Archive for February, 2022

Financial Buyers Aren’t to Blame For High Commodities Prices

February 23, 2022 Leave a comment

Today’s does of non-Ukraine content concerns a misunderstanding about commodities that seems to require regular correction. I’ve seen it resurface recently, most recently in a daily digest from Bloomberg this morning:

“There seems to be something of a vicious circle developing in the commodities space, where investors are increasing their exposure as an inflation hedge, thereby possibly driving up prices further. “

This is not something you should worry about.

I suspect this sort of thinking derives from observations about financial futures, in particular cash-settled sorts. But in contracts for physical delivery, it doesn’t work this way. A purely financial investor cannot drive up prices in the spot market, because such an investor never gets to the spot market. No one, outside of a few sophisticated hedge funds, holds physical commodities as an inflation hedge (with the possible exception of precious metals, which isn’t what they’re discussing here). No one keeps a silo of corn or beans for investment, taking that supply off the market in the process. (Almost) no one keeps a tanker truck of gasoline as an inflation hedge or a pile of aluminum.[1] A financial investor must cover their (long) positions by finding an offset before delivery. Only buyers who actually want the commodity delivered, or sellers who actually have the commodity to deliver, go all the way to final settlement. Ergo, the spot price is determined by actual buyers and sellers of the spot commodity and not financial players.

So, if financial investors in commodities do anything at all, they might push up deferred contract prices relative to spot prices, putting the market further in contango. If anything, this actually would cause the opposite effect from the one noted above since a producer who owns future commodities (in other words, they make production decisions about how much to grow or mine) can lock in a higher selling price than the current spot price – which obviously would make them want to supply more to the market.

But if this was the dynamic, then commodities curves would be in contango (deferred contracts higher than spot contracts); instead we find that commodities curves are in backwardation at levels we haven’t seen in a long time.

[N.b.: if you have the Inflation Guy mobile app, you can look for the Daily Chart Pack under “tools” and on page 17 you will find this chart, updated every day.]

Commodities curves being in backwardation is actually one strong piece of evidence that financial buyers are not driving volatility or activity in commodities markets. Curves are in backwardation because there are shortages in the spot market but producers are still willing to sell future production lower than the current level.

In short – don’t blame the financial players for the rise in commodities prices. Blame years of underinvestment followed by massive money-stoked demand. It’s not hard to see why commodities have risen so much. It’s only hard to guess how much farther they will go. But they answer in any event will not depend on how heavily invested institutions or the general public are.

[1] That can occasionally include pure arbs doing cash-and-carry metals arb, but that’s not much fun when the curves are backwardated like they are now.

The Re-Onshoring Trend and the Long-Term Impact on Core Goods

February 22, 2022 7 comments

I know that today, and probably for a little while, investors are focused on Ukraine and Russia. I am gratified that for what seems the first time in many years, notes about the conflict tend to include some form of the addendum “and its effect on domestic inflation,” albeit in many cases this is from the perspective of how this engagement will damage or burnish President Biden’s poll numbers at home and the prospects for his party in the midterm elections. How self-absorbed we Americans are! To be fair, in my opinion the importance of the US policy-response operetta was always less about Ukraine than about Taiwan. I hope that doesn’t turn out to be right.

However, today I want to talk about the re-onshoring trend in manufacturing, and the significance of this for inflation going forward.

One of my 2022 themes so far is that the conventional expectation for inflation to peak soon and ebb to a gentle 2% over the next 12-18 months is mostly predicated on the idea that the extraordinary spikes we have seen in certain categories (see: motor vehicles) will eventually pass, and inflation will return to the underlying trend. The simpler observers see it as 12 months since (mechanically) the spikes will all be out of the y/y number in 12 months. Some forecasters are giving themselves a little wiggle-room by saying it will take 18 months as the ports unclog and ‘other knock-on effects’ wash through. But in my opinion, the evidence is strong that the underlying trend is no longer 2%, but more likely 3-4% or higher. Part of that evidence is the great breadth that we have seen in the recent inflation numbers, which suggests either a riot of unfortunate coincidental events all in the same direction, or else a common cause…say, the rapid growth rate of the money supply, which as of the latest report is still growing more than 12% annualized over the last quarter, half-year, and year.

The forecasts of sharply decelerating inflation expect the parade of “one off” causes to end – and, crucially, to be replaced by unbiased random events that are equally likely to be up or down. This is ‘assuming a can-opener,’ and is economist malpractice in my opinion. Because of the continued rapid growth of money, and until that rapid growth slows drastically or reverses, the surprises are mostly going to be on the high side. That’s why I expect inflation to be lower at the end of the year than it is right now, but not lots lower.

All of this, though, obfuscates a trend that had started prior to COVID but has gained great momentum since. When President Trump was first elected, we’d suggested in our customer Quarterly Inflation Outlook that one of the following winds which had kept inflation low despite loose monetary policy throughout the 1990s and 2000s was in the process of stopping and potentially reversing. That following wind was globalization. I eventually ended up talking a lot about de-globalization. Here’s one article from four years ago. I really love the Deutsche Bank chart in it.

In a nutshell, the argument was that domestic goods prices had been kept abnormally low despite strong economic growth and loose monetary policy through the prior quarter-century because businesses had gradually over time offshored production and extended raw materials and intermediate-goods supply chains to cheaper manufacturing locations outside of our borders. But that’s a trick that can only be turned once. When most production is overseas and most intermediate goods imported from the Pacific Rim, costs will resume rising at the rate of inflation in the source country, adjusted for FX changes. For decades, we’d seen core goods inflation near zero despite services inflation in the 2-4% range, as this dynamic played out, but there was no reason that goods inflation should permanently be zero.

So I thought that in 2016 we were already coming slowly to a point where similar monetary policy going forward was going to result in less growth and more inflation because that trick had been used up. The election of President Trump merely accelerated that timeline and increased the probability that the trend wouldn’t only stop but could reverse, causing the division of growth and inflation for a given monetary policy to be distinctly bad and requiring much tighter policy.

COVID-19, and the global response to COVID-19, has more or less totally reversed the arrow of global trade. Businesses are pulling manufacturing back to the US and pulling supply chains back to the Western Hemisphere as much as possible. Geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, and the US and China, combined with the increased appreciation of the optionality of inventories and the cost imposed by long and variable lead times, which is partly reflected in the need to hold more inventory. And that, in turn, drastically decreases the attractiveness of a long supply chain, especially with global tensions, the rise of democratic populism (“we want what’s ours, not some global citizenship award!”), and the persistent rise in energy and other costs of transportation (driver shortages, etc).

All of which arguments I’ve made before. But I’m not sure I’ve drawn the line clearly enough that the net effect of this changing dynamic – which results in manufacturers choosing higher costs rather than lower costs – is that goods inflation is unlikely in my view to return to being centered around zero. While core services are a bigger chunk of the consumption basket than are core goods, that’s mostly because of shelter services. Core goods is 22% of the consumption basket; core services (less rent of shelter) is 25%. So this is not something that can be idly dismissed. If the mean of the distribution moves from 0% to just 3%, that moves the “normal” level of inflation up ~0.66%. Obviously, I think in the medium-term the number is a lot larger than that, but the key is whether the effect is going to be persistent over a long period of time (think years or decades, not months). I believe it will far outlast COVID, because the causes go far beyond COVID.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (January 2022)

February 10, 2022 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!

  • Suddenly, going to #CPI Day is like going to the circus! Not least because of all the clowns opining about #inflation. For me, it’s just one more day as the Inflation Guy; it’s just that I have more company now since it seems EVERYBODY is an inflation guy all of a sudden.
  • Today we will set some more multi-decade highs in CPI, and in core CPI, and in Median CPI. The last three core CPI figures have been (after revisions) +0.60%, +0.52%, and +0.56% and the Street sees another 0.5% today.
  • It’s hard to disagree too strongly with that forecast, because the recent numbers have been very broad and not just used cars or Covid categories. Rents have been accelerating, as expected (more on that later). But it’s the breadth that has changed the story.
  • That said, I would not be terribly shocked with a somewhat softer used cars number this month, though I think New Cars will stay strong for a while, and we could get some weakness in airfares thanks to the brief Omicron scare.
  • Also, it’s February which means we are looking at January data – January data always have a larger error bar, which is why last week’s Jobs figure wasn’t really “surprising” econometrically. We also have the annual adjustments in seasonal factors and in component weights.
  • Those changes, despite some breathless analyses that circulated about how dramatic all of this will be and how profoundly it will affect CPI…won’t be the story. Sorry. The quick summary is that energy and vehicles gained 3% in weight and everything else lost a little.
  • Weights on apparel, medical care, food and beverages, rents, education/communication, and “other” all declined. But there were lots of little changes camouflaged in there. The weight of elder care just about doubled, for example, even while medical care as a whole went down.
  • But again – don’t stay up late worrying about it. It’s an effect that tends to dampen inflation slightly over time, since stuff that goes up gets a higher weight – and if it mean reverts, it has a higher weight when it goes down (and v.v.). But it happens every year.
  • With more volatility in the figure, it will matter more than most years, but the absolute value of the whole darn number is much larger too. I don’t worry about the second and third-order effects right now. There’s enough to look at with first-order effects.
  • OK back to the current market and today’s number. This chart shows the changes from 1 month ago for real rates, inflation expectations, and nominal rates. Some of the decline in infl expectations is carry, by the way.
  • As I said up top, expectations are for a big number this month, and we’ll see an even higher y/y next month before we get to a peak thereafter. So right about the time the Fed starts to raise rates, y/y inflation will start coming down. Mostly b/c year ago comps get harder.
  • Think that’s an accident of timing? It’s important to remember that the Fed is a political animal (ever since Greenspan), and it’s politically expedient to talk tough about inflation. It’s not politically expedient to crush markets, so they’ll try not to ACTUALLY be tough.
  • If y/y headline inflation starts to decline when they start to tighten, it will make it much easier to take it easy. I think the extent of rate hikes embedded in the curve right now are very unlikely. But the Fed will still TALK a good game.
  • Is the FOMC serious though? Well look at this chart of y/y changes in M2 in the US, Europe, and Japan. All are off the highs, but…in the US, money growth REMAINS very high; higher in fact than at just about any time other than the 1970s.
  • That doesn’t look like a hawkish central bank to me. And if they are just going to slow-play it while waiting for inflation to go back to 2%, they’re going to be disappointed. “Normal” is more like 4% now. And I’m not sure we’ll get back there quickly the way things are going.
  • A couple of items on rents, because that’s the big, slow moving piece with momentum. On the one hand, Owners’ Equivalent Rent has finally caught up with our model now that the eviction moratorium is over, but it has more to go. And parts of our model are less sanguine, actually.
  • The gap between asking and effective rents is also still wide, though narrowing. It will take another 3-6 months for it to close, and that’s when we can say the eviction moratorium is out of the data. This chart is as of the most recent data, quarter ended December.
  • Here’s something else fun. This chart is option-implied dividends on XHB, the SPDR Homebuilders ETF. It seems to have been leading rents by about 6mo. So again, we have at least 6 mo of further high prints in rents I think.
  • Anyway, the bottom line is that even if today’s number surprises on the low side, there are still high numbers ahead. And if it surprises on the high side, the Fed isn’t doing 50bp in March (unless they really change their talk first, because they aren’t into surprises).
  • Only market-clearing price if the market is free. With the eviction moratorium in place it wasn’t, and we’re still working through that.
  • Replying to @MarketInterest
  • Good luck! I will have a summary of all my tweets at sometime mid-morning and then I plan to put out an Inflation Guy podcast ( sometime today.
  • Podcast #18 discussed how inflation is the cost of the option to be long cash waiting for opportunities. It was a good one. Are you curious how my investors are sidestepping that cost while retaining liquidity? Ping me via the contact form at
  • Also look for the Inflation Guy app in your app store/play store (once we get enough users we will probably do livestreams to those users, rather than on Twitter).
  • That’s all for the walk-up. And still time to grab a coffee. CPI is in 5 minutes.

  • Welp, 6% on core. Now that we have exceeded the early ’90s high we can say it: highest core in 40 years.
  • Congratulations all around. Take a bow, fiscal spendthrifts. Curtain call, monetary firebugs. 0.58% on core CPI, 6.04% y/y.
  • Primary Rents were +0.54% m/m, 3.77% y/y. Wow. Owners’ Equivalent Rent was 0.42% m/m, 4.09% y/y. But hey, Lodging Away from Home fell 3.92%. Thanks, Omicron!!!!
  • Airfares, though, rose 2.3% m/m. There was some expectation of softness there thanks to the brief virus surge. But I guess it didn’t last long enough, since plans for flights have longer lead times.
  • Cars befuddled me. I thought Used might be soft, but they were +1.47% m/m (+40.5% y/y). I thought New Cars would stay strong, but they were flat m/m.
  • Food & Beverages +0.85% (not a core category obviously). Apparel +1.06%. Medical Care +0.66%. Recreation +0.88%. “Other” +0.76%. Criminy.
  • Medicinal Drugs +0.86% m/m. That’s NSA, so the y/y rose but only up to 1.33%. Still, drug prices are on the rise.
  • Hospital services +0.5% m/m, +3.6% y/y. But this has been more trendless around that figure. Doctors’ Services fell another -0.08%, down to 2.63%/yr. Why do people not want to pay doctors?
  • Overall, core goods rose to +11.7% y/y. Core services rose to +4.1% y/y. To review, the HOPE is that overall inflation settles down to…which one? Happy with 4.1% are we?
  • Lots of household services rose. Water/sewer/trash collection +1% m/m. Window/floor coverings +1.6%. Furniture/bedding +2.4%. Appliances +2.6%. Housekeeping supplies +1.6%. Tools/hardware +1.8%. These are NSA but still.
  • Core inflation ex-housing: 7.22%. I only have this series back to 1983. Fun chart.
  • Only two categories fell more than 10% annualized on the month: Car/Truck rental (-58% annualized), Lodging Away from Home (-38%). There were 20 that rose more than 10% annualized. To be fair, 6 of those were food and energy.
  • My first guess at median CPI is that it will be 0.54%, which would be the highest so far.
  • OK, four pieces charts. Piece 1, food and energy. We feel this but it almost seems like it isn’t a big story any more! At least it mean reverts…but the period of mean reversion might be longer this time because of knock-on effects (energy affecting fertilizer, e.g.)
  • Piece 2. No commentary needed.
  • Piece 3, Core services less rent of shelter. This is starting to be disturbing. For a long time this was steady to lower. Not clear it is any longer. It’s still pulling DOWN on core, but not as much.
  • [Piece 4] Rent of Shelter was SLIGHTLY higher in 2001, but otherwise you have to go back to the very early 1990s. And this is still going to go a bit higher at least.
  • Here is a plot of the distribution of price changes. About 80% of all categories are now inflating faster than 3%. About 65% of them are faster than 4%.
  • So, this is a record high for the Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index. Not that any actual consumer needs to be told that inflation is hitting everything.
  • At this hour, 10y inflation swaps are up about 0.5bp. That’s less than you would expect just from 1y swaps are +20bps. It’s incredible how committed people are, mentally, to the idea that inflation will return to the neighborhood of 2%.
  • But look at this chart again. Four core prints in a row in a nice tight spread around a 6% or so annualized rate. The central point of the inflation distribution HAS SHIFTED. I don’t think it’s actually at 6%, probably more like 4%. But ain’t 2%.
  • What will the Fed do? 25bps. Remember, when forecasters started saying 50bps was possible there was firm pushback from policymakers. Equity markets don’t believe that either. They will go slower than expected and stop earlier than expected, IMO.
  • A dove doesn’t change his stripes.
  • That’s all for today’s train wreck. I’ll have a summary up on a little later. And a podcast on later today. And of course all of that will be linked on the Inflation Guy app. Thanks for tuning in!

I keep hearing talk about “the ongoing inflation debate.” This starts to be confusing. What exactly is this debate about? At one time, it was a debate about whether there would be inflation at all. “No way,” said the non-inflation camp, “there’s too much slack in the labor market.” That debate ended a long time ago, as inflation began to surge long before the employment gap closed. Then there was the debate about whether inflation was “transitory.” That debate, too, ended as it’s eminently clear that except in the trivial sense that all things are transitory, inflation right now is not. There was a debate about causes, as some people pointed to the clogged ports and said “see, that’s why we have inflation. It’ll decline once we get the ports moving!” Other people pointed to shortages of various things, like computer chips, that have knock-on effects in other products. At one time, the Biden Administration argued for spending another few trillion for infrastructure, because that would lower inflation by improving those bottlenecks. Seriously. And I think they believed it. But how does that explain rents? How does it explain core services inflation above 4%? It doesn’t.

I’ll tell you what does explain all of that, though: money supply growth still in the teens, and government still riotously spending as if we remain in a calamitous depression.

I mean, wouldn’t it be weird if the single clearest prediction of monetarism happened to be right but it was a total coincidence and not because monetarism is right?

Inflation is going to ebb in 2022, probably. It is at 6% on core, and that’s probably going to go a little higher before it comes down. But there’s nothing in the data to suggest that inflation is going to drop back to 2%. Or even 3%. There’s nothing in the data that suggests the culprit is clogged ports or other bottlenecks. I expect core inflation to slowly decelerate to the 4% neighborhood…but the last four months of Core CPI have averaged a 6.8% annual rate, and in a pretty tight spread of 0.52% m/m on the low side to 0.60% on the high side. You can make an argument that the new distribution is coalescing around 6%, and that is not at all inconsistent with 13% money growth.

If you want lower inflation, then the prescription is pretty plain: decelerate money growth to at or below the desired pace of nominal GDP growth (real GDP + desired inflation). And stop spending from the federal coffers as if there is no cost to doing so. You may end up with, and probably will, less real GDP and more inflation in the near-term than you’d like, but that’s the way you get back to reasonable inflation in the medium term.

Of course, that path would be disastrous for stock and bond markets, so I give it a very small chance of happening. Not zero, but it’s hard to do this when the Fed is now an overtly political creature. They give press conferences for goodness’ sake! How do you run difficult policy when you have to face the microphones every month? Ask the coach of any team that’s in a rebuilding year.

Monetarily-speaking, we need to be in a rebuilding year. But it’s so much easier to just extend and pretend…

Well, here is one positive thought anyway: I wonder if numbers like this will finally quiet the “BLS is cooking the CPI figures!” crowd. Because if they’re cooking the numbers, they’re doing a darn poor job of it.

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