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Biden Changes the Rules of the Simulation

It’s like a classic Star Trek scene where we learn the true genius of Captain Kirk – what sets him apart from other great leaders.

SAAVIK: Sir, may I ask you a question?
KIRK: What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?
SAAVIK: The Kobayashi Maru, sir.
KIRK: Are you asking me if we are playing out that scenario now?
SAAVIK: On the test, sir, will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know.
McCOY: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
SAAVIK: How?
KIRK: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
SAAVIK: What?
DAVID: He cheated!
KIRK: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. …I don’t like to lose.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (See the scene here)

Kirk beat the no-win scenario by reprogramming the simulation. Now consider the parallels with the current situation, as Captain Biden paces the bridge.

The economy is booming: Q2 GDP is forecast to have advanced at an 8.5% annualized pace (the GDP report will come out Thursday). However, at the same time Initial Unemployment Claims have remained stubbornly high and many remain out of work. In the meantime, inflation has become the number one concern of consumers and they’ve stopped listening credulously to claims that the widespread price increases are “transitory” as company after company reports price pressures and shortages that go far beyond used cars! A single article in Fox Business listed Kimberly Clark (toilet paper products), Harley Davidson (motorcycles), Whirlpool (large appliances), General Mills (food), and Constellation Brands (beer and booze) as companies that have recently announced price increases under pressure from cost increases. And there are hundreds of others.

The Captain is also aware that the reaction to the new directly-deposited monthly stimulus checks, which is obviously meant to be a down payment on (and habituate taxpayers to) “universal basic income,” did not produce the expected accolades from the crew. To be blunt, it went over like a damp squib and morale is not good.

If the Administration increases spending even more, then the bottlenecks and shortages that have helped produce quarter-over-quarter inflation at a roughly 10% pace in Q2 are not going to get better. And if the Administration tries to reduce spending to take pressure off of product markets and some of the froth out of securities and asset markets, then growth could suffer (and employment, especially his own, could be at risk!). It’s a no-win scenario…unless…

So Biden broke out of the frame. He re-wrote the rules. He is going to spend an additional $4 trillion on infrastructure. But he is beating the Kobayashi Maru scenario, because this massive spending program is going to create jobs and heal the economy and also reduce inflation.

“If your primary concern right now is inflation, you should be even more enthusiastic about this plan,” Biden said in remarks from the White House State Dining Room. “These steps will enhance our productivity, raising wages without raising prices, and won’t increase inflation. It will take the pressure off of inflation.” – Captain Joe Biden

Genius.

Of course, it’s only possible if Biden succeeds in re-programming reality. Because in the world we actually live in, that’s not the way this works. Massive government spending programs, financed by feckless central bank financing of deficits, always leads to inflation.

The President’s claim – although, let’s be fair, he’s just reading cue cards so it’s someone else making the claim and forcing the poor guy to say the crazy things – is that by making “prudent, multi-year investments in better roads, bridges, transit systems and high-speed internet and a modern resilient electric grid, here’s what will happen: It breaks up the bottlenecks in our economy; goods get to consumers more rapidly and less expensively; small businesses create and innovate much more seamlessly.”

Let’s ignore for the nonce the government’s record of making “prudent investments.” And let’s be generous and imagine that the trillions and trillions of dollars of spending will actually result in the things he claims it will. It still doesn’t solve the problem, which is that right now there are massive supply issues, mostly because every consumer has more money now than they did before the shutdown and they’re spending it. There’s too much money chasing too few goods, today! As far as I can ascertain, prices are not shooting higher because the nation’s bridges aren’t good enough, and the internet isn’t fast enough. But even if they were, pushing more cash into the economic system to solve that problem years in the future makes today’s problem worse. The fact that this spending is not being done by the private sector but by the public sector compounds the mistake.

The only way to get the results he wants is to re-write the simulation so that it doesn’t work this way. So I assume that’s what he has done. (I would say, as David does in the script above, “he cheated”, but that evokes other things we aren’t supposed to talk about these days.)

Well done, Captain Joe!

We Were Shocked – Shocked! – that Massive Stimulus Caused Inflation

June 23, 2021 2 comments

At one time, when I worked for big global banks, I wrote a commentary daily. As a consequence, I would remark on almost literally every “important” fed speech (the quotation marks being because, in the last decade or two, almost none of those speeches were at all meaningful since they had already given us the playbook in plain English). Nowadays, I delight in the fact that I don’t regularly have to comment on the drivel that dribbles from fed mouthpieces. At times, though, it becomes too much to ignore and something need to be said.

“A pretty substantial part, or perhaps all of the overshoot in inflation comes from categories that are directly affected by the re-opening of the economy such as used cars and trucks.”

Jerome Powell, June 22, 2021

This has become a very easy meme for Fed officials and disinflationistas: inflation is “transitory” over some unstated period, because almost everything we are seeing is the direct result of the abrupt reopening of the global economy.

Let’s examine that. In what way is the price increase in used cars and trucks due to the reopening?

In a normal cycle, there wouldn’t be sudden and huge demand for used cars all of a sudden. Nor would there be a sudden and huge demand for all sorts of other goods and services – shipping containers, chlorine, semiconductor chips, polypropylene, contract labor. In a normal cycle, demand recovers gradually and supply adjusts to the new demand gradually. Suppliers have time to read market signals and to bring new production on-line. A manufacturer of plastic doodads forecasts that in three months, he’s going to have enough demand to need a second shift – so, he puts advertisements in the paper and starts to selectively hire workers for a second shift. When the demand shows up, he is ready.

So clearly, the big mismatch between supply and demand in this cycle is the problem. And it isn’t just in used cars and trucks. It isn’t just in hotels and airfares. In fact, it is a myth that there is a small set of categories that are inflating wildly while other prices are inert. The chart below shows Enduring Investments’ Inflation Diffusion Index. More categories are seeing acceleration inflation, than are not.

Sure, a few categories add most of the acceleration, mathematically. That is always true. The combination of weight in the basket and size of the move means you can always point to one item or set of items that this month caused a big increase. I first mentioned my “microwave popping corn” analogy back in October. The fact that you can identify a particular reason that a kernel popped does not mean that you have found the root cause of all of the kernels popping. (As an aide, that article addressed the rise in used car prices that was just starting to happen. Back in October, when most of the world was still 90% on lockdown).

Again, there’s no question about the fact that one link in the causal chain is that demand came back before supply could prepare for it. But whose fault is that?

It isn’t merely the fact of the reopening. If Administration officials had simply decided on January 1st to let people go back out into the world again, demand would not have exploded overnight. Buying things requires money. In a normal cycle, suppliers would have started to hire for the reopening; they would have paid the workers, who would then have money; some of those people would go and buy used cars. It would surely have happened more quickly this time since the gate was being removed all at once. But many consumers would have had to spend time repairing their personal balance sheets and would not have suddenly gone out to buy new cars. Instead, what happened is that the Congress dropped a couple trillion dollars into consumers’ accounts, and – a crucial part of this sequence – the Fed bought the bonds that the Treasury had to issue in order to spray that money into the economy.

That last step is important. If the Treasury had just spent a trillion dollars and issued a trillion dollars’ worth of bonds, it would have had an impact but only because the money was being sent to consumers with a high propensity to consume, while the money being pulled in to pay for it was coming from investors with a lower propensity to consume (investors buying the bonds now have less cash to spend). So the spending package would matter, but not nearly as much as spending a trillion, and issuing bonds which the Federal Reserve expands the money supply to buy. A great chart from Deutsche Bank Research illustrates this cleanly: the Fed bought a huge proportion of the bonds the Treasury sold.

So trillions of dollars of the demand pressure are coming from debt being sold to a guy with a printing press. That is fake demand. It is not “due to the reopening.” It’s due to spastic fiscal policy, coupled with profligate monetary policy. And, as the used car example shows, it started happening long before the economy was getting “back to normal.” So while Powell and his minions feign surprise and shock at the outcome, it only means they are either deceitful or incompetent. The root cause here is absolutely clear, and the only reason that Chairman Powell can get away with claiming otherwise is that he is speaking to another body that is even more deceitful and incompetent.

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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2021)

June 10, 2021 1 comment

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

  • It’s #CPI day again! Welcome to my data walk-up. And a special welcome to all the new followers this month. I can probably plot new followers as an indicator of interest in the subject of inflation.
  • As the inflation guy, I ALWAYS look forward to this day but this is one that is going to be a lot more-widely watched than most. And for good reason.
  • Last month, core CPI shocked everyone with a +0.92% m/m reading, the highest in 40 years; the y/y core was the highest in a quarter-century. And this month, the y/y core will rise to the highest level since the early 1990s. Only question is what year in the early 1990s.
  • That’s baked in the cake; the comp from last May was -0.07% so core will rise today, by a lot. Consensus is +0.5% m/m, pushing y/y to ~3.5%. The inflation swaps market is slightly above that, more like 0.6%. And the swaps market has been right on the last couple of surprises.
  • Before we relitigate last month’s print, let’s actually look to the PRIOR month, the March figure that dropped [ed. note: meaning, “was released”, not “declined”] in April. With last month’s fireworks we forget that March’s number (+0.34% m/m on core) was also a surprise. Moreover, it was a BROADER surprise.
  • The March CPI was NOT flattered by airfares and used cars, which were the main culprits from last month. Nor by rents. It was due to large moves in small components that no one was expecting to see jump.
  • Honestly we could see last month’s jump coming (maybe not that much). March was a true surprise.
  • THAT is the story we need to be watching behind the fireworks. The Enduring Inflation Diffusion Index, meant to measure the breadth of inflation pressures, last month reached the highest level since 2012.
  • The Fed can write off Used Cars as “transitory.” But it’s less plausible that EVERYTHING is transitory.
  • (At some level, “Transitory” doesn’t really mean anything useful unless you specify the period – see my note “All Inflation is Transitory” https://mikeashton.wordpress.com/2021/05/20/all-inflation-is-transitory/ )
  • So now moving forward to April’s figure last month. Used cars and airfares were both up more than 10% m/m. Lodging Away from Home rose 7.65% m/m. And that was the reason for the massive move.
  • Spoiler alert: last month’s rise in Used Cars CPI is only a fraction of what is still coming. See chart of the Black Book index vs the CPI for Used Cars.
  • Does that mean we will get another 10% rise in Used Cars this month? It actually could be worse (although the rise in the data could also smear over several months). This is why it’s not heroic to forecast 0.5% m/m on core CPI. Can get there easily.
  • Airfares and Lodging Away from Home should also see upward pressure but there are more zigzags there. But what I really want to look at are Primary Rents (you are a renter) and Owners’ Equivalent Rent (you own your home).
  • The eviction moratorium, which by my estimate is dampening overall core CPI by around 0.9% through the medium of rents and OER, is still in place. So we DON’T have an a priori reason to look for a rental jump. Thus if we get one – it will be caused by something else.
  • That something else is that as the country has opened up, and people have been moving hither and yon, rents have been jumping (along with home prices) even more than before. And some of that might find its way into the CPI. It probably should.
  • Without housing turning higher, it’s hard to sustain big inflation figures. But rents are going to turn higher, just not clear exactly when.
  • And of course, I’ll be looking at the broader pressures down the stack to the little stuff. That’s where the high cost of containers, plastics and packaging, freight, and the shortage of labor (among many other things) is going to show up.
  • MY GUESS is that rents stay tame with just a little uptick, used cars are still strong, we see a little strength from new cars as well, and we get another above-consensus number. I can come up with scary scenarios for this print. It’s harder to come up with gentle ones.
  • Well it should be a barn-burner. Up until now, the Fed hasn’t cared. Last month got them to talk about talking about someday maybe not doing as much QE. Another month might accelerate that talking about talking. Especially if it’s more than Used Cars.
  • But the comps get “harder” for the next 3 months; Jun-Aug 2020 were +0.24%, +0.54%, and +0.35% on core CPI. So we’ll need the strength to last into the fall before the Fed gets truly nervous. And I still think the clear majority doesn’t put inflation as a serious priority.
  • It’s up to the bond vigilantes to push the Fed to being more serious about inflation. But the bond vigilantes are enjoying the “Greenspan put” equivalent in the bond world.
  • Buckle up! That’s my walk-up. Number is out in a few.

  • Surprise! It’s a surprise. 0.7% on core.
  • Actually 0.74% m/m on core, for those who still care about hundredths! Y/y is 3.80%.
  • Core highest since June 1992.
  • Lagarde comments that inflation pressures in Europe remain subdued. READ THE ROOM!
  • Used cars +7.29% m/m. OER +0.31%. Primary Rents +0.24%. Airfares +6.98%. All of those are m/m.
  • Used Cars…still could have more to go!
  • Another month of changing the scale on my charts. Here is core goods and core services. Core goods (used cars) is getting the play but don’t ignore the recovery in core services.
  • That rise in core services is with Medical Care very very soft. Pharma (which is core goods) was -0.08% m/m; Doctors’ Services -0.03%; Hospital Services +0.16%. This remains a real conundrum.
  • Apparel was +1.22% m/m. Now, apparel is only 3% of the overall CPI, but I think we’re seeing the effect of shipping costs here since most apparel is imported.
  • The small rise in rents was in line with my expectation. But we haven’t yet seen any of the real jump to come when the eviction moratorium is ended.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter was +4.94% y/y. That’s something we haven’t seen since 1991. Of course, that’s also mostly cars at this point. Need to get further down the stack to see how broad it is.
  • It probably though IS worth noting that the rise in core-ex-shelter isn’t compensating for a prior collapse. It dipped some in early COVID. But we’re way beyond that.
  • I’d also mentioned expecting to see some participation in new cars. Here is y/y. Partly this is rise in the price of a substitute, part is increased costs (from plastics and rubber to steel).
  • Rise in New Car prices is a little harder to explain away than used cars, which is spiking partly because of 2020 rental fleet shrinkage, which leaves the supply of used cars tight.
  • Car and Truck Rental: tiny category but visceral. +10% m/m. If you’re traveling this summer and haven’t rented your car yet…you may already be too late. It’s hard to find them.
  • Domestic Services +6.42% m/m NSA. Moving/storage/freight expense (from consumer’s perspective) +5.5% m/m NSA, +16.2% y/y.
  • Early look at Median CPI, which gives a better look at pressures without outliers…my estimate is +0.32% m/m. That would be the highest in two years if I’m right. Median is never going to be as volatile as core, but we don’t want to see it +0.3% m/m regularly.
  • Key point about median and core though: in a disinflationary environment core will generally be below median. In an inflationary environment, it will generally be above. So if we’re shifting environments so all the tails are higher, then the core/median switch will persist.
  • My first glance at 10y breakevens since the number finds them +4bps on the day. They’ve been under pressure recently, I suspect less because people thought this would be a soft number and more because they’re looking for higher-inflation-beta products like commodities.
  • As a brief aside, I think people underappreciate what breakevens could do if there is a movement in investor allocations. There’s nearly $2 Trillion of TIPS outstanding. But the FLOAT is nowhere near that. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
  • Let’s see: rents tame with a little uptick. Check. Cars still strong. Check. a little strength from new cars as well. Check. Another above-consensus number. Check!
  • Let’s see. Biggest losers and gainers. No category had an annualized decline more than 10%. But above 10%: Infants/Toddler’s Apparel, Motor Vehicle Parts & Equipment, Meats Poultry Fish & Eggs, Household Furnishings and Equipment, Footwear, Women’s & Girls’ Apparel, (more)
  • Fuel Oil & other Fuels, Jewelry & Watches, Public Transportation, Used Cars and Trucks, Car and Truck Rental, Leased Cars and trucks.
  • Haven’t run this chart in a few months. Shows the distribution of lower-level price changes, y/y. The big middle finger is mostly OER. But look at not just the far right tail but the group between 3% and 5%.
  • Just a couple more items here. The diffusion index and then four-pieces. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index rose to its highest level since 2012 today. Another way to look at the broadening of price pressures.
  • We will do the four-pieces charts and then wrap up. The four-pieces charts is a simple way of looking at the drivers of inflation. Each of the pieces is very roughly 1/4 of the index (20%-35% actually). But it puts like-with-like.
  • …and they’re also in roughly volatility-order. First, Food & Energy. BTW a lot of this is food for a change. Food inflation is not pretty. But this is ‘non-core.’
  • Piece 2 is core goods. We’ve already seen this. New and Used Cars, Medicinal Drugs, e.g. Clearly this is a big driver at the moment.
  • Piece 3 is core services less rent of shelter. And there’s no comfort here. This includes medical services, which really aren’t doing anything. Household services. Car rental. Stuff like that.
  • And lastly the slowest moving piece, Rent of Shelter. This is rising, but right now it’s mostly because of lodging-away-from-home. To be fair that was a big part of the prior slide. Rents as we have already seen aren’t doing a lot. Yet.
  • If you want to be optimistic about inflationary pressures, you want to have rents stay tame. This is really hard when home prices and asking rents are shooting higher. If you want inflation to be transitory, you really need a home price collapse. I don’t see that…
  • Not to say home prices aren’t a bit frothy right now. But the conditions for them to collapse nationally, pulling rents and thus inflation down with them as in 2009-10, don’t seem to be there. But that’s the biggest/only risk I see to higher inflation through 2021-22.
  • That’s all for today. I’ll publish a compiled tweet list on my blog later this morning. You can get that blog at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com . But if you want more than talk, visit Enduring Investments at https://enduringinvestments.com and drop me a line.
  • Thanks for tuning in. Hope all of you new followers are generous with your RT and follow recommendations!

A second month of large increases in core inflation should be followed by a second month of Fed speakers downplaying the importance of the ‘transitory’ price increases. The rise in used cars and lodging away from home play into that narrative, but there are broader pressures here and they will show up more this month in other inflation measures such as median or ‘sticky’ CPI. But if bond yields don’t respond to the inflation threat, then neither will the Fed. Talk is cheap, and it is easy to say that inflation pressures will be “transitory” (and surely, they won’t continue at 0.8% per month on core), but when that talk is backed up by a placid government bond market it keeps the pressure off of the FOMC to do anything.

To be sure, I don’t really expect the Fed to be doing anything anyway. While the entire Committee isn’t exactly in line, Chairman Powell is the vote that matters. And he (along with the moral support from Treasury Secretary Yellen) continues to repeat that inflation is not a problem, and anyway it isn’t as important as making sure that everyone has a job, at any cost. (Students of history should note that the early days of the Weimar inflation saw a similar preoccupation with getting everyone employed, even if money had to be printed to do it!)

So, we continue to watch our money lose value, with the policymakers continuing to fiddle while Rome burns. There are places to hide, but they will get crowded pretty quickly once everyone realizes they need shelter. I don’t think this inflation is “transitory” in anything but a trivial sense that it will eventually pass. We don’t have to get to 8% inflation for it to be damaging to the psyche of the investor, consumer, and producer who has become acclimated to 2%. Sustained core inflation near 4% would be sufficient to break the back of the disinflation of the last forty years, in my view. We should get a test of that thesis, because we aren’t going to see appreciably lower core numbers until sometime in 2022.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (May 2021)

May 12, 2021 1 comment

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

  • Nice, sunny morning for #CPI here in the Northeast. Get ready for some fireworks today! I honestly can’t remember a time when a wider range of potential prints was not only possible, but plausible.
  • Last month, we saw a significant upside surprise as core inflation came in at +0.34% m/m. Yet, at some level this isn’t a surprise to those of us who are buying things.
  • What was really interesting about last month is that some of the big movers we expected – most notable among them used cars – did nothing special (Used Cars rose 0.55% m/m, yawn).
  • And yet, the upside surprise was also not in housing. Rents remained soft (more on that in a minute). So Median CPI, which we focus on more, was actually only +0.15% m/m.
  • Think about that…what that means is that the inflation surprise last month was due to large moves in smaller components – ones that no one expected to jump. If that doesn’t describe what inflation feels like in the real world, I’m not sure what does.
  • So turning to this month and the months ahead. We’re still waiting for rents (both primary rents and OER) to reflect the heat in the housing market and in the meteoric rise in asking rents.
  • My premise is that the abrupt and unusual divergence here is caused largely by the CDC’s eviction moratorium from last August, which has been extended several times – but which was recently vacated by a judge as being an overreach by the CDC.
  • I don’t know if that’s the last word, but in any case I wouldn’t expect that to have an effect THIS month. If we see a larger rise in rents, it’s organic from the general frothiness in housing and probably not from this effect, yet.
  • Also, we’re watching for used cars to catch up to private surveys. That’s a huge effect. Used Cars is 2.75% of the CPI, and New Cars has also seen upward pressure (it’s another 3.75%). That could easily add 0.1%-0.2% to core this month by itself.
  • There are lots of other places we may see pressure. There are shortages of containers, shipping, drivers, packaging, semiconductor chips, cotton, chlorine, ketchup, lumber, and the list goes on. Many of those categories are upstream to a LOT of consumer products.
  • Moreover, let’s not forget that there is a shortage of labor in certain sectors of the service economy. We haven’t gotten the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker this month, but Average Hourly Earnings showed a big jump. That also feeds into consumer prices.
  • So economists this month are calling for 0.3% on core CPI, which thanks to base effects would move y/y to 2.3%. Given the usual CPI/PCE spread, that means we’d basically be at the Fed’s long-term target, FWIW.
  • This is much better than last month’s guess from the economists’ models, but with used cars alone I think you ought to be looking for that much. There are forecasts out there for +0.4% and even a few at +0.5%. Big shops, not people looking for notoriety.
  • That’s really not crazy at all. In fact while the Street consensus is 0.3%, the inflation derivatives market is closer to 0.4% as the NSA print traded yesterday several times around 265.9 (0.1% higher than the economists’ 265.6 guess).
  • Last month, the interbank market was also 0.1% higher than the economists, and they were right. FWIW the inflation market feels long to me, but there’s a lot of slower money at play too so the usual hedge-fund-flush MAY not necessarily follow any disappointment.
  • Regardless of what happens, the Fed will say transitory, and perhaps they are right. But either way, it’s economic volatility and that benefits no one (unless you’re long convexity). Not investors, and certainly not consumers. Good luck out there. 8min until #CPI.

  • Bug, meet windshield.
  • Core CPI +0.92% m/m. Yes, you read that right. Waiting for someone to say misprint. 2.96% y/y.
  • Incredibly this has nothing to do with rents. That’s amazing. A big move like that in core…hard for it not to involve rents. Primary Rents +0.20% m/m. OER +0.21% m/m. Ham-on-rye rent numbers as they say.
  • But Used Cars were +10.0% m/m, which means that series basically caught up to the private surveys in a single month. The good news is that removes some of the dry powder for future months.
  • These charts are comical. This is core goods (+4.4% y/y) and core services (a mere +2.5%).
  • The last time Core Goods was as high as +4.4% y/y was in 1991.
  • Airfares +10.2% m/m, which is part of that services jump. Lodging away from home +7.7%. Those are Covid/reopening categories.
  • Apparel as a whole was +0.32% m/m. It’s a small category but I’d been wondering why it had been so tame given that there was an embargo on certain Chinese cottons – I would have thought we’d have seen more.
  • In Medical, Pharmaceuticals were +0.63% m/m; Doctor’s Services ebbed a bit (-0.29% m/m) and Hospital Services was tame (+0.18% m/m).
  • A lot of my tweets are proceeding slowly because I have to check the numbers. Plus all of the charts re-scaled. Core ex-shelter is +3.57% y/y. Hasn’t been over 2% since 2012. Not over 3% since 1995.
  • OMG I buried the lede. Core CPI isn’t quite at 3%, though it rounded there. It hasn’t been ABOVE that since 1995. A quarter-century.
  • Core ex-shelter.
  • Sorry for the lag folks. My computers are literally throwing up on this data.
  • Interestingly, CPI for New Cars was only +0.26% m/m. In New Cars, there’s simply a shortage brewing but sticker prices haven’t risen very much. I think that’s a “yet”. The shortage is due partly to the shortage of chips of course.
  • OK, I am going to have to stop this here without a whole bunch of other stuff that is going to be great to look at…when my java/SQL connection decides to work. Here’s the bottom line though:
  • Core inflation at +0.9% is so outrageous that ironically the Fed will have an easier time ignoring it for now. And there were some things that we expected to catch up over multiple months, that caught up all at once. BUT there are also some things yet to come. >>
  • If primary and OER rents catch up merely to where they ought to be given historical relationships to asking rents, home prices, etc, then that’s another 1% or thereabouts on core CPI. And that’s harder to assume away than a used car spike. >>
  • But what we know is that next month, we will have the first core CPI y/y above 3% in more than a quarter-century. Because we still have one more easy comp from May. But we always knew this would be hard to read – and the smoke won’t clear until late this year.
  • Transitory? Better hope so. If not, look out below on stocks and bonds. That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in and sorry I didn’t have more of my usual charts. If I get stuff working I may post them later.

Today’s month-over-month core CPI reading was the largest monthly figure since…wait for it…1981. That’s right, four decades ago. Yes, some of these things are going to be transitory. But they’re also going to be reprogramming consumers’ expectations. I’ve never been a big fan of the idea of anchored inflation expectations but as I wrote recently in “Once Again, You Ain’t Getting No Coke” whatever behavioral anchor there may have been is definitely threatened when there are large changes in prices.

Now let me add back a couple of the charts that I normally include, and maybe a couple of others. Here are the four-pieces charts. Each of these pieces is 1/5th to 1/3rd of the CPI consumption basket. There are lots of ways to cut the data but this is one I find useful. The first piece is Food & Energy. Little noticed in all of the craziness about core is that food and energy prices are also increasing markedly. Indeed, some food prices are rising as fast or faster than they did back when rising food prices helped spark the “Arab Spring.” Are we surprised at the unrest in Gaza? Get ready for more of that.

Second piece is core goods. Big piece of this is used cars. Kind of strange that new cars haven’t yet shown much of an uptick. The driver (no pun intended) of used cars is not just the huge tide of money of course, but also the smaller stock of used cars since rental fleets last year were shrunk a lot due to COVID. And rental car fleets are a big source of used cars.

Core services less rent-of-shelter is the third piece. Airfares, lots of personal services like child care, moving and storage, domestic services, etc. In a way, that’s a surprising piece here since this isn’t a raw materials gig, at least directly. But these services use packaging materials, cleaning materials, and other items whose prices are rising – and so are wages.

Finally, Rent of Shelter. The big bounce here is in Lodging-Away-from-Home, which was part of what was dragging it down. But rents themselves remain soft in the CPI, which I have to repeat is at odds with lots of the other ways we measure the cost of housing. This doesn’t mean that the CPI is ‘manipulated’; these discrepancies arise from time to time and we have a good reason to believe this is related to the eviction moratorium. I’m very confident rents will reconverge higher.

Now, because housing hasn’t lurched higher yet the median inflation figure will not be too bad. +0.3% m/m or so is what we’re likely to see, raising y/y to 2.17% or so. To be sure, +0.30% on median CPI is a big number for that series but not unprecedented. So today’s report is one reason that I always admonish people to look at median, not core. Core inflation is not going to rise at 11% this year. But remember the microwave-popcorn analogy: these one-off anecdotes are the way inflation is really experienced in practice. Maybe not 50% increases in used car prices, but a pop here and a pop there. This shows up as fatter tails on the high side of the distribution as opposed to the low side of the distribution when we are in a disinflationary environment. In an inflationary environment, we expect core inflation to be above median inflation because of those recurring “one-off” events. And, for the first time in a very long time, it is.

Finally, one more chart here and that’s of the EI Inflation Diffusion Index, which attempts to measure how widespread price increases are. It just peeked above zero for the first time since 2012. It keeps more distribution information than the median does, which is why it tends to rhyme with median but sometimes diverges.

Now let me sum up: the Fed doesn’t care. Oh, I am sure there are people at the Fed who will be alarmed, but the bottom-up people will see anecdotes and long-tails and not be worried. It’s the top-down people who are alarmed: the people who see money growth over 20% and have been bracing for what has historically always accompanied such money growth. But those people have no voice at the Fed. The main power around the table is concerned about making sure the unemployment rate is as near zero as possible. It’s an odd reversal from the Greenspan (and earlier) days, when the Fed believed that the way to maximize employment in the long run was to hold inflation low and steady. The Federal Reserve today behaves as if the best way to hold inflation low and steady in the long run is to maximize employment in the short run. That’s obvious nonsense, but here’s the important point: the crazy volatility of the economic data around COVID and in the base effects post-COVID create a fog of war that means it will be late 2021, and maybe even into 2022, before it will be clear to everyone that inflation is really settling down at a level higher than it was pre-COVID. Before then, the stock and bond markets are likely to discount worse price/rate conditions, which if anything will trigger even looser policy from the central bank.

In other words, by the time the Fed decides that cooling off price increases is more important than goosing the economy or the stock market, we will be very far down the road of squandering the Volcker Dividend. Behave accordingly.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

How Many ‘Shortage’ Anecdotes Equal Data?

March 30, 2021 5 comments

There is a growing list of categories of prices which are seeing abnormal price pressures. At least, they are abnormal by the standards of the last quarter-century! A couple of months ago, in “The Risk of Confusing Inflation Frames,” I wrote about some of the effects we might soon be seeing, and of the risk that some of the known-but-temporary effects will obfuscate more serious underlying issues.

In April, we will get the CPI for March; this will be the first CPI release to have ridiculously easy comparisons against the year-ago month. March 2020 was -0.2% on core CPI, and I suspect the consensus estimate for March 2021 will be something like +0.2%; this implies the y/y core inflation number will jump from 1.3% to around 1.7%, depending on rounding. But as I said, that disguises some of the important underlying pressures that may also start to appear with this number. There is an old saying that the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data,” but eventually there must be a crossover point where the preponderance of independent anecdotes begins to approach the informational value of data, right? Well, here is a short list of some recent anecdotes and reports of shortages.

There has become an acute shortage of semiconductor chips, which has impacted automobile production (and will that increase prices for what is available?). There is a shortage of shipping containers, causing widespread increases in freight costs affecting a wide variety of goods. Packaging materials, which are also a part of the price of a great many goods, are also shooting higher in price. Worker shortages at various skill levels were reported in the most-recent Beige Book. There is a shortage of Uber and Lyft drivers.

There are other effects that have shown up but I misapprehended the significance of them at the time. Apparel prices have risen at an annualized 9% pace over the last four months. I’d attributed that to shipping, but there is more to it than that. In January US Customs issued a Withhold/Release Order (WRO) on cotton and tomato products coming from the Xinjiang region of China, where forced labor is employed; the order calls for the stoppage of freight with any amount of cotton (or tomatoes, but there is not much tomato in apparel) that originates from that region – even if it is only the thread on the hem. While this and the other effects on apparel are probably temporary, we don’t really know how temporary.

Importantly, we should add to these shortages a growing shortage of housing. The inventory of homes available for sale just hit an all-time low (the National Association of Realtors started keeping track in 1982).

And, as a result, the increase in the median sales price of existing homes just reached an all-time high spread over core CPI (home price increases sometimes have been higher, though it is unusual. For example, in May 1979 the year-over-year increase in the median home price was 16.9%. But core inflation was 9.4% at the time, so the real increase in home prices was only 7.5%).

I have written elsewhere about the fact that there is large divergence right now between what the BLS indicates the effective inflation in the cost of housing is, and what a measurement of asking rents suggest it should be. The significant chart is reproduced below – and the short story is that the divergence dates to the imposition of the COVID-related eviction moratorium. This has decreased the amount of rent that landlords actually expect to receive on average, which lowers effective rents even though every other measure of the true (free market) cost of shelter would be, is ratcheting higher at rates seldom if ever seen before.

Now, this moratorium was due to expire at the end of March, but the CDC just extended it until June (which may be one reason that TIPS breakevens have hit some minor resistance). That’s a little unfortunate since it means that the moratorium will expire right about the time that the CPI is enjoying favorable comparisons versus 2020. The understating of rent and owners’-equivalent rent inflation, since those are a huge portion of the consumption basket, has an outsized effect on CPI. I want to be fair here to the BLS: in an important sense, the CPI data on rents is not wrong because in fact if a tenant pays less because of the moratorium, then that tenant’s cost of living really did go down. Even though in a free market without such a moratorium his cost of living would have been higher, that’s not the question the BLS is trying to answer. The cost of living is lower in such a case. Of course, that’s temporary, and so when the moratorium is lifted we can expect the BLS will also faithfully report the catch-up. Which means that in the summer, when we would have expected y/y CPI to start to decline again as it faces more difficult comparisons to 2020…it may not, because rents will start to catch up. That’s going to toast the marshmallows of a lot of investors.

Now, there’s one more facet of the cost-of-shelter question and that’s whether home prices have risen too far, too fast and so it’s home prices and asking rents that will have to decline, rather than effective rents re-accelerating. This is a reasonable question. It is true that the ratio of home prices relative to incomes is getting back to levels that in the late 2000s indicated a bubble was getting ready to pop (see chart). For many, many years median home prices relative to median incomes was fairly stable at around 3.4x. Some increase makes sense since homes have been getting bigger, but it does give the appearance of being overextended.

However, last week in Money Illusion and Boiling Frogs I argued that the nominal value of certain real assets might be usefully compared to the level of the money supply as a way of assessing their real value. Comparing the equity market to M2 made the former look less frothy, and the argument is that maybe equity investors aren’t suffering from “money illusion” in the same way that consumers might be (so far). But the same cannot be said for the housing market. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) divides the home price index (from the FHFA) by M2. While home prices relative to incomes look high, home prices relative to the stock of money look quite low. It is interesting how the QE of the early 2010s shows up as a one-time shift in this ratio, followed by a period of stability, isn’t it? It suggests that maybe home prices didn’t fully adjust to the new money-stock reality after the bubble’s burst in 2008 and the subsequent QE. And maybe such a one-time shift happens again now.

But it might also be the case that the current rapid escalation of home prices is the market’s attempt to get the real value of the housing stock to reflect the rapidly increasing value of the money stock. If that’s the case, then it also suggests that median wages probably will eventually follow. The last people to respond to money illusion generally are the people selling their labor.

I don’t know if this is the ‘right’ answer, and my purpose in these articles isn’t to give the ‘right’ answer. I just want to ask the right questions…and I feel like these are the right questions.

Categories: China, CPI, Housing, Wages Tags: ,

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (February 2021)

February 10, 2021 Leave a comment

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

  • But landlords have been collecting less rent, and expecting less rent, and so in the BLS calculation this shows up as less growth in rents. But it’s also cyclical.
  • It does look to me like rent collections stayed soft in January but it’s hard to tell a priori. Anyway that’s the story with rents and we’ll watch that.
  • Outside of rents, it’s a different story. On the services side, still soft especially in medical. And that still confounds me. How is medical inflation so low with a medical crisis on our hands? Head-scratcher.
  • On the goods side, we have pressure in pharma coming from price hikes from some major manufacturers in Jan (more than usual seasonal), and we have a GENERAL CRISIS on the supply side.
  • Shipping rates have skyrocketed. Raw goods prices have been rising rapidly.
  • It’s weird to say keep an eye on apparel, because it’s a small weight and has rarely been anything but soft for years. But apparel uses fabric and lots of fabric uses resin. And resin has tripled in price over the last couple of months. And most apparel is imported.
  • Anyway, core goods should stay robust.
  • What that means for overall core CPI is hard to say. As I wrote recently (and it’s worth reading), there are a lot of  conflicting frames right now: https://mikeashton.wordpress.com/2021/02/04/the-risk-of-confusing-inflation-frames/
  • The ‘fog of war’ will make interpreting this number very hard for the next 6-8 months. Which means policymakers will easily ignore it no matter what it does, even though the #Fed doesn’t care about inflation.
  • But if YOU care, and have interests in how to hedge/invest in the inflationary period approaching, visit https://enduringinvestments.com
  • That’s all for now. Good luck. The consensus estimate is +0.17% on core, keeping the y/y at 1.5% (rounded down). I will look at ex-housing and think there’s some upside there. We’ll see.
  • Well this breakdown will be fun. Core CPI flat (waiting on BBG to post the actual number so we can see how flat).
  • OK, 0.03% on Core. Y/y 1.40%.
  • Apparel +2.21% m/m. Like I said, that’s only 2.8% but all of the supply issues converge on that category. Apparel is still -2.57% y/y.
  • Primary Rents +0.11% for second month in a row. OER +0.14% for the second month in a row. Neither is sustainable when home prices are spiking. Y/Y is 2.05% and 2.01% respectively.
  • Lodging Away from Home, a “COVID Category” -1.88% m/m. So I think we can see Shelter was a big softee.
  • Other COVID categories: airfares -3.18% after -2.46% last month; Used Cars & Trucks -0.89% after -0.90% last month. But Motor Vehicle Insurance +1.13% after +1.42% last month.
  • In Medical: Medicinal Drugs -0.25% m/m after -0.24%. That makes little sense. Although seasonally we expect price hikes in January, there were many more price hikes this year than in a typical year.
  • This number is weird all over in that many m/m changes are almost identical to last month’s changes.
  • Doctor’s Services +1.55%, Hospital Services +0.27% m/m. That’s good to see. I mean, I support doctors.
  • So overall, core services dropped from 1.6% y/y to 1.3% y/y (!) while core goods stayed at 1.7% y/y. I rather expected the latter to rise, especially with the apparel jump, so will have to dig deep on that one.
  • So core CPI ex-shelter dropped from 1.45% y/y to 1.25% y/y.
  • Let’s see…biggest declines m/m (in core) were Lodging Away from Home (-20% annualized), Public Transport (-18%) (?), Car and Truck Rental (-12.2%), Misc Personal Services (-11.4%) and Used Cars and Trucks (-10.2%). Lots of mobility stuff there!
  • Biggest core gainers: Jewelry & watches (+62% annualized), Women’s/Girls Apparel (+44%), Tobacco/Smoking (+24%), Motor Vehicle Insurance (+21%), Footwear (+18.8%), Men’s/Boys apparel (+19%). Lots of imports/manufacturing there!
  • Because of the weakness in rents, Median CPI might actually be negative this month. That’s rare! Last year when core CPI was negative three months in a row, median never went below +0.12% m/m.
  • So, again, I’m not really worried about rent going to zero here. What we’re measuring is an accelerating underlying trend in asking rents plus a cyclical underlying trend in delinquencies. The latter will fade.
  • Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe home prices will collapse. But the divergence doesn’t make a lot of sense. These are substitutes!
  • I guess at the end of the day (I hate that term) this report is only surprising in magnitudes.I expected rent might be soft, just surprised at how soft. Expected apparel to jump; it did. I guess Pharma prices were surprising. The rel strength of goods v svcs wasn’t surprising.
  • Meanwhile, back in the market…10y breakevens don’t like this report; they’re down 1.75bps. But not sure anything here will change minds.
  • After all, the market is already pricing in very low core inflation for the next few years. And 10y inflation isn’t exactly trading at a premium. You’re not overpaying for the chance that inflation has a long-tail outcome to the upside.
  • Four pieces. First CPI pie piece: Food & Energy.
  • Second piece, and the ongoing story, is core goods inflation. Now above core services, with or without shelter.
  • Core services less rent of shelter. Here is where the mobility stuff is dragging us down. One hopes this comes back once mobility comes back.
  • And piece 4, what will be endlessly debated: rent of shelter, including lodging away from home. Be careful comparing to the GFC – that was, after all, a housing crisis with collapsing home prices. Made perfect sense then. Makes very little sense now; I don’t see this persisting.
  • I think it’s worth touting my own article again, The Risk of Confusing Inflation Frames. https://mikeashton.wordpress.com/2021/02/04/the-risk-of-confusing-inflation-frames/ There are lots of crosscurrents here, ‘fog of war’ stuff, will make it hard to discern true trend.
  • Rent collections soggy, resin prices up several hundred percent. But meanwhile, there is this. The fog is going to obfuscate any underlying upward pressure on the price level. But I’m really confident that if you increase the global money supply 20%, you don’t get less inflation.
  • One more comment on those lines. Next month’s comp on core CPI is +0.22% from Feb 2020. And that’s the last pre-covid comp, which means it will then be a long time before we have a clean picture. In between there may be a state shift that’s hard to see. Be careful.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for following and retweeting etc. A summary will be up on https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  in a little while (linked too from http://enduringinvestments.com ) and will make its way around to other sites thereafter. Have a good day!

I don’t have a lot to add to this that I haven’t already said in the “Frames” piece. There are a lot of crosscurrents here and the comforting thing this month is that they’re the crosscurrents we expected to see! I was surprised at how soft the number was, but if you’d given me the rents numbers I would not have been. One thing I forgot to mention as a driver of apparel isn’t just resin and freight, but also cotton which has been rallying hard for a while too. But this is playing to form.

The question about whether we should be measuring asking rents or actual paid rents is interesting. The CPI is supposed to measure the average prices of what consumers on average consume. And the average rent is clearly declining if more people are paying zero. But since most people aren’t paying zero, the change in the median rent is a better indicator of what most renters will see. Over a full cycle, the differences will smooth out because once eviction moratoria are removed and Americans are mostly back to work, the number of zero renters will decline. But for now, this just helps the conspiracy theorists argue why the BLS is saucing the number to make it low. However, I don’t think it’s wrong or intentionally misleading.

We have one more ‘pre-covid’ comp to see…and for most of the rest of the year after that, we’ll have to place our bets with blindfolds on.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

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.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (December 2020)

December 10, 2020 3 comments

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

  • Once again, it is #CPI Day! As the summer shutdown continues to recede (even as a winter shutdown potentially looms), the data is starting to clear up a little.
  • There are still huge dislocations, though, in the global supply chain and we’re seeing anecdotal evidence of that all over the place. Check out the price of polymer grade propylene if you don’t believe me. PGP1 Comdty on Bloomberg.
  • Container shortages are also causing price and quantity ripples in global trade. And of course, huge amounts of money chasing these fewer goods. y/y M2 is +25% in the US. 10% in Europe. 9% in Japan.
  • Often, I go into the CPI report with just a vague sense of looking at the whole number and then breaking it down. This month, I have a little different plan of attack.
  • The word of the day today is “compartmentalize.” There is housing, and then there is ex-housing. Housing is one thing. There seems to be near-term pressure on rents even outside of the big cities, as delinquencies are at last rising (as many have long predicted).
  • Measured rental inflation is lower (even if quoted rents aren’t) to the extent that landlords don’t expect to collect the full rent, so that’s a downward effect.
  • But longer-term, housing is doing just fine – home price changes, in fact, are accelerating – so I am not concerned that rental deflation will stay around very long.
  • For a discussion of housing, see my post from october 23 here: https://mikeashton.wordpress.com/2020/10/23/the-outlook-for-housing-inflation-from-here-oct-2020/
  • So shelter will probably be soft though we’re due for a bounce in Lodging Away from Home. But outside of shelter, the “non-sticky” is what I really want to see. As I mentioned, there are supply chain problems out there and it’s affecting prices because it affects supply.
  • Used Cars might have some more upside, though the early-summer surge looked to be past when that subcomponent declined slightly last month. But the surveys of used car prices are headed back up.
  • Last month, overall core CPI was weak largely because Medical Care tanked. That was the real outlier. I’m keenly interested to see if it rebounds. It’s implausible to think that medical care prices aren’t inflating much.
  • Broadly, consensus this month is for 0.1% on core and just a smidge over 1.5% y/y. No real opinion there – as I said, I’m compartmentalizing. I want to see ex-shelter.
  • Do remember, as I constantly remind: the #Fed doesn’t care one bit about inflation. But if YOU do, and have interests in how to hedge/invest in the inflationary period approaching, visit https://enduringinvestments.com
  • There’s a growing tide of stories about inflation, both anecdotal ones and stories of the “smart people worried” variety. And I’m seeing lots of interest in new product development in inflation space, and working on several with customers. 2021 will be busy.
  • OK, let’s see what the BLS has in store for us this month. Good luck. And in case I forget to say it later, Happy Holidays. Now let’s light this candle!!
  • Core CPI +0.22%, higher than expected. y/y at 1.647%…rounded to 1.6%, but almost ticked up to 1.7%. But remember: let’s compartmentalize. See the breakdown.
  • Just a quick glance tells me this will be interesting. Used Cars, a usual suspect when we’re above consensus, wasn’t it. -1.28% m/m, which means next month probably it adds. And rents were soft.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent was +0.03% m/m, dropping the y/y to 2.28% from 2.50%! That’s a huge drop. Primary Rents +0.04%, y/y foes to 2.45% from 2.67%. Also huge. All of that temporary though.
  • Lodging Away from Home did rebound as expected: +3.93% on the month. So total housing was 0.27% m/m, even though the big pieces belly-flopped.
  • And Medical Care was down again, -0.13% m/m. So what was UP??
  • Well, airfares were +3.5% m/m. Motor Vehicle Insurance rebounded 1.2% m/m after falling last month.
  • Core Goods inflation rose to 1.4% y/y. Core services was flat at 1.7%. You’re looking at supply chain and classic too-much-money-chasing-too-few-goods.
  • Core ex-shelter rose to 1.47%, reversing the deceleration from last month. Still not terribly high, but heading the wrong way.
  • Shelter, and core ex-shelter. Outside of shelter, there’s no sign that covid is causing anything that looks like deflation or even disinflation.
  • Apparel was +0.92% on the month, which is a whopper and a part of the ‘how is this happening’ story, even though it’s only 2.8% of the CPI.
  • Biggest declines on the month were jewelry and watches (-14.5% annualized) and used cars and trucks (-14.4% annualized). But there’s a long list of categories annualizing over 10%:
  • Motor Vehicle Insurance (13.8%), Footwear (17.6%), Men’s/Boys Apparel (28.5%), Misc Personal Goods (+31.9%), Public Transportation (+34.4%), Infants’/Toddlers’ Apparel (+51.3%), Lodging AFH (+58.9%), Car/Truck Rental (+66.8%).
  • So here’s the thing. Because there were small categories with BIG rises and big categories with small declines, the “average” CPI is exaggerated. Median CPI in fact should be very soft, maybe even +0.04% this month. And Median y/y should fall, pretty sharply even.
  • To be sure, if the skewness goes from being on the downside where it’s been for years, to being on the upside – that’s partly what inflation looks like. More on this later when I show distribution stuff.
  • Appliances inflation, part of that core goods component, continues to accelerate. CPI for Major Appliances is now +17.2% y/y, which you probably know if you’ve been remodeling.
  • The overall Housing subcomponent inflation rose to 2.00% y/y from 1.95%. But that’s despite big drops in primary and owners’ equivalent rent. BECAUSE of things like appliances, tools, housekeeping supplies, furniture…all up.
  • As noted, a big part of the “small categories, big changes” came from apparel subcategories. But here’s the overall apparel category. Not exactly terrifying (this is price level, not inflation). The price of clothing is back to roughly what it was in the late 1980s.
  • Totally have skipped over medical care so far. At least we saw increases in some categories although it remains…improbably soft. Medicinal Drugs -0.19% m/m. Doctors’ Services +0.13% m/m. Hospital Services +0.33% m/m. I still don’t buy it.
  • Skipping back to rents – the decline is getting to the implausible level. Again, this isn’t really quoted rents – this is being caused by rent delinquencies.
  • It’s really, really important to remember that home prices don’t follow rents, rents follow home prices (usually). With home prices shooting higher, rents will not keep decelerating. These are substitutes. Over time they move together.
  • So, this distribution is starting to look different. Tails are starting to extend to the high side while the big middle is temporarily moving left b/c of rents.
  • But having the long tail on the upside, which will cause median CPI to eventually be BELOW core instead of above it as it has been for years, is part of what inflation looks like. Kernels popping.
  • I’m going to do the four-pieces charts, then the perceived inflation index, then wrap up.
  • I see we have a number of new joiners this month so to set up the “four pieces” charts: this is just one way of slicing the data into reasonable categories so that each piece is around one quarter of CPI. Food & Energy, Core Goods, Core Services ex-Shelter, and Shelter.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy. About 20% of CPI.
  • Piece 2, core goods, also about 20%. Talked about this earlier. This is supply chain disruption, and money chasing goods. Appliances. Furniture. But not medicines, weirdly.
  • Core services less Rent of Shelter – weak, as Medical Care Services is weirdly soft. I really don’t understand this. Some of it is auto insurance, which is soft because people aren’t driving as much, but this just seems odd.
  • Rent of Shelter, 1/3 of CPI and a plurality of core CPI. This is where you’ll see really strident arguments on both sides over the next month. But remember, it’s largely about delinquencies. If there’s another stimulus and folks get current on rent, this will reverse.
  • Perceived inflation still running about 1.1% above core inflation.
  • So to wrap up: Core surprised to the upside, because of large changes in small categories like apparel, furniture, and appliances. This means median CPI, which we pay more attention to, will be softer this month.
  • Compartmentalizing: rents continue to be soft, but I don’t think they’ll stay that way. Core goods are clearly pushing higher in a way they haven’t for years, and everyone sees this especially during the shopping season. People don’t shop for services for Christmas.
  • Core services, even ex-shelter, remain curiously weak. Softness in medical care remains a conundrum to me.
  • Bottom line is that this upside surprise isn’t as alarming as it could be, in the same way last month’s downside surprise wasn’t really helpful to deflationistas. But the kernels popping to the high side is an interesting phenomenon that is becoming more common.
  • That might be related to the COVID economy, or it might be a shift to an inflationary price dynamic from the disinflationary price dynamic we’ve seen for decades, where the middle is steady but we get occasional downside tails from price-cutting.
  • Time will tell. However, there is nothing here to make Fed governors wake up early to catch the next CPI. They don’t care about inflation, and it will be a while before it gets on their radar screens. By the end of 2021, maybe.
  • Thanks for tuning in. I will post a summary of this string of tweets at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com in a half hour or so. Please stop by and peruse the blog, or better yet come by https://enduringinvestments.com and drop me a note so we can talk about how to work together. Happy holidays!

This was a really different CPI in a number of ways. For one thing, Apparel actually contributed to the upside. The number of core goods categories – small ones – showing large price increases is really unusual, and fascinating. Some of this is clearly temporary: the global supply of shipping containers is all in the wrong places, and there aren’t enough of them anyway, and this is causing sharp increases in shipping costs, delays in shipping, and therefore shortage in end product markets. This would ordinarily be merely inconvenient, but pressing against that shortage of many sorts of consumer goods is a large increase in the amount of money. When helicopters drop a few thousand dollars in everyone’s pocket and many of them run out to spend it, but the shelves are sparse – you get price increases. I am not sure this is as temporary as we want to think. In the initial helicopter drop, a lot of that money was saved at least temporarily, and money velocity fell. But that was partly because we were all shut-ins; we’re also finding out it was partly because there weren’t enough products to buy. I think we’re going to continue to see that money come gradually out of savings and into spending, and I am not sure the global supply chain can keep up yet.

We aren’t yet seeing the broad inflationary pressures. Obviously, rents are soggy but core services in general are weak. I don’t think that will persist; I wonder how much is due to the hangover from the lockdowns. But the lengthening of the upside tails is one characteristic of an inflationary process. I wrote about this recently in “Are the Inflation Kernels Starting to Pop?” and that’s worth a quick read. It has been a long time since we have seen a true inflationary process even when we’ve seen occasional accelerations in inflation itself, so we tend to forget. When inflation is rising at 4%, it doesn’t mean the price of everything we buy is going up at a uniform 4% per year. What actually happens is that prices are sticky, then they jump. This happens for a number of reasons, such a “menu costs” (the cost of reprinting menus, back when that was a thing), and the fact that you have to explain to customers why prices are changing so you do it as infrequently as possible. So what happens is that the price of a particular item goes up 0%, then 0%, then 12%. When that happens, median inflation is below core inflation, because the long upside tails pull up the average. When instead we are in a disinflationary environment, prices go up 2%, then 2%, then get a price cut of 6%. In that case, median inflation will be above core inflation, because the long downside tails pull down the average.

So even though core CPI has been below median for a generation, that isn’t guaranteed. In fact, it’s a possible indicator. Look at the following chart. For years, median CPI had been below core, during an inflationary period. In 1994-5, the positions reversed and they’ve been that way basically ever since.

Obviously, core CPI is still below median CPI. But when the Cleveland Fed reports it today, Median CPI is going to decelerate quite a bit. I don’t think Median is going to keep going down – I think it, and core, are going to go up from here and probably for quite a long time. My point though is that these long tails to the upside are interesting, and worth noting. And if Core CPI crosses above Median over the next few months and quarters, then look out.

Developed Country Demographics are Inflationary, not Deflationary

July 17, 2018 4 comments

I’m a relatively simple guy. I like simple models. I get suspicious with models that seem overly complicated. In my experience, the more components you add to a model the more likely it is that one of them ceases having explanatory power and messes up your model’s value. In this it is like (since tonight is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game I thought I’d use a baseball analogy) bringing in relievers to a game. Every reliever you bring in has some chance that he just doesn’t have it tonight, so therefore you ought to bring in as few relievers as you can.

Baseball managers don’t seem to believe this, so they bring in as many relievers as they can. Similarly, economists don’t seem to believe the rule of parsimony. The more complexity in the model, the better (at least, for the economist’s job security).

Let’s talk about demographics and inflation.

Here’s how I think about how an aging population affects inflation:

  1. Fewer workers in the workforce implies a lower unemployment rate and higher wages, c.p.
  2. A higher retiree/active worker ratio implies lower saving, which will tend to send interest rates higher and equity prices lower, and tend to increase money velocity, c.p.
  3. A higher retiree/non-retiree ratio probably implies lower spending, c.p.

It seems to me that people who argue that aging populations are disinflationary don’t really have a useful model in mind. If they do, then it revolves only around #3, and the idea that spending will diminish over time; if you believe that inflation is related to growth then this sounds like stagnation and deflation. But if there’s lower spending, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a wider output gap because of #1. The best you could say about the effect on the output gap of an aging population is that it is indeterminate: potential output growth should decline because of workforce decline (potential output growth » growth in the # of workers + growth in productivity per worker), while demand growth should also decline, leading to uncertain effects on the output gap.

I think that most people who think the demographic situation of developed nations is disinflationary are really just extrapolating from the single data point of Japan. Japan had an aging population; Japan had deflation; ergo, an aging population causes deflation. But as I’ve argued previously, the main cause of deflation in Japan was overly tight monetary policy.

The decrease in potential growth rates due to the graying of the population is real and clearly inflationary on its face, all else equal. Go look at our MVºPQ calculator and see what happens when you lower the annual real growth assumption, for any other set of assumptions.

So, my model is simple, and you don’t need to have a lot of extraneous dynamics if you simply say: slower potential growth implies higher potential inflation, and demographics implies lower potential future growth. Qed.

One other item I would point out about the three points above: all three are negative for stock markets. If you truly believe that the dominant effects are lower spending, less savings, and higher wages the you can’t possibly think that demographics are anything other than disastrous for equity valuations in the future.

Moving Goalposts

November 14, 2013 9 comments

The equity melt-up continues, with the S&P 500 now up more than 25% year-to-date in a period of stagnant growth and an environment of declining market liquidity. The catalysts for the latest leg up were the comments and testimony by Fed Chairman-nominee Janet Yellen, whose confirmation hearings began today.

Her comments should alleviate any fear that Yellen will be anything other than the most dovish Fed Chairman in decades. Ordinarily, potential central bankers take advantage of confirmation hearings to burnish their monetarist and hawkish credentials, in much the same way that Presidential candidates always seem to try and campaign as moderates. It makes sense to do so, since the credibility of a central bank has long been considered to be related to its dedication to the philosophy that low and stable prices promote the best long-term growth/inflation tradeoff. Sadly, that no longer appears to be the case, and Janet Yellen should easily be confirmed despite some very scary remarks in both the scripted and the unscripted part of her hearing.

In her prepared remarks, Yellen commented that “A strong recovery will ultimately enable the Fed to reduce its monetary accommodation and reliance on unconventional policy tools such as asset purchases.” Given half a chance to repeat the tried-and-true mantra (which Greenspan used repeatedly) about the Fed balancing its growth and inflation responsibilities by focusing on inflation since growth in the long run is maximized then inflation is low and stable…Yellen focused on growth as not only the primary but virtually the only objective of the FOMC. As with Bernanke, the standard which has been set will be maintained: we now use extraordinary monetary tools until we not only get a recovery, but a strong recovery. My, have the goalposts moved quite a lot since Volcker!

That means that QE may indeed last forever, since QE may be one of the reasons that the recovery is not strong (notice that no country which has employed QE so far…or ever, as far as I know…has enjoyed a strong recovery). In a very direct sense, then, Yellen has declared that the beatings will continue until morale improves. And I always thought that was just a saying!

I would call that borderline insanity, but I am no longer sure it is borderline.

Among other points, Yellen noted that the Fed is intent on avoiding deflation. In this, they are likely to be successful just as I am likely to be successful in keeping alligators from roosting on my rooftop. So far, there is no sign of it happening, hooray! I must be doing something right!

Yellen also remarked that the Fed might still consider cutting the interest it pays on banks’ excess reserves, or IOER. The effect of this would be to release, all at once, some large but unknown quantity of sterile reserves into the transactional money supply. If there was any question that she is more dovish than Bernanke, there it is. It was never clear why the Fed was pursuing such a policy – flood the market with liquidity, and then pay the banks to not lend the money – unless the point was merely to reliquify the banks. It is as if the Fed shipped sealed crates of money to banks and then paid them rent for keeping the boxes in their safes, closed. If you’re going to do QE, this is at least a less-damaging way to do it although it raises the question of what you do when you need the boxes back. Yellen, on the other hand, is open to the idea of telling the banks that the Fed won’t pay them any longer to keep those boxes unopened, and instead will ship them crowbars. This only makes sense if you really do believe that money causes growth, but has nothing to do with inflation.

The future Fed Chairman also declared that the Fed has tools to avert emergence of asset bubble. Of course, no one really doubts that they have the tools; the question is whether they know how and when to use the tools. And, to bring this to current events, the question is no longer whether they can avert the emergence of an asset bubble, but whether they can deflate the one they have already re-inflated in stocks, and an emerging one in property! Oh, wait, she’s at the Federal Reserve…which means she won’t realize these are bubbles until after the bubble pops, and then will say that no one could have known.

Now, it may be that the U.S. is merely nominating Dr. Yellen in self-defense, to keep the dollar from becoming too strong or something. Last week’s surprise rate cut from the ECB, and the interesting interview by Peter Praet of the ECB in which he opens the door for asset purchases (which interview is ably summarized and dissected by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard here), keeps the heat on the Fed to remain the most accommodative of the major central banks.

At least the ECB had a reasonable argument that there was room for them to paint the least attractive house on the block. Europe is the only one of the four major economies (I exclude China since quality data is “iffy” at best) where central-tendency measures of inflation are declining (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

globalinfAnd that is, of course, not unrelated to the fact that the ECB is the only one of the four major central banks to be presiding over low and declining money supply gowth (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

globalmsStill, the Bundesbank holdovers must be apoplectic at these developments. I wonder if it’s too late to nominate one of them to be our next Fed Chairman?

There is of course little desire in the establishment to do so. The equity market continues to spiral higher, making the parties louder and longer. It is fun while it lasts, and changing to a bartender with a more-generous pour might extend the good times slightly longer.

It is no fun being the designated driver, but the good news is that I will be the one without the pounding headache tomorrow.

[Hmmm…erratum and thanks to JC for catching it. The S&P is “only” up 25.6% YTD (my Bloomberg terminal decided that it wants to default to the return in Canadian dollars). So originally the first paragraph had “32%” rather than 25%. Corrected!]

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