10 March 2018

Inflation Expectations can kill the recovery - soon

This continues my series of closer looks at the seven areas I think can bring the 103 (now 104?) month economic expansion in the US to an end. The previous articles are here (overview) and here (interest rates).

Since the onset of QE (Quantitative Easing), also known as the printing of money, by the US, the UK, ECB, BoJ and others in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, there have been dire warnings that this "new" money would create out-of-control inflation. We have yet to see that, but we will. TARP poured $700 billion into failing banks to prop up the economy, with too much of it ending up as bonuses in the pockets of the very bankers who almost killed their banks, and the economy with them. The FED then created $3.7 trillion more in QE . In Europe, the BoE created £375 billion more, and the ECB has bought €1.1 trillion in assets through the course of their Quantitative Easing (QE) programme.

Much of that money sent to major banks or corporations. The banks were able to take advantage of "cheap money" to rebuild their balance sheets and solvency margins, by passing on only a limited amount of the reduced borrowing costs of Fed (or ECB or BoE) money. In his Bank Performance Outlook for 2018, Chris Whalen points out the "Fed is still effectively transferring $80 billion per quarter from depositors to banks."

Additional stimulus has flowed into global economies in the form of budget deficits piling on debt to record levels. Yet still there is no meaningful inflation, and central banks continue to lament their failure to reach the vaunted 2% level.

Where is the inflation, and will there be an inflation shock? Spoiler alert, yes, but from wages and probably not from the cost of goods and services, although the recent announcement of tariffs may push inflation expectations in other areas.

First, we need to remember what inflation is, and why it occurs. Inflation is the general increase in the cost of goods and services across an economy, or the devaluation of a currency and the associated resetting of the costs of goods and services in that currency. We are told that inflation is caused by an increase in money supply over the increase in the supply of desired goods or services. Where there are too few mangoes (for example) and a high demand for mangoes, the price of mangoes will go up - inflation and good old fashion "supply and demand".

We cannot doubt that there has been significant increase in the supply of money over the past decade. M2 in the US, has almost doubled in the past 10 years, from under $8000 (billions) to just under$14000 (billions). As a reminder, "M2 is a measure of the money supply that includes all elements of M1 as well as "near money." M1 includes cash and checking deposits, while near money refers to savings deposits, money market securities, mutual funds and other time deposits.". Strangely that almost doubling of the money supply has not resulted in inflation in the average cost of goods and services.

Looking at the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) there appears to have been embarrassingly low inflation over the past 20 years. One inflation calculator puts total inflation between 2008 and 2018 at 13.7%, or in dollars, it will cost $113.70 today to purchase what would have cost $100.00 in 2008.

The same money supply and inflation sites tells us that UK money supply, UK M2, has increased by 50% in the past decade, while we are told that inflation has been a "brisk" 29.4% over that decade. So while the money supply has grown from £1600 (billions) to £2400 (billions), it "only" costs £129.40 to purchase today what would have cost £100.00 in 2008.

Certainly the housing market in the UK has been on a multi-year boom, at least in and around London, and in the almost continually expanding London commuter belt. Property price inflation outside of the London catchment has been muted at best, and has artificially moderated the national average inflation.

So if inflation is the result of money supply growing faster than the supply of good and services, then where is the money going, and what does that tell us about what might happen?

We then need to consider a key attribute of inflation; not all goods, service or assets increase in price equally. The first set of US inflation data that I shared above seem to tell us that inflation is under control, or in fact not under control at all, if there is a target of 2% inflation. But over at the American Enterprise Institute, they have a chart that shows inflation broken out quite differently, and they should a roughly 55% inflation over the past twenty years. John Mauldin uses this table in his recent "thoughts from the Frontlines" on 3 March 2018.

What is so interesting about this chart is that the elements that link to a higher standard of living and higher potential income are the elements that are rising the fastest. While it also shows that wages have increased at a rate faster than inflation, there is ample evidence that such wage growth has been skewed to the higher income earners.

It shows healthcare and education growing at well over 100%, and far outpacing most other goods and services. These are the two key areas where potential impact on future standard of living are felt the strongest. Education directly contributes to an individual’s ability to find and retain higher paying work, and without that higher paying work, healthcare becomes less and less affordable. Without good healthcare, and the economic capacity to purchase quality healthcare, the ability to continue to earn at any level of income is impaired.

Which leads back to the original question; will an inflation shock kill the markets?

Not the inflation we have been seeing. The markets do not, and will not care about inflation in costs of goods and services that upper income earners consume. The increases, while nose-bleed levels for some goods and services, the incomes of consumers of those goods and services have risen at pace. This is not where the shock will come from. 

Inflation in almost all other categories has been constant, but as the BLS numbers show in the earlier graph, there has been little inflation in most goods and services. Fundamentally this is because there has been no shortages in those areas, and therefore no supply and demand need for costs to inflate.

However, the market "correction in February has already shown us what inflation can do, when that inflation is in the form of increased wages, when that increase is in lower and middle income wages, not those at the top. We can expect more.

If inflation is too much money chasing too little of a given resource, then the low unemployment rates in the US today, if you believe the 4.1% number reported by the BLS for January 2018, is that "too little" resource. Wages will need to increase to attract that resource, reducing future expected incomes for employers.

The name of the business function has said it all for the past few decades: Human Resources. Resources just like copper and wood, cash, electricity and fuel. Humans are now a commodity, and have been for decades, and that commodity price is about to rise. Inflation in the cost of this now theoretically scare "resource" will push up prices across the board.

Fourth Quarter 2017 (US) numbers should give us any comfort, with Productivity growth at 0%, yet Labor Unit Costs and Hourly Wages both being revised upward. This is not sustainable without real wage inflation, and inflation moving beyond the human commodity and into the wider economy. These number tells us that we should expect lower corporate profitability, lower free cash, and lower expected returns in appreciation of already overpriced shares.

So watch the monthly unemployment rate (with ADP projecting a 235,000 increase in payrolls for February 2018) and an announced 313,000 BLS-reported increase for February, and watch the wage data from the BLS.

These two provide an indicator of future inflation in the one major commodity area where the only way to "mine" new resources is to pay a higher price. The mangoes in case are humans, and there are not enough to go around. This means the mangoes (humans) will cost more - the classic definition of inflation, and the warning of problems to come across the economy.

Next week I aim to tackle another of the seven areas that could kill this recovery.

02 March 2018

Will Interest Rates kill the recovery?

In my "103 Months" post last week, I specifically mention seven areas that could bring about the end of the Bear market, and result in the end of this business cycle. First on the list was Interest Rates. I also specifically stated that none of the seven areas could take sole credit for a fall in the markets (and flow on negativity and economic contraction), and that each may be impacted by others, and impact others. Which will come first, an Interest Rate hike generated collapse in house sales, or a collapse in house sales spreading uncertainty resulting in an interest rate spike?

Markets exist to facilitate the effective application of capital. As such, capital will flow to the markets in which capital can be expected to deliver the greatest return to the owners of the capital. Capital will flow to assets with the greatest probability or generating the highest risk-weighted return. And while markets do not get this right all the time, generally markets sense where returns will be achieved, high or low, and move capital to those asset classes. The result has been capital allocation distortions. (It was interesting to write that first sentence, then to google the exact words - first place returned was the SEC

The mythical Rational Market Hypothesis tells us that open access to information ensures that capital will flow efficiently. This or course does not and cannot happen, as there is not free and open access to all information relevant to investment decision making. Different players have and always will have access to market moving information that is not available to all investors. In addition, a range of human and even algorithmic factors will ensure a different weighting of information by different market participants, ensuring a less than efficient market.

What does this have to do with interest rates?

Each time the Fed or the BoE talks rate hikes, the markets pause (for milliseconds sometimes) and asks if the higher rate will have a negative impact of economic activity, and thus on market value, or if Treasury Bills will deliver a higher capital growth, and therefore, is it time to leave one market and enter another (leave stocks, enter treasuries or other bonds). Business and investors have become so numbed to ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy) that they have come to see any hikes as potential speed bumps on the economic highway.

Continued ZIRP has resulted in behavioural distortions, with a new set of assumptions, including current market reactions reinforcing self-delusional assumptions of market rationality. In the middle 2000s we were convinced that we had become expert at managing risk, now we believe in the power of monetary policy to ensure ever-expanding market value. This cannot end well.

In the UK, the change in the "Ogden rate" (the discount rate applied to large insurance claims, predicated on the assumption that large claims will be invested in the most conservative manner) in early 2017 provides a wonderful example of a political decision designed to reinforce the "end of boom and bust" narrative. A change in a long term discount rate from 2.5% to -.75% both boosted insurance pay-outs and imposed massive loses on the insurance industry (The rate is now under review). The political nature of the decision was in effect a reiteration of the UK government’s assumption or expectation that interest rates would remain in the ZIRP range for the foreseeable future.

ZIRP ensured a limiting of the range of options for capital, be effectively removing treasuries, US, British Gilts, Japanese, from the portfolios of available return generating assets.

The end of ZIRP has seen a steady increase in the retail cost of money. At some stage, that increase will be perceived as reaching a point at which users of credit will begin to make decisions to not invest, or not spend. Owners of capital will begin to ask if the markets will therefore continue to increase at a rate significantly higher than "safe haven" investments.

So what is that interest rate number that will move the markets?

Only this past week the Chairman of the Federal Reserve presented to Congress for the first time, with his upbeat assessment of the US economy having quite a strange impact. The Wall Street Journal reported: "On Tuesday, Mr. Powell made his first Capitol Hill appearance since taking over as Fed chief this month, where he underscored the improvement in economic prospects, which many investors took as a suggestion that the central bank will lift borrowing costs four times this year. “It now looks more likely that the Fed is going to tighten more quickly,” said Peter Elston, chief investment officer at Seneca Investment Managers."

The markets seem to be at a point where positive economic news itself causes concerns about interest rates, upsetting the fragile balance between shares as the probably area of best return on capital, and fear that shares will fall resulting in negative returns.

That fragility could tip either way, although the messaging would suggest a greater probability of a negative shock. Bad economic news (such as the reported fall in new housing starts) could hint at a slower pace of rate hikes while at the same time undermining confidence. Alternatively, stronger economic news could cement more rate hikes sooner, again undermining confidence in the markets as the source of future capital appreciation.

Further, that fragility is all about perceptions and perceptions of perceptions. Will rates increase? If rates increase, will shares fall? If shares fall, will that force rates higher, or will a continued fall in shares erase gains. Should gains be "locked in" by selling now and putting the capital into "safe" options, and ride out a fall in share values, while earning more interest on the bonds / treasuries?

The Fed rate after all flows through into mortgage rates, auto loan rates, student loans, and credit card interest rates. All of these have a direct impact on individuals' economic behaviours and choices.

So if we game this situation, it looks something like:

  1. Fed increases interest rates, reaching an eye-watering 2.5% by mid-2018.
  2. Following a Fed rate rise event, markets expect reduction in mortgage lending, increase in credit card interest, reduction in auto loans.
  3. Market data is released showing a drop in new mortgage applications.
  4. Home builder and real estate stocks hit.
  5. REITs drop on expectation that housing prices will stabilize or fall.
  6. Contagion across industries creates further falls in equities.
  7. Holders of capital determine that treasuries will provide a "no loss of capital" position and that shares have created a "capital at risk" situation.

As the "rational" market distributes and creates information with an inequitable and non-transparent distribution, individual market participants reach widely different conclusions, ultimately coalescing into a consensus that the stock markets are no longer the best place to hold or invest capital for a time long enough for stable bottom to be found.

In this way Interest Rates may provide one of the catalysts for a substantial and sustained drop in market values. This is only one of the seven situations that I discussed last week. Next week we'll look at another of the seven.

What remains clear is that in a world with so many potential contributors or drivers of a change from Bull to Bear, there is no single non-interconnected economic or political situation that will be "the cause" of the coming end of this expansion. The big question will be which, through the lens of history, will carry the "blame".