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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 (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!

Restructuring the Inflation Guy Content Offering

August 2, 2022 2 comments

For many years, I’ve been producing a blog and pushing free content. Before that, I wrote Sales and Trading commentary for Natixis, and before that Barclays, and before that Deutsche Bank, and before that, Bankers Trust. I never charged for any of that and neither did the banks, at least directly.

Writing, at least with respect to the blog itself, was part of my process of thinking through the economic and investing environment. I had to do that anyway, so distributing those thoughts was easy and the feedback/pushback I got was important and useful as well. It still is.

But over the years, my content offering (which is congruent to the set of Enduring Investments’ content offering) has widened to different channels and even different media. There is now an Inflation Guy podcast, an Inflation Guy mobile app, and even an Inflation Guy album of ‘80s hits. (Okay, not that one.) I’ve written two books and am contemplating a third. And then there’s Twitter. And as the number of content outlets and offerings metastasized, it has also become clear that I have gone way beyond just the idle penning of my musings and that this takes a lot of time. Some other things I would like to do would take even more time. So there needs to be a business purpose!

The hope has always been that some people who find these thoughts useful would become investing or consulting clients of Enduring Investments. Some have! And more will, in the future. But others may want some content and be willing to pay for the value, but not be willing or able to become clients. Consequently, I’ve been discussing with a bunch of my advisors how to capture the value that people are willing to pay, but not in the single avenue we presently offer (that is, becoming a client).

So I took a survey, and many of you participated. I want to tell you that I really appreciate the answers you gave and the time you took to answer the survey. It was well worth the two Visa gift cards (which, incidentally, haven’t yet been claimed – check your spam folders, folks, as I have written to two of you who are winners!). There were some very thoughtful comments and some good ideas. There was also some humor: one person put my address in for the raffle (I didn’t win). And then there was a bot! All of a sudden, one day I received a deluge of hundreds of responses. Some of these responses indicated that Inflation Guy content was worth $50,000 per month. I am flattered, robot, but money means different things to humans I guess. Fortunately, it was easy enough to cleanse the data of bot responses, which were fairly obvious…and, in retrospect, there is probably a thriving business out there of people pouring bot responses into raffles to tilt the odds. Live and learn.

On the basis of the responses, this is what we have decided to do with “Inflation Guy/Enduring Investments” content going forward.

First of all, free stuff:

  • The E-piphany Blog, which was at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and now can be reached at https://inflationguy.blog . It has always been free, and will remain free. You can subscribe to email alerts of the content. The monthly summary of my CPI-day tweets will continue to appear here, a couple of hours after the release.
  • Cents and Sensibility: the Inflation Guy podcast. Free wherever good podcasts are found. There may someday be advertisements but the podcast itself will remain free.
  • My weekly Investing.com column, which is unique to http://www.investing.com . They have subsidized it so that you don’t have to.
  • The Inflation Guy mobile app. While there may be “premium content” on the app, the app itself will remain free as well as will a goodly amount of its content.
  • @inflation_guy on Twitter will remain a free follow. My blog columns and podcasts and other free content will funnel through that channel. The monthly CPI tweets, though, will not (see below).

And now, the new offerings. These, and any others we add in the future, are available on the blog site at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ . Please note that Enduring Investments clients pay nothing for these offerings.

  • Inflation Guy Plus on Twitter – Private Twitter account subscription. I am moving the real-time analysis of the CPI report to a private, subscription-only Twitter account. I will release my charts as soon as possible after the number, and will also have a private live audio broadcast as I comb through the charts and data. (I haven’t figured out whether this will be on Discord, Google meet, Zoom/Skype, but will probably start as a simple conference number). @InflGuyPlus will also have other daily/weekly charts and commentary not available on @Inflation_Guy. The cost of a monthly subscription will be $99/month with a discount for an annual subscription. This is in line with other private Twitter offerings. For example, Damped Spring offers a private Twitter feed for $80/mo with similar content though of course less concentrated on inflation. And the results of the survey we took suggested this price is not inappropriate for the people who require the real-time analysis to make trading decisions.

I do know that some people will be disappointed this isn’t cheaper. It’s an unfortunate characteristic of walls: unless there are people on both sides, you don’t need a wall. (Again, Enduring Investments clients are automatically catapulted over the wall. Although that is an unfortunate metaphor come to think of it.)

  • Quarterly Inflation Outlook – I have been writing the QIO for more than a decade now. It comes out on the ‘refunding’ cycle: February, May, August, and November, within a couple of days after the CPI reports in those months. I decided to make single-issue subscriptions available, at least for now, hoping that after trying an issue people will sign up for the discounted monthly subscription. The current issue is $80 (right now, you can buy the August issue, which will be delivered via email when it is published); the preceding issue is $70 (in this case, that is the May issue) for an immediate download; earlier issues may be made available once I have time to sort through them and find ones with staying power. To test whether there’s any demand, I listed the Feb 2022 issue for $50. I also listed the 2020Q4 QIO, in which I look prospectively at the incoming Biden/Harris Administration, for $40. A recurring subscription gets a discount to $75/issue, which seemed to be acceptable to most of the respondents to the survey.

We are going to start with those two paid offerings, and see how it goes. There seemed to be some interest in a $2.99 monthly subscription which would update your personally-weighted inflation index, and in a $20 monthly subscription to a collection of model portfolios, but we will see how the response is to these products before adding other options.

One other quick comment about the prices: being a markets person, I will be attentive to dynamics that suggest I should raise or lower the price. But for you, if the price is acceptable there is no reason to delay subscribing. That’s because if I raise the price, all existing subscribers will be grandfathered at the original price; if I lower the price, I will lower it for all existing subscribers as well. So there is no price risk to you in deciding to buy now.

Now, let me mention one final offering. This has a very narrow audience but which audience seemed, in the survey, to be enthusiastic about deeper access to Inflation Guy.

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

Morpheus, The Matrix

Let’s call this “Inflation Guy Prime.” It is really for the institutional investors and traders who want regular forecast updates and detail, some relative-value metrics and possibly trading signals, subcomponent forecasts/curves, and two-way communication with the Inflation Guy. Because of the two-way communication bit, this offering is capacity-constrained and so will be capped at a yet-to-be determined number of subscribers; the price will increase as we get more subscribers who want to be “Prime.” The current price is shown on the shop.

And so now…we see what happens. Thanks again to everyone who participated in the survey and offered independent, helpful suggestions. The offering will change and hopefully improve over time. We will add other offerings for readers/investors who have different needs. And we will figure out the right price points, eventually…but we had to start somewhere. Please let me know of any questions and/or suggestions you may have!

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.

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.

What Happens Next?

March 29, 2022 3 comments

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the fetish that investors have about forecasts and predictions. When I was a strategist, clients wrangled me for a simple statement of where the market was going to go. I had my opinions, to be sure, but by the time I was a senior strategist I also knew that even good forecasters are wrong a lot. Forecasting, ironically, is not a job for people who care very much about being right. Because if they do care about being right, even good forecasters are depressed a lot.

So in my mind, a useful strategist was not one who gave all the right answers. Those don’t exist. A useful strategist was one who asked the right questions. Investing isn’t about being right; if it was, there would be no need to diversify. Just put everything in the one right investment. No, investing is about probabilities, and about maximizing the expected outcome even though that is almost never the best outcome given the particular path of events that actually transpires. Knowing the future is still the best way to make a million dollars.

A valuable strategist/forecaster, then, is not the one who can tell you what they think the actual future will be. The most valuable strategists have two strong skills. First, they excel at if-then statements. “If there is conflict in the Ukraine, then grain prices will soar.” Second, they are very good at estimating reasonable probabilities of different possibilities, so you can figure out the best average outcome of the probability-weighted if-then statements.

However, there aren’t a lot of great strategists, because those same characteristics are exactly what you need to be a good trader. I can’t remember if it was Richard Dennis or Paul Tudor Jones or some other legend who said it, but a good trader says “I don’t know what the market is going to do, but I know what I am going to do when the market does what it is going to do.”

As an investment manager/trader, that’s the way I approach investing. I don’t often engage in a post-mortem analysis about why I was wrong about how a particular chain of events played out, but I often post-mortem about whether the chain of events caused the market outcomes I expected, or not, and why.

All that being said, people keep asking me what I think happens next, so here is my guess at how the year will unfold. Feel free to disagree. I don’t really care if this is what happens, since my job is really to be prepared no matter what happens. But, you asked.

  • I suspect the conflict in Ukraine will continue for quite a while. I also think there’s a reasonable chance that other countries will take advantage of our distraction to be adventurous on other fronts. April is a key month, and I think Russia might be waiting for this other front to open up before pushing harder in Ukraine.
  • However, except inasmuch as the geopolitical uncertainty plays into the general deglobalization of trade, I don’t think about particular outcomes of Russian or Chinese adventurism. I don’t think the long-term inflation trajectory has a lot to do with who is invading who. In the short term it matters, but in the long run it means certain goods will have different relative prices compared to the market basket compared to what they have now – not that incremental inflation of those items, the rate of change of those relative prices, will continue. For example, cutting off the supply of Russian natural gas to Europe would permanently raise the relative price of nat gas in Europe, but after prices adjusted it wouldn’t permanently cause a higher level of inflation of natural gas.
  • March’s CPI print, released on April 12th, will probably be the high print for the cycle for headline inflation, at around 8.5%. Core inflation will also peak at the same time, around 6.50%. This is mainly due to tough comps, though. Monthly prints will still be running at a 4-5% rate, or higher, for at least the balance of the year, and we will end the year with core around 4.5%-5%.
  • The Fed is going to tighten again. I doubt they go 50bps at this next meeting unless the market is expressing desire for that outcome. The market sometimes fights the Fed, but the Fed these days doesn’t fight the market. The FOMC might even start reducing the mammoth balance sheet through partial runoff, but I suspect they will pocket-veto that and not do anything for a couple more months.
  • Interest rates are going to go up, further. Real interest rates are going to rise – actually, our model says that more of the rise in nominal interest rates so far should have been real rates, so TIPS are actually marginally expensive (which is very rare). Long-term inflation expectations are also going to continue to rise, until at least 3.5%…something in line with the reality of where equilibrium inflation really is now, with an option premium built in to boot.
  • Although the near-term inflation prints will come down, the increase in longer-term breakevens means that expectations of the forward price level will continue to rise. The chart below shows the level at which December 2027 CPI futures would be trading, based on the inflation curve, if some exchange actually had the courage to launch CPI futures. One year ago, the implied forward level of 310, compared to the November 2020 level of 266.229, implied that the market expected inflation from 2021-2027 to average 2.2%. That was in the thick of the “it’s transitory” baloney. Today, the theoretical futures suggest that inflation from 2021-2027 will average 3.6%, and that even ignoring the inflation we have seen so far, the price level will rise 3.25% per year above the current level over the next 5.75 years.
  • Stocks are going to decline. It is a myth, unsupported by data, that stocks do well in inflationary periods. At best, earnings of stocks may increase with inflation (and even exceed inflation in many cases since earnings are levered). But multiples always decline when real interest rates and inflation rise. Modigliani said it shouldn’t happen. But it does. And the Shiller P/E right now is around 40.
  • Then, the Fed is going to get nervous. Rising long-term inflation expectations will make the FOMC think that they should keep hiking rates, but the declining equity market will make them think that financial conditions must actually be tighter than they seem. And they’ll be afraid of causing real estate prices, which have risen spectacularly in the last couple of years, to decline as well. They will, moreover, be cognizant of the drag on growth caused by high food and energy prices, and in fact they will forecast slower growth (although it is unlikely that they will forecast the recession until it is over). And, since the Fed believes that inflation is caused by too much growth, rather than by too much money, the Committee will slow the rate hikes, pause, and possibly stop altogether. This is, of course, wrong but being wrong hasn’t stopped them so far.
  • Long rates will initially benefit from the notion that the Fed is abandoning its hawkish stance and because of ebbing growth, but then will continue higher as inflation expectations continue to rise. On the plus side, this will keep the yield curve from inverting for very long, ‘signaling a recession’, but a recession will come anyway.
  • Inflation by that point will only be down to 4-5%, but the Fed will regard what remains as ‘residual bottlenecks,’ since in their models a lack of growth puts downward pressure on inflation. They’ll stop shrinking the balance sheet, and may well start QE again if the decline in asset prices is steep enough or lasts long enough, or if real estate prices threaten to drop.

There you go – that’s my road map. I am not married to this view in any way, and am happy to discard it at any time. But I know what I am going to do when the market does what it is going to do. You should too!

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Financial Buyers Aren’t to Blame For High Commodities Prices

February 23, 2022 Leave a comment

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

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

This is not something you should worry about.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Coming Peak in Inflation (and Why You Should Hold Off on the Party)

January 17, 2022 1 comment

Get ready for it: over the next month or two, the vast majority of stories on inflation – at least, in outlets that are friendly to bullish interests – will remark on the 40-year highs in inflation but append the following phrase:

“But economists expect inflation to moderate in the months ahead.”

This is meant to do two things, if you’re a PhD economist or a market observer with a BA in Art History (the difference in prognosticative ability between these two groups is remarkably slim). First, it is meant to be a soothing reminder that inflation is just a passing fad and nothing to worry about. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… Second, it is meant to demonstrate the powerful insights that the speaker commands. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

But the contribution of this pronouncement is small. The reason that “inflation will moderate” in the months ahead is simply due to base effects. The table below shows the monthly CPI (seasonally adjusted, headline) prints from 2021, which will be “replaced” in the y/y figures over the next year. The numbers in red all represent inflation which, if annualized, would be 7.7% or higher.

Some of these high prints are driven by energy prices, which are historically mean-reverting, and some are also driven by spikes in “Covid categories” (most famously, used cars). And so most economists’ forecasts project a return to what the economist considers to be the “underlying run rate” of inflation. To illustrate this, look at the chart below. There are two lines. One, the blue line, represents what the y/y headline inflation rate would be each month if we simply naïvely replace every year-ago figure that is “dropping off” with 0.333%. Y/Y inflation is roughly flat for a couple of months since 0.33% is roughly what Jan and Feb 2021 saw; then it starts to fall sharply as we drop off 0.62%, 0.77%, 0.64%, and 0.90%. In fact, if we printed 0.333% on headline every month for the next year, Y/Y CPI would decline in every month except for two of the next 12.

The other line in the chart, in red, shows what is currently being priced in the market. You can see that not much more thought goes into market pricing than goes into economists’ forecasts!

Here’s the critical, salient point. Every forecast ends up showing this mean reversion because the usual way of doing projections naturally ignores unknown unknowns. From the top down, we have to choose something to replace last year’s number and the natural assumption is that the “top down” guess hasn’t moved terribly far from the prior guess (in the case of headline inflation, something like 2.0-2.5%; for 2022 maybe they’ll throw in 3.5% or 4% ebbing to 2%-2.5% in 2023). And from the bottom-up, we know what went up (for example, the spike in used car prices) and we also know that the rate of change of that item will eventually ebb. We’ve known that about used cars for a while. It hasn’t ebbed yet, confounding many, but it will. But do you know what else happened, the unknown unknown, that was not forecast back when everyone was thinking headline inflation would decline into the end of 2021? The acceleration in new car price inflation!

Indeed, one of the reasons that people thought that used car inflation would slow down and even that used car prices might decline is that used car prices were in some cases exceeding the prices of new cars, which is an obvious absurdity. But surprise! Due to “a chip shortage”, or the problem getting foam for seat cushions, or any one of a half-dozen other reasons – but perhaps also due to excessive government largesse – new car prices are now rising at 12% y/y. That was an unforecast “unknown unknown” early last year, and it is one reason that headline inflation ended the year at 7% rather than at 3%. Okay, so there was a “reason” for this surprise. But if you as an economist didn’t see that coming, what makes you think that you will see the next one…or that there won’t be a next one?

Rob Arnott used to make a similar point about corporate earnings. He pointed out that while the “extraordinary items” for any given company, which gets magically discounted when they report their “earnings before bad stuff,” may be a legitimate way to think about the profitability of that company going forward, for the stock market as a whole the amount of “extraordinary items” shouldn’t be discounted since someone is always having a surprise. It’s a surprise in the micro sense, but not in the macro sense. Surprises happen. Similarly, with inflation: we see economists decay away the surprises that have happened, while ignoring the possibility of other surprises.

If the distribution of those other surprises was random – some of them “inflationary” surprises and some of them “disinflationary” surprises, then this could make sense. The errors would be unbiased and so a forecast that ignores them would be less-volatile then reality, but not necessarily a bad “most-likely” guess. But in this case, the errors are likely to be on the high side because money growth remains around 12-13% per annum. Guessing that overall inflation is going to head back to 1.5%-2.5% over the next year or two is simply a bad guess. That it will decline from 7% is a high likelihood, but not exactly insightful.

There is a context in which this observation can be a useful contribution: by reminding the listener that when they see inflation decelerate in the months ahead, it doesn’t mean anything we don’t already know, a statement about the likelihood of declining year/year inflation can be helpful. This is the baseline forecast; only deviations from the expected path are worth reacting to.

And for my money, those deviations are more likely to be above the forecast curve than below it.

And Then There’s the Fed

By the way, if the most-recent inflation numbers were basically as-expected…and they were pretty much right on expectations…then why are Fed officials suddenly sounding more hawkish? An as-expected number shouldn’t change your views, unless your expectations were non-consensus. That seems unlikely when it comes to the flock of Econ PhDs who inhabit the Eccles Building.

I think the reason the Fed is sounding more hawkish isn’t because anything has changed recently – it hasn’t – but because they think we need to hear that hawkishness right now. It’s like a parent thinking that the kids “need” a stern talking-to. The kids, somehow, never think so.

As a Fed official, if you talk tough now you create several possible good outcomes. You might “re-anchor” inflation expectations by persuading investors and consumers that the Fed is determined to restrain inflation. It seems unlikely, given how often they talked in 2020 about having the tools to be able to prevent inflation – and then neither using the tools nor preventing inflation – that they’d get much mileage from that tack but it’s a free option. Or, you might be able to nudge market expectations in such a way that an actual hawkish turn won’t be as damaging as it historically has been. Or, to be cynical, one might think that a Fed speaker wants to get stern in front of the coming ‘base effects’ ebb, so that it looks to the gawkers in the cheap seats like they moved inflation by merely talking about it. And, in the worst case, you can back off the tough talk before you actually have to do anything.

I think there are a lot of reasons that the Fed is not going to be hawkish in any traditional sense; they’re not going to restrain money supply growth by shrinking the balance sheet and squeezing bank reserves (even if they wanted to, that margin is very far away), and they’re not going to raise interest rates in anything like the aggressiveness of a traditional tightening cycle – partly because they won’t be able to stomach the wealth effect of the market reaction to sharply higher discount rates, partly because sharply higher interest rates would cause big problems with the federal budget deficit going forward, and partly because they have convinced themselves that inflation is currently just ‘paying back’ a long period of being ‘too low’ (whatever that means). For now, expect them to aggressively and triumphantly forecast that “inflation will moderate in the months ahead.”

But you know the truth.

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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (November 2021)

December 10, 2021 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 again. And it’s official, this is now the MOST WATCHED economic number of the month. It’s crazy to think that if you had told me two years ago that we would be pushing 40-year highs on #inflation in 2021, I’d have thought you were mad.
  • Amazingly, economists’ predictions for today’s figure would take headline inflation to 6.8% and core to 4.9%. The month/month forecast for CORE is actually 0.5% – an amazing testimony in itself.
  • Some economists are ‘getting religion.’ The last couple of numbers have been shocking (especially last month’s). The September CPI released in Oct was only 0.24% core, but it was broad.
  • The October CPI released last month was 0.599%, AND it was incredibly broad. Median CPI rose 0.57% m/m – by far the largest increase since 1982. Not even close.
  • So this month, people aren’t looking for retracements in an outlier. There’s nothing much to retrace. Indeed, it looks like we might get another push from autos.
  • Used car prices in the CPI rose 2.5% m/m last month; it could be 4% this month. It COULD even be more than that.
  • New car prices have also risen 1.3% in each of the last two months. With used car prices skyrocketing, it’s hard to imagine new car prices flattening out. So from autos, you could contribute 0.2% to core, if they play to chalk.
  • Rents have also been jumping. Unlike Used Cars, only the timing was surprising. I thought it would take longer after the end of the eviction moratorium to see 5% rates of increase and more, but here we are. Both OER and Primary rents were +0.42%-0.45% each of last two months.
  • If that repeats, it adds another 0.16% or so to core. So then you just need to find price increases of 0.14% from everything else in the core categories, to get to your 0.5% forecast. So it’s not a big reach.
  • Lots can go wrong in any month, of course, which is why I try not to overanalyze the number pre-snap. But 0.5% doesn’t seem wildly off as a baseline guess, to me. (The inflation swaps market sees more like 6.9% on headline, so upside risk.)
  • The bottom line is this: although next month we may get some drag from gasoline thanks to the sharp fall in wholesale prices at the end of November, we’re still very likely to hit 7% on headline and will certainly exceed 5% on core over the next few months. That’s amazing.
  • It gets more amazing: Because of easy comps from last year, averaging 0.06% on core for Dec, Jan, Feb, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to get y/y core to 6% by the end of Q1. Then it should recede…but it’s not going back to 2%.
  • So to put it bluntly, inflation right now is not aiming for the 5 o’clock news. It’s aiming for the history books.
  • Why is this happening? Simple: too much spending, too fast, financed with newly created reserves. Period. The shortages result from getting incomes back above pre-covid levels before we were ready to provide the goods and services to the people waving dollars.
  • Going forward it is hard to see how this resolves easily. There are still many more people not in the workforce than there were pre-pandemic…but more income, by a lot. Demand>supply, and financed by 12% money growth.
  • Moreover, one final thought and a h/t to Barclays for their chart of the HH index. The Herfindahl–Hirschman Index is a very widely-used (especially in antitrust) measure of market concentration. Over the last few decades, it has risen precipitously, meaning more concentration.
  • When market power is concentrated, so is pricing power. And those mega-firms that now dominate just about every niche in American life have re-learned that price increases can stick in this kind of environment. Who can blame them? You build market power for exactly this moment.
  • It’s hard to unscramble this egg. So hang on to your juevos, number in a few.
  • Cents and Sensibility: the Inflation Guy Podcast
  • inflationguy.podbean.com
  • As a reminder, I will have a summary of all my tweets at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  sometime mid-morning and then I plan to put out an Inflation Guy podcast (https://inflationguy.podbean.com) sometime today.

  • Yawn. CPI as-expected. Just a soothing 6.4% annualized pace of core. 0.53% m/m,
  • Core was actually VERY close to printing 5.0%. Using the seasonally-adjusted numbers you’d get 4.96%, which would round up. NSA numbers give you 4.93%. Doesn’t matter; will be over 5% next month.
  • So, highest headline inflation since 1982, highest core since 1991, with more to come on both.
  • Running through the usual suspects: Used cars were 2.50%. That’s less than I expected. There’s still make-up there next month, believe it or not.
  • Owner’s Equivalent Rent +0.44% again this month. Primary Rents +0.42% again this month. Eerily steady at a high level. This month, Lodging Away from Home was +2.98% m/m. Consequently, the Housing subgroup was +0.52% m/m, 4.8% y/y.
  • I mentioned Used Cars; New Cars was 1.13% (seasonally adjusted) m/m. Car and Truck Rental +1.1% m/m. Airfares this month (a “Covid category”) +4.75%
  • So with airfares, lodging away from home, used and new cars, motor vehicle insurance (+0.66% m/m)…doesn’t look like this wave of COVID is doing much to hold down prices.
  • An eye on Medicinal Drugs is warranted. y/y it’s back to flat. Doctors’ Services also up smartly this month, 4.26% y/y. Hospital Services down m/m but still 3.5% y/y.
  • Overall, Core Goods rose to 9.4% y/y, with Core Services up to 3.4% y/y.
  • Interestingly, two of the eight major subgroups declined m/m: Recreation, and Education/Communication. And we still got 0.5% on core!
  • Here are core goods and core services. Supply chain still an issue for goods. Core services the highest since 2008, and will go higher still thanks to rents.
  • Core inflation ex-housing back up to 5.72% y/y. It was higher in June at 5.81%. But otherwise…back to early 1980s.
  • So let’s see. Only category that declined at a faster than 10% annualized rate was Jewelry and Watches (-20.5% annualized m/m).
  • The list of categories >10% annualized growth. Excluding the 6 food/energy line items there: Mens/Boys apparel, public transport, lodging AFH, Used cars, Women’s/Girls apparel, New cars, Motor vehicle parts/equip, misc personal goods, car/truck rental, tobacco,househld frnishings
  • Looks like the median CPI category will be an OER subindex, which gets separate seasonals, so hard to forecast exactly but another 0.44% m/m or so from Median pushing it up to 3.5% (just my early guess).
  • Median m/m. One exhibit in the ‘broadening’ argument.
  • Once again, not a lot of huge outliers here. Although November and December numbers get harder to tell because the seasonal adjustments are more important (e.g. lodging away from home, negative before SA but strong after SA).
  • Why did Recreation decline? Well, thinks like “admissions”, photographic equipment, cable/satellite television service all declined. So the cake we are supposed to eat is at least getting cheaper.
  • Fascinatingly, 10-year breakevens are down HARD, -4bps on the day to 2.45%. With core pushing 5% and rising. Wonder what kind of number folks needed to stay long??
  • Here are the Four Pieces. Food & Energy. Near multi-decade highs as well. And it’s not just energy – there are ripple effects in fertilizer and therefore food. The Food subindex itself was +5.82% y/y.
  • Core Goods – here is where the supply chain argument is most-salient. Obviously cars are in here and a big part of it. But not all of it! it will come down, but all the way to zero? I have my doubts. And…not soon.
  • Core services ex-shelter. Still the best news out there. Medical care not unreasonable. Mind you, this would have scared me two years ago, but right now it looks soothing compared to the other charts.
  • And the part that was the most-predictable (but took an amazingly long time for people to catch on to): rent of shelter. This has another 1% or more to go, at least. And it’s a big chunk of CPI.
  • The distribution of price changes by CPI component weights. Less of a distribution than a splatter, at the moment. Not much going up less than 3%!
  • And let’s put numbers on that. Only 20% of the consumption basket has risen LESS than 3% over the last year.
  • Almost double the weight of the categories slower than 3%? The categories faster than 4%.
  • Lastly, the Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index reached a new record high. The inflation pressures now are broader than the deflation pressures in the Global Financial Crisis.
  • So wrapping this up…what does this mean for the Fed? In the Old Days, the Fed by now would have already tightened a bunch. Currently, we’re talking about reducing the amount they add in liquidity, maybe a little faster. And possibly raising rates in 2022. That is, UNLESS…
  • …unless stocks drop like a stone. And honestly, it’s not really clear to me that the government would care to see much higher interest costs on the debt. Only way Japan has survived its mountain of debt is that is it almost interest-free, after all.
  • But maybe the hawks will storm the Eccles Building and the Fed will not only raise rates, but also slow money growth (these were once tightly connected; now not so much, and it’s the money growth part that matters not the interest rate part). We can hope.
  • In a recent podcast, “How Many Swallows Make a Spring”, https://inflationguy.podbean.com/e/ep-12-how-many-swallows-make-a-spring/ I expressed my opinion that once the peak is in, the valley for inflation won’t be as low – because we have semi-permanently moved the distribution.
  • So we’re not looking, in late 2022, or in 2023, to get core inflation back to 2%. It’s just not going to happen unless housing collapses (which could happen – lots of weird things could happen – but we don’t base outlooks on what weird things COULD happen).
  • IMO, we’re now in a land of 3%-4% core, maybe if we’re lucky it’s 2.5%-3.5%. Getting it back to 1.5%-2.5% will take strong leadership (HA!) and a long time.
  • Recently, 10-year inflation breakevens reached 2.78% – matching the all-time highs (since TIPS were issued in 1997) from 2005. If you think about breakevens in the same way you think about TS…
  • So, as I wrote last month, you haven’t missed this trade yet. https://inflationguy.blog/2021/11/18/you-have-not-missed-it/
  • Thanks for tuning in. I’ll have the collated summary of these tweets up on my blog within a half hour or so, and will drop a podcast summary of it later. Retweet, call, click, visit, like, upvote, forward, or whatever the kids say these days.

The wonderful thing about December trading is that none of the market moves need to make sense. As I write this, stocks are up and inflation breakevens are down. It’s almost as if high inflation that didn’t actually surprise is somehow helping the ‘transitory’ story. Breakevens act as if the Fed is about to be aggressive and suck liquidity out of the system. But if that’s true, then it’s weird that stocks are higher because an elevated discount rate, with the stock market at record multiples, cannot be a good thing.

There is one way that those moves could be consistent, and that’s as if investors now believe that the inflation spike will indeed be transitory, and that the Fed won’t need to do anything after all. If it was all about some supply bottlenecks that will shortly resolve themselves, and the party can continue, then it would make sense to push inflation expectations lower and also not deflate stocks.

But to be clear, there is absolutely nothing in today’s number that would give any shape to that fantasy. For the third month in a row, the inflation figures were high and the price increases were spread across a very wide variety of categories. There is no one-off to point to. Used Cars adds something – but we haven’t yet seen the peak in that – and that rate of change will eventually ebb. At the same time, other categories are showing new life. This is a much more dangerous look than it was in the first half of 2021, when we expected broadening but it was still believable that “COVID categories” could be the main story. That story is dead and buried. This is not about the pandemic any longer; it is about policy response to the pandemic. It is almost entirely policy error. I will show again the picture from last month, which sums it up. Supply has done what supply usually does following a recession – if anything, it has recovered faster than usual and is back to trend. It’s demand that is far above normal, and that’s not an accident and it isn’t due to COVID. It is a policy error, and it will take many tears (and maybe many years) to reverse.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (September 2021)

October 13, 2021 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!

  • Here we are, #CPI Day again – where did that month go!? – And everyone is gathered around for the number. So many interested people! So many experts on inflation suddenly!
  • Last night, @TuckerCarlson led his show with a monologue re inflation. And he got it basically right, which is unusual for nonfinancial media. But the point is, “transitory” inflation is now important enough to get the lead on one of the biggest cable opinion shows in the world.
  • Which of course is why there are so many experts suddenly. Demand creates its own supply. But I am not complaining. There’s only one Inflation Guy and he has his own podcast https://inflationguy.podbean.com and app (in your app/play store)! [Editor’s Note: See the last bullet]
  • More importantly some regional Fed folks are starting to sound queasy. Atlanta Fed’s Bostic and St. Louis Fed President Bullard. The NY Times! The Wall Street Journal! The Poughkeepsie News-Gazette! Made up that last one but it’s everywhere.
  • Not the Chairman though, and not the Treasury Secretary, both of whom want the same thing: more money. Who was it? In the Volunteers with Tom Hanks I think: Mo money means mo power.
  • Meanwhile 1y and 3y expectations in the Consumer Expectations Survey are at all time highs since the inception of the survey in 2013. Which of course is why Carlson is leading with it. Consumers are noticing.
  • Are they only noticing because of used cars? Seems unlikely. They’re noticing broader pressures, which we are starting to see and still will be watching for in this report.
  • Speaking of used cars…while the rate of change might come down on some of these spikes, there’s no sign the LEVEL is retracing. See latest Black Book survey. “Holding steady” around 30% y/y. But that’s down from 50% in May.
  • Consumers are also noticing shortages, which is unmeasured inflation. If you put a price cap below equilibrium, you get shortages. And if you get shortages, you can presume the equilibrium price is higher. Repeat: Shortages are Unmeasured Inflation
  • Now, there’s good news. Delays at China ports are down. Although some of this is seasonal and some is due to the fact that…all the ships are sitting in OUR ports. But there is SOME good news anyway. Had to search for it.
  • Question going forward is how much of the pressure on suppliers gets passed through. It will be more (a) the longer it lasts, and (b) the more suppliers see others passing along costs. And profit season is about to start, where we will hear some of those answers.
  • In this CPI report today: the Street is expecting a very tame +0.2% on core, after a soft +0.1% last month. That seems very, very optimistic to me. If we get +0.27%, the y/y core rate will uptick to 4.1%.
  • And AFTER this, the comps are terribly easy so core inflation will be moving higher almost certainly for the next 5 months. The total for those 5 months in 2020 was +0.43% on core. The TOTAL.
  • So, core will be moving back towards 5%, even if the monthly figures settle in only at 0.2% per month. I’m not very optimistic that’s going to happen. But the Street is!!
  • We will be watching the usual ‘reopening’ items of course, but also watching RENTS and the breadth of this figure. And let’s not ignore food although not in the core – it’s one thing that consumers notice more than other things when it’s persistent.
  • I expect Rents to continue to move higher. So looking for that. And watching Median CPI, which set a new multi-year high month/month last month. It’s at 2.42% y/y and will be higher this month.
  • I’d also look at some of the “re-closing” categories that dragged down core CPI last month to reverse. Again, not a lot of sign that most prices are declining, even if rates of change are slowing.
  • Good luck out there. 5 minutes to the figure.

  • The economists nailed it! Well, mostly. Core was +0.24%, so at the upper end of the forecast range before rounding up. Y/Y went to 4.04%, also just barely not rounded up. But been a while since we were worried about rounding. Let’s look at the breakdown though.
  • Airfares plunged again, another -6.4% m/m. That’s going to change soon if vaccine mandates provoke more labor shortages there. But it does appear, from my own anecdotal observation, that airfares have been actually declining.
  • Lodging Away from Home -0.56% m/m. Used cars -0.7% m/m. Car and Truck rental -2.9% m/m. So, most of the “reopening” categories are still dragging this month, what I’d thought was a one-off. I didn’t think they’d top-ticked the prices before.
  • But New cars and trucks were +1.30% m/m after 1.22% the month before. As I’ve said before, the New/Used gap that closed when Used car prices spiked can open again in two ways. Used car prices can decline (no sign of that) or New car prices can rise.
  • Now, that was your good news for the day.
  • Primary Rents were +0.45% m/m, boosting y/y to 2.43%. OER was +0.43% m/m, boosting y/y to 2.90%. Whoopsie. Totally expected. And yet, kept seeing how the eviction moratorium wasn’t really holding down rents. Hmmm.
  • Medical Care, though, remains a soft spot for reasons that I just can’t fathom. Flat m/m. Pharmaceuticals rebounded to be +0.28% this month, but Doctors’ Services fell -0.30% and Hospital Services followed a strong month with a tepid +0.11%.
  • Apparel also plunged this month, -1.12% m/m. Small category, big move. Still 3.4% y/y, which is big for clothing, but it’s weird. With ports backed up, I’ve been seeing stock-outs in a lot of sizes of the stuff I buy. Shortages are unmeasured inflation. But still.
  • Quick look at 10y breakevens has them +3bps since before the number. The rents spike has people spooked. And it should. That’s the steadiest component. All of these large moves in little categories tend to mean-revert.
  • Core goods decelerates to +7.3% y/y (yayy!). But core services accelerates to 2.9% y/y (boooo!).
  • Core CPI ex-shelter dropped to 4.66% from 4.79%. So that’s the effect of all of these small categories. Meanwhile, rents boomed. And core-ex-rent at 4.66% isn’t exactly soothing.
  • Chart of core ex-shelter, and shelter. In the middle, you get core at 4%. If you want core to get back to 2%, you need core-ex to really plunge because shelter isn’t about to reverse lower.
  • Speaking of shelter, I hate to say I told you so but…and we have a long way to go.
  • Now let’s look at tuitions. Since we are in the Sept/Oct period, we’re going to find the new level of tuitions, which will be smoothed out over the next year with seasonals. This month, the NSA jumped 0.56%, and the y/y rose to 1.73% from 1.20%.
  • Tuitions aren’t going to jump a ton this year, but in 2022 I expect them to take a bump – partly to reclaim colleges’ purchasing power and partly because the product will be better next year.
  • Sorry, error. That was for the Education and Communication broad category. College Tuition and fees rose 0.96% m/m (NSA), and to 1.72% y/y from 0.83% y/y. Sorry.
  • Other goods. Appliances +1.55% m/m. Furniture and Bedding +2.35% m/m. Motor vehicle parts and equipment +0.85% m/m. Medical equipment and supplies +0.96% m/m. So doctors? Not so much. EKG machine? Syringe? Give me your credit card.
  • Breakevens dropping back. That’s profit-taking on the pop. They’re going to keep going up I think.
  • Biggest core m/m declines annualized: Public Transportation (-46%), Car/Truck Rental (-30%), Womens/Girls Apparel (-28%), Jewelry & Watches (-18%), Misc Personal Goods (-13%).
  • Biggest core annualized m/m increases: Motor Vehicle Insurance (+28%), New Vehicles (+17%), Household Furnishings/Ops (+13%), Motor Vehicle Parts/Equip (+11%), Infants’/Toddlers’ Apparel (+11%).
  • I said pay attention to food, which is what people notice. Overall Food & Beverages was +0.87% m/m. Some big movers: Meats Poultry Fish Eggs (+29% annualized), Other food @ home (15%), Cereals/baking products (13%).
  • Oh my. Median. My early estimate, which I hope is wrong, is +0.45% m/m. If I’m right that would be the highest in 30 years. On MEDIAN. Not meaningfully higher than that m/m since 1982.
  • If that’s right, the y/y would be 2.78%. Still short of the 2019 highs, but not for long.
  • That median calculation tells me I need to look at the diffusion and distribution charts. Which will take a couple of minutes to calculate. Please hold.
  • While we are waiting for the diffusion stuff, here are the four-pieces charts.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy. The most volatile, but recently it’s just been up. And this is the part that people notice. Normally ignored because it mean-reverts. But it’s hard to get near-term bearish on energy or food, especially as the latter involves lots of pkging and transport.
  • Core goods. Coming off the boil because of Used Cars. Staying as high as it is because of New Cars and other durables. Sort of concerning it isn’t dropping faster.
  • Core services less rent of shelter. The one encouraging piece although it relies heavily on medical. Service providers not yet passing through wage increases so much. This is where the spiral would really happen, if it did.
  • Piece 4, and the news of the day. Rent of Shelter is now shooting higher, after being held down by the eviction moratorium and lack of mobility. This will set multi-decade highs over the next year, and as the slowest piece makes “transitory” much harder to believe.
  • The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index. Not that you need this chart to convince you, but price pressures are the broadest in about 15 years. And getting broader, fast.
  • So, here is the distribution of y/y price changes by base component weights. Note two things: (1) there is a long right tail, which is symptomatic of inflationary periods. Core above median. (2) The whole middle has shifted higher. This is of course largely rents.
  • So…we are getting higher inflation from the slow-moving pieces, and higher inflation from the fast-moving pieces. What’s not to like.
  • And finally, here is a chart of the weight of all components that have y/y inflation above the Fed’s target (which equates to about 2.25% on CPI, roughly). Highest in a long time. Only 1 in 5 purchase dollars is going to something inflating less than the Fed’s target.
  • So in sum…the overall 0.2% on core, which was nearly 0.3%, was the best news of the day. There is nothing in the details, distributions, or trends to make you think this is about to end.
  • Because of comps, we can be confident that y/y core and median inflation are going to accelerate for at least the next 5 months. And there’s nothing to convince me that the monthlies are going to stay nice and tame.
  • Transitory is dead. There is too much liquidity. The Fed now needs to choose whether to drain liquidity (not just taper), and live with much lower asset prices, or keep pumping asset prices “for the rich,” while we all ultimately lose in real purchasing power.
  • Powell is over a barrel, but to be fair he was also the cooper.
  • FWIW, I think the taper will happen. It will stop when one of two things happens: (1) Brainard replaces Powell or (2) Stock prices decline 15%. The Fed is fighting a war and they don’t even know it yet. They are working to keep the bread and circuses flowing.
  • That’s all for today. I will have the summary post up on http://mikeashton.wordpress.com  in an hour or less. Visit our website https://enduringinvestments.com ! Get the Inflation Guy app. Check out the podcast “Cents and Sensibility.” And stay safe out there.
  • Biden to meet with ports, labor on supply chain bottlenecks
  • I mean, this will definitely help, right? “Mister President, since you asked, we’ll clean it up.”

Biden to meet with ports, labor on supply chain bottlenecks

  • Just heard that the Inflation Guy app has been “temporarily” pulled from the Google Play store. Uh-huh. Totally normal. Waiting for the notice from Twitter that I’ve been kicked off for “spreading disinformation.”

One of the ways you can tell this is getting bad is that the people who told us this was all transitory, had nothing to do with money, and would be over soon are doing one or more things from this list:

  1. Pretending they never said it.
  2. Pretending they didn’t mean what they obviously meant.
  3. Getting angry because they were wrong and you were right.
  4. Accuse you of also being wrong because you didn’t specifically say Used Cars was going up.
  5. Trying to talk over, or squelch, the people who are bearing the bad news.

Last month, we had an 0.1% on core. But when you looked at the details, it wasn’t really soothing because it was being held down by the “COVID categories” which were falling again. You didn’t really have to squint, but you had to look below the headline. This month, we almost printed an 0.3% on core, and that was only because of those same categories (plus apparel), for the most part. You didn’t need to look hard to see the problem. Primary rents had their biggest m/m jump since 1999. OER, the biggest jump since the heart of the housing bubble in 2006. Those are big pieces, and we have a great deal of confidence that they are going to continue to rock-n-roll. After all, we have long said that rents were being restrained mainly by the eviction moratorium and would begin to normalize after the moratorium was lifted. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The trajectory of inflation is becoming clearer. The debate is no longer whether inflation is going up but how high it will get and when the peak will happen. That’s the right debate. The ancillary debate is whether the next ebb will be at 2% or something higher, like 3%. Some outliers still see the next ebb as serious deflation, but those are the same people who thought we wouldn’t see inflation when the Fed started printing money that the Treasury spent. [Note to the purists: yes, the Fed doesn’t “print” money, but it’s silly to argue that buying bonds for reserves isn’t equivalent ‘because it’s an asset swap.’ That’s just sophistry. It’s also an asset swap when I buy a refrigerator for cash, but circumstances have clearly changed for both buyer and seller when I do so. Anyway, go sell your crazy somewhere else. We’re all stocked up here.]

There is at least a sliver of good in this mess, and that’s that while investors in the main totally blew the chance to buy cheap inflation protection before this all happened (because they believed inflation was not a risk), and totally forgot that inflation affects not only asset prices but stock and bond correlations, they are re-learning these lessons from the 1970s and 1980s. And so investing hygiene will be better going forward. We have more tools to hedge inflation now than we did in the 1970s, and failing to use those tools in a healthy investment portfolio will no longer be acceptable.

And I know I don’t need to say it, but my company Enduring Investments is here to help those investors. Just like all of those other experts, except we’ve been here for longer.

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