Big Trade, Little Door

Includes: DIA, GLD, SPY
by: Michael Ashton

In ordinary times, the terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon (officials are being careful not to call it "terrorism," but I'm not an official so I can operate in the reality sphere) would absolutely trump anything that happened in the markets yesterday and, in fact, would likely have been the cause of any market movement that actually occurred. That's because most of the time markets echo the framework of the rest of reality: most of the universe is space, and most market activity is just empty noise.

This is the reason that traders who are continuously transacting in the markets are called "noise traders."

But on Monday, there was plenty of market action and it had nothing to do with Boston, nor with the slightly-earlier ultimatum from North Korea to South Korea, which stated that military action would "start immediately." (N.b.: There were many losers yesterday, but one of them surely must be reckoned as Kim Jong-un. A tin-pot dictator makes a threat, and is almost immediately knocked off the front page of the New York Times by events in Boston. That must really annoy him.)

Before the attack in Boston, however, there was already plenty of financial pain. The carnage in the precious metals pits came right on cue after the negative sell-side reports of late last week had a chance to work on the psyches of investors. Gold fell 10%, and silver nearly 14%. This represents the worst two-day fall in gold in thirty years. And, while Sunday I pointed out that the commodity "super-cycle" certainly doesn't look like one, I can understand how the picture of gold in real terms looks like it may be completing something big (see chart of gold expressed in December 2012 dollars using CPI, source Bloomberg).

(Click to enlarge)

There is considerable concern that these losses may provoke selling in related markets as investors raise funds to meet margin calls. This is possible, although significant thumpings in the past in precious metals (it isn't like this is the first time we've seen volatility in a commodity) didn't provoke dramatic related-market action. To be sure, the avalanche is much more loaded now than it has been in the past, with equity markets sharply overvalued and investors already reaching a level of disgust with commodities. But I don't think it goes too far. (Those may be my famous last words!)

What happened in gold and silver is a function of the big trade/little door syndrome, more than anything else. News outlets blamed the weak data yesterday in the U.S. and the small miss in Chinese GDP (7.7% versus 8.0% expected, but keep in mind that we all know these are made-up numbers) for setting off the wave of selling, but that's just the latest straw. The break of technical levels on Friday, combined with the suddenly-burning desire of hedgies to not be the last one through the little door, is what led to such a dramatic move today. It may well continue until everyone who wants to get through the little door has done so. Or, it may not - but I would admonish an investor who wants to buy gold here to think like a trader rather than a playground monitor: don't try to break up the fight. If the hedgies want to eat each other in a fight to get to the door, let them.

And, incidentally, remember that the big trade/little door syndrome is not limited to gold and silver. Think about equity exposures too. If you're long by policy, fine. But if you're long stocks and feeling uncomfortable about it, then "sell down to the sleeping point" at least.

The irony of the timing of the gold rout is potentially juicy, with CPI today. The decline in precious metals is happening partly because so many investors are abruptly convinced that inflation has truly been defeated. It is incredible to me that this belief is so widespread, but perhaps this is the sine qua non for the next washout in financial markets and the setup for the long-awaited up-move in commodities (for, although the "super-cycle" is evidently just now ending according to some observers, commodities prices have been in general decline for the last two years).

Growth is falling short of expectations, but that doesn't have any implications for inflation. Today's CPI is forecast to be flat and +0.2% on core, holding core inflation constant at 2.0%. Sentiment appears to be favoring a shortfall in those figures, but it is my belief that we are on the cusp of the next sustained move higher in core inflation, to be led by housing. Remember that the last two CPI figures haven't exactly been soothing. Two months ago, core inflation was +0.3% when the market was expecting +0.2%. Last month, all eight major subgroups of CPI accelerated on a year-on-year basis, the first time that has ever happened since the current 8 subgroups have been in existence. I am loathe to pick the month where we're going to see Owners' Equivalent Rent finally break higher, because econometric lags are not written in stone. But it ought to be soon.

When it happens, expect sell-side economists and pundits of all stripes, to say nothing of the Federal Reserve, to downplay the significance of it. I wouldn't expect a sudden rally in commodities or a rebound in breakevens (10-year breakevens are at the lows of the year, mainly because rates on the whole are declining - 10y TIPS yields are also within 3bps of the year's low), but it might help stop the bleeding.