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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%?
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
The Employment number these days is sometimes less interesting than the response of the markets to the number over the ensuing few days. That may or may not be the case here. Thursday’s Employment report was stronger than expected, although right in line with the sorts of numbers we have had, and should expect to have, in the middle of an expansion.
As the chart illustrates, we have been running at about the rate of 200k per month for the last several years, averaged over a full year. I first pointed out last year that this is about the maximum pace our economy is likely to be able to sustain, although in the bubble-fueled expansion of the late 1990s the average got up to around 280k. So Thursday’s 288k is likely to be either revised lower, or followed by some weaker figures going forward, but is fairly unlikely to be followed by stronger numbers.
This is why the lament about the weak job growth is so interesting. It isn’t really very weak at all, historically. It’s merely that people (that is, economists and politicians) were anticipating that the horrible recession would be followed by an awe-inspiring expansion.
The fact that it has not been is itself informative, although you are unlikely to see economists drawing the interesting conclusion here. That’s because they don’t really understand the question, which is “is U.S. growth unit root?” To remember why this really matters, look back at my article from 2010: “The Root of the Problem.” Quoting from that article:
“what is important to understand is this: if economic output is not unit root but is rather trend-stationary, then over time the economy will tend to return to the trend level of output. If economic output is unit root, then a shock to the economy such as we have experienced will not naturally be followed by a return to the prior level of output.”
In other words, if growth is unit root, then we should expect that expansions should be roughly as robust when they follow economic collapses as when they follow mild downturns. And that is exactly what we are seeing in the steady but uninspiring job growth, and the steady if not-unusual return to normalcy in the Unemployment Rate (once we adjust for the participation rate). So, the data seem to suggest that growth is approximately unit root, which matters because among other things it makes any Keynesian prescriptions problematic – if there is no such thing as “trend growth” then the whole notion of an output gap gets weird. A gap? A gap to what?
Now, it is still interesting to look at how markets reacted. Bonds initially sold off, as would be expected if the Fed cared about the Unemployment Rate or the output gap being closed, but then rallied as (presumably) investors discounted the idea that the Federal Reserve is going to move pre-emptively to restrain inflation in this cycle. Equities, on the other hand, had a knee-jerk selloff on that idea (less Fed accommodation) but then rallied the rest of the day on Thursday before retracing a good part of that gain today. It is unclear to me just what news can actually be better than what is already impounded in stock prices. If the answer is “not very darn much,” then the natural reaction should be for the market to tend to react negatively to news even if it continues to drift higher in the absence of news. But that is counterfactual to what happened on Thursday/Monday. I don’t like to read too much into any day’s trading, but that is interesting.
Commodities were roughly unchanged on Thursday, but fell back strongly today. Well, a 1.2% decline in the Bloomberg Commodity Index (formerly the DJ-UBS Commodity Index) isn’t exactly a rout, but since commodities have been slowly rallying for a while this represents the worst selloff since March. The 5-day selloff in commodities, a lusty 2.4%, is the worst since January. Yes, commodities have been rallying, and yet the year-to-date change in the Bloomberg Commodity Index is only 2% more than the rise in M2 over the same period (5.5% versus 3.5%), which means the terribly oversold condition of commodities – especially when compared to other real assets – has only barely begun to be corrected.
I do not really understand why the mild concern over inflation that developed recently after three alarming CPI reports in a row has vanished so suddenly. We can see it in the commodity decline, and the recent rise in implied core inflation that I have documented recently (see “Awareness of Inflation, But No Fear Yet”) has largely reversed: currently, implied 1 year core inflation is only 2.15%, which is lower than current median inflation – implying that the central tendency of inflation will actually decline from current levels.
I don’t see any reason for such sanguinity. Money supply growth remains around 7%, and y/y credit growth is back around 5%. I am not a Keynesian, and I believe that growth doesn’t matter (much) for inflation, but the recent tightening of labor markets should make a Keynesian believe that inflation is closer, not further away! If one is inclined to give credit in advance to the Federal Reserve, and assume that the Committee will move pre-emptively to restrain inflation – and if you are assuming that core inflation will be lower in a year from where it (or median inflation, which is currently a better measure of “core” inflation) is now, you must be assuming preemption – then I suppose you might think that 2.15% core is roughly the right level.
But even there, one would have to assume that policy could affect inflation instantly. Inflation has momentum, and it takes time for policy – even once implemented, of which there is no sign yet – to have an effect on the trajectory of inflation. Maybe there can be an argument that 2-year forward or 3-year forward core inflation might be restrained by a pre-emptive Fed. But I can’t see that argument for year-ahead inflation.
Of course, markets don’t always have to make sense. We have certainly learned this in spades over the last decade! I suppose that saying markets aren’t making a lot of sense right now is merely a headline of the “dog bites man” variety. The real shocker, the “man bites dog” headline, would be if they started making sense again.