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Whither (Wither?) Profits

April 22, 2015 4 comments

Surprisingly, markets are treading water here. The dollar, interest rates, and stocks are all oscillating in a narrow range. In some ways, this is surprising. It does not shock me that interest rates are fairly boring right now, with the 10-year yield trading almost exclusively within 25bps of 2% since November. Market participants are divided between those who see the Fed’s cessation of QE as indicative that prices should decline to fair market-clearing levels (that is, higher yields) and those who see weakness economically both domestically and abroad. There is room for confusion here.

I am similarly not terribly shocked that the dollar is consolidating after a long run, especially when part of that run was fueled by the popular delusion that the Federal Reserve had suddenly become extremely hawkish and would preemptively hike rates before convincing signs of inflation arose. I am hard-pressed to think of a time when the Fed pre-emptively did anything, but that was the popular belief in any event. Now that it is becoming clear that a hike in rates in June is about as likely as the possibility that the Easter Bunny will deliver eggs at the same time, dollar traders who were relying on widening interest rate differentials are pausing to take stock of the situation. I will say that it certainly seems plausible to me that the dollar’s rally will continue for at least a little while, due to the volatility coming our way as the Greek drama plays out, but the buck is not an automatic buy either. Money growth in the U.S. continues to outpace money growth in most other economies (see chart, source Bloomberg), although it is a much closer thing these days.

allems

An increase in relative supply, if the demand curves are similar, should provoke a decrease in relative price. Unless you believe that the Fed isn’t just going to increase rates but is also going to shrink its balance sheet so that money growth abates eventually, it is hard to envision the dollar launching continuously higher. More likely is that as more and more currencies see their supplies increase, the exchange rates meander but the whole kit-and-kaboodle loses ground to real assets.

One of those real assets is housing. An underpinning to my argument, for several years running now, that core prices were not going to be deflating any time soon was the observation that housing prices (and hence rents, with a lag) have been rising rapidly once again. The deceleration in the year/year growth rates in 2014 was a positive sign, but the increase in prices in 2012 and 2013 is still pressing rents higher now and any sag in rents is yet to be felt. However, today’s release of FHA price index data as well as the Existing Home Sales report suggests that it is premature to expect this second housing bubble to unwind gently. The chart below is the year/year change in the median price of existing homes (source: Bloomberg). The recent dip now seems to have been an aberration, and indeed the slowdown in 2014 may have merely presaged the next acceleration higher.

ehslmp

And that bodes ill for core (median) price pressures, which have been steady around 2.2% for a while but may also be readying for the next leg up. Review my post-CPI summary for some of the fascinating details! (Well, fascinating to me.)

This doesn’t mean that I am sanguine about growth, either domestic or global, looking forward. I thought we would get out of 2014 without a recession, but I am less sure about 2015. Europe is going to do better, thanks to weaker energy and a weaker currency (although the weaker currency counteracts some of the energy weakness), but the structural problems in Europe are profound and the exit of Greece will cause turmoil in the banks. But US growth is in trouble: the benefit from lower energy prices is diffuse, while the pain from lower energy prices is concentrated in a way it hasn’t been in the past. And the dollar strength pressures company earnings, as we have seen, on a broad basis. And that’s where it is a little surprising that we are seeing water-treading. It gets increasingly difficult for me to figure out what equity buyers are seeing. Profits are flattening out and even weakening, and they are already at a very high level of GDP so that any economic weakness is going to be felt in profits directly. Furthermore, I find it very interesting that the last time actual reported profits diverged from “Kalecki Profits” corresponded to the last equity bubble (see chart, source Bloomberg).

kalecki

“Kalecki Profits” is a line that computes corporate profits as Investment minus Household Savings minus Government Savings minus Foreign Savings plus Dividends. Look up Kalecki Profit Equation on Wikipedia for a further explanation. The “Corp Business Prof After Tax” is from the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Z.1 report and is measured directly. The implication is that if companies are reporting greater profits than the sum of the whole, then the difference is suspect. For example, leverage: by increasing financial leverage, the same top line creates more of a bottom line (in either direction). The chart below (source: Federal Reserve; Enduring Investments analysis) plots the 1-year percentage change in business debt outstanding (lagged 2 quarters to center it on the year in question) versus the difference between the two lines in the prior chart.

explaindiverg

We might call this “pretty cool,” but in econometrics terms this is merely an explanatory relationship. That is, it doesn’t really help us other than to help explain why the two series diverge. It doesn’t, for example, tell us whether Kalecki profits will converge upwards to reported profits, or whether reported profits will decline; it doesn’t tell us whether it is a decline or deceleration in business debt outstanding that prompts that convergence or whether something else causes both things to happen. I think it’s unlikely that the divergence in the two profit measures causes the change in debt, but it’s possible. I will say that this last chart makes me more comfortable that the Kalecki equation isn’t broken, but merely that it isn’t capturing everything. And my argument, for what it is worth, would be that business leverage cannot increase without bound. At some point, business borrowing will decline.

It does not look like that is happening yet. I have been reading recently about how credit officers have been declining credit more frequently recently. That may be true, but it isn’t resulting in slower credit growth. Commercial bank credit growth, according to the Fed’s H.8 report and illustrated below, continues to grow at the fastest y/y pace since well before the crisis.

cbcredit

If credit officers are really declining credit more often than before, it must mean that applications are up, or that the credit is being extended on fewer loans (that is, to bigger borrowers). Otherwise, we can’t square the fact that there’s rapid credit growth with the proffered fact that credit is being declined more often.

There is a lot to sort through here, but the bottom line is this: I have no idea what the dollar is going to do. I am not sure what the bond market will do. I have no idea what stocks will do. But, if I have to invest (and I do!), then in general I am aiming for real assets and avoiding financial assets.

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Two Quick Items

Two relatively quick items that I want to address today; they have been in my ‘to do’ box for a while.

Negative Rates

One of the most interesting features of the fixed-income landscape today, and one that will likely serve in the future as an exam question on finance quizzes, is the increasingly widespread proliferation of negative nominal interest rates among government bond markets…and occasionally even for high-quality corporate paper.

In finance theory, this can’t happen. Because currency earns a 0% nominal interest rate, theory says that no rational person would ever accept a negative nominal interest rate. If I have $50 today, and put it in the bank, I will have $49 tomorrow. So why not just keep the $50 in my wallet? (Obviously this leads to high cash balances, which means low monetary velocity, by the way). And this is true in the absence of “other costs.”

So why are so many interest rates negative? Are individuals irrational? No: at least not so irrational that they prefer less money to more money. However, what is true at an individual level does not necessarily scale to the institutional level. An institution, such as a money fund or corporation, does not have the freedom to hold its assets in physical currency. Microsoft has $90 billion in cash and equivalents. If this were in $100 bills, it would weigh about one thousand tons. That’s a pretty big vault. And vaults cost money. Guards cost money. And, if Microsoft had this money in the vault, it would be harder to spend. It is much easier to wire $5 million than it is to send an armored car.

In the presence of those costs, Microsoft and other institutions will accept a negative interest rate. It will invest its money at a negative rate rather than build a vault.

Now, an important (if obvious) point is that cash balances are so high, and interest rates so low, because global central banks are making sure we have plenty of cash. Too much cash chasing too few investment opportunities causes rates to be low.

Walmart and Minimum Wage Increases

It has been a few weeks now, but when Walmart in February announced it was going to increase the minimum wages it plans to pay its employees (preceded by Starbucks, Aetna, and the Gap and followed by TJX and Target), I received a number of queries about what the hike was going to do to inflation. Is this the beginning of the much-feared “cost-push inflation”?

The answer is no. Wages, as I have said many times, follow inflation rather than lead it. Think about it: wouldn’t it be really weird for companies to raise wages and then raise prices, to the extent that they have control – at least with respect to timing – over both? No, whatever price increase is going to be caused by the increase in the wages Walmart expects to pay is already in the price. Walmart is not surprised by their own move to raise wages. Nor is anyone surprised by the general increase in the minimum wage, which happened in 2009.

So, while I continue to believe that inflation is rising, and will continue to rise…I don’t believe that the increase in prices is going to be any faster due to these wage increases. It does, however, increase my confidence that inflation is rising, since obviously these retailers are confident enough in the pricing environment to be able to increase wages (which are sticky – it is harder to lower them than to raise them).

Winter is Coming … But Not Here, Not Yet

January 12, 2015 5 comments

We began 2014 with the perspective that the economy was limping along, barely surviving. A recession looked possible simply because the expansion was long in the tooth, but there weren’t any signs of it yet. Equity markets were priced for robust growth, which was clearly not likely to happen, but commodities and fixed-income markets were priced for disaster which was also not likely to happen. The investing risks were clearly tilted against stocks and bonds, given starting valuations, but although the economic landscape appeared weak it was not horrible.

Beginning 2015, the economic news is much better – at least, domestically. Unemployment is back to near levels associated with mid-cycle expansions, although there are still far too many people not in the workforce and a still-disturbing number of people who say they “want a job now” and would take one if offered (see chart, source Bloomberg).

wannajob

More encouraging still, commercial bank credit growth is back to near 8% y/y, which is consistent with the booms of the past 30 years (see chart, source FRB). And this number excludes peer-to-peer lending and other sorts of credit growth that occur outside of the commercial bank framework, which is likely additive on a multi-year time frame.

cbc

The dollar is up and commodities are down, both of which are good for the US economy generally although bad for some groups of course (notably the oil patch). But the US is a net consumer of commodities, so commodity bear markets are good for US growth.

Outside of the US, though, things are looking decidedly worse. Although European core inflation recently surprised on the high side, it is still only at 0.8% and with GrExit a real possibility it is very hard to get bullish economically on the continent. China’s growth is softening. Emerging markets are not behaving well, especially the dollarized economies.

This recent development of the US as an island of relative tranquility in a sea of disquiet is interesting to me. Why are interest rates in the US so low, given that our economy is growing? 30-year interest rates at 2.5% and 10-year rates at 1.90%, with core inflation at 1.7% (and median inflation, as I like to point out because it isn’t influenced by outliers, at 2.3%) seems dissonant as the economy grows at 2.5%-3% and inflation in the US seems reasonably floored in the long run at 1.5%-2.0% as long as the Fed is credible.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but I think the causes are new. Over the last five years, nominal interest rates were lower than they ought otherwise have been because the Fed was buying trillions of Treasuries and squeezing investors who needed to own fixed income. But the Fed is no longer buying and the Treasury is still issuing them. So I believe the causes of low interest rates now are different than the causes were over the last half-decade. Specifically, the causes of low interest rates in the last five years were sluggish global growth and extensive central bank QE; the causes currently are flight-to-quality related.

It seems weird to talk about a “flight to quality” in US bonds without stocks also plunging. But we have an analog for this period. Here is where I depart totally into intuition, which is in this case driven by experience. This period of interest rates declining while growth rises, as the economy continues a rebound after a long recession, with commodities declining and stocks rising, feels to me like late 1997. It feels like “Asian Contagion.”

Back in 1997, there was a lot of concern about how the Asian financial crisis would spill into US markets. Rates dropped (100bps in the 10y between July 1, 1997 and January 12, 1998), commodities dropped (the index now known as the Bloomberg Commodity Index fell 25% between October 1997 and June 1998), the S&P rallied (+23% from November 1997-April 1998), and GDP growth printed 5.2%, 3.1%, 4.0%, and 3.9% from 1997Q3 to 1998Q3. Meanwhile, Asian markets and economies were all but collapsing.

There was much fear at the time about the impact that the Asian Contagion would have on the US, but this country never caught a cold partly because (a) interest rates were depressed by the flight-to-quality and (b) declining commodities, especially energy, are bullish for US growth overall. We did not, of course, escape unscathed – later in 1998, a certain large hedge fund (which was small compared to some hedge funds today) threatened to cause large losses at some money center banks, and the Fed stepped in to save the day. That was a painful period in the equity market, but the effect from the Asian crisis was indirect rather than direct.

The parallels aren’t perfect; for one thing, bond yields are much lower and equity multiples much higher than their equivalents of the time, and commodities had already fallen very far before the recent slide. I would be reluctant to expect another hundred basis point rally in bonds and another large rally in stocks from these levels, although 1997-1999 saw these things. But history doesn’t repeat – it rhymes. I seem to hear this rhyme today.

Why does it matter? I think it matters because if I am right it means we are witnessing the end of long-term crisis-related markets, but they are masked by the arrival of short-term crisis-related markets. This means the unwind that we would have expected from the Fed’s ending of the purchase program – a slow return to normalcy – might instead end up looking like the unwind that we can get from short-term flight-to-quality crisis flows, which can be much more rapid. Again, this is all speculation and intuition, and I present no proof that I am right. I am merely proposing this speculation for my readers’ consumption and consideration.

Ugly CPI

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or (if you’re already following me on Twitter or seeing this elsewhere) subscribe to direct email of my free articles here.

  • Complete shocker of a CPI figure. Core at +0.01%, barely needed any rounding to get to 0.0. Y/y falls to 1.73%. Awful.
  • Zero chance the Fed does anything today, anyway. The doves just need to point to one number and they win.
  • Stocks ought to LOVE this.
  • Core services dropped to 2.5% y/y from 2.6% and core goods to -0.4% from -0.3%.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/bev. That’s all. 14.9% of basket. Everything else decelerating.
  • I just don’t see, anecdotally, a sudden change in the pricing dynamics in the economy. That’s why this is shocking to me.
  • Primary rents to 3.18% from 3.28%. Owners’ Equiv to 2.68% from 2.72%. Both in contravention of every indicator of market tightness.
  • Apparel goes to 0.0% from +0.3% y/y. That’s where you can see a dollar effect, since apparel is mostly manufactured outside US.
  • Airline fares -2.7% versus -0.2% y/y last month and +4.7% three months ago. It’s only 0.74% of the basket but big moves like that add up.
  • Medical care: 2.09% versus 2.61% y/y. Now THAT is where the surprise comes in. Plunge in ‘hospital and related services.’ to 3.8% vs 5.5%.
  • …we (and everyone else!) expect medical care to bounce back from the sequester-inspired break last year. I still think it will.
  • core inflation ex-housing at 0.91% y/y, lowest since August 2004. Yes, one decade.
  • core inflation ex-housing is now closer to deflation than during the deflation scare. In late 2010 it got to 1.08% y/y.
  • Needless to say our inflation-angst indicator remains at really really low levels.
  • Interestingly, the proportion of CPI subindices w y/y changes more than 2 std dev >0 (measuring broad deflation risk) still high at 38%.
  • To sum up. Awful CPI nbr. Housing dip is temporary & will continue to keep core from declining much. Suspect a lot of this is one-off.
  • …but I thought the same thing last month.
  • Neil Diamond said some days are diamonds, some days are stones. If you run an inflation-focused investment mgr, this is a stone day.
  • Interestingly, Median CPI was unchanged at 2.2% this month. I’d thought it fell too much last month so this makes sense.

I am still breathing heavily after this truly shocking number. This sort of inflation figure, outside of a crisis or post-crisis recovery, is essentially unprecedented. Lower prints happened once in 2010, once in 2008, three times in 2003, and once in 1999. But otherwise, basically not since the 1960s.

The really amazing figure is the core-ex-Housing number of 0.91% y/y. A chart of that (source: Enduring Investments) is below.

corexshelter

There are interesting similarities between the current situation and late 2003, which is the last time that ex-housing inflation flirted with deflation. Between late 2000 and June 2003, money velocity fell 11%, in concert with generally weakening money growth. Velocity fell primarily because of a sharp decline in interest rates from 6% on the 5y note to around 2.25%. The circumstances are similar now: 5y interest rates declined from around 5% to 0.5% from 2006 through mid-2013, accompanied by a 24% decline in money velocity. And voilá, we have weakness in core inflation ex-housing.

The important differences now, though, are twofold. The first is that the absolute levels of money velocity, and of interest rates, are much lower and very unlikely to fall much further – indeed, money velocity is lower than it “should” be for this level of interest rates. And the second is that there is an enormous supply of inert reserves in the system which will be difficult to remove once inflation begins to rise again. The Fed began to increase interest rates in 2004, which helped increase money velocity (and hence, inflation) while it also caused M2 growth to decline to below 4% y/y. Core inflation rose to 3%, but the Fed was basically in control. Today, however, the Fed has no direct control over the money supply because any reserves they remove will be drawn from the “excess” reserves held by banks. This will make it difficult to increase overnight rates except by fiat (and increasing them by setting a floor rate will merely cause money velocity to rise while having no effect on the money supply). So the ‘potential inflation energy’ is much higher than it was in 2003. As an aside, in 2004 I was quite vocal in my opinions that inflation was not about to run away on the upside, which is another key difference!

If you are a tactical inflation trader, today’s CPI figure should make you despise inflation-linked bonds for a few weeks. But they have already taken quite a drubbing this month, with 10-year breakevens falling from 2.27% to 2.08% as I type. It’s okay to watch them fall, tactically, especially if nominal bonds generally rally. But strategically, not much has changed about the inflationary backdrop. I don’t expect airline fares to continue to drop. I don’t expect Medical Care inflation, which has a strong upward bias due to base effects, to plunge further but to return to the 3%-4% range over the next 6-12 months. And Housing inflation slowed slightly this month but remains on course to continue to rise. So, if you are considering your inflation allocations, this is a good time to increase them while markets are dismissive of any possibility of higher prices.

Without a doubt, today’s number – especially following another weak CPI print last month – is a head-scratcher. But there aren’t a lot of downside inflation risks at the moment. Our forecast had been for core (or median) inflation to reach 2.6%-3.0% in 2014. I would say that core CPI isn’t going to get to that level this year with 4 prints left, and even median CPI (which is a better measure right now of the central tendency of inflation, thanks to the aforementioned base effects in medical care, and remained at 2.2% this month) is going to have a harder time reaching that target. I’d lower and narrow the target range for 2014 median inflation to 2.5%-2.8% based on today’s data.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

July 15, 2014 1 comment

So, the Fed’s tightening is almost done.

Chairman Yellen informed Congress that a “high degree” of easing is needed given the slack in the labor market. This is in keeping with the Fed’s ongoing thematic presentation of “tapering is not tightening,” but of course tapering is indeed tightening. Call it “easing less” if you like, but going from “providing lots of liquidity” to “providing less liquidity” to “providing no added liquidity” is tightening.

I would argue that providing no added liquidity – which is where the Fed is headed, with the taper due to be completed in the autumn – is neutral policy, not an easy policy. But the Fed, like many observers, confuses the level of interest rates with the degree of accommodation. That is confusing a price (the interest rate) with a flow, but it seems not to bother them very much. (I explain the distinction, which is crucial to monetary policymaking, in this article.)

Now, whatever the Chairman thinks she’s saying, what she means is that the Fed isn’t going to be raising interest rates soon. This is partly because the main tool they had been planning to use, the reverse repo facility, isn’t as simple a solution as they believed at first. This isn’t terribly surprising; as I (and others) have been pointing out in presentations and articles for a while it isn’t trivially easy to drain $2 trillion in reverse repo transactions, even if you can do $2 billion with ease. The pattern is familiar, and should be mildly discomfiting:

  • At first, the Fed thought to unwind the massive purchases of Treasuries by simply selling them. The original argument was that the Fed pushed rates lower by buying Treasuries, but selling them wouldn’t raise interest rates. This sort of perpetual motion machine never made much sense, and at some point it became clear that if the Treasury started to unwind the SOMA portfolio securities and rates rose, it would likely not be sufficient to drain all of the excess reserves, since the average selling price would most likely be lower than the average purchase price.
  • The Fed then thought to just let the securities in the SOMA roll off. Then someone noticed that because of the TWIST program, the Fed doesn’t own many short-dated Treasuries, so that letting QE gradually drain itself would take more than a decade.
  • No problem; we’ll just conduct massive reverse repo operations to drain a couple trillion dollars from the system. The link above shows that the Fed’s newly discovered skepticism on that matter; the website Sober Look recently had a good article on the topic as well.

None of this is surprising to people who actually have market experience; unfortunately, over the last decade or so the level of actual market expertise at the Federal Reserve has dropped significantly so they are re-discovering these things the hard way. Now, the focus is on interest on excess reserves (IOER) as the main tool for raising rates eventually.

All of this confusion is one reason that the Fed will move only slowly to ‘normalize’ interest rates. They’re simply not sure how they’ll do it. The problem with IOER is that we have no idea how sensitive the level of reserves it to the amount of interest paid on reserves…since we have never done this before. But to the Fed, that’s no problem because they don’t seem to care about reserves – they only care about the level of interest rates, which at the end of the day don’t matter nearly as much as the growth rate of the money supply.

And so US and UK money supply growth rates are both in the 6-7% range, and interestingly median inflation in the US recently accelerated to 2.3% while core inflation in the UK surprised everyone today by rising to 1.9% (as of April). Commercial bank credit growth in the US over the last 13 weeks has risen at a 10.4% pace, the highest rate since early 2008 (see chart, source Federal Reserve).

quarterlycorpcred

Slowing QE has not, evidently, slowed money supply growth, and this is one reason the Fed insists that tapering is not tightening. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Fed is right, but that they are wrong twice: first, tapering is tightening. Second, changing the pace of addition to reserves does not matter for growth in the money supply (and, hence, inflation) when there are enormous piles of inert reserves already. Picture a huge urn filled with coffee. The spigot at the bottom controls the pace at which coffee leaves the urn, and adding more coffee to the top of the urn has essentially no effect.

So money supply growth, and corporate loan growth, is currently not under control of the Fed in any way. Interest rates are under their control, but interest rates don’t cause changes in the money supply but rather the other way around. Here is another analogy: a robust harvest of corn pushes corn prices lower, but if the government officially sets the price of corn very low it does not cause a robust harvest of corn. This is exactly what the Fed is trying to do if they attempt to control the money supply by changing interest rates.

It actually is worse than this. Raising interest rates will tend to increase money velocity, a relationship which has held very well for the last two decades. I have written about this quite a bit in the past (see for one example this article from last September), but I – like many monetary economists – have often struggled with the fact that there was a regime shift in the early 1990s which messes up the beauty of this fit (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

regimeshift

We have recently resolved much of this problem in our own modeling. The following chart uses three (unstated here, but included in our quarterly inflation outlook to clients) inputs to model M2 velocity, and the regime shift is largely absent. Suffice to say that with a model that makes sense and fits a much wider range of history, we are even more confident now that any Fed move to hike interest rates, rather than to drain reserves, would be a mistake.

velo3inputs

The bottom line is that it is good news that Yellen is not planning to hike interest rates soon. It is bad news that she is not planning to drain reserves any time soon. But the Fed is perilously close to making its big policy error of this cycle. Stay tuned.

Plight of the Fed Model

A very common refrain among stock market bulls these days – and an objection some made to my remarks yesterday that markets are still not making sense – is that the low level of interest rates warrants a high multiple, since future earnings are being discounted at a lower interest rate.

My usual response, and the response from far more educated people than me, like Cliff Asness who published “Fight the Fed Model” back in 2003, is that low interest rates explain high multiples, but they do not justify high multiples. High multiples have always historically been followed – whether explained by low interest rates or not – by poor returns, so it does no good to say “multiples are high because rates are low.” Either way, when multiples are high you are supposed to disinvest.

But I thought it would also be useful, for people who are not as familiar with the argument and only familiar with the sound bite, to see the actual data behind the proposition. So, below, I have a chart of year-end Shiller P/E ratios, since 1900, plotted against year-end 10-year nominal interest rates.

nomvsshiller

Note that it is generally true that lower nominal interest rates are associated with higher multiples, although it is far more clear that higher nominal interest rates are associated with lower multiples, whether we are talking about the long tail to the right (obviously from the early 1980s) or the smaller tail in the middle that dates from around 1920 (when 5% was thought to be a pretty high interest rate). But, either way, the current multiples represent high valuations whether you compare them to high-rate periods or low-rate periods. The exception is clearly from the late 1990s, when the long downtrend in interest rates helped spark a bubble, and incidentally spurred the first widespread discussion/excuse of the so-called “Fed model.” If you take out that bubble, and you take out the 1980s high-rates tail, then there is left just a cloud of points although there does seem to be some mild slope to it from lower-right to upper-left.

But in short, the data is hardly crystal clear in suggesting that low interest rates can explain these multiples, never mind justify them.

More interesting is what you get if you compare P/E ratios to real rates. Because equities are real assets, you should technically use a real discount rate. Since real economic growth in earnings should be reflected in higher real interest rates generally, only the incremental real growth in earnings should be discounted into higher values today. This eliminates, in other words, some of the ‘money illusion’ aspect of the behavior of equity multiples.

I haven’t seen a chart like this before, probably because the history of real interest rates in the U.S. only dates to 1997. However, using a model developed by Enduring Investments (and used as part of one of our investment strategies), we can translate those historical nominal rates into the real rates we would have expected to see, and that allows us to produce this chart of year-end Shiller P/E ratios, since 1900, plotted against year-end 10-year real interest rates – using Enduring’s model until 1997, and actual 10-year real interest rates thereafter.

realvsshiller

I find this picture much more interesting, because there seems to be almost no directionality to it at all. The ‘tail’ at upper right comes from the late 1990s, when again we had the equity bubble but we also had real rates that were higher than at equilibrium since the Treasury’s TIPS program was still new and TIPS were very cheap. But other than that tail, there is simply no trend. The r-squared is 0.02 and the slope of the regression line is not statistically different from zero.

And, in that context, we can again see more clearly that the current point is simply at the high end of the cloud of historical points. The low level of real interest rates – actually quite a bit higher than they were last year – is of no help whatsoever.

None of that should be particularly surprising, except for the buy-and-hope crowd. But I thought it constructive to show the charts for your amusement and/or edification.

Worried About Not Being Worried

June 2, 2014 4 comments

I am beginning to worry about my own complacency. As a person who has been a participant in the fixed-income markets for a long time, I have become quite naturally a very cautious investor. Such caution is a quintessentially fixed-income mindset (although you might not guess that from the way bond people behaved in the run-up to the global financial crisis) – as a bond investor, you are essentially in the position of someone who is short options: taking in small amounts on a regular basis, with an occasional large loss when the credit defaults. A bond investor can greatly improve his performance in the long run relative to an index by merely avoiding the blow-ups. Miss the Enron moment, and you pick up a lot of relative performance. (The same is true of equities, but there is much more upside to being an optimist. The stock market selects for optimists, the bond market for pessimists.)

This is a lesson that many high-yield investors today, chasing near-term carry, seem to have forgotten. But my purpose here isn’t to bash those involved in the global reach for yield. I am merely pointing out that this is how I tend to think. I am always looking for the next disaster that hangs a portfolio with a big negative number. As Prince Humperdinck said in The Princess Bride, “I always think everything could be a trap – which is why I’m still alive.”

And I am starting to worry about my own complacency. I don’t get the feeling that we’re gearing up for Round 2 of the global financial crisis. Something bad, perhaps, but not catastrophic.

To be sure, there are a large number of potential pitfalls facing investors today, and I think market volatilities underestimate their probabilities substantially. We are facing an inflection in policy from the ECB this week, with analysts expecting a substantial additional easing action (and it is overdue, with money growth in Europe down to a feeble 1.9% y/y, near the worst levels of the post-crisis period – see chart, source Bloomberg). Absent a major change in policy, liquidity on the continent is going to become increasingly dear with possible ramifications for the real economy as well as the asset economy.

EUM2

The Federal Reserve is facing a more-serious policy inflection point, with no agreement amongst FOMC members (as far as I can tell) about how to transition from the end of QE to the eventual tightening. I’ve pointed out before – while many Fed officials were whistling Dixie about how easy it would be to reverse policy – that there is no proven method for raising interest rates with the vast quantity of excess reserves sitting inert on bank balance sheets. Moreover, raising interest rates isn’t the key…restraining money growth is. The key point for markets is simply that there is no plan in place that removes these reserves, which means that interest rates are not likely to respond to Fed desires to see them rise. And, if the Fed uses a brute-force method of raising the interest paid on excess reserves, then rates may rise but we don’t know what will happen to the relative quantities of required and excess reserves (and it is the level of required reserves that actually matter for inflation). It is a thorny problem, and one which the markets aren’t giving enough credit regarding the difficulty thereof.

Valuation levels are high across the board (with the exception of commodity indices). They’re doubly high in stocks, with high multiples on earnings that are themselves high with respect to revenues. And yes, this concerns me. I expect more volatility ahead, and perhaps serious volatility. But the fact that I am just saying “perhaps,” when all of my experience and models say “there is no escape without some bad stuff happening,” means that I am being infected – relative to my usual caution – by the general complacency.

In other words, I am worried that I am not worried enough.

The interesting thing is that equity bulls said during the entire march higher that “it doesn’t matter what the fundamentals are, the Fed is pushing the market higher and spreads tighter.” I still don’t believe that was an inevitable outcome to the Fed’s QE, but the fact is that people believed it and they were correct: that was enough to keep the market going higher. I can’t be comfortable going along with the crowd in that circumstance, but in retrospect it would have been better to abandon the models, throw caution to the wind, and ride along with the fun. And perhaps this regret is one reason for my developing complacency.

But that way lies madness, since the problem is not the ride but the getting out when the ride is over. The Fed is no longer providing QE (or, in any event, QE will shortly end altogether). So what’s the excuse now? It seems to me that everyone is still riding on the fun train, and just watching carefully to see if anyone jumps off. I think the market rally is on very tenuous footing, because if faith in the market’s liquidity goes away, the value anchor is very far from these levels. Yet, part of me is skeptical that a market which hasn’t corrected in more than two years can actually return to those value anchors. I should know better, because the bond-market mindset reminds me that market gains are generally linear while market losses are discontinuous, sloppy, and non-linear. Especially, I ought to be thinking, when market liquidity is so poor thanks to the government’s assault on market makers over the last few years.

I keep wondering if there is one more pulse higher in stocks coming, one more decline in commodities before they begin to catch up with money growth and inflation, one more rally in bonds before they begin to discount a higher inflation path. And this is very possible, because while I worry about my own developing complacency most investors are not concerned about their own.

Complacency or no, insurance is cheap. The low current level of implied volatilities in almost every asset class makes portfolio protection worthwhile, even if it costs a bit of performance to acquire that protection.

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