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It’s In ‘The Hole’

As the end of August approaches, the somnambulation of the markets should be slowly diminishing. Events are still proceeding in slow-motion, but investors will gradually wake up and re-assess their surroundings in the days remaining before the Jackson Hole colloquium that represents the next major scheduled event on the domestic calendar.

But even in the dog days of August, governments borrow and spend money, and sometimes they even have to pay it back. Today, the emerging market of Belize missed a bond payment as its deficit swelled to a level of (gasp!) 2.5% of GDP, and the Prime Minister declared a restructuring is needed since the country simply doesn’t have the ability to pay the 8.5% coupon on its superbond. Isn’t it nice to be a superpower? The U.S. runs a deficit of around 8% of GDP, and our creditors seem to have no quarrels with us – at least, for now.

Of course, we’re too busy to worry about Belize when Greece beckons. Greek Prime Minister Samaras is asking for a two-year extension of the deadline for deep spending cuts and tax increases, but German Financial Minister Schaeuble (among others) said over the weekend that “It can’t be helped – we can’t make yet another new program. There are limits.” http://economywatch.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/20/13377541-germany-forcing-greeces-day-of-reckoning Certainly, the suggestion that there are limits to European largesse in the case of Greece is not a new one; the appearance of actual limits is still what all parties are waiting for. We are approaching the next showdown, surely.

More stirring was the report over the weekend in Der Spiegel that the ECB is considering a program to ‘cap’ European rates versus Bunds, such that they would determine an “appropriate” spread (appropriate in a cosmic justice sense, one supposes, not in a ‘market clearing’ sense) and then buy unlimited quantities of bonds of countries whose yields strayed above the cap. The idea, surely, is to make the cap unnecessary, since rational (and, it should be pointed out, credulous) investors would buy unlimited amounts of bonds just shy of the cap, knowing they had a much higher upside than downside, guaranteed. But ask Soros and the Bank of England how that works, when the economics aren’t there.

The Bundesbank, predictably, came out with immediate criticism of such a plan, which isn’t surprising since they had previously spanked Draghi for suggesting that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the Euro. The ECB promptly hove to today, as well, muttering something about how it’s “misleading to report on decisions, which have not yet been taken and also on individual views, which have not yet been discussed by the ECB’s Governing Council, which will act strictly within its mandate.” And, of course, that begs the question of why they leaked the notion in the first place. Who’s in charge over there, anyway?

It also was unclear if the idea of an automatic cap replaced the prior assertion that the countries themselves must formally request help, or was in addition to that requirement.

All in all, it should be an interesting autumn.

But I nevertheless contend that the first really important event for the market is going to be the Bernanke speech at Jackson Hole on August 31st. The machine is already at work, setting up the arguments so that Bernanke need only nod in the general direction of what the Fed is going to do. An article on Bloomberg yesterday was entitled “No Inflation Proves Critics of Fed’s Bernanke Wrong.” The content of the refutation is essentially that it’s obvious that Bernanke was right, all of those opposed are just ‘haters, and clearly the money-printing didn’t cause inflation.

However, since the money-printing also didn’t evidently cause unemployment to improve very much, we are left with this: either monetary policy simply doesn’t matter, and affects neither inflation nor growth in any important degree (in which case we can safely disband the Fed since it’s just an economist-employment project), or it does matter, and it’s too early to judge the effects of a rapidly-expanding money supply which, until one month ago was still expanding at better than 10% per annum. After all, along with that expanding money supply we did, until three months ago, have core inflation that was accelerating every month, so that’s hardly an open-and-shut case in favor of the notion that large amounts of money don’t cause inflation. Moreover, clearly the Fed itself believes that QE causes inflation, or it wouldn’t have cited the possibility of deflation as a key reason for QE1! They seem to want it both ways: money-printing causes dis-deflation, but doesn’t cause inflation above target.

In my view, it is very premature to declare victory over core inflation merely because we have had a couple of months where core inflation went sideways – mostly due to base effects.

But as investors, what is more important in the near-term is that this argument is silly to make now, when its veracity won’t be judge-able for at least a year or two, unless the purpose of the argument is to encourage additional monetary easing.

Perhaps you may think that my cynicism knows no bounds. This may well be true, but is not relevant at the nonce. Consider that the Fed also has just released a study (summarized here) that argues there is much more ‘cyclical’ unemployment left from the recession that can yet be reversed. This tends to mean (according to the Bloomberg article) that more can be done on the employment front without spurring inflation. Other economists cited in the Bloomberg piece, who think structural unemployment is higher, figure that if the unemployment falls too fast it could spell inflation.

I have pointed out here a number of times that there is no strong relationship between unemployment and overall inflation, although there is a decent relationship between unemployment and wages (see this article for some pretty charts). Lower unemployment would mean higher wages, and probably higher real wages, but it doesn’t necessarily mean broad inflation (consider the late 1990s).

So we have an argument that inflation is tamed and Bernanke was right, and we have an argument that there is still more room for policy to lower unemployment without triggering inflation. Yes, I am cynical, but as investors it sometimes pays to be that way. If I were looking to push further unprecedented monetary policy on a suspicious investor community, these are just the sort of articles and studies I would like to see floated.

  1. Jim H.
    August 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    ‘It is very premature to declare victory over core inflation merely because we have had a couple of months where core inflation went sideways – mostly due to base effects.’

    There’s nothing we can do about noise in the current value of a time series. But the year-ago base value can be smoothed by including one or two neighboring data points on either side (e.g., using the observations from 14 to 10 months ago as the base, instead of the single 12 months ago datum).

    It may not be customary among economists, but this spread-base technique is essential for reducing noise-induced spurious signals in trading models.

    • August 20, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      or an exponential moving average, something technical analysts figured out a long time ago but which eludes economists. I ought to take a look at that.

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