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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2021)

June 10, 2021 1 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, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments!

  • It’s #CPI day again! Welcome to my data walk-up. And a special welcome to all the new followers this month. I can probably plot new followers as an indicator of interest in the subject of inflation.
  • As the inflation guy, I ALWAYS look forward to this day but this is one that is going to be a lot more-widely watched than most. And for good reason.
  • Last month, core CPI shocked everyone with a +0.92% m/m reading, the highest in 40 years; the y/y core was the highest in a quarter-century. And this month, the y/y core will rise to the highest level since the early 1990s. Only question is what year in the early 1990s.
  • That’s baked in the cake; the comp from last May was -0.07% so core will rise today, by a lot. Consensus is +0.5% m/m, pushing y/y to ~3.5%. The inflation swaps market is slightly above that, more like 0.6%. And the swaps market has been right on the last couple of surprises.
  • Before we relitigate last month’s print, let’s actually look to the PRIOR month, the March figure that dropped [ed. note: meaning, “was released”, not “declined”] in April. With last month’s fireworks we forget that March’s number (+0.34% m/m on core) was also a surprise. Moreover, it was a BROADER surprise.
  • The March CPI was NOT flattered by airfares and used cars, which were the main culprits from last month. Nor by rents. It was due to large moves in small components that no one was expecting to see jump.
  • Honestly we could see last month’s jump coming (maybe not that much). March was a true surprise.
  • THAT is the story we need to be watching behind the fireworks. The Enduring Inflation Diffusion Index, meant to measure the breadth of inflation pressures, last month reached the highest level since 2012.
  • The Fed can write off Used Cars as “transitory.” But it’s less plausible that EVERYTHING is transitory.
  • (At some level, “Transitory” doesn’t really mean anything useful unless you specify the period – see my note “All Inflation is Transitory” https://mikeashton.wordpress.com/2021/05/20/all-inflation-is-transitory/ )
  • So now moving forward to April’s figure last month. Used cars and airfares were both up more than 10% m/m. Lodging Away from Home rose 7.65% m/m. And that was the reason for the massive move.
  • Spoiler alert: last month’s rise in Used Cars CPI is only a fraction of what is still coming. See chart of the Black Book index vs the CPI for Used Cars.
  • Does that mean we will get another 10% rise in Used Cars this month? It actually could be worse (although the rise in the data could also smear over several months). This is why it’s not heroic to forecast 0.5% m/m on core CPI. Can get there easily.
  • Airfares and Lodging Away from Home should also see upward pressure but there are more zigzags there. But what I really want to look at are Primary Rents (you are a renter) and Owners’ Equivalent Rent (you own your home).
  • The eviction moratorium, which by my estimate is dampening overall core CPI by around 0.9% through the medium of rents and OER, is still in place. So we DON’T have an a priori reason to look for a rental jump. Thus if we get one – it will be caused by something else.
  • That something else is that as the country has opened up, and people have been moving hither and yon, rents have been jumping (along with home prices) even more than before. And some of that might find its way into the CPI. It probably should.
  • Without housing turning higher, it’s hard to sustain big inflation figures. But rents are going to turn higher, just not clear exactly when.
  • And of course, I’ll be looking at the broader pressures down the stack to the little stuff. That’s where the high cost of containers, plastics and packaging, freight, and the shortage of labor (among many other things) is going to show up.
  • MY GUESS is that rents stay tame with just a little uptick, used cars are still strong, we see a little strength from new cars as well, and we get another above-consensus number. I can come up with scary scenarios for this print. It’s harder to come up with gentle ones.
  • Well it should be a barn-burner. Up until now, the Fed hasn’t cared. Last month got them to talk about talking about someday maybe not doing as much QE. Another month might accelerate that talking about talking. Especially if it’s more than Used Cars.
  • But the comps get “harder” for the next 3 months; Jun-Aug 2020 were +0.24%, +0.54%, and +0.35% on core CPI. So we’ll need the strength to last into the fall before the Fed gets truly nervous. And I still think the clear majority doesn’t put inflation as a serious priority.
  • It’s up to the bond vigilantes to push the Fed to being more serious about inflation. But the bond vigilantes are enjoying the “Greenspan put” equivalent in the bond world.
  • Buckle up! That’s my walk-up. Number is out in a few.

  • Surprise! It’s a surprise. 0.7% on core.
  • Actually 0.74% m/m on core, for those who still care about hundredths! Y/y is 3.80%.
  • Core highest since June 1992.
  • Lagarde comments that inflation pressures in Europe remain subdued. READ THE ROOM!
  • Used cars +7.29% m/m. OER +0.31%. Primary Rents +0.24%. Airfares +6.98%. All of those are m/m.
  • Used Cars…still could have more to go!
  • Another month of changing the scale on my charts. Here is core goods and core services. Core goods (used cars) is getting the play but don’t ignore the recovery in core services.
  • That rise in core services is with Medical Care very very soft. Pharma (which is core goods) was -0.08% m/m; Doctors’ Services -0.03%; Hospital Services +0.16%. This remains a real conundrum.
  • Apparel was +1.22% m/m. Now, apparel is only 3% of the overall CPI, but I think we’re seeing the effect of shipping costs here since most apparel is imported.
  • The small rise in rents was in line with my expectation. But we haven’t yet seen any of the real jump to come when the eviction moratorium is ended.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter was +4.94% y/y. That’s something we haven’t seen since 1991. Of course, that’s also mostly cars at this point. Need to get further down the stack to see how broad it is.
  • It probably though IS worth noting that the rise in core-ex-shelter isn’t compensating for a prior collapse. It dipped some in early COVID. But we’re way beyond that.
  • I’d also mentioned expecting to see some participation in new cars. Here is y/y. Partly this is rise in the price of a substitute, part is increased costs (from plastics and rubber to steel).
  • Rise in New Car prices is a little harder to explain away than used cars, which is spiking partly because of 2020 rental fleet shrinkage, which leaves the supply of used cars tight.
  • Car and Truck Rental: tiny category but visceral. +10% m/m. If you’re traveling this summer and haven’t rented your car yet…you may already be too late. It’s hard to find them.
  • Domestic Services +6.42% m/m NSA. Moving/storage/freight expense (from consumer’s perspective) +5.5% m/m NSA, +16.2% y/y.
  • Early look at Median CPI, which gives a better look at pressures without outliers…my estimate is +0.32% m/m. That would be the highest in two years if I’m right. Median is never going to be as volatile as core, but we don’t want to see it +0.3% m/m regularly.
  • Key point about median and core though: in a disinflationary environment core will generally be below median. In an inflationary environment, it will generally be above. So if we’re shifting environments so all the tails are higher, then the core/median switch will persist.
  • My first glance at 10y breakevens since the number finds them +4bps on the day. They’ve been under pressure recently, I suspect less because people thought this would be a soft number and more because they’re looking for higher-inflation-beta products like commodities.
  • As a brief aside, I think people underappreciate what breakevens could do if there is a movement in investor allocations. There’s nearly $2 Trillion of TIPS outstanding. But the FLOAT is nowhere near that. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
  • Let’s see: rents tame with a little uptick. Check. Cars still strong. Check. a little strength from new cars as well. Check. Another above-consensus number. Check!
  • Let’s see. Biggest losers and gainers. No category had an annualized decline more than 10%. But above 10%: Infants/Toddler’s Apparel, Motor Vehicle Parts & Equipment, Meats Poultry Fish & Eggs, Household Furnishings and Equipment, Footwear, Women’s & Girls’ Apparel, (more)
  • Fuel Oil & other Fuels, Jewelry & Watches, Public Transportation, Used Cars and Trucks, Car and Truck Rental, Leased Cars and trucks.
  • Haven’t run this chart in a few months. Shows the distribution of lower-level price changes, y/y. The big middle finger is mostly OER. But look at not just the far right tail but the group between 3% and 5%.
  • Just a couple more items here. The diffusion index and then four-pieces. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index rose to its highest level since 2012 today. Another way to look at the broadening of price pressures.
  • We will do the four-pieces charts and then wrap up. The four-pieces charts is a simple way of looking at the drivers of inflation. Each of the pieces is very roughly 1/4 of the index (20%-35% actually). But it puts like-with-like.
  • …and they’re also in roughly volatility-order. First, Food & Energy. BTW a lot of this is food for a change. Food inflation is not pretty. But this is ‘non-core.’
  • Piece 2 is core goods. We’ve already seen this. New and Used Cars, Medicinal Drugs, e.g. Clearly this is a big driver at the moment.
  • Piece 3 is core services less rent of shelter. And there’s no comfort here. This includes medical services, which really aren’t doing anything. Household services. Car rental. Stuff like that.
  • And lastly the slowest moving piece, Rent of Shelter. This is rising, but right now it’s mostly because of lodging-away-from-home. To be fair that was a big part of the prior slide. Rents as we have already seen aren’t doing a lot. Yet.
  • If you want to be optimistic about inflationary pressures, you want to have rents stay tame. This is really hard when home prices and asking rents are shooting higher. If you want inflation to be transitory, you really need a home price collapse. I don’t see that…
  • Not to say home prices aren’t a bit frothy right now. But the conditions for them to collapse nationally, pulling rents and thus inflation down with them as in 2009-10, don’t seem to be there. But that’s the biggest/only risk I see to higher inflation through 2021-22.
  • That’s all for today. I’ll publish a compiled tweet list on my blog later this morning. You can get that blog at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com . But if you want more than talk, visit Enduring Investments at https://enduringinvestments.com and drop me a line.
  • Thanks for tuning in. Hope all of you new followers are generous with your RT and follow recommendations!

A second month of large increases in core inflation should be followed by a second month of Fed speakers downplaying the importance of the ‘transitory’ price increases. The rise in used cars and lodging away from home play into that narrative, but there are broader pressures here and they will show up more this month in other inflation measures such as median or ‘sticky’ CPI. But if bond yields don’t respond to the inflation threat, then neither will the Fed. Talk is cheap, and it is easy to say that inflation pressures will be “transitory” (and surely, they won’t continue at 0.8% per month on core), but when that talk is backed up by a placid government bond market it keeps the pressure off of the FOMC to do anything.

To be sure, I don’t really expect the Fed to be doing anything anyway. While the entire Committee isn’t exactly in line, Chairman Powell is the vote that matters. And he (along with the moral support from Treasury Secretary Yellen) continues to repeat that inflation is not a problem, and anyway it isn’t as important as making sure that everyone has a job, at any cost. (Students of history should note that the early days of the Weimar inflation saw a similar preoccupation with getting everyone employed, even if money had to be printed to do it!)

So, we continue to watch our money lose value, with the policymakers continuing to fiddle while Rome burns. There are places to hide, but they will get crowded pretty quickly once everyone realizes they need shelter. I don’t think this inflation is “transitory” in anything but a trivial sense that it will eventually pass. We don’t have to get to 8% inflation for it to be damaging to the psyche of the investor, consumer, and producer who has become acclimated to 2%. Sustained core inflation near 4% would be sufficient to break the back of the disinflation of the last forty years, in my view. We should get a test of that thesis, because we aren’t going to see appreciably lower core numbers until sometime in 2022.

Why the M2 Slowdown Doesn’t Blunt My Inflation Concern

April 12, 2018 1 comment

We are now all good and focused on the fact that inflation is headed higher. As I’ve pointed out before, part of this is an illusion of motion caused by base effects: not just cell phones, but various other effects that caused measured inflation in the US to appear lower than the underlying trend because large moves in small components moved the average lower even while almost half of the consumption basket continues to inflate by around 3% (see chart, source BLS, Enduring Investments calculations).

But part of it is real – better central-tendency measures such as Median CPI are near post-crisis highs and will almost certainly reach new highs in the next few months. And as I have also pointed out recently, inflation is moving higher around the world. This should not be surprising – if central banks can create unlimited amounts of money and push securities prices arbitrarily higher without any adverse consequence, why would we ever want them to do anything else? But just as the surplus of sand relative to diamonds makes the former relatively less valuable, adding to the float of money should make money less valuable. There is a consequence to this alchemy, although we won’t know the exact toll until the system has gone back to its original state.

(I think this last point is underappreciated. You can’t measure an engine’s efficiency by just looking at the positive stroke. It’s what happens over a full cycle that tells you how efficient the engine is.)

I expect inflation to continue to rise. But because I want to be fair to those who disagree, let me address a potential fly in the inflationary ointment: the deceleration in the money supply over the last year or so (see chart, source Federal Reserve).

Part of my thesis for some time has been that when the Fed decided to raise interest rates without restricting reserves, they played a very dangerous game. That’s because raising interest rates causes money velocity to rise, which enhances inflation. Historically, when the Fed began tightening they restrained reserves, which caused interest rates to rise; the latter effect caused inflation to rise as velocity adjusted but over time the restraint of reserves would cause money supply growth (and then inflation) to fall, and the latter effect predominated in the medium-term. Ergo, decreasing the growth rate of reserves tended to cause inflation to decline – not because interest rates went up, which actually worked against the policy, but because the slow rate of growth of money eventually compounded into a larger effect.

And so my concern was that if the Fed moved rates higher but didn’t do it by restraining the growth rate of reserves, inflation might just get the bad half of the traditional policy result. The reason the Fed is targeting interest rates, rather than reserves, is that they have no power over reserves right now (or, at best, only a very coarse power). The Fed can only drain the inert excess reserves, which don’t affect money supply growth directly. The central bank is not operating on the margin and so has lost control of the margin.

But sometimes they get lucky, and they may just be getting lucky. Commercial bank credit growth (see chart, source Federal Reserve) has been declining for a while, pointing to the reason that money supply growth is slowing. It isn’t the supply of credit, which is unconstrained by reserves and (at least for now) unconstrained by balance sheet strength. It’s the demand for credit, evidently.

Now that I’ve properly laid out that M2 is slowing, and that declining M2 growth is typically associated with declining inflation (and I haven’t even yet pointed out that Japanese and EU M2 growth are both also at the lowest levels since 2014), let me say that this could be good news for inflation if it is sustained. But the problem is that since the slowing of M2 is not the result of a conscious policy, it’s hard to predict that money growth will stay slow.

The reason it needs to be sustained is that we care about percentage changes in the stock of money plus the percentage change in money velocity. For years, the latter term has been a negative number as money velocity declined with interest rates. But M2 velocity rose in the fourth quarter, and my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests it probably rose in Q1 as well and will rise again in Q2 (we won’t know Q1’s velocity until the advance GDP figures are reported later this month). If interest rates normalize, then it implies a movement higher in velocity to ‘normal’ levels represents a rise of about 12-14% from here (see chart, source Bloomberg.[1])

If money velocity kicks in 12-14% over some period to the “MVºPQ” relationship, then you need to have a lot of growth, or a pretty sustained decline in money growth, to offset it. The following table is taken from the calculator on our website and you can play with your own assumptions. Here I have assumed the economy grows at 2.5% per year for the next four years (no mean feat at the end of a long expansion).

The way to read this chart is to say “what if velocity over the next four years returns to X. Then what money growth is associated with what level of inflation?” So, if you go down the “1.63” column, indicating that at the end of four years velocity has returned to the lower end of its long-term historical range, and read across the M2 growth rate row labeled “4%”, you come to “4.8%,” which means that if velocity rises to 1.63 over the next four years, and growth is reasonably strong, and money growth remains as slow as 4%, inflation will average 4.8% per year over those four years.

So, even if money growth stays at 4% for four years, it’s pretty easy to get inflation unless money velocity also stays low. And how likely is 4% money growth for four years? The chart below shows 4-year compounded M2 growth rates back thirty or so years. Four percent hasn’t happened in a very long time.

Okay, so what if velocity doesn’t bounce? If we enter another bad recession, then it’s conceivable that interest rates could go back down and keep M2 velocity near this level. This implies flooding a lot more liquidity into the economy, but let’s suppose that money growth is still only 4% because of tepid credit demand growth and velocity stays low because interest rates don’t return to normal. Then what happens? Well, in this scenario presumably we’re no longer looking at 2.5% annual growth. Here’s rolling-four-year GDP going back a ways (source: BEA).

Well, let’s say that it isn’t as bad as the Great Recession, and that real growth only slows a bit in fact. If we get GDP growth of 1.5% over four years, velocity stays at 1.43, and M2 grows only at 4%, then:

…you are still looking at 2.5% inflation in that case.

I’m going through these motions because it’s useful to understand how remarkable the period we’ve recently been through actually is in terms of the growth/inflation tradeoff, and how unlikely to be repeated. The only reason we have been able to have reasonable growth with low inflation in the context of money growth where it has been is because of the inexorable decline in money velocity which is very unlikely to be repeated. If velocity just stops going down, you might not have high inflation numbers but you’re unlikely to get very low inflation outcomes. And if velocity rises even a little bit, it’s very hard to come up with happy outcomes that don’t involve higher inflation.

I admit that I am somewhat surprised that money growth has slowed the way it has. It may be just a coin flip, or maybe credit demand is displaying some ‘money illusion’ and responding to higher nominal rates even though real rates have not changed much. But even then…in the last tightening cycle, the Fed hiked rates from 1% to 5.25% over two years in 2004-2006, and money growth still averaged 5% over the four years ended in 2006. While I’m surprised at the slowdown in money growth, it needs to stay very slow for quite a while in order to make a difference at this point. It’s not the way I’d choose to bet.


[1] N.b. Bloomberg’s calculation for M2 velocity does not quite match the calculation of the St. Louis Fed, which is presumably the correct one. They’re ‘close enough,’ however, for this purpose, and this most recent print is almost exactly the same.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

April 17, 2015 3 comments

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments.

  • Core CPI+0.23% m/m is the story, with y/y upticking to 1.754% (rounded to +1.8%). This was higher than expected, by a smidge.
  • Core services +2.4% y/y down from 2.5%. But core goods -0.2%, up from -0.5% last mo and -0.8% two months ago. Despite dollar strength!
  • Core ex-housing rose to 0.91% y/y from 0.69% at the end of 2014. Another sign core inflation has bottomed and is heading back to median.
  • The m/m rise of 0.20% in core ex-shelter was the highest since Jan 2013.
  • Primary rents 3.53% y/y from 3.54%; OER 2.693% from 2.687%. Zzzzz…story today is outside of housing, which is significant.
  • Accelerating major groups: Apparel, Transport, Med Care, Recreation (32.1% of index). Decel: Food/Bev, Housing, Educ/Comm, Other (67.9%)
  • …but again, in housing the shelter component (32.7% of overall CPI) was unch at ~3% while fuels/utilities plunged to -2.26% from flat.
  • [in response to a question “Michael we have been scratching our heads on this one… is it some impact of port strike do you think?”] @econhedge I don’t think so. But core goods was just too low. Our proxy says this is about right.
  • @econhedge w/in core goods, Medical commodities went to 4.2% from 3.9%, new cars from 0.1% to 0.3%, and Apparel to -0.5% from -0.8%.
  • @econhedge so you can argue Obamacare effect having as much impact as port strike. But it’s one month in any case. Don’t overanalyze. 🙂
  • Medicinal drugs at 4.46% y/y. In mid-2013 it was flat. That was a big reason core CPI initially diverged from median. Sequester effect.
  • @econhedge Drugs 1.70%, med equip/supplies 0.08% (that’s percentage of overall CPI). 8.7% and 0.4% of core goods, respectively.
  • Median should be roughly 0.2%. I have it up 0.21% m/m and 2.22% y/y, but I don’t have the right seasonals for the regional OERs.
  • Further breakdown of medical care commodities: the biggest piece was prescription drugs, +5.74% y/y vs 5.19%. The other parts were lower.

The main headline of the story is that core inflation rose the most month-over-month since May. After a long string of sub-0.2% prints (that sometimes rounded up), this was a clean print that would annualize to 2.7% or so. And it is no fluke. The rise was broad-based, with 63% of the components at least 2% above deflation (see chart, source Enduring Investments, and keep in mind that anything energy-related is not part of that 63%) and nearly a quarter of the basket above 3%.

abovezero

This is no real surprise. Median has consistently been well above core CPI, which implied some “tail categories” were dragging down core CPI. These tail categories are still there (see chart, source Enduring Investments), but less than they had been (compare to chart here). Ergo, core is converging upward to median CPI. As predicted.

distrib

The next important step in the evolution of inflation will be when median inflation turns decisively higher, which we think will happen soon. But that being said, a few more months of core inflation accelerating on a year/year basis will get the attention of the moderates on the Federal Reserve Board. I don’t think it will matter until the doves also take notice, and this is unlikely to happen when the economy is slowing, as it appears to be doing. I don’t think we will see a Fed hike this year.

Summary of my Post-CPI Tweets

Below you can find a recap and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments.

  • core CPI +0.157%, so it just barely rounded to +0.2%. Still an upside surprise. Y/Y rose to 1.69%, rounding to 1.7%.
  • y/y headline now +0.0%. It will probably still dip back negative until the gasoline crash is done, but this messes up the “deflation meme”
  • (Although the deflation meme was always a crock since core is 1.7% and rising, and median is higher).
  • Core ex-housing +0.78%. Still weak.
  • Core services +2.5%. Core goods -0.5%, which is actually a mild acceleration. So the rise in core actually came from the goods side.
  • Accelerating major cats: Apparel, Transp. Decel: Food/Bev, Housing, Med care, Recreation, Other. Unch: Educ/Comm. But lots of asterisks.
  • Shelter component of housing rose back to 3% (2.98%) y/y; was just fuels & utilities dragging down housing.
  • Primary rents: +3.54% y/y, a new high. Owners’ Equiv Rent: 2.69%, just off the highs.
  • In Medical Care, Medicinal Drugs 4.13% from 4.16%, but pro services +1.47 from +1.71 and hospital services 3.28% from 4.08%.
  • In Education and Communication: Education decelerated to 3.5% from 3.7%; Communication accel to -2.2% from -2.3%.
  • 10y breakevens +3bps. Funny how mild surprises (Fed, CPI) just run roughshod over the shorts who are convinced deflation is destiny.
  • No big $ reaction. FX guys can’t decide if CPI bullish (Fed maybe changes mind and goes hawkish!) or bearish (inflation hurts curncy).
  • Here’s my take: Fed isn’t going to be hawkish. Maybe ever. So this should be a negative for the USD.

This CPI report was a smidge strong, but just a smidge. The market was looking for something around 0.12% or so on core, and instead got 0.16%. To be sure, this is another report that shows no sign of primary deflation, but still it amazes me that inflation breakevens can have such a significant reaction to what was actually just a mild surprise. That reaction tells you how pervasive the “deflation meme” has become – the notion that the economies of the world are headed towards a deflationary debt spiral. I am not saying that cannot happen, but I am saying that it will not happen unless somehow the central banks of the world decide to stop flushing money into the system. And honestly, I see no sign whatsoever that that is about to happen.

As I wrote last week, it should be no surprise that this is a dovish Fed that will perpetually look for reasons to not tighten, and will do so only when the market demands it. My guess is that will happen once inflation, breakevens, and rates rise, and stocks fall. And this doesn’t look imminent.

Outside of housing, core inflation still looks soft. But housing inflation is accelerating further, as has been our core view for some time. The chart below (data source: Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in primary rents is at 3.54%. The median in primary rents for the period for 1995-2008 (the 13 years leading up to the crisis) was 3.20%. And during that time, core inflation ex-housing was 1.72% (median).

primrents

Like most data, you can use this to argue two diametrically-opposed positions. You might argue that the Fed’s loose money policy has helped re-kindle a bubble in housing, as inflation in rents of 3.54% with other core prices rising at 0.78% suggests that housing is in a world of its own. Therefore, the Fed ought to be removing stimulus, and tightening policy, to address the bubble in housing (and the one in equities) and to keep that bubble from bleeding into other markets and pushing general prices higher. But the flip side of the argument is that core inflation outside of housing is only 0.78%, so therefore if the FOMC starts removing liquidity then we may have primary deflation, ex housing. Accordingly, damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead on easing.

The data itself can be used right now to make either argument. Which one do you think the Fed will make?

Follow-up question: given that the Fed has historically one of the worst forecasting records imaginable, which argument do you think is actually closer to correct?

 

The Answer is No

February 18, 2015 2 comments

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

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

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

Which this ain’t.

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

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

10ybe

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

The minutes also focused on core inflation:

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

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

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

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

December 17, 2014 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy :

  • 1y inflation swaps and gasoline futures imply a 1-year core inflation rate of 0.83%. Wonder how much of that we will get today.
  • Very weak CPI on first blush: headline -0.3%, near expectations, but core 0.07%, pushing y/y core down to 1.71% from 1.81%.
  • Ignore the “BIGGEST DROP SINCE DECEMBER 2008” headlines. That’s only headline CPI, which doesn’t matter. Core still +1.7% and median ~2.3%
  • Amazing how core simply refuses to converge with median. Whopping fall in used cars and trucks and apparel – which is dollar related.
  • Core services +2.5%, unch; core goods -0.5%, lowest since 2008. But this time, we’re in a recovery.
  • Medical Care Commodities, which had been what was dragging down core, back up to 3.1% y/y. So we’re taking turns keeping core below median.
  • Core ex-housing declines to +0.800%, a new low.
  • That’s a new post-2004 low on core ex-shelter.
  • Accel major groups: Food, Med Care (22.5%) Decel: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Recreation, Educ/Comm, Other (77.5%). BUT…
  • But in housing, Primary Rents 3.482% from 3.343%, big jump. Owners’ Equiv to 2.707% from 2.723%, but will follow primaries.
  • Less-persistent stuff in housing responsible for decline: Lodging away from home, Household insurance, household energy, furnishings.
  • Real story today is probably Apparel, which is clearly a dollar story. Y/y goes to -0.4% from +0.6%. Small weight, but outlier.
  • Similarly used cars and trucks, -3.1% from -1.7% y/y (new vehicles was unch at 0.6% y/y).
  • On the other hand, every part of Medical Care increased. That drag on core is over.
  • Curious is that airfares dropped: -3.9% from -2.8%. SHOULD happen due to energy price declines, but in my own shopping I haven’t seen it.
  • I don’t see persistence in the drags on core CPI. There’s a rotation in tail-event drags, which is why median is still well above 2%.
  • We continue to focus on median as a better and more stable measure of inflation.
  • Back of the envelope calc for median CPI is +0.23% m/m, increasing y/y to 2.34%. Let’s see how close I get. Number around noon. [Ed. note: figure actually came in around 0.15%, 2.25% y/y. Not sure where I am going wrong methodologically but the general point remains: Median continues to run hotter than core, and around 2.3%.]

Quite a few tweets this morning! The number was clearly roughly in-line on a headline basis: gasoline prices have dropped sharply, in line with crude oil prices. How much? Motor Fuel dropped from -5.0% y/y to -10.5% y/y. The monthly decline was over 6%, and so a decline in headline inflation on a month/month basis was all but certain. Had core inflation been as low now as it was in 2010, we would have seen a year-on-year headline price decline (as it is, headline CPI is +1.3% y/y).

However, core inflation is not as low as it was in 2010. It continues to surprise us by failing to converge upwards to median CPI. Last year, the reason core CPI was inordinately low compared to the better measure of central tendency (median) was that Medical Care inflation was weak thanks to the effects of the sequester. But that effect is now gone. Medical Care inflation is back to 2.5% on a year-on-year basis; this month’s print was the highest in over a year. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in Medical Care Commodities (e.g. pharmaceuticals) – back to normal.

medcarecommod

The 2013 dip is very clear there, and the return to form is what we expected, and the reason we expected core inflation to return to median CPI. But it hasn’t yet; indeed, core is below median by around 0.6%, the biggest spread since 2009. Now, it may be that core is simply going to stay below median for an extended period of time as one category after another takes turns dragging core lower. From 1994-2009, core was almost always lower than median. That was a period of disinflationary tendencies, and the fact that different categories kept trading off to drag core CPI lower was one sign of these tendencies.

I do not think we are in the same circumstances today. Although private debt levels remain very high (weren’t we supposed to have had deleveraging over the past six years? Hasn’t happened!), public debt levels have risen dramatically and the latter tends to be associated with inflation, not deflation. Money supply, especially here in the US, has also been growing at a pace that is unsustainable in the long run and it seems unlikely that the Fed can really restrain it until they drain all of the excess reserves from the system. These are inflationary tendencies. The risk, though, is that the feeble money growth in Europe could suck much of this liquidity away and move global inflation lower. This is an especially acute risk if Japan’s monetary authorities lose their nerve or if other central banks rein in money growth. In such a case, global inflation would decline so that, while US inflation rises relatively, it falls absolutely. I don’t consider this a major risk, but it is a risk which is growing in significance.

Of course, all of that and more is priced into inflation-linked bond and derivative markets, as well as in commodities. Only a massive and inexplicable plunge in core inflation could render the market-based forecasts correct – and there is no sign of that. Housing inflation continues to rise, and the soonest we can see that peaking is late next year. Getting core inflation to decline appreciably while housing inflation is 2.6% and rising is very unlikely! Accordingly, we see inflation-linked assets as extremely cheap currently.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy.

  • CPI +0.0%, +0.2% on core. Above expectations.
  • Core 0.203% before the rounding to 1 decimal place. So this didn’t “round up” to 0.2%. Y/y core at 1.82%, versus 1.7% expectations.
  • Today’s winners include Treasury, who is auctioning a mess of TIPS later.
  • Today’s losers include everyone shorting infl expectations last few months. Keep in mind median CPI > 2.2% so this is not THAT shocking.
  • Core services +2.5%, core goods -0.2%. Both higher (y/y basis) than last month.
  • Fed will be considered a “winner” here since y/y core moves back toward tgt. But in fact losers b/c median already near tgt & rising.
  • Accel major groups: Housing, Apparel, Medical, Recreation, Other. Decel: Transp, Educ/Communication. Unch: Food/Bev.
  • ex motor fuel, Transportation went from 0.6% y/y to 0.7% y/y.
  • Housing: primary rents 3.34% from 3.29%. OER 2.72% from 2.71%. Lodging away from home was big mover at 8.4% from 5.0% (but small weight).
  • Within medical care, medicinal drugs decelerated from 3.08% to 2.77%; but hospital & related svcs rose to 3.91% from 3.47%.
  • Core CPI ex-housing still rose, from 0.88% (a ten-year low) to 0.95%.
  • Primary rents to us look like they should still be accelerating, and are behind pace a bit.
  • Really, nothing soothing at all about this CPI print, unless you were hoping to get inflation “back to target.”
  • Pretty feeble response in inflation markets to upside CPI surprise, but that’s likely because of the looming auction.

After several months of below-trend and below-expectations prints in core inflation, core inflation got back on track today. I must admit that I was beginning to get a big concerned given the multiple months of downside surprise (especially in September, when August’s core inflation figure printed 0.0%), but the solidity of Median CPI has always suggested that we should be getting close to 0.2% prints every month and so a catch-up was due.

It is also possible that median inflation could converge downward to core inflation, but quantitatively we would only expect that if the reasons for core inflation’s decline were that categories which tend to lead were heading lower. In this case, that wasn’t what was happening: most of what was happening to core inflation was self-inflicted, caused by sequester effects that pushed down medical care. So it was always more likely that core inflation would begin to converge higher than the other way around.

Some Fed speakers have recently been voicing concern about the possibility of an unwelcome decline in inflation from these levels. I am flummoxed about those remarks – surely, Federal Reserve economists are aware of median inflation and understand that there is absolutely no evidence that prices broadly are increasing more slowly than they were last year. No evidence whatsoever. But perhaps I should not malign Fed economists when the speakers may have other agendas – for example, the desire to keep interest rates as low as possible lest asset markets correct and cause a messy situation, and therefore to find reasons to ignore any signs that inflation is already at or near their target with upwards momentum.

Our forecast for median inflation has been slowly declining since the beginning of the year, when we expected something from 2.8%-3.4%. As of September, our forecast was 2.5%-2.8%. Median CPI today rose 0.21%, pushing the y/y figure to 2.29%. That’s the highest level since the crisis, just beating out the high from earlier this year and probably signaling a further increase. Our September forecast will not be far wrong.

coremed

Dollar Rally Does Not Demand Deflation – Duh

November 6, 2014 2 comments

There are many funny stories out about disinflation these days. The meme has gotten amazing momentum, even more than it usually does at this time of year (see my post last month, “Seasonal Allergies“).  One of the most amusing has been the idea that the decision by the Bank of Japan to greatly increase its quantitative easing would be disinflationary in the U.S., because the yen would decline so sharply against the dollar, and dollar strength is generally assumed to be disinflationary.

The misunderstanding of the dollar effect is amazing, considering how easy it is to disprove. Sure, I understand the alarm at the dollar’s recent robust strength. Of course, such a large and rapid move must be disinflationary, right? Because who could forget the inflationary spiral of 2002-2008 in this country, when the value of the dollar fell 25%?

ustrbroa

For the record, when the dollar hit its high in February 2002, core inflation was at 2.6%. It declined to 1.1% in 2003, before rebounding to 2.9% in 2006 and was at 2.3% in April 2008, when the dollar reached its pre-crisis low. That is, the dollar’s protracted and large decline caused essentially no meaningful change in core inflation. Indeed, without the housing bubble, core inflation would have declined markedly over this period.

Now, headline inflation rose during that period, because energy prices rose. This may or may not be the result of the dollar, or the causality may run at least partly the other way (because the dollar was cheaper, and oil is priced in dollars, oil got comparatively cheaper in foreign currencies, leading to greater demand). But what is very clear is that the underlying rate of inflation was not impacted by the dollar.

The bifurcation of inflation into core inflation and energy inflation (or food and energy inflation, if you like, but most of the volatility comes from energy inflation) is a critical point for both investors and policymakers. Much ink has recently been spilled about how the Saudi decision to lower the price of oil to better compete with U.S. shale supply, and the burgeoning shale supply itself, is disinflationary. But it isn’t, and it is important to understand why. Inflation is a rate of change measure, and more to the point a change in prices is not inflation per se unless it is persistent. Policymakers don’t focus on core inflation because they don’t care about food or energy or think that we don’t buy them; they focus on core inflation because it is more persistent than food or energy inflation.

So if gasoline prices aren’t merely in their usual seasonal dip, but actually continue lower for another year, it will result in headline inflation that is lower than core inflation over that period. But once it reaches a new equilibrium level, that downward pressure on headline inflation will abate, and it will re-converge with core.

Oil prices, in fact, are almost always a growth story rather than an inflation story, and some of the big monetary policy crack-ups of the past have occurred when the Fed addressed oil price spikes (plunges) with tighter (looser) monetary policy. In fact, if any policy response is warranted it would probably be the opposite of this, since higher oil prices cause slower broad economic growth and lower oil prices cause faster broad economic growth. (However, long time readers will know that I don’t believe monetary policy can affect growth significantly anyway.)

Back, briefly, to the BOJ balance sheet expansion story. This was a very significant event for global inflation, assuming as always that the body follows through with their stated intention. Money printing anywhere causes the equilibrium level of nominal prices globally to rise. To the extent that this inflation is to be felt idiosyncratically only in Japan, then the decline of the currency will offset the effect of this global increase in prices so that ex-Japan prices are steady while prices in Japan rise…which is the BOJ’s stated intent. Movements in foreign exchange are best understood as allocating global inflation between trading partners. However, for money-printing in Japan to lead to disinflation ex-Japan, the movement in the currency would have to over-react to the money printing. If markets are perfectly efficient, in other words, the movement in currency should cause the BOJ’s idiosyncratic actions to be felt only within Japan. There are arbitrage opportunities otherwise (although it is very slow and risky arbitrage – better thought of as arbitrage in an economic sense than in a trading sense).

Of course, if the BOJ money-printing is not idiosyncratic – if other central banks are also printing – then prices should rise around the world and currencies shouldn’t move. This is why the Fed was able to get away with increasing M2 significantly without cratering the dollar: everyone was doing it. What is interesting is that the global price level has not yet fully reflected the rise in the global money supply, because of the decline in global money velocity (which is due in turn to the decline in global interest rates). This is the story that is currently being written, and will be the big story of the next few years.

Ugly CPI

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or (if you’re already following me on Twitter or seeing this elsewhere) subscribe to direct email of my free articles here.

  • Complete shocker of a CPI figure. Core at +0.01%, barely needed any rounding to get to 0.0. Y/y falls to 1.73%. Awful.
  • Zero chance the Fed does anything today, anyway. The doves just need to point to one number and they win.
  • Stocks ought to LOVE this.
  • Core services dropped to 2.5% y/y from 2.6% and core goods to -0.4% from -0.3%.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/bev. That’s all. 14.9% of basket. Everything else decelerating.
  • I just don’t see, anecdotally, a sudden change in the pricing dynamics in the economy. That’s why this is shocking to me.
  • Primary rents to 3.18% from 3.28%. Owners’ Equiv to 2.68% from 2.72%. Both in contravention of every indicator of market tightness.
  • Apparel goes to 0.0% from +0.3% y/y. That’s where you can see a dollar effect, since apparel is mostly manufactured outside US.
  • Airline fares -2.7% versus -0.2% y/y last month and +4.7% three months ago. It’s only 0.74% of the basket but big moves like that add up.
  • Medical care: 2.09% versus 2.61% y/y. Now THAT is where the surprise comes in. Plunge in ‘hospital and related services.’ to 3.8% vs 5.5%.
  • …we (and everyone else!) expect medical care to bounce back from the sequester-inspired break last year. I still think it will.
  • core inflation ex-housing at 0.91% y/y, lowest since August 2004. Yes, one decade.
  • core inflation ex-housing is now closer to deflation than during the deflation scare. In late 2010 it got to 1.08% y/y.
  • Needless to say our inflation-angst indicator remains at really really low levels.
  • Interestingly, the proportion of CPI subindices w y/y changes more than 2 std dev >0 (measuring broad deflation risk) still high at 38%.
  • To sum up. Awful CPI nbr. Housing dip is temporary & will continue to keep core from declining much. Suspect a lot of this is one-off.
  • …but I thought the same thing last month.
  • Neil Diamond said some days are diamonds, some days are stones. If you run an inflation-focused investment mgr, this is a stone day.
  • Interestingly, Median CPI was unchanged at 2.2% this month. I’d thought it fell too much last month so this makes sense.

I am still breathing heavily after this truly shocking number. This sort of inflation figure, outside of a crisis or post-crisis recovery, is essentially unprecedented. Lower prints happened once in 2010, once in 2008, three times in 2003, and once in 1999. But otherwise, basically not since the 1960s.

The really amazing figure is the core-ex-Housing number of 0.91% y/y. A chart of that (source: Enduring Investments) is below.

corexshelter

There are interesting similarities between the current situation and late 2003, which is the last time that ex-housing inflation flirted with deflation. Between late 2000 and June 2003, money velocity fell 11%, in concert with generally weakening money growth. Velocity fell primarily because of a sharp decline in interest rates from 6% on the 5y note to around 2.25%. The circumstances are similar now: 5y interest rates declined from around 5% to 0.5% from 2006 through mid-2013, accompanied by a 24% decline in money velocity. And voilá, we have weakness in core inflation ex-housing.

The important differences now, though, are twofold. The first is that the absolute levels of money velocity, and of interest rates, are much lower and very unlikely to fall much further – indeed, money velocity is lower than it “should” be for this level of interest rates. And the second is that there is an enormous supply of inert reserves in the system which will be difficult to remove once inflation begins to rise again. The Fed began to increase interest rates in 2004, which helped increase money velocity (and hence, inflation) while it also caused M2 growth to decline to below 4% y/y. Core inflation rose to 3%, but the Fed was basically in control. Today, however, the Fed has no direct control over the money supply because any reserves they remove will be drawn from the “excess” reserves held by banks. This will make it difficult to increase overnight rates except by fiat (and increasing them by setting a floor rate will merely cause money velocity to rise while having no effect on the money supply). So the ‘potential inflation energy’ is much higher than it was in 2003. As an aside, in 2004 I was quite vocal in my opinions that inflation was not about to run away on the upside, which is another key difference!

If you are a tactical inflation trader, today’s CPI figure should make you despise inflation-linked bonds for a few weeks. But they have already taken quite a drubbing this month, with 10-year breakevens falling from 2.27% to 2.08% as I type. It’s okay to watch them fall, tactically, especially if nominal bonds generally rally. But strategically, not much has changed about the inflationary backdrop. I don’t expect airline fares to continue to drop. I don’t expect Medical Care inflation, which has a strong upward bias due to base effects, to plunge further but to return to the 3%-4% range over the next 6-12 months. And Housing inflation slowed slightly this month but remains on course to continue to rise. So, if you are considering your inflation allocations, this is a good time to increase them while markets are dismissive of any possibility of higher prices.

Without a doubt, today’s number – especially following another weak CPI print last month – is a head-scratcher. But there aren’t a lot of downside inflation risks at the moment. Our forecast had been for core (or median) inflation to reach 2.6%-3.0% in 2014. I would say that core CPI isn’t going to get to that level this year with 4 prints left, and even median CPI (which is a better measure right now of the central tendency of inflation, thanks to the aforementioned base effects in medical care, and remained at 2.2% this month) is going to have a harder time reaching that target. I’d lower and narrow the target range for 2014 median inflation to 2.5%-2.8% based on today’s data.

Summary (and Extension) of My Post-CPI Tweets

July 22, 2014 2 comments

Below is a summary (and extension) of my post-CPI tweets today. You can follow me @inflation_guy.

  • CPI +0.3%/+0.1% with y/y core figure dropping to 1.9%. That will be only by a couple hundredths on rounding, but it’s still a decline.
  • Looks like core was 0.129% rounded to 3 decimal places. y/y went from 1.956% to 1.933% so a marginal decline.
  • RT of Bloomberg Markets @themoneygame: Consumer Price Changes By Item http://read.bi/1nx0sUf 
  • Core goods still -0.2%, core services still +2.7%, unchanged from last month. [ed note: I reversed these initially; corrected here]
  • All of this a mild miss for the Street, which was looking for +0.19% or so, but I though the Street was more likely low.
  • Major groups accel: Apparel, Recreation, Educ/Comm, Other (19.7%). Decel: Food/Bev, Transp, Med Care (38.9%), Housing flat.
  • There’s your real story. Recent drivers: medical care, which is a base effect and oddly reversed. That’s temporary. Also>>
  • >>big fall in non-rental/OER parts of housing: insurance, lodging away from home, appliances. Those are not as persistent as rents.
  • Primary rents went to 3.153% from 3.058%; OER unch at 2.640% from 2.638%. The rest will mean-revert.
  • College tuition and fes at 4.142% from 4.001%.
  • 60.5% of all low-level categories accelerating (down from 70.5%). Still broad but not as broad.
  • Actually looks like Median CPI could downtick today.

This is why I try very hard to resist the urge to forecast the monthly CPI, and admonish investors (and even traders) to resist trading on the data. Chairman Yellen is right about this: the data are noisy, so one month can be almost anywhere. This month, there was a reversal in the recent rise in y/y medical care inflation. But that rise was due to base effects, which aren’t going away, so forecasting medical care inflation to continue to accelerate is more a statement of mathematical likelihood than it is an economic forecast. And it’s all the more surprising then when it reverses.

This month’s figure makes it a fair bit harder for my forecast of near-3% for 2014 on core or median inflation to come to pass, although it bears noting that median inflation (even though it may downtick later today) is still within striking distance. Since median is currently the better measure, and will be for much of this year, I won’t back off my forecast yet. Another weak month, though, would cause me to ratchet down the target simply because it becomes harder to hit as time becomes shorter.

However, I expect several months this year will exceed +0.3% on core inflation. And it is worth remembering that core inflation faces easy year-ago comparisons for the rest of the year. In July of last year, the seasonally-adjusted m/m core inflation figure was +0.167%; in August it was +0.138%; in September it was 0.132%; in October +0.124%; in November +0.175%; and in December +0.101%. So, even if core inflation only averages +0.2% for the rest of the year, core will still be at 2.3% by year-end. If core inflation averages what it has been for the last four months, we’ll be at 2.4%. What that means is that (a) my forecast of something near 3% doesn’t represent a massive acceleration, although we only have half a year to get there, and (b) anyone forecasting less than 2.3% by year-end is actually forecasting a deceleration in inflation from recent trends.

The breadth indicators also took a mild breather this month, with the proportion of the CPI that is accelerating (looking at low-level categories) dropping to around 60% from around 70% in May. As with the other analysis, however, we should be careful not to read too much into one month since this figure also jumps around a lot. Interestingly, the proportion of categories where the year-on-year change is at least 2 standard deviations above zero – so that we can reject the ‘deflation’ meme for these categories – is basically unchanged from last month at 24%. As the chart below shows, we last saw a level this high in 2006, which is also the last time that core CPI ran at 3%.

twosd

Housing inflation is now back below my model’s projections, inflation breadth is still high, and the persistent parts of CPI are maintaining their levels or advancing while a few of the skittish parts are retreating (or at least not yet converging to the mean). There is nothing here to indicate that the three months of accelerating core CPI were the aberration; in fact to me it appears that the June figure was the aberration. That question will be answered over the balance of the year. In the meantime, inflation markets remain priced at levels so low that even if you’re wrong in betting on higher inflation, you don’t lose much but if you’re right, you do very well. In my view (although admittedly I may be biased), most investors remain significantly underweight protection against this particular risk.

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