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The Risk of Confusing Inflation Frames

February 4, 2021 8 comments

People who look at and talk about inflation are always having to move between multiple frames. There is the macro versus the micro, the theoretical versus experiential, and of course the short term, medium term, and long term. I spend a lot of time talking about the macroeconomic backdrop (27% money growth, weak velocity that should be recovering), and mostly address the short-term effects when I do the monthly CPI analysis on Twitter (and summarized here, for example this one from last month). And occasionally I do a one-off piece about more lasting effects (e.g. inventories).

But I rarely tie these things together, except quarterly for clients in our Quarterly Inflation Outlook. Right now, though, this is an exquisitely confusing time where all of these frames are colliding and making it difficult to make a simple, clear argument about where inflation is headed and when. So in this column I want to briefly touch on a number of these effects and tie the story together.

Short-term Effects

There are a bunch of short-term effects, or ones that are at least mostly short-term. We recognize that these are unusual movements in costs and prices, and expect them to pass in either a defined period (e.g. base effects) or over some reasonably near-term horizon. This makes them fairly easy to dismiss, and in fact these are not reasons to be fearful of inflation. They will affect CPI, and therefore they will affect how TIPS carry, but they should not change your view of what medium-to-long-term inflation looks like.

  1. Base effects – We know that last March, April, and May’s CPI reports were incredibly weak, as things like airfare and hotels and used cars absolutely collapsed. Core CPI declined -0.10% in March 2020, -0.45% in April 2020, and -0.06% in May 2020. These were followed by rebounds in some of those categories and in others, with June, July, and August core CPI at +0.24%, +0.62%, and +0.39%. What this means is that if core CPI comes in at 0.20% per month from here, then year/year core CPI will rise to 1.85% in April (when March 2020 rolls off), 2.52% in May, and 2.78% in June. But then it would fall to 2.32% in August (when July 2020 rolls off) and 2.13% in September. You’re supposed to look through base effects like that, and economists will. The Fed will say they’re not concerned, because the rise is mainly base effects – even if other things are going on too. Behaviorally, we know that some investors will react because they fear what they don’t know that is behind the curtain. And that’s not entirely wrong. But in any event this isn’t a reason to be concerned about long-term inflation.
  2. Measurement things, like rents – Quite apart from the question of whether COVID has caused inflation (or disinflation) is the question of what COVID has done to the measurement of inflation. For example, in the early months of the pandemic the BLS made an effort to not try too hard to get doctors and hospitals to respond to their surveys. Not only were many surveyed procedures not actually happening, but also the doctors and hospitals were clearly in crisis and the BLS figured that the last thing they needed was to respond to surveys, so the measurement of medical care data was sketchy at least early on in the pandemic. And there were many other establishments that were simply closed and could not be sampled. Most of those issues are past, and the echo of them will be past once the March-August period is out of the data. But there are some that persist and the timing of the resolution of which remains uncertain. The most important of these is the measurement of rents, both primary rents (“Rent of Primary Residence”) and the related Owners’-Equivalent Rent. In measuring rent, the BLS adjusts the quoted “asking” rent on an apartment unit by the landlord’s assessment of what proportion of the rent will eventually be collected. So, even if a renter is late on the rent, a landlord who expects to eventually expects to receive 100% of the rent due will cause that unit to be recorded at the full rent.

During the pandemic, of course, many renters lost their incomes and many others recognized that eviction moratoria made it feasible to defer rent payments and conserve cash. As a consequence, measured rents have been decelerating as landlords are decreasing their expectations of eventual receipt, even as asking rents have been rising rapidly along with home prices. The chart below (Source: Pantheon Macroeconomics, from the Daily Shot) illustrates this point. The divergence is explained by the increase in expected renter defaults – and it is temporary. Indeed, if the federal government succeeds in dropping more cash into people’s bank accounts, it will likely help decrease those defaults and we could see a quick catch-up. (That’s actually a near-term upward risk to core inflation, in fact). But in any event this isn’t a reason to be concerned about long-run inflation or disinflation…although the boom in home prices, perhaps, is.

  1. Shipping Containers – Another item that is related to COVID is that shipping costs are skyrocketing. Partly, this is because shipping containers are in the wrong places (a problem which eventually solves itself); partly, it is because the stock of shipping containers is too small to handle the sudden surge in demand as businesses reopen and not only re-build inventories but also build them beyond what they were pre-COVID (see my article about inventories for why). Deutsche Bank had a note out yesterday opining that while this spike in shipping costs – see the chart of the Shanghei (Export) Containerized Freight Index, source Bloomberg, below – will eventually ebb, it may not go down to its long-term average. But, still, the majority of this spike in costs, which is felt up and down the supply chain and drives higher near-term inflation for everything from apparel to pharmaceuticals, will ebb and isn’t a reason to be concerned about long-run inflation.
  1. Raw Materials – The same picture we see in the Shipping Containers chart is evident in lots of other raw materials markets. I’m not speaking here as much about the large commodities complexes like Copper, Lead, Oil, and so on but about certain less-widely followed but no less important markets. One you may have seen is steel (see chart, below, of front Hot Rolled Steel futures), which have nearly tripled since the summer and are about 30% above 2018’s highs with no end apparent.

Closer to my heart, and one you’re less likely to have seen, is the chart of resin futures. This is polymer grade propylene, which is a precursor to polypropylene. PP is used in all sorts of applications, from clothing and other fabrics to packaging (soda bottles!) of all kinds. And North American supplies of PP are under what can only be called severe pressure. Front PGP has more than quadrupled since the spring, and is at multi-year highs (if you can find an offer at all). It’s up 142% since mid-December! And PP is up even more, as producer margins have widened. Folks who want to track this and related markets might start by visiting theplasticsexchange. The reasons for this spike are part technical, although caused by the sudden re-start of the global economies, and will eventually pass. As with shipping, it may not go back to what was “normal,” but in any case movements like this, or those with steel or other raw materials, are not reasons to be concerned about long-run inflation. However, they likely will affect CPI prints as these are inputs into all sorts of goods.

That is a non-exhaustive list of some of the short-term effects that are directly or indirectly related to the stop-start of the COVID economy. They will pass, but they add a tremendous amount of sturm und drang to the price system and can confuse the medium and longer-term impacts.

Medium-term Effects

Some of the medium-term things that are happening, and that matter, and that will last, will be missed. Here are a few on my list:

  1. Pharmaceutical prices – One of the really fascinating things we have seen over the last few years has been the slow deceleration in inflation of medical care commodities, specifically drugs. The chart below (source Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in the CPI for Medicinal Drugs. In late 2019, after slipping into deflation, drug prices appeared to find a footing and to be recovering. But even before COVID, this jump was starting to ebb and in the most-recent 12 months pharmaceuticals prices experienced their largest decline in decades. Why?

One reason this happened is because the Trump Administration threatened drug companies with a “Most Favored Nation” clause. This means that the drug companies would not be allowed to sell their products in the United States at a higher price than the lowest price they charged overseas. The Trump Administration said that this would cause massive decreases in drug costs; this clearly wasn’t true (for reasons I discussed here last August) but it would tend to cause drug prices to decline in the US at least a little, especially relative to other countries’ costs. Faced with this, drug companies played nice…until Mr. Biden won the Presidency, in at least small part because some of the large vaccine developers slow-rolled their vaccine announcement until after the election. In January, they started moving prices higher again. This may hit the CPI as early as this month. But unlike with the short-term effects listed above, this is not a response to COVID or its ebbing, and it isn’t something that is likely to change. The Biden Administration is much less antagonistic towards drug companies than the Trump Administration was. And by the way, it isn’t just the drug companies that fall in this category. (Insert snarky comment about Trump here.)

  1. I mentioned earlier my article about how inventory management is going to change as a result of COVID. Indeed, the fact that it is already changing is one reason that the supply/demand imbalance is so bad in the short run: as I have already said, companies are building back inventories and adding additional safety stock, and that is stressing production of all sorts of goods. That was a short-term effect but the more-lasting effect is that carrying larger inventories is itself more expensive. Inventory carrying costs increase the costs of goods sold (which is the main reason managers have been pushing them down for decades). Carry more inventory, prices go up more. I don’t think this trend will ebb.
  2. Another trend I’ve seen directly, and am comfortable generalizing, is a movement among manufacturers towards shortening supply chains. The problems with production during COVID, along with the aforementioned shipping tie-ups, argues for shorter supply chains and diversified country sources (don’t get everything from India, for example, in case India as a whole shuts down). Also, shortening supply chains means that inventories (see #2) can be a little lower (or rather, safer at any given level of inventory) since one of the drivers of inventory size is lead time. Customers seem willing, at least today, to pay up to get suppliers in the same hemisphere and even more to get them in the same country. Every purchasing manager noticed that in the depths of the COVID shutdown many countries toyed with the idea of completely closing borders; some countries required container ships to ‘quarantine’ offshore for a time before they could unload. No one expects another COVID, but the -19 version reminded everyone of how the fragility of the supply chain increases with distance. Because in this country, shorter supply chains imply higher costs (since production is still generally cheaper overseas, though that differential has shrunk a lot), this is a short-term level adjustment followed by a lasting upward trend pressure on pricing. It’s essentially a partial reversal of the globalization trend, which reversal had already begun in little ways under the Trump Administration.

Granted, much of this is manufacturing-focused and most of the consumption basket (thanks mostly to rents) is services. But for many years it had been goods inflation holding down overall inflation, until recently. In the last CPI report, Core Goods inflation moved above Core Services inflation for the first time in a long, long time. That looks more like the inflation we remember from the ‘70s and ‘80s, with a much broader set of services and goods inflating.

Macro-level Effects

The last frame I want to touch on is the macro, top-down inflation concern. I won’t spend much time arguing whether output-gap models are working…if they were, then we would be in heavy deflation right now and there would be no signs of inflation anywhere, so clearly that’s the wrong model…and merely point briefly to the now-well-documented surge in M2 money supply growth (see chart, source Bloomberg), which is currently 27% y/y in the US, 11% y/y in Europe, 14% y/y in the UK, and even 9.2% in Japan. The increase in the transactional money supply in the US is twice as large as anything we have ever seen in this country, aside perhaps from the very early days when “not worth a Continental” became a term of opprobrium. Some people have argued that since money growth in 2008-9 didn’t produce much inflation, we oughtn’t worry about it this time either. But the last crisis really was different, as it was a banking crisis  (I wrote about this almost a year ago).

So, unless central banks have been doing it all wrong for a hundred years, the bare intuition is that this much money supply growth probably won’t be a non-event. Money velocity, in the short term, plunged because (a) mechanically, cash dropped into bank accounts by a generous government takes some time to spend, and (b) understandably, the demand for precautionary cash balances got super high during COVID. Both of these are passing issues, and it takes some heroic assumptions to argue why money velocity should continue to decline. Not merely stay low: if money growth continues at the 27% pace of the last year or even just the 13%-16% pace of the last quarter, even stable money velocity would produce much higher prices.

Over time, the relationship of money to GDP is a great proxy for the price level. That model has been powerful for a hundred years, and it makes sense: increasing the money supply 25% doesn’t increase wealth 25%. The amount of things you can buy with that money doesn’t change very much. So the value of the measuring stick, the dollar itself, must be weakening since 25% more dollars buys the same amount of stuff. To be sure, that’s only if people spend the new dollars as fast as they spent the old dollars, so if there’s a permanent change in velocity this won’t be true. But it needs to be a permanent change in velocity, and outside of lowering interest rates we don’t have a great way to induce permanently lower velocity.

[As an aside, the same reasoning applies to asset markets rather than consumables. Because the real output of businesses, and the stock of physical assets, don’t change very fast, a large increase in money must increase the nominal price of those things (or, more accurately, decrease the value of the measuring stick). But how to account for a decline of the value of the dollar in purchasing financial assets, but no big decline in the value of the dollar for purchasing goods and services? This implies a change in the exchange rate between real goods and financial assets. That is, a person can exchange a Tesla for fewer shares of TSLA. But unless markets are permanently valued at higher multiples when the economy is flooded with cash (and there’s no sign that has happened before in the long sweep of history with episodes of rising money supply), eventually the price of shares must decline or the price of consumption goods rises, or both. Essentially, money illusion is operating in one sphere, but not in the other, and I think that’s unsustainable. Maybe I’ll write more about this another time.]

On the macro front, the alarm bells should be ringing very loudly.

So in the three frames above we have some effects that are easy to look through, and to ignore as temporary. We have some effects that are more subtle, but long-lasting. And we have some effects that are potentially huge, and haven’t come to the fore yet at least in the consumption basket. On the whole, the signs are compelling that inflation is very, very likely to rise in a way that is not just temporary. But, because these frames are confusing, and because the Fed (and others) will easily dismiss some of the one-off effects as temporary COVID effects – which they are – this is actually an acutely dangerous time for investors. The fog of war, provided by these short-term effects, will obfuscate some of the longer-term effects and ensure that policymaker response is late, halting, and inadequate. Markets, though, will be reacting in what some will call an exaggerated reaction. Indeed, some already believe that the rise of 10-year breakevens to near-two-year highs, at 2.17% today, is an overreaction.

I don’t think it is. We are going to see core inflation rise on base effects and one-offs, then decline on base effects, but probably not as much as people expect right now. That’s when the fog will begin to clear, and we will see inflation accelerating from a level that’s already higher than it is now. By the time the fog of war clears in late 2021 or early 2022, it will be late to start planning for inflation. Maybe not too late, but late. By the time everyone agrees inflation is a problem, the price of inflation protection will have moved a lot.

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.

Pre-packaged Baloney

January 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Ten-year nominal rates continue to drift back towards the 2012 lows; the 10y Treasury yields only about 1.75% now. But 2015 is so very different than 2012 in terms of the cause of those low rates.

Nominal bonds are like the packaged sandwich you pick up at a gas station: no special orders. You get the meats in the proportions they were put on the sandwich; in the case of nominal bonds you get real yields plus inflation expectations and the nominal yield moves the same amount whether the cause is a change in real yields or a change in inflation expectations. If you buy nominal bonds because you think the economy is growing weak, and you’re right but at the same time inflation expectations rise, then you’re out of luck. You get what’s in the package.

If you look beyond the packaging, to what is making up that 10-year yield sandwich, then the difference between 2015 and 2012 is stark. When 10-year nominal yields were at 1.50% back in 2012, 10-year real yields were at -0.90% and 10-year inflation expectations were around 2.40%. The bond market was pricing in egregiously weak real growth for the next decade, coupled with fairly reasonable inflation expectations. TIPS were clearly expensive at the time, although I argued that they were less expensive than nominal bonds. (In fact, I may have said that they were expensive to everything except nominal bonds).

Today, on the other hand, nominal yields are low for a different reason. TIPS yields, while low, are positive (10-year real yields are 0.13% as I write this) but inflation expectations are very low. So, in contrast to the circumstance in 2012, we see TIPS as very cheap, rather than rich.

One way to look at this difference in circumstance is to study how the proportions of meats in the sandwich have changed over time. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows the percentage of the nominal yield that is made up of real yields. The percentage which is made up of inflation expectations is approximately 100% minus this number, so one chart suffices. Back in “normal times,” real yields tended to make up 40-50% of nominal yields.

real10ratio

That 40-50% isn’t graven in stone; for example, we can say with some confidence that the ratio should be lower at very high nominal yields: if 10-year rates are at 20%, it isn’t because people expect real growth of 8%, but because inflation expectations are quite high. And another line of reasoning applies when nominal yields are very low, because inflation expectations tend to reach a floor. I mention this because I wouldn’t want someone to look at this chart and say “the ratio ought to get back to 40%, and it’s at 7% now, so TIPS are still very expensive.” In fact the relationship is considerably more complex, and as I said before we see TIPS as very cheap, not rich.

That being said, the point is that while nominal yields are similar now to what they were in 2012, the circumstances are quite different and your trading view of nominal bonds must take this into account. In 2012, to be bearish on nominal bonds you mainly had to be of the view that growth expectations were unlikely to get appreciably worse than the awful expectations which were embedded in the market. In 2015, to be bearish on nominal bonds you mainly have to be of the view that inflation expectations are unlikely to get appreciably lower.

Today the Federal Reserve acknowledged that they are concerned with the state of inflation expectations. In the statement following today’s meeting the FOMC noted that “Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined substantially in recent months” and they repeatedly noted that they need not only inflation but also expectations to move back towards their long-term targets before they start to think about nudging interest rates higher.

It is certainly convenient since median CPI is at 2.2%, which is fairly consistent with where they perceive their target to be. But this is a dovish Fed and they’re not looking anxiously to tighten. Ergo, inflation expectations are now their focus. Beyond that, you can expect them to focus on the 5y forward expectations once spot expectations rise (see chart below, source Enduring Investments, showing 5y and 5y5y forward inflation from CPI swaps).

5y and 5y5y

This is all good for restraining velocity, since lower rates tend to keep money velocity low…except that velocity is already lower than it should be, for this level of rates! And so we come to the last chart of the day: corporate credit growth. To the extent that some part of the decline in money velocity was due to the impairment of banks’ ability to offer credit, this seems to no longer be an issue. Commercial bank credit is up at an 8.7% pace over the last year (11.1% annualized over the last 13 weeks), which looks to be back to normal…if not on the high side of normal.

corpcreditSo, as far as sandwich meats go, the Fed is focusing on a bunch of baloney. There are plenty of reasons to hike rates right now, if they wanted to. They don’t. (Moreover, as I have pointed out before: hiking rates will actually push inflation higher, unless they arrest money growth…which they have little ability to do right now).

Seasonal Allergies

October 14, 2014 8 comments

Come get your commodities and inflation swaps here! Big discount on inflation protection! Come get them while you can! These deals won’t last long!

Like the guy hawking hangover cures at a frat party, sometimes I feel like I am in the right place, but just a bit early. That entrepreneur knows that hangover cures are often needed after a party, and the people at the party also know that they’ll need hangover cures on the morrow, but sales of hangover cures are just not popular at frat parties.

The ‘disinflation party’ is in full swing, and it is being expressed in all the normal ways: beat-down of energy commodities, which today collectively lost 3.2% as front WTI Crude futures dropped to a 2-year low (see chart, source Bloomberg),

front_crude

…10-year breakevens dropped to a 3-year low (see chart, source Bloomberg),

10y_breaks

…and 1-year inflation swaps made their more-or-less annual foray into sub-1% territory.

1ycpiswaps

So it helps to remember that none of the recent thrashing is particularly new or different.

What is remarkable is that this sort of thing happens just about every year, with fair regularity. Take a look at the chart of 10-year breakevens again. See the spike down in late 2010, late 2011, and roughly mid-2013. It might help to compare it to the chart of front Crude, which has a similar pattern. What happens is that oil prices follow a regular seasonal pattern, and as a result inflation expectations follow the same pattern. What is incredible is that this pattern happens with 10-year breakevens, even though the effect of spot oil prices on 10-year inflation expectations ought to be approximately nil.

What I can tell you is that in 12 of the last 15 years, 10-year TIPS yields have fallen in the 30 days after October 15th, and in 11 of the past 15 years, 10-year breakevens were higher in the subsequent 30 days.

Now, a lot of that is simply a carry dynamic. If you own TIPS right now, inflation accretion is poor because of the low prints that are normal for this time of year. Over time, as new buyers have to endure less of that poor carry, TIPS prices rise naturally. But what happens in heading into the poor-carry period is that lots of investors dump TIPS because of the impending poor inflation accretion. And the poor accretion is due largely to the seasonal movement in energy prices. The following chart (source: Enduring Investments) shows the BLS assumed seasonality in correcting the CPI tendencies, and the actual realized seasonal pattern over the last decade. The tendency is pronounced, and it leads directly to the seasonality in real yields and breakevens.

seasonal

This year, as you can tell from some of the charts, the disinflation party is rocking harder than it has for a few years. Part of this is the weakening of inflation dynamics in Europe, part is the fear that some investors have that the end of QE will instantly collapse money supply growth and lead to deflation, and part of it this year is the weird (and frustrating) tendency for breakevens to have a high correlation with stocks when equities decline but a low correlation when they rally.

But in any event, it is a good time to stock up on the “cure” you know you will need later. According to our proprietary measure, 10-year real yields are about 47bps too high relative to nominal yields (and we feel that you express this trade through breakevens rather than outright TIPS ownership, although actual trade construction can be more nuanced). They haven’t been significantly more mispriced than that since the crisis, and besides the 2008 example they haven’t been cheaper since the early days (pre-2003) when TIPS were not yet widely owned in institutional portfolios. Absent a catastrophe, they will not get much cheaper. (Importantly, our valuation metric has generally “beaten the forwards” in that the snap-back when it happens is much faster than the carry dynamic fades).

So don’t get all excited about “declining inflation expectations.” There is not much going on here that is at all unusual for this time of year.

Why So Many Inflation Market Haters All of a Sudden?

September 25, 2014 6 comments

The inflation market offers such wonderful opportunities for profit since so few people understand the dynamics of inflation, much less of the inflation market.

One of the things which continually fascinates me is how the inflation trade has become sort of a “risk on” kind of trade, in that when the market is pricing in better growth expectations, reflected in rising equity prices, inflation expectations move with the same rhythm.[1] The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the 10-year inflation breakeven rate versus the S&P 500 index. Note how closely they ebb and flow together, at least until the latest swoon in inflation expectations.

beistocks

Your knee-jerk reaction might be that this is a spurious correlation caused by the fact that (a) bond yields tend to rise when growth expectations rise and (b) when bond yields rise, the components of bond yields – including both real rates and expected inflation – tend to rise. But look at the chart below (source: Bloomberg), covering the same period but this time charting stocks versus real yields.

realplusspx

If anything, real yields ought to be more correlated to movements in equities than inflation expectations, since presumably real economic growth is directly related to the real growth rates embedded in equity prices. But to my eyes at least, the correlation between real interest rates and equity prices, for which there is a plausible causal explanation, doesn’t look nearly as good as the relationship between stocks and inflation expectations.

It doesn’t make any sense that long-term inflation expectations should be so closely related to equity prices. I know I have mentioned before – in fact, regular readers are probably sick of me pointing it out – that there is no causal relationship between growth and inflation. Really, it is worse than that: one really needs to torture the data to find any connection at all, causal or not. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows quarterly real GDP in yellow against core inflation in white.

coreandgdptimeseries

I’ve pointed out before that the big recession in ’08-09 saw almost no deceleration in core inflation (and none at all if you remove housing from core inflation), but it’s hard to find a connection anywhere. The next chart (source: Bloomberg) makes the point a different way, simply plotting core inflation (y-axis) against real GDP (x-axis) quarterly back to 1980.

gdpcoreinflationregression

In case anyone out there is protesting that there should be a lagged relationship between growth and inflation, I am happy to report that I was able to get an r-squared as higher as 0.257 with a lag of 12 quarters. Unfortunately, the lag goes the wrong way: high inflation precedes high growth, not vice-versa. And I don’t know anyone who proffers a reasonable explanation of a causality running in that direction. Lags the other way fail to produce any r-squared over 0.1.

So, how to explain the fact that since the end of August we have seen 10-year real rates rise 29 basis points while 10-year breakevens were falling 12bps (producing a net rise in nominal rates of only 17bps)? The explanation is simple: the market is wrong to treat breakevens as a “risk on/risk off” sort of trade. Breakevens have cheapened far too much. I don’t know if that means that TIPS yields have risen too much, or nominal yields have risen too little (I rather expect the former), but the difference is too narrow. The short end of the US curve (1 year inflation swaps are at 1.44%) implies either that core inflation will decline markedly from its already-depressed level well below median inflation, or that energy prices will decline sharply and much further than implied by gasoline futures.

I think that one of the reasons US inflation has been under pressure is that it is currently at a very large spread versus European inflation, and earlier this month it was at the highest level in at least a decade (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

USCPIHICPxt

This may look like an appealing short, perhaps, but based on our internal analysis and some historical relationships we track we actually believe the spread is too low by about 50bps. And think about it this way: if Europe really is in the process of inheriting Japan’s lost decade, then 10-year expectations for the US ought to be much, much higher than in Europe. I don’t really think Europe will end up there, because the ECB seems to be trying to do the right thing, but it is not unreasonable to think that there should be a hefty premium to US inflation over Europe.

[1] Of course, the correlation of levels won’t be very good because stocks have an upward bias over time while inflation expectations do not. To run the correlation, you’d have to de-trend stocks but I’m trying to make a visceral point here rather than a quantitative one.

Imagining the Unimaginable

January 21, 2014 6 comments

Last week I met and spoke with some bright minds at a big reinsurance company, who were sampling some views on inflation. Among the questions, however, were ones concerning my views on nominal interest rates, to which they are more directly exposed.

Since I was a rates strategist long before I was an inflation specialist, I do have some opinions on the matter.

Early this month, I wrote an article asking “which consensuses are worth fading?” in which I noted that of all of the “consensus” views, I am most sanguine about the view that interest rates will rise over the course of this year. Now, there are lots of ways that this view can be derailed. For example, there are a lot of concerns about a slowdown in China and what that might mean for global growth. There are other land mines, such as the risk of a default of Puerto Rico, which could send investors scurrying for at least a short time into nominal bonds. And, of course, we are not out of the woods ourselves, and a dovish Chairman Yellen (if in fact she turns out to be as dovish as we all expect) could easily stop or reverse the taper even though that does not seem to be the plan at the moment according to the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath.

But abstracting from the chance that a metaphorical meteor might strike the earth and ruin all of our plans, what are the chances of somewhat higher rates, or drastically higher rates? In my mind, the chances of these different outcomes derive from the types of causes that could provoke them.

10-year rates at 4% by year end – To get 10-year rates to approach 4% (a level last touched in 2010 and not seen on a closing basis since before the crisis in 2008) doesn’t require a miracle. The Fed is in taper mode, and there reportedly remains a pocket of ‘negative convexity’ that could turn a mild selloff into a major selloff if interest rates rise towards 3.25%. It was the ‘convexity trade’ that helped fuel the move in 10-year notes to 3% last year (see my comment about that here) from 1.65% in May, and another convexity-triggered selloff could easily cause rates to reach 4% at some point this year. Of course, that would still be an interesting technical development, since it would be the largest deviation above the log-channel lower in rates that has been in force for more than thirty years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

channel

10-year rates at 5% by year end – Five percent 10-year rates seems outlandishly far away, and we haven’t seen them since 2007, but we should recognize that this is roughly a neutral nominal rate. If real growth is expected to be 2.75% on average over time, and inflation is expected to be around 2.25%, then r + i = 5%. If the Fed is normalizing policy, is it really that much of a reach to get normal market rates? I don’t see 5% as being outrageous. However, realistically I would have to say that there will be a lot of friction between here and there, by which I mean that as interest rates rise, investors will find them increasingly attractive and will rotate from equities to bonds. That will make a 200bp selloff somewhat difficult, in my view. But against this, we need to keep in the backs of our minds the possibility that the Federal Reserve could choose to start selling securities from its portfolio at some point; while the Fed professes to be relying on its reverse repo facility to be able to drain liquidity as needed, that’s only plausible if they need to drain relatively small amounts of liquidity (tens or scores of billions). As rates approach 5%, losses in the Fed’s SOMA portfolio will be large enough that it will be technically impossible for it to fully drain all of the reserves they have added – and will be a political football, no matter how the Fed chooses to account for a mark-to-market loss (see my article from a year ago on this topic here and a follow-up article with additional issues here). I am not making any predictions about what the Fed will do or not do when rates start to rise past 4%; I only point out that there will be a lot of zeroes involved and that tends to affect decision-making. A move to 5% isn’t, in short, completely crazy although I don’t think we’ll get there.

10-year rates at 8% by year end – How can you get really ugly outcomes, like 8% nominal rates (which we haven’t seen since 1991)? This is outside the realm of forecasting. A 500bp move in a year is roughly a 4-5 standard deviation event. In the post-WWII period we have never had a 500bp move on a year-end to year-end basis. In fact, we have never had 10-year rates move more than 400bps in a 12-month period. So, this is really outside of the range of outcomes one could reasonably expect in a normal world.

This is, of course, not a normal world. But it is non-normal because weird departures from normality happen stochastically and, when they do, the distribution we draw market outcomes from is unknown. Put another way: for rates to rise to 8% in a year would take something really crazy. So, we can’t make predictions, but we can play with entertaining suppositions and I will do that in a moment. But before I do, I just want to make very clear that guessing how rates would come unglued and get to 8% in 12 months is, since it relies on a chaotic break, probably unknowable in advance. We can, though, test the limits of imagination to see if we can come up with a plausible scenario in which such an outcome would not be impossible.

And here is where inflation, and specifically inflation expectations, come in. The dynamics of nominal interest rates imply that at low levels of nominal rates, movements are caused mostly by changes in real rates (thus the high beta of TIPS at low rates) while at high levels of nominal rates, movements are caused mostly by changes in inflation expectations.

Suppose that inflation expectations can be characterized as “multi-equilibrium,” meaning that they are mean-reverting within some ranges but then can jump to a new equilibrium when expectations become “unanchored.” I’m not particularly enamored of that notion, because it has been used to conceal of a lot of bad econometrics, but let’s just suppose it’s possible that inflation expectations can both anchor, and become unanchored. We could hypothesize, for example, that consumers (and investors) don’t encode “1.987% inflation” or “3.5093% inflation” or “6.421% inflation,” but rather “low inflation,” which means anything where inflation doesn’t enter into daily consideration, or “medium inflation” (which is where inflation considerations cannot be overlooked), or “high inflation” (which is where inflation considerations are the prime concern).

If that describes the way that inflation expectations behave – and I think it is fair to say that, at least, it is the way that financial journalists behave – then it’s plausible to say that inflation expectations might move very rapidly from a distribution centered around, say, 2% to one centered around 5%. And that, in turn, could trigger a very sharp move in nominal rates. If that happened, it could plausibly be worse than historical precedents if only because the system is far, far more leveraged now than it was in the late 1970s, when we last saw a sharp ramp-up in expectations.

Again, none of the foregoing is a forecast per se, but a statement of possibilities. I expect nominal rates will at some point this year (probably in late Q3) approach 4%, and I think there’s a measurable chance that things could get ugly enough, in an environment where Wall Street dealers are discouraged from providing liquidity by leaning against the flow, to push rates towards 5%. I don’t really think that’s very likely, though. And I think it’s quite unlikely that rates could approach 8% this year, or even next year. But if you’re thinking about tail risks – and you should be – it’s less important that it may happen than that it can happen. The point is not to try and look for the signals that this particular scenario is unfolding; by the very nature of such a chaotic move, it is very unlikely that we’ll correctly guess in advance what will actually cause it. But, if we can imagine a not-wickedly-outlandish scenario in which this outcome can be achieved, then it means the unimaginable is no longer unimaginable. It is possible, and the next question is whether it is worth hedging against that tail risk.

Is Inflation of 2% Enough for You?

October 28, 2013 2 comments

In one of those “what could possibly go wrong with that plan” moments – which are becoming all too frequent these days – the New York Times this weekend reported that there is “growing concern inside and outside the Fed that inflation is not rising fast enough.”

At some level, this is not exactly new thinking. For decades, economists have argued that “price stability” really means inflation of something just slightly over 0%, because it is assumed to be quite hard to get out of a deflationary spiral. in my view, that’s silly, because simply adding a zero to the currency in everyone’s pocket is a guaranteed way to get out of deflation. It may be that since nudging inflation higher is harder than kicking it higher, the costs of mild deflation are higher than the costs of mild inflation, but I think the jury is out on that question since it isn’t something we have ever experienced. But in any event, this is the reason that inflation in the neighborhood of 2%, rather than 0%, has been the Fed’s implicit or explicit target for a long time.

To the extent that discussion stays academic, it’s not worrisome. Navel-gazing is an occupational hazard of being a professional economist, after all. But now, there are louder and more frequent voices arguing that 2% is too low a target. To see how urgent a problem this is, I submit the following chart, which shows median CPI, along with a horizontal line at 2.25% (roughly equivalent to a 2% target on PCE). Wow, I can see the reason for panic. We are nearly 0.2% below that! And we got within 0.6% of deflation in 2010, in the aftermath of the worst credit crisis in almost 100 years.

clevcpiI am all for the idea that mild inflation serves to lubricate the gears of commerce, but we should remember that when the CFO of Costco says he likes rising inflation because in that circumstance “the retailer is generally able to expand its profit margins,” that’s good for the equity market perhaps but not as good for the consumer!

It always amazes me how sketchy is the understanding of inflation in a capital markets context by members of the Fed. In the aforementioned article, Chicago Fed President Evans is quoted saying “If inflation is lower than expected, then debt financing is more burdensome than borrowers expected. Problems of debt overhang become that much worse for the economy.” This is absolutely true, but almost completely irrelevant in the current context. Inflation has been lower than a priori expectations since about 1980, which is why a long-nominal-bond position has routinely outperformed inflation. But currently, as the chart below illustrates, 10-year inflation breakevens are at 2.19%. Fully 72% of all 10-year periods since 1914 have seen compounded inflation above that level.

10ybeisTen-year inflation swaps, a better measure of inflation expectations, are at 2.52%, which still doesn’t sound like a horrible bet for borrowers. If inflation comes in above 2.52%, the borrower of 10-year fixed-rate money wins; if it comes in below 2.52%, the borrower loses. This is one reason that it is so rare to see corporations issue inflation-indexed debt…they like that bet.

Finally, the article explains that higher inflation allows workers to get higher wages, and gives the example of teachers in Anchorage, Alaska, who just agreed to a contract giving them 1% pay increases for each of the next three years. Since inflation is likely to be above that, the article says, they will be probably receiving a pay cut in real terms. This is absolutely true. (It is also the exact opposite position of the debtor, in that the teachers will do better in real terms if deflation actually happened. Sometimes I just wish the authors of these articles would be consistent.) But this circumstance certainly isn’t helped by inflation; since wage increases tend to trail inflation, real wages tend to lag in inflationary upticks.

None of this represents deep insight from this author. It merely represents that I have at least a rudimentary understanding of how inflation works, and a respect for the damage which inflation can cause to economies, workers, and savers. The fact that this is increasingly rare these days is probably cyclical, and unfortunately is probably a minimum condition for setting up this next inflation debacle. In that context, and with more Federal Reserve economists openly musing about needing to target higher inflation, does 2.19% breakeven sound like a bad deal?

Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

December 12, 2012 2 comments

The Fed delivered QE4, as expected, on Wednesday as it pledged to continue buying longer-dated Treasuries even though it will no longer sell shorter-dated Treasuries in Operation Twist. In other words, they will accelerate the balance sheet expansion from $40bln (all mortgages) to $85bln (Treasuries and mortgages) per month, beginning next month.

What was unexpected was that the FOMC decided to parameterize the “soft Evans rule” that has been in place since the summer but which has grown gradually more specific since then. The relevant passage from the statement was this:

“In particular, the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.”

The financial chatterverse immediately set about guessing how quickly the economy could reach 6.5% unemployment, and variously asserting that this was a hawkish or a dovish statement based on their assessment of the likelihood of reaching that level soon. (According to the Fed’s projections, released somewhat after the FOMC statement, they expect to reach that level sometime in 2015.)

But that isn’t the binding parameter. As I showed yesterday, longer-term inflation expectations are arguably not very well-contained; moreover, 1 year inflation, 1 year forward is currently around 2.15% in inflation swaps. Inflation swaps are based on CPI, not PCE, so this equates to roughly 1.90% in forward PCE versus a 2.50% barrier for the Fed. As the chart below shows, 1y inflation 1y forward hasn’t been above 2.75% in a while (equivalent to 2.50% on PCE), but it has gotten pretty close in recent years. It doesn’t seem like a bad level to target, but it’s much closer than the market seems to understand.

1y1yswaps

Here also is 5y, 5y forward, but from inflation swaps rather than breakevens (source: Bloomberg). The Fed prefers breakevens, because they imply a lower level of inflation; market participants know (at least, most of them know) that this is due to quantitative phenomena that distort Treasury yields low and that the inflation swaps market typically gives a better indication. Note that the upward trend I identified in yesterday’s column is still there, although somewhat less monotonic.

5y5yswaps

Street economists in the immediate aftermath of the FOMC announcement made lots of pronouncements but in generally were looking at the wrong thing. I saw economists look at the 10y spot BEI  at 2.4% when the 5y, 5y forward inflation swap – more relevant to examining  is around 3.20%. This is wrong. The right numbers to look at are now 1y, 1y forward and 5y, 5y forward.

The Fed in this statement is no less dovish than they had been. They are led by a super-dove and Lacker still dissented as the lone voting hawk. But the Committee is increasingly painting themselves into a corner as they have parameterized the Evans Rule. They’ve drawn a line in the sand now, and when inflation bursts higher and 1y1y is trading at 3.5%, it’s going to be hard for the Fed to keep forecasting 2% for next year with any credibility. In his press conference, Chairman Bernanke listed as indicators the Fed will look at on the inflation side: median and trimmed mean CPI, the views of outside forecasters, and econometric models of inflation. He didn’t mention market prices at all! So, we can expect that the Fed will try to ignore (as they are already ignoring) market indicators of inflation expectations…but at some point, this will become more or less untenable.

On the fiscal cliff front, there was again no progress. JPM Chairman Jamie Dimon said on CNBC that the economy will boom if the fiscal cliff is averted: the same unsubstantiated assertion that the President and members of Congress have been making recently.

Here is my question: isn’t it in a booming economy that we’re supposed to reduce the deficit? If the economy is really as strong as they say it is, then the fiscal cliff is timely. I mean, if we increase the deficit in recessions and don’t reduce it in booms…do you have to be able to do much math to see where that leads? Even a CEO who mistook a big punt for a hedge ought to be able to do THAT much math.

So all the good news is out, unless the fiscal cliff is averted. I suspect the stock market will slide from here, and interest rates will rise into year-end. With volumes this low, that’s a perilous call to be sure, but in my mind the risks outweigh the rewards of betting the Santa Claus rally will continue.

Curious Becomes Furious

June 6, 2012 8 comments

The only thing that kept this from being Freaky Friday is that it wasn’t Friday. But it certainly seemed as if everything was reversed suddenly between when we went to bed last night and when we woke up this morning. U.S. equity futures were up 15 points before we woke up, and 38 points above the lows set on Sunday night. Plainly, some traders were either covering shorts or initiating longs before the ECB meeting.

But incredibly…the ECB did not cut rates. In fact, they did almost nothing (and certainly nothing that wasn’t fully expected). Putting on my monetary policymaker hat, I can’t think of any reason for not cutting rates if they actually believe what they profess to believe about economic growth and inflation. Obviously they’re not really worried about deflation, because if they were worried about that then they’d be aggressively cutting since if inflation gets to zero before rates get to zero, it means you can’t ever make real policy rates negative. And they clearly don’t really believe that inflation, using that tired policymaker phrase that Draghi produced again today, is constrained by “firmly anchored” inflation expectations,[1] because if they did then they wouldn’t have any concerns about triggering inflation through adding too much liquidity. True, cutting interest rates doesn’t provide much stimulus compared to a trillion Euros of LTRO, but it is at least a relevant signal.

On the other hand…we already know that Draghi is no Trichet. And we know that under Draghi the money supply is already growing more-briskly (although not exactly briskly) than it did under Trichet, and the current ECB President has done some distinctly non-Bundesbank sorts of things. Maybe keeping rates at 1% are just the cheapest “hawk” credentials he can buy?

I am sure I am coming across as flustered and confused – because I am. I felt like I had had a bead on what was going on, and today doesn’t fit my mental paradigm.

The overnight curious rally turned into a daylight furious rally as the market continued to melt up on light volume (760mm shares) throughout the day, despite the ECB’s relative intransigence and no other news of note. It was nothing short of a desperate grab for risk assets of all stripes as the Euro rallied, the DJ-UBS Commodity Index jumped 1.4%, European stock markets soared, benchmark financial bond spreads tightened 20-30bps despite the downgrade overnight of German and Austrian banks by Moody’s, and yield spreads of periphery bonds compressed (10bps for Spain, 7bps for Italy, 21bps for Portugal in the 10y area).

But why? I feel like the kid who keeps bleating questions until Dad throws up his hands in exasperation and says “because I said so!” Maybe there isn’t an answer, but I wonder if some investors are buying or hedge funds covering short bets just on the thought that Bernanke tomorrow might be dovish when he testifies before Congress at 10:00ET. It just seems like there’s more conviction when buyers are chasing the stock market 2.3% higher than it was yesterday, with no additional information except that the ECB is not easing as aggressively as they might have.

Now, the real equity risk premium, which we define as the expected 10-year real return of equities compared to the real return on 10-year TIPS, did advance a couple of days ago to the highest level in a couple of years. That’s significantly because TIPS yields are low, though, rather than equity returns looking particularly robust. However, I can imagine that some investors who were overweight in fixed-income might have chosen today to get into equities, thinking that the spike low in yields was not likely to persist. That seems like a rotten reason to get into a risky asset class – just because the safe asset classes don’t offer big returns – but there are definitely investors who think that way. Stock bulls, hold your water when you look at the next chart (Source: Enduring Investments).

Realize that although it appears that equities offer the best value relative to TIPS that has been seen since a brief period in early 2009, and more than has been seen for many years before that, we are looking at a period in which equities were congenitally overvalued. TIPS yields only go back to 1997, so I can’t look at the real equity premium from the early 1990s, or the 1980s. However, I can look at the expected 10-year equity real return from back then (and further), using the same methodology I use to produce the numbers in the chart above. The result is not as exciting. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments using Shiller data) shows that the current projected forward real return of 2.8% is only interesting in the context of the last decade and a half, and only in the context of the poor range of investing alternatives. I included the actual subsequent real return, with dividends reinvested, that is associated with each point up to May 31, 2002 (which 10-year period just finished with a compounded real return of 2.01%).

With the exception of the equity bubble, which produced better-than-expected returns for cohorts starting in the late 1980s and worse-than-expected returns for cohorts starting in the late 1990s (but, you already knew that), the method has a pretty decent track record since 1972. So, while equities are a better real asset than TIPS right now, that’s not saying a whole lot!

None of that solves the conundrum of why stocks spiked today, but it makes me feel better by reminding me to keep focusing on the long-term! There will be wiggles, and my guess is that the next downward wiggle in stocks and upward wiggle in bonds won’t be long in coming. As soon as tomorrow, a bad Claims number (Consensus: 373k from 383k) could set a bad tone. Here’s a surprising statistic: since February 17th, economists’ estimates have been lower than the actual Claims figure – including subsequent revisions, that is – for every week but one. If Claims actually rise from 383k, it is bad news since we ought to be well beyond the weather give-back by now.

However, any reaction on Claims will be tempered by the fact that Bernanke’s testimony begins at 10:00ET or so. That clearly is the important event of the day, and it seems investors are quite confident that Ben will have cheerful things to say about the nearby course of monetary policy. After the ECB whiffed today, I am not so sure. While I think policymakers will respond with alacrity in the event of an actual emergency, I don’t think they are prepared to try to be pre-emptive (and anyway, if they tried to be pre-emptive and failed because Europe imploded anyway, it would look bad). So while the Chairman may be generous with his assessment that “we stand ready to help,” I don’t imagine we’ll get enough concrete promises that the market’s bounce will be validated.


[1] “Firmly anchored inflation expectations” are to monetary policymakers what “auras” are to ghost-hunters. It’s not possible to disprove that expectations are anchored, if you believe they are, because we don’t have any way to measure them one way or the other. But their existence is very important to the believers.

The Cool Kids Don’t Like Bonds Any More

March 14, 2012 3 comments

Global stock markets were the boring markets for a change, as today global bond markets took a potentially meaningful step back. In the U.S., 10-year yields rose 15bps (with no economic data to point to), reaching 2.28%. Yesterday I noted that most of the last week’s rise in yields had come from an increase in inflation expectations; that trend corrected today, as TIPS were also hammered. Ten-year TIPS yields rose 12bps, to -0.10%, implying that the 10-year breakeven rose a mere 3bps.

This was not just a U.S. story. The 10-year UK Gilt rose to the highest yield since December, +17bps today. Germany was +13bps today although still in the range; JGBs up to the highest level since December although that’s also only 9bps above the low yield from the last quarter since JGB yields have been effectively ‘pinned’ for a long time.

Although in the U.S. our selloff was largely in real yields today, the underlying pressure here is from prices. I have previously illustrated the fact that core inflation globally has been rising for two years; this is starting slowly to be reflected in yields. The chart below is an eye-opening one of Japanese 5-year breakevens (there is no 10-year breakeven because Japan stopped issuing inflation-linked bonds a few years ago although they may soon resume). It has been rising almost non-stop since mid-2010, from -1.5% in five-year inflation expectations to…a positive number. That’s right, the poster child for deflation now has investors expecting prices to rise (albeit a small amount) over the next five years.

And with that small change, the yen has fallen 8 big figures against the dollar in about a month (see Chart, shown in terms of the number of yen per dollar). Higher inflation in Japan means the Yen is finally losing real purchasing power too, and is no longer essentially a one-way bet versus the dollar.

Here is another chart you don’t see much. This is 10-year Australian breakevens:

Euro 10-year inflation swap rates, despite the tremendous recent troubles, are closer to the highs than the lows of inflation expectations over the last several years:

Twenty basis points, or forty basis points, is nothing to get all in a lather about, yet. But I believe it is significant that global bond markets are all pricing in more inflation over the last few months, and nominal yields today all rose. This is not a global growth story – it’s mostly a global inflation story.

In that context, it was especially odd to see precious metals get battered again today (-3.3%), although the reasoning is easy enough to understand. Precious metals may hedge against a growth Armageddon, or they may hedge against inflation – but it is hard for them to hedge both outcomes at the same time. Betting on Armageddon has never been a good bet, so far (since we’ve had zero Armageddons as of this writing), and being long precious metals in anticipation of that event is never a good idea. That said, there are other reasons to be long precious metals as part of a diversified commodity index, and I continue to be amused and confused by the fact that inflation indications are sprouting up all over, in many markets…but not yet in commodities, which historically produces the highest inflation “beta” in the early stages of an inflation episode. I think the adjustment will eventually come, and it may be swift when it does.

To repeat, a one-day or one-week selloff in bonds, even global in nature, is nothing to get panicky about. But higher inflation, higher interest rates, and higher gasoline prices each singly poses a challenge for increasingly-lofty equity valuations. Collectively, they pose a dangerous threat. Right now, the stock market doesn’t seem to know what is good for it. It reminds me a bit of a rebellious teenager, like James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” No good can come of the drag racing being done in equities right now. That being said, I covered some of my short (through equity options) on Tuesday before the Fed, because this feels like a pom-pom rally and everything is going to feel great until the morning.

So far, I can’t figure out how far away dawn is. The rapid movements in the dollar/yen, the abrupt drop in bonds, the rise in energy prices – these are all bad, but they’re still fairly insignificant moves. It will take more to derail stocks.

It won’t likely come tomorrow from the surveys (Empire Manufacturing, Consensus: 17.5 vs 19.53 last, and the Philly Fed Survey, Consensus: 12.0 vs 10.2 last) or Initial Claims (Consensus: 357k from 362k). But those are also not likely to be very bullish figures for bonds, either. I suspect the crack in stocks will come if investors notice that conditions in rates markets are getting less accommodative (or more attractive as a competing investment!). At 15bps per day, that may not take long but it’s probably not going to be on Thursday!

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