Gentle reader, please indulge us our seeming obsession with the subject of inflation. Yes, we know that other macro metrics matter as well, but inflation is both the big mystery – as we discussed in last week’s column – and arguably the heavy hand pushing and pulling the market to and fro. Today we focus more on this “actionable” aspect of inflation. Or, to perhaps be more precise, we focus on the curious case of a market with the stars of an imagined reflationary surge sparkling in its eyes – in the very same week when yet another month’s reading informs us that a pick-up in inflation is nowhere to be seen in the real world.
Not Dead Yet
It really doesn’t take much, even after all this time. The so-called “reflation-infrastructure trade,” which financial pundits necessarily rebranded as the “Trump trade,” died an unofficial death back in the first couple months of the year. That’s about the time when the US dollar swooned at the feet of a soaring euro and Aussie dollar, and value stocks in sectors like financials and energy ceded the high ground to their growth counterparts in tech.
But 2017 is, if nothing else, the year of endless lives, whether it be multiple attempts to repeal and replace healthcare policy or the renewed insistence that hypergrowth-fueled inflation is just around the corner. “The Trump Trade Is Back!” screamed Bloomberg News on Wednesday, joined by a chorus of like headlines from Yahoo! Finance, Business Insider and others. Once again financial institutions and resource companies were the market darlings. Bond yields perked up. Even the beleaguered dollar took a victory lap or two. Mr. Market was ready to party like it’s late 2016.
A Framework of an Outline of a Plan
The catalyst for this week’s effervescence, of course, was the release on Wednesday of a tax reform framework. It wasn’t really a plan, because plans generally contain details about specific sources of revenues and costs over a defined time frame, grounded in plausible assumptions. The major assumption made by the authors of this framework is that it will somehow deliver anywhere from 3 to 6 percent (depending on whom in the administration you care to believe) in long-term sustainable growth.
Now, given that we have not experienced real GDP growth of that caliber for many decades, it would be reasonable to believe that a boost of that magnitude would beget more inflation, hence higher interest rates, hence the improved fortunes of banks and oil drillers and the like. Unfortunately for the credibility of the proposal’s framers, the plausibility of sustained growth at those levels is vanishingly low. The Fed’s median estimate of US long-term growth potential is 1.8 percent. Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office estimated that if all the fiscal stimulus measures proposed at one time or another by the new administration (tax reform, infrastructure spend and all the rest) were successfully implemented, it could add one tenth of one percent to long term growth. So the Fed’s 1.8 percent would become 1.9 percent, hardly reason to break out the Veuve Cliquot.
Back in the Real World
Meanwhile Friday morning delivered yet another Debbie Downer data point to the market’s Pollyanna. The personal consumption expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, came in for the month of August below consensus expectations at 0.1 percent. That translates to a 1.3 percent year-on-year gain, matching its lowest level for the past five years and well below the Fed’s elusive 2 percent target. We imagine this reality will likely show up again soon enough in the bond and currency markets (which also were the first to ditch the Trump trade back in February). But the stock market is a different animal. Is there enough wishful thinking to keep the reflation trade alive long enough to get through the tricky month of October and into the usually festive holiday trade mindset? Perhaps there is – money has to go somewhere, after all. At some point, though, reality bites back.
Where’s the inflation? That question has lurked behind most of the major headline stories about macroeconomic trends this year. Jobless rate falls to 4.3 percent. Where’s the inflation? GDP growth revised up to 3 percent. Where’s the inflation? The Fed has an official dual mandate of promoting price stability and the maximum level of employment achievable in a stable price environment. By all available measures, our central bank policymakers would appear to be living up to their mandate in spades. Inflation has remained subdued for pretty much the entire run of the recovery that began in 2009. Over the same time, unemployment has come crashing down from a post-recession high of 10 percent to the gentle undulations of 4 percent and change from month to month. And therein lies the problem, or rather the riddle that neither the Fed nor the rest of us can answer convincingly: why hasn’t a robust jobs recovery reignited inflation?
Math, Models and Markets
Those of us who do not hold Ph.D. degrees in economics from the nation’s most prestigious universities at least have one advantage over those maven economists on the Fed Open Market Committee: we can freely speculate about the perplexing absence of inflation. Here at MVF we have our own views, largely proceeding from the larger issue of long term growth that has been the central subject of our in-depth research for much of the past three years. The catalysts that drive growth over successive business cycles – productivity and labor force participation – have both chronically underperformed for many years. Quite simply, we may have reached a point of diminishing returns on the commercial innovations that powered a historically unique run of growth through the middle and mid-late portion of the last century. Without that growth, we shouldn’t expect wages and prices to do as they did before.
Which is fine for us to say, because – see above – we are not doctorate-level trained economists. But Janet Yellen is, and so are most of her colleagues. And unlike us, they do not have the freedom to brainstorm and speculate about what’s keeping inflation from showing up. All they have are models. Models with months, quarters and years of data providing quantitative insights into the relationship between the labor market and consumer prices. Models written in beautiful mathematical formulations, the legacy of giants who inhabited the “freshwater” (University of Chicago) and “salt water” (MIT and Harvard University) centers of economic research in the years after the Second World War. Models premised on the hyper-rational choices of economic actors, models that do not actively incorporate variables about capital and financial markets but that assume that money is just “there.”
Follow the Dots…Not
The models say that a higher uptrend in inflation is consistent with where the labor market is. Accordingly, the “dot plot” predictions by FOMC members continue to assume one more rate hike this year (most likely December) and three more next year. This despite the fact that the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) rate that the Fed uses as its inflation gauge remains, at 1.4 percent, well below the Fed’s 2 percent target. Fixed income markets, though, continue to largely ignore FOMC dots (despite some of the usual post-event spasms after Wednesday’s press release). There remain about 100 basis points of difference between what the Fed thinks is a “normal” long term trend for the Fed funds rate (closer to 3 percent) and what the bond market thinks (closer to 2 percent).
In a nutshell, the bond market, and analysts such as ourselves, look at inflation trends and say, why rush? The Fed says, because the models say we have to act. If the models are right, there could be some very nasty shocks in fixed income markets that spill over into risk assets like equities. But for the rest of us, with our parlor game speculations about how the relationship between prices and jobs today may simply not be as statistically robust as it used to be, it is difficult indeed to spot the hard evidence supporting a major bout of inflation on the horizon.
The equity market bulls had been running for more than five years. Over this time interest rates had come down dramatically, inflation was muted and most every fiscal quarter delivered a reasonably predictable uptick in real GDP growth. Markets had weathered a spate of political and financial scandals, as well as occasionally unnerving geopolitical flashpoints. All in all, there seemed to be no particular reason to complain or worry as summer transitioned to fall. Yet investors were edgy. A certain element of caution held in check what should have been giddy times on Wall Street, as if traders and investment bankers, contemplating their seven and eight figure bonuses, couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all a bit unreal. It’s quiet in here, said the young MBAs at Morgan and Salomon to each other as they stared at the monochrome numbers flashing silently on their Quotrons. It’s too quiet.
The previous paragraph could easily be imagined as some future market historian recalling the strange bull market of 2017 – up to the last sentence, anyway. Salomon Brothers is long deceased, and the cathode ray tubes of yesteryear’s Quotrons lie dormant in landfills, patiently awaiting the archaeologists of future millennia. No, the year in question is 1987. On October 19 of that year, a sudden flash of lightning made a direct hit on US equity markets. Major market indexes fell more than 20 percent in one day – the technical definition of a bear market. On October 20, market pros stumbled around the canyons of lower Manhattan asking: What happened?
Thirty years on, another generation of markets pros -- contemplating another secular bull amid low interest rates, steady economic growth and uncomfortably subdued volatility – asks a different question: could it happen again?
A Bear By Any Other Name
The chart below provides a quick snapshot of the Black Monday carnage – and the quick recovery thereafter.
That vertigo-inducing plunge on October 19 put the stock market squarely in bear territory, after a bull run that began in August 1982. But look how quickly the market recovered. By July of 1989 the S&P 500 had regained its pre-crash high. This new bull would go on running for more than a decade, ending only with the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000. For this reason, even though the 1987 market crash was technically a bear market event, we describe it in conversations with clients more as a disruption in the Great Growth Market that ran for 18 years (from 1982 to 2000). We think it is important to make this distinction. Secular bear markets, like the 14 years between 1968 and 1982, call for specific portfolio strategies. But there is very little that one can do about a sudden pullback like Black Monday. To respond to that question we identified above – could a 1987-style event happen again? – our answer is yes. Most certainly it could, and in the next couple paragraphs we will share our thoughts as to why. But a pullback based on some one-off exogenous risk factors – however steep – is not the same thing as a true bear market.
Portfolio Insurance: “Algo” Trading’s Beta Version
So what caused Black Monday? It took quite a while for the market experts of the day to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but in the end they identified the culprit: portfolio insurance. This seemingly benign term encapsulated an approach to institutional portfolio management that involved computer-driven signals to act as warning bells when market conditions appeared risky. Sound familiar? It should, because the crude hedging strategies that made up portfolio insurance circa 1987 were the ancestors of today’s ultra-sophisticated quantitative strategies known by those in the game as “algo” (for “algorithm”) trading.
If you look at the chart above you will see that, a few days before Black Monday, the stock market moved meaningfully lower after soaring to new record highs. For a combination of reasons involving the rate of change in the market’s advances and declines, underlying volatility and a few other factors, the portfolio insurance triggers kicked in and began selling off positions to build hedges. On October 16, the Friday before the crash, the S&P 500 pulled back more than 5 percent as the hedging begat more hedging. On Monday morning the sell orders cascaded in, but there were no buyers. That’s what brought about the carnage.
Peaks and Troughs
Given how much money is currently invested in the offspring of portfolio insurance, the really interesting question is not “could it happen again?” but rather “why hasn’t it happened more often?” For one thing, the ’87 crash did bring about some institutional reforms – operational circuit-breakers and the like – to try and minimize the damage a tidal wave of one-directional orders could bring about. These safeguards have worked on a number of occasions.
For another, the vast diversity of quantitative strategies itself is a kind of check and balance. Every algo program has its own set of triggers: buy when the German Bund does X, sell when Janet Yellen says Y, write a bunch of straddles when China’s monthly FX reserve outflows top $100 million. Put all these out there in the capital markets and they act sort of like the ocean when the peak of one wave collides into the trough of another – they cancel each other out. But that is reassuring only up to a point. It is not hard to imagine that a perfect storm of signals could converge and send all the algo triggers moving in the same direction – everyone wants to sell, no one wants to buy. Crash!
Lessons from the Crash
So, if such a perfect storm were to happen and blindside portfolios with massive short term losses, are there lessons to be learned from 1987? Quite so. It should be clear from the above chart that the worst thing an investor could have done on October 20, 1987 would have been to sell in a panic. In fact, those of us who have been at this long enough to remember the day (and do we ever!) recall that Wall Street’s trading rooms were never more frenzied with buy orders than in the weeks after Black Monday. Portfolio managers may not have yet known exactly why the crash happened – but they knew that the macroeconomic context hadn’t changed, that there were no new geopolitical crises, and that stocks with stratospheric P/E ratios after a long bull run were suddenly super-cheap. That, largely, is what explains the quick recovery, explains why 1987 was not a “real” bear market and explains why, all else remaining more or less unchanged, the prudent response to an out-of-the-blue event is to stay disciplined.
In our commentary last week we made brief mention of the surprising strength of foreign currencies versus the US dollar in the year to date. This week served up yet another helping of greenback weakness, and it is worth a closer look. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the dollar’s stumble is how broad based it is, across national economies with very different characteristics. Consider the chart below, which shows the value of two developed market currencies (Eurozone and United Kingdom) and two emerging markets (Brazil and India) versus the dollar.
Brevity of the Trump Trade
As the above chart shows, all four currencies (and just about all others not pictured here) fell sharply against the dollar in the immediate aftermath of the US presidential election last November. Recall that asset markets broadly and quickly coalesced around the notion of a “reflation-infrastructure trade,” premised on the belief that swift implementation of deep tax cuts and a torrent of infrastructure spending would spark inflation in the US and send interest rates sharply higher. Even today, there is no shortage of lazy punditry in the financial media reflexively blurting “Trump trade” every time the stock market turns higher.
But the currency markets long ago signaled the non-existence of the reflation pony in the back yard. In most cases, the foreign currencies’ upward trajectory began late last year or in the first month of 2017. Despite some localized setbacks (e.g. the latest shoe to drop in Brazil’s ongoing political scandal back in May), that upward momentum has continued and gained strength. Even in Great Britain, the negative sentiment surrounding the woeful state of Brexit negotiations has been outweighed by even stronger negative sentiment against the dollar.
Many Stories, One Sentiment
So what is behind this singular sentiment that seems to pervade all continents and economies in various stages of growth or disarray? How long is it likely to last? One of the most popular themes, certainly for much of the summer, has been the perception of stronger growth in the Eurozone. ECB Chair Mario Draghi’s comments on the better than expected growth trend back in late June immediately catalyzed another leg up against the dollar, not just for the euro but for other, seemingly unrelated, currencies. A new consensus set in that the ECB would begin tapering its bond purchases sooner than planned, and Eurozone rates would trend up accordingly.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but there would appear to be more to the story. First of all, the Eurozone may be growing slightly faster than expected, but it is hardly going gangbusters. In fact, the real GDP growth rates of the US, Eurozone and Japan are curiously symbiotic. Inflation in all three regions remains well below the 2 percent target of their respective central banks. And then there is the curious case of the euro’s recent strength even while bond yields have once again subsided. The chart below shows the YTD performance of the euro and yields on 10-year benchmark Eurozone bonds.
The spike in intermediate bond yields that followed from Draghi’s June comments has almost completely subsided back to where it was before that. Part of this, we imagine, is due to a more muted ECB posture recently, both at the Jackson Hole summit a couple weeks ago and in comments following the bank’s policy meeting this past week. The falling yields also have to do with a slightly more cautious tone that has crept into risk asset markets as investors take stock of geopolitical disturbances and the disruptive effects of the hurricanes that continue to make headlines in the southern US and Caribbean islands.
None of this would indicate to us that going bearish on the dollar is some kind of “fat pitch” trade, there for the obvious taking. In a world of relatively low growth, the US remains an economic leader in many key sectors from technology to financial services. It would only take a couple readings of higher inflation to bring back expectations for a third rate hike by the Fed and renewed commitment to balance sheet reduction. Recoveries elsewhere in the world are likewise not immune from setbacks that could necessitate a redoubling of stimulus.
That said, national currencies do, to some degree over time, reflect general sentiment towards the prospects of the home nation. Right now, it would be fair to say that those views are mixed, and not necessarily trending in the right direction, as concerns the US. Whether that leads to further dollar weakness or not is by no means certain, but it is increasingly a trend that cannot be ignored.
Talk of endurance is all the rage these days. Fall race season looms for runners and triathletes contemplating their next attempt at 26.2 or 140 or whatever mileage benchmarks await the end of the arduous training programs through which they (we!) have been slogging all these humid summer months. In markets, too, endurance is the word of the moment, and not just in stocks. Sure, we’re into the ninth year of the equity bull market that began in March 2009, which counts by most calculations as the second-longest running bull on record. But that pales in comparison to the granddaddy of all distance runners. The bond market produced yields in the stratospheric heights of 20-odd percent in 1981, then rallied as the Fed broke the back of double-digit inflation. We’ve been in a bond bull ever since.
New Challengers Emerge
Alongside these elite harriers we have a couple other asset classes looking to break through more modest distance goals. The long-beleaguered euro limbered up back in January and started to chase its longstanding nemesis, the US dollar. The euro is up around 16 percent versus the dollar year-to-date, a surprising turn of events for those caught up in the hype of the so-called “Trump trade” that followed the election last November. In commodity-land, copper and other industrial metals have gained more than 20 percent. While the China demand-fueled “supercycle” for commodities is deemed long dead, the future for a select group of metals, including copper, may well be bright if forecasts about the demand for lithium ion batteries (key components of electricity-operated vehicles) prove to be accurate. For the moment, non-US currencies and industrial metals are still microtrends, unproven at longer distances, but it will be worth keeping an eye on their progress.
A Flat & Forgiving Course
Distance runners tend to do their best work on predictable, smooth courses with a minimum of steep hills or unexpectedly rough, slippery terrain. Which brings us back to stocks and the nine-year bull. There really haven’t been too many Heartbreak Hills since the summer of 2011, when the simmering Eurozone crisis and the US debt ceiling fiasco took stocks into a vortex that stopped just short of a bear-level pullback of 20 percent. The tailwinds have come courtesy of the central banks and their monetary stimulus programs, along with an economy that has delivered steady, if modest, growth, an improved labor market and muted inflation. Corporate earnings have done well in this environment, so that even if stocks are expensive by most valuation standards (they are), they remain well below the bubble levels of the late dot-com era.
Now, anything can disrupt the equilibrium at any time. There are always risk factors lurking under the surface that, if actualized, would create havoc in asset markets. Think back to the longest bull on record: that of 1982-2000. Technicians would dispute our labeling this entire period a bull market, as it was punctured by the sudden cataclysm of Black Monday 1987, when the Dow and other major US indexes fell more than 20 percent in one day. We don’t think of the 1987 pullback as a bear market in the classic sense, though, because (a) it was entirely unrelated to broader economic trends, and (b) it was over almost as soon as it began. The 1987 event looked nothing like the last real bear market, a long stretch of misery that endured from 1968 to 1982. We bring this up because, based on everything we see in the economic and corporate profits landscape today, any potential pullback in the immediate future would more likely arise from the sudden emergence of a hitherto dormant risk factor than from a structural change in conditions. The course, in other words, remains flat and forgiving, but runners should always be aware that lightning can strike.
Even Ultramarathoners Tire Out
And that, in turn, brings us back to that superstar distance runner, the bond market. Because if anything could potentially make that flat course hillier and more unpredictable, it would be an end to the “lower for longer” assumption about bond yields that is baked into every asset class with a risk premium. The risk premium for any asset starts with interest rates; namely, the prevailing risk-free rate layered with additional quanta of risks deemed pertinent to the asset in question. Upsetting the applecart of low rates would reverberate throughout the capital markets in a uniquely pervasive way.
For now, the bond market would appear to still be a ways away from its last legs. Both the Fed and the ECB will likely try to provide reassuring guidance over the course of this fall as to how they plan to move towards a more “normal” monetary policy environment with a minimum of disruptive surprises. We don’t expect much disruption to ensue from the upcoming September meetings of either central bank. But we have to pay close attention to any unusual wobbles or other signs of fatigue along the way.