Category Archives: The Economy

Happy Days Are Here Again

Markets continue to behave as if 2022 never happened, inflation is dead, growth is strong, the Fed is impotent, we’ve had a soft landing and caution can be thrown to the winds. Stock prices have resumed their uptrend and new highs are soon to be seen. After all, the Dow is only down 7.5% from its all-time high close, and the S&P only 15%, dragged down by the big tech stocks, which are recovering fast from irrational selling, thanks to cost reductions from layoffs. VIX, the volatility index, is at levels last seen in early January last year, close to the December 2021 all-time stock market highs (18.06 as I write). Perhaps that is not a coincidence.

To me, this looks like an opportunity. Far be it for me to rain on a parade, but this looks like a bull trap.

Unwarranted

From the minutes of  the Fed’s 12/13-14 meeting:

Participants noted that, because monetary policy worked importantly through financial markets, an unwarranted easing in financial conditions, especially if driven by a misperception by the public of the Committee’s reaction function, would complicate the Committee’s effort to restore price stability.

Per Bloomberg, financial conditions are now back in pre-QT, super low rate – i.e. bubble – territory.

Fin Cond Index

This isn’t going to make Jerome Powell happy, is it? Could 0.50 be back on the table? Just to get the markets’ attention…

What If?

The stock and bond markets are depending on the recession to “force” the Fed to “pivot” back to money printing and ZIRP. The economy is addicted to free money and is slowing rapidly now that it has been withdrawn. The bond market has already priced in disinflation and Fed easing, and the stock market has been buoyed accordingly, proceeding from short squeeze to short squeeze since June of 2022.

But what if Powell has decided that the QE policies that have yielded only $1 of GDP growth for every $10 of fresh debt are toxic and the addiction must be broken, no matter what the symptoms of withdrawal might be? That his legacy will be having returned the economy from dependence on continuous stimulus to sustainable growth? To say nothing of reducing the Fed-induced income inequality that is being exacerbated by inflation? That would certainly earn him a niche in the financial Hall of Fame, perhaps next to Paul Volcker.

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Home Prices Inflation Adjusted

Inflation In Detail

Thanks to Visual Capitalist. Follow link for larger image.

Inflation by category

Labor Pains

The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a monthly report which is largely based on two telephone surveys, the establishment survey and the household survey. The establishment survey covers businesses and produces an estimate of the number of jobs, which makes the headlines. The household survey produces estimates of the number of employed persons and the unemployment rate. 2022 to date has featured a record and growing discrepancy between the two reports. Of course, a discrepancy is normal as a result of individuals holding multiple jobs, but this year has been exceptional.

However, the Philly Fed produces a quarterly revision of the employment estimates based on the QCEW, the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages which covers more than 95% of employers. The most recent revisions, for 2Q2022, revealed that headline job growth was 10,500, consistent with the household survey, rather than the 1,047,000 reported by the BLS, The discrepancy between the BLS estimates continues in the rest of the year to date so it is reasonable to assume that the job growth during that period was also a mirage.

Bullish analysts have seized upon this report to justify an early “pivot” by the Fed. This fails to be convincing because the unemployment rate and average hourly wages continue to show a very tight labor market, reported layoffs notwithstanding. What is does show is that Biden’s boast of job creation was BS, just like pretty much everything he boasts about.

Panic Buying

Panic buying this morning resulted from this morning’s CPI report. Core inflation was reported at 0.2% for the month and 6.0% y-o-y, down from 6.3% in the previous report. This disinflationary update resulted almost entirely from falling energy prices, courtesy of Biden’s draining of the SPR, with some help from used car prices. Anyone who thinks that falls in energy prices are sustainable in the face of suppression of the use of fossil fuels is probably still checking to see if the Tooth Fairy has been.

What Happens Next

Well 2022 is just about over. I traded badly this year but that is behind me, I hope. Especially annoying since I have been expecting this bubble to burst for a long time. The big question is, where do we go from here. Some thoughts:

  • Housing. Sales volumes are falling very rapidly because affordability is poor, but prices are holding as sellers are reluctant to drop their expectations. In the last housing bubble pop, it took a year and a half for this process to work through so that sellers finally acknowledged that prices could actually fall. This means that housing costs, which make up a disproportionate share of CPI, will be sticky.
  • Employment. The pandemic significantly reduced the labor pool as many people retired or just dropped out. In China, the pandemic and measures to suppress it have badly damaged the economy and look to continue to do so. It seems likely that the offshoring that reduced labor demand in the US is over, and will be replaced by onshoring and relocation of production. Either way, labor demand is likely to remain relatively strong well after consumption growth falls. Labor looks to reclaim at least part of the loss of its share of economic output, at the expense of capital, i.e. profits.
  • Energy. The idiocy of belief that minor reductions in CO2 output will have a material affect on the climate is hampering investment in energy sources. Of course this will throttle growth in energy production and keep prices high, even as a slowing economy will reduce demand for other commodities. I was amused to find that DNA recovered from northern Greenland revealed that during the region’s , when were 20 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 19 degrees Celsius) higher than today, the area was filled with an unusual array of plant and animal life, including aurochs and mastodons. Then of course there are the (hopefully temporary) supply constraints that have been caused by the sanctions on Russian production.
  • Food. The good news is that more CO2 in the atmosphere helps food production. But modern farming depends heavily on diesel fuel for big equipment and natural gas for fertilizer production. Fossil fuel prices directly affect food prices, because even though yields may be good, farmers will not plant crops on which they cannot make a profit. In addition to high prices, shortages of some crops will develop as farmers pivot to crops which require less of these costly inputs.
  • Interest Rates. It seems that no-one believes that Fed Chair Powell will actually carry out the attack on inflation that he has outlined. Some argue that a recession will “force” him to abandon his current goals and resume ZIRP and QE, redefining his goals in the process to accept a higher level of inflation on an ongoing basis. Others believe that the recession will cause inflation to fall quickly and make the question moot as his goals, such as positive real rates across all maturities, will be automatically met.It is certainly true that this long-suppressed business cycle is moving fast, but there is a long way to go to normal. My personal view is that his vision for his legacy is an economy that does not depend on massive growth of debt relative to GDP as has been the case in recent years, and he will do “whatever it takes” to get there

In summary, inflation will prove sticky although not runaway, and Powell will accept a recession. But as the recession gains hold, it will accelerate as defaults reduce credit availability regardless of Powell.

Recession

Albert Edwards observes that history implies that recession is starting now:

recession now

Housing Collapse Redux

Take a look at this chart:

2022-11-16_07-05-40_0

That is a collapse in process. An unprecedented collapse in modern times. Perhaps 1346-53 showed something similar. It will take 4-6 months to work its way into the hard data, but it is coming. Recall Stephanie Pomboy’s observation that in July of 2008, inflation was at 5.6%. By July of 2009, it was at -2.1%. There’s a Fed pivot of some kind. Now look at John Hussman’s pivot chart:

Bears follow pivot

Which clearly shows that the real bear market will follow the pivot. Then contemplate another of Hussman’s charts which shows the potential losses from here:

Potential Losses

Now look at the international context. China has its own housing bubble collapse going on, to say nothing of choking its economy with a stupid Covid strategy because a dictator like Xi cannot admit error. Europe is seized with political correctness, internal division over immigration from Africa and an energy catastrophe. Oh and there’s a proxy war with Russia going on and another with China waiting in the wings, to say nothing of a demented President. Just don’t choke on that turkey.