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Money, Commodities, Balls, and How Much Deflation is Enough?

Money: How Much Deflation is Enough?

Once again, we see that the cure for all of the world’s ills is quantitative easing. Since there is apparently no downside to QE, it is a shame that we didn’t figure this out earlier. The S&P could have been at 200,000, rather than just 2,000, if only governments and central banks had figured out a century ago that running large deficits, combined with having a central bank purchase large amounts of that debt in the open market, was the key to rallying assets without limit.

That paragraph is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but on a narrow time-scale it really looks like it is true. The Fed pursued quantitative easing with no yet-obvious downside, and stocks blasted off to heights rarely seen before; the Bank of Japan’s QE has added 94% to the Nikkei in the slightly more than two years since Abe was elected; and today’s announcement by the ECB of a full-scale QE program boosted share values by 1-2% from Europe to the United States.

The ECB’s program, to be sure, was above expectations. Rather than the €50bln per month that had been mooted over the last couple of days with little currency-market reaction, the ECB pledged €60bln. And they promised to continue until September 2016, making the total value of QE around €1.1 trillion. (That’s about $1.3 trillion at today’s exchange rate, but of course if it works then it will be much less than $1.3 trillion at the September 2016 exchange rate). To be sure, a central bank always has the prerogative to change its mind, but on the risks of a sudden change in policy please see “Swiss National Bank”. It really is remarkable that Draghi was able to drag the Bundesbank kicking and screaming into this policy choice, and it is certain to end the threat of primary deflation in Europe just as it did in the U.S. and in Japan. It will likely also have similar effects on growth, which is to say “next to nothing.” But in Europe, deflation risks stemming from slow money growth had been a risk (see chart, source Bloomberg).


Interestingly, y/y money growth had already been accelerating as of late last year – the ECB releases M2 with a very long lag – but this puts the dot on the exclamation point. The ECB has said “enough!” There will be no core deflation in Europe.

Commodities: How Much Deflation is Enough?

Last week, in “Commodities Re-Thunk” and “Little Update on Commodities Re-Thunk”, I presented the results of using a generalization of the Erb & Harvey approach to forecast expected long-term real returns for commodities. It occurred to me that, since I have previously played with long-term real equity returns, and we have the real yield on 10-year TIPS as well, that it would be interesting to see if using these figures might produce a useful strategy for switching between assets (which doesn’t change the fact that I am a long-term investor; this is still based on long-term values. We merely want to put our assets in whatever offers the best long term value at the moment so as to maximize our expected long-term return).

The answer is yes. Now, I did a more-elegant version of what I am about to show, but the chart below shows the results of switching 100% of your assets between stocks, commodities, and TIPS based on which asset class had the highest expected real yield at a given month-end. Each line is an asset class, except for the blue line which shows the strategy result.


The labels at the top show the asset class that dominated for a long period of time. In 2005 there were a couple of quick crossovers that had little impact, but by and large there were three main periods: from 1999-2005, commodities offered excellent expected real returns; from mid-2005 through early-2008 the strategy would have been primarily in TIPS, and subsequent to that the strategy would have been primarily in equities. Fascinating to me is that the overall strategy does so well even though it would have been invested in equities throughout the crash in 2008. The crash in commodities was worse.

Now what is really interesting is that there is a vertical line at the far right-hand side of the chart. That is because at the end of December, the expected real return to commodities finally exceeded that of equities for the first time in a very long time. For this “selling out” strategy, that means you should be entirely out of stocks and TIPS and entirely in commodities.

As I said, that is the coarse version of this approach. My more-elegant version optimized the portfolio to have a constant expected risk in real terms. It was much less risky as a result (10.5% annualized monthly standard deviation compared to 15.5% for the strategy shown above), had lower turnover, but still sported returns over this period of 9.5% compounded compared to 11.2% for the strategy above. I am not, in other words, suggesting that investors put 100% of their assets in commodities. But this method (along with lots of other signals) is now suggesting that it is time to put more into commodities.

Balls: How Much Deflation is Enough?

Being a football fan, I can’t keep from weighing in on one mystery about deflate-gate (incidentally, why do we need to put ‘gate’ on the end of every scandal? It wasn’t Water-gate, it was the Watergate Hotel that proved Nixon’s undoing. “Gate” is not a modifier). Really, this part isn’t such a mystery but I have seen much commentary on this point: “How did the balls get deflated during the game since they were approved before the game?”

The answer is really simple in the real world: the official picked up one of the balls, said “fine”, and put them back in the bag. He has a million things to do before the championship game and in years of refereeing he has probably never found even one ball out of spec. This sort of error happens everywhere there are low reject rates, and it’s why good quality control is very difficult. (Now, if you fired the ref every time a bad ball got through, you damn betcha those balls would be measured with NASA-like precision – which is perhaps a bad metaphor, since similar issues contributed to the Challenger disaster). The real mystery to me is: if the Patriots truly think they are the better team, why would they cheat, even a little? As with the CHF/EUR cross that we discussed yesterday, the downside is far worse than the gain on the upside.

Or, is it? The NFL will have a chance to establish the cost of recidivism in cheating. Maybe the Patriots were simply betting that the downside “tail” to their risky behavior was fairly short. If the NFL wants to put a stop to nickel-and-dime cheats, it can do that by dropping the hammer here.

  1. Eric
    January 23, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    I dont pretend to understand commodities very well, but just looking at the other two asset classes, the idea that you should be in stocks when their expected return is marginally higher than TIPS (I assume we are talking 10 year?) is crazy. the durations are wildly different.

    I’m also pretty confident of these two facts:

    1. going into stocks in 2006 was a bad idea. that it happened to be an even better time to get out of commodities than it did stocks is small comfort. The fact that the second craziest bull market in history has since bailed you out doesn’t convince me that you were following a good strategy.

    2. One can argue about when, in the recent run-up, stocks got overvalued. but it wasn’t yesterday. God bless you if you’ve been fully invested in US equities since 2011–he knows you’ve been doing better than me. But I’m morally certain that sometime between then and now, you* started getting lucky.

    *(I’m using “you” in the generic sense, I know this is not a strategy you’ve been following.)

    • January 23, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      Absolutely – in a real sense this strategy is something very different from what I have talked about in the past because it rewards RELATIVE expected returns (and I’ve talked in the past about how the “Fed Model” doesn’t work because it says you should invest in stocks when interest rates are so low that you’ll do better in stocks…that is, when stocks are less overvalued than bonds).

      You can be confident that my more-elegant implementation of this idea takes into account the fact that TIPS get “bonus points” for being lots less volatile. And it is fairly easy to imagine that if you include cash, there is some level at which none of these assets’ expected risk-adjusted returns beats cash. This exercise was merely to see if there was any value to the relative-expected-growth concept; if there is, then rank-ordering the asset classes by expected returns OUGHT to give you a better outcome. And it does. (But it’s hard to explain that quantitative point in a way that makes sense in a blog post, I think).

      So I agree with you completely. I certainly haven’t been in stocks. But I also have evidently been too heavily in commodities essentially because they have fallen a long ways (and because real rates are low, which is NORMALLY a very good time to own commodities) and were cheapER than they had been, rather than cheap on an absolute (or even relative) basis. I feel much better about being long them here.

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