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Posts Tagged ‘money velocity’

Back to School!

September 3, 2014 2 comments

Back to school! It is the beginning of September, post-Labor Day, and students everywhere are back to school.

It is the time of year when investors, too, tend to be schooled – as bond markets tend to strengthen and equity markets to weaken (relative to the overall drift). It doesn’t happen every year, but the tendency in fixed income markets is strong enough that, as a rule, I demand much stronger reasons to sell bonds in September and October than during the rest of the year.

This year, we appear to be in for a special treat. We all get to learn new acronyms, like ISIS, and Americans are learning where Ukraine is on a map of the world. What fun.

Monetary policymakers tend to be resistant to further lessons, since after all they have had so many years of book learning that, darn it, they should know enough by now! And yet – there is so much about economics and monetary policy that we just don’t know; so much that isn’t knowable; and so much that we know with great confidence but just isn’t so.

However, I have been delighted to find that recently, the subject of money velocity has been appearing more frequently in policy circles. To a monetarist, velocity is one of a very small handful of things that matter, and its absence from discussions among the learned has been a terrible sign that monetarism was not merely in retreat, but almost extinct. And yet, the predictions of monetarism have been borne out time and time again (that is, the actual predictions, not the idea that printing money causes economic growth – a prediction that presupposes a high degree of money illusion is at work), while the predictions of Keynesian economists have only worked once the parameters are revised post-hoc to fit the crisis. Increased money supply growth got Japan out of its deflationary spiral – as predicted. None of the Keynesian solutions deployed over the last two decades have worked, but the first attempt at serious money-printing worked. (Although it remains to be seen if the BOJ will keep its pedal to the metal; it certainly hasn’t yet “doubled the money supply” as it had pledged to do).

High money growth – that is, transactional money and not inert reserves – always accompanies high inflation. For a time, money growth may be offset by declining money velocity, but we also know quite a bit about what causes money velocity to move. Last year I cited a rare paper by a central banker (Samuel Reynard at the Swiss National Bank) that really had insight on these almost-forgotten tenets of monetarism. And this year, I am delighted to note that some economists at the St. Louis Fed have published a brief note entitled “What Does Money Velocity Tell Us about Low Inflation in the U.S.?” While the authors, Yi Wen and Maria Arias, mistakenly focus on the velocity of base money, and thus reach an incorrect conclusion that individuals are “hoarding” money (when it in fact is sitting in bank reserves, untouched), it is nevertheless the right topic and the right question, and that’s most of the battle.

I have previously shown the chart of interest rates and money velocity, so let me show it again.

m2andrates

This is important, because it’s the single biggest risk to a significant inflation accident. While the low vacancy rate and the rapid growth in housing prices will continue to push rents higher, bringing median and/or core inflation above 3% by early next year, we can live with 3%. The risk for much worse inflation is all tied to a rebound in monetary velocity. It bears repeating. From 2008 to 2013, money growth was rapid but declining money velocity (tied to interest rate declines, mainly) restrained inflation. If money growth remains at the same level but money velocity merely stabilizes, it is consistent with inflation of 3%-4%. But if money velocity reverses even a part of its post-crisis decline, then inflation could move appreciably higher. Since Q2 of 2008, the velocity of M2 has fallen at a 3.76% annualized rate; were that to reverse, with the same money supply growth, then the 3-4% inflation becomes 6.75%-7.75% inflation, which I think we would all agree is a bad thing.

Now, the unfortunate thing is that models of velocity that incorporate interest rates and certain other factors already indicate that money velocity should be rising. The chart below shows our proprietary model of money velocity; as you can see, since mid-2013 there has been a large and growing gap between what the model implies and where money velocity has actually been recorded. This might well mean that the model is wrong. But we should also take it as indicating the risk of a rise in velocity is real, whether it is a 1% or 2% rise per year, or a 15% snap-back over a shorter period of time.

eimodelvel

As I always admonish, that’s a big picture concern, and not something to trade tomorrow. I would be gradually accumulating positions in inflation swaps, caps, breakevens, and broad commodity indices. There is time before people start to get really concerned. But to my mind, what is interesting is that the central bankers are now at least starting to reconsider velocity.

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Verizon and Velocity

September 12, 2013 10 comments

What is the significance of the fact that Verizon on Wednesday managed to sell $49bln in bonds without any kind of hiccup?

Obviously, it means that the corporate market is doing okay, that investors who are starved for good spreads like the attractive spread the bonds were priced at, and that there is reasonable confidence in the marketplace that Verizon can succeed even as a much more-leveraged company. All are good things.

But here is another thing to think about. My friend Peter Tchir, who writes the excellent T-Report, noted this morning that “Investors weren’t selling other bonds to buy Verizon.” That is, a fair amount of the money may well have been coming out of cash to go into the Verizon bonds.

Why does this matter? Remember that the velocity of money is the inverse of the demand for real cash balances. That is, when everyone is holding cash, the velocity of money is low; when no one wants to hold cash, the velocity of money is high. I have shown the chart below  (source: Enduring Investments)  before and argued that higher interest rates will tend to increase velocity by decreasing the demand for real cash balances. At least, that usually is what happens.

velocity

What would a turn higher in velocity look like? Well, I think it may well look something like this. “I no longer have to reach as much for yield and take all the risk I had to in March to get a 3% yield. So it’s time to invest some of this cash.”

Now, the ultimate flows get a little confusing, because cash is neither created nor destroyed in this transaction. Cash is transferred to Verizon from investors; Verizon then transfers that to Vodafone investors, who perhaps put it back in the bank for no net change. But if those investors in turn say “I don’t want those cash balances, either,” and then go invest or lend it or spend it, then you’re starting to see how money velocity is increasing. The money essentially becomes a kind of financial “hot potato” now, moving more rapidly from investor to investor, from consumer to vendor, and so on. The volume of transactions rises, which increases prices and output as explained by the MV≡PQ monetarist credo.

And that is how higher rates can produce more inflation.

We are seeing other strange things, too, that could be consistent with this explanation. Another great blog, “Sober Look,” observed last week that 30-year jumbo mortgage loan rates have fallen below conforming mortgage loan rates. Their explanation of the phenomenon is worth reading, but note this part: “Flush with deposits, banks have access to extraordinarily cheap capital and are seeking to earn more interest income.” Yet this has been true for some time. What has changed is that interest rates are now higher, increasing the opportunity cost of cash in both nominal and real terms.

This doesn’t automatically mean that money velocity is increasing; it may just be an interesting bond sale and unusual market activity in jumbo mortgages. But it is worth thinking about, because as I note in that article linked to above, even a modest rise in money velocity could produce an aggressive response from inflation.

Happy $10 Trillion Day!

July 26, 2012 5 comments

It seems that few people look at M2 money supply these days, so the fact that the odometer on the key money supply gauge rolled to $10 trillion today seems likely to remain unlamented. The trip from $9 trillion to $10 trillion took a mere 66 weeks, half the time that the trip from $8 trillion to $9 trillion took. The robust growth of money supply, even though money velocity continued to decline over most of the period (we will find out whether it declined in Q2 when tomorrow’s GDP figures are released), is clearly implicated in the rise of core inflation over the same period (see Chart, source Bloomberg).

The pace of M2 growth recently has softened to only 8.4% over the last year, and is likely to fall further over the next few weeks as the end-of-July spike from last year falls out of the data. Yet even a decline to 7% implies a faster rate of core inflation, unless velocity continues to decline as well. As commercial bank lending growth is now growing comfortably faster than 5% per year (most recently at 6% over the prior 52 weeks), this seems a bad bet, and I continue to expect core inflation in the U.S. and in other developed countries to move higher rather than lower.

The Fed, as it readies QE3, will not be acting alone. This is made evident by ECB President Mario Draghi’s statement this morning that “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

And yet, as of yesterday, Greek bonds are no longer good collateral at the ECB.  The reports from the Troika out of Greece seem to make plain that no more rescue money will be headed to that country. I will note that a “planned” exit of Greece from the Euro, or at least a planned default, would surely include the refusal of Greek bonds as ECB collateral, because otherwise upon the event the ECB would be suddenly vastly undercollateralized or uncollateralized on its loans to Greek banks – not a good idea. I won’t go so far as to predict that Greece is about to be squeezed out of the Euro, but it is consistent with the following:

  1. Increased discussion of QE3 and the mooting of the question by presumed Fed mouthpiece Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal.
  2. The ECB’s decision at its last meeting to cut the deposit rate to zero, and recent discussion of the possibility of a negative rate,  even as Euro M2 last month rose to its highest year-on-year growth rate in several years (albeit still a feeble 3.4%), shows a renewed determination to get the pendulum of monetary policy swinging in a positive direction.
  3. The rejection of Greek bonds as good collateral at the ECB, as mentioned above.
  4. The story in Der Spiegel that declared the IMF wants to cut off Greek aid, which is after all a reasonable thing to do the moment it is clear that it has no chance of staving off Greece’s collapse and exit from the Euro.
  5. Increasingly us-against-them comments by Greek Prime Minister Samaras, who sill be responsible for rallying his country’s spirits and economy after the exit.

The timing of a Greek exit from the Euro is perhaps not ideal – that would have been last year, before so much money was wasted, when the European economy wasn’t yet in recession, and when the U.S. economy at least had some positive momentum – but it is not likely to get much better. From the Fed’s perspective, the timing of additional easing will get more difficult, especially if the domestic economy awkwardly begins to zig-zag back up. It is much more politically astute to do QE3 after a horrible Durable Goods number (like today’s, which pushed the 6-month average change in core Durables negative for the first time since 2009) than it would be to do it when it was obviously done to help Europe.

Moreover, headline inflation has recently dropped below core, but it will not stay below core for long as gasoline and food prices have recently begun to rise. So there is a limited window during which the doves can point to domestic economic weakness (this window may not be so small, but you never know) and the hawks can claim they see no inflation evil even with core inflation sitting at the Fed’s target. The Fed’s contribution would very likely be to drop the interest on excess reserves (IOER) charge to zero, which would also harmonize deposit rates with the ECB. This would be a significant policy move, spurring even more lending, while not looking as significant as a QE3 that involved further bond-buying.

In short, I think you should say your goodbyes to IOER and to Greece, because I expect neither of them is going to be around for very long.

There was another interesting development last week – a very significant story whose implications seem to have been largely overlooked. I will discuss this story, which has near-term bullish implications for both stocks and bonds, tomorrow.

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