Droopy Figures

by: Michael Ashton

For a change, fixed-income is where all of the excitement is. For more than a month (since March 5th, the S&P has closed no lower than 1540 and no higher than 1570, plus or minus a couple of nickels; a month-long range of less than 2%. What's really amazing about that is that on seven of those twenty-three trading days, the range of the day was more than half of the month's entire closing range. In two of the last four trading days, the intraday range was two-thirds of that for the entire month!

Meanwhile, the 10-year Treasury rate has gone from 1.90% to 2.06%, down to 1.71%, and ending today at 1.75%. The closing range in point terms of the current 10-year note was 99-16 to 102-19, or a bit more than 3% (and it was obviously more than that for the long bond). It has been a long time since bonds were more volatile than stocks over a period as long as a month.

Most of that volatility in nominal rates has been on the real interest rate side. The range in closing 10-year TIPS yields is -0.52% to -0.76%, or 24bps, compared to 35bps for the nominal yield. That's more volatility than the real yield should be displaying at this level of rates, and it has moved TIPS from being slightly cheap a month ago to somewhat rich. Our Fisher yield decomposition model, which had been neutral on TIPS and breakevens since mid-February, is now modestly short TIPS (and still flat breakevens). Moreover, the leverage applied by our long-inflation-biased "smart beta" model is only 2/3 of the neutral leverage, so conservatism is the watchword at the moment.

The rally in TIPS and nominal yields owes much, I am sure, to the somewhat feeble data we have seen over the last week. The Employment data, in particular, were very disappointing, especially to that group of people who expected profligate monetary policy easing to create economic growth. It will surprise no regular reader of this column that I am not shocked to see a lack of growth response to aggressive monetary policy easing - as I take pains to remind readers, monetary policy is not supposed to affect growth, except in the presence of money illusion. It is therefore something less than a news flash that growth is responding more to tiny changes in government spending (albeit temporarily) than to massive changes in monetary aggregates.

To be sure, even monetary aggregates have been drooping lately…at least, the ones that matter. M2 has been lurching along in the mid-6% growth rate year-on-year, and flat over the last quarter (see chart, source Federal Reserve). That's only slightly above the average growth rate in M2 since 1981 - although, to be fair, the average core inflation over the same time period has been about 3.1%, so core inflation is still well below where we would expect it to get to if this rate of monetary growth continues.

Growth in commercial bank credit growth, also, has retreated to only 4.1% year-over-year after spending most of the past year above 5%. It too is still right around the long-term average real growth in commercial bank credit (see chart, source Federal Reserve, Enduring Investments), but last year it had been edging towards the mid-2000s standard.

So these are positive developments from the standpoint of future inflation, but it is far too early to call victory on that front. I expect the rise in M2 to re-accelerate in fairly short order. However, in any event it is important to remember that the Fed is not the only game in town and not the only central bank that is pursuing easy-money policies. Indeed, last week the biggest news was that the Bank of Japan pledged to double its monetary base, its holdings of JGBs, and its holdings of ETFs and JREITs over a period of only two years.

This policy will almost surely produce the result the Japanese policymakers have been shamelessly vocal about seeking: higher inflation- in a short period of time. At the end of the day, the inflation that Japan gets in the near-term will depend on what its domestic money velocities and multipliers do, but Japan will surely get higher inflation eventually just as the Fed's policies have produced inflation even with declining multipliers and velocity. To my mind, the Japanese inflation swaps market - which according to Bloomberg is at 1.26% for 5 years and 1.01% for 10 years - seems to be cheap!

But the Japanese policy will certainly not stop at the water's edge. Around 2/3 of our domestic inflation is sourced from global factors, and the monetary policy of a major trading partner is a significant global factor. The behavior of the yen and industry response to changing competitive pressures from Japan will determine how much of the BOJ's inflation remains domestic and how much is exported, but it would be surprising indeed if the result was entirely contained within the borders of Japan. The yen has responded sharply to the policy changes at the BOJ (see chart, source Bloomberg), but in my opinion it has very much further to go. In fact, the only reason we may not get back to mid-1980s levels is that the Fed's policy is similarly aggressive - the only difference at the moment is that the Fed is giving lip service to the notion that it intends to hold down inflation in the long run. (I don't believe them.)

None of the above has much, if anything, to do with North Korea, or Cyprus, or Slovenia, or Portugal. All of those countries still are potential wild cards, and all of them (it needs hardly be said) constitute downside risk. The White House is seemingly satisfied to wait to see if North Korea really will launch a nuclear-tipped missile; this means that the entire distribution of potential outcomes is compressed so that there is a very high likelihood of nothing bad happening, and a very small chance of something really, really bad happening. How do you trade that? The answer is that you use options. Implied volatilities are under pressure again because the recent tight range makes it difficult to eat the time decay of long-vol positions. But as for me, I'm delighted to pay insurance premiums for insurance that turns out to be unnecessary, especially when that premium is low. I don't have any long equity positions, but if I did then I'd be protecting them with cheap put options.

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