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Certainty About Uncertainty

I haven’t written recently because it is hard to figure out what to do here. Market action at this point seemingly has little to do with fundamentals, and isn’t even in “risk on/risk off” mode because no one seems to be sure how the government shutdown affects risk (the debt ceiling debate is another issue, which I will discuss later).

I often get comments to the effect that “political uncertainty is a fact of life,” or “the Fed always manipulates markets,” implying that we cannot simply refuse to invest because markets aren’t trading cleanly off of economic fundamentals (which don’t directly translate into market action even in the best of times anyway). This is true, but I always hearken back to the notion that uncertainty implies a smaller bet size (a long time ago I wrote an article in which I discussed the implications of the Kelly Criterion for thinking about how one invests). When the economic signals are clear but the market isn’t pricing them properly, then you have a great edge and the market is giving you good odds, and most of your chips should be on the table. When the economic signals aren’t clear, or when stochastic political events are likely to overwhelm them, then your bet should be small because your edge is lower even if you are getting good odds.

In this case, of course, no matter what market you are talking about it isn’t at all clear how the debate (perhaps calling it a “debate” is generous) about the continuing resolution to fund government operations, the ACA, and the debt ceiling will be resolved.

We can speculate about what various outcomes might mean to the markets, but even here our analysis is fraught with uncertainty. Would an extended shutdown be good for equity markets because it would imply a greater chance of lower ACA costs and a lengthier period of Fed quantitative easing? Or would it be bad because of the short-term impact on growth as government spending is delayed? Would bonds rally because there would be no incremental supply, or sell off because of the implied risk of default? A lengthy government closure might be bad for the dollar because it implies more monetary ease, but might be good because it represents “fiscal discipline” (admittedly, in this case it’s discipline in the fetishistic sense rather than in the self-control sense). The only thing I am certain about is the uncertainty, and that spells a smaller bet.

Retail investors are especially at a disadvantage, because of the huge amount of misinformation that is out there about likely scenarios and the results of various outcomes. This misinformation is often unwittingly disseminated by media outlets, but I suspect it is rarely unwittingly initiated by the original sources.

For example, a recent New York Times blog was pretty good at discussing the possible outcomes, but flunked on at least one aspect when it stated what would happen to the economy as a result of a federal default. I don’t mean to pick on the Times here, and in general it is a good article. But at one point the writer said that a default could cause a spike in Treasury yields (likely true), but then continued “The price tag on a huge range of other debt products is benchmarked to the cost of Treasuries. That means a spike in the federal government’s borrowing costs would translate into pricier mortgages, car loans and corporate borrowing costs.”

Well, that’s wrong. It’s not offensively wrong, but it’s wrong (and I’m pointing it out partly as an example of how even simple stuff is confused right now). The interest rate on any nominal debt instrument consists of several components: the real cost of money, a premium for expected inflation, and a premium for the riskiness of the credit.[1] Normally, with Treasuries we can say the credit spread is effectively zero, so that we refer to the spread that a corporate bond trades over Treasuries as “the” credit spread because that spread minus zero equals that spread. But there is no reason to think that spread would remain constant if the Treasury’s credit was diminished, any more than it would remain constant if the corporate’s credit was diminished. If Treasury rates spiked because the government’s perceived credit spread was no longer zero, then unless that also affected the perceived credit of, say, Caterpillar then there is no theoretical reason that CAT yields should also rise.[2]

In any event, a federal default is not going to happen unless someone in the Administration wants it to happen. The government’s $2.9 trillion in revenues is quite a bit more than is needed to pay the $300bln or so in interest costs per year, so unless the Treasury simply decided to default (see an excellent article here by my friends at TF Market Advisors) it isn’t going to happen. The Treasury has made some mystifying statements about how they don’t have the capability to pay some expenses and not others, but in the worst case someone can sit down and manually wire the money to every holder. So that’s nonsense that is meant to scare us.

So I don’t have any decent “trading opinions” on the basis of the government shutdown. What I do believe is that this is an unmitigated positive for inflation (positive in the sense of pushing it higher), and thus for breakevens and inflation swaps. The longer the government stays shut, the longer quantitative easing will be in force as the Fed attempts to counteract the short-term contraction of economic activity (the fact that monetary policy is ineffective at affecting growth rates never seems to enter their minds); furthermore a long shutdown will more likely to push the dollar lower in my opinion – although, as I said above, I can argue the reverse position as well. On the other hand, if the Republicans cave quickly, as is likely in my view, and the ACA goes into effect, prices for consumer-purchased medical care will rise rapidly. This is less a statement about whether the ACA will push aggregate health care costs higher, although I believe that it will. It’s more an observation that controlled prices in the government-purchased sector will produce higher prices outside of the controls, and it is this latter group that will be sampled for consumer prices (since the price the government purchases at is not a “consumer” price). Since it is the Medical Care subgroup of CPI that has been pressing core CPI to be lower than median CPI, any rebound in Medical Care inflation will push aggregate core inflation higher.

Was that said in a confusing-enough manner?

TIPS should do well while the government is shut, because there is ongoing growth in demand for TIPS while the supply will be drying up. Unlike with the nominal Treasury market, there is no corporate inflation-linked bond sector that can replace the inflation exposure (although there should be) demanded by investors, so TIPS will tend to outperform nominal bonds in the event that both sets of auctions are canceled.


[1] There are other costs, such as the discount to the interest rate that the Treasury pays as a result of the status of Treasuries as superior collateral in repo and similar exchanges, but they are not relevant to this point.

[2] There may be a practical argument that there might be a substitution effect, but that’s also saying that investors would bet the selloff in Treasuries makes them a better risk-adjusted bet than CAT bonds. However, if the Treasury’s credit spread moved permanently higher, it would not affect the equilibrium bond yield of a corporate bond.

What Will the Fed Do When It’s Finally Time to Tighten?

December 18, 2012 7 comments

Housekeeping note: if you missed my comment on CPI from Friday, you can find it here.  And if you missed my Bloomberg Radio interview with Carol Massar on Monday, don’t worry! I will post it when Bloomberg makes it available on their site.

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One of the busier sessions in recent memory (although still well short of 1bln shares traded on the NYSE, which was the standard not that long ago) resulted in a sharp rally in the equity market with the S&P +1.2% on the day.

The trigger for this holiday treat was the “progress” in the budget talks and what investors see as the increasing likelihood that the ‘fiscal cliff’ is averted. Be careful, however; whatever progress there was is fairly speculative, and I suspect we will see a bad news wiggle before all is resolved.

It is ironic, perhaps, that what is moving the process closer to resolution is the Republicans’ sudden refusal to be steamrolled, and to instead try and play the game rather than try to negotiate as if both parties were trying to reach a fair resolution. I refer to the fact that Speaker Boehner has begun plans to start a separate legislative track in the House of Representatives by passing a bill that would keep the Bush tax cuts in place for most Americans; the bill would not avert the spending cuts that would take effect as part of the “fiscal cliff,” but would keep the government from reaching more deeply into citizens’ pockets on January 1st. It is, therefore, just exactly what the Republicans would want in these circumstances: spending cuts without tax increases (although fewer spending cuts than they would like).

The fact that this is a good play from the standpoint of the Republicans was immediately apparent from the fact that Democrats wasted no time in accusing Boehner of not negotiating in good faith with the President, and the President himself abruptly began to try and compromise slightly from his heretofore rigid position.

Of course, the Boener plan won’t pass the Senate because it will produce exactly zero Democrat votes, and if it somehow passed by luck it would be vetoed by the President, so it has no chance to become law. However, by putting the Democrats in the position of having to vote against tax cuts, it greatly increases the chances that both parties might negotiate to something that all parties hate, and therefore passes with flying colors.

In the US system, by Constitutional writ all revenue bills have to start in the House of Representatives, so by the very nature of this process the Republicans, who dominate the House, hold the serve in this negotiation. Incredibly, this is the first time they’ve shown any desire to use that advantage to produce a bill that represents something closer to their views.

As noted above, equities reacted very well to the Republicans’ show of spine. I’d noted several weeks back that I thought the Republicans had little incentive to negotiate, since going over the fiscal cliff represents smaller government and this may be the only opportunity that party has to get smaller government in the next few years. If this move persuades the Democrats of this fact, and the President moves to address the spending problem rather than just trying to soak the rich, then the fiscal cliff may be averted. It’s really important in a negotiation, especially if a true compromise is to be reached, that your counterparty knows that you may walk away.

Personally, I think the odds are still against this happening before year-end, but some resolution fairly early in the new year is probably odds-on. However, with the debt ceiling also approaching, 2013 may well see more of these cliffhanger negotiations.

Bonds, interestingly, sold off. You would think that the prospect for a smaller deficit, even marginally, would help the Treasury market but in this case I think investors are reacting to the fact that if the fiscal cliff is averted, it lessens the chance of near-term recession and brings forward the day of reckoning for the Fed. Today, 10-year Treasury yields rose to 1.82%, which is near the highest level since early May, and 10-year real yields rose to -0.73%. Over the last five days, nominal yields have risen 16bps, and all of that has come from real yields. That is, inflation expectations have barely moved and 10-year breakevens remain at 2.50%. Ten-year inflation swaps are at 2.77%, and the important 1-year inflation, 1 year forward has risen to 2.23%.

So, whether the ‘day of reckoning’ for the Fed is near, or far…what do they do, when they’ve hit that point? And, more importantly, what does it do to the market?

Let’s assume that we are at some point in the future and either the Unemployment Rate has dipped below 6.5%, the forward PCE inflation rate has risen above 2.5%, or inflation expectations have become “unanchored.”[1] The first thing that the Fed will do is to stop unlimited QE: the statement does not imply that they will immediately start trying to get out of the hole they are in, only that they will stop digging the hole. But suppose that inflation continues to tick up – since the evidence is that inflation is a process with momentum. What does the Fed do next? This is the real question. How quickly can the Fed react to adverse inflation outcomes?

The traditional option is that the Fed raises the overnight rate. The Fed announces this move, but the important part is what happens next: the Open Market Desk (aka ‘the Desk’) conducts reverse repos to decrease the supply of reserves, or sells securities outright if it wishes to make a more-permanent adjustment. This causes the price of reserves (also known as the overnight rate) to rise, and the Desk adjusts its activity so that the overnight rate floats near the target rate.

The problem is that this won’t work right now. There are far too many reserves in circulation for the overnight interest rate to be increased by reverse repos or small securities sales. In fact, if it wasn’t for the interest being paid on excess reserves, the overnight rate would certainly be zero, and might even be negative because the supply of reserves greatly outweighs the demand for reserves. They are called “excess” reserves for a reason – the bank doesn’t need them, and will lend them overnight for pretty much any available rate.

So in order for the Fed to push the overnight rate higher, it must first soak up all of the excess reserves in the system – about $1.5 trillion at the moment – by selling bonds. Obviously, this is not something that can be done in the short-term.

But this misses the point a little bit anyway, because it isn’t the rate that matters to monetary policy but the amount of transactional money (such as M2). The Fed can set the overnight rate at 1% by simply agreeing to pay 1% as interest on excess reserves (IOER). But that won’t do anything at all to M2, because it won’t change the amount of reserves in the system and doesn’t change the money multiplier that relates the quantity of those reserves to M2.

So the short rate is dead. It isn’t going to move for a very long time, unless the FOMC decides to help the banks out by paying a higher IOER. And if they do that, it’s not going to affect inflation so it would just be a sweet present to the banks.

Okay, so perhaps the Fed can sell those long-dated securities and push long-term interest rates higher, slowing the housing market and the economy and squelching inflation, right? That’s partly right: the Fed can sell those securities, and it can push long rates higher (although the Fed has oddly claimed that if it sold those bonds, interest rates wouldn’t rise very much, which makes one wonder why they did it in the first place since presumably the opposite would also be true and buying them wouldn’t push rates down), and that would slow growth. However, it wouldn’t affect inflation, because inflation is not meaningfully affected by growth (I’ve discussed this ad nauseum in these articles; see partial arguments here, here, here, and here). But you don’t have to believe all of the evidence on that point; just play it in reverse: if driving long rates down didn’t cause a sudden jump in inflation, why would driving long rates up cause a sudden dampening in inflation?

Fama, in that article I quoted last week, had a very good point which I thought it was worth developing in more detail. The Fed has its hands off the wheel with respect to inflation…which isn’t a problem, except that they’re sitting in the back seat. The back seat of a very, very long bus.

In any event the issue isn’t when the Fed starts its tightening, but when inflation stops going up. These are not the same things. If core inflation were to start ticking higher today, at a mere 1% per year, I think it would take 6-9 months for the Fed to stop QE (core PCE is at 1.6%), probably another 3 months at a minimum before they started to tighten, and then at least 1-2 years before they could have any meaningful impact on the money supply and cause inflation to slow. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, or maybe I’m being a bit generous by assuming that after a year the FOMC would start doing something very dramatic to sop up reserves, like issuing a trillion dollars in Fed Bills, but even assuming that everything works out just about as well as it conceivably can, if inflation started heading higher in that way then you’re looking at a core CPI figure of 4-5% before it stops rising. Like I said, it’s quite a long bus, and that translates to long “tails” of inflation outcomes.

How would markets react to this? Obviously, bond rates would be much higher, but would this be good or bad for equities? The conventional wisdom holds that equities are good hedges for inflation, because over a long period of time corporate earnings should broadly keep pace with inflation. While that is true, it is also the case that earnings tend to be translated into prices at lower multiples when inflation is high (a fact that has been known for a long time; in 1979 Franco Modigliani and Richard Cohn described this as an error but there isn’t consensus on that issue) so that stocks tend to do relatively poorly when inflation is rising and better when inflation is falling from a high level. Moreover, stocks do especially poorly in the early stages of inflation when short-term inflation is surprising to the upside, as the chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) illustrates.

inflationsurprise

This chart highlights headline inflation, rather than core, but the point should be clear: nominal bonds and equities produce good real returns when inflation is surprising to the low side (even if that means that inflation is just going up slower than expected), and very poorly when inflation surprises to the high side (even when the overall level is low).

In my mind, this means that every investor needs to have some inflation protection, but especially now when the chances for an ugly inflation surprise are significant. For the record, the best asset class when inflation is surprising to the high side as measured here? Even inflation-linked bonds have produced negative real returns in such circumstances, because the real yield increase outweighs the higher inflation accruals in the short run. But commodities indices historically produced a 4% real return over that time period when inflation surprised at least 2.5% to the upside.


[1] It isn’t clear to me why you would want to wait until they were unanchored, if anchoring matters, since presumably it isn’t easy to anchor them again. After all, the whole reason the Fed wants anchored inflation expectations is because a regime change is thought to be hard – so if they are unanchored, you’ve just made it really hard to get inflation back down. In any event there’s not much evidence that “anchored” inflation expectations matter to actual inflation outcomes, but it’s just weird to me that the Fed would imply that they’d wait until expectations get loose from the anchor.

For Want of a Nail

December 6, 2012 Leave a comment

The latest fiscal cliff follies are redolent of that old proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Geithner – one of the worst, if not the worst, Treasury Secretaries in history, I am pretty sure – said in an interview on CNBC that the Administration would “absolutely” send the country off the fiscal cliff if the rates on the top 2% of Americans don’t go up.

Now, I’ve heard lots of numbers bandied about, and decided I wanted to get the source data directly. The latest information i can find from the IRS is from tax year 2009, but it is instructive. According to the IRS, in 2009 there were 104,164,970 tax returns filed. The number with adjusted gross income above $200,000 was 3,912,980, or about 3.8% of all returns. They don’t break it down any more than that, so let’s call those successful people “the rich” and work from there.

Those 4 million returns covered $1.626 trillion in modified taxable income (32% of the total taxable income) and produced $429bln in tax (45% of the total tax generated). Now, let’s suppose that the top tax rate rose from 35% to 39.6% in tax, and for grins we’ll pretend that taxpayers are completely indifferent about this and so they do nothing to try and reduce taxable income (by, say, buying municipal bonds rather than corporate bonds). You might think that the tax take will rise by $74.8bln (4.6% * 1.626 trillion). But you’d be wrong, because the increase wouldn’t affect all of the taxable income paid by high-earners, but only that income that is taxed at the top marginal rate. In 2009, only $485bln in income was taxed at that rate, so a 4.6% increase in the marginal rate would only raise $22.3bln per year, or around $250-300bln over the next 10 years.

Now, over the last year the deficit has been about $1.1 trillion, so if I understand Geithner correctly, the Administration is willing to push the country over the cliff about an issue that amounts to 2% of the deficit, and would increase aggregate revenues by only 1%.

It’s one thing to argue for the philosophical point, but to say that you’re willing to put a hole in the bottom of the boat because you don’t like the seat you were offered…it seems a bit irrational.

What might be even more irrational is the sudden optimism that is breaking out all over Capitol Hill, about how great the economy will be if the fiscal cliff can just be averted. Today a Republican Senator being interviewed on CNBC said “The economy is ready to explode. There’s no doubt about that,” echoing what President Obama had said just a couple of days ago.

Do they mean implode, perhaps?

There is certainly no sign whatsoever that “the economy is ready to explode” ecstatically if the fiscal cliff is averted. Indeed, I think part of the reason we’re likely to go over the cliff is that the President wants to be able to blame the poor growth for the next few years on the Republicans in the same way he spent the last four years blaming the previous President. And the Republicans, since the Administration has offered no spending cuts and has dismissed entitlement reform altogether, don’t really have a choice unless they want to completely capitulate – at least with the fiscal cliff, some spending will be cut. Since, if austerity is enforced, there will be no way to test the counterfactual, it makes sense to build up how great it would have been. But the point I want to make is that to proffer such a claim only makes tactical sense if no deal is in the offing…because if a deal is struck, then we’ll quickly find out that the economy isn’t going to explode higher at all, and those statements will be exposed as completely moronic.

We will on Friday find out how much the economy is not exploding – surely, because of the impending cliff – when Payrolls (Consensus: 85k vs 171k) and Unemployment (Consensus: 7.9%) are announced. These figures will be impacted by Hurricane Sandy, so it will be difficult to interpret them. Or, perhaps I should add cynically that this uncertainty will make it even easier for politicians to claim whatever the heck they want!

With 10-year yields already at four-month lows (1.59%) and the bullish seasonal pattern having run its course, I think the risk is for higher bond yields both tomorrow and going forward. Now, the 1.82% level has mostly contained any selloff since April, but I think we will be headed in that direction. Equities have downside risk in my view after this recent rally (an even more impressive rally when you consider that Apple was dragging on the index!); I think there is far too much optimism about an imminent resolution to the fiscal cliff, and I don’t think we’ll see any resolution until after the new year.

The Nation’s Balance Sheet and Crowding Out

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Recently, I pointed out (in “Kissing Assets Goodbye” from November 1st) that disasters lower a country’s net worth. Therefore, even though they will tend to increase flows-based measures of economic activity, such as today’s New York ISM where the “6-month outlook” subindex jumped from 57.7 to 75.3, it’s not good news. I lamented that, although the numbers are not wrong per se, they are misleading. And they are misleading because there is no economic “asset” and “liability” account for the nation.

I recently saw a paper which attempts to create just such a “balance sheet” for the nation, albeit with a very long lag. It is a project to define “the integrated macroeconomic accounts” of the United States, and it is jointly produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Fed. You can find a discussion of the effort here, and if you search on “disaster losses” you can find evidence on household, government, and business balance sheets of the impact of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (about $28bln) and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 (about $110bln).

Read through the paper and you can see this is an ongoing project with many current shortcomings, but it’s progress. However, it’s doubtful it will ever be used by economists in anything approximating real time, which means my objection – that economists ignore the fact that a disaster is a net negative even though it is positive in an activity sense – stands. Still, with as much as I bash economists, it’s only fair that sometimes I point out when they’re trying to do things the right way.

Now, one interesting part of the paper is on page 6, where the economists detail the sources of net lending and borrowing in the capital and financial accounts, broken down by sector. For those who think that deficits don’t matter, this is something to chew on. According to the table, in 2007 we were all borrowing: households, businesses, state and local governments, and the federal government. This was financed by our overseas trading partners. Everything changed in 2008, when the government borrowing “crowded out” private borrowing. The table below is a summary of two columns from the paper, and compares net lending or borrowing by sector for 2007 and 2011.

(billions) 2007 2011
Households & nonprofits -126 476
Nonfinancial noncorporate businesses -74 -6
Nonfinancial corporate businesses -94 422
Financial business -3 125
Federal government -315 -1357
State & local governments -93 -113
Rest of the world provides the difference 716 484
– indicates net borrowing
+ indicates net lending

The last number in the column is essentially the number needed to make the column sum to zero (although not exactly, due to statistical discrepancies…that is, it isn’t a “plug” number but rather is measured directly), and it clearly is bounded at some level. The rest of the world will not lend us, especially in the current economy, a bazillion dollars. And when so many other countries are running large deficits, there is great competition for those dollars. So the “rest of the world” line cannot simply rise to any level in order to balance out the column. (When our economy was less open, this line was far less flexible even than it is today).

Consequently, when the “Federal government” deficit rises by a trillion dollars, it essentially forces (in a mathematical and accounting sense that the books must balance) the other sectors to become lenders. Or, put another way, if no one buys the bonds then the federal government can’t run that deficit; ergo, the existence of the deficit implies that other sectors have lent.

A more-generous interpretation would be that the other sectors became savers due to the crisis and so, in order to maintain economic growth, the Federal government was forced to borrow. Aside from being a false choice (the government could have chosen to let the economy solve its own problems), that interpretation is less plausible now that we are four years out from the crisis and the deficits still persist.

There are other ways to illustrate this same proposition, such as through the numbers the Fed produces in the Z.1 report, which show that Treasury debt has gone from being 25% of total domestic non-financial sector debt to 40%, in only four years (see chart below, source Federal Reserve Z.1 report).

fslcompareddomnonfin

However, this doesn’t illustrate the “crowding out” causality as well as the table above does. The following chart (Source: Fed Z.1 report) shows it better, but it still begs the question a bit because it shows levels and not flows. For my money, I like that table.

pubandpriv

All in all, the paper is worth reading – it’s only 17 pages, and lots of great charts and numbers to go with that.

Fiscal Baby Steps Aren’t Worth the Angst

December 3, 2012 1 comment

Unless today’s unseasonably-warm temperatures in the New York area (through some metaphysical conservation-of-energy mechanism) means that Hell is freezing over, we are a long way from resolution on the fiscal cliff discussions.

The Republicans countered President Obama’s proposal for a $1.6 trillion tax hike with their own plan that would cut the cumulative deficit (according to static scoring, as all of these proposals are) by $2.2 trillion through a combination of closing special interest loopholes, introducing deduction caps on high earners, increasing the Medicare eligibility age, cutting some discretionary spending, and using chained CPI as the Social Security escalator in order to slow the growth of benefits. After having previously lambasted the Republicans for not offering specifics, the White House today labeled the proposal “nothing new,” apparently without irony.

To be fair, the Republicans had called the President’s proposal a “la-la land offer.” So you can see, we are obviously very close to a deal and a smiling, hand-shaking, giddy signing ceremony in the Rose Garden.

All of this is sheer madness. These hikes and cuts are measured over the projection horizon, so we’re arguing about cutting perhaps 20% per year from the current trillion-dollar deficits. Good heavens, it’s a good thing we’re not trying to do something radical, like balance the budget. The combination of the national debt and the Social Security and Medicare liabilities add up to over $1.1million per taxpayer (Source: www.usdebtclock.org), and the debate is over cutting around $20,000 per taxpayer over the next decade. Don’t strain yourselves, fellows.

It’s incredible that some of these things are even subject to argument. The Medicare eligibility age will eventually be effectively infinity, because the program is not viable on this planet with health care such as we have come to expect, and since the liability is in real terms (units of healthcare, not of dollars) we can’t inflate our way out of it. So gradually moving the eligibility age a whole lot higher is something that we simply will have to do. Why not now?

People who say that cutting the deficit by $2.2 trillion over 7-10 years is hard to do have not actually tried it. It is actually pretty easy to get the budget back to some semblance of balance, as long as you don’t have to run for re-election or if you consider the future of the country to be more important than winning another term (and you know, there’s even a chance your constituents may reward that bold sacrifice!). All that you have to do is to reverse most of the things we’ve done to the budget over the last decade and you’re close – of course, the interest costs now are a lot higher, and will only climb in the future. But if you put entitlement reform on the table, it gets downright easy…again, if you don’t have to run for re-election.

Now, that interest portion of the deficit is somewhat scary. The chart below comes from Bloomberg, and it’s one of my favorite Bloomberg functions (DDIS). It shows the debt maturity distribution of U.S. Treasuries, and shows the interest and principal amounts currently scheduled.

uglydebt

It appears as if the interest costs (right column) max out at $196bln in 2013 and then decline, but keep in mind that these numbers ignore the fact that debt will be rolled when it matures. The $196bln is something closer to the baseline expectation, in the event that the Fed keeps interest rates anchored pretty near zero. It may be disturbing to note that the Treasury next year needs to roll $1.26 trillion in maturing securities, in addition to the $1 trillion of new money they need to raise due to the deficit; in 2014 the problem will start to grow even scarier as all of the 5-year issuance from 2009 starts to come due, along with all of the debt that has been rolled in the last couple of years. If you want to point to a come-to-Jesus moment in the bond market, it is likely to be in 2014 when this fact intersects with the expectation of the end of QE. It’s one thing to sell $2.26 trillion in Treasury securities if the Fed is committed to buying $1 trillion of them. It’s a little harder when they’re not, or if they are (as they claim they can) actually trying to sell some Treasuries from their own vaults. Good luck.

That’s why I don’t think we ought to be arguing over $200bln per year in the fiscal cliff. The problem is already much larger than that.

Now, that presumes that QE actually ends sometime in 2013. Some Fed officials have recently made noises to suggest that there is no reason that QE needs to end any time soon, and that the Fed is “nowhere near” the limit of what it can do. The problem is that 2014 will force a very serious choice on the Fed, because I think inflation is going to continue to rise throughout next year (our point forecast for core inflation is about 2.8% for 2013, but with all the tails to the upside), while I seriously doubt that Unemployment will get below 7%. And, as just noted, the market reality is that without Fed buying, the Treasury is going to have a devil of a time placing its debt in 2014 without higher yields (as an aside, I also suspect all dollar swap spreads will be negative in the next few years).

I’m not the only one who thinks that inflation is likely to be rising. While the nominal interest rate debacle is, in my opinion, not likely to hit us until 2014, rising inflation is happening today and the expectation of a continuation of that trend is being reflected in inflation swap rates. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows that 10-year inflation swap rates are again up around 2.75%.

10y infl

Now, if inflation expectations are rising but the Fed is going to fix nominal 10-year rates at 1.60%-1.80% where they are now, then the scary result is that TIPS yields, already ridiculously low, could go further. I am not bullish on TIPS, because as a rule I won’t buy something that is rich on the expectation that it might get richer. That way lies madness, since when the thing you bought goes down you have no plausible excuse. Moreover, speaking for myself, I know that I would be unable to maintain a position that I knew to be fundamentally mispriced the wrong way. But if 10-year inflation expectations went to, say, 3.6% and 10-year nominal yields were fixed at 1.6%, real yields would be forced to -2.00%. This is the reason I won’t short TIPS in the current environment, although I view them as overvalued.

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What article would be complete without news from Europe? Today Greece offered to pay up to  €10bln to buy back their own bonds, with bids due Friday. Completion of this buyback is a precondition to Greece’s receiving the next tranche of the bailout, but it will be challenging if they refuse to pay market prices (as the Euro finance minister communiqué released last week suggested, since it limited the prices paid to those prevailing on November 23rd). It still is a philosophical step forward, since at least it serves to recognize the unrealized gains that Greece effectively has when its liabilities are priced where they are now. This is, after all, essentially the same thing that happens in a default: in that case, Greece would offer to pay 35 cents on the dollar for all of its debt. In this case, they’re trying to “default” on just enough of the private debt so that the public debt can be carried at par for a while and maybe, someday, be paid off at par.

I just wonder if they can make it to “someday.”

Clearer Communication in the Wrong Quarters

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Whether it is that the passage of the U.S. election released Europe to begin fighting amongst themselves again about Greece, or instead that they’ve been fighting the whole time and we just didn’t notice because we were so introspective, it’s certainly happening and heating up again. The Eurozone finance ministers are bickering, publicly, over whether Greece should be given two more years to hit its financial targets. (See articles here and here.)   Also, and more importantly, the IMF wants the government owners of Greek bonds to write off some of their losses and lessen the Greek burden while some of the finance ministers (e.g., German Finance Minister Schauble) insist “that’s not legally possible.” Guess what? It’s going to happen whether it’s legally possible or not – but not this month. Greece will probably eventually get its tranche/lifeline this month, but the battle will be engaged with increasing intensity as time goes on.

That, however, is not the reason why stocks keep sliding (S&P -1.4% today) and bonds keep rallying (albeit gently today, with the 10y note yield down to 1.59%). I think that is happening because one week post-election, there is no sign that either Democrats or Republicans are budging on their positions vis a vis the fiscal cliff. The Democrats are winning on messaging, as they usually do these days, with the “Papa John’s Pizza approach” in which they have seized on the part of Romney’s budget proposal that they liked  (reducing deductions for high-income taxpayers) while ignoring the connection of that element with the intention to keep tax rates down. I call it the Papa John’s Pizza approach because it reminds me of the commercial with Peyton Manning.

Republicans: So how are we going to do this?

Democrats: We loved Romney’s idea, and we agree with you. We’ll cut deductions.

Republicans: No, no, no, no, no…you mean we’ll cut deductions and keep income tax rates from rising.

Democrats: Right. We’ll cut deductions.

Republicans: …you mean we’ll cut deductions and keep rates from rising.

Democrats: I’m glad we agree. We’ll cut deductions. See how open minded we are? We’re using Romney’s plan!

Say what you want about the class warfare approach, the Democrats run rings around the Republicans when it comes to communication.

One place where better communication is actually destructive, but ironically one of the only places where we’re actually moving towards better communication, is at the Federal Reserve. A Wall Street Journal article today was entitled “Fed Leans Toward Clearer Guidance,” and indicated that “the Fed would state how high inflation would have to rise or how low unemployment would have to fall before it would begin moving rates, which have been near zero since late 2008.” This was the main newsworthy point that Fed Vice-Chair Janet Yellen made yesterday, and it was driven home today in the release of the minutes from the October Fed Meeting:

“A number of participants questioned the effectiveness of continuing to use a calendar date to provide forward guidance….Many participants thought that more-effective forward guidance could be provided by specifying numerical thresholds for labor market and inflation indicators.”

Since June, a “soft” Evans Rule based on this idea has been in place, as I pointed out at the time. It is not terribly surprising that the Fed would move towards a more explicit formulation of the rule, because Fed economists have never figured out why ambiguity is a good thing when it comes to policy-making. If they really do manage to reduce the Fed’s deliberations to a series of simple and public rules, then they should just finish the job and replace the Fed with a computer, as Milton Friedman proposed many years ago.

As I’ve written frequently (and borderline obsessively), clarifying the exact path that the Federal Reserve will take in the future reduces the uncertainty that investors face. This is good in the absence of leverage, but if the opportunity to leverage exists then the decrease of apparent uncertainty causes an increase in the leverage desired by investors. The problem is that a margin of safety doesn’t only protect an investor from known uncertainties, which would decrease in this instance, but also from unknown uncertainties, which would not be affected and for which a margin of safety is absolutely crucial if we desire to avoid another financial market meltdown. But no one is listening to me.

Commodities rose today, despite the continued decline in equities. This is not unreasonable. I think that commodities and stocks are telling two different stories. If there’s a recession, it should hurt stocks and commodities (but more directly should hurt stocks) while further QE3 ought to help them (but more directly help commodities). Right now stocks are going up on QE3 while commodities are going down on the recession … exactly the opposite of what ought to be happening. To my mind that just means the ‘value gulf’ is getting wider and wider. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the ratio of the S&P total return index to the DJ-UBS index.

Right now there is an enormous loathing for commodities that I don’t really understand – it seems to me to be the bipolar nature of commodities investors that they either love or hate the stuff. It probably comes from the fact that there are no “value” investors in commodities since the theory on what constitutes “value” is so light. Right now it looks to me like stocks are relatively expensive, although they’ve been that way for a while.

For tomorrow’s CPI figures, the consensus forecast calls for an 0.1% rise month/month for both the headline and core indices (seasonally adjusted), maintaining the y/y core increase at 2.0%. Last month, core rose to 1.98%, and we’re ‘dropping off’ a +0.17% on the y/y comparison. If economists are right, and 0.1% is the rounded change in core inflation on the month, then the y/y rise in core inflation will more likely decline to +1.9% than stay at +2.0% (of the possible prints that would lead to +0.1% on the monthly, from +0.05% to +0.149%, anything from +0.05% to +0.129% would cause a downtick in the y/y figure while only monthly changes in the range of  +0.130% to +0.149% would keep the number stable.

However, I don’t see what will cause core to droop like that. I think economists are paying too much attention to the last several monthly changes and ignoring the fact that the weak prints were caused by outlier points (as evidenced by the fact that the Median CPI of the Cleveland Fed and the Sticky CPI of the Atlanta Fed, both different measures of central tendency, remain at +2.3% and +2.2% respectively). Moreover, housing CPI – the main driver of core inflation – is accelerating with both primary rents and owner’s equivalent rent rising last month, and all indicators of housing tightness from housing inventories to apartment tightness continue to suggest that higher price increases are more likely than lower price increases ahead. Moreover, we’re seeing upside surprises in other countries, such as in Greece that I mentioned yesterday, the in the UK where core inflation rose to +2.6% y/y versus 2.2% expected (see Chart, Source Bloomberg), befuddling most economists there.

That doesn’t mean the y/y core figure in the U.S. will definitely rise back to +2.1% this month; to do that, core would need to print +0.23% for the month, meaning the main body of the economist profession was off by half. Come to think of it, that’s not so far-fetched. If the last three months of core prints (+0.090%, +0.052%, and +0.146%) are quirky-low, then there should be a payback at some point. It’s hard to call for that in any given month, though.

Tempestuous Times

August 26, 2012 2 comments

At last, we are in the home stretch of August. This month has been excruciating by any measure – even by the measure of normal Augusts. Heck, even by the standard of normal Decembers; right now, New York exchange volume is on pace to be 15% less in August than on the slowest December in the last decade-plus.

That’s remarkable, but I remain unsure of the significance of this lull. We are plainly in the midst of a secular decline in trading volumes, and at least some of that is healthy since there was probably too much of the frenetic, momentum-type trading that adds to swing amplitudes. The flip side, though, is that some of the decline in volumes reflects a decline in market-making activities, which are typically ‘speculative’ in that they are short-term in nature but nonetheless add liquidity and decrease swing amplitudes. Again, I don’t have a clear answer to this.

It is tempting to say that it represents part of what Bill Gross means when he says “the cult of equity is dying.” Maybe it does, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that the cult of equity is dying. The average pension fund today has maybe 50% stocks rather than 60% stocks, most 401(k) accounts don’t offer commodity funds or inflation-linked bond funds but instead 12 flavors of equity funds, and Jim Cramer is still on the air.

Still, faith in “the system” is indeed at an ebb that hasn’t been seen since my lifetime, anyway. Perhaps in the 1970s the counterculture lost faith in America, but the majority still believed that working hard resulted in a person getting ahead, and that one’s children were likely to enjoy a higher standard of living than one’s self. Most of us would still like to believe this, but at least one party believes strongly that these days you can’t get ahead without a hand up, and members of both parties (and every sentient being) knows that the entitlements currently promised virtually assure that our young are being yoked to the Medicare plow. And yet, stocks trade above a 20 Shiller multiple and 30-year bonds sport a 2.80% yield!

Tempestuous times tend to produce momentous change.

We remain in tempestuous times, although we heard nary a peep from Europe this month. The global economic system is creaking again. On Friday, Durable Goods was much weaker than expected, with core durable orders -0.4% and revised downward by -1.1% to the prior month (from -1.1% to -2.2%). That produces the lowest year/year growth in core Durables since early 2010. As the Fed pointed out in their minutes, the U.S. economy is not ready to take another punch, and another punch may well be coming from Europe in the next few months.

It is therefore not surprising that presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney says that if he is elected, he would not re-appoint Ben Bernanke to be Fed Chairman when his term ends in a year and a half (January 31, 2014).  In good times, candidates want to bestow laurels on the Fed Chairman (such as when Arizona senator McCain in a 1999 debate said that if Chairman Greenspan were to die in office, ‘I would do like they did in the movie Weekend at Bernie’s. I’d prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him and keep him as long as I could’), whatever his merits.

It is also not surprising, in times like this, that a political party (again, the Republicans) would consider a platform plank calling for a full audit of the Federal Reserve as well as one calling for a commission to study a return to the gold standard. These are momentous proposals! Change is a good thing, but in times like these we must always be careful of deploying change for change’s sake. I don’t think any of those proposals would threaten the republic, but going back to a gold standard would be too much in my opinion.

I don’t think a commodity or gold standard is necessary, if the central bank is run correctly, and in fact such a linkage could create rigidities that prevent some of the automatic stabilizers in the macroeconomy from working correctly. But it comes down to a question of whether central bankers can be trusted to do what they can, and to understand what they cannot do, and to eschew what they can, but should not do. Organizationally, I am not sure any groupthink body can manage something as complex as the U.S. macroeconomy, to say nothing of the world economy.

So what’s the alternative? ‘Ending the Fed’ and returning to a gold standard is one solution, but it sort of throws the baby out with the bathwater. Paul Ryan’s proposal in 2008 to limit the Fed’s mandate to only inflation, rather than the impossible dual mandate, would be significant progress (and is unlikely to happen). Failing that tweak, I still think the Federal Reserve can be more effective than it has been through the last two Chairmanships. The middle road between a gold standard and a continuation of business-as-usual – which would have, incidentally, completely opposite implications for inflation – is to appoint a better Chairman. A person who has a steady hand, a healthy respect for the difference between data and facts (data are just estimates of facts, not the same thing), and a healthy respect for the difficulty of certainty. A person who (as I say in my book) recognizes that the person running the Fed is in a short-options position, and therefore should focus on doing only the things which clearly must be done. A person who won’t tinker.

Now, we’re unlikely to get such a thing, because the prevailing wisdom is that the central banks should do everything they can. They should be in continuous motion, balancing and re-balancing, optimizing and re-optimizing. Choosing between that on one hand, or a gold standard on the other, is a much harder choice.

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Speaking of commodities, the market seems to believe that we’re more likely to keep our activist central banks than to get a gold standard, and hence more likely to get inflationary rather than disinflationary/deflationary outcomes. The chart below shows the current technical condition of the DJ-UBS commodity index. As regular readers know, I don’t spend a lot of time looking at technical analysis; I do, however, think it can be useful in testing hypotheses and in ‘taking the temperature’ of the investing public.

The DJ-UBS chart shows a break higher from a base on the last day of June, followed by a consolidation in early July that produced a second breakout and a longer consolidation band. This second plateau, covering late July through mid-August, seems to be resolving higher as well although without the sharpness of the prior thrusts. But the crucial test is whether the index can remain above 145 here and extend higher.

The evolution of Tropical Storm Isaac may help. While so far all the storm has done has been to cancel one day of the Republican convention, it is moving into the Gulf of Mexico and generating the possibility of disrupting gas and oil production there. It is not expected to strengthen above Category 2, so this isn’t going to have the monstrous effect of Katrina, but it won’t hurt the technical situation of the commodity indices any.

So what do these tempestuous times and momentous changes mean for markets? At the moment, they mean little, because the momentous changes are unlikely to happen if the current Administration wins a second term. But for the first time in a very long time, the two parties are offering very different views of America and very different plans; and that means that for the first time in a while, it actually may matter to the markets which party actually rules once the votes are counted. At present, polls have the Presidential race very tight, but with the Republicans favored to pick up some seats in the Senate and to retain control of the House. There is a chance, although still odds-off, that the Republicans gain control of both houses of the legislature and the executive branch as well. The difference in the policy portfolio in that circumstance, compared to the status quo or one in which the Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives as part of a general electoral landslide (this is much less likely than the reverse, since the House is the body that is most skewed at the moment – towards Republicans), is huge.

Is a Republican sweep good for bonds, since the fiscally conservative credentials (if taken at face value) would imply lower future debt issuance, or bad for bonds, because a President Romney would make QE3 less likely? This isn’t entirely clear to me, but more volatility and consequently more volume seem likely, as more focus turns to these polls over the next month or two. This election will matter to markets.

Dueling Prophets

March 5, 2012 3 comments

What promises to be a fairly interesting week started slowly. I expected that over the weekend we would have started to hear about private holders of Greek debt that would announce plans to tender their bonds in the PSI.

And we did not.

Surely, prior to releasing the details of the PSI, Greece and the Troika had orchestrated such announcements, in order to create a sense of momentum, of fait accompli? To fail to do so is just another gross incompetence, another terrible mistake on something it is easy to get right. Behavior matters; perception matters. Make those planning to hold out feel some pressure early…but they didn’t, which creates the opposite impression – “hey, they don’t have the votes!” And so today, we finally heard from holders that the IIF represented, and we learned that group only amounts to about a third of the bonds outstanding. That’s it?

Meanwhile, hedge funds account for about ¼ of the bonds. Now, I am not one of those who think it’s automatic that evil hedge funds will hold out (although if they’re exploiting the dummies who put this together, I almost need to cheer), since hedge funds understand that their continued existence is subject to the whims of regulators. Hedge funds, while motivated by lucre, are generally motivated by long-term lucre. On the other hand, it’s probably also fair to surmise that the ones who didn’t want to be involved in what is likely to cast their firms in a negative light have already sold their bonds and that therefore most of the ones remaining are not planning to tender.

Since Greece needs 2/3 of the bonds to tender and 1/3 has said yes while ¼ is likely to say no, it follows that about 80% of the remaining bonds need to be tendered or the PSI will fail. I think that’s a possibility, but in any event the success of the PSI certainly isn’t the sure thing that has been factored into the market in the days since the deal was announced.

So will the default, if it happens, and the likely exit of Greece from the Eurozone, end all multi-cellular life[1] on the planet?

One answer to that question was carefully leaked today by the IIF, the organization which was responsible for negotiating the surrender Private Sector Initiative. It falls squarely in the camp of “a disaster of epic proportions,” and predicts that certainly every possible pestilence will befall the planet (with the possible exception of dogs and cats living together).

The other side of the argument was presented by Jonathan Tepper in an “Outside the Box” guest column in John Mauldin’s e-letter. He cites UC-Berkeley Professor of International Business Andrew K. Rose, who has done a study of 130 countries spanning 1946-2005 which exited currency areas or saw currency unions break up. His conclusion (cited by Tepper):

“I find that countries leaving currency unions tend to be larger, richer, and more democratic; they also tend to experience somewhat higher inflation. Most strikingly, there is remarkably little macroeconomic volatility around the time of currency union dissolutions, and only a poor linkage between monetary and political independence.”

In other words, while the Troika has surely made a bad situation worse by destroying the Greek economy rather than allow default and devaluation (which would cause the losses to fall more squarely on the rest of Europe), that doesn’t mean it needs to keep making it worse. Exiting the union would not necessarily be a disaster, if properly prepared for. Then again, if the authorities can’t prepare for the PSI deal by quickly producing enthusiastic tenders, it isn’t necessarily unreasonable to think they’ll botch this.

The difference between the two perspectives, besides the predicted outcome, is that one is based on data and historical analysis while the other seems to draw heavily on the Book of Revelation. The IIF memo also made simple logical errors, such as attributing the costs that Portugal will have to bear if Greece defaults to the Greek default; this only makes sense if a Greek non-default will make Portugal all better, and that’s ridiculous. For example, from the article cited above:

“If, by way of illustration, it is assumed that Portugal is unable to access markets through 2016, then official lenders would be required to:

  • Provide €16 billion annually in financing to the government from 2013 through 2016, or €65 billion in total
  • Help assure that €77 billion of term funding is available through 2016, or about €15 billion a year from 2012 through 2016, together with the refinancing for some €86 billion in short-term credit to fulfill the obligations of Portuguese banks and corporates to foreign lenders
  • Help assure financing sufficient to manage some €330 billion in debt owed by Portuguese corporates and households to domestic banks, 7 percent of which are nonperforming, and some €220 billion owed by Portuguese banks and corporate to foreign lenders. (Relative to GDP, these exposures amount to 194 percent and 129 percent, respectively.)”

Well, actually, no. If Portugal is unable to access the markets through 2016, official lenders won’t be required to do anything. If they do not, Portugal will be forced to run a balanced budget, banks will default, and a number of corporate entities will fail. That’s not unlikely to happen anyway, regardless of whether Greece defaults this month, so the question in my mind is mostly just about the order of defaults and the timing of Euro exit.

So this is what we will deal with this week, along with tomorrow’s Super Tuesday slate of primaries. Equities are not handling the stress extremely well, although they managed to rally and close with only an -0.4% loss on the day. Stocks also had to deal with the statement by China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, who announced that the government had set a GDP target for this year of only 7.5% (the first time since 2004 that it hasn’t been at least 8%). I don’t think that was the main consideration of those lightening up on equities, because Treasuries also sold off (with the 10-year note back to 2.01%, up 4bps). It may have been the main reason that industrial metals dropped 1.6%. However, whether China says they’ll grow at 7% or 12%, the more important factor here is (a) does Greece defer default for a little longer, or default and exit rapidly, and (b) which side of the argument above between Tepper and the IIF is correct.

In any event, a safe stance is warranted. And keep in mind that for most investors, it isn’t Thursday that matters: long before there is an announcement that the PSI has succeeded (or more likely, that CACs will be invoked or the deal fails altogether), the market will be trading the information because some people will know well before you and I will.


[1] By which I mean complex forms of life, not people with more than one cell phone. Although, come to think of it, these may be mutually exclusive.

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