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Gravity Still Works, After All
Mild weakness in housing data (Housing Starts fell to only the second-highest level since 2008) seemed to be a sufficient excuse today to send stocks lower, but really the main culprit was gravity. We will have to see if the market corrects more than the 1.25% it dropped today, but it shouldn't be all that surprising!
It actually looked a little bit like one of the classic "risk-off" trades we have seen in recent years. Commodities fell, especially precious metals, energy, and industrial metals while agriculture rallied. The dollar leapt to the highest level since November. Inflation breakevens declined a touch, and interest rates slipped a couple of basis points. What's more, the VIX jumped to match its highest closing level of the year.
Searching for a new story on why commodities fell, a rumor passed along the market (memorialized by Bloomberg here) that a hedge fund was being flushed out of commodities positions. But that made little sense, unless the fund had been long energy and short agriculture - and if they had been, they would have been winning over the last several months, not blowing up! More likely, it was just gravity, which seems to operate more heavily on commodities than on stocks these days. I guess stocks are from Mars, commodities from Venus.
I think this is all part of a corrective move, but the corrections are a bit out-of-sync and that makes me nervous. In the article I wrote on January 31, I pointed out that the dollar index, 5-year inflation breakevens, and commodities were all nearing critical breakout or breakdown levels. I thought they were all about to break those levels and continue trends, but what actually happened was quite the opposite: the dollar index is up significantly (back to near the November highs, as I said), 5-year breakevens are a couple of basis points cheaper (although not much) and commodities have done what commodities have done all too often over the last year: slid to lower nominal, and even cheaper real, levels. Although I didn't show it on January 31st, the 5y CPI, 5y forward - an important metric for the Fed - has also declined slightly from 3.09% to 3.04%.
I expect the markets to return to the levels they held at January month-end, however. The FOMC minutes out this afternoon showed that while there continue to be dissenting, hawkish voices at the Fed (notably, Esther George cast the lone dissenting voice this month - how I like this Fed President!), they continue to be completely drowned out by the doves. Again looking for an angle to explain the stock market decline - which started this morning, long before the minutes were released and probably even before they were leaked to Goldman - market headlines bleated about how the "Fed Minutes Show Debate Over Stimulus," about how the Fed is "uneasy" over QE, and about how several officials suggested varying the pace of QE over time.
This wild and crazy debate, this uprising of the inflation hawks, produced (I note again for the record) one dissenting vote. Remember, even non-voters can participate in debate and appear in the minutes even if they don't vote. In this case, the "several members" likely included George and Richard Fisher of Dallas (non-voter), with some chance that a third, also non-voting, member joined them (maybe Plosser?) But they are arrayed against a very dovish core of the FOMC, and the minutes contain a clear indication that the Committee prefers to err on the side of keeping accommodation too long rather than remove it too soon:
"A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs, and risks of asset purchases might well lead the Committee to taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred. Several others argued that the potential costs of reducing or ending asset purchases too soon were also significant, or that asset purchases should continue until a substantial improvement in the labor market outlook had occurred. A few participants noted examples of past instances in which policymakers had prematurely removed accommodation, with adverse effects on economic growth, employment, and price stability; they also stressed the importance of communicating the Committee's commitment to maintaining a highly accommodative stance of policy as long as warranted by economic conditions. In this regard, a number of participants discussed the possibility of providing monetary accommodation by holding securities for a longer period than envisioned in the Committee's exit principles, either as a supplement to, or a replacement for, asset purchases."
I similarly wouldn't read much into the "number of participants" asking for ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs, and risks of asset purchases. This sort of debate has been occurring in the minutes of almost every meeting since the Fed first began QE, and it would be striking if there was not any discussion of efficacy, costs and risks - especially considering that the efficacy of this unprecedented policy action has been fairly unimpressive, to be kind.
I see no reason to doubt the Fed's word that they will keep accommodation until the Unemployment Rate improves or inflation moves enough higher to concern them. But there is certainly no concern, even among the hawks, about the current level and trajectory of inflation:
"Nearly all participants anticipated that inflation over the medium-term would run at or below the Committee's 2 percent objective."
Unless you're talking about the vague concern expressed by "a few" participants about inflation over the long run:
"Participants generally saw recent price developments as consistent with their projections that inflation would remain at or below the Committee's 2 percent objective over the medium run. There was little evidence of wage or cost pressures outside of isolated sectors, and measures of inflation expectations remained stable. However, a few participants expressed concerns that the current highly accommodative stance of monetary policy posed upside risks to inflation in the medium or longer term."
This continues to be where the whole house of cards is vulnerable. A series of bad inflation numbers (and I am sure it would take a series, not just one or two) could alter the debate later this year. Tomorrow's release of January CPI (Consensus: +0.1%/+0.2% ex-food-and-energy; +1.6%/+1.8% y/y) is not likely to be the first of those bad numbers, but it is coming soon. The consensus expectations are quite soft, essentially +0.05% on headline inflation (the energy spike didn't really start until February) and +0.16% or 0.17% on core CPI.
But the housing price data are unequivocal: a large portion of the consumption basket is going to see prices rising at an accelerating rate, soon. Our models seem to suggest the inflection point could be another couple of months away, but it is dangerous to get too caught up in model minutae. The big message from the models is that the unambiguously higher home prices (in Existing Home Sales, New Home Sales, the FHA's Home Price Index, the Case/Shiller index) are leading to higher rents (judging from surveys of apartment rents from REIS and CBRE) and this reflects higher shelter costs that will show up in core CPI within a few months. If it happens tomorrow, then stocks are vulnerable - but if not, then Martian gravity isn't going to be enough to hold down stocks for very long.
We know that in low-gravity environments, human skeletal structure gradually weakens so that a return to normal gravity can be very dangerous for someone who has been in space for a long time. The stock market has been in space for a very long time. At some point, when "normal gravity" (in the form of a neutral Federal Reserve policy) returns, equities will have a rough transition to make. But that day isn't yet, so while I don't have expectations of much higher equity prices from here I also wouldn't get too excited about looking for a 20% decline, either.
 Technical note: when looking at breakevens, and especially forward breakevens, over a long period of time, it is important to use inflation swaps whenever they are available because there are fewer idiosyncrasies with the structure of the inflation swaps curve than with the breakeven curve. As a case-in-point, while 5y inflation, 5 years forward taken from inflation swaps has fallen 5bps since January 24th, Bloomberg's 5y, 5y BEI has dropped some 30bps over the same period, due to changes in which TIPS and nominal bonds make up that index.
 I'm kidding, sorta.