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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2022)

September 13, 2022 6 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy, but to get these tweets in real time on CPI morning you need to subscribe to @InflGuyPlus by going to the shop at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ , where you can also subscribe to the Enduring Investments Quarterly Inflation Outlook. Sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

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

  • Back to CPI Day – my favorite day of the month. Yours too? I’m glad.
  • A reminder to subscribers of the path we take today: First the walkup; then at 8:30ET, when the data drops, I’ll be pulling that in and will post a number of charts and numbers, in fairly rapid-fire succession.
  • I will put replies to those charts as necessary. Then I’ll run some other charts. What I will NOT be doing this month is the live commentary. Last month, that actually slowed everything down because of the multitasking.
  • So instead, afterwards (hopefully 9 or 9:10ish) I will have a private conference call for subscribers where I’ll quickly summarize the numbers. Not sure if that’s valuable, but we’ll try it.
  • After my comments on the number, I will post a partial summary at https://inflationguy.blog and later will podcast a summary at http://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • Thanks again for subscribing! And now for the walkup.
  • There was a talking head this morning saying “we should only care about the sequential number, not the y/y number. Those usually say the same things but not recently. And the sequential number is fresher” (I’m paraphrasing).
  • Couple of things wrong with this statement but I will focus on the main one: there is no planet on which one economic data point should matter overmuch to your view.
  • Can one number refute your null hypothesis? These are experiment results, samples from a distribution we can’t know. One data point would have to be wildly different than your null, and if it was then you’d suspect there is some quirk in the data.
  • For example, that’s what happened last month: median CPI printed again a little above 0.5%, but there was a very low headline number (because of gasoline) and a very low core because of large movements in small categories.
  • Large moves in small categories aren’t likely to be repeated, and they don’t tell you a lot about the overall distribution. They are more likely to be mean-reverting than trending. They shouldn’t change your view much, especially since Median is still rising at >6% pace.
  • The other issue with what he said is: the real question isn’t whether inflation is accelerating or decelerating. It is decelerating, and so the y/y number will decline. Most of the deceleration is in core goods. That has been expected for some time. Partly ports, partly dollar.
  • The real question is: will we recede on core/median to 2.5%, or 5%? I think it’s closer to the latter than the former, and not until next year, but there is no way that ONE NUMBER could really answer that.
  • So I care about sticky, I care about whether we are seeing a new uptrend in core services, I care about rents. I don’t care so much about lodging away from home.
  • Now, that doesn’t mean we should ignore this number. Indeed, to me it seems that expectations for this number have swung really to the low side. Both in economist land and in trading land.
  • Here is a chart of changes over the last month. Large declines in breaks at the short end – although to be fair a decent part of that is carry. But the optics influence the forecasts of those who don’t really dig into the guts, and that might be an opportunity.
  • Forecasts to me look low. Consensus is -0.1% on headline, +0.3% on core. The y/y forecast for core is 6.1% (which tells us that the real forecast is 0.32%-0.34%. Any higher and m/m rounds to 0.4%. Any lower and the y/y rounds down to 6.0%.)
  • That seems low. Last month’s 0.31% on core was infected by a lot of one-offs. Airfares -7.8%, Lodging away from home -2.7%, car/truck rental, etc. But primary rents were 0.7% m/m, and OER 0.63% m/m. So how do we get another 0.32% on core?
  • Well, you COULD get a retracement of some of the rents rise last month. That’s really the only thing I’d worry about. Some of the drops from last month may retrace (although core goods deceleration is real). But 0.3% seems sporty, especially with median still where it is.
  • The core/headline spread looks to me like it should be about -0.36%, so if we get 0.4% on core then we could print a small positive on headline. I think that’s where the risk is, unless rents are way off.
  • Used cars will drag a bit again this month, but it won’t be large.
  • I should say the interbank market is more in line with me than with economists. 295.71 NSA traded yesterday. That would be an NSA m/m decline, and a small positive SA.
  • The real question is the Fed’s reaction function. And I think their reaction to THIS number is basically nil. They’re going to go 75bps at the next meeting because the market has validated that level. The question is NEXT meeting; that will depend on how markets are behaving.
  • The Fed BELIEVES they are close to done, which is why Powell can make a vacuous “until the job is done” statement. The job (shrinking the balance sheet) has barely started, but they may be close to done on short rates.
  • Because if they’re ahead (and they think they are), at some point they need to pause to see the effect of their actions to date.
  • For today, there may be downside equity risk if the number is a little higher as I expect. But if it’s as-expected, there may be UPSIDE risk…probably fadeable, but I think the market reaction function and the Fed reaction function may be diverging.
  • So I know what I’m going to do when the number prints what the number prints, but I am less sure of what the market is going to do. Kinda feels there is still downside to equities. With real rates where they are, equities still look expensive (chart uses our equity return model).
  • OK, that’s all for the walkup. Number in 10 minutes. Good luck!

  • oooops
  • M/M, Y/Y, and prior Y/Y for 8 major subgroups
  • Food and beverages still rising. 0.77% m/m and 10.9% y/y! All other subindices contributed. “Other” was +0.73% m/m so that will be interesting. Medical Care +0.68% and that is also going to be interesting/disturbing.

  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.738%
  • Look at the median chart. This is just an estimate, and depending what the median category is it might not be precisely right…but if it is, then the 0.738% m/m is a new high for the m/m. OUCH.
  • Core Goods: 7.06% y/y Core Services: 6.07% y/y
  • Core goods actually went UP y/y, just a tiny bit, 7.06%. And core services continuing to rise, 6.07%. Convergence at 6.5% is not what people were hoping for.
  • Primary Rents: 6.74% y/y OER: 6.29% y/y
  • Further: Primary Rents 0.74% M/M, 6.74% Y/Y (6.31% last) OER 0.71% M/M, 6.29% Y/Y (5.83% last) Lodging Away From Home 0.1% M/M, 4% Y/Y (1% last)
  • Primary rents 0.74% m/m. OER 0.71% m/m. That’s the big ouch. I read this morning on Bloomberg I think that ‘rents are near a peak.’ Uh, sure. Lodging Away from Home was positive…didn’t retrace last month’s drop, but didn’t repeat it either.
  • I mean, this is a little scary, right? No sign of a peak yet.
  • Some ‘COVID’ Categories: Airfares -4.62% M/M (-7.83% Last) Lodging Away from Home 0.08% M/M (-2.74% Last) Used Cars/Trucks -0.1% M/M (-0.41% Last) New Cars/Trucks 0.84% M/M (0.62% Last)
  • Airfares keep sliding, but again a lot of this is jet fuel. As has been pointed out elsewhere, if you quality-adjust airfares then inflation is still soaring. Used cars was a small drag, as expected. But look at new cars!
  • The rise in new cars is probably the reason that core goods advanced. 0.8% m/m in new cars is impressive.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy: 15.7% y/y
  • Only surprise here is that it isn’t retracing nearly as much as people expected. You know why? FOOD. When was the last time we really worried about food prices driving the CPI?
  • Piece 2: Core Commodities: 7.06% y/y
  • Piece 3: Core Services less Rent of Shelter: 5.75% y/y
  • This is even more concerning than the shelter numbers, in my mind. I’ll dig deeper into medical care, but this has been a well-behaved part of CPI for a long time. BUT IT’S WAGES. That’s what matters in this group. This is where your wage/price spiral would show up.
  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter: 6.31% y/y
  • So 0.12% on headline (SA), 0.57% on core. Not exactly what the market was expecting.
  • Yeah, so I guess last month were one-offs. But those of us “in the know” knew that, right?
  • Last 12 core CPI figures
  • Stocks are NOT happy with this. And that’s no surprise! But it’s not because the Fed is going to go 100bps this month. They won’t. It’s because suddenly “maybe they’re not as close to done as we thought.” More on my thoughts about the Fed later.
  • I need to run some of my slower charts now but looking at markets the only quirky thing – I understand the market but it’s weird – is that energy prices are down. The theory is that more Fed hikes slow the economy more, but if you’re connecting growth and inflation then>>
  • …you’d have to also say that growth must be stronger than we think. Energy is confusing nominal and real prices again, too. Maybe it’s a dollar thing. Dollar is definitely stronger as Fed arc is perceived higher now.
  • …but it’s a weird idea that the more inflation you get, the more you want to sell commodities, isn’t it?
  • Core ex-shelter rose to 6.36% from 6.04%. Back to the level of May. Hard to tell on this chart. This will probably continue to decline, but…this is the really surprising part of the report. Going to get to the smaller stuff in a bit and see what’s up.
  • Car and Truck rental was -0.5% m/m (NSA)…it was a big drop last month as well. Interesting and not sure what that means.
  • No other interesting declines. On the upside was New cars…at 4% of the basket, that was 3-4bps of the surprise roughly. Not enough to explain it all!
  • Lots of other motor vehicle stuff. Maintenance and repair, insurance, parts and equipment…all rose at greater than a 10% annualized pace.
  • Also…south urban OER rose 0.9% m/m or so. So rents and prices are rising in the south, but not falling in the north. Some of that is migration. The median category was Rent of Primary Residence, which as noted was large.
  • With the median as Primary Rents, my 0.74% m/m median guess is probably pretty solid. That takes y/y median to 6.7% I believe. yowza.
  • Medical Care…Prescription Drugs +0.36% m/m (NSA). Dental Services +1.31%. Hospital Services +0.78%. YES. I’ve been wondering where this was for a long time. Still only up to 4% y/y, but it’s way overdue.
  • Similarly, prescription drugs…3.2% y/y, highest since 2018. I wonder if the determination that Medicare will ‘negotiate’ more drug prices is leading manufacturers to hike prices in advance?
  • OK…college tuition and fees, +1.3% m/m. That’s not unusual for the NSA to jump in this month; tuition jumps once a year basically. But that means the y/y change is going to move higher as the SA adjustment is smoothed in. Now it’s at 2.79% up from 2.35%.
  • Colleges have cost pressures too. And wage exposure. Over the last few years tuition inflation has been low because endowments and government support has been huge. This is all fading though, and costs are still climbing. Look out above.
  • Finally, in “Other”. We have cosmetics, perfume, bath, nail preparations (yes that’s a category) +2.3% m/m. Financial Services ex-Inflation Guy +0.87% m/m. Haircuts and other personal care services +0.66%. Notice something there? A lot of wages.
  • On the plus side, “Funeral expenses” was -0.5% m/m. So we got that going for us. Cigarettes +1.1% m/m.
  • While I wait for the diffusion stuff to calculate I’ll start the (brief) summary call. Dial the conference line at <<redacted>>. I’ll start in 3-4 minutes.
  • OK last chart. The red line here isn’t really going off the chart (yet) – it’s median at 6.99% (est). The EI Inflation Diffusion Index – no surprise – is not coming off the boil. Inflation remains high, but also broad. Some categories are slowing, but some are accelerating!

Honestly, I came into today thinking that this was a less-important CPI report than we had seen in a while. As I said in the walk-up, I thought the real question is whether this changes the Fed’s decision at the next meeting, not this month’s meeting. As it turns out, the answer to that is probably yes (but we have another CPI before that meeting). But the more important question that has re-surfaced is, “have we really seen the highs in inflation yet?”

That seems crazy to ask, if you believed that this was all one-offs caused by clogged ports and “supply constraints.” It hasn’t been about that in a long time – and really, never was, since those clogged ports were caused by artificially-induced demand – but if you’re still in that camp you’re utterly shocked here. But it still seems wild to ask from my perspective. My view has been that if the money supply has risen 42% since the beginning of the COVID crisis, and prices are only up 15%, then prices have a lot more to do before they are in line with money growth. But I thought that would happen more gradually, with a 5%ish inflation that stuck around longer than people expected.

That’s less clear now. If core services ex-shelter is really taking the baton from core goods, that’s really bad news. Because core services ex-shelter is where wage pressure really lives. We don’t import services; we pay people to provide them. If you want a wage-price spiral, look in core services ex-shelter to see if it’s happening. Honestly? That part of CPI was already looking a little spritely in recent reports. But it looks to have really broken out now. That’s very disturbing. It adds momentum to the CPI.

Ultimately, it’s still all about whether there’s too much money chasing too few goods. But if a wage-price spiral gets started, then that will manifest in higher money velocity over time so that even slower money growth will be associated with rising prices. That’s a bad thing.

By the way, it isn’t anything the Fed can break with interest rates. Decreasing the money supply has never really been the Fed’s focus, but that’s the lever they needed to be moving. And now? Doing that now would have less of an effect, if we have momentum in pricing again.

It’s still the right move, but the FOMC has made a terrible mess of this and is going to wear it.

That being said, there is another CPI due before the next Fed meeting. My thinking had been that the Fed figured they were close to done (otherwise, Powell beating his chest with the manly-but-vacuous ‘until the job is done’ thing…which by the way is going to become a meme just like ‘transitory’…just didn’t make any sense), so that if this number was as-expected they would be considering just how soon to pause their hikes. Maybe as soon as November. Now, that’s sort of out the window.

The market reaction makes eminent sense given this backdrop. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. Before this even printed, the fact that expected real equity returns were basically below long-term TIPS returns meant that being in equities didn’t make a lot of sense. It makes less now…at least, at this level. We may be about to see a different level.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Categories: Economics, Economy, Theory Tags:

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: , ,

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (November 2021)

December 10, 2021 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whither (Wither?) Profits

April 22, 2015 4 comments

Surprisingly, markets are treading water here. The dollar, interest rates, and stocks are all oscillating in a narrow range. In some ways, this is surprising. It does not shock me that interest rates are fairly boring right now, with the 10-year yield trading almost exclusively within 25bps of 2% since November. Market participants are divided between those who see the Fed’s cessation of QE as indicative that prices should decline to fair market-clearing levels (that is, higher yields) and those who see weakness economically both domestically and abroad. There is room for confusion here.

I am similarly not terribly shocked that the dollar is consolidating after a long run, especially when part of that run was fueled by the popular delusion that the Federal Reserve had suddenly become extremely hawkish and would preemptively hike rates before convincing signs of inflation arose. I am hard-pressed to think of a time when the Fed pre-emptively did anything, but that was the popular belief in any event. Now that it is becoming clear that a hike in rates in June is about as likely as the possibility that the Easter Bunny will deliver eggs at the same time, dollar traders who were relying on widening interest rate differentials are pausing to take stock of the situation. I will say that it certainly seems plausible to me that the dollar’s rally will continue for at least a little while, due to the volatility coming our way as the Greek drama plays out, but the buck is not an automatic buy either. Money growth in the U.S. continues to outpace money growth in most other economies (see chart, source Bloomberg), although it is a much closer thing these days.

allems

An increase in relative supply, if the demand curves are similar, should provoke a decrease in relative price. Unless you believe that the Fed isn’t just going to increase rates but is also going to shrink its balance sheet so that money growth abates eventually, it is hard to envision the dollar launching continuously higher. More likely is that as more and more currencies see their supplies increase, the exchange rates meander but the whole kit-and-kaboodle loses ground to real assets.

One of those real assets is housing. An underpinning to my argument, for several years running now, that core prices were not going to be deflating any time soon was the observation that housing prices (and hence rents, with a lag) have been rising rapidly once again. The deceleration in the year/year growth rates in 2014 was a positive sign, but the increase in prices in 2012 and 2013 is still pressing rents higher now and any sag in rents is yet to be felt. However, today’s release of FHA price index data as well as the Existing Home Sales report suggests that it is premature to expect this second housing bubble to unwind gently. The chart below is the year/year change in the median price of existing homes (source: Bloomberg). The recent dip now seems to have been an aberration, and indeed the slowdown in 2014 may have merely presaged the next acceleration higher.

ehslmp

And that bodes ill for core (median) price pressures, which have been steady around 2.2% for a while but may also be readying for the next leg up. Review my post-CPI summary for some of the fascinating details! (Well, fascinating to me.)

This doesn’t mean that I am sanguine about growth, either domestic or global, looking forward. I thought we would get out of 2014 without a recession, but I am less sure about 2015. Europe is going to do better, thanks to weaker energy and a weaker currency (although the weaker currency counteracts some of the energy weakness), but the structural problems in Europe are profound and the exit of Greece will cause turmoil in the banks. But US growth is in trouble: the benefit from lower energy prices is diffuse, while the pain from lower energy prices is concentrated in a way it hasn’t been in the past. And the dollar strength pressures company earnings, as we have seen, on a broad basis. And that’s where it is a little surprising that we are seeing water-treading. It gets increasingly difficult for me to figure out what equity buyers are seeing. Profits are flattening out and even weakening, and they are already at a very high level of GDP so that any economic weakness is going to be felt in profits directly. Furthermore, I find it very interesting that the last time actual reported profits diverged from “Kalecki Profits” corresponded to the last equity bubble (see chart, source Bloomberg).

kalecki

“Kalecki Profits” is a line that computes corporate profits as Investment minus Household Savings minus Government Savings minus Foreign Savings plus Dividends. Look up Kalecki Profit Equation on Wikipedia for a further explanation. The “Corp Business Prof After Tax” is from the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Z.1 report and is measured directly. The implication is that if companies are reporting greater profits than the sum of the whole, then the difference is suspect. For example, leverage: by increasing financial leverage, the same top line creates more of a bottom line (in either direction). The chart below (source: Federal Reserve; Enduring Investments analysis) plots the 1-year percentage change in business debt outstanding (lagged 2 quarters to center it on the year in question) versus the difference between the two lines in the prior chart.

explaindiverg

We might call this “pretty cool,” but in econometrics terms this is merely an explanatory relationship. That is, it doesn’t really help us other than to help explain why the two series diverge. It doesn’t, for example, tell us whether Kalecki profits will converge upwards to reported profits, or whether reported profits will decline; it doesn’t tell us whether it is a decline or deceleration in business debt outstanding that prompts that convergence or whether something else causes both things to happen. I think it’s unlikely that the divergence in the two profit measures causes the change in debt, but it’s possible. I will say that this last chart makes me more comfortable that the Kalecki equation isn’t broken, but merely that it isn’t capturing everything. And my argument, for what it is worth, would be that business leverage cannot increase without bound. At some point, business borrowing will decline.

It does not look like that is happening yet. I have been reading recently about how credit officers have been declining credit more frequently recently. That may be true, but it isn’t resulting in slower credit growth. Commercial bank credit growth, according to the Fed’s H.8 report and illustrated below, continues to grow at the fastest y/y pace since well before the crisis.

cbcredit

If credit officers are really declining credit more often than before, it must mean that applications are up, or that the credit is being extended on fewer loans (that is, to bigger borrowers). Otherwise, we can’t square the fact that there’s rapid credit growth with the proffered fact that credit is being declined more often.

There is a lot to sort through here, but the bottom line is this: I have no idea what the dollar is going to do. I am not sure what the bond market will do. I have no idea what stocks will do. But, if I have to invest (and I do!), then in general I am aiming for real assets and avoiding financial assets.

Two Quick Items

Two relatively quick items that I want to address today; they have been in my ‘to do’ box for a while.

Negative Rates

One of the most interesting features of the fixed-income landscape today, and one that will likely serve in the future as an exam question on finance quizzes, is the increasingly widespread proliferation of negative nominal interest rates among government bond markets…and occasionally even for high-quality corporate paper.

In finance theory, this can’t happen. Because currency earns a 0% nominal interest rate, theory says that no rational person would ever accept a negative nominal interest rate. If I have $50 today, and put it in the bank, I will have $49 tomorrow. So why not just keep the $50 in my wallet? (Obviously this leads to high cash balances, which means low monetary velocity, by the way). And this is true in the absence of “other costs.”

So why are so many interest rates negative? Are individuals irrational? No: at least not so irrational that they prefer less money to more money. However, what is true at an individual level does not necessarily scale to the institutional level. An institution, such as a money fund or corporation, does not have the freedom to hold its assets in physical currency. Microsoft has $90 billion in cash and equivalents. If this were in $100 bills, it would weigh about one thousand tons. That’s a pretty big vault. And vaults cost money. Guards cost money. And, if Microsoft had this money in the vault, it would be harder to spend. It is much easier to wire $5 million than it is to send an armored car.

In the presence of those costs, Microsoft and other institutions will accept a negative interest rate. It will invest its money at a negative rate rather than build a vault.

Now, an important (if obvious) point is that cash balances are so high, and interest rates so low, because global central banks are making sure we have plenty of cash. Too much cash chasing too few investment opportunities causes rates to be low.

Walmart and Minimum Wage Increases

It has been a few weeks now, but when Walmart in February announced it was going to increase the minimum wages it plans to pay its employees (preceded by Starbucks, Aetna, and the Gap and followed by TJX and Target), I received a number of queries about what the hike was going to do to inflation. Is this the beginning of the much-feared “cost-push inflation”?

The answer is no. Wages, as I have said many times, follow inflation rather than lead it. Think about it: wouldn’t it be really weird for companies to raise wages and then raise prices, to the extent that they have control – at least with respect to timing – over both? No, whatever price increase is going to be caused by the increase in the wages Walmart expects to pay is already in the price. Walmart is not surprised by their own move to raise wages. Nor is anyone surprised by the general increase in the minimum wage, which happened in 2009.

So, while I continue to believe that inflation is rising, and will continue to rise…I don’t believe that the increase in prices is going to be any faster due to these wage increases. It does, however, increase my confidence that inflation is rising, since obviously these retailers are confident enough in the pricing environment to be able to increase wages (which are sticky – it is harder to lower them than to raise them).

Winter is Coming … But Not Here, Not Yet

January 12, 2015 5 comments

We began 2014 with the perspective that the economy was limping along, barely surviving. A recession looked possible simply because the expansion was long in the tooth, but there weren’t any signs of it yet. Equity markets were priced for robust growth, which was clearly not likely to happen, but commodities and fixed-income markets were priced for disaster which was also not likely to happen. The investing risks were clearly tilted against stocks and bonds, given starting valuations, but although the economic landscape appeared weak it was not horrible.

Beginning 2015, the economic news is much better – at least, domestically. Unemployment is back to near levels associated with mid-cycle expansions, although there are still far too many people not in the workforce and a still-disturbing number of people who say they “want a job now” and would take one if offered (see chart, source Bloomberg).

wannajob

More encouraging still, commercial bank credit growth is back to near 8% y/y, which is consistent with the booms of the past 30 years (see chart, source FRB). And this number excludes peer-to-peer lending and other sorts of credit growth that occur outside of the commercial bank framework, which is likely additive on a multi-year time frame.

cbc

The dollar is up and commodities are down, both of which are good for the US economy generally although bad for some groups of course (notably the oil patch). But the US is a net consumer of commodities, so commodity bear markets are good for US growth.

Outside of the US, though, things are looking decidedly worse. Although European core inflation recently surprised on the high side, it is still only at 0.8% and with GrExit a real possibility it is very hard to get bullish economically on the continent. China’s growth is softening. Emerging markets are not behaving well, especially the dollarized economies.

This recent development of the US as an island of relative tranquility in a sea of disquiet is interesting to me. Why are interest rates in the US so low, given that our economy is growing? 30-year interest rates at 2.5% and 10-year rates at 1.90%, with core inflation at 1.7% (and median inflation, as I like to point out because it isn’t influenced by outliers, at 2.3%) seems dissonant as the economy grows at 2.5%-3% and inflation in the US seems reasonably floored in the long run at 1.5%-2.0% as long as the Fed is credible.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but I think the causes are new. Over the last five years, nominal interest rates were lower than they ought otherwise have been because the Fed was buying trillions of Treasuries and squeezing investors who needed to own fixed income. But the Fed is no longer buying and the Treasury is still issuing them. So I believe the causes of low interest rates now are different than the causes were over the last half-decade. Specifically, the causes of low interest rates in the last five years were sluggish global growth and extensive central bank QE; the causes currently are flight-to-quality related.

It seems weird to talk about a “flight to quality” in US bonds without stocks also plunging. But we have an analog for this period. Here is where I depart totally into intuition, which is in this case driven by experience. This period of interest rates declining while growth rises, as the economy continues a rebound after a long recession, with commodities declining and stocks rising, feels to me like late 1997. It feels like “Asian Contagion.”

Back in 1997, there was a lot of concern about how the Asian financial crisis would spill into US markets. Rates dropped (100bps in the 10y between July 1, 1997 and January 12, 1998), commodities dropped (the index now known as the Bloomberg Commodity Index fell 25% between October 1997 and June 1998), the S&P rallied (+23% from November 1997-April 1998), and GDP growth printed 5.2%, 3.1%, 4.0%, and 3.9% from 1997Q3 to 1998Q3. Meanwhile, Asian markets and economies were all but collapsing.

There was much fear at the time about the impact that the Asian Contagion would have on the US, but this country never caught a cold partly because (a) interest rates were depressed by the flight-to-quality and (b) declining commodities, especially energy, are bullish for US growth overall. We did not, of course, escape unscathed – later in 1998, a certain large hedge fund (which was small compared to some hedge funds today) threatened to cause large losses at some money center banks, and the Fed stepped in to save the day. That was a painful period in the equity market, but the effect from the Asian crisis was indirect rather than direct.

The parallels aren’t perfect; for one thing, bond yields are much lower and equity multiples much higher than their equivalents of the time, and commodities had already fallen very far before the recent slide. I would be reluctant to expect another hundred basis point rally in bonds and another large rally in stocks from these levels, although 1997-1999 saw these things. But history doesn’t repeat – it rhymes. I seem to hear this rhyme today.

Why does it matter? I think it matters because if I am right it means we are witnessing the end of long-term crisis-related markets, but they are masked by the arrival of short-term crisis-related markets. This means the unwind that we would have expected from the Fed’s ending of the purchase program – a slow return to normalcy – might instead end up looking like the unwind that we can get from short-term flight-to-quality crisis flows, which can be much more rapid. Again, this is all speculation and intuition, and I present no proof that I am right. I am merely proposing this speculation for my readers’ consumption and consideration.

Ugly CPI

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or (if you’re already following me on Twitter or seeing this elsewhere) subscribe to direct email of my free articles here.

  • Complete shocker of a CPI figure. Core at +0.01%, barely needed any rounding to get to 0.0. Y/y falls to 1.73%. Awful.
  • Zero chance the Fed does anything today, anyway. The doves just need to point to one number and they win.
  • Stocks ought to LOVE this.
  • Core services dropped to 2.5% y/y from 2.6% and core goods to -0.4% from -0.3%.
  • Accelerating major groups: Food/bev. That’s all. 14.9% of basket. Everything else decelerating.
  • I just don’t see, anecdotally, a sudden change in the pricing dynamics in the economy. That’s why this is shocking to me.
  • Primary rents to 3.18% from 3.28%. Owners’ Equiv to 2.68% from 2.72%. Both in contravention of every indicator of market tightness.
  • Apparel goes to 0.0% from +0.3% y/y. That’s where you can see a dollar effect, since apparel is mostly manufactured outside US.
  • Airline fares -2.7% versus -0.2% y/y last month and +4.7% three months ago. It’s only 0.74% of the basket but big moves like that add up.
  • Medical care: 2.09% versus 2.61% y/y. Now THAT is where the surprise comes in. Plunge in ‘hospital and related services.’ to 3.8% vs 5.5%.
  • …we (and everyone else!) expect medical care to bounce back from the sequester-inspired break last year. I still think it will.
  • core inflation ex-housing at 0.91% y/y, lowest since August 2004. Yes, one decade.
  • core inflation ex-housing is now closer to deflation than during the deflation scare. In late 2010 it got to 1.08% y/y.
  • Needless to say our inflation-angst indicator remains at really really low levels.
  • Interestingly, the proportion of CPI subindices w y/y changes more than 2 std dev >0 (measuring broad deflation risk) still high at 38%.
  • To sum up. Awful CPI nbr. Housing dip is temporary & will continue to keep core from declining much. Suspect a lot of this is one-off.
  • …but I thought the same thing last month.
  • Neil Diamond said some days are diamonds, some days are stones. If you run an inflation-focused investment mgr, this is a stone day.
  • Interestingly, Median CPI was unchanged at 2.2% this month. I’d thought it fell too much last month so this makes sense.

I am still breathing heavily after this truly shocking number. This sort of inflation figure, outside of a crisis or post-crisis recovery, is essentially unprecedented. Lower prints happened once in 2010, once in 2008, three times in 2003, and once in 1999. But otherwise, basically not since the 1960s.

The really amazing figure is the core-ex-Housing number of 0.91% y/y. A chart of that (source: Enduring Investments) is below.

corexshelter

There are interesting similarities between the current situation and late 2003, which is the last time that ex-housing inflation flirted with deflation. Between late 2000 and June 2003, money velocity fell 11%, in concert with generally weakening money growth. Velocity fell primarily because of a sharp decline in interest rates from 6% on the 5y note to around 2.25%. The circumstances are similar now: 5y interest rates declined from around 5% to 0.5% from 2006 through mid-2013, accompanied by a 24% decline in money velocity. And voilá, we have weakness in core inflation ex-housing.

The important differences now, though, are twofold. The first is that the absolute levels of money velocity, and of interest rates, are much lower and very unlikely to fall much further – indeed, money velocity is lower than it “should” be for this level of interest rates. And the second is that there is an enormous supply of inert reserves in the system which will be difficult to remove once inflation begins to rise again. The Fed began to increase interest rates in 2004, which helped increase money velocity (and hence, inflation) while it also caused M2 growth to decline to below 4% y/y. Core inflation rose to 3%, but the Fed was basically in control. Today, however, the Fed has no direct control over the money supply because any reserves they remove will be drawn from the “excess” reserves held by banks. This will make it difficult to increase overnight rates except by fiat (and increasing them by setting a floor rate will merely cause money velocity to rise while having no effect on the money supply). So the ‘potential inflation energy’ is much higher than it was in 2003. As an aside, in 2004 I was quite vocal in my opinions that inflation was not about to run away on the upside, which is another key difference!

If you are a tactical inflation trader, today’s CPI figure should make you despise inflation-linked bonds for a few weeks. But they have already taken quite a drubbing this month, with 10-year breakevens falling from 2.27% to 2.08% as I type. It’s okay to watch them fall, tactically, especially if nominal bonds generally rally. But strategically, not much has changed about the inflationary backdrop. I don’t expect airline fares to continue to drop. I don’t expect Medical Care inflation, which has a strong upward bias due to base effects, to plunge further but to return to the 3%-4% range over the next 6-12 months. And Housing inflation slowed slightly this month but remains on course to continue to rise. So, if you are considering your inflation allocations, this is a good time to increase them while markets are dismissive of any possibility of higher prices.

Without a doubt, today’s number – especially following another weak CPI print last month – is a head-scratcher. But there aren’t a lot of downside inflation risks at the moment. Our forecast had been for core (or median) inflation to reach 2.6%-3.0% in 2014. I would say that core CPI isn’t going to get to that level this year with 4 prints left, and even median CPI (which is a better measure right now of the central tendency of inflation, thanks to the aforementioned base effects in medical care, and remained at 2.2% this month) is going to have a harder time reaching that target. I’d lower and narrow the target range for 2014 median inflation to 2.5%-2.8% based on today’s data.

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