isn’t really fair, and should be addressed. The argument is that inflation-linked bonds don’t really protect against inflation, because changes in real yields are much more impactful to the return than are changes in inflation.

This is true. It is also true that changes in nominal yields are much more impactful to the return of nominal bonds than is the coupon rate or yield on the bond. If you buy a 10-year Treasury yielding, say, 3%, and hold it for two years, you will most likely get a return quite a bit different from 3% because changes in the yield-to-maturity over that period overwhelms the yield of the bond (especially now). You only get 3% if you hold to maturity. (Well, technically you get 3% if you hold for a period equal to the Macaulay duration, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

So it isn’t fair to criticize inflation-linked bonds for not being an inflation hedge over every time period. As with nominal bonds, they are a perfect inflation hedge if held to the proper horizon, and a less-than-perfect hedge over different time periods.

However, you shouldn’t be trying to hedge inflation over the next week or month. You should be trying to hedge inflation over the long term. Accordingly, the fact that returns vary due to changes in real yields is not a damning fact about linkers. Unless, of course, you’re a highly levered participant.

Categories: Bond Market, Quick One, Theory, TIPS, UK

Inflation Trading is Not for the Weak

June 27, 2017 1 comment

I was prepared today to write a column about horse racing and value investing…that will have to wait until tomorrow…when this article was sent to me by about a dozen people:

Deutsche Bank Said to Face Possible $60 Million Derivative Loss

The article was sent my way because the loss was tied to a trade that used US dollar inflation derivatives, and since that’s a market I basically started back in 2003 folks figured I might want to know. And I do.

The inflation derivatives market is not huge. The chart below shows rolling 12-month inflation derivative volumes (source: BGC Partners) through last September, which was the last time I went looking for the data for a presentation. Total interbank volumes are around $10-15bln per month; customer volumes are not included here but are not insignificant (any more).

Most inflation books, especially these Volcker Rule days, are run pretty close to the vest. Most of these volumes will be set against customer flows, or against bond breakevens, or against other positions on the inflation curve. Net risk positions for any derivative book, especially these days, are pretty small…which is why Deutsche is investigating whether risk limits were breached in this case. In principle this should be easy to figure out, since DB and every other bank has risk control specialists whose job it is to monitor these risks.

But inflation risks are complex. Our firm breaks fixed-income risks down into six basis risks that add up to the net risk of a bond. For a TIPS bond, there is just one risk; for a corporate bond there will be six. Our risk schematic starts from real rate risks and builds up – unlike in most risk systems, which start with nominal risks and try to force real bonds to fit. Inflation-linked derivatives also have commodity deltas implied, since they are tied to headline inflation and headline inflation is tied largely to energy prices. Geez, I could write a book on this – it would be a combination of “Inflation Risks and Products[1] and, in this case, “Financial Shenanigans: How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks & Fraud in Financial Reports.”

Suffice it to say that even really sharp investors don’t always quite get it when it comes to inflation. In early 2014, a prestigious investment management firm took a multi-billion-dollar bath on a “risk-parity” product that hadn’t truly understood how to figure out the risks of TIPS. How much more difficult, then, is it for risk control officers, many of whom have shiny new Ph.D.s and very little direct market experience? A fast-talking trader who knows something about the product can, if he is unscrupulous, persuade risk control that he is not really taking risks that he knows, or ought to know, he is taking.

In short, I am sympathetic with the risk control guys in this case. They were probably outgunned by a slick operator pushing the limits of his limits. It’s almost assuredly the case: the market, as large as it is, is too small in the Volcker Rule era to allow the accumulation of a prudent position of large enough size to cause this sort of loss – especially in the recent period of exceptionally low market volatility.

This, then, is an object lesson: if you’re running inflation risk, and you think it’s pretty much like running nominal rate risk – you’re wrong, and you should get help before your firm’s name is the one in the Bloomberg article.[2]

Tomorrow, we can talk about horse racing.

[1] In which I co-wrote a chapter, on commodities actually, with Bob Greer.

[2] To be fair, in this case the problem was the combination of ignorance and what appears to be malfeasance. If you’re careful with your control structures and only hire high-quality people of sterling reputation, you shouldn’t have a problem with the second part of this formula.

Categories: Bond Market, TIPS, Trading

The Internet Has Not Killed, and Will Not Kill, Inflation

June 21, 2017 3 comments

Every few years or so, this story goes around to great acclaim: inflation is dead, killed by the internet. Recently, we have been hearing this story again, quite loudly. The purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon helped bring commentaries like these to the fore:

Credit Suisse’s Varnholt Says Internet Killed Inflation” (Bloomberg)

Low U.S. Inflation? It’s Your Phone: BlackRock Bond Manager” (New York Times)

Amazon Deal for Whole Foods Casts Doubt on Fed’s 2% Inflation Goal” (Barron’s)

And the list goes on and on. These are some of the more-reputable outlets, and they simply misunderstand the whole phenomenon. This isn’t unusual; almost no one really understands inflation, partly because almost no one these days actually studies something that most people presume isn’t worth understanding. (But pardon my ranting digression.)

The internet has not killed, and will not kill, inflation.

In the late 1990s, the internet was having a much greater relative impact. We went from having essentially zero internet in 1995, to a vast array of businesses in 1999 – most of whom were busy transferring money from capital markets to consumers, by raising equity investments which were then use to subsidize money-losing businesses (see especially: Amazon). And inflation? Core CPI in 1999 was 1.9% (Median CPI was 2.03%).

“But there’s more internet now than there was then!” runs the natural objection. Yes, and the internet was dramatically more impactful in 2001 than it was in 1999. Indeed, as the penetration of the internet economy exploded further despite the recession of 2000-2001, core inflation rose to 2.8% (Median CPI topped out at 3.33%) by late 2001.

There is always more innovation happening, whether it’s the 1940s or the 2010s. Innovation is a relatively steady process on the economy as a whole, but very dramatic on parts of the economy – and we tend to fixate on these parts. But there is no evidence that Uber is any more transformative now than Amazon was in the late 1990s. No evidence that Amazon now is any more transformative than just-in-time manufacturing was in the 1980s (in the US). And so on.

“But the internet and mobile technology pervades more of society!” Really? More of society than the J-I-T manufacturing innovation? More of society than airlines and telephones, both of which were de-regulated/de-monopolized in the 1980s? More of society than personal computers did in the 1990s? We all like to think we are living in unique times full of wonder and groundbreaking innovation. But here’s the thing: we always are.

“But Amazon bought Whole Foods and disrupted the whole food industry! How can you be more pervasive than food?” It remains to be seen whether Amazon is able to do what Webvan and FreshDirect and other food delivery services have been unable to do, and that is to remake the entire delivery chain for food at home. But let’s suppose this is true. Food at home is only 7.9% of the consumption basket, which is arguably less than the part of society that Amazon has already reorganized. Moreover, it’s a highly competitive part of society, with margins that are already pretty thin. How much fat is there to be cut out by Amazon’s efficiency? Some, presumably. But after Amazon makes some kind of profit on this improvement, how much of a decline in food prices could we see? Five percent, over five years? 10%? If Amazon’s “internetification” of the food-at-home industry resulted in a 10% decline in prices of everything we buy at the grocery store, over five years, that 2% per year would knock a whopping 0.16% off of headline inflation. Be still, my heart.

“In any event, this signals that competition is getting ever-more-aggressive.” No doubt, though it is ever so. But here is the big confusion that goes beyond all of the objections I’ve previously enumerated: microeconomic effects cause changes in relative prices; macroeconomics is responsible for changes in the overall price level. Competitive pressures in grocery may keep food prices down 10% relative to price increases in the rest of the economy. But suppose the money supply doubles, and all prices rise 100%, but food prices only rise 90%. Then you have your 10% relative deflation but prices overall still rose by a lot. If the governments of the world flood economies with money, no amount of competition will keep prices from rising. This is why there wasn’t deflation in 2010, despite a massive economic contraction in the global financial crisis and concomitant cutthroat competition for scarce customers in many industries.

So inflation isn’t dead, and neither is this myth. It will come back again in a few years – I am sure of it.

Housing Disinflation Isn’t Happening Yet

June 19, 2017 8 comments

Before everyone gets too animated about the decline in core inflation, with calls for central banks to put the brakes on rate normalization, let’s realize that the main drivers of lower inflation over the last few months – zero rise in core CPI over three months! – are not sustainable. I’ve written previously about the telecommunications-inflation glitch that is a one-off effect. Wireless telephone services fell -1.38% month-over-month in February (not seasonally adjusted), -6.94% in March, and -1.73% in April. In May, the decline was -0.06%. Here is a chart, courtesy of Bloomberg, showing the year-to-date percentage declines for the last decade. The three lines at top show the high, average, and low change over the prior decade, so you can see the general deflationary trend in wireless telecom services and the historical outliers in both directions. The orange line is the year-to-date percentage change. Again, the point here is that we cannot expect this component of inflation to deliver a similar drag in the future.

The other main drag comes from a less-dramatic decline in a much-larger component: Owners’ Equivalent Rent. In this month’s CPI tweetstorm, I pointed out that this decline is mostly just returning the OER trend to something closer to our model (see chart below), but many observers (who don’t have such a model) have seen this as a precursor to a more-significant decline in rents.

This is actually a much more-important question than the dramatic, and easy-to-diagnose, issue of wireless telecommunications, because OER is a ponderous category. You can’t get high inflation without OER rising, and you can’t get deflation or even significant disinflation without OER declining. It’s just too big. So what are the prospects for OER rolling over?

Here are two reasons that I think it’s very unlikely that this is a precursor to a significant decline in housing inflation.

First, while I understand that rent increases in some parts of the country are moderating, they are always moderating somewhere in the country. Owners’ Equivalent Rent tends to parallel primary rents (“Rent of Primary Residence,” which measures the actual price of a rental unit as opposed to implied rent of an owner-occupied dwelling) reasonably well, and when home prices are rising it tends to imply that rents – as the price of a substitute, at least for the consumption part of home prices – are also rising. (A house is both an investment asset and a consumption good, and the BLS’s method for separating these two components of a home recognizes that the consumption component should look a lot like the substitute). And the fact is that Primary Rents are not (yet?) decelerating much (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Yes, I understand and agree that home prices are already too high to be sustainable in the long run. Either incomes need to outpace home prices for a while, or home prices need to decline again, or we need to become accustomed to housing becoming a permanently larger part of our consumption and asset mix (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

But is that going to happen? Well, here are two charts that should make you somewhat skeptical that at least on the supply side we are about to see a decline in home prices. First, here is the index of Housing Starts, which last month took a nasty drop. Even without the nasty drop, though, notice that the level of starts was not only far below the level of the last few peaks in the housing market, but actually not far above the troughs reached in the recessions of the mid-1970s, early 1980s, and early 1990s. The only reason the current level of starts looks high is because homebuilders basically stopped building for a few years after the housing bubble.

Homebuilders stopped building because there was suddenly plenty of inventory on the market! In the immediate aftermath of the bubble, the homes that were available for sale were often distressed sellers and as prices rose, more and more of the so-called “shadow inventory” (people who wanted to sell, but were now underwater and couldn’t sell) was freed. This kept a lid on overall housing starts, but the net effect is that even now, when most of that shadow inventory has presumably been liquidated (a decade after the bubble and at new price highs), the inventory of existing homes available for sale has become and has remained quite low (see chart, source Bloomberg).

The supply side, then, doesn’t seem to offer much cause to expect home prices to moderate, even if their prices are relatively high. I’d want to see an overreaction of builders, adding to supply, before I’d worry too much about another bust, and we haven’t seen that yet. So we have to turn to the demand side if we expect home prices to decline. On that side of the coin, there are two arguments I sometimes hear: 1) household formation in the era of the Millennial is low, or 2) households don’t buy as much housing as they used to.

There is no evidence that household formation has slowed in recent years. As the chart below (source Bloomberg) shows, household formation has been rising since 2009 or so, and is back in line with long-term trends. Millennials may have weird notions of home life (I don’t judge!), but they still form households of their own.

As for the second point there…notice that I phrased the question as whether Millennials are buying less housing, rather than as buying fewer homes. I think it’s plausible to suggest that Millennials might demand fewer homes to buy, but it’s hard to imagine that they’re neither going to rent nor buy homes – and if they do either, they are demanding shelter as a consumption item. It just becomes a question of whether they’re demanding rental housing or owned housing.

The upshot of this is that there’s no sign yet of a true ebbing in housing/rental inflation. And until there is, there’s scant need to fear a disinflationary trend taking hold.

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