Surprising Surprises

By: Michael Ashton | Wed, Dec 23, 2015
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If posting on December 22nd was a bad idea, imagine how stupid it is to post on December 23rd?

But I noticed something unusual and thought to point it out. Yesterday, I observed that the data has generally been weakening, and while some commentators are optimistic on the outlook for 2016 I am not one of them. Actually, it appears that perhaps commentators as a whole are not only too optimistic now, but have been too optimistic all year.

The Citi Economic Surprise Index is an interesting data series that measures how data releases have generally compared to economists' prior expectations. When data is coming in weaker than expected, it declines; when data is coming in stronger than expected, it rises. This doesn't necessarily mean that it declines when the economy is weakening, just when the data is surprising on the downside. I've always had trouble figuring out just how to use this information, because of that. Is the indicator rising because conditions are getting better, or just because economists are morose? Is it falling because conditions are getting worse, or because economists are too optimistic? Hard to tell.

With that said, here is what the indicator has done over the last three years (source: Bloomberg).

Citi Economic Surprise Index

Nothing to see here, right? Well take a look at this! The table below shows the proportion of the time, by year (since the index was created in 2003), that the index was above zero.

2003 57%
2004 49%
2005 68%
2006 43%
2007 57%
2008 36%
2009 67%
2010 56%
2011 54%
2012 63%
2013 61%
2014 54%
2015 8%

Now that, as they would say on Mythbusters, is a result. I have no idea what it means, that economic data has been consistently undershooting expectations all year so that the index has been negative 92% of the time. The second-worst outcome was 2008, but that was clearly a situation in which the economy was getting worse lots faster than economists anticipated.

I am inclined to think that this represents the optimism that economists seem to have that the Fed's move to tighten policy reflects a response to actual underlying strength. I should add that I believe this is an unfounded, irrational, and borderline psychotic optimism given the historical prognosticative powers of the Federal Reserve...but if that is indeed what is happening then the optimism that these same economists have about the number of rate hikes we will see in 2016 is probably misplaced.


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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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