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Posts Tagged ‘Fed’

Will They Could They Should They?

September 28, 2015 2 comments

So now we have all noticed that the Fed eschewed tightening a week and a half ago, and we have digested all of the analysis of the “negative dots” which indicate some member of the Fed projected not just unchanged rates but actually negative rates.

(Incidentally, here is a good article in The Telegraph about Sweden’s negative rate regime. One of the observations worth pondering is that in a cashless society, there is no zero-percent floor on interest rates: normally, rates below zero percent shouldn’t be possible since someone can always earn zero percent by holding cash. Unless there is no cash. That is simultaneously a deep thought and a terrifying thought – if there is no cash, and all of your money is in electronic deposits at financial institutions, then there is no limit to how much you can be robbed of – or in popular financial parlance, no limit to the “financial repression” that can be visited upon you.)

And we have read all of the analysis of Yellen’s coughing spell after she appeared to express a desire to tighten in 2015 anyway, as long as it is later, and as long as – well, you know, as long as things work out. The NY Fed’s Dudley today echoed Dr. Yellen; but Chicago Fed President Evans (father of the eponymous rule) opined that further delay is acceptable and desirable.

In other words, we are just exactly where we usually are. It depends. One of the great imponderables, of course, is “on what does it depend?”

For what it is worth, which to be sure isn’t much, I think the Fed is terrified about that first step. If the Fed tightened and the world didn’t end (and indeed, I don’t think it would end; or, alternatively, judging from the stock market’s behavior recently it may already be ended before that), then I think they would tighten again…and again, and again. And I think they would keep tightening until markets cracked and/or the economy swooned, whereupon they would begin a panicky easing campaign. That is, after all, the record of the last three decades or so.

This is just my opinion, of course (and this is a good place to remind readers both new and old that I endeavor to raise the right issues, and don’t care as much about whether I have the right answers), but I believe if the Fed met today they wouldn’t tighten rates. This isn’t terribly shocking, since we are only eleven days removed from when the Fed last skipped such a step, but the salient point is that nothing about time passing should change the decision. Unless the economy displays more strength, which I doubt it will, or the FOMC abruptly decides to focus on better measures of inflation like Median CPI, which I doubt it will, there is no reason for the Fed to tighten in 2015 just because it happens to be 2015. Ergo, I don’t think the Fed will tighten in 2015.

That being said, I think they will continue to talk about tightening until a short time before they decide to ease. The hurdle to ease may be higher than it was for QE3, but it is still much lower than the hurdle for tightening. But they will talk like hawks because for some reason the Federal Reserve believes that talking about tightening gives them credibility.

Now, there is no reason to actually do any more QE. If the Fed wanted some more stimulus, then the right approach is to do what the “negative dots” imply, and that is to lower the interest paid on excess reserves to a penalty rate. I want to point out that I first wrote about this in 2010 in an article entitled “Being Negative Might Be A Positive.” So it isn’t a new idea. Do I think the Fed will lower IOER to a negative rate? Not really, but either this or another round of QE is likely if the Fed becomes convinced that the economy is turning south. Historically-speaking, of course, the Fed tends to arrive fairly late to that conclusion so I don’t expect QE very soon!

Categories: Federal Reserve Tags:

Summary of my Post-CPI Tweets

July 17, 2015 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 with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments.

  • Core CPI +0.18%, y/y rises to 1.77%. Pretty much as-expected on the headline figures.
  • Was some market concern about a possible higher print following PPI, but there isn’t much correlation.
  • Note that the next two months of CPI will ‘drop off’ an 0.10% and an 0.05%, so we should get to 2% on core inflation by mid-September.
  • Of course the Fed’s target is ~2.25% on core CPI (since they tgt core PCE) so Fed can argue it’s still below tgt. Uptrend may concern.
  • Housing inflation on the other hand going to the moon
  • This is great chart and it’s the reason core never had a chance of entering deflation territory. & will go up. (retweeted Matthew B)

oer

  • Housing #CPI overall just hit 2% y/y. Primary rents 3.53%. OER, which is 24% of the whole CPI, rose to 2.95% from 2.79%. Wow!
  • …our model for OER is at 3.1%, and the actual number HAD been lagging. I love it when a plan comes together.
  • So housing drove core services to +2.5% y/y, core goods -0.4%.
  • So if housing busted higher, what was the services offset? Medical care, 2.51% y/y vs 2.84% last month.
  • WSJ argued earlier this month that is expected because under Ocare people are actually spending their own money.
  • Within medical care, drugs went to 3.44% vs 4.05%, pro svcs went 1.83% from 1.58%, and hospital & related to 3.48% from 4.51%. So maybe?
  • Yes, core PCE & core CPI are going to be rising. But core PCE won’t be anywhere close to the Fed’s tgt by Sep.
  • Here is core and median CPI (the latter not out yet today) and core PCE.

pcecpi

  • core commodities are about where they should (eventually) be, given rally in TW$. A bit ahead of schedule though.

dollarvscorecomm

  • This chart means either that home prices are overextended or incomes need to catch up, or both.

medincvshome

  • Here is our OER model that is based on incomes. Not a tight fit but gets direction right.

eioermodel

  • I wondered about this when I paid $180/night for room in S. Dak. Hotel infl driven in part by fracking boom?

lodgingvsoil

  • probably would fit better if I used a regional lodging index rather than national, I suspect.

The summary of today’s CPI release is that the underlying pressures remain the same, and the trends remain the same. The really interesting dynamic going forward isn’t in CPI (although at some point when core goods starts to rise again, that will be quite interested), but in how the Fed reacts to the CPI. When they meet in September, core CPI will be around 2%, a bit shy of where the Fed’s target is. But the uptrend will be clearly apparent, and core and median CPI will likely be closer to 2.5% than 2% by the end of the year.

So the interesting dynamic is this: even though inflation is below the Fed’s target, and growth isn’t great shakes, and there are risks to the global economic system in Europe and in China…will the Fed tighten in September anyway? If they do, then it will be surprising if only because the FOMC passed on many opportunities over the last five years which would have been much more accommodating (no pun intended) to a normalization of rates. Sure, if they now recognize that they should have tightened three years ago it shouldn’t color their decision today – the best time to plant a tree may have been thirty years ago, but the best time that we can actually choose from is today – but the Fed hasn’t usually been so limber in its reasoning. Especially with a very dovish makeup of the Committee, I would be surprised to see them hike rates unless inflation has surpassed their target and growth is pretty strong with global risks receding.

However, the strength of my view on that has been slipping recently. Although I think most of the Fed’s talk on this point is mere bluster, we do have to pay attention when Fed speakers – and especially the Chairman – say the same things multiple times. While Yellen has expressed only an expectation that the Fed will raise rates later this year (and we have no idea how conditional that expectation is on stronger growth, on Chinese growth, on European volatility etc, she has said this multiple times and at some point I have to conclude she means it. I still think that the odds of getting rates even up to 1% in a single series of moves is slim, but I admit the more-consistent Fed chatter is worth listening to.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary Tags: , ,

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

May 22, 2015 2 comments

Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments.

 

  • CPI Day! Exciting. The y/y for core will “drop off” +0.20% m/m from last yr, so to get core to 1.9% y/y takes +0.29 m/m this yr.
  • Consensus looks for a downtick in core to 1.7% y/y (rounding down) instead of the rounded-up 1.8% (actually 1.754%) last mo.
  • oohoooooo! Core +0.3% m/m. y/y stays at 1.8%. Checking rounding.
  • +0.256% m/m on core, so the 0.3% is mostly shock value. But y/y goes to 1.81%, no round-assist needed.
  • Headline was in line with expectations, -0.2% y/y. Big sigh of relief from dealers holding TIPS inventory left from the auction.
  • Core ex-shelter was +0.24%, biggest rise since Jan 2013. That’s important.
  • This really helps my speaking engagement next mo – a debate between pro & con inflation positions at Global Fixed Income Institute. 🙂
  • More analysis coming. But Excel really hates it when you focus on another program while a big sheet is calculating…
  • It’s still core services doing all the heavy lifting. Core goods was -0.2% y/y (unch) while core services rose to 2.5% y/y.
  • Core services has been 2.4%-2.5% since August.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent rose to 2.77% y/y, highest since…well, a long time.
  • Thanks Excel for giving me my data back. As I said, OER was 2.77%, up from 2.69%. Primary rents frll to 3.47% from 3.53%.
  • Housing as a whole went to 2.20% y/y from 1.93%, which is huge. Some of that was household energy but ex-energy shelter was 2.67 vs 2.56
  • Or housing ex-shelter, ex-energy was 1.14% from 0.67%. Seems I am drilling a bit deep but getting housing right is very important.
  • Medical Care +2.91% from 2.46%. Big jump, but mostly repaying the inexplicable dip from Q1. Lot of this is new O’care seasonality.
  • Median is a bit of a wildcard this month. Looks like median category will be OER (South Urban), so it will depend on seasonal adj.
  • But best guess for median has been 0.2% for a while. Underlying inflation is and has been 2.0%-2.4% since 2011.
  • And reminder: it’s median that matters. Core will continue to converge upwards to it, (and I think median will go higher.)
  • None of this changes the Fed. They’re not going to hike rates for a long while. Growth is too weak and that’s all they care about.
  • For all the noise about the dual mandate, the Fed acts as if it only has one mandate: employment (which they can’t do anything about).
  • The next few monthly core figures to drop off are 0.23%, 0.14%, 0.10%, and 0.05%.
  • So, if we keep printing 0.22% on core, on the day of the Sep FOMC meeting core CPI will be 2.2% y/y, putting core PCE basically at tgt.
  • I think this is why FOMC doves have been musing about “symmetrical misses” and letting infl scoot a little higher.
  • US #Inflation mkt pricing: 2015 1.1%;2016 1.8%;then 1.8%, 2.0%, 2.0%, 2.1%, 2.2%, 2.3%, 2.4%, 2.5%, & 2025:2.4%.
  • For the record, that is the highest m/m print in core CPI since January 2008. It hasn’t printed a pure 0.3% or above since 2006.

 

There is no doubt that this is a stronger inflation print than the market expected. Although the 0.3% print was due to rounding (the first such print, though, since January 2013), the month/month core increase hasn’t been above 0.26% since January 2008 and it has been nearly a decade since 0.3% prints weren’t an oddity (see chart, source Bloomberg).

monthlycore

You can think of the CPI as being four roughly-equal pieces: Core goods, Core services ex-rents, Rents, and Food & Energy. Obviously, the first three represent Core CPI. The breakdown (source: BLS and Enduring Investments calculations) is shown below.

threecoreparts

Note that in the tweet-stream, I referred to core services being 2.4%-2.5% since August. With the chart above, you can see that this was because both pieces were pretty flat, but that the tame performance overall of core services was because services outside of rents was declining while rents were rising. But core services ex-rents appear to have flattened out, while housing indicators suggest higher rents are still ahead (Owners’ Equivalent Rent, the bigger piece, went to 2.77%, the highest since January 2008). Core goods, too, look to have flattened out and have probably bottomed.

So the basic story is getting simpler. Housing inflation continues apace, and the moderating effects on consumers’ pocketbooks (one-time medical care effects, e.g., which are now being erased with big premium hikes) are ebbing. This merely puts Core on a course to re-converge with Median. If core inflation were to stop when it got to median, the Fed would be very happy. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) supports the statement I made above, that median inflation has been between 2% and 2.4% since 2011. Incidentally, the chart is through March, but Median CPI was just released as I type this, at 2.2% y/y again.

median thru march

But that gentle convergence at the Fed target won’t happen. Unless the Federal Reserve acts rapidly and decisively, not to raise rates but to remove excess reserves from the banking system (and indeed, to keep rates and thereby velocity low while doing so, a mean trick indeed), inflation has but one way to go. Up. And there appears little risk that the Fed will act decisively in a hawkish fashion.

Which June Did You Mean, Charles?

Yesterday, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans gave a speech in which he said that he probably leaned towards making the first tightening early next year, as there is “no compelling reason for us to be in a hurry to tighten financial conditions.” The Fed, he said, probably shouldn’t raise rates until there’s a “greater confidence” that inflation one-to-two years ahead will be at or above 2%. This isn’t a surprising view, as Evans is the progenitor of the “Evans Rule” that says rates should stay near zero until unemployment has fallen below 6.5% (it has) or inflation has risen above 2.5%. Yes, those bounds have been walked about; in particular the 6.5% unemployment rate is obviously no longer binding (he sees the “natural rate” as being 5% again). But the very fact that he promoted a rule that set restraints on a mere return to normal policy means that he is a dove, through and through. So, it should not be surprising that he isn’t in a hurry to tighten.

What I found amusing is the sop he threw to the bears. Fed speakers often try to do the “on the one hand, on the other hand” maneuver, but in Evans’ case his heart clearly isn’t in it. He said that “you could imagine a case being made for a rate increase in June.” Notice that he doesn’t say he could imagine a case being made! I am also unclear about which June he means. Does he mean…

(thru Apr) (thru May)
Q1 GDP Q2 GDP Median CPI M2 growth
June 2012? 2.3% 1.6% 2.4% 9.2%
June 2013? 2.7% 1.8% 2.0% 6.6%
June 2014? -2.1% 4.6% 2.2% 7.3%
June 2015? 0.2% 1.0% (e) 2.2% 5.4%

I am not sure exactly what he thinks those darn hawks are looking at, but it seems to me the case for tightening in June is getting worse every year.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I didn’t include the Unemployment Rate in the table above. That particular metric has been improving each year, but we know that the labor situation tends to lag the economic situation. The Unemployment Rate is a big political football, but it isn’t particularly useful for policy unless you believe in the concept of a “natural rate” with respect to accelerating unemployment in the overall economy. I don’t: low unemployment tends to increase wages, but has no discernible effect on consumer inflation. Moreover, it appears that the “natural rate” shifts quite a bit over time (6.5% down to 5% in Evans’ formulation, in only a few years’ time), making it look to me like a fairly useless concept.

Yes, of course it makes it more difficult politically to tighten when people are out of work, but since monetary policy is quite useful for affecting prices and not particularly useful for affecting growth, this should be a secondary effect at best. The Fed simply can’t help the unemployed worker, except by holding down inflation for him. In the real world, of course, the Fed Chair is not going to countenance an uptick in rates when unemployment is above 5% or so.

Let me be clear: I think the Fed ought to have tightened in 2012, 2013, or 2014, and they ought to tighten now. I don’t necessarily mean they should guide rates higher, but they should reduce the size of the mountain of reserves via any means a their disposal. But if you are going to argue one year over another year, I think it is hardest to argue that now is the time unless you are merely being guided by the old James Carville adage that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is right now.

One thing that Evans said that quickens my heart, as an inflation-watcher, is that the Fed “ought to allow” a chance that inflation overshoots 2% that is symmetrical to its chance of falling below it. While he is quintessentially unclear about how he would establish these probabilities – as I have just shown, he seems blissfully unaware that consumer price inflation is already above 2% – the mere fact of treating the costs of inflation misses as symmetrical is dangerous territory. The costs are not symmetrical. The costs of an inflation rate around 0% are very low; some frictions, perhaps, created by wage “stickiness” (even this possibility hasn’t been conclusively established until inflation gets convincingly below zero). The costs of an inflation rate of 4% are much higher, since inflation has historically had long “tails.” That is, once inflation goes up a little, it not infrequently rises a lot. Over the last 100 years, if you take the set of all year-on-year inflation rates above 4%, you find that about one-third of them are also above 10%. This means the costs of a loss of inflation vigilance is must greater than the costs of a loss of deflation vigilance.

If Liquidity is Your Sword, Keep Swinging

April 28, 2015 9 comments

I am not one of those people who believe that if the Fed is dramatically easing, you simply must own equities. I must admit, charts like the one below (source: Bloomberg), showing the S&P versus the monetary base, seem awfully persuasive.

monbaseequalsstocks

But there are plenty of counter-examples. The easiest one is the 1970s, shown below (source: FRED, Bloomberg). Not only did stocks not rise on the geyser of liquidity – M2 growth averaged 9.6% per annum for the entire decade – but the real value of stocks was utterly crushed as the nominal price barely moved and inflation eroded the value of the currency.

m2notequalstocks

If you do believe that the Fed’s loose reins are the main reason for equities’ great run over the last few years, then you might be concerned that the end of the Fed’s QE could spell trouble for stocks. For the monetary base is flattening out, as it has each of the prior times QE has been stopped (or, as it turns out, paused).

But for you bulls, I have happy news. The monetary base is not the right metric to be watching in this case. Indeed, it isn’t the right metric to be watching in virtually any case. The Fed’s balance sheet and the monetary base both consist significantly of sterile reserves. These reserves affect nothing, except (perhaps) the future money supply. But they affect nothing currently. The vast majority of this monetary base is as inert as if it was actually money sitting in an unopened crate in a bank vault.

What does matter liquidity-wise is transactional balances, such as M2. And as I have long pointed out, the end of QE does nothing to slow the growth of M2. There are plenty of reserves to support continued rapid growth of M2, which is still growing at 6% – roughly where it has been for the last 2.5 years. And those haven’t been a particularly bad couple of years for stocks.

So, if liquidity is the only story that matters, then the picture below of M2 versus stocks (source: Bloomberg) is more soothing to bulls.

m2andstocksnow

Again, I think this is too simplistic. If ample liquidity is good today, why wasn’t it good back in the 1970s? You will say “it isn’t that simple.” And that’s exactly my point. It can’t be as easy as buying stocks because the Fed is adding liquidity. I believe one big difference is the presence of financial media transmitted to the mass affluent, and the fact that there is tremendous confidence in the Fed to arrest downward momentum in securities markets.

What central bankers have done to the general economy has not been successful. But, if you are one of the mass affluent, you may have a view of monetary policy as nearly omnipotent in terms of its effect on securities and on certain real assets such as residential real estate. What is different this time? The cult.

I am no equity bull. But if you are, because of the following wind the Fed has been providing, then the good news is: nothing important has changed.

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?

 

That’s Not How Any of This Works

March 18, 2015 1 comment

I wonder how many times the Fed needs to be more dovish than expected before investors realize that this is a dovish Fed?

It may indeed be the most dovish Fed ever, judging from Dr. Yellen’s prior statements and history. And yet, investors seemed to have convinced themselves that with core inflation measured in the Fed’s preferred way far below its target (to be sure, it’s not the right way to measure it, but they’re not looking for excuses to hike), with structural unemployment still high (see chart of “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now,” source Bloomberg, below), with other central banks aggressively easing so that our dollar is aggressively strengthening, and with recent economic indicators surprising on the low side at the most-rapid pace since 2011, the Fed was going to put itself on a track to start hiking rates by early summer.

wanna

In the event, the Fed told us that they are no longer going to be automatically “patient” – which was the word that 90% of economists expected them to remove from the statement – but the Committee’s median projections for the year-end Fed funds rate dropped 50bps since the last meeting, to just above 0.5%.

Why won’t investors listen? It isn’t as if the last Fed Chairman was a renowned hawk. It’s been a generation since we had a real hawk in the Chairman’s seat. So I have no idea why it is a shock to people that the Fed acts dovishly, even as Chairman Yellen says the Fed will need to “monitor inflation developments carefully.”

If they were monitoring inflation developments carefully, they would know that median inflation is already at levels that represent achievement of the Fed’s target. If they were monitoring inflation developments carefully, then they would know that the dollar (which Yellen says will keep inflation lower for longer) has very little impact on domestic pricing, outside of goods that are largely produced overseas (apparel) or certain raw commodities (like energies).

Or, perhaps, just perhaps…they actually do know these things, but prefer to rely on obfuscation to keep rates as low as they can for as long as they can, until the market absolutely demands that they raise them. With market interest rates low, and the dollar strong, there is absolutely no market pressure for the FOMC to raise rates. Therefore, they will not.

At this writing, 10-year breakevens are +11bps on the day. Over the last week or two, after a mild bounce from the beaten-down lows, fast money had been leaning on breakevens again and pushing them inexorably lower. How do I know it was fast money? Because 10-year breakevens are up 11bps in a freaking hour, after a mild adjustment in the “dots.” That isn’t the sort of move that reflects long-term planning.

I continue to be flabbergasted at how the Fed maintains its credibility. We all know that the Fed has been considerably worse than the average economic forecaster over a long period of time. But it even seems to have trouble with current data. On the tape right now, the Chairman is saying that the “residual effects” of the financial crisis are restraining credit. Really? The chart below shows commercial bank credit. Does that look restrained to you? It is rising at better than an 8% pace y/y, the fastest level since May 2008. And it’s 10%-11% annualized on a q/q basis.

cbcredit

Sometimes I want to echo that commercial for Esurance. “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”

When market rates go higher, and/or the dollar weakens because our domestic inflation starts being appreciably more than that of our trading partners, then the Fed will get serious about tightening. But it will have to be serious enough to handle the downward adjustment in securities prices that will happen when they begin to do so. I can’t foresee a time when that’s particularly likely. The Fed eschewed tightening over the last few years with an economy that had good momentum (see the first chart above). How likely is it that the Fed will get ambitious about hiking rates in the late stages of an expansion that is long in the tooth? With this Chairman? I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Categories: Bond Market, Federal Reserve, Rant Tags:

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.

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.

Fed Gearing Up to Stand Down

July 30, 2014 8 comments

I guess it’s something about strong growth numbers and a tightening central bank that bonds just don’t like so much. Ten-year Treasury yields rose about 9bps today, under pressure from the realization that higher growth and higher inflation, which is historically a pretty bad cocktail for bonds, is being offset less and less by extraordinary Federal Reserve bond buying. Yields recently had fallen as the Q1 numbers doused the idea that the economic recovery will continue without incident, and as the global political and security situation deteriorated (maybe we will just say it became “less tranquil”). Nominal 10 year yields had dipped below 2.50%, and TIPS yields had reached 0.20% again. It didn’t hurt that so many were leaning on the bear case for bonds and were tortured the further bonds rallied.

Stocks, evidently, didn’t get the message that higher interest rates are more likely, going forward, than lower interest rates. They didn’t get the message that the Fed is going to be less accommodative. They didn’t even get the message that the Fed sees the “likelihood of inflation running persistently below 2 percent has diminished somewhat.” The equity markets ended flat. Sure, it has not been another banner month for the stock jockeys, but with earnings up a tepid 6% or so year/year the market is up nearly 17% so…yes, you did the math right: P/E multiples keep expanding!

My personal theory is that stocks are doing so well because Greenspan thinks they’re expensive. In an interview today on Bloomberg Television, Greenspan said that “somewhere along the line we will get a significant correction.” Historically speaking, the former Chairman’s ability to call a top has been something less than spectacular. After he questioned whether the market might be under the influence of ‘irrational exuberance,’ the market continued to rally for quite some time. Now, he wasn’t alone in being surprised by that, but he also threw in the towel on that view and was full-throatedly bullish through the latter stages of the 1990s equity bubble. So, perhaps, investors are just fading his view. Although to be fair, he did say that he didn’t think equities are “grossly overpriced,” lest anyone think that the guy who could never see a bubble might have actually seen one.

Make no mistake, there is no question that stocks are overvalued by every meaningful metric that has historical support for its predictive power. That does not mean (as we have all learned over the past few years) that the market will decline tomorrow, but it does ensure that future real returns will be punk over a reasonably-long investment horizon.

It will certainly be interesting to see how long markets can remain levitated when the Fed’s buying ceases completely. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that these valuation levels have persisted even this long, especially in the face of rising global tensions and rising inflation. I am a little less surprised that commodities have corrected so much this month after what was a steady but uninspiring move higher over the first 1-2 quarters of 2014. Commodities are simply a reviled asset class at the moment (which makes me love them all the more).

Do not mistake the Fed’s statement (that at the margin the chance of inflation less than 2% is slightly less likely) for hawkishness. And don’t read hawkishness into the mild dissent by Plosser, who merely wanted to remove the reference to time in the description of when raising rates will be appropriate. Chicago Fed President Evans was the guy who originally wanted to “parameterize” the decision to tighten by putting numbers on the unemployment rate and inflation levels that would be tolerable to the Fed (the “Evans Rule”)…levels which the economy subsequently blasted through without any indication that the Fed cared. But Evans himself recently said that “it’s not a catastrophe to overshoot inflation by some amount.” Fed officials are walking back the standards for what constitutes worrisome inflation, in the same way that they walked back the standards for what constitutes too-low an unemployment rate.

This is a good point at which to recall the “Wesbury Map,” which laid out the excuses the Fed can be expected to make when inflation starts being problematic. Wesbury had this list:

  1. Higher inflation is due to commodities, and core inflation remains tame.
  2. Higher core inflation due to housing is just due to housing prices bouncing back to normal, and that’s temporary.
  3. It’s not actual inflation that matters, but what the Fed projects it to be.
  4. It’s okay for inflation to run a little above 2% for a while because it was under that level for so long.
  5. Increasing price pressures are due to something temporary like a weaker dollar or a temporary increase in money velocity or the multiplier.
  6. Well, 3-4% inflation isn’t that bad for the economy, anyway.

I think the order of these excuses can change, but they’re all excuses we can expect to hear trotted out. Charles Evans should have just shouted “FOUR!” Instead, what he actually said was

“Even a 2.4 percent inflation rate, if it’s reasonably well controlled, and the rest of the economy is doing ok, and then policy is being adjusted in order to keep that within a, under a 2.5 percent range — I think that can work out.”

That makes sense. 2.4% is okay, as long as they limit it to 2.5%. That’s awfully fine control, considering that they don’t normally even have the direction right.

Now, although the Evans speech was a couple of weeks ago I want to point out something else that he said, because it is a dangerous error in the making. He argued that inflation isn’t worrisome unless it is tied to wage inflation. I have pointed out before that wages don’t lead inflation; this is a pernicious myth. It is difficult to demonstrate that with econometrics because the data is very noisy, but it is easy to demonstrate another way. If wages led inflation, then we would surely all love inflation, because our buying power would be expanding when inflation increased (since our wages would have already increased prior to inflation increasing). We know, viscerally, that this is not true.

But economists, evidently, do not. The question below is from a great paper by Bob Shiller called “Why Do People Dislike Inflation” (Shiller, Robert, “Why Do People Dislike Inflation?”, NBER Working Paper #5539, April 1996. ©1996 by Robert J. Shiller. Available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w5539). This is a survey question and response, with the economist-given answer separated out from the answer given by real people.

shillerQ

Economists go with the classic answer that inflation is bad mainly because of “menu costs” and other frictions. But almost everyone else knows that inflation makes us poorer, and that very fact implies that wages follow inflation rather than lead.

Put another way: if Evans is going to be calm about inflation until wage inflation is above 3.5%, then we can expect CPI inflation to be streaking towards 4% before he gets antsy about tightening. Maybe this is why the stock market is so exuberant: although the Fed has tightened by removing the extra QE3, a further tightening is evidently a very long way off.

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