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.

Why Roughly 2.25% is an Equilibrium Real Rate

Recently, Fed officials have taken to discussing “long-term equilibrium” interest rates as a way of indicating to the market where interest rates might ultimately be heading. It is not exactly a terrifying prospect. The Fed seems to collectively believe that the “neutral” short-term nominal interest rate is in the 2.50%-2.75% range; some fear that the Fed funds target right may have to be lifted “modestly” above this level for a time. This seems hard to believe, with inflation running with an 8% handle – such an overnight rate would equate to an annual 5-6% incineration of purchasing power. The only way this could be considered “neutral” is if one begs the question by asserting contrary to evidence that the long-run equilibrium inflation rate is around 2%-2.25%.

I have noted repeatedly over the last year or so why it is unlikely in my opinion that the current equilibrium for inflation is in the 2% range; I feel it is closer to 4%-5% in the medium-term. But if an observer has a model which has been ‘trained’ on data from the last thirty years, the model will assuredly tell you that any time inflation deviates from 2%, it comes back to 2%. In fact, any model which did not produce that prediction would not have been considered a good model: it would have made predictions which, for 30 years, would have been noticeably incorrect from time to time. Ergo, all surviving models will view something like 2% as an attracting level for inflation, and we know the Fed continues to believe this. So, evidently, do many other economists. I keep showing this following chart because I think it’s delicious. Take today’s level; take the level your model says is a self-enforcing equilibrium, and draw a straight line. That’s your forecast. You too can be a million-dollar Wall Street economist.

Faced with awful predictions from this cadre of models, one solution is to consider why they had bad predictions, and attempt to develop models that would perform on data from the 1970s and 1980s as well. A more attractive solution, from an institutional perspective, is to blame model-exogenous events. That is, “the model is fine; who could have foreseen that supply chain issues would have triggered such a large inflation?” And so, we preserve the FOMCs ability to continue making terrible forecasts.

Similarly, Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari stated not too long ago that the Fed may have to “push long-term real rates into restrictive territory.”[1] This continues the Fed’s error of obsessing on the price of liquidity rather than its quantity, but that isn’t the point I am making here. Kashkari made a different error, in an essay posted on the Minneapolis Fed website on May 6th.[2] He claimed that the neutral long-term real interest rate is around 0.25%, which conveniently is where long-term real rates are now.

However, we can demonstrate that logic, reinforced by history, indicates that long-term real rates ought to be in the neighborhood of the economy’s long-term real growth rate potential.

I will use the classic economist’s expedient of a desert-island economy. Consider such an island, which has two coconut-milk producers and for mathematical convenience no inflation, so that real and nominal quantities are the same. These producers are able to expand production and profits by about 2% per year by deploying new machinery to extract the milk from the coconuts. Now, let’s suppose that one of the producers offers to sell his company to the other, and to finance the purchase by lending money at 5%. The proposal will fall on deaf ears, since paying 5% to expand production and profits by 2% makes no sense. At that interest rate, either producer would rather be a banker. Conversely, suppose one producer offers to sell his company to the other and to finance the purchase at a 0% rate of interest – the buyer can pay off the loan over time with no interest charged. Now the buyer will jump at the chance, because he can pay off the loan with the increased production and keep more money in the bargain. The leverage granted him by this loan is very attractive. In this circumstance, the only way the deal is struck is if the lender is not good at math. Clearly, the lender could increase his wealth by 2% per year by producing coconut milk, but is choosing instead to maintain his current level of wealth. Perhaps he likes playing golf more than cracking coconuts.

In this economy, a lender cannot charge more than the natural growth in production since a borrower will not intentionally reduce his real wealth by borrowing to buy an asset that returns less than the loan costs. And a lender will not intentionally reduce his real wealth by lending at a rate lower than he could expand his wealth by producing. Thus, the natural real rate of interest will tend to be in equilibrium at the natural real rate of economic growth. Lower real interest rates will induce leveraging of productive activities; higher real interest rates will result in deleveraging.

This isn’t only true of the coconut economy, although I would strongly caution that this isn’t exactly a trading model and only a natural tendency with a long history. The chart below shows (1) a naïve real 10-year yield created by taking the 10-year nominal Treasury yield and subtracting trailing 1-year inflation, in purple; (2) a real yield series derived from a research paper by Shanken & Kothari, in red; (3) the Enduring Investments real yield series, in green, and (4) 10y TIPS, in black.

The long-term averages for these four series are as follows:

  • Naïve real: 2.34%
  • Shanken/Kothari: 3.13%
  • Enduring Investments: 2.34%
  • 10y TIPS: 1.39%
  • Shanken/Kothari thru 2007; 10y TIPS from 2007-present: 2.50%

It isn’t just a coincidence that calculating a long-term average of long-term real interest rates, no matter how you do it, ends up being about 2.3%-2.5%. That is also close to the long-term real growth rate of the economy. Using Commerce Department data, the compounded annual US growth rate from 1954-2021 was 2.95%.

It is generally conceded that the economy’s sustainable growth rate has fallen over the last 50 years, although some people place great stock (no pun intended) on the productivity enhancements which power the fantasies of tech sector investors. I believe that something like 2.25%-2.50% is the long-term growth rate that the US economy can sustain, although global demographic trends may be dampening that further. Which in turn implies that something like 2.00%-2.25% is where long-term real interest rates should be, in equilibrium.[3] Kashkari says “We do know that neutral rates have been falling in advanced economies around the world due to factors outside the influence of monetary policy, such as demographics, technology developments and trade.” Except that we don’t know anything of the sort, since there is a strong argument against each of these totems. Abbreviating, those counterarguments are (a) aging demographics is a supply shock which should decrease output and raise prices with the singular counterargument of Japan also happening to be the country with the lowest growth rate in money in the last three decades; (b) productivity has been improving since the Middle Ages, and there is no evidence that it is improving noticeably faster today – and if it did, that would raise the expected real growth rate and the demand for money; and (c) while trade certainly was a following wind for the last quarter century, every indication is that it is going to be the opposite sign for the next decade. It is time to retire these shibboleths. Real interest rates have been kept artificially too low for far too long, inducing excessive financial leverage. They will eventually return to equilibrium…but it will be a long and painful process.


[1] https://www.reuters.com/business/finance/feds-kashkari-we-may-have-push-long-term-real-rates-into-restrictive-territory-2022-05-06/

[2] https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/2022/policy-has-tightened-a-lot-is-it-enough

[3] The reason that real interest rates will be slightly lower than real growth rates is that real interest rates are typically computed using the Consumer Price Index, which is generally slightly higher than the GDP Deflator.

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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (April 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

Inflation is a Tax

We all have heard it said before: “inflation is a tax.” It seems that when most people say it, they seem to mean that it’s painful, like a tax is. That both inflation and taxes hurt the little guy, more than the big guy. That the other political party is responsible for bad things, and these are both bad things, so they imply the same thing: vote for me!

When Milton Friedman said it, he meant inflation is a tax.

We recently have seen in an uncommonly explicit way just what this means. It isn’t something vague but an actual tax. It takes money from you, but it doesn’t stop there – it transfers that money to government coffers. I thought of this recently when I saw a headline about how government receipts were breaking records. The headline seemed to think this was great news, but I am a taxpayer so my natural reaction was: dang it. Indeed, receipts at all levels of government are way up for a bunch of reasons. Incomes are higher, so income taxes are higher. Corporate earnings are higher, so corporate taxes are higher. Retail prices are higher, so sales tax collections are higher. And real estate prices are higher, so real estate taxes are higher. To the extent that these things are higher because of higher real activity, it isn’t a bad thing – but at least part of the increase in receipts is due to inflation. Buy the same item today as you did last year and the price is going to be roughly 8-9% higher on average, which means that your sales tax will also be 8-9% higher. If your restaurant bill is 10% higher this year; so is the tax…and the tip, which is income. So it shouldn’t be a terrible surprise that overall federal receipts over the last twelve months are up. By about 27%, actually, compared to the twelve months ended in March 2021.

To be sure, the 12 months ended in March 2021 included a lot of the shutdown, although you can see in the chart that the shutdown didn’t really hurt receipts that much. But to make a better comparison: the first three months of 2022, compared to the first three months of 2021, federal receipts were +18.8%. It’s good to be the king, in inflationary times. At least until the rabble figures out where their money is going.

How much of the overall increase in tax collections is inflation? Over a long period of time, most of it although you are correct in your visceral sense that the pound of flesh has become more like 2.5 pounds of flesh over time.

The chart above shows rolling 12-month tax receipts, indexed to 12/31/1980. The red line is nominal receipts; the blue line is taxes adjusted for inflation. Since 1980, taxes have still gone up about 150% in real terms, about 2.25% per year. That’s not far from what the real growth rate of the economy has been, although to be fair about 22% of that is since the beginning of 2021.

[As an aside: if the “inflation truthers” are right about inflation really being about 5-6% higher per year than the government admits to, since the early 1980s, then either tax burdens have been going dramatically lower in real terms or the government is also lying about government receipts which must actually be orders of magnitude higher. You see how absurd this argument gets?]

So the government gets more revenue when you produce more, but it also gets more just because prices go up. Inflation is a tax.

While it isn’t directly illustrated in the charts above, this is one way that inflation contributes to inequality. It takes more from the less-well-off than it does from the well-heeled. Inflation is not only a tax – it is also a very regressive tax.

Categories: Government, Politics Tags: ,

High Prices Don’t Cure High Prices

April 23, 2022 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (March 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Tight Spreads’ Cost: Orderly Markets

March 21, 2022 4 comments

In this article I am taking a brief break from writing about inflation. There have been lots of great stories and anecdotes recently about inflation. I loved the Wall Street Journal article about how “Inflation and Other Woes Are Eating Your Girl Scout Cookies”, and we have seen several contributions from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers that are worth reading. One was an opinion piece in the Washington Post (“Opinion: The stock market liked the Fed’s plan to raise interest rates. It’s wrong.”) and one was a very good NBER working paper on “The Coming Rise in Residential Inflation,” in which he confirms and extends the normal way inflation people forecast rents and comes up with even higher numbers than I’ve been working with for a while. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen these stories before now, consider installing the Inflation Guy mobile app. I don’t curate every single inflation story; just the ones worth curating.

Moreover, the Fed increasingly sounds like they want to be aggressive with rates. That’s half the battle, though on the more important half (the balance sheet reduction) they don’t yet have a plan. I should note that saying hawkish things on half the plan isn’t really all that hawkish, especially when your notion of “pushing rates above neutral” means 3%: a level well below inflation. But it’s progress that these folks have finally realized that inflation is a real phenomenon and not just due to port congestion. They still don’t seem to see the role of money growth in causing that phenomenon, but it’s nice we’re making baby steps.

As I said, though, in this article I’m going to talk about market structure, and the deal with the devil we have made to seek ever-tighter-spreads at a cost of orderly markets.

Since the 1970s, the cost of trading equities has moved from a bid/offer spread of a half point or a quarter point ($0.50 or $0.25 per share), on round lots, plus large brokerage fees, to sub-penny spreads on any size trade, often with zero brokerage costs. The cost of bond execution has similarly declined, as has the cost of futures and swaps brokerage. Volumes, across all markets, have responded to the decrease in costs. Some of this improvement in the median cost of trading has come from increased transparency, and a lot from increased competition.

Those improvements have not come without a cost, but at most times the cost is less apparent. The way the stock market used to be structured was around a number of market-making firms whose job it was to maintain orderly markets – including the distasteful task of being the buyer when everyone else is selling. What this means for the profit of a market-maker is that they generally made steady, small profits (a quarter of a point on every share, day in and day out) and occasionally lost huge amounts in market panics. It’s a classic “short gamma” position of picking up nickels before the bulldozer, and well-understood by the market-makers to be so. But that was the deal: you let the market-maker take his spread as an insurance premium, and collect on that premium when a calamity hits. Primary dealers in the government bond markets worked the same way: in exchange for the privilege of building an auction book (and being able to bid on the auction with that knowledge) and making spreads as a market-maker most of the time, it was understood that they were supposed to work to keep markets liquid in the bad times.

Then, we decided that we didn’t like paying all of these insurance premiums, which we called the “cost of trading” but could also be considered “the cost of providing continuous liquidity in bad times.” So stock prices were decimalized, which immediately started narrowing spreads. Electronic trading made the deal even worse because anyone could jump in front of the market-maker and be the bid or the offer, meaning that the market-maker wasn’t earning the spread. In many cases, there wasn’t any spread left to earn.

There is a parallel to something else I’ve written about recently, and that’s the trend over the years to lower and lower costs, and longer and longer supply chains, in manufacturing. Such a system is lower cost, but the price of that cost-savings is fragility. A long, international supply chain gets snarled much more easily and much worse than a short, domestic one. That cost/fragility tradeoff is the bargain that manufacturers made, although not thoughtfully.

Similarly, the price of the cost-savings from sub-penny equity spreads is fragility in the market-making system. It is difficult to find dealers who will accept the responsibilities of being the buyer or seller of last resort, and maintaining orderly markets, when that cost is not counterbalanced by an increase in profit opportunities during placid times.

As with international trade, we have begun to see the downside of this tradeoff when trading risks increase. Not that this is the first time, but it seems these days that liquidity conditions get sketchier more quickly now than they used to. Of course, we saw this as recently as March 2020, when trading in credit got so bad that the Fed had to step in and backstop corporate bond ETFs by buying corporate bonds and ETFs under the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility.[1] Recently, the Nickel market basically broke when prices went vertical and the resulting margin calls would have put some LME brokers out of business (conveniently, the LME decided to just cancel the trades that they didn’t like, which means those brokers are still in business but probably won’t have a market to broker). Prices went vertical partly because there are fewer highly-capitalized market-maker shops to stand in the middle and make orderly markets. Also recently, the European Federation of Energy Traders pleaded for “emergency funding mechanisms” so that they can continue to trade energy markets that have had greatly increased volatility recently.[2]

Now, the disturbing thing is that we are starting to see declines in liquidity even in fairly unremarkable periods. The last seven months’ worth of volatility in interest rate markets was higher than we’d seen in some years, but not exactly unprecedented. This month, 10-year Treasury yields are up 57bps. In 2002, 10-year yields fell 170 bps between May and October, in something close to a straight line driven by mortgage convexity. In about 6 weeks from May to June in 2003, yields dropped 81bps and then immediately reversed 129bps higher over the ensuing 6 weeks (same reason, different direction). I mention those two episodes because I was making markets in rates options and remember them not-very-fondly.

But these recent 57bps have been a lot more stressful on the market with fewer strong hands responsible for maintaining order. The chart below shows the BofA MOVE index, which measures normalized implied volatility on 1-month Treasury options. Recently, that index reached its second-highest level since the Global Financial Crisis. The highest prior level was in the March 2020 shutdown crash…understandable… and during the GFC banks were undercapitalized and in risk of failure. What’s the reason now?

We also see it in various market ecosystems. For example, there are roughly two dozen “Lead Market Makers” in the ETF ecosystem. In order to launch an ETF, you need to find someone to be the LMM. The function of the LMM is to make markets in virtually all conditions. But it is exquisitely hard to get an LMM signed up nowadays because the math for them works out badly. If your fund is very small, they make a decent spread but on tiny volume so it’s not very lucrative. As soon as your fund gets large, everyone else jumps in front of your markets, because they can and there’s money there to be made, so the LMM either makes no spread at all or makes a very small spread. Of course, those other Johnny-come-latelies will scatter the first time there is volatility, leaving the LMM there all alone to make orderly markets. So the market-making itself is a bad deal for the LMM in almost all circumstances. Their models are only tenable if they are able to make money on the relationship with the ETF issuer in other ways – being a broker for fund rebalancing, etc. This means that fewer good ETFs come to market than otherwise would. I have lamented this elsewhere. And the root cause and ultimate result are the same: we’ve engineered a very low-cost, high fragility system for investors to deal in.

The bottom line is that as any insurance agent can tell you people really hate paying for insurance. But no one expects insurance companies to provide insurance without being paid at least a fair premium. What would happen if we did? Well, then we wouldn’t have any insurance. Financially speaking right now, we don’t have much insurance because it’s too costly to stand in the middle. That looks like a win, until something catches on fire.


[1] For the Fed to buy corporate bonds was long held to be impermissible, since the Federal Reserve Act listed the assets the Fed was authorized to buy and that list did not include corporates and equities. Clearly, this was meant to follow Bagehot’s dictum that a central bank, to avert panic, “should lend early and freely, to solvent firms, against good collateral, and at ‘high rates’”, but thanks to clever lawyers who note that the Act does not explicitly prohibit the Fed from buying these things the Fed has in recent years decided that since it wants to, what could go wrong?

[2] A sad aside is that the movement to remove “pricey, greedy market-makers” and replace them with bailouts provided by central bank or treasury is the opposite of what Dodd-Frank was supposedly trying to do in ensuring that systemically-important institutions were adequately capitalized. They’re adequately capitalized now, but they don’t provide the market-braking function they used to because that’s ‘speculative activity’ that penalizes capital severely.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (February 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!

  • Well, here we go! It’s #CPI Day, which this month happens to fall on the day after an intraday 60-cent drop in gasoline futures. THAT will clear your sinuses!
  • Before the walkup, let me tell ya that I will be on @TDANetwork today with Nicole Petallides @Npetallides at 11:50ET. Tune in!
  • Also, when I am done with the tweets today I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com . Later it will be podcasted at http://inflationguy.podbean.com. And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app. Now with those preliminaries…let’s dig in.
  • We will get fresh 40-year-record highs again today, with the consensus calling for 0.8% m/m on headline (7.9% y/y) and 0.5% m/m on core (6.4% y/y).
  • The last four m/m core inflation figures have been tightly clustered from +0.523% and +0.603%, so the forecast is not terribly adventurous. There have been a few calls for hitting 8% y/y today, but I think some of those are so people can say they called for 8%.
  • We will get there next month, so no hurry.
  • That tight cluster of recent prints is really the main thrust of the story. The distribution of monthly core inflation is no longer around 0.2% per month or a little less. It’s around 0.5%. Hopefully we can get that down to 0.4% or even 0.3% eventually. But we’re not there now.
  • I should say that’s the main thrust of the CONTINUING story. This month, we have other stories courtesy of Vladimir Putin.
  • But, as a reminder, this inflation debacle started LONG before Russia invaded Ukraine. And it was committed with a worse weapon than a gun: the printing press. You can hide from a gun. You can’t hide from the printing press.
  • The Russian invasion caused disruption in the supplies of many commodities and helped spike energy prices. But remember, these are commodities. As long as Russia sells to SOMEONE, the eventual effect on energy prices will be much less than the short-term effect.
  • We covered this before with Chinese purchases of soybeans. So if Russia is constrained to only sell energy to, say, China, then China needs to buy less from, say, Saudi Arabia. Which means the Saudis have more to sell to us, or whoever previously got it from Russia.
  • Commodities are pretty similar. Part of the definition. So it disrupts the flow, but gasoline doesn’t spoil (ok, sure, it spoils, but slowly). I’m much more worried about wheat. If you don’t plant wheat this spring in the Ukraine, there will be less wheat globally for the year.
  • Now, unlike raw gasoline, which we consume in its commodity form and so shows directly in the CPI, raw food commodities don’t take the same path. Your Cheerios have oats, but they also have a lot of packaging, transportation, advertising, and so on.
  • That said, these large and sustained increases in energy affect food inflation through transportation, packaging, fertilizer too. Add to the impact of the war on planted acreage and you have the ingredients for a SUSTAINED increase in food prices for a while.
  • We usually look past food and energy, and focus on core, because food and energy mean revert pretty quickly. They won’t, this time, as quickly and that’s part of why CPI is broadening. And it’s why even after the peak, inflation won’t automatically recede on base effects.
  • Also, if energy prices spike, there is no guarantee it will affect other products so much because producers can smooth through spikes. A spike in wheat need not impact wages. But SUSTAINED increases in prices seep into those other goods and services. And they have.
  • …about wages, which is another interesting and important story. The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker, for my money the best measure of overall wage pressure since it focuses on continuously-employed people, is up at a 5.1% y/y pace.
  • Wages by that measure have actually been tracking pretty well with Median CPI. The chart of Wages minus median CPI is weirdly stable given everything that is happening. Implication?
  • What that says is that far from “not engaging a wage-price spiral,” the labor force is actually being uber-efficient at getting their wages adjusted. On average, of course, and adjusting for median not core. Median is a better sense of the middle – not driven by used cars, e.g.!
  • Does all of the transparency, the “Indeed.coms” of the world, make it easier to have a wage-price spiral because workers adjust their wage demands more quickly with better information? I wonder.
  • Back to the market and today’s figure. Here are the market changes over the last month. Yes, 1-year inflation expectations are +150bps. 10-years are +45bps. 10-year real yields are -44bps. (No surprise, with real yields down, gold is +8% over that timeframe). This is dramatic.
  • Wanna know what scares me? This chart. Money supply growth is still at 12% y/y, which is bad. But see commercial bank credit? It’s ACCELERATING. Concerning. The Fed directly controls neither of these, when they don’t control the marginal reserve dollar.
  • Now, for the CPI today. Rents will continue to boom, and used cars may settle back slightly. There are some signs of that. But that’s the fireworks. But I am gonna watch pharmaceuticals, and food & energy, more than usual.
  • The real excitement there will be NEXT month – this is Feb’s number and the Ukraine invasion hadn’t happened yet. Whatever today’s figure shows, it will just be the jumping off point for the March spike.
  • The interbank market still has the peak headline CPI in March (March 2021 was +0.31 on core, but April was +0.86, so it will be hard to have a new high in core at least after March), but now it has that peak at 8.55%. Go ahead, gasp. It’s a gasp kind of number.
  • That’s it for the walkup. Look for weakness anywhere in the number – won’t be much of it, so relish what you find. We no longer need clues about whether inflation is coming. It’s here. We need to start finding clues about a deceleration beyond base effects. Haven’t seen any yet.

  • The economists nailed this one. 0.8% on the headline, 0.51% on core (6.42% y/y on core). Yes, all 40+ -year highs. And still pretty much in the zone. Trend core inflation is right around 6-7% at the moment.
  • As expected, used cars fell a little, -0.25% m/m. But y/y still rose, to 41.2%. Other of the “COVID Categories”: airfares +5.2% m/m, lodging away from home +2.2%, new cars/trucks +0.3%, motor vehicle insurance +1.8%, Car/truck rental +3.5%. Ouch all around.
  • (of course, since they’re covid categories, lots of people will want to strip out all of that).
  • Food & Beverage major category: +1% m/m, up to 7.62% y/y. That’s the largest y/y rise in that category of CPI since 1981.
  • Core Goods at 12.3% y/y. Core Services 4.4%.
  • Rents: OER was +0.45% and Primary Rents +0.57%. Both represent accelerations over last month. Y/Y is at 4.3% for OER and 4.2% for Primary.
  • Medical Care continues to be a conundrum. Overall, that category rose 0.17% m/m after +0.85% last month. Pharma was +0.4% and continues to be the strong one. Doctors’ Services fell again. And this month Hospital Services also fell. I don’t understand that at all.
  • Core inflation ex-housing was 7.60%. in March 2020 it was 1.49% and it fell to 0.33% in May 2020.
  • Apparel, +0.72%. Recreation +0.73% m/m. “Other” +1.06% m/m.
  • Within Food & Beverages: Food at home (8.2% of the CPI): +1.4% NSA m/m; +8.6% y/y. Food away from home: +0.4% m/m, +6.8% y/y. Alcoholic Beverages +0.9% m/m, +3.5% y/y.
  • Food at home AND food away from home both at 42-year highs.
  • drilling down, the ONLY categories of food and beverages that declined in price: Fresh Fish and Seafood, -0.70% m/m in NSA terms, Bananas, -0.10%, Lettuce -0.29%, Tomatoes -1.88%, uncooked beef steaks -0.19%, and Pork Chops -0.01%. Most of that was seasonal as y/y accelerated.
  • Early guess at Median CPI is +0.54% m/m, which is down only slightly from last month’s spike. That median is now looking like core is what tells you that this isn’t just one-off categories.
  • Incidentally, my median estimate might be low…the median categories look to be the regional housing OERs, which the Cleveland Fed seasonally adjusts separately. I’m more likely to be low the way the chips fell. Either way, Median at 4.60% is really disturbing.
  • Let’s do the four pieces charts. First, Food & Energy. Unlike prior spikes, this is going to roll over more slowly. The rate of change will mean-revert. But the food part I think will remain a positive inflation contributor for much longer than normal (prices will keep rising).
  • Core goods. Nothing much to say. This is beyond automobiles. Part of this is pass-through of energy prices (via freight, packaging), so it’s a non-core effect on core. Some are bottlenecks. None look to be easing in the near-term.
  • This chart, piece 3, is interesting because about a quarter of this is doctors’ and hospital services, which have been pretty tame so far. And yet, it’s almost at 4%.
  • Finally, Rent of Shelter. Almost at 5%. So actually, the core-services piece is holding down inflation now…not shelter. Remember that shelter is the big, slow piece. Some people are calling for OER at 7%. I don’t get that from my models. But still, it’s going higher.
  • …and rents are part of the wage-price feedback loop. (Remember that the dip in 2021 was largely artificial because of the eviction moratorium, and everyone knew it, which is why it didn’t change wage demands much).
  • Almost 80% of the consumption basket is inflating faster than 4%. About a third is inflating faster than 6%.
  • At least by one set of models, the OER rise may be cresting soon. I’m a little skeptical but that’s what the model says. However, it’s not going to turn around and drop, which means core inflation will be high for a while. Not just 2022.
  • So I said to look for evidence of deceleration. There’s not much. But there’s a LITTLE. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index declined to 35 from 41. That’s not a lot, but it’s in the right direction.
  • So wrapping up: there’s no real sign of any ebbing of inflation pressures. In fact, there are some signs that food inflation will stay elevated for longer than the normal oscillation cycle. But we are closer to the end of the spike, anyway, than to the beginning.
  • Core inflation will likely peak next month, and headline inflation in the next couple of months. That’s good. But we’re not going to go back to 2%. Right now, the monthly prints point to an underlying core rate around 6%. I suspect we will end 2022 in the 5s, or high 4s.
  • If there’s any chance to get to the 3s in 2023, it would be because the Fed starts to shrink its balance sheet with some urgency. I see zero chance of that.
  • In fact, as I’ve long said – the Fed is not going to tighten at every meeting. They’ll have excuses to skip meetings and assess.
  • For example, although Russia/Ukraine has nothing to do with monetary policy, it took 50bps off the table for this month – we will get a 25bp cosmetic hike in rates – and probably means they skip next meeting. And then once inflation peaks they’ll want to see how fast it ebbs.
  • Don’t want to overtighten, you know. The net result is that inflation is getting embedded in our psyche and it will be very long until we get 2-3% core inflation on a regular basis.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in. Catch me on @TDANetwork at 11:50ET and look for my tweet summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com . Curious what tools we’re working on in inflation? Stop by http://enduringinvestments.com . Subscribe to my podcast. https://inflationguy.podbean.com Etcetera!

Core inflation for the last 5 months has been in a tight range suggesting 6%-7% is the underlying trend rate; this started long before Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion means that food inflation will take longer to ebb than it usually does, as not only are we getting pass-through from the extended period of high energy prices (affecting freight, packaging, and fertilizer) but we’re also seeing plantings in Ukraine likely to be disrupted. But it isn’t just food and energy, but everything across the board. A plurality of the consumption basket is inflating faster than 6%!

And this is seeping into wages, and quite quickly at that. Wages are actually adjusting to the level of unemployment more quickly than history would suggest they should be. Based on where unemployment was 9 months ago, the Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker should be around 3.5%. Based on where unemployment is now, it should be around 5%. It’s already there.

I showed a chart earlier illustrating that wages are not trailing inflation in the way that we normally expect that they would. Workers, possibly because there’s been so much turnover thanks to COVID and possibly because of the transparency of wages these days, are getting wage adjustments that keep them about where they historically have been with respect to inflation. That’s remarkable, but also problematic if there is anything to the “wage-price-spiral” thought process.

But at the end of the day I still don’t think the Fed is willing to move fast and break things. In the classroom, the Taylor Rule says they are dramatically behind the curve and should be hiking rates. Of course, the classroom also says that they should do that by adjusting reserves, which they no longer do, so the textbook is clearly flexible. But in the real world, Fed moves do not happen on paper and they don’t just move prices and output. They also crack over-levered entities and cause financial distress in unexpected places that leads to other bad things. The Fed has “learned” this over the years and it’s one of many reasons that I don’t think we’re going to see 200bps of tightening. And probably not 100bps of tightening, in 2022. They will be cautious, measure-twice-cut-once, speak sagely and calmly in the press conferences, and hope to God that they haven’t really messed it all up.

They have.

Anatomy of a Monetary Policy Error

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

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

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

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

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

However, that’s not the way this works.

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

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

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