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Summary (and Extension!) of My Post-CPI Tweets

January 16, 2015 5 comments

Below is a summary and extension of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy:

  • Core CPI unchanged – which is amazing. I can’t wait to see the breakdown on this one.
  • Core 0.003%, taken out one more decimal. I thought y/y had a chance of rising to 1.8%; instead it fell to 1.61%.
  • Last Dec, core was 0.10%, so part of this may be faulty seasonal adjustment. It is December, after all.
  • Core services +2.4%, down from 2.5%. Core goods down to -0.8%, worst since mid-2007.
  • Medical Care Commodities +4.8%! Biggest increase since 1993. Oh ACA, we hardly knew ye.
  • Housing weakened, which isn’t insignificant. Primary rents 3.38% from 3.48%; OER 2.61% from 2.71%.
  • We still think housing is headed higher but that was part of the surprise. Apparel too, -2.0% y/y from -0.3% previous.
  • The apparel move is likely related to dollar strength. Most apparel isn’t made here.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/Bev, Med Care, Rec (28.2%). Decel: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Educ/Comm, Other (71.8%)
  • Decline in apparel prices may be a story. In recent yrs Apparel had been rising after many years of dis/deflation. Weakness in Asia…
  • Apparel y/y decline was largest since 2003.
  • Core ex-housing down to 0.69%. Much lower than crisis lows. That’s where to look if you’re worried about deflation, not the headline.
  • Very interesting core goods. Our three-item proxy is Apparel (-2%), New cars (-0.1%), and Medical Care commodities (+4.8%). Figure THAT out.
  • This CPI is hard to dismiss. Hsng dip is most concerning (think it’s temporary tho), but broadening of decel categories worrisome.
  • Core ex-housing looking really soft. Now, some of that is probably energy sneaking thru…not a prob normally but for BIG moves – maybe.
  • That being said, market is pricing in 1% core for next yr, 1.25% for 2 years, 1.37% for 3 years…so infl market has overshot. A lot.
  • number of categories at least 1 std dev above deflation went from 43% to 20% in one month.
  • Now here’s something to not be worried about yet: our “relative inflation angst” index reached its highest level since 2011. Still low.

This was a wild report, full of interesting items. Let’s start with Apparel. In recent years, I have watched Apparel closely because one of my theses was that the domestic benefit from exporting production to cheap-labor countries was ending. Apparel is a nice clean category that went from normal inflation dynamics when most apparel was produced domestically (prior to 1993), to disinflation/deflation over the years where virtually all production was moved offshore, to normal inflation again once the cost savings on labor had been fully realized and so no longer a source of disinflation (at which time, costs ought to begin to track wage inflation in the exporting country, adjusted for currency moves).

apparel

While it seems that the recent decline should challenge that thesis (and that was my knee-jerk reaction), I think that perhaps it isn’t quite as clear-cut as I thought. In the past I had ignored the effect of foreign exchange movements, since (a) it didn’t matter when we were mostly domestic production and (b) over the last few years currencies have been broadly stable. I think the latest decline in apparel is almost surely related to the dollar’s strength, which unfortunately means that it isn’t as pure a test of my thesis as I had hoped. In any event, apparel is one place (one of few, in the US) where dollar strength manifests clearly in core goods prices, so this is a dollar effect.

The next chart is the chart of Medical Care Commodities (mainly pharmaceuticals). Remember when we had that quaint notion that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was going to permanently reduce inflation in medical care? (Actually, we didn’t all have that quaint notion – in particular, I did not – but it was certainly a view pushed very hard by the Administration). It turns out that the decline in medical care inflation was mostly due to the effects of the sequester on Medicare payments, and now prices seem to be catching up. This is an ugly chart.

medcarecomm

Ex-medical care commodities, however, it doesn’t appear that disinflation in core commodities will be in for much of a respite unless the dollar rally is arrested.

dollarvscorecommod

And now for one of the scariest charts: core inflation ex-shelter is as low as it has been since the early 2000s, when the uptick in housing costs (like now) hid a close scrape with deflation. I think the causes of that deflationary scrape were similar to those of today, if in fact we are going to head that way: too much private debt. Although the higher level of public debt makes the answer more indeterminate, high private debt imparts a disinflationary tendency. The “deleveraging” was supposed to get rid of the disinflationary tendency by moving private debt onto the public balance sheet. It really didn’t happen, except for auto companies and some large financial institutions like Fannie Mae.

corex

The important difference between now and then is that in the early 2000s we had higher rates, higher velocity (which is correlated to rates) and no excess reserves. Today, all the Fed would need to do to arrest this tendency would be to lower the interest on excess reserves to a significant penalty rate and those excess reserves would quickly enter the money supply. Interestingly, a movement the other way – to raise interest rates – will likely also cause inflation to rise as it will raise money velocity. So I am not particularly concerned we will get into deflation even ex-housing. There are lots of ways out of that pickle. I am much more worried about overreaction. Once again, the Fed might have stumbled into the right policy: doing nothing. If you can’t be good…be lucky.

One final remark on our “inflation angst” index (not shown here): the rise in the index, which manifests itself in a perception that inflation is actually higher than reported, is driven by the increasing volatility of index components (such as airfares, gasoline, and apparel) and the increased dispersion of index components (such as apparel and medical care commodities). These both have the impact of making inflation feel higher than it actually is. It is nothing to worry about at these levels of inflation, because “higher than it actually is” still feels low. But if inflation volatility continues to pick up as the level picks up (as it eventually will), then it will feel much worse for consumers than it actually is. That’s not a 2015 story, however.

Keep in mind that the market has already discounted really bad core inflation for a long time. We are very unlikely to get such a bad outcome, unless housing collapses – which it might, since prices are getting back into bubble territory, but I don’t think it’s very likely. As a consequence, even such a bearish inflation report as this one has been followed by a rally in inflation swaps and breakevens. I think this is a wonderful time to be buying inflation. It’s hard to do in the retail market, although the Proshares UINF ETF is a reasonably clean way to be long 10-year breakevens. It is $28.80, and I expect it to be at $36 within 6-9 months. [Disclosure: Neither I nor any entity or fund owned or controlled by me owns this ETF or has any current plans to buy or sell it.] [Additional Disclosure: That would be difficult it seems. While Bloomberg says it has NAV it also seems to have been liquidated. Pity if true. But RINF, a 30-year breakeven, still exists. From $30.57, I would expect $37 over a similar period.]

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

December 17, 2014 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy :

  • 1y inflation swaps and gasoline futures imply a 1-year core inflation rate of 0.83%. Wonder how much of that we will get today.
  • Very weak CPI on first blush: headline -0.3%, near expectations, but core 0.07%, pushing y/y core down to 1.71% from 1.81%.
  • Ignore the “BIGGEST DROP SINCE DECEMBER 2008” headlines. That’s only headline CPI, which doesn’t matter. Core still +1.7% and median ~2.3%
  • Amazing how core simply refuses to converge with median. Whopping fall in used cars and trucks and apparel – which is dollar related.
  • Core services +2.5%, unch; core goods -0.5%, lowest since 2008. But this time, we’re in a recovery.
  • Medical Care Commodities, which had been what was dragging down core, back up to 3.1% y/y. So we’re taking turns keeping core below median.
  • Core ex-housing declines to +0.800%, a new low.
  • That’s a new post-2004 low on core ex-shelter.
  • Accel major groups: Food, Med Care (22.5%) Decel: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Recreation, Educ/Comm, Other (77.5%). BUT…
  • But in housing, Primary Rents 3.482% from 3.343%, big jump. Owners’ Equiv to 2.707% from 2.723%, but will follow primaries.
  • Less-persistent stuff in housing responsible for decline: Lodging away from home, Household insurance, household energy, furnishings.
  • Real story today is probably Apparel, which is clearly a dollar story. Y/y goes to -0.4% from +0.6%. Small weight, but outlier.
  • Similarly used cars and trucks, -3.1% from -1.7% y/y (new vehicles was unch at 0.6% y/y).
  • On the other hand, every part of Medical Care increased. That drag on core is over.
  • Curious is that airfares dropped: -3.9% from -2.8%. SHOULD happen due to energy price declines, but in my own shopping I haven’t seen it.
  • I don’t see persistence in the drags on core CPI. There’s a rotation in tail-event drags, which is why median is still well above 2%.
  • We continue to focus on median as a better and more stable measure of inflation.
  • Back of the envelope calc for median CPI is +0.23% m/m, increasing y/y to 2.34%. Let’s see how close I get. Number around noon. [Ed. note: figure actually came in around 0.15%, 2.25% y/y. Not sure where I am going wrong methodologically but the general point remains: Median continues to run hotter than core, and around 2.3%.]

Quite a few tweets this morning! The number was clearly roughly in-line on a headline basis: gasoline prices have dropped sharply, in line with crude oil prices. How much? Motor Fuel dropped from -5.0% y/y to -10.5% y/y. The monthly decline was over 6%, and so a decline in headline inflation on a month/month basis was all but certain. Had core inflation been as low now as it was in 2010, we would have seen a year-on-year headline price decline (as it is, headline CPI is +1.3% y/y).

However, core inflation is not as low as it was in 2010. It continues to surprise us by failing to converge upwards to median CPI. Last year, the reason core CPI was inordinately low compared to the better measure of central tendency (median) was that Medical Care inflation was weak thanks to the effects of the sequester. But that effect is now gone. Medical Care inflation is back to 2.5% on a year-on-year basis; this month’s print was the highest in over a year. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the y/y change in Medical Care Commodities (e.g. pharmaceuticals) – back to normal.

medcarecommod

The 2013 dip is very clear there, and the return to form is what we expected, and the reason we expected core inflation to return to median CPI. But it hasn’t yet; indeed, core is below median by around 0.6%, the biggest spread since 2009. Now, it may be that core is simply going to stay below median for an extended period of time as one category after another takes turns dragging core lower. From 1994-2009, core was almost always lower than median. That was a period of disinflationary tendencies, and the fact that different categories kept trading off to drag core CPI lower was one sign of these tendencies.

I do not think we are in the same circumstances today. Although private debt levels remain very high (weren’t we supposed to have had deleveraging over the past six years? Hasn’t happened!), public debt levels have risen dramatically and the latter tends to be associated with inflation, not deflation. Money supply, especially here in the US, has also been growing at a pace that is unsustainable in the long run and it seems unlikely that the Fed can really restrain it until they drain all of the excess reserves from the system. These are inflationary tendencies. The risk, though, is that the feeble money growth in Europe could suck much of this liquidity away and move global inflation lower. This is an especially acute risk if Japan’s monetary authorities lose their nerve or if other central banks rein in money growth. In such a case, global inflation would decline so that, while US inflation rises relatively, it falls absolutely. I don’t consider this a major risk, but it is a risk which is growing in significance.

Of course, all of that and more is priced into inflation-linked bond and derivative markets, as well as in commodities. Only a massive and inexplicable plunge in core inflation could render the market-based forecasts correct – and there is no sign of that. Housing inflation continues to rise, and the soonest we can see that peaking is late next year. Getting core inflation to decline appreciably while housing inflation is 2.6% and rising is very unlikely! Accordingly, we see inflation-linked assets as extremely cheap currently.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The following is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy (or follow the tweets on the main page at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com)

  • Core CPI +0.14%, close to rounding to +0.2%. An 0.2% would have caused a panic in TIPS, where there have been far more sellers recently.
  • y/y core to 1.73%, again almost rounding to 1.8% versus 1.7% expected. This just barely qualifies as being “as expected”, in other words.
  • Core services fell to 2.4%, but core goods rose to -0.3% y/y.
  • OER re-accelerated to 2.71% from 2.68% y/y. It will go higher.
  • really interesting that core goods did not weaken MORE given dollar strength. $ strength is overplayed by inflation bears.
  • Apparel went to 0.5% y/y from 0.0%. That’s the category probably most sensitive directly to dollar movements b/c apparel is all overseas.
  • Accel major groups: Food/Bev, Apparel, Recreation (24.1% of basket). Decel: Housing, Transp, Med Care, Educ/Comm (72.5%).
  • Though note that in housing, Primary rents rose from 3.18% to 3.29%, and OER from 2.68% to 2.71%, so weakness is mostly household energy.
  • That’s a new high for primary rental inflation. Lodging away from home also went to new high, 5.04% y/y. But it’s choppier.
  • Airfares continued to decelerate, -3.01% from -2.71%. Ebola scares can’t have helped that category, which most expected to rebound.
  • But these days, airfares are very highly correlated to fuel prices (wasn’t always the case). [ed note: see chart below]
  • In Medical Care, pharmaceuticals rose to 3.08% from 2.72%. But the medical services pieces decelerated.
  • Decel in med services is the surprise these days as the passage of the sequester cause positive base effects.
  • The weakness in med services holds down core PCE, too. Median CPI continues to be a better measure as a result.
  • College tuition and fees 3.36% from 3.32%. Still low compared to where it’s been. Strong markets help colleges hold down tuitions.
  • Core CPI ex-housing partly as a result of continued medical care weakness is down to a new low 0.877% from 0.911%.
  • That continues to be the horse race: housing versus a wide variety of other things not inflating. Yet.

We may hear about how this CPI report shows that there is “still no inflation,” but the simple fact is that the report was a little stronger-than-expected, that shelter inflation continues to accelerate with no end in sight, and that there was no large effect seen in core inflation from the strength of the dollar. The dollar has an evident effect on energy commodities, and a lesser effect on other commodities, but once you get to finished goods it takes a larger FX move or one longer in duration than the modest dollar rally we have had so far to cause meaningful movements in inflation.

The dollar’s strength, reflecting in energy weakness, also shows up in some categories where we don’t fully appreciate the link to energy. The airfares connection is always one of my favorites to show. Prior to 2004, there was basically no correlation between airfares and jet fuel prices (vertical part of the chart below). After 2004, the correlation went to basically 1.0 (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

jetfuel

The real conundrum in the CPI right now is the medical care piece. We always knew there would be difficulties in extracting what is really going on in medical care once Obamacare kicked in, because many of the costs of that program don’t show up immediately as consumer costs. But the main effect in the data all last year was the effect of the sequester on Medicare payments, which pushed down Medical Care inflation from over 4% in mid-2012 to 2% in 2013. But as the sequester passed out of the data, Medical Care CPI rose to nearly 3% earlier this year…and then slipped, abruptly, back to the lows (see chart, source Bloomberg).

medcareyoy

Is it possible that Obamacare is really restraining consumer inflation for medical care? Sure, it is possible. But there is far too much noise at this point to know what is happening in that component. And it really matters, because the overweighting of medical care and underweighting of housing in core PCE is the main reason that the Fed-favored price index shows 1.5% while median CPI is at 2.2%, within a snick of the highs since the crisis (see chart, source Bloomberg – note median CPI isn’t out yet for September).

pcemedian

From a markets perspective, the TIPS market (and the commodities market, for that matter) have been pricing in a pernicious disinflation and/or deflationary pressure. It is simply not there. And so, even with a print that couldn’t reach 0.2% on core, and even heading into a big auction tomorrow, inflation breakevens are rallying nicely, up 3.5-4.5bps across the board. Imagine what they would have done with a print that was a bona fide strong print!

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

The following is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy.

  • Core CPI +0.12%, a bit lower than expected.
  • Core 1.56% y/y
  • Both core services and core goods decelerated, to 2.2% y/y and -0.4% y/y. This is highly surprising and at odds with leading indicators.
  • Accelerating groups: Food/Bev, Housing, Med Care (63.9%). Decel: Apparel, Transp,Recreation, Educ/Comm (32.7%). “Other” unch
  • Primary rents fell to 2.82% y/y from 2.88%, OER 2.51% from 2.52%.
  • Primary rents probably fell mainly because of the rise in gas prices, which implies the non-energy rent portion is lower.
  • …but that obviously won’t persist. It’s significantly a function of the cold winter. Primary rents will be well into the 3s soon.
  • Household energy was 0.7% y/y at this time last year; now it’s 5.5%. Again, that slows the increase in primary rents
  • Medical Care moved higher again, slowly reversing the sequester-induced decline from last yr. Drugs +1.86% y/y from 0.91% last month.
  • Core ex-housing leaked lower again, to only 0.84% y/y. Lowest since 2004. If you want to worry about deflation, go ahead. I don’t.
  • The Enduring Inflation Angst Index rose to -0.51%, highest since Nov 2011 (but still really low).

I must admit to some mild frustration. Our call for higher primary rents and owners’ equivalent rents has finally been shown to be correct, as these two large components of consumption have been heading higher over the last few months (the lag was 3-4 months longer than is typical). But core inflation, despite this, has stubbornly refused to rise, as a smattering of small-but-important categories – largely in the core goods part of CPI – are weighing on the overall number.

It is also almost comically frustrating that some of the drag on core CPI is happening because of the recent rise in Natural Gas prices, which has increased the imputed energy component of primary rents. As a reminder, the BLS takes a survey of actual rents, but since utilities are often included in rental agreements the BLS subtracts out the changing value of that benefit that the renter gets. So, if your rent last December was $1,000, and your utilities were $100, and your rent this month is still $1,000 but utilities are $125, then the BLS recognizes that you are really paying $25 less for rent. Obviously, this only changes where price increases show up – in this example, overall housing inflation would be zero, but the BLS would show an increase in “Household Energy” of 25% and a decline in “Rent of Primary Residence” of 2.78% (which is -$25/$900). But “Household Energy” is a non-core component, while “Rent of Primary Residence” is a core component…suggesting that core inflation declined.

There isn’t much we can do about this. It’s clearly the right way to do the accounting, but because utility costs vary much more than rental costs it induces extra volatility into the rental series. However, eventually what will happen is either (a) household energy prices will decline again, causing primary rents to recover the drag, or (b) landlords will increase rents to capture what they see as a permanent increase in utilities prices. So, in the long run, this doesn’t impact the case for higher rents and OER – but in the short run, it’s frustrating because it’s hard to explain!

Now, core inflation outside of housing is also stagnant, and that’s surprising to me. Apparel prices have flatlined after increasing robustly in 2011 and 2012 and maintaining some momentum into mid-2013. Ditto for new cars. Both of those series I have expected to re-accelerate, and they have not. They, along with medical care commodities, are the biggest chunks of core goods in the CPI, which is why that series continues to droop. However, medical care commodities – which was driven lower in 2013 due to the effect of the sequester on Medicare payments – is starting to return to its prior level as that effect drops out (see chart, source BLS).

medcarecomm

We will see in a few hours what happens to median inflation. My back of the envelope calculation on the median suggests median CPI might actually rise this month in reverse of last month.

A Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

October 30, 2013 3 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy. And, given where all of this seems to be going…you ought to.

  • Core inflation only up 0.122%. But housing continues to accelerate! Apparel -0.5% this month.
  • Core dips slightly to 1.734% from 1.766% y/y. At odds with our forecast, due to the continued weakness in core goods.
  • Still think core ends 2013 over 2%, but depends on core commodities coming up some. Our housing forecast looks good.
  • Primary Rents stays at 3%, OER at 2.2%.
  • Medical Care 2.4% y/y from 2.3%. And that’s with “health insurance” falling to 2.5% from 2.9%. Obviously, that’s all pre-ACA.
  • Accel Major groups: Medical Care (7.2%). Decel: Apparel, Recreation, Educ/COmm (16.3%). Everything else sideways.
  • This really IS mostly about the apparel decline. Bad back-to-school adjustment probably.
  • I think given apparel, what we know will happen in medical care, and the housing stuff…next month may be over 0.3% on core.

This has all the signs of one of those numbers (and we’re seeing a lot of them this month) that should be averaged with next month’s number because of data collection quirks. Actually, we probably ought to average September, October, and November data together to get a “before, during, and after” average around the government shutdown. The apparel decline hit women’s apparel, men’s apparel, and girls’ apparel, but boys’ apparel inflation accelerated. Medical care prices re-accelerated slightly, as I think is destined to happen because the current run-rate is significantly due to the effect of the sequester on Medicare reimbursements, but we can already see that the “insurance” category is going to be accelerating markedly in the next few months because of the large number of cancellations and re-policying that is going on around the implementation of Obamacare. While direct consumer purchase of insurance and/or medical care is just a small part of overall inflation, a big jump will still be felt in the overall data.

The key conundrum continues to be the softness in core goods, but as I’ve argued previously the biggest part of the effect is from the very low readings from medicinal drugs and medical equipment – both of which accelerated this month. If the apparel reading really is a quirk, then core inflation is going to start heading higher with alacrity now. All of the “interesting” parts of it already are.

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