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You Have Not Missed It

November 18, 2021 8 comments

Recently, 10-year inflation breakevens reached 2.78% – matching the all-time highs (since TIPS were issued in 1997) from 2005. If you think about breakevens in the same way you think about TSLA, then it may seem to you that this is a very bad time to buy inflation. No one who bought 10-year inflation at 2.78% or in that neighborhood has ever had a mark-to-market gain.[1] Heck, for a couple of decades it has been a fairly automatic trade to dump 10-year breakevens once they got a bit over 2.50%. Moreover, with y/y inflation at 6.2% – even if it goes a little higher still before it ebbs – it certainly seems like the worst is behind us, right?

I hear from a lot of investors who are afraid that they “missed the trade.” The first spike happened so quickly that not many people outside of the inflation geeks had time to get on board. And we’re only just now figuring out (well, it’s only just now becoming common knowledge) that the “transitory” effects have lasted and are lasting a lot longer than we were told to expect. These tactical traders feel like they missed a once-in-a-generation, if not a once-in-a-lifetime, trade in inflation, which is now over.

Relax. You have not missed it.

Okay, perhaps you should have bought inflation when 10-year breakevens were at 0.94%. At that level, the market was making a huge bet that inflation was forever dead. There was almost no risk in buying inflation at that level, as I pointed out at the time. That was the right trade, and the easy trade, and I know you’re committed to buying those levels the next time you see them. Unfortunately, you won’t. Those levels won’t be seen again for decades, if ever. The only way they could happen is because there was no natural bid for inflation risk, no one who was worried about it. No matter what happens to inflation from here, lots of people have learned that it’s something you ought to be worried about, especially if you can hedge it essentially for free as you could 19 months ago.

But that doesn’t mean you oughtn’t buy longer-term inflation even though the current levels are high. The chart below shows 10-year inflation breakevens, in white, versus contemporaneous core CPI in blue.

Obviously, I’m comparing a 10-year forward-looking rate to a 1-year backward-looking rate, but my point isn’t that there are good times and bad times to buy breakevens based on what has recently happened. In fact, my point is almost the opposite. My point is that historically, it has paid to ignore what has recently happened, and focus on whether or not breakevens are a bargain relative to the equilibrium level. Over the period since TIPS were first issued, core CPI has ranged from 1% to 3%, and averaged almost exactly 2%. That’s the blue line. The question then, is not whether breakevens are a good deal here if inflation is going to go back to a sedate 1%-3% range for the next decade; in that circumstance they certainly aren’t. On the other hand, they aren’t a disastrous trade in that case, but certainly not a very good one. The real question, though, is whether the equilibrium range going forward really is going to be centered around 2%. Because if instead it is going to be centered around 3%, then you’re buying breakevens below the midpoint of that future range (and you get great near-term carry in the bargain).

There are a number of reasons that I think we have moved into a new post-2% regime. A lot of those reasons were already hinted at prior to the current crisis and the ensuing irresponsible policy response. For example, one following wind that the global economy enjoyed from 1993 or so until the mid-2010s was a gradual increase in globalization. The movement of production to lower-production-cost countries, especially in an era of cheap transportation and low tariffs, was a net gain to society in the classic Ricardian sense, and allowed all economies to have a better growth/inflation mix. However, that impulse was already starting to wane prior to Trump, and in the last 5 years the globalization arrow has clearly reversed in no small part because of intentional policy decisions to do so. That’s just one example of how the cycle, in my view, was already reversing.

Since the policy response to COVID, however, the inflation idyll has been decisively shattered. Manufacturers in many industries have been forced to shift strategies about passing through costs – strategies that are very hard to restore to the old way. The high inflation prints, especially in the context of product shortages, have emboldened labor in ways we haven’t seen for some time. Increased unionization is likely to follow an increase in the level and volatility of inflation, which naturally will help institutionalize levels of inflation that are not outrageous in the grand scheme of things but which are still damaging compared to the Way Things Were.

Thus, I think we are out of the 2-percent-as-the-center-of-the-distribution era, and into an era where the middle is more like 3%. The bad part is that inflation regimes don’t usually stay stable except at low levels, so that we are going to have higher inflation volatility, and there’s a decent chance that equilibrium level bleeds higher over time.

That’s the bet with 10-year breakevens. In the short-term, some of the “transitory” factors are going to ebb (prices won’t fall, but their rates of change will), although other factors will emerge too. The inflation derivatives market is pricing in headline inflation over 7% in the next few months, but that will likely be the peak. But rents are going to be pushing up, and core and median inflation are not going to go back to 2% very soon. I’ve seen some forecasts that by late 2022, core will be around 1.5%. I think that’s wrong by 200bps.

There is one final point that I will explain in more detail in another post. Breakevens also should embed some premium because the tails to inflation are to the upside. When you estimate the value of that tail, it’s actually fairly large. But for now, let me just assure you: the train has left the station, but it is still making stops. There’s time to get on board.


[1] Sticklers will note that this isn’t quite true. In 2005, headline inflation reached 4.7%, so an owner of breakevens might actually have had a net profit on income and inflation accretion, at least for a while, even though breakevens retreated from there. But it still wouldn’t have been a great trade and you would have had to be nimble to make any money at all.

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