From May Day to Mayday

By: Michael Ashton | Thu, May 31, 2012
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By the time the calendar turned to May, one month ago, we already knew that the economy was weakening. The jury is still out on whether the weakening in the U.S. economy is due entirely to payback from the unseasonally good winter weather, but over the course of the month it became clear to most observers that the data were coming in soft. The exception to that rule was the inflation data, but we have been assured that worry is needless.

But back in the halcyon days of April we were just beginning to realize that the Greek "bailout" had not kicked the can down the road sufficiently far. Bankia had not failed, and Spain was not yet so threatening as it is today. And certainly, the head of the ECB had not yet taken to calling the Euro framework "unsustainable," as he did today:

"That configuration that we had with us by and large for ten years which was considered sustainable, I should add, in a perhaps myopic way, has been shown to be unsustainable unless further steps are taken,"

Lest we forget how far we traveled in May, here is a quick summary of the way we were: (Source: Bloomberg)


  4/30/2012 5/31/2012 Change
Crude 104.87 86.54 -17.5%
Gasoline 318.44 282.5 -$0.36
DJUBS Ag 160.8088 144.8983 -9.9%
DJUBS Softs 153.9553 135.8419 -11.8%
DJUBS Prec Metals 514.6371 477.9181 -7.1%
DJUBS Ind Metals 326.637 295.1249 -9.6%
Dollar Index 78.776 83.066 5.4%
S&P 500 1397.91 1310.33 -6.3%
Spanish 10y yields 5.77% 6.56% +79bps
US 10y yields 1.92% 1.56% -36bps
US 10y real yields -0.35% -0.56% -21bps
US 10y breakevens 2.24% 2.09% -15bps


Those are the financial market indicators, but we could go further. Initial Unemployment Claims for the last week of April were 368k; for the last week of May, the figure was 383k. That would seem to be the wrong direction. ADP was also weaker-than-expected at 133k. More concerning perhaps was the Chicago Purchasing Managers' Report for May, which fell to 52.7 (the lowest figure since 2009) instead of rising to 56.8 as expected. The chart below suggests that the recent numbers have been weaker than the prior numbers were strong.

US Chicago Purcahsing Managers Index SA

Stocks sank, although slowly, until the S&P reached and briefly sank below the 1300 level again. Then, for the second time this week, the market rallied on a poll showing the largest pro-austerity party in Greece leading the largest cancel-bailout party by 26% to 24.3%. Yes, that's right: a 1% increase in the aggregate value of the equity market in the U.S. in response to a polling that was within the margin of error!

If you sold in May, I hope you went away because there weren't many places to hide. Bonds were the clear winners, but with core inflation rising in virtually every country that is obviously a limited-time offer. Today, year-on-year core inflation in Europe exceeded expectations for the second month in a row. European HICP ex-tobacco, food, and energy rose 1.6%, matching last month's figure and the high since 2009. (You wouldn't know this from the widespread headlines of "Euro Zone Inflation Drops to 15-Month Low," focusing on a headline figure that pundits hope can be interpreted as giving the ECB more room to ease. I fully expect that to happen, and for the Fed to also ease as the European disaster grows more frightening. It isn't necessary for inflation to be falling, and it won't matter that core inflation continues to rise. Central bankers simply won't consider inflation to be a matter of signal importance compared to recession/depression fears.

What a month it has been. And as May draws to a close, we are plainly getting close to a mayday cry.



Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA

Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

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