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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2021)

September 14, 2021 Leave a comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • Happy last- #CPI – day-of-summer! Is the transitory spike over?
  • Before we get started, a little housekeeping. Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! And if you want to see some super-embarrassing photos of me, check out the Bloomberg Businessweek story just out today by @beth_stanton https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-09-14/inflation-guy-michael-ashton-sees-more-on-the-way-as-investors-worry
  • The story is terrific. Beth is a fantastic journalist. But as for the pictures…I can just say, “I’m working on it.”
  • Anyway back to our story…This is the first time in months that the interbank CPI market has been at or slightly below the economist consensus estimate for headline inflation. (Pretty close though.) Previously, the interbank market was generally higher, and more accurate.
  • The last five actual prints on core CPI are +0.34%, +0.92%, +0.74%, +0.88%, and 0.33%. The consensus for today is a lowish 0.3% (something like 0.27%).
  • So economists – and the inflation market – are pricing in at least a LITTLE ‘transitory’ here with core inflation coming down from the peak…although I’ll note that 0.27% annualized is 3.3%. That’s still well above the Fed’s target. Not that they care very much.
  • That sort of month/month core CPI print today would see y/y drop to 4.2% from 4.3%, since last year we got +0.35% in August. Transitory! Yay! We win! Except that celebration will be short-lived.
  • The next 6 months of core range from +0.03% to 0.19% m/m. Very easy comps. So unless something weird happens, core inflation is going to be higher in 6 months than it is today.
  • I think there’s a little upside risk to the number today, partly because expectations are so tame. Used cars, which are past the y/y peak, still rose in price last month according to Black Book. So that would be a surprise.
  • However, that would distract from the more important issue this month and going forward: with the eviction moratorium lifted in many parts of the country, how fast do those units turn over at much higher rents?
  • I don’t really think that will be a big effect THIS month – too soon – but it will become increasingly important going forward. I’d even say it is THE story going forward in terms of how high core CPI will get in this ‘transitory’ bump.
  • OER and Primary Rents have started to see a little bump higher, although they were softer last month than in the prior month. I’m trying not to be obsessed with the wiggles. Anyway the lows are long past for rents.
  • Let’s be real: just as people waved away Used Cars as a “reopening category” or “idiosyncratic,” they’ll say the same with housing. “One time effect!” they’ll say.
  • But what will be harder to explain away will be inflation’s BREADTH. Our diffusion index is the highest in years, because it’s not JUST the reopening categories.
  • So be careful of all the “ex-cars” and “ex-reopening categories” metrics. They did that in the 1970s too. An increase in the number of anecdotes is what inflation IS, after all. Go listen to my “Diamond Water Paradox” podcast. https://InflationGuy.podbean.com/e/ep-2-diamondwater-paradox/
  • The PPI is telling us that the upstream pressures on materials, shipping containers, wages, etc are strong, and those pressures are broad. Yes, a lot of em are pressures on goods and not services. But it’s much more dangerous than hotel prices just catching up to the prior drop.
  • The next question people will ask: “Does this print mean the Fed taper is on?” And the answer is, I give a taper a 50-50 chance of starting and a 15% chance of completing. I don’t think the FOMC will be able to stomach the market correction.
  • So buy dips in breakevens if you see them, but I’d be more skeptical at selling nominals outright. Not sure the Fed will lock nominal rates as they did post-WWII, but they’re leaning against you.
  • And I said this last month and repeat it: Stocks probably go up either way on today’s number, because that’s what stocks do these days (until they don’t).
  • That’s all for now. My gut says a better chance for a high surprise than a low surprise today. And watch what happens to median CPI, later. Get the Inflation Guy app! Listen to the podcast! Follow the blog! https://mikeashton.wordpress.com Visit us at https://enduringinvestments.com  ! Good luck!

  • Team Transitory starts a comeback with a goal just before halftime!
  • 0.10% on core m/m, dropping the y/y to 4.0%. Not just a miss, but a big miss.
  • Used cars fell hard, -1.54% m/m. Last month I pointed out the m/m movement in the private surveys is only the same SIGN about half the time. But I fell for that this month as Black Book went up but CPI went down.
  • Lodging Away from Home -2.92% m/m. Gosh, wait a minute, look at this…
  • Are we going to have to call these the “re-closing” categories? Airfares -9.11%. Lodging AFH -2.92%. Used cars -1.54%. Car/Truck Rental -8.48%. Wow!
  • However, New Cars and Trucks – where you’re seeing the chip shortages and plant shutdowns for want of parts – was +1.22% m/m.
  • OER was +0.25% m/m, and Primary Rents put in a larger rise to +0.31% m/m. So let’s not get too excited about that miss right now…
  • Primary Rents, re-accelerating slowly. It will not be long until this is over 5%.
  • And OER. Again, these are the big pieces.
  • So core goods fell to +7.7% y/y from +8.5%, and core services fell to +2.7% from +2.9%.
  • Worth noting as the Biden Administration goes after pharmaceutical producers: CPI for Medicinal Drugs remains in deflation. Go get ’em, Joe.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter (which means less when Shelter isn’t leading the charge) fell to 4.79% y/y. In June this was 5.81%.
  • Apparel was +0.37% m/m, keeping y/y at 4.2%. Apparel is a small category, but we import almost all of it. So it isn’t surprising to see this rising for a change (but last month it had declined). At a 3% weight in the basket though, it doesn’t dominate anything.
  • Medical care outside of pharmaceuticals was flat in Doctor’s Services (+0.01% m/m), but up big in Hospital Services (+0.85% m/m). So the overall Medical Care subindex gained despite the weakness in drugs.
  • It’ll be interesting looking at the breadth this month. Seven of the eight major subindices rose, with only Transportation declining due to the Used Cars flop. Still shaking my head at the re-closing categories.
  • College Tuition and Fees +0.88% m/m. But that doesn’t annualize the way you think it does. It always jumps in August and September and then levels out for 10 months. The y/y is up to 0.83%. This is NOT quality adjusted, or it would be lots higher.
  • So the biggest decliners in non-food-and-energy: Car/Truck Rental (-65% annualized), Public Transportation (-49% annualized), Lodging Away from Home (-30%), Motor Vehicle Insurance (-29%), Used Cars and Trucks (-17%).
  • Biggest gainers: Jewelry and Watches (+23%), Motor Vehicle Parts and Equipment (+22%), Household Furnishings and Ops (+16%), New Vehicles (+16%), Men’s and Boys’ Apparel (+13%).
  • So…here’s the thing. My early guess at Median CPI is +0.33% m/m, which would be the highest since early 2007. So folks, this isn’t as tame a number as it looks like. Rents are rising, and inflation is broadening.
  • If you took out Used Cars, Lodging Away from Home, etc when they were spiking, then to be fair you should be taking them out now when they’re declining. Because that’s most of the story here.
  • Quick chart of y/y core goods and services inflation. Core Services has a much larger weight, and much of it is rents. Core goods off the boil but has a ways to decelerate yet.
  • Let’s do the 4-pieces chart and the diffusion index then wrap up.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy. Steady upward pressure, but of course this tends to be mean-reverting.
  • Core goods – I already basically showed this chart. Used cars starting to decelerate and pull this down, but New cars accelerating. And broad pressure elsewhere. Watch this. If it goes only back to 3%, that’s a big deal. It’s been a deflationary force for many years.
  • Core Services less Rent of Shelter. Steady downward pressure in pharma, but upward in hospital services. Downward in public transportation. But still, not collapsed yet.
  • And piece 4, rent of shelter, the biggest and slowest and the story for the next year-plus. Going lots higher.
  • Actually while the diffusion index is calculating let me start the wrap-up. First: this number was truly weird in that reopening categories that had been leading the so-called ‘transitory’ spike were the ones that went down. I don’t know that anyone was looking for that.
  • But OUTSIDE of those “re-closing” categories, inflation was pretty solid. Rents and OER rose, although we haven’t yet seen much effect of the end of the eviction moratorium. We will. And there was pretty good breadth.
  • So what does this mean for the Fed? GREAT NEWS! A larger-than-expected decline in core CPI will give the doves what they need to demur on tapering. I think the odds of tapering just dropped. But they didn’t much want to taper anyway.
  • I don’t think this really changes the narrative – rents are going to drive core inflation higher, and the broadening inflation is going to help un-anchor inflation expectations – but it gives the most dovish Fed in 40 years cover.
  • 10-year breakevens at this hour are -2.5bps or so. They’ll be a little heavy as the carry traders lighten up, but this is a dip that is worth buying IMO. Of course, there aren’t many retail products where you can make that play.
  • Here’s the last chart. I pointed out the rents thing, which will be one big story going forward. The other is the broadening of inflation. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index declined (vy slightly) this month, but it’s still at levels rarely seen in last 20 years.
  • That’s a wrap for today. I appreciate the follows, re-tweets, and counterpoints. If you’re interested in investing implications of all of this, hit our contact form at https://www.EnduringInvestments.com  Download the Inflation Guy app. Try out the podcast! Thanks for tuning in.

The upshot of today’s figures is simple: we expected the Used Cars, Hotels, and other “COVID categories” to flatten out after their big rebound. But no one that I know was looking for them to plunge again. That’s weird, but it makes analysis pretty simple. If you thought that it made sense to look through those one-off spikes to the underlying trends before (although the underlying trends weren’t all that encouraging, they were better than the spikes!) then you ought to probably look through the re-collapse. And outside of those “re-closing” categories, inflation is broadening and rents are accelerating, just like I’ve been expecting. So don’t get too excited that we’ve seen the peak in inflation just yet.

Remember the comparisons to last year get super easy here for the next six months. September 2020 was +0.19% on core inflation; then we have +0.07%, +0.17%, +0.04%, +0.03%, and +0.10%. And Lodging Away from Home won’t plunge every month – I’ll take the “over” on all six of these. And that means y/y core inflation is going to be accelerating from today’s 4.0%, for at least the next six months.

Moreover, median inflation is going go be rising towards those numbers too, as will trimmed-mean and the other better measures of the inflation distribution’s central tendency. There’s not much in this figure that is bona fide good news for the Fed. But I think they’ll take the win anyway, even if it’s on a bad call by the referee.

When Over-Ordering is More Than Hoarding

September 8, 2021 2 comments

It is a lament I have heard recently from the manufacturing/supply side, but also an excuse I’ve heard from some of the economist ranks for why “this supply chain issue will all get sorted out; people are just going crazy.” In this column I want to explain why “overordering” is not only perfectly rational but actually demanded by some typical operational procedures.

The complaint is “our customers are not only ordering what they used to order, but they’re ordering far more than they used to. Basically, they’re hoarding and we have had to ration our product and only partially fill orders/only fill them for our top customers.” Now, hoarding is a real thing, but moreso for consumers than in B2B. There are, though, some serious reasons (by which I mean, ‘reasons that are held by serious people’) why it makes sense to increase orders at a time like this. And it’s not because you are assuming you’ll get 50% fill rates on your orders, so you order double in the hopes that you’ll get the actual amount you want. That’s an “unserious” reason.

One of the reasons I have written about before. Back in January, I wrote an article called “The Optionality of Inventories,” in which I predicted the companies would move away from lean inventory models because inventory serves as an option against bad things happening: if bad things don’t happen, you’ve paid a little more for your inventory; if bad things happen, you have a large gain (loss averted) because you had a cushion. That article is worth a quick read. I also point out that, as inflation increases, there is a financial incentive to hold larger inventories because the inventories themselves are increasing in value. To the extent that more firms are recognizing the option value of inventory, it makes total sense that the demand gets fiercer the closer to raw materials you get. The entire supply chain needs to hold more inventories.

But there’s another “serious” reason that is related to the length of the supply chain itself. “Fred, last year you only ordered 1,000 units. This year you ordered 2,000 units! I know your business hasn’t doubled. Why are you doing that?” Fred might well be doing this because lead times are increasing, and that mathematically increases his reorder point and quantity.

Reorder quantity mathematics, at the simplest level, is just “number of days of lead time” times “average use per day,” and you reorder when inventory declines below that number plus some “safety stock” which is essentially a fudge factor. So, if we are using one ton of flour per day, and it takes us a week to get flour, then we need to reorder whenever we get down to seven tons of flour (call it 8, just in case. That extra one is the ‘safety stock.’) And, when we reorder, we reorder at least seven tons of flour since by the time that order arrives, we’ll be down to one ton of flour. But if the lead time now stretches to two weeks, we are suddenly ordering 14 tons of flour even if our usage didn’t change.

That simple model works for very regular inventory usage patterns, but in many applications the quantity used (or demanded, if we are talking about holding finished goods inventories) is variable. In that case, the reorder point and quantity also depends on the variance in the order flow. Again, inventories are like options, and so the sophisticated way to think about the safety stock is the option value where the stock-out (you run out of inventory) is the strike price. If you want to never lose on that bet, you have to have a high option price (safety stock); moreover, the higher is volatility, the higher is the level of inventory required to maintain a given ‘acceptable’ level of stock outs.[1]

How does 2021 compare to 2019, the last time manufacturers faced “normal” order patterns that they are now seeing customers exceed? Well, there have been substantial increase in lead times, and substantial increases in every kind of volatility you can imagine. Lead times across the globe have increased probably 30-50% at least, and that means that required inventory needs to increase 30-50% at a minimum, plus more because volatility has increased.

So that customer who is ordering a lot more right now than they historically have is not doing it to “hoard.” They’re probably doing it just to manage inventory properly. Of course, that puts more pressure on the supply chain, and increases lead times further. It represents a one-time increase in GDP, as intended inventory accumulation adds to output in the period it is accumulated, and that pressure also boosts price pressure. And ‘round and ‘round we go.

And all of this, we should take pains to remember, started when governments decided to use cardiac paddles to resuscitate a patient they’d actively tried to kill, and central banks made sure they were hooked up to a strong current to do so. The fact that the body economic is convulsing should not be a surprise to anyone. The question is whether we can sue for malpractice.


[1] The only way to guarantee that you’ll never run out of inventory, if there’s any variance in the demand for the inventory, is to hold massive amounts of inventory. So in practice you have to pick an acceptable stock-out frequency, which enters into the calculation.

Are Home Prices Too High?

September 2, 2021 2 comments

There is an advantage to squatting in the same niche of the market for years, even decades. And that is that your brain will sometimes make connections on its own – connections that would not have occurred to your conscious mind, even if you were studying a particular question in what you thought was depth.

A case in point: yesterday I was re-writing an old piece I had on the value of real estate as a hedge, to make it a permanent page on my blog and a “How-To” on the Inflation Guy app. At one point, I’m illustrating how a homeowner might look at the “breakeven inflation” of homeownership, and my brain asked “I wonder how this has changed over time?”

So, I went back in the Shiller dataset and I calculated it. To save you time reading the other article, the basic notion is that a homeowner breaks even when the value of the home rises enough to cover the after-tax cost of interest, property taxes, and insurance. In what follows, I ignore taxes and insurance because those vary tremendously by locality, while interest does not. But you can assume that the “breakeven inflation” line for housing ought to be at least a little higher. In the chart below, I calculate the breakeven inflation assuming that mortgage rates are roughly equal to the long Treasury rate (which isn’t an awful assumption if there’s some upward slope to the yield curve, since the duration of a 30-year mortgage is a lot less than the duration of a 30-year Treasury), that a homeowner finances 80% of the purchase, pays taxes at the top marginal rate, and can fully deduct the amount of mortgage interest. I have a time series of the top marginal rate, but don’t have a good series for “normal down payment,” so this illustration could be more accurate if someone had those data. The series for inflation-linked bonds is the Enduring Investments imputed real yield series prior to 1997 (discussed in more detail here, but better and more realistic than other real yield research series). Here then are the breakeven inflation rates for bonds and homes.

It makes perfect sense that these should look similar. In both cases, the long bond rate plays an important role, because in both cases you are “borrowing” at the fixed rate to invest in something inflation-sensitive.

The intuition behind the relationship between the two lines makes sense as well. Prior to the administration of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the top income tax rate was 70% or above. Consequently, the value of the tax sheltering aspect of the mortgage interest made it much easier to break even on the housing investment than to invest in inflation bonds (had they existed). That’s why the red line is so much lower than the blue line, prior to 1982 (when the top marginal rate was cut to 50%) and why the lines converged further in 1986 or so (the top marginal rate dropped to 39% in 1987). The red line even moves above the blue line, indicating that it was becoming harder to break even owning a home, when the top rate dropped to 28%-31% for 1988-1992. Pretty cool, huh?

Now, this just looks at the amount of (housing) inflation of the purchase price of the home needed to break even. But the probability of realizing that level of housing inflation depends, of course, on (a) the overall level of inflation itself and (b) the level of home prices relative to some notion of fair value. This is similar to the way we look at probable equity returns: what earnings or dividends do we expect to receive (which is related to nominal economic growth), and what is the starting valuation level of equities (since we expect multiples to mean-revert over time). That brings me back to a chart that I have previously found disturbing, and that’s the relationship between median household income and median home prices. For decades, the median home price was about 3.4x median household income. Leading up to the housing bubble, that ballooned to over 5x…and we are back to about 5x now.

That’s the second part of the question, then – what is the starting valuation of housing? The answer right now is, it’s quite high. So are we in another housing bubble? To answer that, let’s compare the two pictures here. In the key chart below, the red line is the home price/income line from the chart above (and plotted on the right scale) while the blue line is the difference between the breakeven inflation for housing versus breakeven inflation in the bond market.

In 2006, the breakeven values were similar but home prices were very high, which means that you were better off taking the bird-in-the-hand of inflation bonds and not buying a home at those high prices. But today, the question is much more mixed. Yes, you are paying a high price for a home today; however, you also don’t need much inflation to break even. If home prices rise 1.5% less than general inflation, you will be indifferent between owning real estate and owning an inflation bond. Which means that, unlike in 2006-7, you aren’t betting on home prices continue to outpace inflation. It’s a closer call.

I can come up with a more quantitative answer than this, but my gut feeling is that home prices are somewhat rich, but not nearly as much so as in 2006-07, and not as rich as I had previously assumed. Moreover, while a home buyer today is clearly exposed to an increase in interest rates (which doesn’t affect the cash flow of the owner, but affects the value the home has to a future buyer), a home buyer will benefit from additional “tax shelter value” if income tax rates rise (as long as mortgage interest remains tax deductible!). And folks, I don’t know if taxes are going up, but that’s the direction I’d place my bets.

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