Risk Was Never Low, It Was Only Hidden
The vast majority of market participants are about as ready for a semi-random “volatility event” as the dinosaurs were for the meteor strike that doomed them to oblivion.
Judging by euphoric gambler–oops I mean “investor”–sentiment and measures of volatility, risk of a market drop has been near-zero for the past 18 months. But risk was never actually low, it was only hidden. When it emerges, it’s a surprise only to those who mistakenly thought risk had vanished.
As Benoit Mandelbrot explained in his book The (Mis)behavior of Markets, crashes are an intrinsic feature of systems like stock markets. These risks are not generated by specific human actions or sentiment but by the system itself.
Just as humans make subconscious decisions and then conjure up quasi-rational justifications for their choice after the fact, market participants always conjure up some event or decision as the cause of the crash.
Favorites include central bank policy error, black swan events (“bolts from the blue”), earnings surprises, technical levels were breached, and so on.
Mandelbrot’s insights reveal why markets crash without any policy error or other fabricated- after-the-fact justification: as those who witnessed the collapse of Japan’s massive credit-asset bubble in 1989-1990 observed, markets just stopped going up and started falling.
Risk is a reflection of many dynamics, but the key dynamic few participants seem to understand is the inherent instability of complex systems: surface tranquility is not an accurate reflection of the actual state of stability or risk, no mater how long the period of tranquility stretches.
The human mind rebels at the dominance of quasi-random crashes, as our hubris and need to be in charge generates an illusion of control: rather than accept that markets can crash more or less “out of the blue” without any black swan or other trigger, we place our faith–yes, faith–in central bank policies, readings of sentiment, technical indicators and the like.
This illusion of control blindsides us to the reality that no policy tweak can stave off the quasi-random meteor strikes that are intrinsic features of complex systems.
Wallowing in our hubris-soaked illusion of control, we believe that if there were no pilicy errors or black swans, markets could move smoothly higher forever. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the systemic foundations of markets.
The vast majority of market participants are about as ready for a semi-random “volatility event” as the dinosaurs were for the meteor strike that doomed them to oblivion.
Financial oblivion awaits those ensnared in the quasi-religious faith of Federal Reserve power and other hubris-soaked illusions of control.
* * *
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Week Ahead – Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Inflation is a growing concern For years central banks have been operating under the assumption that inflation will eventually return to target while having…
Inflation is a growing concern
For years central banks have been operating under the assumption that inflation will eventually return to target while having the flexibility to wait until the economy is fully ready for higher rates. That luxury is a thing of the past and many now feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Most are hoping that a modest tightening of monetary policy will begin the address the problem and buy them enough time for inflation to show itself to be as transitory as they believe. Some are taking more drastic action with larger rate hikes to quickly bring inflation under control. And then there’s the CBRT.
Next week it’s the ECB’s turn to shed some light on how it will deal with inflation which is running well above target, an unusual problem for the central bank after a decade in which the threat of deflation has been a much greater risk.
The calm before the November 3rd Fed storm should have investors focus on the advance reading of third-quarter GDP, mega-cap tech earnings, and the final version of President Biden’s economic package. The economy was dealt a blow from the delta variant but most of the lost growth appears to be pushed back to next year. On Thursday, analysts expect the economy in the third quarter to slow from 6.7% to 3.0%, which is a reflection of current supply chain issues and not falling demand.
Risk appetite has remained intact as Wall Street continues to overlook supply chain issues, surging commodity prices, and rising transportation costs, but that could change if inflationary pressures intensify. The next round of mega-cap tech earnings from Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook could change Wall Street’s expectation on how much pricing pressures are persisting.
Optimism is growing that after some large concessions, Democrats will get Senators Manchin and Sinema on board with President Biden’s economic package. The US economic outlook next year is still looking bright as pent up demand and more stimulus will spur growth.
The ECB meeting next week is the obvious standout event as markets look for clues on how the PEPP program will be replaced when it expires in March and whether it will be tempted to follow other central banks in tightening monetary policy. Headline inflation may be above target but there appears to be a firmer belief than elsewhere that this is temporary and they’ll be back below before long. With that in mind, investors will be keen to know whether other stimulus measures will be introduced in March. They may have to wait until December though when new economic projections will be prepared.
UK businesses and households are facing a squeeze over the next year from higher energy prices, taxes, prices and interest rates as the BoE prepares to raise interest rates to counter high supply-side driven inflation.
That makes the Chancellors Autumn budget on Wednesday all the more important. While the governments focus in the coming years will have to be on paying for the pandemic, they won’t want to act too fast and turn an already sluggish recovery into something worse.
The ruble rallied strongly after the Bank of Russia raised interest rates by 0.75% on Friday, surpassing expectations of a 0.25% or 0.5% hike. Clearly, unlike their Turkish counterparts, the CBR is taking the threat of inflation serious and is prepared to raise them further as it raised its inflation forecast at the end of the year to 7.4-7.9%, almost double its 4% target.
The announcement saw the dollar fall briefly back below 70 against the ruble for the first time since June last year. Higher rates and soaring energy prices have supported the currency in recent months and with more hikes and a possible winter crisis in the pipeline, it could remain in favour for some time.
The unemployment rate on Friday is the only notable release.
The lira fell more than 3% to a record low on Thursday and has continued to slide on Friday after the CBRT cut rates by 2%, at least twice as much as markets expected. The move ends the debate, if there was one, that the central bank is being influenced by President Erdogan, whose long-held views that high-interest rates spur inflation are well known.
The central banks’ credibility under Şahap Kavcıoğlu is ruined and its only hope of avoiding further troubles down the road is inflation falling significantly and very soon. Even then, central bank credibility is important, as is the divide between politics and monetary policy and they are both irreversibly damaged under Kavcıoğlu. The lira could remain under severe pressure for some time.
Evergrande has paid an offshore bond coupon today, one day before the grace period expiry. That has removed the immediate financial contagion threat from Mainland markets and reduced weekend risk. It faces another coupon payment deadline on the 29th though and this story is probably not going away soon.
China has no significant data this coming week, but with the central committee meeting due on the 8th of November, authorities will be doing their utmost to ensure that markets remain “serene” until then.
PBOC officials have expressed comfort that the Yuan is fairly priced at these levels, so strength may continue. With China needing to source energy stocks “at any cost” a strong Yuan is probably their favoured position.
The Indian rupee recovery continues, but the story is more a weak US dollar one than a strong rupee one. A strong US earnings season is causing dollar weakness and this story means the rupee rally may have more life in it.
India is entering the holiday season over the next two weeks and market volumes are likely to decrease, potentially amplifying short-term moves. No significant data releases this week.
Australia & New Zealand
The Aussie and New Zealand dollars rallied strongly as global risk sentiment improved thanks to a strong US earnings season so far. Melbourne and Sydney’s reopening will also lift sentiment and the huge New Zealand inflation number leaves the RBNZ 0.50% hike trade, pencilled in for next month, in full swing. Going forward both will continue to be buffeted by swinging sentiment shifts in overseas markets.
Australia has inflation data this Monday and PPI and Retail Sales on Friday. The RBA had to intervene in the 3-year bond market to cap rate hikes as markets locally started pricing in a change in RBA guidance from ultra-dovish.
New Zealand markets continue ignoring rising delta cases and are myopically focused on pricing in a large RBNZ hike next month. Although the trade is now crowded, kiwi outperformance will continue as long as global risk sentiment remains positive.
The Bank of Japan announces its latest policy decision next week on Thursday. However, there is little chance of any change before November’s FOMC and ahead of the Lower House election on October 31st. Electioneering will dominate the headlines in Japan next week, but despite the noise, the Nikkei is following the Nasdaq closely. It would take a huge shift in polling away from the ruling LDP to shift the narrative negatively into domestic markets.
USD/JPY remains near 114.00 and continues to be a purely US/Japan rate differential play. With rates firming in the US, and Japan low forever, USD/JPY’s path of least resistance continues to be higher.
Key Economic Events
Sunday, Oct. 24
By-elections will be held for upper house seats in Japan’s Shizuoka and Yamaguchi prefectures
Bank of England policymaker Mann speaks at the 3rd Bund Summit, China Finance Forum 40 on a panel about “Asset prices, inflation expectation and exit from economic stimulus.”
Monday, Oct. 25
The ASEAN Business and Investment Summit speakers include US President Biden and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
EU energy ministers hold an extraordinary council in Luxembourg to discuss rising energy prices in the bloc.
Germany IFO business climate
Japan leading index
Switzerland domestic sight deposits
Turkey real sector confidence
BOE policymaker Tenreyro speaks at an event hosted by CEPR and the central bank.
Tuesday, Oct. 26
FDA advisory panel meeting may decide on whether children ages 5 to 11 could get a COVID vaccine
Bank of France Governor Villeroy de Galhau speaks at a sustainable finance event in Paris.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau may announce the new cabinet
Australia ANZ consumer confidence
China Bloomberg economic survey
Hong Kong trade
PPI: Spain, Sweden, Japan
South Korea GDP
Mexico international reserves
Japan bond purchases
Singapore industrial production
U.S. new home sales, U.S. Conf. Board consumer confidence
South Africa leading indicator
Wednesday, Oct. 27
UK Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak to unveil the government’s autumn budget including new forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility.
US wholesale inventories, U.S. durable goods
Bank of Canada (BOC) rate decision: Expected to keep interest rate steady at 0.25%
New Zealand trade, ANZ business confidence
China industrial profits
Germany GfK consumer confidence
Thailand manufacturing production index, capacity utilization
Russia industrial production, CPI (weekly)
Turkey trade, economic confidence
EIA Crude Oil Inventory Report
Thursday, Oct. 28
US Q3 Advance GDP Q/Q: 3.0%e v 6.7% prior, initial jobless claims
BOJ rate decision: No change in policy expected, could lower growth forecast for this year and raise 2022 forecast
Japan retail sales
ECB rate decision: No change to policy, possibly setting up December as pivotal meeting for a decision on APP; President Lagarde holds a post-rate decision press conference
Eurozone economic confidence, consumer confidence
Germany CPI, unemployment
Australia export and import price indexes
Russia forex and gold reserves
Sweden GDP, retail sales
South Africa PPI
Apple and Amazon report earnings after the bell
Turkey central bank Governor Kavcioglu discusses inflation
EU economy and finance ministers meet online to talk about the implementation of the recovery and resilience facility.
Friday, Oct. 29
G-20 joint finance and health ministers meet before the weekend leaders’ summit
US consumer income, University of Michigan consumer sentiment
Eurozone GDP, CPI
UK mortgage approvals, money supply, consumer credit
Czech Republic GDP
France GDP, CPI
Italy GDP, CPI
South Africa trade balance, private credit, money supply, budget balance
Japan unemployment, Tokyo CPI, industrial production, housing starts
Australia retail sales, private sector credit, PPI
Singapore money supply
India fiscal deficit, eight infrastructure industries
Hong Kong money supply, budget balance
New Zealand ANC consumer confidence
Thailand trade, BoP, trade, foreign reserves, forward contracts
Russia consumer data
Sovereign Rating Updates
– Germany (Fitch)
– Czech Republic (S&P)
– Poland (Moody’s)
– Norway (Moody’s)
– Italy (DBRS)
The ‘Maestro’ Is Why Jay Powell Keeps Seeing (inflation) Ghosts
See, this is backward. And while it may seem overly pedantic, getting it right is actually a crucial insight (lack thereof) into pretty much everything….
See, this is backward. And while it may seem overly pedantic, getting it right is actually a crucial insight (lack thereof) into pretty much everything. Its purpose is to maintain a different sort of money illusion (the original relates to how workers focus on nominal rather than real levels of compensation). This other money illusion relates to the hidden nature of money itself.
We’re told central bankers are it, therefore everything must be related to central bank monetary policy. If the dollar’s falling, the Fed accommodated. If it’s rising, Fed tightening. Rates go down because, everyone says, Jay Powell bought bonds. Yields go up because of rate hikes after the bond buying is over.
You go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the FOMC must’ve voted for it.
It all goes back to before Greenspan, though it was the “maestro” who most clearly articulated the gross illiteracy and unsupported conceits behind much of Economics.
CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN. It’s really quite important to make a judgment as to whether, in fact, yield spreads off riskless instruments—which is what we have essentially been talking about—are independent of the level of the riskless rates themselves. The answer, I’m certain, is that they are not independent.
Risky spreads are, according to this view, in a sense controllable from monetary policy even from only the short end. Why? Because all riskless rates, Greenspan also said, were nothing more than a “series of one-year forwards.”
It was, in theory, all so easy and neat; the Fed from its single position could conduct all the instruments in the symphony as it wished, however and whenever wished. Thus, maestro.
Why, then, all the constant “conundrums” and “inflation puzzles” ever since? Dear Alan said he was certain, and he’s certainly been wrong.
The yield curve is no series of one-year forwards, nor are risky spreads utterly dependent upon hapless Economists at the Fed (see: swap spreads, as a start). Those at the Fed instead have repeatedly shown they have no idea how even short run interest rates work (see: SOFR) which means they can’t be literate in money like economy.
What do they do?
Influence public opinion via financial media. To wit:
The unquestioned assumption embedded here is palpable anyway; nominal rates are rising (“worst year for fixed-income since 2005” BOND ROUT!!!!) because inflation is “hot enough.” Reported like its some foregone conclusion, this inflation certainty dictated to the bond market via a suddenly hawkish Federal Reserve.
This is, at best, incomplete; most often, just plain backward. Thanks, Maestro.
Had the yield curve behaved recently like it had earlier in this same year, this would be plausible. The yield curve, on the contrary, is performing very differently negating any chance for this to be the case.
Bond yields aren’t reacting to anything; they’ve helpfully sorted CPI’s for us all along. As I wrote earlier today, the yield curve has expertly, consistently interpreted the money Economists and central bankers can’t understand so as to accurately predict – for longer than a century – what is and will be inflation.
This often leads to conflict; central bankers say it’s one thing and bonds declare another, often the opposite. This differing viewpoint not just a post-2007 development, either, also noted today, bonds vs. Economists has been a one-way contest going back before 1929.
Our current case, therefore, very much like previous cases.
A flattening yield curve, conspicuously so, is the bond market recognizing: 1. It isn’t inflation, just transitory price factors, meaning lack of heat in the economy; 2. Policymakers repeatedly have shown they have no clue how or where to even begin figuring one way or the other; 3. Because they are clueless, they have likewise displayed a consistent tendency to make egregious forecast errors, such as 2018 or 2013; 4. Therefore, very much independent of the Fed, bond yields are instead disagreeing with Powell’s mistake by pricing a scandalously flattening yield curve with nominal rates already contradictorily low (tight money).
Bonds – not the Fed – have already sorted the inflation question. The problem is, as usual, the answer isn’t to the liking of mainstream Economics which can only interpret yields from the “certitude” of Greenspan. In that sense, inflation is a foregone conclusion. In the dream-world of media, the theme this year is solidly inflation. In monetary reality, unambiguously deflationary.
Just in time for Halloween, Jay Powell is back to seeing ghosts.
Food Prices & Farm Inputs Getting Hard to Stomach
Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate the food on our tables, but that probably isn’t stopping a lot of people from grumbling about how expensive…
Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate the food on our tables, but that probably isn’t stopping a lot of people from grumbling about how expensive the turkey and all the fixings have become.
According to Statistics Canada, food prices are up 2.5% over the past year, but that may be underestimating the impact of inflation. New research from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, quoted by BNN Bloomberg, shows that food inflation in Canada is closer to 5%, well above the normal 1-2%.
Among food categories, meat prices stand out as rising the most, with Stats Canada noting a 10% increase for these products over the past six months. Nearly half of Canadians, 49%, say they have reduced their purchases of Alberta meat, while a majority of consumers acknowledge cutting back on it since the start of the year. The higher number of vegetarians may be due to economic reasons as much as concerns over animal cruelty.
As for what is causing food prices to tick higher, the study by Agri-Food Analytics Lab cites unfavorable weather patterns in the northern hemisphere, i.e., droughts and storms, and logistical challenges owing to the covid-19 pandemic.
Corporate Knights expounds on the covid factor, mentioning several contributors to higher prices on grocery store shelves. These include labor shortages in both Canada and the US, rising freight costs, border waits, last year’s temporary closures of meat processing plants, and higher demand for food, as a revival of home cooking puts pressure on the prices of meat and feed grains such as soybeans and corn.
In fact climate change was affecting food production long before supply-chain problems due to covid.
A 2019 report by Environment Canada showed that Canada is warming at twice the global rate. Wildfires in California and British Columbia have damaged fruit and vegetable harvests. Droughts in the Prairies have led to smaller harvests of feed grains and produce, and water scarcity has forced famers to reduce the size of their herds, causing meat prices to spike. Tornadoes in Ontario and Quebec, and more active than normal hurricane seasons in the Atlantic, have also impacted the food supply chain, writes Corporate Knights.
In Manitoba this past summer, a severe drought drove up the price of feed grain, hay prices and costs for transporting feed, squeezing already tight margins.
“It’s terrible. Our pastures and field are withering. We don’t have enough feed for our cattle so we’re forced to buy it. But as hay and feed grain prices rise, it costs more and more to keep the cattle. It’s devastating,” says Ian Robson, a Manitoba farmer quoted on the National Farmers Union website.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that cattle prices are falling due to farmers being forced to sell off part of their beef herds, meaning they will have to pay more and more for inputs, to keep cattle that are selling for less and less.
Scientists say that record heat waves lasting longer than a week, such as the “heat dome” that enveloped residents of western Canada and the United States this past summer, will be two to seven times more likely — creating the conditions that spark wildfires, cause water shortages, and increase the frequency of weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes that often ravage farmland and disrupt supply chains around the world, forcing food prices to rise year after year.
By June, drought had already scorched much of the US West, prompting California farmers to leave fields fallow and triggering water and energy rationing in several states.
In mid-September, the Southwestern United States reported precipitation at the lowest 20-month level since 1895. The drought in California and the “Four Corners” states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico started in early 2020 and has led to unprecedented water shortages in reservoirs across the region, while fueling devastating wildfires.
A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the unusually high temperatures coinciding with the Southwest’s historic, worst in a century dry spell, are symptomatic of climate change and have intensified the drought.
Quoting from the report, Reuters said, Above-normal heat helps dry up surface and soil moisture and reduces snowfall in winter, which in turn diminishes dry-season surface water storage from snow-melt runoff…
Low snowpack and parched soil can also create a “land-atmosphere feedback” that deepens a drought by helping raise ground temperatures while leaving less moisture available to evaporate for future precipitation…
Extremely high temperatures also sharply boost demand for water, further straining depleted reservoirs and rivers.
According to BNN Bloomberg, heat-related drops in crop yields affecting the supply of food could be with us for decades:
Yields of staple crops could decline by almost a third by 2050 unless emissions are drastically reduced in the next decade, according to a Chatham House report published [in September], while farmers will need to grow nearly 50 per cent more food to meet rising global demand during the same timeline.
It isn’t only retail food shoppers that are feeling the pinch of rising prices. Inflation is just as much a factor at the bottom of the food supply chain, the world of farmers and ranchers, as at the top, the shelves of brand-name grocery stores where most of us peruse items for our weekly shop.
One of the most important inputs that farmers rely on for growing food is fertilizer. Higher fertilizer prices must often be passed onto the end user, the buyer of fruits and vegetables, for the grower to preserve his profit margin. This is precisely what we see happening right now.
Recently the Green Markets North American Fertilizer Index hit a record high, rising 7.9% to US$996.32 per ton, and blasting past its 2008 peak. According to BNN Bloomberg, the fertilizer market has been smoked this year due to extreme weather, plant shutdowns and rising energy costs — in particular natural gas, the main feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer.
Nitrogen, which gets added to the soil to help plants grow, is also on a tear, with some US farmers saying it’s almost doubled in price since last spring. Several farmers are reportedly relying on other crops like winter wheat which consumes less nitrogen.
Green Markets says expensive fertilizer could push US corn farmers’ cost of production costs 16% higher.
The higher the cost of farming inputs, the more farmers will have to charge the consumer to make up for those payments. On a personal note, I see this happening on my hay farm. The price of custom fertilizer has doubled from about $500/t to $1,000/t, forcing hay farmers like myself to either absorb the higher cost, or make some tough decisions — like using less fertilizer or none at all, which obviously affects your grass yield. I also raise beef cattle, so the increased cost of fertilizer forces me to consider whether I can afford to carry my full herd. The price of herbicides has also gone up, so now I need to decide whether to spend a lot of money on weed control. When you factor in unpredictable weather conditions during growing season, such as dry spells, extreme wet and forest fires, it seems to be the start of an extremely vicious cycle that threatens to both drive farmers into bankruptcy, and ratchet up the price of food, all the way up the supply chain from farm to table.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s global food index, food prices are already at a decade high, and increased fertilizer costs could lead to persistent food inflation well into 2022.
Beyond the headlines blaming covid, a deeper understanding of food inflation requires an appreciation for how the rising prices of farm inputs like fertilizer, feed grains, hay, etc., get passed on up the food chain and eventually end up as higher grocery bills. Food inflation in Canada is close to 5% and we can see this reflected in the higher costs of a number of grocery items.
Leading the price increases, in September fresh or frozen chicken gained 10.3%, pork was up 9.5%, seafood was 6.2% more expensive and butter was 6.3% more dear. Surprisingly, the prices of fresh vegetables were down 3.2%.
Statistics Canada says the cost of food rose 3.9% year over year in September compared to 2.7% in August. The agency notes the country’s annual rate of inflation reached its highest level since 2003, with the consumer price index (CPI) up 4.4% in September compared to a 4.1% year over year increase in August.
US inflation is even higher at 5.4%. The CPI increased 0.4% in September, with food and rent accounting for more than half of the rise. Food prices reportedly jumped 0.9% last month after increasing 0.4% in August, with the largest rise in food prices since April driven by a surge in the cost of meat.
Among US farm inputs, feed purchases, representing the highest percentage of farm production expenses, are this year outpacing 2020’s, according to the US Department of Agriculture graph below.
As for whether food inflation, and other kinds of inflation, are transitory, there is increasing evidence that rising prices are becoming stickier than previously thought.
Reuters reported on Thursday that industry leaders around the world believe prices are only going higher, with shortages of workers, fuel, container ships, semiconductors and building materials, as examples, keeping companies scrambling to keep a lid on costs.
“We expect inflation to be higher next year than this year,” the article quotes Graeme Pitkethly, finance chief at consumer products giant Unilever.
Some of the problems leading to higher prices are structural, including labor shortages, due to older employees leaving and fewer entering the workforce.
To this I would add climate change, which pre-dates covid-19 supply chain gum-ups. A planet that continues to warm (there is nothing we can do to stop the Earth’s natural climate cycles, the Earth will keep warming until it isn’t) will do more to raise the prices of crucial farm inputs like fertilizer, herbicides, feed grains and diesel fuel, than a bunch of refrigerated containers waiting for a cargo ship berth could ever do.
At minimum supply disruptions are likely to last until 2022 and there is every chance that next year’s growing season will see the same drought conditions as 2021’s, meaning no reprieve on the prices of many grocery items.
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