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Central Bank Groupthink

Lest anyone be confused about the unanimity and collective will of central banks globally on the question of how aggressively to pursue a dovish monetary policy, the Bank of Japan on Wednesday surprised even the Japanese finance minister by increasing the size of its own quantitative easing program. After many years of pursuing a half-heartedly dovish monetary policy, the BOJ is now fully on board with asset purchases that will total some $1 trillion. Why not? The Fed's aggressive asset purchases moved core inflation from 0.6% to 2.3% before a recent softening - and a rise in core inflation is what Japan has been working on for years. Five-year inflation swaps in Japan now are quoted around 0.80%, indicating that at least some investors think the BOJ's stated policy of provoking 1% inflation has some chance of being achieved.

It is no surprise that there is great intellectual exchange between the economists at all of the central banks. While this can be a good thing (after all, Japan finally caught on that they can't kill a rhino with a flyswatter), it is also dangerous in that it provokes groupthink. Since the Fed has clearly lost any of its monetarist leanings, in favor of an experimentalist "anything but Friedman" (ABF) philosophy, this isn't really a good thing. If I have to groupthink - and, after all, it is hard to resist that tendency when one is in a group - I want to groupthink with Albert Einstein and his colleagues; I don't want to groupthink with the cast of "Jersey Shore."

Despite this obvious fanning of the inflationary flames, inflation breakevens softened again today and commodity prices slipped a bit further. The latter was mainly due to energy prices, as Crude has now dropped over 8% this week. The trigger for this correction has been the statement from the Saudis that they'll supply lots of oil to the market, and a surprising rise in crude oil inventories. But the Saudis frequently boast that they can pump all they want, and crude oil inventories are highly variable. It seems odd to me to have what amounts to a negative "Middle East unrest premium," but some too-smart-by-half observers speculated today that the chance of an attack of Israel on Iran has lessened since the moon will be waxing soon and providing too much light for a nighttime attack. Um...let me say that I'm just reporting this idea, not supporting it. I think if the dollar continues to weaken, oil prices will continue to rise. That basic relationship has held for most of a decade now. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the dollar index versus the front NYMEX Crude contract, weekly closes, for the last six years or so (the last point is Friday's). The simple R2 is about 0.57.

While aggressive monetary easing from other central banks will help support the dollar, the Fed is still by far the most aggressive central bank. If the crisis continues to recede, then the dollar's safe haven bid will continue to fade. I'm not so sure of the former, but I don't want to bet on dollar strength here with the Fed dedicated to providing unlimited quantities of reserves.

In other economic news, and not at all unrelated to that, today's Existing Home Sales figure was the strongest since 2009-2010, at 4.82mm units. Inventories of existing homes rose slightly, but still remain around 2003-2005 levels rather than the 2006-2011 levels. To be sure, there is plenty of shadow inventory still around, but these levels of existing home inventories have historically been low enough to allow home price appreciation.

In fact, as weird as it sounds housing has gone from being a systematic drag on core inflation to being a supportive factor in core inflation going forward. The levels of inventory should help support home price dynamics going further, but we needn't look far into the future. Over the last year, the 9.5% rise in the median existing home sales price compares more favorably with the rates of 2002-2005 than it does to the 2006-2011 experience (see chart, source Bloomberg).

So don't look now, but we're in the midst of a home price rally. This is remarkable given the difficulty, still, of securing a home mortgage compared to the crazy days of the early 'Aughts. Yes, perhaps the crazy credit terms followed the bubble's inflation, rather than preceding and causing it. But if that's true, then we'd have to lay the blame for the bubble more directly on the central bank's doorstep.

Well, re-inflating the housing bubble is after all one of the things the Fed is unabashedly trying to do. Rising home prices frees trapped homeowners and solves the problem of underwater mortgages. It is just one way that inflation saves a lot of grief for policymakers.

Existing Home Sales is not the only place we see signs of percolating housing prices and warnings of continued buoyancy of housing CPI (Owners' Equivalent Rent of Residences has been up at a 2% pace over the last year, actually higher than core CPI for the first time since 2009. Prior to that, y/y OER had been higher than core for all but one month of the period 1993-2009.[1]

This upward pressure on housing inflation will continue. I have previously documented the connection between rents and OER, which has suggested that OER could be headed to over 3% soon. The connection between rents and Owners' Equivalent Rent is obviously pretty close, but here is another way of looking at the same thing. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows OER versus the National Multi Housing Council's "Market Tightness" index, lagged four quarters. Tight housing conditions, no surprise, lead higher rents.

This regression is not as tight as the one between rents and OER, but the R2 is still about 0.48 since 2003. Moreover, the current level of the Market Tightness index points to an OER over the next year just a bit above 3%.

The final piece of the puzzle that you need to know is this: OER is 23.5% of the overall CPI, and roughly 30.7% of core inflation. Throw in "Rent of primary residence," which is in fact direct rents, and the total is 29.9% of overall CPI and 39% of core. If housing inflation is returning, then there are two possibilities: either we are entering another housing bubble, which I think would be unprecedented (have we ever had back-to-back bubbles in the same asset class?), or else this rise will be accompanied by a rise in other prices so that nominal home prices will be rising while real home prices do not (or not as much). Either way, it looks like the Fed is getting what it wanted - and I wonder only how long it will take before people realize this isn't an accident.


[1] In another sign ignored by those who believe there is a conspiracy (by the government, the Masons, or maybe the Knights Templars) to lower CPI, the BLS adjusts the value of the housing stock for wear-and-tear in a negative quality adjustment that has the tendency of pushing up inflation by just about the same amount that the oft-reviled positive quality adjustments push down inflation.


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