Inflation monitor as of 8/30/2017

Inflation has been trending downwards for decades.  We think the following factors have created this long-term trend:

  • an aging population that buys less
  • wage competition from third-world countries, due to globalization.

With talk of border taxes and rolling back globalization (at least partially), can we assume that the downward inflation trend will continue from here?  We don’t know, but we intend to track the numbers.  This post reviews a wide range of market-based and statistically derived measures of inflation.

Recent indicators suggest some softening of inflation.

Our takeaway:  the annual rate of inflation is probably 1.5%-2.5%.

Backward-Looking Measures

Consumer Price Index (CPI) – changes

The CPI is calculated by the government.  More than a few investors view the index with a degree of skepticism.

CPI:  +1.77%

Median CPI:  +2.08%

Core CPI:  +1.71%

PCE deflator:  +1.46%

GDP deflator: +1.25%

Sticky CPI:  +2.14%

Trimmed Mean PCE:  +1.25%

Producer Price Index (PPI) – changes

The PPI is calculated by the government.  Some investors regard it with suspicion:

Finished Goods:  +2.34%


Wages are very important because they account for such a large portion of the cost of goods and services.

Average hourly earnings:  +2.46%

An increase in average hourly earnings does not translate into an equal amount of inflation.  Increases in productivity can offset (entirely or partially) the inflationary effect of higher wages.

Billion Prices Project

The billion prices project estimates the annual rate of inflation by using prices posted by online merchants.

As of the last publicly available data point, BPP estimates the U.S. inflation rate at annualized rate of about +0%.

Purchasing Manager’s Index

The Institute for Supply Management publishes the results of a monthly survey of their members, including a price diffusion index.  A diffusion index doesn’t tell us the rate of inflation, but rather what percentage of the survey respondents are seeing prices go up or down.

The survey results suggest no significant inflationary pressures.

Manufacturing Prices:  62.0

Services Prices:  55.7

Forward-Looking Measures

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities

In addition to ordinary bonds, the U.S. Treasury issues inflation-protected securities (TIPS).  By comparing the yields, one can infer the inflation forecast of the capital markets.

Ordinarily one should assign high credibility to this type of information. However, caution may be appropriate given extensive central bank manipulation of the credit markets.

Five Year Forecast:  +1.56% per annum (5Y Treasury Yield5Y TIPS Yield)

Ten Year Forecast:  +1.75% per annum (10Y Treasury Yield10Y TIPS Yield)

5-Year, 5-Year Forward Inflation Expectation Rate

Inflation expected from 5 years from now to 10 years from now:  +1.94%

Michigan Consumer Sentiment

1-Year Expected Rate of Inflation:  +2.6

5-Year Expected Rate of Inflation:  +2.6

ECRI U.S. Future Inflation Gauge

ECRI -0.1

Trend-based indicators

Crude Oil:  Downtrend = deflationary pressure

Copper:  Uptrend = inflationary pressure

U.S. Dollar:  Downtrend = inflationary pressure

What we are reading on 8/29/2017

Here’s what we are reading today. We do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed therein and we disavow any actual or implied investment advice therein. In no particular order:
When There Is Blood In The Streets
Asset Allocation In A Low Yield Environment
A Half Century Of Macro Momentum
Why Housing Has Outperformed Equities Over The Long Run
Time to take a social media vacation?
High equity valuations and retirement finance.
Who Really Owns American Farmland
Why The Secret To Your Success Is Who You Marry
Using Goals to Motivate College Students: Theory and Evidence from Field Experiments
Exercise Has A Cascade Of Positive Effects Study Finds
Colleges cut the luxuries
A Happy Spouse Can Make You Healthier
How Rich Roll Overcame Addiction To Become A World Class Endurance Athlete
Building Expertise Beyond The 10,000 Hours
7 Secrets That Will Make You Build Good Habits
How To Increase Motivation: 4 Secrets From Research
The Definitive Guide To Momentum Investing and Trading
Academic Research Insight: Global Equities and Overreaction
Bottom-Up Economics
Effective Networking
It Can All Change In A Day
Business-Loan Growth Continues To Slide
The Conceit of Central Bankers and the Brief Illusion of Wealth
A magic bullet to restore our brain’s plasticity?

Central bank monitor as of August, 2017

Each month, we track the monetary base for the world’s major central banks.  Changes in the monetary base may have an effect on the prices of financial assets such as stocks and bonds.

Notwithstanding a modest retrenchment in October and November (2016), the central banks we cover continue to create money at an astonishing rate. We think the most profligate money printers are Europe and China.

Here is the data through the end of the last month:

What we are reading on 8/22/2017

Here’s what we are reading today. We do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed therein and we disavow any actual or implied investment advice therein. In no particular order:
The “advice-only” financial advisory model
Self improvement ideas
A replacement to cremation
Youth sports and concussions
Why college grads don’t know how to write
The Next Quant Meltdown
How Driscolls Reinvented The Strawberry
The Electric Bike Conundrum
The falling wage of the equity researcher
Pension padding with overtime
Will US debt spike in October?
What Ford’s New Guy Said about the Future of Self-Driving Cars
Single Country ETFs Superior To Regions
Imaginary growth assumptions and the steep adjustment ahead
How Filter Bubbles Distort Reality: Everything You Need to Know
Attrition Warfare: When Even Winners Lose
Seven Sell Side Shortcuts

What we are reading on 8/16/2017

Here’s what we are reading today. We do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed therein and we disavow any actual or implied investment advice therein. In no particular order:
Institutions are interested in BDCs
Credit Spreads Tell Bullish Story
Why Early Retirement Isn’t As Awesome As It Sounds
The Biggest Mental Shift After Retiring Early
The Quant Quake 10 Years On
The Ambivert
This One Ritual Made Me Much Happier
Meditation has been mainstreamed
About the recent volatility spike
About ETF valuation ratios
The Federal Reserve’s Portfolio and its Effect on Interest Rates
Trend Following Research
Stocks Are Pricey Lets Buy More
Leveraged Loan issuers have been extending maturities
Why Cryptocurrencies Will Never Be Safe Havens
Can Bond Portfolios Be Factorized?
Diversification Benefits of Time Series Momentum
What’s Happening?
What the Heck’s Going On with Vintage Automobiles?
Consumer credit delinquencies are rising
Secular Supertrends – BIS says 30-year cycle set to reverse
Broadening internal dispersion

What we are reading on 8/8/2017

Here’s what we are reading today. We do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed therein and we disavow any actual or implied investment advice therein. In no particular order:
Why is the Stock Market So High?
The ABC’S of Bitcoin and Everything You Need To Know About “Forks”
Why 5G Will Transform Much More Than Telecommunications
Can humans beat software?
What happens when a company reaches 25 employees?
Should Silicon Valley hire from outside?
Are Investors Running Out Of Cash
Imagining The Next Bear Market
Ignore financial noise
Okay You Can Start Worrying About Robots Now
The Benefits Of Saying Nice Things About Your Colleagues
A Smart Beta For Sustainable Growth
James Montier Is Still Bearish
Academic Research Insight: Diagonal Models versus 1/N Diversification
Counting Boxes
Bubble Risk When The Bubble Doesn’t Burst
Parsing The Finer Points Of Why Trend Following Endures
Shiller throwing in the towel?
Gundlach Is Quietly Heading For The Exit: “Volatility Is About To Go Up”
Whiff of Reality at Crazy Super High-End Housing Market?
Emerging Market ETFs Defy Consensus
Tracking the Amazing Junk Bond Bubbles in the US and Europe
Estimating losses at a market extreme
Emerging Value And Margin Of Superiority And Why Are Stock Market Prices So High
New Research Affiliates forecasts
Emerging Markets: What has Changed
The Coming Financial Volatility

Does past performance repeat

At some point, every investor with at least a little experience owning securities has heard a warning along the lines of, “past performance may not repeat.” Nonetheless, most investors at least consider past results in forming expectations about what might happen in the future.  What are the potential analytical pitfalls about which one should be aware when studying the past return statistics?

First, one should consider not just the performance but the volatility of performance.  Consider these two investments.

  1. earning a +4% return on average over ten years, with the worst year of the ten being a +3% return; or,
  2. earning a +4% return on average over ten years, with the worst year of the ten being a -40% return?


Both investments have the exact same average historical return; but the second investment achieves the return with much greater volatility than the first.  It would be easier to assume that the first will continue to generate the same 4% return in the future because the past returns were so consistent.  The same cannot be said of the second.

Next, one should consider the amount of assets invested in the strategy. Rapid asset growth could mean that it may be impossible for the money manager to sustain past performance into the future.  Consider three observations:

  1. Most professional investors will agree to manage ever larger sums of money, because of the fees that can be charged.
  2. A sophisticated investor managing $10 million can avail himself of niche opportunities that aren’t worth the time of someone managing $100 billion.
  3. People with money tend to place their funds with investment professionals who have successful track records (as opposed to the opposite).

Taken together, it is easy to imagine the following happening.  A professional investor starts a small fund and builds a good track record by investing in niche opportunities that are too small for his biggest competitors.  As the public discovers his track record, the professional investor’s funds under management increase dramatically.  With so much more money to manage, the professional investor cannot find enough of the niche opportunities to sustain his track record. Performance then slips into mediocrity.  In this case, past performance is likely not to repeat.

Investing and prediction

To many people, successful investing requires correctly predicting the future.  In that light, here are some memorable quotations about the pitfalls of prediction:

  • Niels Bohr:  “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”
  • Lao Tzu, “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”
  • George Savile, “The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.”
  • Winston Churchill, “I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place.”
  • Mark Twain, “Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks. “

Given the great difficulty of predicting the future, it might be worthwhile for investors to minimize the use of predictions in their investment process.  What might that look like?  In general, it means focusing less on what might happen in the future and focusing more on what is happening right now.

As a practical matter, it could mean for an investor in common stocks:

  • Focusing on stocks that are undervalued on a current assessment of the intrinsic net worth of the company, rather than on an assessment of the company’s intrinsic value two, three or five years in the future.
  • Not assigning much credibility to a management team’s vision for the future.
  • Ignoring either partially or entirely analyst earnings estimates one or two years out in the future.
  • Assuming that growth rates in the future will converge towards the growth rate of the economy overall.

In short, reducing the amount of forecasting in an investment process designed to build stock portfolios may mean adopting the behavior of a value investor.  It is not possible to eliminate all predictions from investing.  But where predictions must be made, the prediction-averse value investor should choose adopt a conservative (i.e., either pessimistic or worst-case) view of what might happen.

Colors and investing

Colors can trigger emotional responses.  For example:

  • As the color of the sun, yellow is sometimes associated with happiness
  • As the color of the sky, blue may create a calming effect.
  • As the color of nature, green may evoke harmony and peace
  • As the color of fire, red may create a sense of danger and of aggression

It seems customary that financial websites display positive changes in the value of investment in green, but show negative changes in red.  Does the use of color in showing price changes alter how investors perceive investments?

In a recent paper (“In the Red: The Effects of Color on Investment Behavior“), William J. Bazley, Henrik Cronqvist and Milica Milosavljevic Mormann suggests that colors do affect perceptions about investments.  According to the paper’s abstract,

… we find that when investors are displayed potential losses in red, risk taking is reduced. Second, when investors are shown past negative stock price paths in red, expectations about future stock returns are reduced. Consistent with red causing “avoidance behavior,” red color reduces investors’ propensity to purchase stocks. The findings are robust to a series of checks involving colorblind investors and alternative colors to control for salience effects…

The implications of this study are worth considering.  Most people understand that the emotional shock of a large monetary loss can affect judgment.  When people witness a large decline in the value of their stock portfolio, they may freeze up.  Or they may panic and sell everything at the worst possible time.

People who have managed to sell before a big market decline are not immune to the emotional baggage of a bear market.  Seeing the damage, they may find it difficult to step back into the market.

Coloring all this information in red may make matters worse for investors who are attempting to stick with an otherwise sound investment plan, or take advantage of the opportunities that the market presents.




Recency bias

People often use their past experiences as a guide to developing expectations about what might happen in the future.  But people have many past experiences from which to choose.  In attempting to understand what might happen in the future, do people select the past experiences that are most relevant?  Or do they use some other criteria?

The evidence suggests that when in doubt, people tend to turn to their experiences in the recent past.  Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as recency bias.

For example, in evaluating the future prospects of stocks, the average investor will tend to assume that recent performance will continue.  Thus, if the stock market recently has been moving up, then the average investor will tend to think that the stock market will continue to move up. If recent experience shows unusual volatility, then the investor will tend to assume that the unusual volatility will continue.

Experienced investors can be influenced by recency bias.  Most experienced investors know that future stock returns are shrouded in uncertainty.  Such investors may think in terms of a range of outcomes rather than in a simple extrapolation of past results into the future.  But even for experienced investors, recency bias can cloud judgment.  This bias may cause investors to shift the range of expectations according to recent experience.  For example, if stocks have performed well recently, the experienced investor may continue to acknowledge the risk of losing money while adjusting downward his subjective assessment of the likelihood of such losses.

An awareness of recency bias may be beneficial for investors.  Recent performance may or may not tell us much about future performance. Knowing this may help the investor avoid becoming overconfident in his expectations about the future, and thus avoid committing too much capital to an investment idea with uncertain prospects.