Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (April 2019)

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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties. 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.

  • CPI in under 10 minutes. Gentlefolk, start your engines!
  • Start with the consensus: this month economists are calling core 0.18% m/m, and 2.1% y/y.
  • Remember that last month, core was 0.11%, in a downside surprise driven by pharmaceuticals and autos, while Rents were actually somewhat bubbly again.
  • However, Median inflation turned out to be 0.26%, pushing y/y to basically tie the post-crisis highs at 2.77%.
  • That should lead you to suspect that there were some ‘tail effects’ last month that could be reversed this month. So that would make me marginally bullish this number, all else equal.
  • Now, there’s talk about the fact that the BLS is changing its collection method for Apparel to use a direct feed from retailers rather than manual price-sampling.
  • Some people think the change in the method of collecting Apparel prices should depress Apparel, but I’m not really sure why that would be so unless there was some systematic bias in collections pushing prices higher.
  • If so, I’m not sure it’s showing. Apparel is -0.76% y/y. In any event, Apparel is only 3% of CPI so effect should be quite small. And apparel recently has been weak. So I’m not too worried about that. Famous last words, I guess.
  • Core prints at 0.1%, 2.0% y/y. But that’s not as weak as it looks. It was actually something like 0.148%, whereas market was looking for 0.18% or so…y/y is 2.04%. So both barely rounded down.
  • last 12 months’ core CPI chart. Just bumping sideways. We ought to be back to 2.1% y/y next month, as we drop off a weak April 2018 print.

  • Well, trust the bow-tied set, I suppose. Apparel -1.94% m/m, -2.2% y/y. I guess those manual price checkers were pushing prices up, after all. (?)
  • And CPI for Used Cars and trucks, second month in a row, weak at -0.38%. That’s lower than Black Book (which has been a much better fit than Manheim since last year’s methodology change) suggests it should be.

  • But more importantly and lastingly – rents remained firm, with primary rents +0.42% m/m and OER +0.32% m/m. That keeps OER stable y/y and raises Primary rents to 3.68% y/y.
  • Primary rents y/y. Not sure if this is an aberration because I don’t track market rents. Seems unusual for late in the cycle, but wage growth has been strong and supports this dynamic. But seems a bit strong.

  • Pharma bounced, rising to -0.39% y/y from -1.19% y/y. But the downtrend doesn’t seem terribly damaged.

  • Core ex-housing drooped a little bit, not surprisingly given the breakdown. Core ex-shelter is 1.10%, down from a 1.54% November high but still well above the 2017 lows of 0.53%.
  • Interestingly, like last month where Used Cars fell and New Cars gained, the same thing happened this month. Used cars & trucks went to 0.44% y/y vs 1.11%; New cars to 0.72% from 0.29%. A little odd, but just wiggles.
  • Although Medicinal Drugs re-accelerated slightly, Professional Services (doctors)) decelerated to 0.39% from 0.97% y/y, as did Hospital and related services (1.94% from 2.12%). As a result, Medical Care WOULD have decelerated but for Health insurance.
  • Always worth a reminder: health insurance in the CPI is a residual, since CPI measures only the portion of medical care that individuals pay directly. But it rose to 9.06% y/y from 7.66%.

  • This chart is why we like to ignore core and focus on median. Clearly a lot of left-tail stuff going on.

  • Primary rents y/y. Not sure if this is an aberration because I don’t track market rents. Seems unusual for late in the cycle, but wage growth has been strong and supports this dynamic. But seems a bit strong.
  • So, having said that…my early guess at median CPI is for +0.27%, which would push median to 2.85%, clearly the highest since the end of the crisis. We will have to wait a couple of hours for the official figure.
  • Four pieces. Not much change this month except in the last piece. Here’s Food & Energy.

  • Piece 2: Core goods. Dragged down by used cars, pharmaceuticals. Our models have this still going higher so I think these are one-off effects.

  • Core services less rent-of-shelter. Doctors, hospitals dragging this down. Be wary if Medicare-for-all proposals start to gain traction; if they do then I’d suspect doctors and hospitals would start to raise prices before their prices get fixed or cut.

  • Part 4 is Rent of Shelter. I’ve been saying forever that we’re not getting deflation because this isn’t about to fall off a cliff. On the contrary, it’s actually moved above our ensemble model.

  • So, here’s our ensemble model for OER. Primary rents are actually a [little] bit above our model. As you can see, we’re expecting a gradual slackening of rental pressures. BUT…

  • …but our model based on income (not shown) rather than home prices is actually calling for higher rents. You can argue that higher wages have helped produce these higher rents.

  • But if that’s the case, it means that when inflation is actually rising, looking back at home prices is NOT the right way to do it. Indeed, if the wage hypothesis is the driver then we’d expect to see a divergence in Primary and OER rents that leads shelter costs higher.
  • ..there’s no real sign yet that primary rents are accelerating way past OER, but it’s something to keep an eye on if rent inflation continues to surprise on the upside.

  • That’s all for now. Thanks for tuning in.

The upshot of today’s report is that while there are lots of small one-offs that are making sharp moves lower, and each of them has the potential to cause month-over-month mischief, the broad body of prices is remaining stable and/or edging higher. Regardless of what happens to apparel (Women’s and Girls’ Apparel, Men’s and Boys’ Apparel, and Footwear accounted for the three largest declines this month) or used or leased cars and trucks, housing costs appear to be moving higher.

It is early to be certain about this, but there have been anecdotes about faster rent growth in places and there are some signs (as in the rent chart above) that these pressures are diffusing more broadly. With strong wage growth, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if there was more household formation (there has been, although not a huge amount) and more pressure on rents as people move up. How this resolves is key to the medium-term outlook. If higher wages help to push rents higher, and continue to put downward pressure on the number of existing homes available for sale (see below, source Bloomberg), then core inflation is simply not going to droop lower in the way the Fed expects it will. If, on the other hand, this is just a temporary rise, then the one-off declines in core inflation will eventually be joined by soggy rents and core will drift somewhat lower.

Either way, I see little chance that core or median inflation will even remotely approach the lows from the last cycle, even if we enter recession later this year as I expect. To get there, housing would need to implode again and the dynamics are simply too healthy for that at the moment.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (March 2019)

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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties. 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.

  • About 6 minutes to CPI. Consensus calls for 0.2% on core. The last few have been 0.20, 0.23, 0.18, and 0.24.
  • y/y core should stay at 2.2% after rounding – We are dropping off 0.174% and it would take a really weak figure to push y/y lower and a really strong one to make it round to 2.3%.
  • Last month, one of the big drivers was primary rents. Pundits saw last month’s CPI as very strong; I thought it was only slightly above expectations.
  • It’s surprising to see the forecasts at 0.2% on core, actually, given the narratives about how strong that inflation figure was, and how it came from Rents that many forecasters are bearish on. I thought we’d see 0.1% forecasts.
  • So we’ll watch primary rents of course, but I still think the trend in core goods is an interesting one to watch. Last month y/y core goods reached the highest level since 2013. Just barely out of deflation, but with the trade situation that’s where we want to watch.
  • So, here we go. Good luck all.
  • Yep, there we go. Core CPI only 0.11%, making the y/y 2.08%. Just when pundits were finally thinking inflation could be a “problem,” and stopped forecasting weakness…we get weakness!
  • Last 12. You can see why people were worrying if you cover the last bar. But the uptrend was not as big as it looked. And we’re really just bumping along in the 2.1-2.3% zone on core.

  • There are some interesting crosscurrents in this number. Remember how I said Rents were strong last month? They were again this month. Y/Y Primary rents rose to 3.51% from 3.43%; OER went to 3.32% from 3.21%. Lodging Away from Home another jump.

  • Other Goods and Services were +0.54% m/m, which is a big jump for a catch-all category. Worth drilling deeper. Medical Care and Recreation had big drops.
  • Core Goods dropped to 0.1% y/y from 0.3%. A significant contributor there was a decline in CPI-Used Cars and Trucks, which fell to 1.1% from 1.6% y/y. That’s not as big a deal as you think. But it’s big enough to matter at the margin in core goods.
  • Our model has core goods rising a bit further, and you can see that even a simple look like a correlation with core import prices suggests we should see a bit more. And with tariffs, hard to think the dip in core goods sticks.

  • I mentioned Used cars and trucks fell, but New vehicles rose to 0.29% y/y from 0.04%, reversing last month’s decline. Overall, used and new together (which is 7% of CPI!) fell to 0.49% from 0.92%.
  • Now let’s look at medical care. 1.73% y/y from 1.90% for the broad category. Medicinal drugs fell to -1.12% y/y from -0.36%. Again, core goods. Actually I wonder what core goods ex pharma and cars must have been doing so core goods only fell to 0.1% from 0.3% y/y!
  • Now this is really interesting. Pharma as I said was negative, and is continuing an amazing trend. But think this looks amazing?

  • Here’s what the pharma looks like in terms of level. Medicine prices have peaked? Is the move to biologics, which tend to be cheaper, accelerating and causing this? Or…

  • …or is this just another period like 2012-2013, when we had a temporary slowdown (driven by medicare if I recall) but then caught up? FWIW, my guess is that this slowdown represents a real evolution in care, though I don’t think we’ve seen the end of pharmaceuticals.


  • Back to Medical Care: Professional Services fell to 0.97% from 1.16% y/y; Hospital and Related Services decelerated to 2.12% from 2.44%. This is helping hold down core services generally. But Health Insurance (which in CPI is a residual) rose smartly. Now 7.66% y/y from 6.46%.
  • Here’s health insurance. Only 1.1% of CPI, which is one way you know it’s just a residual. CPI accounts for the increase in care costs mostly directly so this chart doesn’t show the full story of what’s happening in insurance. But it’s a cool chart.

  • College Tuition and Fees rose to 3.13% from 2.93%. It has started to rise again partly because market returns were worse last year (60/40 was -2.4% and many other asset classes declined too).

  • Biggest declines on the month, with annualized rates of change: Car and Truck Rental (-57%), Jewelry and Watches (-34%), Leased Cars and Trucks (-18%), and Medical Care Commodities (pharma) (-11%).
  • Biggest increases on the month, with annualized rates of change: Misc Personal Goods (52%), Men’s and Boys’ Apparel (50%), Infants’ and Toddlers’ Apparel (33%), Fuel Oil and Other Fuels (21%).
  • This month we will again be reminded why looking at Median CPI matters. My guess at Median CPI is 0.26%, which would bring y/y back up to 2.78%. Won’t know for a few hours.
  • Lest we think that inflation markets behave rationally…here are 10-year inflation swaps in red, against current median CPI. Calling for a lot of deceleration that we’re not seeing in the data yet.

  • Core ex-shelter declined this month to 1.18% y/y from 1.39%. OK, so that’s one place we’re seeing deceleration. So you might say that inflation markets are betting on a serious deceleration in housing inflation.
  • Well, we see a slowdown in OER, but not such a large one that long-term inflation swaps look fair.

  • So for the cherry on top here are the four pieces charts. Each one is about a quarter of CPI, plus or minus, in order of least stable to most. First is Food and Energy.

  • Second piece is core goods. Setback this month, but I’m not convinced that used cars and trucks are leading the way on this series at the moment.

  • Core Services less Rent of Shelter. Here’s where the disinflationists need to make hay. And medical care inflation is helping them. Hard to see anything but a downtrend here at the moment.

  • On the other hand, Rent of Shelter – the most stable component – continues to NOT COLLAPSE as some are expecting it to. Yes, shelter costs are outrunning wage growth. But not so much any more, thanks to accelerating wages.

  • Actually, that wages/rents thing is a bit of a canard. Here is the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Indicator vs Rent of Shelter. Wages have actually been keeping up fine with housing inflation. (& the increased cost of housing is one reason people are fighting for higher wages).

  • In conclusion, until I think of something else: last month CPI wasn’t as strong as people thought; this month is isn’t as weak as people think. With interest rates soggy the risk of a serious inflation debacle in this stroke of the economic cycle is receding. However…
  • …however, I do think that we are unlikely to see in the next recession anything like the dip we saw in the last recession. There’s a lot of good news in the figure right now. And when interest rates start to rise again, we’re going to see a higher high.
Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

What if ‘Excess Reserves’ Aren’t Really Excess?

March 4, 2019 2 comments

One intriguing recent suggestion I have heard recently is that the “Excess” reserves that currently populate the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve aren’t really excess after all. Historically, the quantity of reserves was managed so that banks had enough to support lending to the degree which the Fed wanted: when economic activity was too slow, the Fed would add reserves and banks would use these reserves to make loans; when economic activity was too fast, the Fed would pull back on the growth of reserves and so rein in the growth of bank lending. Thus, at least in theory the Open Markets Desk at the New York Fed could manage economic activity by regulating the supply of reserves in the system. Any given bank, if it discovered it had more reserves than it needed, could lend those reserves in the interbank market to a bank that was short. But there was no significant quantity of “excess” reserves, because holding excess reserves cost money (they didn’t pay interest) – if the system as a whole had “too many” reserves, banks tended to lend more and use them up. So, when the Fed wanted to stuff lots of reserves into the system in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and especially wanted the banks to hold the excess rather than lending it, they had to pay banks to do so and so they began to pay interest on reserves. Voila! Excess reserves appeared.

But there is some speculation that things are different now because in 2011, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision recommended (and the Federal Reserve implemented, with time to comply but fully implemented as of 2015) a rule that all “Systematically Important Financial Institutions” (mainly, really big banks) be required to maintain a Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) at a certain level. The LCR is calculated by dividing a bank’s High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) by a number that represents its stress-tested 30-day net outflows. That is, the bank’s liquidity is expressed as a function of the riskiness of its business and the quantity of high-quality assets that it holds against these risks.

In calculating the HQLA, most assets the bank holds receive big discounts. For example, if a bank holds common equities, only half of the value of those equities can be considered in calculating this numerator. But a very few types of assets get full credit: Federal Reserve bank balances and Treasury securities chief among them.[1]

So, since big banks must maintain a certain LCR, and reserves are great HQLA assets, some observers have suggested that this means the Fed can’t really drain all of those excess reserves because they are, effectively, required. They’re not required because they need to be held against lending, but because they need to be held to satisfy the liquidity requirements.

If this is true, then against all my expectations the Fed has, effectively, done what I suggested in Chapter 10, “My Prescription” of What’s Wrong with Money? (Wiley, 2016). I quote an extended section from that book, since it turns out to be potentially spot-on with what might actually be happening (and, after all, it’s my book so I hereby give myself permission to quote a lengthy chunk):

“First, the Federal Reserve should change the reserve requirement for banks. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain. In this case, the Fed has the power (and the authority) to, at a stroke, redefine reserves so that all of the current “excess” reserves essentially become “required” reserves, by changing the amount of reserves banks are required to hold against loans. No longer would there be a risk of banks cracking open the “boxes of currency” in their vaults to extend more loans and create more money than is healthy for an economy that seeks noninflationary growth. There would be no chance of a reversion to the mean of the money multiplier, which would be devastating to the inflation picture. And the Open Markets Desk at the Fed would immediately regain power over short-term interest rates, because when they add or subtract reserves in open market operations, banks would care.

“To be sure, this would be awful news for the banks themselves and their stock prices would likely take a hit. It would amount to a forcible deleveraging, and impair potential profitability as a result. But we should recognize that such a deleveraging has already happened, and this policy would merely recognize de jure what has already happened de facto.

“Movements in reserve requirements have historically been very rare, and this is probably why such a solution is not being considered as far as I know. The reserve requirement is considered a “blunt instrument,” and you can imagine how a movement in the requirement could under normal circumstances lead to extreme volatility as the quantity of required reserves suddenly lurched from approximate balance into significant surplus or deficit. But that is not our current problem. Our current problem cries out for a blunt instrument!

“While the Fed is making this adjustment, and as it prepares to press money growth lower, they should work to keep medium-term interest rates low, not raise them, so that money velocity does not abruptly normalize. Interest rates should be normalized slowly, letting velocity rise gradually while money growth is pushed lower simultaneously. This would cause the yield curve to flatten substantially as tighter monetary conditions cause short-term interest rates in the United States to rise.

“Of course, in time the Fed should relinquish control of term rates altogether, and should also allow its balance sheet to shrink naturally. It is possible that, as this happens, reserve requirements could be edged incrementally back to normal as well. But those decisions are years away.”

If, in fact, the implementation of the LCR is serving as a second reserve requirement that is larger than the reserve requirement that is used to compute required and “excess” reserves, then the amount of excess reserves is less than we currently believe it to be. The Fed, in fact, has made some overtures to the market that they may not fully “normalize” the balance sheet specifically because the financial system needs it to continue to supply sufficient reserves. If, in fact, the LCR requirement uses all of the reserves currently considered “excess,” then the Fed is, despite my prior beliefs, actually operating at the margin and decisions to supply more or fewer reserves could directly affect the money supply after all, because the reserve requirement has in effect been raised.

This would be a huge development, and would help ameliorate the worst fears of those of us who wondered how QE could be left un-drained without eventually causing a move to a much higher price level. The problem is that we don’t really have a way to measure how close to the margin the Fed actually is; moreover, since Treasuries are a substitute for reserves in the LCR it isn’t clear that the margin the Fed wants to operate on is itself a bright line. It is more likely a fuzzy zone, which would complicate Fed policy considerably. It actually would make the Fed prone to mistakes in both directions, both over-easing and over-tightening, as opposed to the current situation where they are mostly just chasing inflation around (since when they raise interest rates, money velocity rises and that pushes inflation higher, but raising rates doesn’t also lower money growth since they’re not limiting bank activities by reining in reserves at the margin).

I think this explanation is at least partly correct, although we don’t think the condition is as binding as the more optimistic assessments would have it. The fact that M2 has recently begun to re-accelerate, despite the reduction in the Fed balance sheet, argues that we are not yet “at the margin” even if the margin is closer than we thought it was previously.

[1] The assumption in allowing Treasuries to be used at full value seems to be that in a crisis the value of those securities would go up, not down, so no haircut is required. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, especially if the crisis were to be caused, for example, by a failure of the government to pay interest on Treasuries due to a government shutdown. The more honest reason is that if the Fed were to haircut Treasuries, banks would hold drastically fewer Treasuries and this would be destabilizing – not to mention bad for business on Capitol Hill.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (February 2019)

February 14, 2019 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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties. 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.

I usually post these the day of CPI but I was traveling and didn’t get to do so. These were my tweets in the immediate aftermath of the CPI report.

  • About 15 minutes to CPI. Today’s stream-of-consciousness will be a little more relaxed since I’m at a conference in Florida at the moment!
  • As for the number today, here are some thoughts.
  • We’ve recently begun to see some reduction in pressure from truckload rates upstream. Not down, but rising more slowly. Bottlenecks in overland are easing somewhat. Higher prices are still passing through but less alarm about it.
  • Housing price increases have also been slowing. Again, we’re talking second-derivative stuff; they aren’t falling nationwide. Rents are loosely related to prices, so I don’t think we’ll see much downward pressure there yet, but it’s a meme at the moment.
  • Wage growth remains strong, but wages lag inflation so that’s not much illumination.
  • There is decent momentum in some other categories, and…tariffs. Remember we don’t need tariffs to get worse growth/inflation outcomes than the last 20 years; we just need less forward progress on trade. And we have that for sure! (Again with the second derivatives??)
  • I’ve been expecting an interim peak in median CPI later in 2019. It’s not here yet, and I might still be wrong about that and see it climb further. Inflation after all is a process with momentum. But that’s my current expectation.
  • However, I ALSO don’t expect that when median CPI eventually turns lower that it will fall anywhere close to the prior lows. I think we’ve begun a long-term cycle of higher highs and higher lows in inflation.
  • Now, money growth is picking up again, and higher rates over the last year imply higher velocity going forward. But globally we have more negative-rate debt, so that’s dampening. But the macro pressures on inflation remain to the positive side.
  • For today, the Street sees 0.2% on core, dropping y/y to 2.1% because drop off a difficult +0.3% comp from last January. The January figure sees a number of interesting cross currents. I suspect there’s a smidge of upside risk to this number, but I have low confidence on that.
  • We will see, in 5 minutes.
  • ok, 0.24% on core CPI, a bit higher than expected and BARELY kept core from rounding lower to 2.1%, even dropping off the strong Jan 2018

  • 15% is core to 2 decimal places y/y.
  • Primary rents 0.31% m/m after 0.21%, but y/y still declined to 3.43% vs 3.47%. As I said, rents only loosely related to prices and rent slowing has still been only at the margin.
  • Owners’ Equiv Rent was 0.27% vs 0.22% last, with y/y unchanged at 3.21%. So the big chunk of housing was reasonably strong. Actually Lodging Away from Home, which had a very large jump last month, had another decent rise this month. It’s only 0.9% of CPI but no “AirBnB” effect.
  • So the macro interesting thing is that core services declined to 2.8% y/y, thanks to the gradually slowing housing I think, while core goods rose to 0.3%.
  • That’s the highest core goods since 2013. Our models think this is headed up to 0.5% before flattening, but … tariffs. Our models don’t include them. This is the underlying pressure.

  • OK, so Apparel is 0.11% y/y, basically unchanged. Jump this month, but that looks seasonal. Medical care declined to 1.90% y/y vs 2.01%. Recreation rose to 1.36% vs 1.14%.
  • There was some chatter that a change the BLS made in how it accounts for quality change in some communications categories could drag down the CPI like cell phones did last year, but it’s a much smaller effect. Education/Communication was 0.31% y/y vs 0.21% last month.
  • Sorry for the interlude…some tech glitch. Anyway…picking up. Education was 2.72% y/y vs 2.62% last month; Communication was -1.68% vs -1.76%. So the rise in Education/Communication was from both parts.
  • Not so in Medical Care. Medical Care Commodities were -0.28% vs -0.50%; Med Care Services 2.45% vs 2.64%. So the overall small decline in Medical Care (1.90% vs 2.01% y/y) was basically entirely from the “Hospital and Related Services” category (2.44% vs 3.64%).
  • The other Medical Care categories – medicinal drugs, Professional Services, and Health Insurance – all rose. But they were counterbalanced by the Hospital part.
  • Median this month might be really interesting. Rough calculation suggests that a housing sub-category that Cleveland Fed calculates might be the median category so it’s hard to tell. But I think Median y/y will drop from 2.77% to 2.64%. Might even be worse.
  • Core ex-housing fell to 1.39% from 1.51%. So, there’s definitely some signs of softness here even though Core Goods is providing upward pressure. Working on the 4-pieces breakdown now.
  • Core ex housing chart. Sorry not too many charts today. Little harder to do remotely.

  • OK the four pieces. For those new to this analysis, I break CPI into these four pieces, each roughly 1/4 of CPI (19%-33%).

  • Here are the four pieces, from most-volatile to least-volatile. Part 1 is Food and Energy. Clearly holding down headline CPI but this is why we look through it. Look at that y axis!

  • Part 2 is Core Goods. With the trade frictions, this is presently the most interesting piece. Even if the tariffs implemented by the Administration are dropped, we’ve still stopped the forward trade momentum of the last quarter century. So this bears watching.

  • Core Services less Rent of Shelter. A lot of this is Medical Care, and while it looked like we might be breaking the long downtrend recently…maybe not so much.

  • Finally, rent of shelter. Off the highs, but our models don’t have it dropping seriously. Housing prices still rising, albeit more slowly. And rents, while high relative to wages, are now getting a following wind from rising wages. I suspect this will meander.

It seems, from reading the other post-mortems, that some people saw this as a very strong number. It really wasn’t…slightly stronger than expected. But I guess it depends on your state of mind coming in. I’ve thought the underlying run rate of core CPI was something like 0.22% per month, and with seasonal issues in January thought we’d be a touch higher than consensus. I suppose if you thought inflation was falling off a cliff you might have expected something much weaker. The composition, too, was solid but unspectacular. Again, if you thought rents were about to collapse then you were surprised that it was only down a little on a y/y basis. The core goods rise is important, but again – not unexpected.

So is inflation running “hot”? Well, if you think 2.2% is hot, I suppose so. But Median CPI also declined on a y/y basis, as have wages recently. Don’t get me wrong, I think inflation is still rising and probably will for most of this year. But it’s not shooting higher and if I were at the Fed and if I believed what they believed, I wouldn’t be alarmed by this number (I am not at the Fed and I don’t believe what they believe, for the record).

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

The Downside of Balancing US-China Trade

January 18, 2019 Leave a comment

The rumor today is that China is going to resolve the trade standoff by agreeing to balance its trade with the US by buying a trillion dollars of goods and services over the next four years. The Administration, so the rumor goes, is holding out for two years since that will look better for the election. They should agree to four, because otherwise they’re going to have to explain why it’s not working.

I ascribe approximately a 10% chance that the trade balance with China will be at zero in four years. (I’m adjusting for overconfidence bias, since I think the real probability is approximately zero.) But if it does happen, it is very bad for our financial markets. Here’s why.

If China buys an extra trillion dollars’ worth of US product, where do they get the dollars to do so? There are only a few options:

  1. They can sell us a lot more stuff, for which they take in dollars. But that doesn’t solve the trade deficit.
  2. They can buy dollars from other dollar-holders who want yuan, weakening the yuan and strengthening the dollar, making US product less competitive and Chinese product more competitive globally. This means our trade deficit with China would be replaced by trade deficits with other countries, again not really solving the problem.
  3. They can use the dollars that they are otherwise using to buy financial securities denominated in dollars, such as our stocks and bonds.

The reality is that it is really hard to make a trade deficit go away. Blame the accountants, but this equation must balance:

Budget deficit = trade deficit + domestic savings

If the budget deficit is very large, which it is, then it must be financed either by running a trade deficit – buying more goods and services from other countries than they buy from us, stuffing them with dollars that they have no choice but to recycle into financial assets – or by increased domestic savings. So, let’s play this out and think about where the $500bln per year (the US trade deficit, roughly, with the rest of the world) is going to come from. With the Democrats in charge of Congress and an Administration that is liberal on spending matters, it seems to me unlikely that we will see an abrupt move into budget balance, especially with global growth slowing. The other option is to induce more domestic savings, which reduces domestic consumption (and incidentally, that’s a counterbalance to the stimulative growth effect of an improving trade balance). But the Fed is no longer helping us out by “saving” huge amounts – in fact, they are dis-saving. Inducing higher domestic savings would require higher market interest rates.

The mechanism is pretty clear, right? China currently holds roughly $1.1 trillion in US Treasury securities (see chart, source US Treasury via Bloomberg).

China also holds, collectively, lots of other things: common equities, corporate bonds, private equity, US real estate, commodities, cash balances. Somewhere in there, they’ll need to divest about a trillion dollars’ worth to get a trillion dollars to buy US product with.

The effect of such a trade-balancing deal would obviously be salutatory for US corporate earnings, which is why the stock market is so ebullient. But it would be bad for US interest rates, and bad for earnings multiples. One of the reasons that financial assets are so expensive is that we are force-feeding dollars to non-US entities. To the extent that we take away that financial inflow by balancing trade and budget deficits, we lower earnings multiples and raise interest rates. This also has the effect of inducing further domestic savings. Is this good or bad? In the long run, I feel reasonably confident that having lower multiples and more-balanced budget and trade arrangements is better, since it lowers a source of economic leverage that also (by the way) tends to increase the frequency and severity of financial crack-ups. But in the short run…meaning over the next few years, if China is really going to work hard to balance the trade deficit with the US…it means rough sledding.

As I said, I give this next-to-no chance of China actually balancing its trade deficit with us. But it’s important to realize that steps in that direction have offsetting effects that are not all good.

RE-BLOG: Britain Survived the Blitz and Will Survive Brexit

January 14, 2019 Leave a comment

Since tomorrow is a big day in the saga of Brexit, I thought I’d re-post the article I wrote on June 24, 2016, when the UK first decided to leave. (You can find the original post here). Two and a half years on, and civilization has not yet collapsed, and in fact the forecasts of immediate and unavoidable disaster have turned out to be somewhat overblown. No matter; people have just rolled the forecasts forward to the actual date of hard Brexit. Buy your canned goods now! My opinion is unchanged – seen from the perspective of a few years, a hard Brexit is not going to be the cataclysm that some predict.

So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?

As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.

Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.

But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.

Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.

As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.

These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.

A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.

Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.

Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!

Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.

One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.

We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.

Categories: Euro, Re-Blog, UK

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (January 2019)

January 11, 2019 Leave a comment

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 or Enduring Intellectual Properties. 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.

  • A few minutes to CPI. Consensus 0.2%, 2.2% y/y on core, pretty much on the dot. That’s slightly lower on core than last month, which ALMOST rounded to 2.3%, but dropping off a strong Dec ’17. Remember Median is 2.82%, near the highs.
  • it will be hard to get a ‘handle surprise’ on core CPI today. But watch Apparel, which has been weirdly weak despite tariff tensions. Used cars/trucks has been strong for a couple months and is due to be back normal, but not to “retrace” as it was too low before.
  • In general, look at core goods, which last month went flat after a long time in deflation. And keep an eye on core-ex-shelter, which is near multi-year highs.
  • 21% on core, 2.21% y/y. Basically a consensus number.
  • Pretty stable last few months of core.

  • Core goods 0.1% y/y, down from 0.2% y/y last month. Core Services unch at 2.9% y/y.
  • Core goods right on schedule.

  • OER 0.23% m/m, dropping y/y because of base effects back to 3.22%. Had been a y/y bounce last year because of those base effects but now pretty much back to trend. Primary rents 0.20%, 3.48% y/y, also down.
  • Inflation bears will point at “Lodging Away from Home,” +2.74% m/m, and say that is an aberration. But it’s really just reversing a very weak recent aberration. Y/y up to 0.91%; had been -1.37%. So ignore those people.
  • Pharma was weak, at -0.43% m/m and -0.58% y/y.

  • Doctors services also remains fairly low. Hospital Services however accelerated to 3.67% y/y from 3.52% y/y. Overall, Medical Care was roughly steady at 2% y/y.

  • Used Cars and Trucks was -0.18%, dropping y/y to 1.43% vs 2.30%. It was due to decelerate, and that’s roughly in line.

  • Apparel is back to positive y/y, at +0.3% vs -0.6%, but that’s mostly base effects. Only very small rise this month. That continues to be a head-scratcher. I’d expect to see trade frictions show up in apparel quickly. But this is a Dec number, and so maybe stockpiling pre-xmas.
  • Core ex-housing was 1.50% y/y, down slightly from 1.53% y/y last month. That remains near 5-year highs, but still waiting for the break higher.
  • Core ex-shelter chart.

  • By the way, if you have kids I hope they’re girls. In apparel, Boys’ apparel is +13.1% y/y…Men’s footwear is +4.3%…nothing else is over +0.5%.
  • Recreation is a pretty small part of CPI (5.7%), but rose from 0.61% y/y to 1.16% y/y. Inflation in Cable and Satellite Services, Pets and Pet Products, and “Admissions” were the main culprits. Pets are “recreation?” I think of them more as Transportation. Or Food.
  • Just kidding.
  • College Tuition and Fees +2.7% y/y, up a small amount but continuing to run ahead of headline and core.
  • Looks like a regional housing index will be the median category this month, which means my median guess isn’t as sharp. My estimate is 0.23% m/m, making the y/y 2.80% down from 2.83%. Median is a better measure of inflation trend since it ignores outliers.
  • This is an important chart. It shows Median CPI (without today’s number, not out yet) vs 10-year inflation swaps. You can see how bearish the market has gotten recently. Some of this is oil but these are 10y swaps so that shouldn’t matter much.

  • I almost forgot to mention that Wireless telephone services weakened again to -3.19% from -3.03% y/y. More interestingly, Land-line went to -0.02% from 0.46%. Even more interesting, land-line spending is only about a third as large as wireless. Here’s a chart of landline.

  • Let’s wrap this up with the four-pieces charts. First piece is food & energy. Weirdly linear deceleration.

  • The piece I think is a very important story going forward: core goods. Out of deflation and I think it’s going higher. This is where trade tensions are most important.

  • Core services less Rent of Shelter…still look to be in a downtrend, mostly thanks to medical. If we’re going to have an inflation accident, it should also show up here.

  • Rent of Shelter. Going nowhere fast. And that means you’re not getting deflation any time soon.

  • Final thought: next month we drop off a +0.35% m/m from core (from Jan ’18), which means it is pretty likely we see a drop in core towards 2%. That makes a Fed hike harder. But then the comparisons get easier, as my 12-month m/m core CPI chart showed.
  • Core is unlikely to drop below 2% any time soon, and in my view we’re likely to see 2.5% before 1.9%, and median inflation above 3% before long. But the Fed has a couple months’ reprieve before the choices get tougher.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in.

Today’s CPI number is an acceptable one for the Fed. Right on the screws, showing no unanticipated accelerations. But also, no decelerations! Next month, core should decelerate, but that is likely to be the last good news for a while on inflation. Now, there are some reasons to think that the upward trend on inflation might be ending sooner than I have thought, and I’ll get into those reasons over the next week or two. But for now, the story is that the Fed has some breathing room to stop and watch for a while, and avoid some critical Presidential tweets while seeming to be principled. The difficult test will come in a few months when inflation starts heading higher even while growth, and stock markets, head lower. It may well be that we have seen the last tightening for a while – if the Fed Chair were Bernanke or Yellen, they’d already be easing, but Powell seems to be made of sterner stuff (but read my prior post about whether there is a Powell put). However, it has been easy up until now, with growth strong enough to take some hikes, inflation heading the wrong direction, and rates below any semblance of neutral. The next year or two is where the Fed’s job gets difficult as they have to navigate crosscurrents.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary
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