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The Monetary Policy Revolution in Three Charts

January 18, 2023 Leave a comment

Over the last few years, I’ve pointed out exhaustively how the current operating approach at the Fed towards monetary policy is distinctly different from past tightening cycles. In fact, it is basically a humongous experiment, and if the Fed succeeds in bringing inflation gently back down to target it will be either a monumental accomplishment or, more likely, monumentally lucky. My goal in this blog post is to explain the difference, and illustrate the challenge, in just a few straightforward charts. There are doubtless other people who have a far more complex way of illustrating this, but these charts capture the essence of the dynamic.

Let me start first with the basic ‘free market’ interest rate chart. Here, I am showing the quantity of bank lending on the x-axis, and the ‘price’ of the loan – the interest rate – on the y-axis. If we assume for the moment that inflation is stable (don’t worry, the fact that it isn’t will come into play later) then whether the y-axis is in nominal or real terms is irrelevant. So we have a basic supply and demand chart. Demand for loans slopes downward: as the interest rate declines, borrowers want to borrow more. The supply curve slopes upward: banks want to lend more money as the interest rate increases.

An important realization here is that the supply curve at some point turns vertical. There is some quantity of loans, more than which banks cannot lend. There are two main limits on the quantity of bank lending: the quantity of reserves, since a bank needs to hold reserves against its lending, and the amount of capital. These are both particular to a bank and to the banking sector as a whole, especially reserves because they are easily traded. Anyway, once aggregate lending is high enough that there are no more reserves available for a bank to acquire to support the lending, then the bank (and banks in aggregate) cannot lend any more at any interest rate – at least, in principle, and ignoring the non-bank lenders / loan sharks. We’re talking about the Fed’s actions here and the Fed does not directly control the leverage available to loan sharks.

Now, traditionally when the Fed tightened policy, it did so by reducing the aggregate quantity of reserves in the system. This had the effect of making the supply curve go vertical further to the left than it had. In this chart, the tightening shows as a movement from S to S’. Note that the equilibrium point involves fewer total loans (we moved left on the x axis), which is the intent of the policy: reduce the supply of money (or, in the dynamic case, its growth) by restraining reserves. Purely as a byproduct, and not very important at that, the interest rate rises. How much it rises depends on the shape of the demand curve – how elastic demand for loans is.

As an aside, we are assuming here that the secondary constraint – bank capital – is not binding. That is, if reserves were plentiful, the S curve would go vertical much farther to the right. In the Global Financial Crisis, that is part of what happened and was the reason that vastly increase reserves did not lead to massive inflation, nor to a powerful recovery: banks were capital-constrained, so that the Fed’s addition of more reserves did not help. Banks were lending all that they could, given their capital.

Manipulating the aggregate quantity of reserves was the way the Fed used to conduct monetary policy. No longer. Now, the Fed merely moves interest rates. Let’s see what effect that would have. Let’s assume for now that the interest rate is a hard floor, and that banks cannot lend at less than the floor rate. This isn’t true, but for ease of illustration. If the Fed institutes a higher floor on interest rates then what happens to the quantity of loans?

This looks like we have achieved the same result, more simply! We merely define the quantity of loans we want, pick the interest rate that will generate the demand for those loans, and voila, we can add as many reserves as we want and still get the loan production we need. The arrows in this third chart show the same movements as the arrows in the prior chart. The quantity of loans is really determined entirely by the demand curve – at the prescribed interest rate, there is a demand for “X” loans, and since banks are not reserve-constrained they are able to supply those loans.

However, it’s really important to notice a few things. The prior statement is true if and only if we know what the demand curve looks like, and if the floor is enforced. Then, a given interest rate maps perfectly into Q. But:

  1. D is not known with precision. And it moves. What is more, it moves for reasons that have nothing to do with interest rates: for example, general expectations about business opportunities or the availability of work.
  2. Moreover, D is really mapped against real rates, while the Fed is setting nominal rates. So, for a given level of a nominal floor, in real space it bucks up and down based on the expected inflation rate.
  3. Also, the floor is not a hard floor. At any given interest rate where the floor would be binding, the desire of banks to lend (the location of the S curve) exceeds the demand for loans (by the amount of the ?? segment in the chart above). The short-term interest rate still affects the cost to banks of that lending, but we would still expect competition among lenders. This should manifest in more aggressive lending practices – tighter credit spreads, for example, or non-rate competition such as looser documentary requirements.

In the second chart I showed, the Fed directly controlled the quantity of reserves and therefore loans. So these little problems didn’t manifest.

Now, there is one advantage to setting interest rates rather than setting the available quantity of reserves as a way of reducing lending activity. Only the banking sector is reserve-constrained. If there is an adequate non-bank lending network, then the setting of interest rates to control the demand for loans will affect the non-bank lenders as well while reserve constraint would not. So this is somewhat “fairer” for banks. But this only means that non-bank lenders will also be competing to fill the reduced demand for loans, and the non-bank lending sector is less-vigorously regulated than the banking sector. More-aggressive lending practices from unregulated lenders is not, it seems to me, something we should be encouraging but what do I know? The banks aren’t lobbying me to help level the playing field against the unregulated.

Hopefully this helps illuminate what I have been saying. I think the final chart above would be a lovely final exam question for an economics class, but a bad way to run a central bank. Reality is not so easily charted.

2022 Year-End Thoughts About 2023

December 22, 2022 2 comments

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When I was a Street strategist, and/or producing ‘sales and trading commentary’ as a trader, it was de rigueur to produce an annual outlook piece. Naturally, everyone does one of those; consequently, I stopped doing them. It seems to me like it would get lost in the shuffle (this is one of the reasons that Enduring’s “Quarterly Inflation Outlook,” which we distribute to customers and is also available by subscription here, is produced on the ‘refunding schedule’ of February, May, August, and November rather than at quarter-end). Having said that – it does seem that, given what inflation has done recently, there are more people asking for my outlook.

I do have to raise one point of order before I begin. As regular readers of this column know, in my writing, I generally try to propose the ‘right questions,’ and I don’t claim to have all the right answers. An outlook piece is often interpreted as being the analyst’s best guess at the answers. While it is that, for me the answers I suggest here are likely to be less valuable to the reader (I do not recommend that you blindly place trades based on my outlook for where markets will go!) than the thought process that is going into them. You may and probably will disagree with some of my answers. But hopefully, you’ll be able to identify where in my reasoning you have specific disagreements, which will either enhance your own view or cause you to thoughtfully reconsider it. That’s the whole point, and I don’t care at all if you disagree! That’s what makes markets.

Moreover…even if my guesses end up being “wrong,” or “right,” based on the actual outcomes in the future, that doesn’t mean they were wrong or right in terms of being a good approach/positioning. Investing is not really all about making the “right” bet in terms of whether you can call the next card off the deck, but about making the “right” bet with respect to the odds offered by the game, and betting the right amount given the odds and the edge. On this topic, I recommend “Thinking in Bets” by Annie Duke as excellent reading.

So, here goes.

MACROECONOMICS

For most of this year, I have been saying that we would get a recession by early 2023. In 2022Q1 and Q2, US GDP contracted. This produced the predictable shrill announcements of recession, coupled this year with sadly simple-minded declarations that the Biden Administration had “changed the definition of recession” by saying we weren’t in one. One television commentator I saw strongly profess the view that the two-quarters-of-negative-growth-is-a-recession definition is “in every economic textbook.” Having read my fair share of economic textbooks and having taught or tutored from a few, I can assure you that is not the case.

I was, and remain, sympathetic to the incoming fire that the Biden Administration took then, because they were basically right: whether we chose to call it a ‘recession’ or not, there was scant sign of any economic distress. Employment (which lags, of course) remained strong, corporate earnings were solid, confidence was reasonably high except for inflation, and citizens still had a substantial cash hoard left over from the COVID stimmy checks. However, while the critics were wrong on the timing they weren’t wrong about the eventuality of a recession. As I also said a bunch of times, there has never been a period where energy prices rose as rapidly as they did between early 2021 and mid-2022, combined with interest rates increasing as rapidly as they did thanks to Federal Reserve policy, that did not end in recession. But it takes Wile E. Coyote some time to figure out that there is nothing under his feet, before he falls, and recessions work similarly. We will have a recession in 2023.

We are already seeing the early signs of this recession. One indicator I like to look at is the Truck Tonnage index, which falls significantly in every recession (see chart, source Bloomberg). The last two months have seen a decline in this seasonally-adjusted index. It is early yet – we saw a similar-sized decline in 2016, for example, so there are false signals for small changes – but the fact that this decline happened heading into the Christmas season gives it more significance.

That’s the goods side. The services side shows up more in the labor market, which lags behind the overall cycle. Yet there too we have started to see some hints of weakness. Jobless claims are well off the post-COVID lows, although they are still roughly “normal” for the tight pre-COVID labor market. And the labor market is really hard to read right now, given the continuing crosswinds from the COVID-period volatility and the fact that so many services jobs now are at least partly virtual. Upward wage pressure is continuing, partly because virtual workers are less productive (shocker reveal there), so this recession in my view will probably not feel as bad as the last couple of recessions (GFC, Covid) have felt. However, we will have a recession in 2023.

The bad news, though is that a recession does not imply that inflation, ex-energy, will decline. Look at this chart, which captures the last three recessions. The post-GFC recession was the worst in 100 years, and while core inflation slowed that was almost entirely a function of the housing market collapse and not the general level of activity. The COVID recession was worse than that, and core inflation accelerated. And the post-tech-bubble recession wasn’t a slouch either; core inflation accelerated throughout 2001 until it started to decline, but only got down to 1.1%, in late 2003.

This chart shows y/y changes, but helpfully shows core-ex-shelter (Enduring Investments calculations). There isn’t a lot to see here in terms of the effect of these three huge recessions.

Lest you think I am just cherry-picking the 2000-2022 period, here is core CPI and GDP normalized as of December 1979. Again, you can see in the GDP line the recessions of the early 1980s, of the early 1990s, and that post-tech-bubble recession. I can’t see those, in the CPI line.[1]

And hey, as long as we are doing this…how about the 1970s malaise when the multiple recessions and flat growth led to … well, not disinflation.

I think the evidence is very clear: forecasters who are relying on the “recession” forecast (which I share) to make a “hard disinflation” forecast are simply ignoring the data. Those two concepts, outside of energy, are not related historically.

That being said, I expect core inflation and median inflation to decelerate in 2023. I just don’t think they will decelerate nearly as much as Wall Street economists think. Shelter inflation is already well above my model, and I expect will come back towards it, but my model otherwise doesn’t see a lot of downward pressure on rents yet. The strong dollar, and some healing of supply chains, will help core goods – but core goods inflation will remain positive next year and probably for a long time, thanks to secular deglobalization, instead of being in persistent slow deflation. And core services ex-rents will decelerate, but mainly because of the technical adjustment in health insurance. Until wages start to ebb, it’s hard to see a crash in core services ex-rents inflation. So that brings me to this forecast for core CPI:

Current2023 Fcast
Core Goods3.7%2.3%
Rent of Shelter7.2%4.8%
Core Services less ROS6.3%5.1%
Core CPI6.0%4.2%

Most of the Street is in the mid-2s for core inflation; the Conference Board forecast for Core PCE recently was raised to 2.8% which would put core CPI at 3% or 3.1%. They’re getting there, but frankly it’s hard to see how you can get to those levels. In my view, most of the risks to my forecast are to the upside.

MONETARY POLICY

An important disclosure should be made here: in 2022, I was utterly wrong about the path the Fed would take. Almost as wrong as it is possible to be. Ergo, take everything I say hereafter in this section with a grain of salt.

Coming into 2022, I thought the Fed would follow the same script they had used for more than a quarter-century with respect to tightening policy: slow, late, tentative, and quickly reversed. Although inflation was already plainly not transitory, I know that the Fed’s models assume a strong homeostasis especially with inflation, to the extent that the persistent part of inflation is essentially (albeit with a lot more math) modeled as a very slow moving average and overall inflation is assumed to pull back to that level. When the Fed talks about the “underlying inflation trend,” that is in simple terms what they are saying. But if you believe that, then there’s very little reason to pursue something similar to a Taylor Rule where policy is driven by simple deviations of growth and inflation from the target levels.

So, when the Fed started to move I expected them to tighten a few times and then to stop and ultimately reverse when financial markets started doing ugly illiquid things. One thing I didn’t anticipate: the markets never really did ugly illiquid things. Investors welcomed the tighter policy, and ran ahead of the Fed to give them room. Especially considering that, at the end of 2021, I think most sophisticated investors viewed the Fed as incompetent (at best) or counterproductive (at worse), the markets gave the Committee an amazing amount of latitude. The Fed, to its credit, saw the gap in the defense and sprinted through it. I did not see that coming.

After nearly 500bps of rate hikes, and a small decline in the Fed’s balance sheet, money supply growth has come to a screeching halt. That’s largely spurious, I think, since money supply growth is a function of bank lending and banks are neither capital-constrained nor reserve-constrained at the moment, and longer-term interest rates have risen but not very much (except in the mortgage market). I suspect that most of the decrease in loan demand that is evidently happening is not in response to the increase in short-term rates but rather to the increase in mortgage rates almost entirely. If that’s the case, then it’s a one-time effect on M2 growth: mortgage origination can only go to zero once. The chart below shows the connection between M2 growth (in blue) and the MBA Purchase index (black). The correlation is not as incredible as it looks, because one is a rate of change that is off-center by 6 months (it’s y/y) and one is a level of activity, but if I expressed both in rate of change you would still say they look suspiciously similar.

If I am right about that point, then the money supply will shortly resume its growth as the overall volume of lending continues to grow without the negative offset of declining mortgage origination. With money velocity on the upswing now, this will support the level of inflation at a previously-uncomfortable level. So what will the Fed do?

Importantly, the Fed won’t really know that inflation isn’t dropping straight to 2% until after the midpoint of the year. But they’ll make the decision to pause rate hikes sooner than that. I think a 5% Fed funds rate is a reasonable target given their assumptions, a key one of which is that if “underlying inflation” is really 2%-3% then a 5% nominal rate will be plenty restrictive.  

What is really amazing to me – which the ‘me’ of 2021 would never have anticipated – is that Fed watchers and market participants are starting to talk as if they believe the Fed might overdo the tightening, raising rates higher than needed to restrain the economy and inflation (yes, I know I said that a recession doesn’t cause lower inflation but it’s an article of faith at the Fed so we need to pretend as if we believe it). It’s incredible, when you think about it: the Fed hasn’t come close to ‘overdoing it’ in a tightening cycle in decades, if by ‘overdoing it’ we mean that they caused a deflationary crash. The Fed has caused plenty of recessions, but core inflation hasn’t been negative since the Great Depression. And we’re worried about them overdoing it?

Naturally, if you don’t think that raising rates causes inflation to come down then any rate hikes at all…actually, any active monetary policy at all…is too much. But in any event, it’s striking to me that the Fed has somehow restored some credibility as a hawkish central bank. Not that credibility per se matters, since expectations don’t cause inflation. But I digress. It’s still pretty amazing.

When Powell was first named Chairman, I was hopeful that a non-economist could help break the Fed out of its scholarly stupor. As time went on I lost that hope, as Powell trotted out various vacuous terms like “transitory” and leaned on discredited models (nevertheless still in vogue at the Fed) such as those which utilize the ‘anchored expectations’ hypothesis. But I have to say, my opinion of him has risen along with the Fed funds rate.

In my view, the biggest Fed error of the last forty years was Greenspan’s move to make the Fed transparent, which caused the pressures on the Fed to be entirely one-way. The second-biggest Fed error follows from that, and that is the tendency to move rates further and further away from neutral, holding rates at such a level by maintaining vastly higher levels of liquidity than were needed to run the banking system. The consequence of this has been a series of bubbles and asset markets at levels where the prospect of future real returns was abysmal. Plus, it led to the heyday of hedge funds where cheap money levered small returns into big returns.

The Powell Fed, for all of its flaws and awful forecasting, has succeeded in getting the yield curve to the vicinity of long-term fair value, which I define as sovereign real rates near the long-term growth rate of the economy (2.00-2.25% in the US – see chart below, source Enduring Investments before 1997 and Bloomberg after 1997). With a Fed inflation target at 2.25% or so in CPI terms, this means long-term nominal interest rates should be in the vicinity of 4%-4.5% over the long term in the context of a responsible central bank. We’re not there, but we’re getting close.

All of which means that I think the FOMC is just about done with hiking rates for this cycle. I believe they will get to 5%, pause, and stay paused for a long time. I do not expect them to lower interest rates, even if there is a recession, unless markets or banks start to have difficulties or Unemployment gets above 6%. That might happen in late 2023, but even if it does I think the Fed will be much more measured about cutting rates than they have in previous cycles. Credit to Powell for the change in attitude.

Those pieces, the Macro and the MonPol, along with my assessment of relative valuations, inform everything else.

RATES, BREAKEVENS, AND CURVES

The long, long, long downtrend in interest rates is decisively finished. As noted above, when inflation is under control and in the vicinity of the Fed’s 2% target, long-term interest rates should be in the vicinity of 4-4.5%. Over the last century, when rates have been away from the 3-5% range it has generally been either because inflation was unstuck on the high side (1970s, 1980s) or unstuck on the low side (1920s, 1930s, 2010s) (see chart, source Federal Reserve and Bloomberg). The long-term downtrend can be thought of as going from unstuck-high inflation, to normal, and overshooting to the downside in the last decade. But we have now definitively ended that low-rates period.

At a current level of roughly 3.5% nominal, 1.4% real, interest rates are ‘too low’ again, but this is normal for an economy headed into recession. Ordinarily, this configuration of events – a Fed nearing the end of a tightening cycle, a recession looming, and interest rates that have risen 320bps over two years – would make me bullish on bonds. And I do think that the first part of 2023 may see a decent rally as the Fed finishes their business and the stickiness of inflation is not yet apparent, but the recession is. Seasonally, you’d really prefer to be long the bond market/out of equities in the last quarter of the year and out of the bond market/long equities in the first quarter of the year, but I think the seasonal pattern will be reversed this year. So we will come in all happy as bond investors, and get unhappy later in the year.

The reason I think the first quarter of the year will be pretty decent for bonds is because of the timing of the recession and of the end of the Fed tightening cycle. But why the selloff as the year progresses? Well, investors will start to see that inflation is not falling as fast as they had expected, the Fed is showing no signs of easing…and the Federal deficit is blowing up.

In FY 2022, the US government had a $1.38 trillion deficit,[2] in an expansion during peacetime. But there are some inexorable effects pushing that higher next year. For example, interest on the debt: higher interest rates will affect only the part of the public debt that has rolled over, but that is an awful lot of it.

In December 2021, the rolling-12-month interest expense on US Debt Outstanding (see chart, source Bloomberg) was $584bln.[3] As of November 2022, the rolling-12-month expense was $766bln. It will be up another $100bln, at least, in 2023. Social Security benefits paid this year were roughly $1.2 trillion, and benefit payments are due to increase 8.7% next year – so, even neglecting the fact that there will be more recipients next year, Social Security should also be $100bln further in the red. That’s $200bln, on top of the approximately $1.4trillion deficit, and I haven’t even considered Medicare, the decline in tax receipts that will occur thanks to a decline in asset markets this year, or the decline in taxes on earned income when the economy enters a recession. A $2 trillion, peacetime deficit is easily in reach and will be much more if it’s a bad recession. The last time we had that big a deficit, the Fed happened to also be buying a couple trillion dollars’ worth of Treasuries. This time, though, the Fed is shrinking its balance sheet.

It is fairly easy to imagine that longer interest rates will have to rise some, in order to roll the maturing debt. As I said, higher interest rates don’t really bother me because I don’t run a highly-levered hedge fund. (But if the rise in rates were to get sloppy or rates were to rise enough to threaten a spiral in the deficit, then I can imagine the Fed stepping in to reverse its balance sheet reduction and being under even more pressure to guide rates lower. However, it’s not my base case.)

Also, as the year goes along the stickiness of inflation will become more apparent and investors will rightly start to put that assumption back into their required return for nominal bonds. One of the really crazy things that happened in 2022 was that inflation compensation in nominal bonds (aka ‘breakevens,’ the mathematical difference between yields on nominal bonds and yields on inflation-linked bonds that pay inflation on top) declined even as the overall level of inflation continued to climb. At the time of this writing, Median CPI has not yet even decisively peaked, although I think it will. But with Median CPI at 6.98%, it’s incredible that the market is demanding only 2.28% annual compensation for inflation over the next decade (see chart, source Bloomberg). That basically says investors are comfortable earning an increment that underpays them for inflation in the near term, and in the long term will only compensate them for what the Fed says they are trying to pin inflation at.

That’s not as easy a trade as it was when 10-year breakevens were at 0.94% in March 2020, but it still seems to me that most of the risk over that decade would be for inflation to miss too high, rather than too low. I understand that the FOMC wants inflation down around 2%. And as for me, I want a Maserati. Neither one of us is likely to get what he wants, just because we want it.

As the first quarter of the year passes and long-term interest rates decline, the curve may invert further from its current level. But I don’t think it can invert that much, which limits the value to being long, say, 10-year notes from this level. Given the current level of inversion, it is fairly easy to construct steepener trades that throw off positive carry. For that matter, a leveraged investor who is financing at 4.5% and earning 3.75% is more likely to want to go the other way! I think it’s going to be difficult to get a good bull market rally going in bonds, and if I was a leveraged hedge fund investor I’d be playing from the short side/steepener side even in the first quarter of the year (albeit cautiously). The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows 2s/10s monthly going back to 1980. The only time the curve was more inverted was in the early 1980s, a couple of years after Volcker’s Saturday Night Special and with the hiking campaign solidly underway as it is now. I’m expecting 2s/10s to go positive in 2023, although the best shot at something like +50bps would come if the Fed actually did ease. Ergo, a steepening trade is also nice because it works in my favor more if I’m wrong about the Fed staying on hold for a while after they finish hiking to 5%.

Put those together and I see Fed funds at 5%, 2yr Treasuries at 4.25%, and 10s at 4.5%.

We obviously look deeper than that, though, on this channel. We can separate nominal yields into real yields (represented by TIPS) and inflation compensation (breakevens, or inflation swaps). Here are what the curves look like today (source: Enduring Investments).

From here, it looks fairly obvious that a good deal of the steepening should come from longer-term real rates rising. The 2y TIPS bond is at roughly 2%, so 2s-10s in reals is about the same as it is in nominals. The inflation curve is ridiculously flat. I do think that the inflation curve is more likely to shift higher in parallel than to steepen; a steepening inflation curve would imply accelerating inflation going forward and I don’t think investors really believe we’ll get acceleration. So I think that the movement in the shape of the TIPS curve will be very similar to the movement in the nominal curve, but with the level of the nominal curve being driven by an upward parallel-ish shift in the inflation curve.

2y10y
Current TIPS Yields1.96%1.42%
EOY TIPS Yields1.80%1.85%
Current Breakevens2.30%2.27%
EOY Breakevens2.45%2.65%

VOLATILITY

Generally speaking, a higher-inflation environment is a higher-volatility environment. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows core CPI in blue against the ICE BofA MOVE Index of fixed-income option volatility. True to form, the higher-inflation regime has correlated with higher levels of fixed-income volatility.

It isn’t terribly shocking that volatility is higher in bonds than it had been during the years when interest rates were fixed within a stone’s throw of zero. And it shouldn’t be terribly shocking that I expect volatility to stay somewhat higher than the 2017-2019 and 2020-early 2021 levels, even as core inflation recedes somewhat. What may be surprising is the observation that a sizeable gap has opened up in the behavior of fixed-income volatility and equity volatility, as the following chart comparing the VIX (equity vol) and MOVE (fixed-income vol) shows. Note that these are different axes, but you can clearly see the uptrend in the MOVE that has not been replicated by the VIX.

I mentioned earlier how regular and controlled the decline in the stock market has been, and how this has allowed the Fed to push rates further than anyone thought they would, a year ago. There have not been too many periods where option sellers have been punished for being short vol in equities. On the other hand, bond vol has been very different now from what it was a few years ago. In short, there has been a regime change in bond vol, but not in equity vol. At some level, this will continue, but the spread should narrow as the Fed gets to the end of the tightening regime. I think we will end 2023 with the VIX above 22 log vol – where it is today or slightly higher – but with the MOVE around 90 norm vol.

Both of those figures represent more-volatile conditions than we have seen for some years pre-COVID.

EQUITIES

It hurts to say, but equities are still far, far, far overvalued.

For many years, there has been a running tension between people who use the “Fed model” as a way to justify the current level of the stock market and the people who point out that the “Fed model” does not imply that the current level of the market is fair. The “Fed model” essentially says that when interest rates are very low, the present value of future cash flows is higher; ergo, the equilibrium value of the average equity (whose fair value is dependent on the present value of future earnings) and hence the overall stock market is higher, when interest rates are lower. This is analytically true. However, it does not mean that your expectation of future returns, when P/E multiples are at 40 but interest rates are low, should be the same as your expectation when P/E multiples are at 15 but interest rates are high. The level of interest rates explains higher equity prices, but it does not imply that those are now long-term fair value levels.

But this tension was almost always resolved in favor of the people who thought that rock-bottom interest rates meant that stocks should be at sky-high multiples, and value investors were left in the dust for more than a decade.

Unfortunately, this tension is being reduced because interest rates are going higher, and may never go back to those levels again. Consequently, equity price/earnings multiples need to re-rate for the new level of interest rates. The same logic that was used to justify the stock market at a 35 Shiller P/E, reconciles to lower prices now and going forward. The chart below (source: Robert J Shiller, updated with Enduring Investments calculations) shows the Shiller P/E (aka Cyclically-Adjusted P/E Ratio, or CAPE) versus 10-year interest rates in the post-WWII period. There is, ex-Internet bubble, a pretty clear relationship between interest rates and valuations. The red dot is where current multiples and interest rates are.

My forecast of 4.5% 10-year Treasuries implies something like a 23 Shiller P/E, down from 30 now. Without earnings growth, that 23% decline in the multiple implies a 23% decline in the stock market from these levels. I don’t think earnings themselves will increase or decrease very much unless the recession is much worse than I think it’s going to be, but the same lag between wages and product prices that flattered earnings when inflation was heading higher will detract when inflation decelerates. Moreover, if I’m right that Powell is intentionally steering interest rates to a level that is consistent with a long-term equilibrium around 4%-4.5% then this 23% adjustment in prices will not necessarily be followed by another massive bull market the likes of which we became accustomed to during the long bond bull market of the last 40 years. A Shiller P/E in the low-20s is still fairly generous historically but it may be sustainable.

So, my point forecast is for the S&P to get to 3,000 sometime in 2023. I don’t think the current bear market will last the entire year, and in fact I am sure there will be a rollicking rally when it is clear the Fed is done tightening. But sticky inflation will hurt here, too, and after that rollicking rally I think we’ll have another low, and from that low is where a modest bull market will begin.

However, I should also note that 1-year equity vol is around 25%, so my projection is within 1 standard deviation of unchanged!

COMMODITIES

From 1999 through 2008, commodities were in a bull market. After a brutal crash in the Global Financial Crisis, commodity indices had another mini-bull market from 2009-2011 before enduring a 9-year bear market. Since March 2020, the massive increase in the quantity of money has driven down the value of money relative to commodities or, to put it in the normal way, has driven up the price of commodities.

The Bloomberg Commodity Index (spot) rose from 59 in March 2020 to 124 in March 2022, and has come off the boil a bit since then. At the highs, though, the level of the index was only back to the levels of 2014. This is normal with spot commodities, which thanks to improved production and extraction technology over time tend to be perpetually deflating in real terms.[4] The good news is that an investor in commodities does not generally buy spot commodities but rather invests through collateralized futures contracts or invests in an index based on collateralized futures contracts. Over time, the collateral return happens to be a very important source of return (in addition to spot returns, the return from normal backwardation, and the volatility/rebalancing return), and this year there is terrific news in that collateral returns are ~4% higher than they were before the Fed started to hike. This means that, all else equal, commodities index returns should be expected to be 4% better (in nominal terms) this year than over the last couple of years. All else is not equal, but I expect gains in investible commodities indices in 2023.

That’s entirely separate from the question of whether we are in a commodity supercycle, due to chronic underinvestment in exploration and extraction technologies and more difficult geopolitical pressures that increase the costs of mining, growing (e.g. because of fertilizer costs/shortages), and transporting the raw commodities. I think the answer there appears to be ‘yes,’ which means that in general I want to play the commodity market from the long side more than from the short side. Of course there will be brutal moves in both directions, and bears will really want to sell commodities as the recession comes to the fore. But most of that is already in the price, with gasoline at levels much closer to the GFC lows than to anything approximating the highs. The chart below shows retail gasoline prices, adjusted for inflation (using 2012 dollars).

Energy prices of course could fall further, but considering that part of the reason prices have fallen this far is that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has been flushing oil into the system (and that has ended, in theory) and China’s economy has been sputtering under Zero Covid (which has also ended, in theory), it is hard to think that is the better direction at the moment.

OTHER THINGS

I want to append one very important admonition for investors and investment advisors. I mention this frequently on podcasts, TV and radio appearances, at cocktail parties and to random strangers on mass transit:

The next decade will be very unlike the decades we have just experienced. Not only will inflation and interest rates be higher than we’ve become accustomed to, and markets more volatile, but some important drivers of portfolio construction will shift. The good news is that at least some of those shifts are systematic and predictable. The table below shows how 60/40 returns correlate with inflation, with inflation expectations, and with inflation surprise over two periods. The first period was the 30 years ending in 2004, when inflation averaged 4.89% and was three times as volatile as during the subsequent period. During that period, a 60-40 portfolio was significantly exposed to inflation. The more-recent period, during which inflation was low and stable, produced placid 60/40 returns and correlations with inflation that are mostly spurious because there was more noise than signal. Inflation didn’t move!

The first implication of this is that portfolios which have productively ignored inflation-fighting elements over the last two decades need them now, because the main asset classes used in portfolio construction are terribly inflation-exposed. All portfolios for investors who do not have sufficient ‘natural’ inflation hedges should include such assets as commodities and an allocation to inflation-linked bonds in lieu of some of the nominal bond allocation.

The second implication is related but less conspicuous. The entire correlation matrix is shifting away from what it has been over the last couple of decades, and back to something that incorporates the inflation factor that has been dormant. As the most obvious example, stocks and bonds which have been inversely correlated for a while, due to the fact that they respond differently to economic growth, are becoming correlated again. This is not an aberration but entirely normal for regimes in which inflation is not low and stable. The chart below illustrates this. When 3-year average inflation is above 3% (the red shaded area), then 3-year correlations of stocks and bonds tend to be positive (blue line). When inflation is below that level, correlations tend to be negative.

Negative correlations between stocks and bonds are great because they lower portfolio risk. But in the coming decade, 60/40 won’t be as low risk as it has been. But beyond that, the entire covariance matrix that an advisor relies on to simulate and optimize portfolios needs to be examined. The normal way is to use recent returns (say, the last 10 years) to generate this covariance matrix, which then is used to find the mean/variance-optimized portfolio for a given level of risk. That’s normally okay, but as inflation proves sticky that sort of covariance matrix will be wrong, and wrong in a systematic way. What I am doing for our customers is comparing portfolios optimized with a recent covariance matrix to portfolios optimized using a covariance matrix from the 1980s-1990s. It’s important to be aware of this potential problem in portfolio construction, and to get ahead of it.


Finally, let me take a moment to thank the readers of this blog for their interest in it. I write partly because the discipline of arguing my points out thoroughly makes me (I think) a better trader and investor, but I also garner a lot of value from the information and ideas I receive reciprocally from readers who agree or disagree with what I write. I appreciate this feedback very much, and I thank the readers who take the time to share their opinions with me.

Aside from the personally selfish reason I have for writing, there is also the corporate mission the blog is meant to accomplish, and that is to raise the profile of Enduring Investments and the Inflation Guy franchise with prospective clients, and to encourage them to do business with us. If prospective clients see value in these musings, then I hope they will choose to do business with us. Yes, that’s crassly commercial. But ‘tis the season! And if you read this far in this missive, please consider what that means about the value you’re getting, and how much more value you might get from a deeper relationship with Enduring Investments!

And if not, Merry Christmas anyway! Happy holidays and Happy New Year.    

– Mike ‘The Inflation Guy’ Ashton

DISCLOSURE – My company and/or funds and accounts we manage have positions in inflation-indexed bonds and various commodity and financial futures products and ETFs related to them that are discussed in this column.


[1] It bears noting, though, that until 1982 the shelter component of CPI was tied to mortgage rates and home prices and not rents, so that the early-80s rise in core CPI partly reflected the Volcker rate hikes. Fixing that problem was what released the conspiracy nuts who plague us to this day claiming that the BLS “manipulated” CPI downward.

[2] https://fiscaldata.treasury.gov/americas-finance-guide/national-deficit/

[3] Net interest was about $110bln less, since some of that interest is paid to other parts of the government, for example the Federal Reserve system. For now.

[4] I wrote a nice, short little piece called “Corn Prices – Has the Correction Run its Course?” that is worth reading if you are interested in commodities.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (October 2022)

November 10, 2022 Leave a comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy, but to get these tweets in real time on CPI morning you need to subscribe to @InflGuyPlus by going to the shop at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ , where you can also subscribe to the Enduring Investments Quarterly Inflation Outlook. 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! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast! Note that this month and going forward, I will be delaying the drop of this tweet summary and the podcast until the afternoon rather than dropping it late morning. So subscribe if you want it live!

  • It’s CPI Day – and here we go again!         
  • A reminder to subscribers of the path here: At 8:30ET, when the data drops, I’ll be pulling that in and will post a number of charts and numbers, in fairly rapid-fire succession. Then I will retweet some of those charts with comments attached. Then I’ll run some other charts.      
  • Afterwards (hopefully 9:15ish) I will have a private conference call for subscribers where I’ll quickly summarize the numbers.    
  • Thanks again for subscribing! And now for the walkup.  
  • The chance of more-lasting inflation just went up a lot. With the much-narrower-than-expected margins for the Republicans in the House – and perhaps no margin at all in the Senate – this is “divided government” IN NAME ONLY.     
  • Republicans are notoriously bad at whipping their vote, and with a narrow margin it will be very easy to pick off a couple of votes with well-chosen pork to pass large stimulus measures if the Democrats want it. And they probably want it.             
  • And why shouldn’t they want it? The Republican message in the midterms was “Biden caused this inflation and we voted against the Inflation Redution Act.” The Democrat message was “Putin caused this inflation and we PASSED the Inflation Reduction Act.” Evidently, that resonated.          
  • Politicians will keep pushing MMT as long as the populace allows them to get away with it. And with such a narrow majority, Republicans can probably not ‘hold the line.’ Ergo, there will be more stimulus ahead.  
  • To say nothing of other continuing pressures, on resources & a need to shorten supply chains as the world fractures the post-Berlin-wall detente. To say nothing of demographic challenges. To say nothing of the fact that prices still have far to go to catch aggregate M2 growth.      
  • Those are not stories for the October CPI, but they are the backdrop.      
  • I was at a conference the last 2 days and several mainstream economists stated (it was barely phrased as an opinion) that core inflation will definitely be around 3% by middle of next year and low 2s by end of 2023.               
  • This seems ignorant of the composition of the CPI. EVEN IF you think inflation pressures in a macro sense are ebbing, we haven’t yet seen any signs of that in the data. Y/Y median CPI has accelerated 14 months in a row. Rents remain buoyant. 
  • Rents will eventually slow, but it will be a while before they slow very much. So far they are still accelerating! And core-services ex-rents is my recent focus. As a reminder, that’s where you find the wage-price feedback loops. And it has recently started spiking higher.
  • But there is a potential fly in the ointment in that group this month, and that’s the question about the CPI for health insurance. Here is the issue that some people are worried about.
  • Medical care is paid for by consumers directly, and indirectly for consumers by insurance companies. It is straightforward (if complex) to measure the part of medical care paid directly to providers – just ask doctors and hospitals.
  • The problem is that there is a difference between what insurance companies receive from consumers (which is part of consumers’ cost) and what they pay to doctors. That is, profit.
  • That’s still a cost to consumers but not captured if you just ask doctors. It shows up in the “Health Insurance” part of Medical Care CPI. So, periodically (because it’s not at all straightforward) the BLS tries to figure out this difference and adjust for it.
  • It tends to happen roughly this time of year, which is why people were looking for it last month and still looking for it this month. Here’s the problem – it isn’t always important.
  • You can see in the m/m changes in Health Insurance that sometimes there’s a discontinuity in the monthly figures, and sometimes not. Here’s the salient point, though – the adjustment doesn’t really matter.
  • If it’s done right, then the overall inflation in Medical Care will be about right. Could be seasonal issues, so any given month it could be wacky, but the REAL question is: is inflation in Medical Care overall accelerating/decelerating? Sure looks to me like it’s accelerating.
  • So I don’t pay a lot of attention to this nuance but be aware that it COULD have an impact potentially today.
  • Last month, big drivers were Rents again (primary=0.74%, OER=0.71%), Medical Care (0.68%, with Hospital Services 0.78% m/m and y/y Prescription Drugs at 3.2%, highest since 2018). Oh, and “Other” at +0.73%.
  • Inflation is of course very broad, and that means it is going to keep being pretty resilient. Until one day it starts narrowing and being less resilient. There’s no good way to say when rents will roll over. They will eventually. Probably not today.
  • But breakeven market is being very optimistic generally about this eventual occurrence! There’s almost no penalty to betting inflation will NOT go back to its old level. Or at least, a pretty small one.           
  • Used cars this month will again be heavy, but probably not as heavy as last month’s -1.1%. Used car prices have retreated (in the Black Book survey) about 12% from the highs but remain up about 35% since end of 2020. That’s about the same as M2, so it’s roughly “right”.       
  • Of course not everything will be up the same amount as the general price level, but that’s a decent touchstone. On average, once velocity finishes correcting back, the aggregate price level should be +30%-+35% (based on current M2) from 2020. Currently +15%. Long way to go.
  • Markets since last month: breakevens are up a bit, but real yields close to unchanged. Reals are pretty close to a long-term fair level. They’ll go higher if nominals go higher but they’re a pretty decent deal esp relative to nominals given the long term breakevens.
  • …and the nominal auction yesterday was pretty ugly, so I don’t know that the fixed-income bears are done. I suspect the Fed is getting close, though. My guess for terminal rate is currently 5%.          
  • Econ consensus for today’s CPI is 0.62% m/m on the headline and 0.47% m/m on core, bringing y/y core to 6.52%. With the medical insurance issue I’m reluctant to hazard a guess but 0.47% seems optimistic. Avg for last 6 months has been 0.56%. But interbank is LOWER than 0.47%.         
  • In any event, good luck! Auto charts will follow the print fairly quickly. I don’t know how many months I will be doing this before I stop being nervous about the automation. But I throttle those charts still to make sure that if something looks wrong it isn’t followed by 9 more.

  • m/m CPI: 0.438% m/m Core CPI: 0.272%       
  • OK now let’s look at these. Obviously the core figure was a disappointment but I can already see it’s not something I’m terribly worried about and not likely to signal that we’re done. That said, it should be a nice rally number.     
  • Last 12 core CPI figures        
  • Primary Rents: 7.52% y/y OER: 6.89% y/y     
  • Further: Primary Rents 0.69% M/M, 7.52% Y/Y (7.21% last) OER 0.62% M/M, 6.89% Y/Y (6.68% last) Lodging Away From Home 4.9% M/M, 5.9% Y/Y (2.9% last)
  • Well, 0.69% m/m is better than last month’s 0.84% on primary rents, but not exactly the deflation that people are expecting to happen ‘soon.’ Soon, it seems, is still a bit far away.
  • M/M, Y/Y, and prior Y/Y for 8 major subgroups          
  • Immediate observation – huge decline in Apparel (yes, a small weight) and in Medical Care (which I suspect is the technical adjustment). Housing, Food, Other, Recreation, all high.
  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.613%
  • Median: definitely better than recently! but a 7.6% compounded annual median rate isn’t GOOD news. And it suggests that most of the miss was in a few categories, not the main body of the distribution.
  • By the way, a little asterisk on my median calculation – I have the median category as West Urban OER. Since the individual components of OER are seasonally-adjusted (but we don’t know the seasonals), my estimate will be slightly off.
  • Core Goods: 5.08% y/y Core Services: 6.74% y/y        
  • And you can see the effect of Apparel (and Used Cars, which was down more than I expected it would be and more than Black Book suggested it would be) on core goods. This is partly a delayed dollar effect, and some supply-side relaxation, and not surprising in a macro sense.
  • Some ‘COVID’ Categories: Airfares -1.1% M/M (0.84% Last) Lodging Away from Home 4.85% M/M (-1.04% Last) Used Cars/Trucks -2.42% M/M (-1.07% Last) New Cars/Trucks 0.37% M/M (0.67% Last)           
  • So Used Car prices are coming down, and New Cars still going up. Remember in mid-2021 Used Car prices in some cases exceeded New Car prices b/c New weren’t available. They are now, so this is the convergence. Used is correcting, New is trending.
  • Used cars on top, New Cars on bottom, since day 1 of COVID. New have another 10% to go higher, Used another 15% lower, is my guess.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy: 13.3% y/y   
  • Piece 2: Core Commodities: 5.08% y/y          
  • Piece 3: Core Services less Rent of Shelter: 6.42% y/y              
  • The y/y for health insurance went from 28.1% to 20.6%. Obviously, those numbers are way too high. But it caused the y/y for Medical Care to drop from 6% y/y to 5% y/y. This seems exaggerated.
  • Now, to be sure Medicare is dropping the amount that it is reimbursing health care providers. But Medicare is not in CPI and a squeeze on Medicare reimbursements may make the consumer part of health care more resilient. Got to pay health care providers somehow.
  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter: 6.99% y/y  
  • No sign of any slowdown in rents yet. And without that, we’re not getting 2% inflation next year, period.
  • That really was an amazing adjustment to health insurance. I applaud those who decided it was going to be huge. Again, though, it’s just a question of how Medical Care inflation gets allocated. And it’s a one-off thing.          
  • Outside of food and energy, the biggest monthly decliners were Infants and Toddler’s Apparel (-32% annualized), Jewelry and Watches (-30%), Used Cars and Trucks (-25%), and Footwear (-13%). No services. OTOH…             
  • Biggest gainers were Lodging Away from Home (+77% annualized), Misc Personal Goods (+26%), Vehicle Insurance (+23%), and Food Away from Home (+11.8%). That last one is obviously Food & Energy but it’s also a wages indicator.
  • Looking at Median some more, probably the lowest it could be (if my West Urban OER seasonal is way off) is 0.55%. And could also be higher than my estimate. 
  • Core inflation ex-housing fell to 5.9% from 6.7%. That’s the lowest it has been since 11/2021. And it’s a good sign. A lot of that is goods.            
  • The deceleration in goods inflation is completely real. But that doesn’t mean goods prices are going to go DOWN, which is what consumers are expecting. Some places where there were overshoots like in Used Cars will go down, but in most cases we’re talking small.             
  • Here’s the challenge on the Fed question. I wouldn’t take a victory lap even though this is the lowest core m/m in more than a year. Median has still not obviously peaked! Next core comps are 0.52%, 0.56%, 0.58%, 0.50% before 0.32% in March.       
  • That means we are probably looking at core which will be steady to declining slowly, but not coming down rapidly. There aren’t 0.6s or 0.7s to roll off until May. So it will look like a peak but not a rapid drop. Unless of course rents roll over and drop like a stone.
  • OR, suddenly workers start getting wage cuts. Keep in mind that the Social Security adjustment for next year will flush a lot more money into the system. There’s just a lot of bad feedback loops that are in play.
  • By the way, Lodging Away from Home was high (+4.9% m/m) this month. That’s a volatile category but surprised me. Hospitality is having difficulty with finding workers though and so this is another one of those pass-throughs I suspect.      
  • Here’s the distribution of lower-level price changes y/y. It’s an interesting tale. The lower tail are mostly goods (insurance won’t be there for a long while), upper tail has some foods and some services. The middle part is still 7-9%.
  • Having said that, this is starting to look more like a disinflationary distribution where the mean is below the median because long tails start showing up to the lower side. I think we’ve likely seen the peak, although Median will take a bit yet.
  • I mean we still have 65% of the distribution above 6%…        
  • That health care insurance adjustment is odd. Normally the BLS smears the adjustment over 12 months roughly equally. I can’t imagine this is going to be 4% PER MONTH for a year. That would be really weird. Something to dive deeper on. For now I’m treating it as one-off.   
  • Last chart. I didn’t run this last month because of tech issues. The EI Inflation Diffusion Index remains high but dropped to 41. It’s not yet really signaling a peak in pressures but if we get down to 30 or 35 I’ll feel better that the peak is real.       
  • OK, let’s try the conference call for anyone who wants to hear this verbally. 🙂 [REDACTED] Access Code [REDACTED] Let’s say 9:35, 5 minutes from now.       

The number today made a lot of folks very happy, but it is a trifle early to declare victory over inflation yet. Core goods remains in deceleration mode. This is no surprise; the extended strength of the dollar helps depress core goods prices with a lag. The sharp drop in apparel prices is sort of the poster child for this effect. But the dollar will not be strong forever, and when it goes back to something like fair value – when the Fed stops hiking aggressively relative to the rest of the world – then there will be a little payback in this category. That doesn’t mean 10% core goods inflation but neither does it mean that we’re going back to the old normal of -1% inflation in core goods year after year. Given the re-onshoring trend and the general unsettled nature of geopolitics, I suspect core goods will end up oscillating around low-positive numbers. Think 1-2%, not -1% to -2%.

Rents remain strong, and there is no sign that they’ve rolled over yet. They will eventually, but it takes a long time for rents to reflect changes in home prices and even longer for asking rents to be fully reflected in rent CPI and OER. Rents will decelerate from here, but not for a while. And they’re also not going back to 2%.

Core services ex-rents is in a continued uptrend. There was a small correction this month, but the feedback loop has been triggered. Next year’s Social Security adjustment will throw more fuel on the fire, and even if unemployment rises so that real median wages decelerate nominal wages are going to keep climbing faster than they have historically. Core services ex-rents…and we saw similar effects in Lodging Away from Home and Food Away from Home, both of which have a big wage component…is going to stay strong for a while.

By the way, on Medical Insurance…that 4% per month drag over the next year is going to add up to 0.3% on headline and a bit more than that on core. But only if this isn’t offset elsewhere in the medical care category. This is bean-counting: insurance in the CPI doesn’t really measure the cost of insurance premiums but insurance company profits. If our estimate of profits declines it’s either because people are paying less for insurance (not likely) or because insurance companies are paying more out to doctors, which means the inflation should just show up there instead. So it will be a consistent drag that is mostly irrelevant in a practical sense.

All of which is to say that while core CPI has likely peaked, and median inflation will probably peak in a few months, the folks who are looking for it to drop to 2% next year are going to be terribly disappointed. I’m sticking with my view that we will be at high-4%, low-5% for 2023.

The Fed, though, will take the peak in Core as a reason to step down to 50bps at the next meeting, then probably 25bps, and ending at around 5%. If rates are at 5% and median inflation is around the same level late next year, it isn’t clear that much higher rates would be called for especially in a recession. But neither will much lower rates. So I think overnight rates get to 5% and then stay stuck there for a while. If you found this useful, and would like to get it in real time during next month’s CPI report, go to https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ and subscribe to my private Twitter feed. You can also subscribe to my quarterly, or purchase a single issue of the Quarterly Inflation Outlook (either current or historical). Thanks a lot for your support.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (September 2022)

October 13, 2022 8 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy, but to get these tweets in real time on CPI morning you need to subscribe to @InflGuyPlus by going to the shop at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ , where you can also subscribe to the Enduring Investments Quarterly Inflation Outlook. 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! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

The tweets below may have some deletions and redactions from what actually appeared on the private feed. Also, I’ve rearranged the comments on the charts to be right below the charts themselves, for readability without repeating charts, although in real time they appeared in comments associated with a retweeted chart.

  • It’s CPI Day – and here we go again!
  • A reminder to subscribers of the path here: At 8:30ET, when the data drops, I’ll be pulling that in and will post a number of charts and numbers, in fairly rapid-fire succession. Then I will retweet some of those charts with comments attached. Then I’ll run some other charts.
  • Afterwards (hopefully 9:15ish) I will have a private conference call for subscribers where I’ll quickly summarize the numbers.
  • After my comments on the number, I will post a partial summary at https://inflationguy.blog and later will podcast a summary at inflationguy.podbean.com . Busy day for the IG.
  • Thanks again for subscribing! And now for the walkup.
  • Last month, we again had a large upward surprise. Median CPI actually had its highest m/m print of the entire debacle-to-date. While y/y numbers are the big focus in the media, until we have a convincing peak in Median CPI we can’t really say the inflation pressures are receding!
  • Median CPI has moved back above core; this means that for the first time since April 2021 the longer tails are to the downside (the distribution skews lower, so the average is lower than the median).
  • If this is still true once inflation levels out a little bit, it will be encouraging. In inflationary cycles, the outliers show up on the high side and core moves above median. In disinflationary cycles, the opposite is true. Let’s give it some time and see what happens.
  • Rents in last month’s report were big, and though Used Cars set back a little bit New Cars had a big up. But the BIG eye-opener was the rise in core services less rents.
  • I wrote last month: “If core services ex-shelter is really taking the baton from core goods, that’s really bad news. Because core services ex-shelter is where wage pressure really lives. If you want a wage-price spiral, look in core services ex-shelter to see if it’s happening.”
  • So that is my main focus in this report. More later but let’s look at the consensus figures going in. Consensus for headline CPI is 0.21%/8.09%, while consensus for core CPI is 0.43%/6.52%. That will be a small acceleration in core (again).
  • For my money, the implied drag for food and energy (0.22%) looks slightly too large, and the interbank market seems to agree with an implied headline number of about 0.26% m/m. But I also think the core might come in a teensy bit lower than 0.4%.
  • I don’t know if what I am looking at would be enough to round it lower, but an 0.3% core print would make the markets very excited and COULD make the Fed favor a smaller move at this meeting. Not only because of 0.3%, but because things are starting to break.
  • …and the Fed’s models say that inflation should be slowing, so…why not taper the tightening? I think we MIGHT be having that discussion later this morning.
  • Certainly, the mkts have let the Fed go pretty far without throwing up a stop sign. 2y rates +72bps in the last month and 10y rates +54bps? Tens at 3.90% are pretty close to a long-term fair number (still a trifle low) after YEARS of being too low. Naturally, we could overshoot!
  • The decline in forward breakevens is very curious – I don’t see any sign that 2.25%-2.5% as a long-term equilibrium is still the attractor we will drift back to. The fun house mirror is broken for good I think.
  • So where do I see some potential softness? Our models have rents leveling off – not peaking per se, but leveling off – and that means that a trend projection of last month’s number might be overdone. Of course, those are just models.
  • More important (and obvious to many) is the decline in Used Cars prices. Last month, Used were a small drag but New cars added a bunch. We could still get the bump in New, but Used ought to be a decent drag based on the Blackbook figures.
  • But as an aside, this goes back to the error being made by a whole lot of people and politicians especially. See that last chart? Does it say “used car prices are coming back down and reverting, now that supply chain issues have cleared up? NO.
  • It’s a mistake, the same one people are making in rents & home prices. Rates of change could mean-revert. Prices will not. Prices are permanently higher, b/c the amount of money in the system is permanently higher. This chart shows the price level. Not going back to the old days.
  • Politicians saying inflation should ebb soon SEEM to be telling constituents that prices are going back down. At least, that’s what the constituents hear. They will be mad when the politicians say “see?” and they see all prices 30% higher than pre-COVID.
  • (I actually think something similar may be the root of a lot of conspiracy theories about how the government ‘cooks’ the numbers. They’re just talking past each other, with one talking price level and one talking rate of change.)
  • And speaking of money in the system – money supply growth has come to a screeching halt over the last few months, which is great news. Unfortunately, we are still catching up to the prior increase in money, which is why it will take a while for inflation rates to come back down.
  • There’s still work to do. Anyway, a lot of that is wayyyy beyond the trading implications for today’s figure. The key for me is to look past used cars and rents, and look at CORE SERVICES EX RENTS. That’s one of our “four pieces” that you’ll see in a few minutes.
  • If there’s softness in core, it will be taken well by both stocks and bonds and while I might fade stocks in a day or two, I’m not sure I’d fade a rate rally at least at the short end. If I’m wrong, and the core number is HIGHER…it could get pretty ugly. Liquidity is bad.
  • That’s all for the walk-up. Ten minutes until kickoff. Good luck today and thanks again for subscribing! Charts will launch a minute or two after 8:30, assuming data drops on time at the BLS.

  • welllllp. Not soft!
  • m/m CPI: 0.386% m/m Core CPI: 0.576%
  • Further: Primary Rents 0.84% M/M, 7.21% Y/Y (6.74% last) OER 0.81% M/M, 6.68% Y/Y (6.29% last) Lodging Away From Home -1% M/M, 2.9% Y/Y (4% last)
  • Last 12 core figures. About the same as last month. And if you exclude the two little dips, the other 12 are all pretty much 0.58% ish. That’s uncomfortable stability! Don’t want to see that. Comps get tougher going forward so core might not go up much more…but no sign of down.
  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.667%
  • Now, Median stepped down so that’s good news…but 0.667% m/m is not terrific. This is still the third-highest m/m in the last 40 years or so!
  • M/M, Y/Y, and prior Y/Y for 8 major subgroups
  • In the major subgroups, the drop in apparel stands out. The dollar’s strength is definitely affecting goods prices, and Apparel is one place where we see that most clearly.
  • Core Goods: 6.63% y/y Core Services: 6.65% y/y
  • It’s cute to see Core Goods and Core Services kissing. We know that goods are eventually going to go back down to 0-3%…especially if the dollar remains strong.
  • Primary Rents: 7.21% y/y OER: 6.68% y/y
  • This is a surprise – a further acceleration in rents. Economists might look past this, because with home prices leveling off rents won’t keep shooting higher and higher. Will they? Our model has a peak happening but if wages keep rising then rents need not decline, just slow.
  • Some ‘COVID’ Categories: Airfares 0.84% M/M (-4.62% Last) Lodging Away from Home -1.04% M/M (0.08% Last) Used Cars/Trucks -1.07% M/M (-0.1% Last) New Cars/Trucks 0.67% M/M (0.84% Last)
  • In the covid categories, Used Cars was in fact a drag. And New Cars was in fact a bump higher. There have been some big stories recently about markups for new trucks etc so this isn’t a surprise. But again, core goods will eventually decelerate.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy: 14.2% y/y
  • Again Food & Energy is decelerating, but again it’s not as much as expected BECAUSE food, which we ordinarily mostly ignore, keeps rising. 10.8% y/y on Food & Beverages!
  • Piece 2: Core Commodities: 6.63% y/y
  • Piece 3: Core Services less Rent of Shelter: 6.62% y/y
  • Soooo…this is the piece that’s sort of ugly and I was worried about this. Core services less rent-of-shelter continues to accelerate. Medical Care was another 0.77% m/m, with Hospital Services 0.66% m/m. I’ll look at some of the other categories in a bit.
  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter: 6.68% y/y
  • Core ex-housing (not just core services ex-housing) rose to 6.7% y/y. It had gotten as low as 6.04% two months ago but is reaccelerating. We know core goods is decelerating so the upward lift is core services ex-housing. And as I noted, that’s bad.
  • I forgot to mention that the median category was New Vehicles. As always with my Median CPI estimate, I caution that I have to estimate the seasonals on the OER subindices and if I’m off, and an OER category is near the median, then my Median guess might be off too.
  • Food AT HOME was 0.6% m/m (SA), 12.98% y/y. That’s slightly lower than it has been. Food AWAY FROM HOME, though, was +0.94% m/m, 8.48% y/y. This is bad – food commodities are leveling off a little, but wages show up in food away from home.
  • This number could have been worse. Airfares being -4.62% m/m helped. Airfares are largely driven indirectly by jet fuel, but had been positive last month so this is a catch-up. However, jet fuel is probably not going to go down much futher.
  • Conclusions: (a) this number is worse than expected. And not from little ‘I don’t care’ one-off things. (b) Where wages show up in the economy, we are seeing more inflation pressure show up in CPI. That’s not evidence a wage-price spiral has begun, but it is suggestive.
  • (c) since in yesterday’s FOMC minutes, participants had been musing about the risk of a wage-price spiral, this is especially salient right now. (d) This seals 75bps. They won’t do 100bps, and this report doesn’t let them do 50bps.
  • (e) This MAY raise the terminal rate. We will get more inflation data, but median CPI isn’t showing a deceleration and the m/m core is pretty solid at a 7%-ish rate (0.58%/mo) with occasional dips. Need at least 2 dip months.
  • (f) The deceleration in core goods is already happening. It has been happening. The dollar’s strength will help it to continue. But the acceleration in core services is more durable and not dollar-sensitive.
  • (g) it’s also not particularly rate-sensitive. (h) Higher wages also support higher rent growth. I am surprised at the extent of the strength in rents but put that (somewhat) in the wage-price spiral camp.
  • And finally (i) inflation markets are ridiculously mispriced. There is no reason to think that 2.25%-2.5% is the fair bet for 10-year inflation, especially when it’s going to be at 5% or above for the first 2 years of that 10 years. This is going to take a while.
  • I’m going to do a quick call right now and present my thoughts. Dial-in is <<redacted>> and Access Code <<redacted>>.
  • I will throw another housing-related chart here. Here is OER in red, against two home-price indices that are often used to model rents as a lagged function of home prices. The leveling-off should happen soon. BUT>>
  • …BUT the betas have changed and OER is higher than we would have expected based on the prior relationship. Those regressions were all based on nominal changes, not real…part of home price increase should be pass-through of value of real property, greater when infl is higher.
  • Either way, the timing suggests we should level off, and if you believe this model then in 6-12 months rents should be in sharp retreat. Maybe. But like I say, things have changed from the 2001-2020 baseline!

We keep waiting for a clear turn in inflation, and it hasn’t happened yet. Moreover, the longer it lasts then the more likely that it feeds back into wages, since workers have more and more evidence to take to the bargaining table when it’s time to discuss increases. Some of the feedback loops are purely automatic: For example, on the basis of today’s figure Social Security benefits next year will jump 8.7%, giving retirees an additional slug of cash to spend next year. That automatic adjustment also creates a feedback loop in deficits, of course – that big increase in benefits will also increase federal outlays! So, if you were hoping to balance the budget rather than pour more fuel on the fire…it just gets harder and harder.

The slight drop in m/m median CPI is nice, but not sufficient to signal that inflation pressures have turned. For a very long time, everyone else was surprised with the resilience in inflation and I was not – but now I’ve joined the ranks of those who are surprised. I haven’t thought, and do not think, that inflation will fall back to 2% any time soon, but I also didn’t think it would keep accelerating into year-end. I still don’t think that. But…it’s also hard to see where the deceleration is going to come from. Our models (and the final chart above) give reason to think that rents might level off from here, but not decelerate much; core goods will continue to retreat but core services seem to have a feedback loop going. The fact that food away from home is accelerating while food at home is correcting slightly is emblematic of the passing of the torch from raw materials pressures to wage pressures. This is not good.

That being said, and while 75bps is pretty much cemented now at the next Fed meeting, I still think that the FOMC is looking for reasons to slow the pace of hikes. Things are starting to break around the world, and there’s no appetite (I don’t think) to test the limits of the system’s fragility right now. But the balance sheet is going to continue to shrink slowly, and that’s a big part of the decline in market liquidity. Certainly, the market has been generous with the Fed so far and hasn’t offered them the Hobson’s choice of saving the markets or pushing inflation lower…but that choice is going to come sooner or later especially as inflation has not yet shown any real signs of slowing down.

And yet, as I write this the stock market has closed the gap by rallying up to yesterday’s closing level, and is spiking higher. That’s remarkable, and I think it’s fadeable!

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.

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.

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.

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