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Defensive

By: Michael Ashton | Friday, December 6, 2013

There was a great deal of excitement about today's Employment Report. The S&P rallied 1.1%, erasing the month-to-date losses at a stroke. And for what? Nonfarm Payrolls were reported at 203k with a net +8k upward revision to the prior months, versus expectations for 185k. That's a miss that is easily within the standard error. The 6-month average stayed at about 180k and the 12-month average at about 190k. The 3-month average reached 193k, but that is lower than it was in Q1 of this year so no great shakes there.

True, the Unemployment Rate dropped from 7.3% to 7.0%, reversing the unexpected uptick from last month as the labor force participation rate rebounded. Economists were always suspicious of that steep drop in the participation rate, and some bounce was expected (pushing the Unemployment Rate down). But so what? As the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, this is just another step in a long, steady, slow improvement.

US Unemployment Rate Chart

I think the reasoning must be something like this: the economy is stronger than we thought, by a little, yet this doesn't change much about the timing of the taper. Unemployment is 7%, and core PCE is 1.1%. Neither one is close to the Evans Rule targets, so there's plenty of time (at least, if you are a committed dove like is Yellen). They're looking for reasons to be slow on tapering, not to accelerate it. At least, this is why equity investors were excited. Perhaps. It does not, though, change my own views in any way - the economy is moving along at roughly the pace that is now normal, adding jobs at a pace that is about what we should expect in the thick of an expansion. The expansion is still growing long in the tooth. But forecasting growth is no longer nearly as important as forecasting the Fed, and that seems fairly easy right now: mo' money is mo' better. Stocks are nearing an ugly disconnect, I think - but not today.

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I seem to regularly take a lot of heat in the comments section of this column for several things. Some readers take me to task for covering up for The Man and his CPI Conspiracy. I won't address that here, but on December 18th I'll be running a combination of two old blog posts that explain why CPI isn't a made-up number, and why most people perceive inflation as being higher than it actually is. The other major complaint is that I have been "calling for inflation forever" and that I am somehow an unrequited inflation-phobe.

I want to refute that specifically. The people who say that are sometimes confusing me with someone else, and that's okay. But sometimes they make an assumption that since my Twitter handle is @inflation_guy, because I traded inflation derivatives on Wall Street and was the designer and market maker of the CPI futures contract that launched in 2004, and because I run a specialty investment management firm with a core focus on inflation, I must always be super bullish on inflation.

In fact, people who have followed my comments off-line and on-line for the last decade know that is very far from the truth. In fact, when I was an inflation swaps trader the dealer I worked for often got exasperated because I routinely told clients that I did not expect inflation to head higher very soon because of the huge overhang of private debt. "How can you expect us to sell inflation products," they asked, "if you keep telling everyone there is no inflation?" My rejoinder: "If we are only selling these products when inflation goes up, we only have a business half the time, or whenever we can convince the client that inflation is going up. But these products almost always reduce risk, since almost every client has a natural exposure to inflation going up, and although they have systematically profited over the last two decades from a bet they didn't know they were making, that cannot continue forever. That's the reason people should buy inflation products: to reduce risk."

So, for many years I was exactly the opposite of what I am sometimes accused nowadays of being: although I didn't worry about deflation very much, I certainly wasn't worried about runaway inflation.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?[1]

It was clear that the Fed's actions in 2008 were going to change things in a big way, but it is interesting that my models anticipated that inflation would continue to decline into 2010 and bottom in Q3 or early Q4 (which is what I said here among other places). It is from that point that I began to diverge with Wall Street opinion (again - since the consensus expected inflation in the middle 2000s while I did not). I published what I think is a helpful time series of my 12-month-ahead model forecasts in early 2012, contrasting it with a chart from Goldman.[2]

So now, let me update the model chart with a forecast for the next twelve months. Before I do, note that in the chart I have substituted Median CPI for Core CPI, for the reasons I have written about for a while now: Core CPI is being dragged down by several one-off movements, most notably in Medical Care, and so Median CPI is currently a better measure of the true central tendency of inflation.

CPI

The black line is the actual Median CPI. The red line is the average of the other two models depicted as green and blue lines. The blue line is quite similar to the model I have been using for a very long time; it uses a couple of macro variables including a role for private indebtedness. The green line is something I introduced only in the last few years; it models shelter separately from the ex-shelter components because we have a pretty decent idea of what drives shelter inflation. Frankly, I like that model better, which is why my firm's forecast for 2014 is for core (or median) inflation to be 3%-3.6%. The model says 3%, and I believe the tails are on the high side.

But the real purpose of my presenting that chart, and the aforementioned discussion, is to defend myself against the calumny that I am a perpetual bull on inflation. Nothing could be further from the truth. From 2004-2010, if I was bullish on inflation at all it was only a "trading opinion" based on market prices.[3] It is only since then that I have been loudly bullish on inflation. And, even then, while I will tell you why inflation could have extremely long tails on the upside, you will not find me forecasting 8%. Nor claiming that inflation really is somewhere that I said it would be, because I don't like the numbers the BLS is reporting.

I have said in the past, and reiterate now, that one of the main reasons I write this column is mainly to hear reasoned counterarguments to my theses. I think I get sucked far too often into debates with unreasoned or unreasonable counterarguments, not to mention ad hominem attacks.

It goes with the territory of writing a public blog, I suppose. At some level it doesn't matter much, because I wouldn't have been on Wall Street for two decades if I bruised easily. But on the other hand, I have a right to self-defense and I have now exercised that right with respect to this particular charge!

 


[1] A quote variously attributed to Keynes, Samuelson, and others...and apropos here.
[2] Incidentally, note that our firm forecast may differ from the model forecast based on our discretionary reading of the model and other factors. In the last two years, the naked model has handily whupped our discretionary forecast.
[3] Of note is the fact that my company Enduring Investments was formed in early 2009 - even though my models still indicated that inflation was going to be swinging lower for a while.

You can follow me @inflation_guy!

Enduring Investments is a registered investment adviser that specializes in solving inflation-related problems. Fill out the contact form at http://www.EnduringInvestments.com/contact and we will send you our latest Quarterly Inflation Outlook. And if you make sure to put your physical mailing address in the "comment" section of the contact form, we will also send you a copy of Michael Ashton's book "Maestro, My Ass!"

 

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA
E-Piphany

Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

Copyright © 2010-2014 Michael Ashton