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Which June Did You Mean, Charles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fed Gearing Up to Stand Down

July 30, 2014 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shillerQ

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

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

Inflate Your Way to Victory

June 30, 2014 9 comments

In keeping with the topic of the month, I present this chart.

worldcupinflationI really wanted to make the x-axis the compounded inflation rate since the World Cup began, but the data is just too difficult to find for many of these countries. Nevertheless, we see the broad outlines of the thesis in this chart. If you want to be excellent at soccer, inflate your economy.

The correlation between soccer wins and inflation (I arbitrarily decided to only include countries which have appeared in eight or more World Cups, so that there is some chance that they have some wins) is only 0.31, but notice the two blue dots at the upper left. I would argue that at least Germany has an inflation-driven history, although since the 1980s they have had fairly low inflation. One might argue the same with Italy, albeit to a lesser extent. If we exclude those two aberrations, the correlation rises to a whopping 0.67!

Ok, sure, this is somewhat spurious – it is largely driven by the fact that two of the winningest teams are Brazil and Argentina, which have quite a history of inflation as well as of soccer. But if the ECB discovers this, it should make sure all of the retail shops in Europe know…and they’ll have widespread support for inflation.

Catching Up on the Week

January 17, 2014 4 comments

Friday before a long weekend is probably the worst time in the world to publish a blog article, but other obligations having consumed me this week, Friday afternoon is all I am left with. Herewith, then, a few thoughts on the week’s events. [Note to editors at sites where this comment is syndicated. Feel free to split this article into separate articles if you wish.]

Follow the Bouncing Market

In case there was any doubt about how fervently the dip-buyers feel about how cheap the market is, and how badly they feel about the possibility of missing the only dip that the equity market will ever have, those doubts were dispelled this week when Monday’s sharp fall in stock prices was substantially reversed by Tuesday and new all-time highs reached on Wednesday. Neither selloff nor rally was precipitated by real data; Friday’s weak jobs data might plausibly have resulted in a rally (and it did, on Friday) on the theory that the Fed’s taper might be downshifted slightly, but there was no other data; on Tuesday, December Retail Sales was modestly stronger than expected but hardly worth a huge rally; on Wednesday, Empire Manufacturing was strong – but who considers that an important report to move billions of dollars around on? There were some memorable Fed quotes, chief among them of course Dallas Fed President Fisher’s observation that the Fed’s adding of liquidity has done what adding liquidity in other contexts often does, and so investors are looking at assets with “beer goggles.” It’s not a punch bowl reference, but the same basic idea. But certainly, not a reason for a sharp reversal of the Monday selloff!

The lows of Monday almost reached the highs of the first half of December, before the late-month, near volume-less updraft. Put another way, anyone who missed the second half of December and lightened up on risk before going on vacation missed the big up-move. I would guess that some of these folks were seizing on a chance to get back involved. To a manager who hasn’t seen a 5% correction since June of last year, a 1.5% correction probably feels like a huge opportunity. Unfortunately, this is characteristic of bubble markets. That doesn’t necessarily imply that today’s equity market is a bubble market that will end as all bubble markets eventually do; but it means it has at least one more characteristic of such markets: drawdowns get progressively smaller until they vanish altogether in a final melt-up that proceeds the melt-down. The table below shows the last 5 drawdowns from the highs (measuring close to close) – the ones you can see by eyeballing a chart, by the date the drawdown ended.

6/24/2013

5.80%

8/27/2013

4.60%

10/8/2013

4.10%

12/13/2013

1.80%

1/13/2014

1.60%

I mentioned last week that in equities I’d like to sell weakness. We now have some specificity to that desire: a break of this week’s lows would seem to me to be weakness sufficient to sell because it would indicate a deeper drawdown than the ones we have had, possibly breaking the pattern.

There is nothing about this week’s price action, in short, that is remotely soothing to me.

A Couple of Further Thoughts on Thursday’s CPI Data

I have written previously about why it is that you want to look at some measure of the central tendency of inflation right now other than core CPI. In a nutshell, there is one significant drag on core inflation – the deceleration in medical care CPI – which is pulling down the averages and creating the illusion of disinflation. On Thursday, the Cleveland Fed reported that Median CPI rose to 2.1%, the first 0.1% rise since February (see chart, source Bloomberg).

median and coreMoreover, as I have long been predicting, Rents are following home prices higher with (slightly longer than) the usual lag. The chart below (source Bloomberg ) shows Owners’ Equivalent Rent, which jumped from 2.37% y/y to 2.49% y/y this month. The re-acceleration, which represents the single biggest near-term threat to the continued low CPI readings, is unmistakeable.

whoopsOERSorry folks, but this is just exactly what is supposed to happen. An updated reminder (source: Enduring Investments) is below. Our model had the December 2013 level for y/y OER at 2.52%…in June 2012. Okay, so the accuracy is mere luck, but the direction should not be surprising.

sorryfolksFor the record, the same model has OER at 3.3% by December 2014, 3.4% for OER plus Primary Rents. That means if every other price in the country remains unchanged, core inflation would be at 1.4% or so at year-end just based on the weight that rents have in core inflation (of course, median inflation would then be at zero). If every other price in the country goes up at, say, 2%, then core inflation would be at 2.6%. (Our own core inflation forecast is actually slightly higher than that, because we see other upward risks to prices). And the tails, as I often say, are almost entirely to the upside.

Famous Last Words?

So, Dr. Bernanke is riding off into the sunset. In an interview at the Brookings Institution, the “Buddha of Banking,” as someone (probably himself) has dubbed the soon-to-be-former Chairman spoke with great confidence about how well everything, really, has gone so far and how he has no doubt this will continue in the future.

“The problem with Q.E.,” he said, with more than a hint of a smile, “is that it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.” “I don’t think that’s a concern and those who’ve been saying for the last five years that we’re just on the brink of hyperinflation I would point them to this morning’s C.P.I. number.” (“Reflections by America’s Buddha of Banking“, NY Times)

Smug superiority and trashing of straw men aside, no one rational ever said we were on the “brink of hyperinflation,” and in fact a fair number of economists these days say we’re on the brink of deflation – certainly, far more than say that we’re about to experience hyperinflation.

“He noted the Labor Department’s report Thursday that overall consumer prices in December were up just 1.5% from a year earlier and core prices, which strip out volatile food and energy costs, were up 1.7%. The Fed aims for an annual inflation rate of 2%.

“Such readings, he said, ‘suggest that inflation is just not really a significant risk of this policy.’“ (“Bernanke Turns Focus to Financial Bubbles, Instability”, Wall Street Journal )

And that’s simply idiotic. It’s simply ignorant to claim that the policy was a complete success when you haven’t completed the round-trip on policy yet by unwinding what you have done. It’s almost as stupid as saying you’re “100 percent” confident that anything that is being done for the first time in history will work as you believe it will. And, of course, he said that once.

I will also note that if QE doesn’t have anything to do with inflation, then why would it be deployed to stop deflation…which was one of the important purposes of QE, as discussed by Bernanke before he ever became Chairman (“Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”, 11/21/2002)? Does he know that we have an Internet and can find this stuff? And if QE is being deployed to stop deflation, doesn’t that mean you think it causes inflation?

On inflation, Bernanke said, “I think we have plenty of tools to manage interest rates and tighten monetary policy even if (the Fed’s) balance sheet stays where it is or gets bigger.” (“Bernanke downplays cost of economic stimulus”, USA Today)

No one has ever doubted that the Fed has plenty of tools, even though the efficacy of some of the historically-useful tools is in doubt because of the large balance of sterile excess reserves that stand between Fed action and the part of the money supply that matters. No, what is in question is whether they have the will to use those tools. The Fed deserves some small positive marks from beginning the taper under Bernanke’s watch, although it has wussied out by saying it wasn’t tightening (which, of course, it is). But the real question will not be answered for a while, and that is whether the FOMC has the stones to yank hard on the money supply chain when inflation and money velocity start heading higher.

It’s not hard, politically, to ease. For every one person complaining about the long-run costs, there are ten who are basking in the short-run benefits. But tightening is the opposite. This is why the punch bowl analogy of William McChesney Martin (Fed Chairman from 1951 to 1970, and remembered fondly partly because he preceded Arthur Burns and Bill Miller, who both apparently really liked punch) is so apropos. It’s no fun going the other way, and I don’t think that a wide-open Fed that discourses in public, gives frequent interviews, and stands for magazine covers has any chance of standing firm against what will become raging public opinion in short order once they begin tightening. And then it will become very apparent why it was so much better when no one knew anything about the Fed.

The question of why the Fed would withdraw QE, if there was no inflationary side effect, was answered by Bernanke – which is good, because otherwise you’d really wonder why they want to retreat from a policy that only has salutatory effects.

“Bernanke said the only genuine risk of the Fed’s bond-buying is the danger of asset bubbles as low interest rates drive investments to riskier holdings, such as stocks, real estate or junk bonds.But he added that he thinks stocks and other markets ‘seem to be within historical ranges.’” (Ibid.)

I suppose this is technically true. If you include prior bubble periods, then today’s equity market valuation is “within the historical range.” However, if you exclude the 1999 equity market bubble, it is much harder to make that argument with a straight face, at least using traditional valuation metrics. I won’t re-prosecute that case here.

So, this is perhaps Bernanke’s last public appearance, we are told. I suspect that is only true until he begins the unseemly victory lap lecture circuit as Greenspan did, or signs on with a big asset management firm, as Greenspan also did. I am afraid that this, in fact, will not be the last we hear from the Buddha of Banking. We can only hope that he takes his new moniker to heart and takes a Buddhist vow of silence.

Fed Talks About Price-Level Targeting

November 27, 2013 4 comments

There is a blog post on the site of the New York Fed might be significant. The title of the post is “Has the Fed Stabilized the Price Level?” In the post, the authors take up the question of price level targeting. This, in itself, is worth noting because the debate about whether the Fed should target the inflation rate (trying to hit 2% on the PCE deflator every year) or the price level (trying to average 2% over the next 10 years, say) has been ebbing and flowing for the last few years but during and after the crisis has generally taken a back seat to more pressing issues like “how can we buy a couple trillion dollars’ worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities without impairing market function?” Back at the end of 2010, I wrote a blog post about the fact that price-level targeting is gaining currency (no pun intended) at the Fed.

The authors start by noting that the Fed has been incredibly successful, as it turns out, at hitting the 2% target on inflation. Like most authors who address this subject, they choose a historical period where that happens to be the case and draw a nice exponential curve that happens to fit nicely since, after all, they chose a period during which low and stable inflation was the norm. They then proceed, as most establishment economists do, to give the Fed most if not all of the credit for maintaining inflation low and stable even though any fair real-time analysis of the history – see, for example, my book which, incidentally, makes a fine Christmas gift – must conclude that this was partly a lucky break.

What is interesting and potentially significant, though, is where the authors focus on the deviation from that trend. Although drawing the line the way they originally drew it suggests that the Fed has successfully targeted long-term price-level growth almost exactly, they then re-draw the line based on an arbitrary start date of January 2006 (this happens to be the beginning of Bernanke’s tenure, but since the price level in 2006 has nothing to do with actions he took in 2006, that date is purely arbitrary). The significance is that when drawn from that date, the price level appears too low:

“While the price level has remained remarkably close to its 2 percent trend line since the early 1990s, the total PCE deflator has been below this trend line since 2009 with a 1.4 percent gap in July 2013; the core index displays an even larger gap.”

Hmmm. At this point, one suspects that the authors may be adjusting the lens to reach the conclusion they want. They proceed to ask whether the Fed is, or should be, aiming to stabilize inflation (at 2% on PCE, about 2.25% on CPI) or the price level, and suggest (remember, the authors are at the Fed) that quantitatively speaking the Fed’s policy has worked out to be essentially price-level targeting whatever they called it. The big moment comes:

“Moreover, while the FOMC has stated its policy strategy in terms of an inflation rate and not the price level, it is interesting to note that there is a technical equivalence between the Fed’s “longer-run inflation goal” of 2 percent and price-level targeting. As such, if the FOMC’s past behavior continues, it is reasonable to expect inflation temporarily higher than 2 percent so that the price level will return to its long-run trend line.”

Whether or not the Fed actually chooses, or should choose, price-level targeting or rate targeting is a debate for a future day although the link to my blog post above shows it is also a debate for a past day! The interesting thing about the NY Fed blog post, though, is that the price-level argument is being used to support the notion that inflation somewhat above the target is not only acceptable but actually desirable. This may be merely an academic discussion, but take note of it just in case.

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