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.

Jim Bianco forecasts higher inflation in 2021

Jim Bianco from Bianco Research:

“The problem the stock market has in 2021 is by most standard metrics (P/E, Market Cap/GDP, etc.) it’s overvalued. Now a lot of people expect it to stay that way for another year. If we don’t get inflation, that can actually happen and you could actually have the market stay at these elevated levels. But if you do get rising interest rates on inflation……that will frip earnings, make mortgage rates go up and lift interest rates. That has historically not been good for risk assets….”

The problem if we don’t get inflation will be far worse. MMT theorists will take this as validation and we are likely to see more calls for far higher stimulus checks. Why not $200,000 stimulus checks someone on Twitter asked. The bubble will keep expanding without any visible effect …..until it bursts.

Buybacks, interest rates and declining growth

The Fed did a sharp about-turn on interest rates this week: a majority of FOMC members now expect no rate increases this year. Long-term treasury yields are falling, with the 10-Year breaking support at 2.55/2.60 percent. Expect a test of 2.0%.

10-Year Treasury Yields

While the initial reaction of stocks was typically bullish, the S&P 500 Volatility Index (21-day) turned up above 1.0%, indicating risk remains elevated.

S&P 500

The reason for the Fed reversal — anticipated lower growth rates — is also likely to weigh on the market.

Stocks are already over-priced, with an S&P 500 earnings multiple of 21.26, well above the October 1929 and 1987 peaks. With earnings growth expected to soften, there is little to justify current prices.

S&P 500 Price-earnings (PEmax)

The current rally is largely driven by stock buybacks ($286 billion YTD) which dwarf the paltry inflow from ETF investors into US equities ($18 billion YTD). We are also now entering the 4 to 6-week blackout period, prior to earnings releases, when stock repurchases are expected to dip.

Why do corporations continue to repurchase stock at high prices? Warren Buffett recently reminded investors that buybacks at above a stock’s intrinsic (fair) value erode shareholder wealth. If we look at the S&P 500 in the period 2004 to 2008, it is clear that corporations get carried away with stock buybacks during a boom and only cease when the market crashes. They support their stock price in the good times, then abandon it when the market falls.

S&P 500 Buybacks
source: S&P Dow Jones Indices

Shareholders would benefit if corporations did the exact opposite: refrain from buying stock during the boom, when valuations are high, and then pile into the stock when the market crashes and prices are low. Why doesn’t that happen?

The culprit is typically low interest rates. It is hard for management to resist when stock returns are more than double the cost of debt. Buybacks are an easy way of boosting stock performance (and executive bonuses).

Treasury Yields: 3-Month & 5-Year

Corporations are using every available cent to buy back stock. Dividends plus buybacks [purple line below] exceed reported earnings [green] in most quarters over the last five years.

S&P 500 Buybacks & Dividends compared to Earnings

That means that capital expenditure and acquisitions were funded either with new stock issues or, more likely, with debt.

Corporate debt has been growing as a percentage of GDP since the 1980s. The pace of debt growth slowed since 2017 (shown by a down-turn in the debt/GDP ratio) but continues to increase in nominal terms.

Corporate Debt/GDP

Low interest rates mean that stock buybacks are likely to continue — unless there is a fall in earnings. If earnings fall, buybacks shrink. Declining earnings mean there is less available cash flow to buy back stock and corporations become far more circumspect about using debt.

S&P forecasts that earnings will rise through 2019.

S&P 500 Earnings

But forecasts can change. Expected year-on-year earnings growth for the March 2019 quarter has been revised down to 3.5%. Forecasts for June and September remain at 12.0% and 11.4% (YoY growth) respectively.

S&P 500 Year-on-Year Earnings Growth Forecast

If nominal GDP continues to grow at around 5% (5.34% in Q4 2018) and the S&P 500 buyback yield increases to 3.0% (2.93% at Q3 2019 according to Yardeni Research) then earnings growth, by my calculation* should fall to around 8.2%.

*1.05/0.97 -1.

With an expected dividend yield of 2%, investors in the S&P 500 can expect a return of just over 10% p.a. (dividend yield plus growth).

But the Fed now expects growth rates to fall by about 1.1% in 2019 and 1.2% in 2020, which should bring investor returns down to around 9% p.a. Not a lot to get excited about.

I knew something was wrong somewhere, but I couldn’t spot it exactly. But if something was coming and I didn’t know where from, I couldn’t be on my guard against it. That being the case I’d better be out of the market.
~ Jesse Livermore

“Stocks rebound but sentiment soft”

From Bob Doll at Nuveen Investments. His weekly top themes:

1. We think the odds of a U.S. recession are low, but we also believe growth will remain soft for a couple of quarters. U.S. growth may bottom in the first half of 2019 following a relatively disappointing fourth quarter and the recent government shutdown. We expect growth will improve in the second half of the year.

Agreed, though growth is likely to remain soft for an extended period. The Philadelphia Fed Leading Index is easing but remains healthy at above 1.0% (December 2018).

Leading Index

2. Inflation remains low, but upward pressure is mounting. With unemployment under 4% and average hourly earnings rising to an annual 3.6% level, we may start to see prices rise. So far, better productivity growth has kept the lid on prices, but this trend bears watching.

Agreed. Average hourly earnings are rising and inflation may follow.

Hourly Earnings Growth

3. Trade issues remain a wildcard. The U.S./China trade dispute appears to be making progress, but the timeline is slipping and significant disagreement remains over tariff levels and intellectual property protections.

This is the dominant issue facing global markets. Call me skeptical but I don’t see a happy resolution. There is too much at stake for both parties. Expect a drawn out conflict over the next two decades.

4. We do not expect Brexit to cause widespread market issues. We think the risk of a hard Brexit is low, since no one wants to see that outcome. Some sort of soft separation or even a Brexit vote redo appears more likely.

Agreed. Hard Brexit is unlikely. Soft separation is likely, while no Brexit is most unlikely.

5. The health care sector may remain under pressure due to political rhetoric. Health care stocks in general, and managed care companies in particular, have struggled in light of talk about ending private health care coverage. We think Congress lacks the votes to enact such legislation. But this issue, as well as drug pricing policies, are likely to remain at the center of the political dialogue through the 2020 elections.

Health care is a political football and may take longer to resolve than the trade war with China.

6. Downward earnings revisions may present the largest risk for stocks. As recently as September 30, expectations for first quarter earnings growth were +7%. That slipped to +4% by January 1 and has since fallen to -3%.

A sharp fall in earnings would most likely spring from a steep rise in interest rates if the Fed had to combat rising inflation. That doesn’t seem imminent despite rising average hourly earnings. The Fed is maintaining money supply growth at close to 5.0%, around the same level as nominal GDP, keeping a lid on inflationary pressures.

Money Supply & Nominal GDP growth

7. Equity returns may be modest over the next decade compared to the last. Since the bull market began 10 years ago, U.S. stocks have appreciated over 400%. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that pace will be met again, but we feel confident that stocks will outperform Treasuries and cash over the next 10 years.

Expect modest returns on stocks, low interest rates, and low returns on bonds and cash.

Australia: Good news and bad news

First, the good news from the RBA chart pack.

Exports continue to climb, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Business investment remains weak and is likely to impact on long-term growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Business Investment

The decline is particularly steep in the Manufacturing sector and not just in Mining.

Australia: Business Investment by Sector

But government investment in infrastructure has cushioned the blow.

Australia: Public Sector Investment

Profits in the non-financial sector remain low, apart from mining which has benefited from strong export demand.

Australia: Non-Financial Sector Profits

Job vacancies are rising which should be good news for wage rates. But this also means higher inflation and, down the line, higher interest rates.

Australia: Job Vacancies

The housing and financial sector is our Achilles heel, with household debt climbing a wall of worry.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

House prices are shrinking despite record low interest rates.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money and credit growth are slowing, warning of a contraction.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Bank profits remain strong.

Australia: Bank Profits

But capital ratios are low, with the bulk of profits distributed to shareholders as dividends. The ratios below are calculated on risk-weighted assets. Raw leverage ratios are a lot weaker.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

One of the primary accelerants of the housing bubble and household debt has been $900 billion of offshore borrowings by domestic banks. The chickens are coming home to roost, with bank funding costs rising as the Fed hikes interest rates. In the last four months the 90-day bank bill swap rate (BBSW) jumped 34.5 basis points.

The banks face a tough choice: pass on higher interest rates to mortgage borrowers or accept narrower margins and a profit squeeze. With an estimated 30 percent of households already suffering from mortgage stress, any interest rate hikes will impact on both housing prices and delinquency rates.

I continue to avoid exposure to banks, particularly hybrids where many investors do not understand the risks.

I also remain cautious on mining because of a potential slow-down in China, with declining growth in investment and in retail sales.

China: Activity

Low inflation risk keeps yield curve safe

The Fed is advancing interest rates at a measured pace, with the objective of restoring balance in financial markets rather than to curbing inflationary pressures. Only if inflation spikes is the Fed likely to adopt a restrictive stance.

Elliot Clarke from Westpac sums up the FOMC (Fed Open Market Committee) view from their latest minutes:

Beginning with inflation, whereas the market has recently been concerned that inflation may be getting away from the FOMC (given annual CPI inflation at 2.5%yr and persistent strength in the oil price), the Committee is unperturbed.

Instead of the CPI, the FOMC’s benchmark remains PCE inflation, which is currently 2.0%yr on a headline basis and 1.9%yr for core…..

To see upside inflation risks build, a stronger wage inflation pulse is necessary. At present the employment cost index is only reporting “a gradual pickup in wage increases”, and the signal from other wage measures is “less clear”. Two other important considerations for the pass through of wages to activity and thus inflation is that real hourly earnings growth is currently flat and the savings rate near historic lows. The capacity of households to boost consumption and thus inflation is therefore very limited.

Hourly wage rates are growing at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Personal savings are low.

Personal Savings

And credit growth is modest.

Credit Growth

So not much sign of inflationary pressure.

….Turning to financial conditions, as yet there is no concern of them becoming an impediment to growth or policy. The 10yr yield has moved back to the highs of 2013, but the US dollar has only partly retraced its 2017 depreciation. Further, asset markets remain near recent highs.

Equally significant however is the reference to being nearer neutral and a clear desire to keep the yield curve’s positive slope…..

We do not believe that the yield curve will invert in this instance, in part because higher deficits should see the term premium rise. However, the curve will remain comparatively flat versus history, restricting both the timing and the scale of further rate hikes. This is a key justification for both the market’s and our own view of only two further hikes in 2018 and two more in 2019 – a stark contrast to the FOMC’s seven hikes to end-2020.

Yield Differential

A negative yield curve — when 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yields falls below zero — would give a strong recession warning. But the yield curve is only likely to invert if the Fed steps up interest rate increases. With little sign of rising inflationary pressure at present, the prospect seems remote.

China holds its head above water

A quick snapshot from the latest RBA chart pack.

Manufacturing is holding its head above water (50 on the PMI chart) and industrial production shows a small upturn but investment growth is falling, as in many global economies including the US and Australia. Retail sales growth has declined but remains healthy at 10% a year.

China

Electricity generation continues to climb but steel, cement and plate glass production all warn that real estate and infrastructure development are slowing.

China

Interest rates remain accommodative.

China

Real estate price growth is slowing but remains an unhealthy 10% a year. Real estate development investment rallied in response to lower interest rates but is clearly in a long-term decline.

China

There are no signs of an economy in immediate trouble but there are indications that the real estate and infrastructure boom may be ending. Through a combination of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy the Chinese have managed to stave off a capitalism-style correction. But failure to clear some of the excesses of the past decade will mean that the inevitable correction, when it does come, is likely to display familiar Asian severity (Japan 1992, Asian Crisis 1997).

RBA stuck

Great slide from the NAB budget presentation:

RBA Interest Rates in a Cleft Stick

The RBA is in a cleft stick:

  • Raising interest rates would increase mortgage stress and threaten stability of the banking system.
  • Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble, creating a bigger threat in years to come.

The underlying problem is record high household debt to income levels. Housing affordability is merely a symptom.

There are only two possible solutions:

  1. Raise incomes; or
  2. Reduce debt levels.

Both have negative consequences.

Raising incomes would primarily take place through higher inflation. This would generate more demand for debt to buy inflation-hedge assets, so would have to be linked to strong macroprudential (e.g. lower maximum LVRs for housing) to prevent this. A positive offshoot would be a weaker Dollar, strengthening local industry. The big negative would be the restrictive monetary policy needed to slow inflation when the job is done, with a likely recession.

Shrinking debt levels without raising interest rates is difficult but macroprudential policies would help. Also policies that penalize banks for offshore borrowings. The big negative would be falling housing prices as investors try to liquidate some of their investments and the consequent threat to banking stability. The slow-down in new construction would also threaten an economy-wide down-turn.

Of the two, I would favor the former option as having less risk. But there is a third option: wait in the hope that something will turn up. That is the line of least resistance and therefore the most likely course government will take.

Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts?

From Jens Meyer:

Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts and no-one noticed?

Well, not exactly no-one. Goldman Sachs chief economist Tim Toohey reckons the speech RBA assistant governor Chris Kent delivered on Tuesday amounts to an explicit shift to a neutral policy stance.

Dr Kent spoke about how the economy has been doing since the mining boom, and in particular how its performance matched the RBA’s expectations.

Reflecting on the RBA’s forecasts of recent years, Dr Kent essentially framed the RBA’s earlier rate cut logic around an initial larger than expected decline in mining capital expenditure and subsequent larger than expected decline in the terms of trade, Mr Toohey said.

Having so closely linked the RBA’s easing cycle to the weakness in the terms of trade (and earlier decline in mining investment), Dr Kent’s key remark was to flag “the abatement of those two substantial headwinds” and highlight that this “would be a marked change from recent years”….

Source: Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts and no-one noticed?