Inflation is baked into the cake

Inflation is a hot topic at the moment. For good reason: higher inflation would drive up interest rates, affecting both bond and equity prices, as well as commodities and precious metals.

March CPI jumped to 2.64% but the increase is partly attributable to the low base from March 2020. Core CPI (excluding food and energy) came in at a more modest 1.65%. The main difference between CPI and core CPI is rising energy and food costs.

CPI & Core CPI

The annual inflation rate in the US ……is the highest reading since August of 2018 with main upward pressure coming from energy (13.2% vs 3.7% in February), namely gasoline (22.5% vs 1.6%), electricity (2.5% vs 2.3%) and utility gas service (9.8% vs 6.7%). Prices also accelerated for used cars and trucks (9.4% vs 9.3%), shelter (1.7% vs 1.5%) and new vehicles (1.5% vs 1.2%) while inflation slowed for medical care services (2.7% vs 3%) and food (3.5% vs 3.6%). Cost of apparel continued to fall (-2.5% vs -3.6%)……..a jump in commodities and material costs, coupled with supply constraints, are pushing producer prices up and some companies are passing those costs to clients. (Reuters)

10-year Treasury yields eased to 1.62% with the breakeven inflation rate at 2.33% — weakening the real 10-year yield to -0.71%.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Breakeven Inflation Rate

Inflation and the Money Supply

Milton Friedman famously said, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”

CPI & M2 Money Supply

But experience since the 1980s shows several surges in money supply growth without a corresponding rise in inflation. While an increase in money supply may be a prerequisite for a spike in inflation, it is not the cause.

More direct causes of inflation are increases in input costs for suppliers of goods and services. The two largest input costs are commodities and wages. Rises in commodity prices will mostly affect the manufacturing sector, while increases in wage rates impacts on all employers. Also, commodity prices tend to be cyclical, so price fluctuations will be more readily absorbed, while wage increases tend to be permanent and more likely to be passed on to customers.

The chart below shows a much closer correlation between hourly wage rates and CPI since the 1970s, with surges in hourly earnings accompanied by a rise in inflation.

CPI & Hourly Manufacturing Wages

Conclusion

Rising commodity prices are driving higher inflation at present. While some of the pressures may be transitory, due to supply interruptions, underinvestment in new production over the last decade is likely to act as a supply constraint for both energy and base metals. Rising demand fueled by short-term stimulus and longer-term infrastructure investment would act as an accelerant.

Wage rate increases are so far restrained, but that is likely to change as the economy recovers, boosted by decoupling from China and on-shoring of critical supply chains. Shortages of skilled labor are expected to drive up wage rates, maintaining upward pressure on inflation in the longer-term. Training and education of suitable staff will take time.

We have all the ingredients for an inflation spike. A massive boost in the money supply, accompanied by record stimulus payments, much of which has been channeled into savings. This will help to fuel increased demand in the longer term, while restricted supply will drive up commodity prices and wage rates for skilled labor.

Carmen Reinhart: Financial repression

“These crises are really a form of domestic default that governments employ in countries where financial repression is a major form of taxation. Under financial repression, banks are vehicles that allow governments to squeeze more indirect tax revenue from citizens by monopolizing the entire savings and payments system, not simply currency. Governments force local residents to save in banks by giving them few, if any, other options. They then stuff debt into the banks via reserve requirements and other devices. This allows the government to finance a part of its debt at a very low interest rate; financial repression thus constitutes a form of taxation. Citizens put money into banks because there are few other safe places for their savings. Governments, in turn, pass regulations and restrictions to force the banks to relend the money to fund public debt….”

~ Carmen M. Reinhart, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly

The bond market revolt

The rise in Treasury yields accelerated over the past week, with 10-year Treasuries closing at 1.54% on Thursday and 10-year TIPS at -0.60.

10-Year TIPS & Treasury Yields

A sharp fall in daily new COVID-19 cases has fueled optimism about a rapid re-opening of the US economy.

USA: Daily New COVID-19 Cases

As well as fears of higher inflation.

10-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate

What the sell-off means

Investors are selling Treasuries at a faster rate than the Fed (and banks) are buying, out of fear of accelerating capital losses. Fixed coupons have been badly affected, with iShares 20Year+ Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) showing a loss of 13% over the past 6 months. But even inflation-protected bonds have lost value in anticipation of higher real interest rates, with PIMCO’s 15 Year+ TIPS Bond ETF (LTPZ) falling more than 6%.

20 Year+ Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) & 15 Year+ TIPS Bond ETF

The Fed response

The Fed is likely to respond by weighting purchases towards longer maturities. The 10-year Treasury yield has already started to anticipate this, falling to 1.39% by Friday’s close.

10-Year Treasury Yields

Source: CNBC

The result is a 16 bps fall in the real 10-year yield, to -0.76% on Friday (1.39-2.15).

Conclusion

Fed purchases are expected to suppress long-term Treasury yields over the next few months, with inflation breakeven rates continuing their upward trend, while real yields remain negative.

S&P 500 fueled by the Fed

The S&P 500 continues, unwavering, in a strong up-trend.

S&P 500

But compare the growth in the S&P 500 index relative to growth in the money supply (M2). In relative terms, the S&P 500 appreciated only 29%, or 2.6% p.a., over the past decade. Most of the stellar performance over the past 10 years can be attributed to the Fed’s expansionary monetary policy.

S&P 500/M2 Money Supply

Dollar Index

The Dollar Index continues to test support at 90. A Trend Index peak below zero warns of strong selling pressure. Breach of support is likely and would signal another primary decline.

Dollar Index

The Chinese Yuan, however, has halted in its appreciation against the Dollar. Trend Index peak below the 7-week MA warns of secondary selling pressure. Breach of support at 15.4 US cents would warn of a correction.

CNYUSD

Conclusion

The S&P 500 is likely to continue rising for as long as the Fed expands the money supply. The Dollar, however, is expected to weaken for the same reason.

USA: Sales up, daily COVID-19 cases down but jobs still scarce

Daily new COVID-19 cases in the US are clearly falling as the vaccine roll-out takes effect.

USA: COVID-19 Daily Cases

But daily deaths are still rising and may take another few weeks to level off.

USA: COVID-19 Daily Deaths

January payroll figures show the economic recovery has stalled, with total jobs contracting by 6.08% compared to January 2020.

Payroll Growth

Hours worked are down 4.4% compared to last year.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Average hourly earnings jumped 5.44% for production and non-supervisory workers but these are distorted by strong job losses in the lowest pay grades.

Hourly Wage Rates

Retail sales (excluding food) have also been artificially boosted by government stimulus which added roughly 20% to disposable income.

Retail Sales Excluding Food

Light vehicle sales are similarly boosted.

Light Vehicles

While housing starts are climbing in response to record low mortgage rates.

Housing Permits & Starts

Total unemployment claims (state and federal) declined to a still high 17.8 million for the week ended January 16th.

DOL: State & Federal Unemployment Claims

The proposed Biden stimulus will support households and businesses but employment is likely to remain weak until the COVID-19 outbreak is clearly under control.

Conclusion

Economic activity is expected to remain weak in the first half of 2021. A key determinant will be the length of time it takes to bring the COVID-19 outbreak under control. Subsequent recovery is likely to need strong fiscal support, with federal debt expected to grow faster than GDP in 2021. This will require continued Treasury purchases by the Fed and commercial banks, with interest rates remaining low throughout 2021.

Can the Fed keep a lid on inflation?

Jeremy Siegel, Wharton finance professor, says the Fed has poured a tremendous amount of money into the economy in response to the pandemic, which will eventually cause higher inflation. David Rosenberg of Rosenberg Research argues that velocity of money is declining and the US economy has a large output gap so inflation is unlikely to materialize.

CNBC VideoClick to play

Both are right, just in different time frames.

Putting the cart before the horse

The velocity of money is simply the ratio of GDP to the money supply. Fluctuations in the velocity of money have more to do with fluctuations in GDP than in the money supply. If GDP recovers, so will the velocity of money. Equating velocity of money with inflation is putting the cart before the horse. Contractions in GDP coincide with low/negative inflation while rapid expansions in GDP are normally accompanied, after a lag, by rising inflation.

CPI & GDP

Money supply and interest rates

Inflation is likely to rise when consumption grows at a faster rate than output. Prices rise when supply is scarce — when we consume more than we produce. Interest rates play a key role in this.

Low interest rates mean cheap credit, making it easy for people to borrow and consume more than they earn. Low rates also boost the stock market, raising corporate earnings because of lower interest costs, but most importantly, raising earnings multiples as the cost of capital falls. Speculators also take advantage of low interest rates to leverage their investments, driving up prices.

S&P 500

In the housing market, prices rise as cheap mortgage finance attracts buyers, pushing up demand and facilitating greater leverage.

Housing: Building Starts & Permits

Wealth effect

Higher stock and house prices create a wealth effect. Consumers are more ready to borrow and spend when they feel wealthier.

High interest rates, on the other hand, have the exact opposite effect. Credit is expensive and consumption falls. Speculation fades as stock earnings multiples fall and housing buyers are scarce.

Money supply is only a factor in inflation to the extent that it affects interest rates. There is also a lag between lower interest rates and rising consumption. It takes time for consumers and investors to rebuild confidence after an economic contraction.

The role of the Fed

Fed Chairman, William McChesney Martin, described the role of the Federal Reserve as:

“…..to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.”

In other words, to raise interest rates just as the economic recovery starts to build up steam — to avoid a build up of inflationary pressures.

The Fed’s mandate is to maintain stable prices but there are times, like the present, when their hands are tied.

Federal government debt is currently above 120% of GDP.

Federal Debt/GDP

GDP is likely to rise as the economy recovers but so is federal debt as the government injects more stimulus and embarks on an infrastructure program to lift the economy.

With federal debt at record levels of GDP, raising interest rates could blow the federal deficit wide open as the cost of servicing Treasury debt threatens to overtake tax revenues.

Conclusion

Inflation is likely to remain low until GDP recovers. But the need to maintain low interest rates — to support Treasury markets and keep a lid on the federal deficit — will then hamper the Fed’s ability to contain a buildup of inflationary pressure.

Luke Gromen: Bitcoin alarm

“We do not think BTC is a bubble; we think BTC is the last remaining functioning fire alarm that has not been disabled by policymakers, and it is issuing an increasingly shrill alarm about the USD and fiat currencies more broadly. We have little doubt that policymakers will attempt to disable BTC as a functioning fire alarm as well, but its traits make that far more difficult to do to BTC than they have thus far done with gold.”

~ Luke Gromen, Treerings.com