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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2022)

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!

  • Here we go again. It’s #CPI Day. #inflation
  • Before I get started with the walkup: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at https://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • What sets apart this month from many over the last couple of years are two things.
  • First, economists are now fully in the inflation-liftoff camp, with forecasts that are starting to look more like the actual data. The consensus for Core CPI is 0.54%. The average core CPI for the last 8 months is…0.54%! Who says that Econ PhD isn’t worth the money.
  • Second, and more significantly: the market has completely erased the possibility of sticky inflation and reflects 100% confidence that the Fed will be immediately and dramatically successful in restraining inflation.
  • The interbank market is pricing in 1.2% headline CPI for this month, but a SUM of 0.3% for the next 3 months. Even if gasoline, which has recently plunged from $5/gallon to $4.66/gallon, goes to $3.50 and stays there, this implies core CPI immediately decelerating.
  • The decline in the inflation markets has been unprecedented. 1y CPI swaps have fallen more than 200bps over the last month. The real yield on the July-2023 TIPS as risen 220bps during that time. 10y breakevens are narrower by 47bps.
  • The 1y inflation swap of 3.75%, considering that core and median inflation – which move slowly – are currently rising at a 6%-7% rate, implies a massive collapse in core prices and/or gasoline.
  • And this is important to note: there is as yet almost zero sign of that. Could it happen? Sure. But the Fed just made a massive 7% screw-up on inflation. My confidence that they know exactly how to get it back to 2% is…low. And to do so quickly? Very low.
  • I mentioned earlier the consensus for core CPI is +0.54%, which would put y/y at 5.7%. The consensus for headline is +1.1% (interbank market is at 1.2%), putting y/y headline at 8.8% or 8.9%.
  • I don’t do monthly forecasts because I want you to respect me in the morning. But I will say that the SPREAD between core and headline this month seems very wide to me. Typically core vs headline is a function of gasoline prices in a pretty simple way (see chart).
  • Given where the monthlies have been trending, I think core could be a little higher than consensus and headline a little lower. But if headline surprises to the upside, I suspect that will be because core did also.
  • Rents will continue to be strong. Last month, primary rents and OER rose at >7% annualized pace, and that didn’t seem too out-of-whack. Used Cars will likely be close to flat, and we could get a drag from airfares (?). So I would shade the core forecast on the high side.
  • But unless core is a lot higher than that, 1.1% or 1.2% m/m seems a stretch.
  • Used Cars will likely be close to flat, and we could get a drag from airfares (?). So I would shade the core forecast on the high side, but I’m not hugely confident in that.
  • Later you will see a lot of headlines about that new high in y/y CPI, but core CPI will continue to slide from its recent high at 6.47% in March. But after this month, Core CPI has easy comps for the next 3 months. If we keep printing 0.5%, we’ll get a new high in September.
  • Like I said, that’s contrary to the market’s pricing at the moment.
  • As a reminder, I tend to focus on Median CPI partly for this reason – outliers in core can pollute interpretation. And the Median CPI y/y chart is unambiguous at this point: still accelerating. In fact, the m/m Median CPI is looking even more disturbing than this y/y version.
  • Which brings me to an announcement of sorts. I do all of these charts more or less manually from big spreadsheets. But this month I am trying something new with my Median estimate (the Cleveland Fed reports Median CPI around lunchtime).
  • This month I’m trying an experiment with that figure. It’s going to be produced automatically when the CPI data drops, within about 1 minute (fingers crossed). And tweeted automatically. Does that make me a bot??! If it works, I may do others of my charts.
  • The actual core and headline m/m changes will also be bot-tweeted. I hope.
  • Anyway – market reaction to this number will be very interesting. If CPI is higher than expected, I would anticipate a very negative reaction to stocks and bonds, and v.v. People will start talking about 100bps of tightening this month (I doubt we will get that though).
  • And if CPI is soft, we should get a positive reaction from nominal stocks and bonds…naturally.
  • But what of inflation markets? Traditionally, an upside surprise would be met by a rally in breakevens. However, if investors really believe the Fed is going to respond aggressively and sucessfully, with a chance of overdoing it, then breakevens may FALL with a high surprise.
  • I don’t think that would make sense, but it also doesn’t make sense for 5y breakevens to be at 2.52% with median CPI at 5.5% and rising, wages at 6.1% and rising, and rents at 5.1% and rising.
  • However, markets clear risk; they don’t forecast. The inflation markets are telling us that people believe they have far more exposure to declining prices than to rising prices, and so need to sell it. That seems nonsensical to me, but ::shrug::.
  • So it will be interesting to look at the reaction in breakevens, especially if it seems nonobvious with the number.
  • That’s all for now. Number coming up. Good luck.

  • well…the consensus got the spread right, if not the level!
  • m/m CPI: 1.32% m/m Core CPI: 0.706%
  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.731%
  • Hey, that worked.
  • So, Owners’ Equivalent Rent was +0.7% m/m; Primary Rents +0.78% m/m. Rents will eventually decelerate, although not decline, but this will take a while.
  • Largely as a result of rents, core services rose to 5.5% y/y; core goods fell to 7.2% y/y. Not actually good news, since services are stickier.
  • So airfares fell, -1.82% m/m after a 12.5% surge last month. Lodging away from home -2.82% m/m. Car and truck rental -2.2% m/m. But Used Cars and Trucks +1.6%; New cars and trucks +0.7%.
  • Baby food +1.1% (NSA), and 12.6% y/y. But the main plant that had been shutdown is reopening. So, we got that going for us.
  • With y/y core falling to only 5.9%, it makes it even clearer that we will hit new highs in September if not before. Especially with core services continuing to rise, the m/m figures just aren’t going to drop that fast. And the comps for the next 3 months are +0.31, +0.18, +0.26.
  • I kinda buried the lede that headline CPI rose to 9.06% y/y. However, that is going to be the high for a little while unless energy sharply and quickly reverses.
  • Babysitting the bot got me off my game a little. Forgot to post this chart of the last 12 core CPIs.
  • So, this was not the highest core CPI we have seen. We had bigger ones back in 2021. But those were driven by outliers – you know that because median CPI did NOT have those spikes. This 0.7% is much worse…it’s not from outliers.
  • In the major groups, Apparel was +0.79% m/m. medical Care was +0.67% m/m. “Other” was +0.47%. The rise in medical was broad, with Pharma (+0.38% m/m), Doctors’ Services (+0.12%), and Hospital Services (+0.26%) all contributing. Still lower than core CPI, but trending higher.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter did decline, though, to 6.1% from 6.4%. That’s good I guess?
  • 10y BEI +7bps. So remember I was concerned that an upside surprise could be met with LOWER breaks if investors really believe the Fed is in charge and is gonna go large. Well, they may go large (stocks getting killed), but inflation folks less sure they are “in charge.”
  • The median category looks to be Medical Care Services. And that bot chart actually matches my spreadsheet. It was just truncated until I clicked on it. Man, this looks ugly.
  • That would put median CPI at 5.952%, rounding up to 6%, y/y. Another record high.
  • Biggest increases in core categories were Motor Vehicle Maintenance and Repair (+27% annualized) and Motor Vehicle Insurance (+26%), both a function of rising parts and replacement costs. Used Cars/Trucks +21%. Footwear +21%. Jewelry +19%. Infants’ apparel +16%.
  • In median, the Cleveland Fed splits OER into four geographic categories. This month, “South Urban” OER was up at roughly 12.5% annualized (roughly, because I seasonally adjusted it differently than the Cleveland Fed does).
  • Biggest monthly decliners were lodging away from home -29% annualized; -23% car and truck rental. Public Transp -5%, Misc Personal Goods -4%.
  • OER at 5.5% is well above my combo model. But it’s actually a little below one component of the model, which is based on incomes. 6.1% annualized income growth means the REAL rent growth isn’t as big as it looks.
  • This is a disturbing chart. It shows Atl Fed wages minus median CPI. I’ve estimated the last point (Wages could still accelerate this month, but won’t as much as Median). For a while, the median wage was steadily ahead of inflation. No longer. That’s why cons confidence is weak.
  • Let’s do four-pieces. Piece 1. Food & energy up more than 20% over the last year. That’s the highest in many, many years. And it’s why Powell is suddenly interested in headline.
  • Piece 2: Core goods. Yay! This is the story they were all sellin’ back when we first started spiking. “Once the ports clear, inflation will collapse back.” Actually, they told ya that PRICES would collapse. That is not ever going to happen. But inflation in core goods will slow.
  • Part of the reason core goods inflation will slow is because of the persistent strength in the dollar. I don’t know that will last forever, but while it happens it will tend to pressure core goods inflation lower.
  • Piece 3, core services less rent of shelter. This is the scariest one IMO, because it has been in secular disinflation for a long long time.
  • Piece 4, rent of shelter. This is also a candidate for scariest. People keep telling me home prices and rents will collapse but there’s a massive shortage of housing and building is difficult. Real prices could fall and nominal prices still rise, and that’s what I expect. Later.
  • So, this is fun. I have run this in the past but had to shift the whole thing because most of the distribution was off the right side. So the left bar shows the sum of categories inflating less than the Fed’s 2% target. The right bar is the weight of categories inflating >10%.
  • The sum of the weights of categories inflating faster than 5% is now over 70%. This was essentially zero pre-Covid.
  • Well, I guess we can wrap this up with a look at the markets. S&P futures -60 just before the open. 10y yields +5bps. 2y yields +12bps. 10y breakevens +5bps. Actually less-severe than I’d have expected. This is an ugly number.
  • So, we keep being told tales that inflation is peaking. And it will. Surely it will. It’s just that there are things that are still going up.
  • Our problem is that we have trained our perception on a low-inflation world. When prices go up 10%, we expect them to fall back. That isn’t automatic in an inflationary world. Prices going up too fast are followed by prices still going up, but a little slower.
  • There is most definitely a wage-price feedback loop going on. The black line below is going to get to about 6% today. The red line – which is a better measure than avg hourly earnings – is not likely to fall under that pressure.
  • We are still in an inflationary world. We are still in an accelerating-inflation world. It won’t last forever. But it isn’t over yet.
  • That’s all for now. Remember to visit https://mikeashton.wordpress.com to get the tweet summary later. Try the free Inflation Guy mobile app to get lots of inflation content. Check out the Inflation Guy podcast. https://inflationguy.podbean.com Like, click, retweet, etc. Thanks for tuning in!

Okay, to be sure I have long been in the camp that inflation would go higher, and remain stickier, than most people thought. The early spikes in inflation, due to used cars, were to me a harbinger and not a one-off. This is not, and never has been, primarily a supply-side problem. Today’s inflation did not start on the supply-side. The shortages were caused by a sudden resurgence in demand, and that demand was entirely artificial. It was that demand that created the shortages. To call this a ‘supply side problem’ is either ignorant or disingenuous. In some rare cases, supply was permanently impaired. Refinery capacity, for example. But in most cases, it wasn’t. Real GDP is back on trend.

So then surely we can get inflation back down by destroying demand? No – that’s not how it works. If you destroy demand you will also destroy supply…because that’s how you destroy demand, by getting people laid off. Hiking interest rates will eventually do that – hurt demand and production, but not necessarily do anything to inflation.

To get demand down without destroying supply, you need to run the movie in reverse. You’d need to suck away excess money from the system. That’s not going to happen, of course; it’s easier to do a helicopter-drop than a helicopter-suck. At best, we can hope that money supply flattens out, and recently it has started to look like that’s happening. That would mean that inflation would continue until a new price level consistent with the new quantity-of-money level had been achieved. This is what we can hope – that even though the Fed isn’t draining marginal reserves, somehow money growth slows because demand for loans evaporates even though banks remains eager to lend.  

It might happen, but since we’ve never tightened policy in this way – rates only, not reserve restraint – we don’t really know how, how much, or if it will work. In the meantime, inflation continues to surprise us in a bad way.

The topic for the next couple of weeks is going to be whether the Fed decides to hike 100bps, as the Bank of Canada just did in a surprise move. The market had priced in 75bps, and then a deceleration. I expect they will not, although we need to be defensive against the same leaks-to-the-big-guys that happened last meeting. While the inflation numbers continue to be ugly, and employment has not yet rolled over in a big way, inflation expectations have collapsed. To a Fed that depends very much on the idea of anchored inflation expectations, those markets are saying “okay Fed, you win. Inflation is dead. Your current plan is sufficient.”

That’s not my view, of course. In my view, if you keep using the paddles and the patient doesn’t respond you either need to code him, or you need to find a different treatment. I rather think, though, that the FOMC will say “inflation lags monetary policy by 12-18 months, so we just haven’t seen our effect yet.” Then again, so far I have been completely wrong about the Fed’s determination to hike rates (to be fair, they haven’t yet been tested by a sloppy market decline or a rise in unemployment, but I didn’t think they’d even do this much so I am willing to score that as -1 for the Inflation Guy.)

What to do? With inflation markets fully pricing a return to the old status quo, and that right quickly, it would seem to be fairly low-risk to be betting that we don’t get there so quickly. It would be hard to lose big by buying short breakevens in the 3s, when it’s currently printing in the 9s. Possible, but I like that bet especially since it carries well. And since real yields have risen so much, and the inflation-adjusted price of gold has fallen so much, I’m even starting to like gold for the first time in years. I’m not nutty about it, but it’s starting to look reasonable. It has been a rough couple of months for just about every investment out there (except real estate!), but opportunities are coming back.

“The Great Demographic Reversal”

July 6, 2022 4 comments

I don’t often write book reviews and, strictly speaking, this isn’t one. I am not going to go into great detail about The Great Demographic Reversal, by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan. And yet, if you are reading about inflation – and in particular, you’ve read what I’ve written about inflation – then I think this is a book that you should read. It is important.

One of the dilemmas that people who model inflation have is that any given model of inflation in the United States tends to have a state shift around 1992 or so. Any model that you design works at best on the pre-1992 period or the post-1992 period. I mention this a lot, because while modern-day economists and policymakers are very content with their models because they’ve worked well for nearly 30 years (until 2021-2022, when the Fed has been so befuddled that Chairman Powell last week admitted that “We’ve lived in that world where inflation was not a problem.  I think we understand better how little we understand about inflation”), in my view they don’t really understand the underlying dynamics of big inflation shifts unless they can explain the state shift in or around 1992.

The most popular explanation is that inflation expectations abruptly became anchored at that point, causing inflation to suddenly become mean-reverting in a way it never did before. There have been plenty of takedowns of this idea, most notably by the Fed’s own Jeremy Rudd. My theory for some time has been that the sudden globalization and expansion of Free Trade following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet sphere of influence in the late 1980s, most-aptly summed up in this chart from Deutsche Bank, gave us a better tradeoff of growth and inflation for a given amount of money supply growth, but that that game was coming to an end at about the time Donald Trump was elected.

Goodhart and Pradhan, in the book I’ve referenced above, provide some additional support for that view but also go much farther and highlight the massive demographic wave that was cresting over the last quarter-century. It isn’t just the Baby Boom generation in the United States, but also (and critically) the opening up of China and the movement of rural Chinese to the cities that caused a massive outward shift of the labor supply curve. Since the title of the book gives away the ending I don’t mind sharing the point they make that the China demographic is shifting into reverse (as a foreseeable consequence of the one-child policy) and many other demographics-related trends are also. One of their big conclusions is that “for the past few decades, central banks have given too much credit to their own inflation targeting regimes and too little to demography in accounting for the disinflation we have seen.” (p.189-190)

The authors discuss the changing demographic landscape, and how this leads to a resurgence of inflation. They address a number of counterarguments, including (thank heavens) the “Why Didn’t It Happen in Japan” argument, and examine whether there is likely to be sufficient contrary forces coming from (for example) automation and the continued growth of India and Africa. They tinker with various policy proposals. I should say that I disagree with many of their policy proposals, which are redolent of some of the redistributional schemes common on the left.

But while I don’t like their solutions, I agree that they’ve identified the right problems and supported those views with plenty of charts and data. The book was published in late 2020, before the current inflation spike makes them look prescient. It was written prior to the COVID crisis, and there is an addendum chapter where the authors discuss whether and how Coronavirus changes their views. However, I think the authors would admit that they weren’t writing about the inflation spike of 2021-202x. They are really looking farther out. In their view – which I share – the basic forces which made the disinflation of the last 40 years possible (and possibly even inevitable) are moving into reverse, and we will struggle for many years with the difficult choices an underlying inflationary dynamic forces upon us.

I highly recommend this book.

The Coming Rise in Money Velocity

June 28, 2022 2 comments

As M2 money growth soared throughout the COVID and post-COVID period of direct stimulus check-writing funded by massive quantitative easing (QE), monetarism novices thought that this would not result in inflation because money velocity simultaneously collapsed. Consequently, they argued, M*V was not growing at an outrageous rate.

There was precedence for such optimism. In the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, money supply grew rapidly with the onset of QE and money velocity declined, never to recover. The chart below shows in a normalized fashion the rise in M, the decline in V, and the relative quiescence of MV/Q, which is of course P by definition as long as you choose your Ms, Vs, and Qs right.

A similar thing happened in this episode, so why would this be any different?

There are many reasons why these episodes are different. To name a few:

  • The absolute scale of the rise in M2 was 2.5x the rise in 2007-2010, and that’s being generous since that measures the growth in 2007-2010 starting almost 2 years before the first QE in November 2008 compared to only 15 months in the second case.
  • As I’ve written previously, QE in the first case was directed at banks; at the same time that the Federal Reserve was adding reserves it was also paying banks interest on reserves – because the point was to strengthen banks, not consumers.
  • 5y interest rates came into 2008 at 3.44%; they came into 2020 at 1.69%. Since velocity is most highly correlated to interest rates, there was less room for this factor to be a lasting downward influence on velocity (after the crisis began in 2008, 5y Treasury rates never exceeded 3% again except for a few days in 2018).
  • Bank credit growth never stopped in the 2020 crisis, while it contracted at a 5% rate in the 2008 crisis (see chart, source Board of Governors of the Fed).

The monetarist novices (you can tell they’re novices because they say things like “Friedman said velocity was constant,” which is false, or “velocity is just a plug number [true] and has no independent meaning of its own [false]”) insisted that velocity was in a permanently declining state and that there was no reason at all to expect it to ever “bounce.” After all, it bounced only slightly after the GFC; why should it do so now?

But after 2008, as I noted, interest rates bounced only briefly before declining again…with the added phenomenon that some global debt came to bear negative yields, calling into fair question whether there was in fact any natural “bottom” to velocity if interest rates are the main driver! And velocity, obediently, dripped lower as well.

There is at least one other big driver to money velocity, although it is rarely important and almost never for very long. And that is economic uncertainty, which creates a demand to carry excess cash balances (implying lower money velocity). A model driven (mainly) by rates and a measure of uncertainty has done a pretty good job at explaining velocity over time (see chart, source Enduring Investments), including explaining the collapse in velocity during the COVID crisis out-of-sample.

Now, explaining velocity is a helluva lot easier than predicting it, because it isn’t easy to predict interest rates. Nor is it easy to predict the precautionary demand for money – but at least we can count on that being somewhat mean-reverting. The latest point from the model shown above uses current data, and suggests (largely because of the rise in interest rates, but also because precautionary balances are declining) that money velocity should bounce. Not that the model predicts it will happen this week, but it should not be surprising when it does.

A rise in velocity would be a really bad thing, because the money supply is very unlikely to decline very far especially while bank credit growth continues to grow. The only reason we have been able to sustain 6% or 8% money growth for a very long time has been because we could count on velocity to keep declining with interest rates. If money growth ticks up at, say, a mere 6% while money velocity rises 5%, then nominal GDP is going to rise 11%…and most of that will be in prices.

Now, this is a very slow-moving story. I mention it now for one specific reason, and that is that we are almost certain to see a rise in velocity in Q2 when the GDP figures come out in late July. That’s because money growth for the quarter has been very slow so far. So far, the Q2 average M2 is 0.06% higher than the Q1 average. My best wild guess is that we will end up with an 0.5% annualized q/q growth rate. The Atlanta Fed GDPNow model estimates 0.25% GDP growth in Q2 (the Blue Chip Consensus is still at 3%). And if the inflation market is right, Q/Q inflation in Q2 will be about 11.7%. That’s CPI, so let’s be generous and say 9%. We don’t know all of these numbers, but we know 2/3 of all of them. Let’s use the Blue Chip consensus for GDP and assume M2 doesn’t spike next month and the price level doesn’t collapse. Then:

If that happened, the increase would be the largest quarterly jump in money velocity – absent the reactionary bounce in 2020Q3 after the 20% plunge in 2020Q2 – since 1981. And here’s the rub: because of the mathematics of declines and recoveries, that would still leave us with velocity that prior to 2020 would have been an all-time record low.

Does this matter? Not if you believe the monetarism dabblers, who will say this is a mechanical adjustment that will soon be reversed as velocity continues its long slide to oblivion. Nor will it matter to the Fed, who at best will take executive notice of the fact before ignoring it since they aren’t monetarists any longer. But for those who think that inflation comes from too much money chasing too few goods? It’s scary.

One Experiment Ends and Another Begins

June 15, 2022 5 comments

Today the Federal Reserve hiked rates 75bps, the biggest single-meeting increase since 1994. Two days ago, the markets had incorporated an expectation for 50bps. After a well-placed Wall Street Journal article that somehow everyone on the Street knew was a warning from the Fed, the markets immediately priced 75bps. I’ve never seen anything so dramatic, nor as blatantly insider. Giving weight to a “Fed mouthpiece” journalist who is assumed to have great sources at the Fed is a time-honored tradition. But I have never seen the entire market re-price with a virtual 100% certainty overnight based on a news article (especially when the last thing the Chairman had said on the subject of 75bps was fairly dismissive, not long ago). Ergo, I’m fairly confident that the article was only the public whisper. We will never know, and they like it that way.

Cynicism aside, today marked an important moment when the central bank finally admitted that inflation is higher and likely will stay higher than they previously have assumed (gone from the statement was a note that “the Committee expects inflation to return to its 2 percent objective and the labor market to remain strong”), rates will have to go higher – although they still don’t anticipate raising rates above inflation, according to the ‘dot plot’ – and that they probably can’t make this omelette without breaking some eggs.

Powell still refused to cop to the fact that this was a total policy error, and completely identifiable in real time. It’s always amazing to me that when policymakers make massive errors they always seem to think that no one saw the mistake coming. Greenspan said that about the tech bust. Bernanke said that about the housing bust.

But this was more than just a mistake. This was an intentional policy decision that was driven by a seductive but completely idiotic theory: the idea, promulgated by Modern Monetary Theory acolytes, that if the economy is not at full employment the government can spend any amount of money and the central bank can print it, and it will not cause inflation. The last two years were an experiment, testing that proposition. Massive government spending, financed by bond sales that the Fed promptly bought, was nothing more than MMT and lots of people said so at the time, including this author. In January 2021, right after the first stimmy checks went out, I wrote this:

So I expect that as things go back to normal, inflation will rise – and probably a lot.

This is the test! Modern Monetary Theory holds you can print all you want, with no consequences, subject to certain not-really-binding constraints. The last person who offered me free wealth with no risk was a Nigerian prince, and I didn’t believe him either. I will say though that if MMT works, then we’ve been doing monetary policy wrong for a hundred years (but then, we also leached people to cure them, for hundreds of years) and all of our historical explanations are wrong – and someone will have to explain why in the past, the price level always followed the GDP-adjusted money supply.

…and I’d also said something like that in November 2020. And in March 2020. And I certainly wasn’t alone. The meme that “MMT” stood for “Magic Money Tree” was well-traveled.

So this is in no way unforeseen. The prediction in advance was that this behavior would provoke very high inflation. And the MMTers said “pshaw.” They were wrong, and that experiment is over. The next person who mentions MMT, you are entitled to run out of town on a rail.

That’s the good news. [I will say that I did not believe the Fed would get religion this quickly, but then they also haven’t been punished by asset markets yet for turning hawkish. Still, I didn’t really think the Fed would get to 1% before they’d start reversing course, and I was definitely wrong on that!]

But now the bad news. We are starting a new experiment, and unlike the last one this experiment isn’t as obvious. The Federal Reserve is now, for the first time, trying to control high inflation by changing only the price of money, with no pressure at all on the quantity of money. Always before, the Fed changed interest rates by putting pressure on reserves. Banks that wanted to continue to lend had to bid up those scarce reserves, and so interest rates rose. As I’ve written frequently (and even talked about in my book “What’s Wrong With Money?” six years ago!), that isn’t how it’s done today. Banks live in a world where lending is not reserve-constrained at all, and only capital-constrained.

Changing interest rates, without putting pressure on reserves to drag down money growth, is an experiment just like MMT was an experiment. The Fed has models. Oh yes, they have models. Gobs of models. Given what we’ve just gone through, how much confidence do you have in their models? Here’s the thing. Raising interest rates, if banks have unlimited lending power, probably[1] means more money and not less. That’s because banks are very elastic when it comes to making profitable loans. Give them more spread, or a higher yield over funding, and they will lend a bunch of money. On the other hand, borrowers tend to be less elastic. If you’re a consumer who has an 11% consumer loan, and it goes up to 12%, is that really going to make you borrow less? Mortgage origination is one place where you’d expect to see an elastic demand response to higher rates, but less than you might think when home prices are rising 15% per year. In short, if you don’t restrain banks by pressuring reserves, I suspect it’s very likely that you get more lending, not less, with higher interest rates.

But we don’t really know one way or the other.

What concerns me now is that at least with MMT, we knew it was an experiment. It may have been a stupid experiment, or merely an excuse to do ‘transformational’ things in response to the COVID recession, but we knew we were doing things we had never done before. When we talk about interest rate policy, though, there aren’t a lot of people who think the Fed is doing anything new. People think that the Fed always operates by raising interest rates, because we “know” that “tightening policy” is synonymous with rate hikes. The problem is, that’s a mental shorthand. That isn’t, in fact, the way the Fed has historically operated. When the Fed was doinking around with inflation between 1% and 3%, the precise mechanism didn’t really matter – the Fed’s actions probably didn’t have any meaningful effect one way or the other. Now, however, we are in a dreadfully important time. There’s a reason that NASA tests rockets without anyone aboard, before they strap anybody to it. We, though, are all involuntary participants in this experiment.

Hope it ends better than the last one.


[1] Fine, fine, this is speculation on my part too because I haven’t done it either. But my forecasting record is better than the Fed’s.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (May 2022)

June 10, 2022 2 comments

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!

  • It’s #CPI Day and, possibly, mea culpa day.
  • Last month I, & most everyone else, said the CPI peak was behind us as it dropped from 8.5% to 8.3%. In fact, I went out of my way to be sure people understand that peak CPI doesn’t mean peak PRICES (see my podcast at https://inflationguy.podbean.com/e/ep-28-this-month-s-cpi-report-peak-changes-not-peak-prices/ , e.g.)
  • We may have been premature. Today, while the consensus estimate is that headline will print 8.3% y/y the interbank market is exchanging that risk at 8.48%. And moreover, prices in the interbank market have the best guesses for headline CPI above 8.6% until October.
  • Of course that is because gasoline prices did NOT peak and kept on climbing. The national average is about to surpass $5/gallon. And this is keeping headline inflation bid.
  • Core CPI is still very likely to decline y/y. Consensus for the m/m is 0.5%, and the comp from May 2021 is +0.75%, so core should drop. The m/m consensus seems a little low, but 6 of the last 7 core prints have been between +0.5% and +0.6% so we are probably talking shading.
  • And I focus on Median CPI, which is still rising. It will keep going up for at least a few more months. And this is the salient point. Median is the best measure of the main thrust of the distribution – and while it’s rising, you can’t say price pressures have peaked yet.
  • Before I go on: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at https://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • In the bad news category this month, new cars and apparel are likely to continue to be contributors. Used cars are a little less clear. But these are three of the big “core goods”. So it isn’t just used cars. It was never just used cars, of course. That was just a foil.
  • Also in the bad news category for the general inflation outlook (although not for this month’s CPI perhaps) is that wages are still accelerating. The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker is now up at 6.1% y/y.
  • The good news is those wages are maintaining a steady spread over median CPI. Bad news is that so far gasoline and food aren’t mean-reverting and so the wage slaves of the world (and that’s most of us) are still getting killed. But maybe apres le deluge things will be better.
  • Hey, more good news is that M2 is decelerating. It’s down to 8% y/y, and only 1-2% over the last 3 months. Problem is that prices still haven’t caught up with the money growth SO FAR, but at least maybe we’re stopping the digging of the hole. Early to say that yet.
  • Unfortunately, commercial bank credit is growing at 9.5% y/y. Which is exactly what you would expect when non-reserve-constrained banks are able to lend at higher market rates.
  • This is one of the mechanisms for velocity rising when rates go up: the supply of credit gets better, and the demand for credit is fairly inelastic (50bps means more to your bank than it does to you).
  • We have never ever tried to restrain inflation with rates alone. Repeat that to yourself: monetary policymakers have NEVER tried to restrain inflation anything like this level with just interest rates. In the past, they restricted reserves. Not this time. So, here’s hoping.
  • Pretty short walk-up today but that’s because all the stories are the same: rents, and breadth, and we are still looking for a peak. Rents still look strong, breadth is still wide, and the peak in headline and median appears to still be ahead.
  • Question to ponder is: if CPI hits a new high, how bad for equities is that? If inflation stays at 6% for 2022, how long can the Fed sell the idea that 2.75% is the highest they’ll need to hike? The Eurodollar curve doesn’t believe it, but it also thinks this is all over in 2023.
  • I’m still thinking the Fed will pause the first time stocks get sloppy or unemployment starts to rise, but maybe I’m wrong. So far no signs of that. Still, they’ve not been tested yet.
  • OK, number in a few. Good luck.

  • ok, well…I guess we weren’t at peak CPI yet. M/M headline +1%; Y/Y up to 8.6%. Core slipped, but not as far as expected. To 6.01%. The decline is base effects. Bad news is that this is the HIGHEST m/m core CPI since last June.
  • It wasn’t just gasoline helping the headline to new highs; Food & Beverages was +1.13% m/m, now up to +9.73% y/y. Again, that hurts the wage earners most.
  • Used Cars was +1.8% m/m. New cars +0.96% m/m. Airfares, after +19% last month, were +12.6% this month. And can I say, the quality of air travel is as bad as I can remember it, speaking anecdotally.
  • Remember how everyone said that when core goods inflation came down, this would pass? Well, it is! core goods fell to 8.5% y/y from 9.7%. But core services jumped to 5.2% from 4.9%.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent leapt +0.6% m/m and now at 5.1% y/y. Primary Rents +0.63%. I have to look back and see the last time we saw any m/m jump that big. Lodging Away From Home +0.9%. So Housing subcategory was +0.85% m/m, +6.9% y/y.
  • That was the biggest m/m change in OER since 1990. And it doesn’t look like it’s rolling over.
  • Doctors’ Services fell -0.14% m/m, and are at only +1.1% y/y. Amazing. Hospital Services +0.46% m/m, so y/y went to 3.87%. Overall Medical Care subcategory was +0.4% m/m, to 3.74% y/y.
  • Core inflation ex-housing declined to 6.4% y/y. Yay!
  • This is kind of what I was afraid of. Housing inflation is moving above our model. It’s more in line with one of the subcomponents of the model, which is income-driven. And since wage income is still rising rapidly, there’s no reason to expect rents to slow very much.
  • More good news is that alcoholic beverages inflation is only +4.04% y/y. We’re gonna need it.
  • Household energy was +3.96% m/m. Fuel Oil +11% on the month, +76% y/y. Piped gas +7.8% m/m, +30.2% y/y. Electricity +1.9% m/m, +12% y/y. Break out those sweaters.
  • (That was an allusion to Jimmy Carter telling folks to turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater, in the 1970s energy crisis).
  • So Communication was -3.5% on the month. No idea what that is all about. Misc Personal Services was -1.3% m/m. Tenants and Household Insurance -0.8% m/m. Without that 5% of the basket declining, this would have been WORSE.
  • Median also looks like it should be 0.63% m/m or so. If true, that would be the biggest median since 1982. And folks…pressures aren’t ebbing; they’re BUILDING. Core highest in a year (m/m); median highest in decades.
  • About 8% of the consumption basket inflated faster than 9% annualized this month (m/m * 12, not y/y). That’s ridiculous. Normally there are a handful of outliers.
  • Four Pieces charts. Food and Energy, no surprises.
  • Piece 2, core goods. Like I said, good news. Dollar strength doesn’t hurt, but this ebbing is mostly due probably to declining trucking/shipping. Still not exactly soothing.
  • Piece 3 is core services less rent of shelter. Highest in a very long time. Over the last few years, this has persistently been the one spot that was showing gradual disinflation. No more.
  • Piece 4 rent of shelter – I’ve already discussed. It’s taking the top off my model.
  • As predicted, stocks not loving this. Short end of the Treasury curve also less than pleased.
  • I forgot: CPI for baby food unchanged on the month, +12.75% y/y.
  • One more chart and then I want to wrap up. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index declined slightly this month, but still at a very high level. Those few weird negative categories might have rounded its edges a little. Nothing soothing though.
  • So, look. This was worse than even the pessimists were looking for. Housing accelerating to new levels, as a slow-moving category, is really, really bad news.
  • Headline inflation, thanks to continued rises in gasoline prices, may advance still further. Core inflation was down, and may be down again next month, but ONLY because of really rough comps. May-2021 (dropped off today) was +0.75%. June was +0.80%.
  • But then July, August, and September 2021, on core CPI, were +0.31%, 0.18%, and 0.26%. We’re going to shatter that. So core CPI probably doesn’t really peak until September…at best.
  • Meanwhile, Median CPI is still rising, months away from a peak also, and more importantly still setting new highs in m/m prints. That’s amazingly bad news.
  • We all know the Fed is behind the curve. And we know that their 2.75% terminal dot was based on the assumption that inflation would ebb to a level they think is the natural equilibrium around 2.25%.
  • That ain’t gonna happen. Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll hike rates to where they really need to be, but the choice between saving the nation from inflation on the one hand and saving the stock market on the other hand just got real.
  • Remember this chart. All of the models the Fed is using assume the canopener. They assume inflation is pulled by anchored expectations or some other potion to 2.25%. This is false.
  • Image
  • What am I saying? DEFEND YOUR MONEY. That’s all for today. You can catch this summary on https://mikeashton.wordpress.com later, and I’ll drop a podcast tonight. Stop by Enduring Investments if you feel so inclined. Thanks for tuning in.

Maybe we will look back on this day and say “that’s the day that everyone caught on that this inflation isn’t going to just gently fade away.” Every crisis has an inflection point where suddenly everyone realizes they’re on the wrong side of the boat – the day that our assumptions up to that point became plainly and obviously wrong. In the global financial crisis, the day that Lehman failed (without being merged into some other firm like Bear was) was the day when the last sleeping people woke up.

This isn’t quite so dramatic, but banks aren’t failing so it is what we have.

So, peak CPI isn’t yet behind us. Some of that is gasoline, of course. But the core CPI figures were also stronger-than-expected, and the strongest month in a year. Median CPI is still getting stronger every month, with new m/m records every month and y/y still rising. Rents are still accelerating. So not only are prices still rising, but inflationary pressures appear to still be rising even though in some cases (notably in core goods) there are some signs of improvement.

Those pressures should eventually ebb, if money supply growth remains flattish as it has over the last few months. But the price level has not yet caught up with prior increases in the money supply. Even after the microwave is turned off, the kernels in the popcorn bag still pop for a little while. That’s the best case at this point – that we are witnessing the final kernel pops.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (April 2022)

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!

  • It’s #CPI day and #inflation has peaked! Yay!
  • Well, in a few minutes it will be official: peak CPI has passed. Of course, that’s entirely a mechanical fact due to the fact that core CPI in April, May, and June last year was +0.85%, +0.75%, and +0.80%, and it (probably) won’t be that high this year.
  • It certainly doesn’t mean inflation pressures themselves have peaked. In fact Median CPI, which is a better measure of the central tendency of inflation pressures, is almost certain to rise to new y/y highs today. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a party.
  • The bigger issue I think is that people confuse peak INFLATION, which is a rate of change, with peak PRICES. Prices aren’t going to fall, even if the inflation rate falls. (Some prices will fall, of course, but not generally). Price level is here to stay.
  • Before I go on: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at http://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app. AND….
  • What is more, at 1:00ET I will be live with @JackFarley96 on @Blockworks_ to talk (for a long time) about inflation. It’s on YouTube and free, so tune in! https://youtube.com/watch?v=mrG8IHXzlQU  And he had a nice placard made up.
  • Back to the report walk-up. The consensus for CPI is +0.2% m/m, dropping y/y to 8.1%. Gasoline should actually be a small drag this month, but contribute again next month. Consensus for core is +0.4%/6.0% after 6.5% y/y as of last month.
  • The interbank market isn’t so sanguine; it has been trading today’s headline print at a level suggesting 0.3%/8.2% for the headline number, so a snick higher than economists’ estimates.
  • That’s my feeling too. There’s more risk to the upside than the downside in this number today, I think.
  • The good news is that truckload rates are coming down, and this tends to precede ebbing in core. Not sure that effect is being felt yet; the typical lead is pretty long and manufacturers I speak to are still assuming high shipping in their pricing.
  • And the strong dollar will bring down core goods eventually too (it should decline today but is still double-digits). That is also a long lead. Used cars should drag slightly today. They were -3.8% m/m last month and private surveys have them a smidge lower this month.
  • But again, the rate of increase in used car prices is declining mostly because of base effects, not because prices themselves are going back to the old levels. And they won’t. We have 40% more money than we had 2y ago; that’s not consistent with prices where they were 2y ago.
  • On the other side of the coin, primary rents surprised on the low side last month. I expect a bit of a retracement higher this month, and I’m still not sure we’ve seen the peak m/m OER rate. Those are the 500-lb gorillas and until they ebb we won’t get 2% CPI.
  • As longtime followers know, I’ve also been watching Medical Care for a while. This month I actually saw stories about nurses’ salaries starting to pressure hospital prices higher. So still attentive to that. It’s one of the only sectors that hasn’t really participated.
  • We are also eventually going to get a bump higher in college tuition CPI – saw a story y’day about BU raising tuition ~5% (I put the story on the Inflation guy app). But the NSA series mostly puts those adjustments in the summer so we shouldn’t see an inflection yet.
  • In the markets, the past month has seen a massive shift in interest rates higher, and breakeven inflation rates lower (the breakeven reversal coming mostly over the last few days). 1y inflation swaps are -58bps on the month. Only some of that is carry.
  • Stocks have obviously been under pressure from rising inflation and real rates. Over the last couple of days, the stock market debacle has caused some unwinding of the rate selloff but breakevens are still on the back foot.
  • Stocks today seem chipper, but most of that is coming from signs of lower COVID transmission in Shanghai and a sense that lockdowns there may end soon. We will see if they’re still chipper after CPI.
  • I still don’t see the Fed as hawkish as what is priced in, mainly because I think they’ll lose their nerve as asset prices fall. I don’t really care about them changing the price of money. I’m watching for a change in quantity of money. So far, not impressed.
  • Just 4 minutes to the figure. Good luck!

  • Oh, snap.
  • Headline CPI fell to 8.3% y/y, not as far as expectations. Bigger deal is that core CPI was several ticks higher than expected. 0.57% m/m
  • I am scrunching up my eyes but I can’t see a decline in inflation pressures here.
  • Well, let’s see. Used Cars -0.38% m/m, small drag. New cars +1.14%, though. The spread Used:New needs to close but most of that spread probably will be new car prices coming up. After all, new price level as I said.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent 0.46% to 4.78% y/y from 4.54%. That’s in line with where it has been. But Primary Rents jumped back up after the surprise last month: 0.56% m/m to 4.82% y/y from 4.45% y/y.
  • COVID recovery continues: Lodging Away from Home +1.7% m/m; airfares +18.6%!
  • Now, I have been seeing a lot of stories about this one. It’s only 0.04% of the consumption basket but it really hits viscerally. Baby Food, +3.05% m/m, +12,9% y/y.
  • Food and Beverages as a whole, +0.84% m/m, +9.00% y/y. Ow!
  • Now, I don’t know if this is good news or not but core inflation EX HOUSING declined to 6.8% y/y from 7.5%. Good news is that means some of the outliers are coming back. Bad news is that means the big slow categories are carrying most of the upward momentum.
  • I guess looking at the chart, I probably shouldn’t get very excited about that last point.
  • Of note is that Apparel was -0.75% m/m. Apparel is only 2.5% of the basket these days (yet still a major subgroup), but it is Core Goods and one of the categories that you’d expect to see a dollar effect in. Core goods y/y dropped under 10%. But still a long ways to go.
  • …in that chart you can also see core services up to 4.9% y/y, which is the highest since 1991. So there’s part of the economy that’s not inflating at 40-year highs. And it’s not a small part of the economy. But, 5% isn’t exactly great news.
  • Turning to Medical Care – it was +0.44% m/m, up to 3.23% y/y. Led by Hospital Services, +0.48% m/m. Still not alarming and below the price pressures we’re seeing everywhere else. Weird.
  • Within food, here are some of the m/m NSA changes that people are seeing. This is why they’re yelling, Joe. Putin’s arm is long: Dairy +2.4% m/m. Meats poultry fish and eggs +1.7%. Cereals/bakery products +1%. Nonalcoholic beverages +1.4%.
  • Biggest losers in core (annualized monthly rate): Jewelry/Watches -19%, Footwear -15%, Women’s/Girls’ Apparel -10%.
  • Biggest winners in core (annualized monthly rate): Lodging away from home +23%, Motor Vehicle Parts and Equipment +15%, New Vehicles +15%, Car/Truck Rental +10%. Shorter list than we’ve seen in a while, anyway.
  • My guess at Median CPI is not good news: 0.53% m/m is my estimate, 5.23% y/y. That’s a better sense of where the inflation pressures are. We’ll revert to something like 4.5%-5% just on y/y effects, but until the monthly Median CPI is not hitting 0.5%, we’re not out of the woods.
  • There’s also this. I’d want to see core below median as a sign inflationary pressures are ebbing. In disinflationary environments tails are to the low side (so avg<median). In inflationary environment, tails to the upside (median<avg). We are still in inflationary world.
  • Quick check of them there markets…whoops, it appears equity investors don’t like this number.
  • By the way, for everyone thinking that rents have to stop going up because people can’t afford these levels. Again, the price level has changed. And wages are keeping up with rent increases, on average. There is no obvious sign to me that rents are overextended at all.
  • Here are the four-pieces charts, and I think we’re going to see the same story in the diffusion calculations. The stickier stuff is coming along for the ride. Here is piece 1, food and energy. No surprise here. And gasoline will be back as an addition next month.
  • Core goods. This is where the dollar effect, and the decline in the cost of shipping, will eventually be felt. And at some level actually is (see Apparel).
  • But now we get to core services less rent of shelter. This has been inert for years until just recently. This is the second-stickiest of the four pieces.
  • And rent of shelter. The stickiest. Rising, and not yet showing signs of slowing (although I think 5-6% is where it flattens out for a while). There’s just not a lot of great news here.
  • Tying up one loose end here – used cars was a small drag. But look at how the y/y plunged. Again, this is because even with little change in the PRICE LEVEL of used cars the rate of change will decline.
  • Couple of quick diffusion charts and then I’ll wrap up. Here is the proportion of the consumption basket that is inflating faster than 4%. It’s at 76% and actually just reached a new high. No sign of peak inflation here.
  • And finally, the Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index…actually declined slightly. Last few months it has rocked back and forth a little bit at a very high level. No real sign of peak inflation here either.
  • Summing up. The peak y/y CPI print is now behind us, at least for now. Expect a victory lap from policymakers talking about how their policies are winning. But there’s no sign of peak inflation pressure yet.
  • The core and headline numbers actually fell less than expected. And let’s face it, this month’s Core CPI figure annualizes to almost 7%.
  • In fact, 6 of the last 7 core CPI numbers have been between 0.5% and 0.6%, which would annualize of course to 6%-7.2%. If that’s what we’re celebrating with “peak CPI” behind us, I guess I’ll bring the whiskey but I’m not sure I’m celebrating.
  • And FWIW, the “peak” is because we dropped off 0.86% (core m/m) from April 2021. We have 0.75% to drop next month, then 0.80%. But then we see 0.31%, 0.18%, and 0.25%. In other words, apres le deluge, more deluge.
  • Core CPI is likely to still be 5%-6% at year-end! The sticky categories are still accelerating, and there will be other long tails to the upside. That’s just what an inflationary environment looks like. Watch Median CPI, which will be lower but no less concerning.
  • Will the Fed keep hiking raising the price of money? Probably, although I think the swagger might leave them when stocks are another 20% lower.
  • Will the Fed actually decrease the QUANTITY of money, which is what matters? They can’t, because banks are not reserve-constrained any more. So it’s up to loan demand and supply, and recently loan demand has been increasing, not decreasing. Chart is source Fed, h/t DailyShot
  • Bottom line, folks, is that this might be a clearing in the woods but there’s a lot of woods ahead. Eventually inflation will ebb to 4%ish, but it will take time. I don’t see 2% for quite a long time, and not until interest rates are quite a bit higher.
  • Thanks for tuning in. Don’t forget to check the summary later on the blog https://mikeashton.wordpress.com , and http://inflationguy.podbean.com  where I’ll have a podcast on this later. AND tune in at 1:00ET for Inflation Guy live with@JackFarley96 on @Blockworks_

The theme of the day is that “peak inflation” means different things to different people. To economists, and policymakers, and Wall Street brokers trying to get you back into the meme stocks, “peak inflation” means “the year/year rate of inflation will decline from here.” We already knew that was happening, before this number ever showed up on screen. Yes, the drop was less than expected, but the peak is still there in March 2022!

“Peak inflation” means something different to the average consumer, who isn’t a trained economist. Consumers tend to conflate “inflation” with “high prices”, rather than rising prices. That is, they tend to confuse the level of prices with the rate of change. So the consumer hears “peak inflation is here!” and expects that prices themselves should go back to the old levels. To some extent, this version is reinforced by the price they see most often: gasoline, which goes up and down. But most prices do not go up and down. They go up more quickly, and they go up more slowly, and sometimes they stay the same. Most prices don’t go down. The average consumer, thinking he has just been promised that used car prices, meat prices, gasoline prices, and rents are going to go back down is going to be even more upset when that doesn’t happen. (This is why politicians ought to be very careful about talking about “peak inflation” as a good thing. To the average consumer, prices that go up more slowly is just less-bad than prices that go up quickly…and they think you’ve promised them something good.)

And the inflation specialist doesn’t mean either of these things when he/she says “peak inflation.” The inflation specialist is looking at pressures, and whether those pressures are increasing, abating, or staying the same. For now, those pressures are staying about the same, with m/m core and median CPI in basically the same range they have been in for 6 months. There is not yet any sign that those pressures are ebbing. Yes, they are ebbing in some items, such as in Used Cars, and in some goods where supply chains are clearing (at higher prices). In general, we would expect goods and services which have reached a new equilibrium price level to stop going up so fast. But those are just the goods and services that moved first. With 40% more money and an economy that’s only 5% or 10% bigger, we should expect prices to eventually rise about 30%. Some more, some less, of course, and if money velocity stays down forever then it will be 20% and not 30%. But this is the point. Peak inflation does not mean peak prices. Prices continue to rise at a rapid rate, and there is as yet no sign that the pressure to do so is ebbing.

High Prices Don’t Cure High Prices

April 23, 2022 10 comments

This was an interesting week, in which it seemed that equity investors finally and abruptly got the message that high inflation is bad for the market; increasing interest rates are bad for the market; declining bid/offer liquidity is bad for the market; high energy prices are bad for the market; global geopolitical unrest is bad for the market; and a strong dollar is (eventually) bad for the market. The last two days in the stock market was a remarkably steady and orderly melting. Will it continue? Well, none of those trends I just mentioned look as if they are about to change significantly, so the only question is whether the extraordinary popular delusion returns.

The proximate cause for the selloff seems to have been the hawkish talk from Fed speakers, including the floating of the trial balloon early in the week about the possibility of a 75bp tightening. By the end of Friday, Cleveland Fed President Mester was actively pouring cold water on the notion that anything so aggressive was out of the question, while still talking in terms of 50bps increments.

I admit that as of only a few months ago, I didn’t think the Fed would hike rates more than about 75bps in total before they lost their nerve. On the other hand, they’re about 500bps behind the curve, so color me surprised…but not impressed.

To be sure, I also thought the stock market would have reacted before this point. And I do think that it is easier to talk about how much you’re going to work out this summer until it gets hot. So we will see.

But, on to my real topic today: the annoying canard that “high prices are the cure for high prices,” which is a phrase so absurd on its face that the discussion really shouldn’t go much further than that. The phrase implies that we can’t have inflation because if we have inflation, then prices will come down. It’s one reason that people are expecting used car prices to drop by as much as they previously rose – because “no one can afford a car at those prices!”

The idea is that as prices rise, the amount of money in your pocket can’t buy as many things. Therefore, real demand must suffer because higher prices mean that people can buy less stuff. Ergo, inflation causes recessions (which is weird, because we are always told how expansions cause inflation – which means that expansions must cause recessions. Are you feeling a ‘down the rabbit hole’ sensation yet?).

This is another example of a stock-flow fallacy. Or maybe it’s a fallacy of composition. It’s a micro/macro mistake. The point is that it doesn’t work that way.

The system can’t run out of money. If prices go up 25%, it doesn’t mean that you can buy 20% less stuff. Well, perhaps you can buy 20% less stuff, today, until you run out of money. But the person who sold you the car now has 25% more money than he would have previously, had he sold the same car before. Maybe you are out of money, but he has 25% more money. The money doesn’t leave the system when you buy something. It only leaves your wallet. (The stock market works exactly the same way, and no one ever questions why stock prices can’t keep going up because investors are using up all of their money, right?).

Now, if the total amount of money in the system is the same today as it was before the 25% increase in prices, and the velocity of exchange doesn’t change, then yes – that 25% price increase won’t stick because in aggregate we will be spending the same amount of money at higher prices, which means we take home fewer goods and services. If on the other hand the amount of money in the system went up by 25%, then total expenditures (if velocity is roughly constant) will be the same in unit terms as before. The system doesn’t grind to a halt and force prices lower. The system reaches equilibrium at prices that are 25% higher. By the same token, if there is 40% more money in the system, then those 25% price increases won’t be enough, there will be shortages, and prices will keep rising.

This seems like a good point to recall that M2 money since the end of 2019 has risen 42%. Tell me again why Used Car prices need to retrace so much?

The real question, to me, is why more prices haven’t gone up 42%. My answer is that we are still in the adjustment period. It takes time for that money to wash around the system, and it’s still on the rinse cycle.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (March 2022)

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!

  • It’s #CPI #inflation day again, and a watershed one at that. If you had told me back at the beginning of my career in 1990 that we would see 8.5% inflation again, I would not have been surprised. If you had told me it would take 32 years, I would have been flabbergasted.
  • But, here we are. The consensus Bloomberg estimate is for 8.4% on headline inflation with 6.6% on core. That’s monthly of about 1.25% and 0.5% (!) But last month, the interbank market was looking at an 8.6% peak, so I guess that’s good. Energy has come off the boil some.
  • But this is the first number that is fully post-Ukraine-invasion so it will still get a big dollop of energy inflation.
  • Before I go on: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at http://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app. Please stop by/tune in.
  • First, the good news. I expect today’s figures will mark the highs for the year. The comps get really hard hereafter: in April 2021, Core CPI rose 0.86% m/m, 0.75% in May, and 0.80% in June.
  • The bad news is that inflation might not ebb very far. The last 5 monthly core prints have been between 0.5% and 0.6%. The central tendency of the distribution appears to have moved up from 2-3% to maybe as high as 6%+.
  • That means that even when inflation is at an ebb, we’re looking at 3-4 ish, not 1ish. More good news though! The Fed in theory has total control of this. If it aggressively shrinks the balance sheet, then it can wring inflation out of the system.
  • I have no doubts that the Fed has the tools. There have been signs they aren’t focusing on the right ones. And there’s at least new vigor in the talk. But I am still skeptical that they are willing to break things.
  • By aggressively shrinking the balance sheet, I don’t mean $60bln a month; I mean taking the whole thing down to $2-4T in a reasonably short period of time.
  • But while it now looks like the FOMC will bull ahead with 50bps this month (surprising me), I just can’t bring myself to believe that it will crack the stock market and keep tightening through the recession we’ll get in late 2022/early 2023.
  • 275bps of rate hikes? Color me skeptical as soon as the growth data starts to flag a bit, or unemployment ticks up.
  • That’s really the longer-term question. Will the Fed do what it takes to break the cycle they put into motion, by reversing it? AND will they resist responding to the next recession with more of the same? I have my doubts. Would be happy to be wrong.
  • Wages, food, and rents have been booming. There is some feedback going on here. Of course, the main culprit continues to be the huge increase in the quantity of money over the last few years. The rest of it is micro.
  • But if you’re looking at supply chain issues – they haven’t gone away. In some cases they’re getting worse. As a reminder, though, that’s how inflation manifests, is in shortages of things that are over-demanded thanks to the money gusher. Prices adjust in response.
  • The bond market is starting to adjust to the realities of a hawkish Fed although not yet really putting rates at anything we would consider neutral (with a 10y rate around GDP+desired inflation, say 4-5% total).
  • Over the last month, inflation expectations have been broadly unchanged to slightly lower – although a lot of that is carry going away. Real rates are up 50-100bps, and nominal rates up 80-85bps. That’s big, but not nearly big enough to make a serious difference.
  • Why hasn’t the stock market begun to reflect the higher inflation? Partly because inflation expectations still haven’t firmly broken higher. And, after all, real rates are still slightly negative. But we’ll get there.
  • Now, in today’s number we will look aghast at the food category. High and persistent inflation in food and energy is not something policymakers can do a lot about, but it IS what leads to global political unrest…which leads to more supply chain problems and de-globalization.
  • Rents will remain high, currently trending towards 5-6% as Primary Rents continue to adjust post-eviction-moratorium.
  • And Owners’ Equivalent Rent remains high but steadier (at least recently). This is likely to remain so for the rest of 2022. Remember, the rent pieces are the big slow-moving pieces. Usually slow-moving, that is.
  • On the other side, I think there is a chance that Used Cars are a drag although prices themselves aren’t going to go back to the old levels. Might retrace a bit, but the new price level is higher – that’s what the money does. So rate of increase will decline. Level? Not so much.
  • But airfares and lodging away from home may be adds. Look as usual for the breadth; the odd stories will be the categories that did NOT rise.
  • I’m also still watching the Medical Care subgroup, as the inflation there has remained surprisingly tame through all of this. Only Medical Care and Education/Communication are below 2.5% y/y among the major categories! They’re due to participate eventually.
  • Here we go. Three minutes. Good luck. Take a picture to remember this by. At least until we get higher numbers in 3 years.

  • Pretty close. The headline number showed 8.5% y/y because the monthly number was just a little higher than expectations. But with all the volatility, that’s a great consensus estimate. Core was quite soft, at 0.32% m/m. Well, that’s soft these days.
  • Y/y core CPI therefore was only a snick or two higher, 6.44% y/y vs 6.42% y/y last month. As a reminder, hard comps are coming up so that probably marks the highs in both headline and core. Question is how far and how fast they drop.
  • That was the lowest core CPI figure since the three soft ones of July/Aug/Sep last year. We’ll look at the components.
  • A big culprit was, as I thought it might be, Used Cars. The private surveys had had a decent drop recently; in the CPI they were -3.8% m/m so that the y/y is “only” 35.3%.
  • Airfares, were +10.7% m/m. Lodging away from home +3.28%. But those are smaller weights. New Cars were only +0.18% m/m, so it does look like while New Car prices are going up, Used Car prices are also going down to re-establish a more normal relationship. This will take some time.
  • Car and truck rental was +11.7% m/m. That’s remarkable too. Rental car companies are having trouble getting enough new cars, and that’s one reason used car prices won’t plunge any time soon. But also, people are traveling again!
  • Food & Beverages: +0.96% m/m, +8.5% y/y. Food prices won’t recede soon. In addition to the loss of Russian and Ukraine supplies, there has been a recent culling of chickens due to bird flu. Like we needed that.
  • Core inflation ex-housing declined from 7.6% to 7.5%. Big whoop.
  • Core goods prices, thanks significantly to Used Cars, decelerated to 11.7% from 12.3%. But core good prices accelerated to 4.7% from 4.4%. Until the last 3 months core services hadn’t been at a new 30-year high, but they are now.
  • Remember, services prices are the slower-moving ones. BTW, this month Primary Rents were +0.43% (y/y up to 4.54% from 4.31%) and OER was also +0.43% (y/y 4.45% vs 4.17%). Both still headed higher but both slightly lower than last month.
  • In Medical Care: medicinal drugs was +0.23%; Doctor’s Services +0.49%; Hospital Services +0.40% for an overall increase in medical care of 0.55% m/m. Y/Y up to 2.86%.
  • Education/Communication was DOWN m/m, -0.17%. It’s really the only holdout category here. And if you want to find a place where there should be adjustments to LOWER quality post-COVID (implying more inflation), this is it!
  • Haven’t talked abt Apparel for a while. The y/y increase there is now ~6.8%. Apparel is a category that has been in deflation on net since the Berlin Wall fell. We import almost all of it. And prices have recovered the entire COVID discount and don’t look like they’re slowing.
  • Looking at housing, it is now running a bit hotter than my model; however, I think we could get an offsetting snap-back above the model reversing the underperformance during the eviction moratorium.
  • The main problem with housing inflation isn’t that it is going to 18%, but that it is slow-moving and it’s going to stay high for quite a while. High means 4.5%-5.5%, maybe a bit more even; given its weight in the CPI that means core CPI isn’t going back to 2% soon.
  • Market check, just for comic’s sake: Stocks absolutely love the decline in used cars which led to a softer core number. Breakevens are lower, but not so much.
  • While I wait for the spinning beach ball, this is a good time to remind you that a summary of all of these tweets will be on https://mikeashton.wordpress.com within an hour or so after I conclude. Then later today I will have a podcast version at https://inflationguy.podbean.com
  • The median CPI chart kinda tells the story. This was really never ‘transitory.’ The entire distribution has been steadily moving higher and breaking from the old range to a new range.
  • People ask me the best inflation hedge these days? For most normal people with normal amounts of money (annual purchases of these are limited), i-series savings bonds are the best deal the US Government offers. Maybe ever, at least when real rates everywhere else are negative. “The interest rate on inflation-adjusted U.S. savings bonds will soon approach 10%”  https://on.wsj.com/3rkEFVw
  • We put our database in the cloud so everything is super slow at the moment. I’m going to call a halt here. Some of my other regular charts will be in the post, at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com , so stop by later and check it out (or go there now and subscribe to the post).
  • Bottom line is that the basic story is the same. Broad and deep inflationary pressures. Don’t get distracted by the used cars thing; it didn’t create the inflation and it isn’t putting it out.
  • No sign yet that these pressures are ebbing. In fact, the acceleration in Medical Care bears watching. Also, the extended rise in food & energy is going to have other repercussions.
  • Is the Fed going to hike aggressively and (more importantly) squeeze down the balance sheet aggressively in this context? If stocks and bonds were going to be unchanged, sure. But they’re not going to be.
  • Treasury probably can’t sustainably manage the debt if long interest rates get to 5% (unless inflation stays at 8%). And stocks aren’t worth the same when discounted at 5% as when discounted at 1%. I am confident the Fed will blink. Maybe not as early as I originally thought.
  • One final word and chart. 75% of the weight in the CPI are now inflating faster than 4%. More than a third of the basket is inflating faster than 6%. This is an ugly chart.
  • Thanks for tuning in. Be sure to call click or visit! https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  or https://inflationguy.podbean.com  to get the podcasts. And download the Inflation Guy app!
  • Correction here…the y/y should move up to more like 4.9%, not 4.5%.
  • Highlighting that the number today was mostly dampened by used cars…looks like Median CPI will come in something around 0.5% again. Since September it has been 0.4-0.58% and the y/y will move up to around 4.5%. So don’t get too excited (equity dudes) about the softer core.

The Federal Reserve didn’t get any favors from the Bureau of Labor Statistics today. While the core CPI number was a little below expectations, that miss was entirely due to Used Cars. But while that category was an early champion of the “transitory” crowd, the fact that used car prices are declining slightly after a massive run-up is not a sign that the broader economy is slipping into deflation! It is a sign that that particular market is getting into slightly better balance.

Don’t confuse the micro and the macro. We get wrapped up in the supply and demand thought process because that’s how it works at the micro level. When we look at a product market, we don’t see ‘money’ as being a driver. It is, because you can think about the inflation of any item as (general price inflation) plus (basis: difference in the item and overall), where that basis is driven by those microeconomic supply/demand effects. The former term drives the overall level of inflation; the micro concerns drive the relative price changes. The used car market is getting into (slightly) better balance, but other markets are getting worse. Until the overall level of money growth slows a lot, and the aggregate price changes catch up with the aggregate change in the money supply, inflation is not going to vanish no matter what happens to “aggregate demand.”

As a reminder, M2 has risen some 40% since early 2020. Subtract out net real growth, and you’d expect to see 25%-30% aggregate rise in the price level – if M2 growth went flat. That’s why I say that if the Fed wants to crush inflation, it actually needs to cause M2 to decline, not just level out at 6%. I don’t see any chance of that happening because to do it the Fed would need to remove basically all of the excess reserves and make banks reserve-constrained in lending markets so that lending declines. This seems very unlikely! So will the Fed tighten 275bps? Someday…maybe over a couple of cycles when the real damage from inflation finally wakes them up. Right now, this is a short-term problem to them. I don’t think they’re willing to take a massive market correction to solve what they believe is a short-term problem.

Anatomy of a Monetary Policy Error

Well, it isn’t as if no one warned that monetary policymakers were eventually going to get painted into a corner. Long before the Covid crisis, there were many voices warning that the Fed’s tendency to ease aggressively, but to find excuses to tighten slowly, would eventually get them into trouble. And here we are.

The Federal Reserve, prior to the Ukraine/Russia war, had started to talk hawkishly about raising interest rates; that talk, combined with 40-year highs in core inflation, persuaded Wall Street economists that the Fed would raise interest rates by more than 200bps this year.

That was never going to happen, even if Russia had not invaded Ukraine. Not since the early 1980s has there been a tightening cycle of at least 200bps over 10 months that also ended with the overnight rate above where the 10-year rate had been at the beginning of that period. So the calls for 200bps of tightening with the 10-year rate under 2% was always an incredibly aggressive call. Moreover, those cycles where it did happen occurred in an era when the Fed Chairman didn’t go in front of the cameras every meeting to explain why the Fed was ‘trying to increase unemployment’ – and, in fact, back in those days almost no one outside of the financial community paid much attention to the Fed at all. Plus financial leverage, ancient source of dramatic accidents, was much lower then. So my operating assumption has always been that the Fed would probably tighten about 3 times this year, pausing in between each hike…or maybe hiking 4 times and then easing once. Especially since the Fed no longer controls the marginal reserve dollar (there being copious excess reserves), the effect of monetary policy moves is less clear…and this also mitigates in favor of taking time to assess the effect of policy moves by watching the economy evolve. Ergo, this tightening cycle was always destined to be late and halting, and focused on interest rates rather than on money supply. Such a trajectory already qualifies as a ‘mistake’ when inflation is threatening 8%.

But now there’s even more room for error. Because the skyrocketing energy prices trigger another mistaken belief at the Fed, which enhances the desire to tighten even slower/later.

The Fed thinks that rapid energy price increases have this effect on the economy: rapid increases in energy prices tends to cause slow growth or recession as those increases consume discretionary income and leave less for non-energy purchases. And recession causes a decrease in pressure on other resources, such as labor. Which, in turn, leads to lower pressure on core inflation. Since energy prices are mean-reverting (at least, the rate of change is!), the central bank is “supposed” to ignore inflation that is caused by energy price increases, since if they tighten according to some Taylor-Rule-like dictum then they’ll tighten into a recession and increase the amplitude of the business cycle. Ergo, the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that the Fed should tighten less.

However, that’s not the way this works.

Rapid increases in energy prices do in fact tend to cause recession. But inflation is not caused by too little economic slack, and disinflation is not caused by too much slack. Inflation is caused by money growth, period, and M2 money growth is currently above 12%. It is true that an increase in energy prices would lead to a decline in non-energy discretionary spending, which would limit core inflation, if money growth was low. But if money growth is high, the increase in energy prices just rearranges the relative price changes because there is plenty of money to go around. It doesn’t change the overall impact of the rapid money growth. (Small caveat: a scary recession would increase the demand for precautionary cash balances, lowering money velocity…but people are already holding such precautionary balances so it’s hard to see how that could be a large effect from this level). Ergo, when the Fed slows down its tightening campaign because of the way they believe inflation works, and especially if they decide to not shrink the balance sheet – because “higher long-term rates would be bad in a recession” – they won’t have any real effect on growth but they’ll be accommodating a much higher level of inflation.

And just like that, you have it. The genesis of a really colossal monetary policy error. Get ready.

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.

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