Comparisons

By: Michael Ashton | Mon, May 6, 2013
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With little economic data on the calendar, and the Fed speakers back-loaded at the Chicago Fed conference later in the week, there is time to reflect on other questions (unless, of course, the Israel/Syria back-and-forth turns into something more than the last couple of jabs have produced).

It is interesting to me that analysts and journalists truly enjoy finding comparisons between present situations and actors, except when the comparisons suggest unpleasant conclusions. This is at a time when there are really no comparable periods in history to compare to, at least with respect to major global policy initiatives!

I read comparisons between Shinzo Abe's pressure on the Bank of Japan and Fed Chairman Bernanke's campaign to resurrect the American economy with ever-greater monetary policy shocks. Somewhere, I saw an analyst ask "isn't Abe taking note of the failure of U.S. monetary policy to goose the economy?" But the comparison is not apt because the two men, and the two economies, face very different challenges. Abe doesn't need to increase consumer spending and reinvigorate the economy with monetary policy. While that might be nice, the main goal of Japanese monetary policy now is to raise the price level and the rate of inflation. They are using exactly the right tool to do so: lots of monetary easing. On the other hand, Bernanke is trying to kick-start the real economy with a monetary tool, while at least in principle avoiding an inflationary outcome. That's like trying to hammer a nail with a fish. It might work, but it's the wrong tool for the job. So the comparison doesn't work: one man knows how to use his tools, the other does not.

Here is another useless comparison: "Bond Buyers See No 1994 as Bernanke Clarity Tops Greenspan." The myth that transparency really helps markets in the long run is sort of silly: is there any sign that the crises caused by monetary policy have become less frequent since the Greenspan glasnost than they were before? I know that's the belief, because the Fed has told us that's the way it is. But my scorecard tells a sorry tale of bubbles and crashes since the early 1990s. It isn't a lack of transparency that causes routs. It's leverage, and negative gamma. Mortgage hedgers are more active now than they were in 1994, and they have larger books. Hedge funds are orders of magnitude larger. And Wall Street is smaller, and is able to provide less liquidity - partly because they are more levered (which they think is okay because of "Fed transparency"), and partly because the government doesn't want them to take bets with the leverage they have (which, since they're paying for failures under the current system, isn't wholly absurd).

So will the next bond selloff not be as bad as in 1994, because the Fed will give more warning? Remember that no matter how transparent the Fed is, there is still a transition point. Somehow, the market goes from a state of thinking there will be no tightening of policy, to a state of thinking that there will be a tightening of policy. That requires a re-pricing, whether it occurs because the Fed signaled it in a speech or a statement, or because they signaled it by doing Matched Sales for the SOMA account with Fed funds already trading above target (as was the old way of telling us something had changed). There is no way to go from "not knowing" to "knowing" without a moment of realization. And when that phase change ultimately occurs, the greater leverage inherent in the market and the diminished role of market makers will cause the selloff (in my view) to very likely be more dramatic than in 1994.

One place where we cannot prevent comparisons - nor should we want to - is in the asset markets. Stocks are doing well, despite absurd valuations, because most other markets are either more-absurdly valued (e.g., Treasury bonds) or have horrible momentum that means they're not popular right now (e.g., commodities). I have no doubt that equity performance over the next 10 years will be very uninspiring, because equity markets that start from this level of valuation never produce inspiring returns. But when people ask me what the trigger will be for a selloff, I have to shrug. There have been plenty of "reasons" for that to happen. But I think the ultimate reason is probably this: equities are perceived as the "only game in town." I have read several articles recently that echo this one: "Bond Fund Managers are Loading Up on Stocks." When there is some other asset class, or some other world market, that starts doing appreciably better, perhaps investors will decide to allocate away. Unfortunately, the candidates for that market are pretty few, given the general level of valuations. Could it be commodities, which is one of the few genuinely cheap markets? Or perhaps real estate, which is still only fair value but has some pretty striking momentum? I don't know - but I am also not sitting around waiting for a "trigger event." There may well be a selloff without such a trigger.

 


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Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA
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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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