Say ‘Good-bye!’ to the “New Normal”

“Secular Stagnation.” “The New Normal.”. “The New Neutral.” “Lower for Longer.”

These are the phrases which have been used to characterize the U.S. economic situation, and by proxy, interest rates.

The thinking is both reactionary and rational: the after-math of the largest and deepest financial crisis the world has experienced since the Great Depression is a long and deep hangover. The direct explanations for cause get a little murky here. Most agree it is some combination of lowered inflation expectations, an increase of risk-averse behavior by corporations and households, the aging of the dominant baby-boomer generation, and the slow repair of damaged household income- & balance-sheets.

Instead of having coming up with a list of why the United States will remain mired in this situation, purveyors of the new normal should instead have formulated a list of criteria required to get out. If they had, they wouldn’t be missing the economic ascent to escape velocity.

“Escape velocity!?”, you say? Yes. The proof is in the jobs pudding.

Nominal GDP — national income and output — is easily approximated by multiplying Average Weekly Hours x Average Hourly Earnings x Payrolls:

Figure 1: Nominal GDP vs Average Weekly Hours x Average Hourly Earnings x Payrolls

Figure 1: Nominal GDP vs Average Weekly Hours x Average Hourly Earnings x Payrolls

Nominal GDP, as estimated by January’s employment report, is now running at the fastest rate (5.18% y/y) since 2006. For January, that number is 8.35% annualized. The deflationary scare is just that — a scare. The growth looks even more impressive when deflated by the Core PCE Price Index (Core Personal Consumption Price Index):

Figure 2: Real GDP vs (Payrolls x Average Weekly Hours x Average Hourly Earnings) / Core PCE Price Index

Figure 2: Real GDP vs (Payrolls x Average Weekly Hours x Average Hourly Earnings) / Core PCE Price Index

At the time of writing, we lack the Core PCE data for January, but the liftoff is already evident as of December’s data: it was running at the fastest clip since the 2nd quarter of 2004.

For buyers of secular stagnation, this isn’t supposed to happen. Let us recast our earlier explanations of the “New Normal” as the criteria required to escape:

Reversing Lowered Expectation on Future Inflation

It’s certainly true that short-term inflation expectations have been quickly fallen by way of collapsing oil prices. Long-term inflation expectations have actually rebounded strongly since 2012, however, and have remained stable in the face of the great noise in oil:

Figure 3: Inflation expectations (5y & 30y)

Figure 3: Inflation expectations (5y & 30y)

Long-term inflation expectations remain firmly anchored just above the 2% target set by the Federal Reserve. The criterion that inflation expectations need to recover enough that investors and consumers aren’t rather incentivized to save for fear they could invest and consume more in real terms later seems satisfied.

Reversing Risk-averse Behaviour by Corporations and Households

We can easily observe the risk-averse behaviour of corporates by looking at the investment level. As confidence rises, the corporate sector deploys more capital into investment, above the value merely needed to sustain their existing business. Similarly, we can observe the personal savings rate of households as a proxy for their risk-aversion: the more they fear for their future earnings, the more they save.

Figure 4: Investment level (blue, LHS), Personal savings rate (red, RHS)

Figure 4: Investment level (blue, LHS), Personal savings rate (red, RHS)

The savings rate is at the lowest point since the end of the recession. The investment level is at the highest point since the end of the recession, and is even approaching the series average.

The criterion that the risk-aversion in the corporate and household sectors be reversed seems satisfied.

Reversing the Demographic Decline

The growth in peak-aged population occurred in 1986 — over 2.5 million per year were added to the 25-54 cohort. From 2008 through 2013, this cohort actually declined – the losses on a y/y basis were at their highest, 720k, in December 2011.

Figure 5: Growth in 25-54 population

Figure 5: Growth in 25-54 population

The decline is over. The Millennial generation is now growing into this peak-aged cohort faster than Baby Boomers are aging out. This trend will continue. This criterion is satisfied.

Repairing the Household Balance Sheets

The crest of the household debt bubble saw Household Debt Servicing as % of Disposable Income at over 13%. It has declined all the way down to less than 10% — the lowest recorded level.

Figure 6:  Household Debt Service Payments as a Percent of Disposable Personal Income

Figure 6: Household Debt Service Payments as a Percent of Disposable Personal Income

Disposable Personal Income is up over 20% since the peak in debt servicing. Meanwhile, household debt declined from nearly $14 trillion to just over $13 trillion. It has since started growing again — strong evidence that balance sheets have repaired to (or below) their equilibrium debt servicing levels.

Figure 7: Household debt

Figure 7: Household debt

The criterion of repaired household balance sheets is satisfied.


The inversion of the reasons which formed the conditions for the “New Normal” are the predicates for achieving escape velocity out of it. These predicates have become satisfied just as the growth trajectory has busted higher. This points to saying “Goodbye!” to the “New Normal”, and welcoming in a new regime.


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Only Bernanke knew Oil is not inflation

In April of 2011, Ben Bernanke was universally lambasted and lampooned for claiming that inflation, which was accelerating and running above 3%, was “transitory”. He used this view to justify loosening monetary policy. The next few months of CPI were not favourable to the Fed chairman’s views: it peaked at 3.8% (nearly double the implicit target at that point) in September of 2011, sparking a feverishly pitched cacophony of criticism that the Fed chair was out of touch, and tone-deaf in his theoretical ivory tower to the practical realities on the ground.

This, however, proved to be Bernanke’s finest hour. Yes, even more so than the extraordinary measures taken during the height of the credit crisis. His detractors then, of which there were still many, included people and institutions on the brink that needed the Fed to extend them a hand. In September of 2011, the chairman stood very much alone in his call for moderated inflation now that the acute disaster removed influential institutions and people from needing the Fed to act in order to survive.

This moment in time represents a difficult choice by the Federal Reserve. It presented Bernanke the opportunity to make a big mistake by raising rates — one that ECB President Trichet took, sending the countries under his monetary care into a deflationary credit spiral that is still viewed as an intractable problem three years later.

The basis for the moderating inflation view was that the price increases were driven by food and energy prices, which make up 23% of consumer expenditures. Obviously put another way, 77% of consumer expenditures are not food and energy. When inflation peaked in September 2011 at 3.8%, wages were growing at just 2%. This brings us to a critical juncture on energy’s impact on inflation: inflation is not just a “price spiral”, but a price-wage spiral.

Food and energy prices are short-run inelastic — mainly because they are not easily substitutable. In English, this means that people need to purchase food and energy regardless of the price. When these prices rise faster than their wages, they are forced to reduce unrelated spending. This depresses other prices, and ultimately forces a moderation of inflation. Economic activity also moderates, and the new equilibrium is set with higher energy expenditures as a fraction of income. When confronted with a price increase of non-substitutable consumer staples, this acts like a new consumption tax. No-one will argue that increasing consumption taxes will increase consumption.

Bernanke was right. Holding the line with Zero Interest Rate Policy in the face of 3.8% CPI is now indefeasible. His decision spared the United States from a new recession, and the unnecessary excess economic suffering of millions that the Eurozone has experienced. While the Eurozone’s unemployment rate has increased nearly 3% since, it has fallen 3.2% in the United States, for a relative spread of more than 6%. As if a switch had been flipped, inflation in the United States sank like a stone to below 1% by October of 2013. This is what makes Ben Bernanke perhaps the best central banker in history. Any reasonable candidate for the job of Fed Chairman would have done what Bernanke did during the crisis (+/- a few weeks). The difference is manifested three years later, when he understood and correctly guided policy around what his most prominent colleague at the ECB did not.

This is why Ben Bernanke’s 2011 triumph is relevant today. The same framework for understanding inflation through commodity prices and wages that successfully predicted the deceleration of inflation against the tidal wave of popular belief now finds itself in the inverse position: the expectations of inflation are very low, and despite low commodity prices, it expects inflation will accelerate. Much like the consumption tax analogy when prices are rising, it is credible to argue that reducing consumption tax will be a net positive impulse on consumer spending. No-one will argue that decreasing consumption taxes will decrease consumption. In fact, axiomatically, the savings rate necessarily must rise in proportion to the savings on food and energy if that were so. And, that, my friends, is simply un-American.

While real wage growth was -1.89% in September of 2011, it is +0.57% as of October 2014. Statistically, a 1% change in the price of oil has been historically consistent with 0.043% change in the CPI. To contrast, a 1% change in rent is historically consistent with 0.8% of headline inflation. Rent has last grown at 3.34% y/y, which exerts an impulse of 2.6% on headline inflation. This is a much more important, sticky and longer term driver of inflation than oil.

Wages and rent growth both exceed inflation. Last Friday’s Employment Situation report showed that November payrolls expanded by 321k (far exceeding the 2010-present average of 175k), and wages jumped at a compounded annualized pace of 4.9%. If Ben Bernanke were still Fed chair, and he was asked to describe the low inflation environment, he’d probably call it transitory. And he’d probably be right.

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Why do the Japanese want growth?

It seems to be a universal truth that growth is good. There almost can be no bad growth. But what exactly is the purpose of growth, and why do we want it?

Instead of viewing economic growth as the objective, we should rather view growth as progress towards our real objectives.

As you probably already know, Japan has begun “QE-zilla”, where the central bank will go on a buying binge, including private sector assets like equities that have been considered taboo until now by other major central banks. Why are they doing this? To answer this, let’s discuss the nature of the success “Quantitative Easing” has had in the United States.

For growth, you need fixed investment. This means building out real things like roads or houses, and increasing capacity to make the things we consume. The problem the United States encountered coming out of the Great Recession was that there wasn’t enough of fixed investment because the prospective yield on it was lower than buying financial assets. If you have the opportunity between a prospective yield of 4% which requires you to build a new factory, and one of 10% which requires you simply purchase it online in your brokerage account, ceteris paribus, you will always select the latter investment. Quantitative Easing works by compressing the prospective yield on financial assets through raising their prices so that it makes new, fixed investment more attractive.

To sum, for growth, you need fixed investment. For fixed investment, you need equities’ prospective yield lower than that of fixed investment. For equities, you need fixed income prospective yield lower than that of equities. This is the chain of risk premiums that real growth is predicated on compressing.

What does Japan need growth for? Perhaps they instead should be glad that they do not want for baser needs that less developed countries have. The emerging markets require high growth to bring their majorities out of poverty. The United States requires moderate growth to sustain the living standard of its growing population. Perhaps Europe requires some growth to sustain the living standard of its aging population.

We can formulate a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow’s, except for economies. Developing economies are at the bottom, where they require growth just to reliably feed their people. Above them are the emerging markets, which require growth to push their majorities out of poverty. In the middle, you have the United States, which requires it to sustain its middle-class living standard through population growth. At the top, you have Japan. With outstanding living standards, virtually no inflation and high income, have they not, in Maslow’s terms, satisfied the predicates for self-actualization? Have their baser needs not been met, and allowed them the freedom to explore and accomplish the whims of the soul, heart and mind? Also like Maslow’s hierarchy, it is improbable — and perhaps impossible — for a country to progress up the hierarchy without solving for the more basic needs below it.

Perhaps the Japanese don’t need economic growth, but rather, they need to self-actualize to fulfill the maximum extent of their destiny as humans and a culture, and not in an international pissing contest about numbers on a spreadsheet — which they’ve arguably already won.

Economic growth is the progress towards goal of cultural self-actualization. When it is confused for the goal, no real progress can be made.

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Why do stock markets crash?

With the S&P 500 off 5% from all-time highs, and the 10-day volatility in the 87th percentile, some observers are anticipating a 1987-style market correction. In this piece, we analyze the conditions that presaged prior violent corrections.

Starting with what the most recent level of volatility provides us, we split the sample of 10-day historical annualized volatility readings into 2% buckets, and calculate the median, minimum and maximum 10-day annualized volatility which immediately follows:

fv vs rv

We estimated best fit lines using a robust linear fit to exclude outliers. The R code to generate this plot is here.

Although much of the narrative seems to indicate that an elevated level of volatility is a harbinger of higher levels of future volatility, the median case actually shows that future volatility is a fraction (2/3rds in this case) of what was recently experienced, plus a base level (of 3.32). There are outliers, of course, but they are exogenous to the relationship between realized and future volatility. To gain insight into the volatility spikes, we must look elsewhere.

annualized annual vol

The average annualized volatility out of recession is 13.88%, while it spikes to 17.3% in recession. Volatility has only eclipsed 20% outside of recession (or impending recession) twice — the crash of 1987, and the Eurozone meltdown in 2011. Because recessions are the most common cause of volatility, we measure the probability of that kind of event with our proprietary macro model, and include University of Oregon’s Professor Jeremy Piger’s Recession Probability model for additional signal.


Absent a recession, we turn to theory. David Merkel proposes using a discounted cash flow model, whereby the stock market’s Net Present Value is determined by the expected returns in stocks (book value growth and cumulative earnings) discounted by a risk premium for uncertainty to a marginally safer asset. A materialization of this view is spreading the earnings yield and investment grade bond — a variable sometimes referred to as LERP, or the Levered Equity Risk Premium. LERP is the difference in expected returns between stocks and bonds, plus the risk premium required by investors to assume the uncertainty of owning the equity component.

If this is true, we should be able to explain future equity outperformance of bonds by using the starting LERP value and the subsequent period earnings growth. Combined with realized inflation, we can:

expected return parity

More difficult is knowing exactly where the expectations differential ends and the risk premium component begins within LERP. Using the long-run historical realized equity risk premium in the above equation (3%), plugging in market inflation expectations (1.85%), and the yield of VFSTX as its expected return, we could solve for the market’s expected EPS growth, which is 1.49%:

Where x1 = 1, x2 = 1.85, y = 3….
y = -8.26 + 3.06(x1) + 3.45(x2) + 1.22(x3)
3 = -8.26 + 3.06(1) + 3.45(1.85) + 1.22(x3)
3 =  1.1825 + 1.22(x3)
3 – 1.1825 = 1.22(x3)
(3-1.1825)/1.22 = x3
x3 = 1.49

Returning to the 1987 analogue, we can plug in our variables, and contrast them with now. LERP had reached the most extreme reading ever: -6.23%. 5-year inflation expectations, as measured by the Cleveland Fed series, was 4.3%. Using the same technique as above, it implied a 5-year compounded annual EPS growth of 12.3%. Spoiling the party, however, was the Fed, who jacked up rates from 5.95% to 7.62%. This had two effects:

  1. It increased the minimum required return by investors to over 7.62%, which they could get merely by holding cash.
  2. Decreased inflation expectations.

At the same time, actual realized EPS growth up until that point had been very muted in 1987, starting the year negative y/y, and only maxing out at 6.5% towards the end – well below the estimates built into the market of 12.3%. Further, with the spectre of fighting inflation very fresh, future monetary policy expectations became even firmer, as evidenced by 3s-1s curve briefly reaching a whopping 1.41%.

Using these methodologies to analyze prices, it is a very simple numeric case to make against owning equities near the top of the market in 1987.

In contrast to now, the Treasury curve is already steep (policy normalization is already priced in), inflation expectations are at generational lows and have little room to decline, LERP is +1%, and the EPS growth required to beat a 2% short-term corporate bond yield could be estimated using the above methodology at somewhere around 1.5% per year.

If we get a correction anywhere near the magnitude of 1987, or even 2011, the environment and context will bear little resemblance to the mid-cycle corrections of the past.

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Dear Ms Yellen: Raise the inflation target

Dear Ms Yellen:

Congratulations on both your appointment as well as becoming the first woman to head the Federal Reserve. This will potentially make you, at times, the most powerful and important person in the world.

We are more alike than one may assume on the surface. It’s not just that we both like economics, that we were both born at the vanguard of our respective generations (you the Boomers, me the Millennials), or that our fathers were men of science and mothers teachers. Being amongst the first of our generations grants us some perspective on what the mass of humanity which is poised to follow will do, how they may act, spend, and impact the economy. Both of us came of age in a decade of great economic turbulence, and a growing cynicism on the efficacy of public institutions.

Most importantly, you witnessed the largest and richest generation in history come of age, join the labour force, form households, and have children of their own. I am witnessing, at the least, the largest generation — that of your children — in history come of age. The reason I believe this to be significant is that the quantity of the population in this age group (let’s call them the young age cohort) is strongly correlated with inflation. When there is a surfeit of young, household-forming aged people, there has been proportionately heightened inflation.

We each lived through the deepest recession since the Great Depression at roughly the same age, with our slightly younger generational siblings (aged 20-24) suffering an unemployment rate above 16%. The cost to my generation from the past recession is already high. On top of very high unemployment, we have experienced delayed entry into the labour force, deferred forming our own households, and the development of all facets of our lives retarded by the economy running so far below potential. Fixing this output gap, I imagine, is the top priority of the Federal Reserve right now, and there is no doubt that we are making headway. The record 17.2% unemployment of the aforementioned aged 20-24 group has declined to 11.1%.

I write you not only to congratulate you on your appointment, but also warn you of a coming inflation pressure, and petition you to raise the inflation target. No, I am not talking about the contentious unconventional policies the Fed adopted to combat the Great Financial Crisis. The Fed has demonstrated its capability and facility in managing them, and have evidenced their ability to wind them down as appropriate. Instead, I refer to a demographic argument that inflation is strongly related to the size of the young age cohort.

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 10.12.16 PM

Figure 1: Black: year-over-year inflation (fraction) Orange: Model estimate based on population growth of 16-24 years age cohort

You acknowledged the Federal Reserve should not necessarily over-emphasize price stability over unemployment in 1995 [1] by stating, “to me, a wise and humane policy is occasionally to let inflation rise even when inflation is running above target.” The scenario to which you directly referred were the oil supply shocks of the 70’s, but inflation also ran well above 2% in the 80’s – averaging 5.6%. Even after the supply shock ended and energy inflation’s impact on prices was over, inflation averaged 3.6% from 1983 through the end of 1989.

There are, I’m sure you will agree, many things you can attribute as factors to inflation. At its most basic level, inflation simply means that demand is advancing into a upwardly sloping supply curve. But that definition struggles to really pictorialize what that actually means. What seems to make the most sense to me is anchoring to the cycle of life which has been carried over for generations: we are born, we are children, we become educated young adults, we begin our careers, we leave the nest to form our own households, we have children of our own, we work to provide for our families, we work to save for our retirement, and we retire. Each of these steps represent a milestone in our lives, and to a great degree, the likeness of age we do each one of these things is contrasted with our parents. Thus, the demand for the goods and services at each of these milestones represent a demand which is more influenced by our aging than by price. That is to say, the prices of goods and services related to physical maturation is relatively inelastic.

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 11.53.54 PM

Figure 2: Year-over-year change in population aged 16-24, thousands

If much of demand grows by the schedule of maturing young adults, the same cannot so readily be said of supply. The role of demography in the corporate sector is largely contained within marketing departments, and far away from capital allocators who focus on much shorter-term objectives. Young adults find themselves with tougher prospects to break into the job market than any other age cohort [2]. Their inexperience makes them initially less desirable hires (a firm would generally prefer to hire one worker at twice the productivity than two at half the productivity), and the business sector eventually suffers (like it does now) from a deficit of experienced peak-aged workers.

This forms the basis of our demographic trap. Real goods and services are supplied by the production of real capital and labour. The configuration of output — the planning, training of people, purchase of machines — operates at a lag to the decisions of executives, and executives are hesitant to new capital expenditures before they see new demand.

These are frictions which resolve themselves over time. Unless policy, or another force hitherto unevident, prevents it, these frictions will also eventually resolve for Millennials. The main question is how quickly, and at what cost.

The Federal Reserve explicitly does not take responsibility for inflation from supply shocks. I will argue that its tolerance of 5.6% inflation in the 80’s indicates it implicitly distances itself from responsibility of demand shocks, too. Let us be candid and admit that there is a cost, both familial and more broadly societal to turn boys and girls into men and women. Even after they become young adults, taxpayers subsidize below market-rate student loans and colleges, businesses take on entry-level workers and apprentices, and the young adults form households largely by buying or renting at below replacement prices in areas with existing mature infrastructure and services.

The relevance this holds to the Federal Reserve is in the societal cost borne through the surplus inflation attributable to a bulging generation’s maturation. Based on the historical relationship between inflation and the size of the young age cohort, a 2% inflation target is unrealistic and incongruent with the Millennial generation, the biggest in history, forming households. It is difficult to imagine the economy running anywhere but far below its potential output if inflation is forcibly repressed under 2% while Millennials form households. Instead, an accommodative Federal Reserve will ultimately lower the average intensity and length of the elevated inflation by facilitating the creation of all the new real capital, housing stock and infrastructure required to serve the needs of the incoming generation. This real wealth will translate into greater future income, the ability to raise real interest rates, and less inflation because of the subsequent bending of the supply curve. In the same way you fight fire with fire, you can fight inflation with inflation – after all, as the saying goes, the cure for high prices is high prices. Since we have observed income gains to be sticky, the economic opportunity cost of suppressing this generation’s household formation could be optimistically measured in the trillions of dollars over our lifetimes. This is what makes you potentially the most important person in the world, most certainly in the country:  your decisions impact the standard of living of your son’s generation so greatly both contemporarily through (de-)incentivizing and facilitating (or suppressing) real capital formation into the capital factors of aggregate supply — homebuilding, infrastructure investment, factory machinery — as well as the resultant national income that real capital will generate even after you are gone.

Ms Yellen – thus I entreat you to explore raising the inflation target to a level which is more consistent with the demographic cards dealt to you. For Chairman Bernanke, perhaps 2% was an appropriate target. It was not for Chairmen Volcker or even for much of Greenspan’s tenure, and probably is not for you.

Congratulations & regards,

Matthew Busigin.

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Estimating the impact of monetary policy normalisation on assets

A New Age of Policy Transparency

The Federal Reserve, beginning in 2011, began a new era of transparency that began with the publishing of economic and monetary policy projections from Open Market Committee members.  Along with projections for unemployment and GDP, they now include two critical charts: Appropriate timing of policy firming and Target federal funds rate.

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 9.19.27 PM

The Treasury curve itself represents the expectation of the Federal Funds path, plus whatever extra term premium investors may demand for holding longer dated securities. We calculate the expectation – the forward rate – by using the difference in rates at two maturities to find the expected return after investing in the shorter maturity and imputing the yield it would take to break even with the yield of simply buying the longer maturity.

Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 12.31.13 PM

As of January 2012, the Federal Reserve explicitly set a 2% inflation target.  This combines with the consensus of the committee’s longer-run target Fed Funds rate of 4% — 2% nominal, 2% real.  While this had been assumed for a long time, despite the implementation of two quantitative easing programmes, the term premium embedded in the forwards relative to this expectation actually didn’t consistently break negative until it was announced.

Michael Woodford’s 2012 Jackson Hole paper and speech, Methods of Policy Accommodation at the Interest Rate Lower Bound, furthered the view that projection of expectations has the most impact on assets of any monetary policy tool.  The evidence post-new-Fed-era-disclosure is consistent with that conclusion.

The impact of Federal Reserve policy really is broken down into three classes: markets which the Federal Reserve is directly targeting, those that they are trading, and in those which the Fed is doing neither.

The overnight rate is under the Federal Reserve’s direct control, facilitated by the unique tools afforded to a central bank.  After January 2012, combining the Fed’s existing dominance over overnight rate with the Treasury curve being the sum of Fed Funds path expectations, the Treasury curve could also be considered directly targeted, albeit with the optionality of policy deviation potentially presenting a positive or negative term premium.

The agency mortgage market falls under the traded market class.  Instead of price targets, the Fed has set macro conditional purchase volume targets.  This serves to increase liquidity and decrease asset supply of the traded market.  The impact of the Fed’s policy on these markets can be inconsistent, however: if the Fed is simultaneously buying and conveying uncertainty about continuation of future policy, the market will react by forming an equilibrium to the average expectation of both the normal supply and demand of the asset, combined with the extra projected demand from the Fed.

Markets of all classes which the Fed does not either target or trade are still impacted by the actions the Fed takes in the markets which they do.  Much like traded markets class, the minimum return demanded by investors must be at least that of the equivalently termed risk-free investment.  More broadly, investors demand the minimum return on any asset to be greater than the equivalently termed lesser perceived risky investment.

The expected return of any asset is the weighted-average outcome of probabilities (summing 1) multiplied by their respective scenario returns.

E(R) = ∑ (probability₁ * return₁) + (probability₂ * return₂) + (probabilityⁿ * returnⁿ)

Unless market participants are willing to accept a lower probability-weighted expected return, the expected return across all assets in this class of market is the same after beta and liquidity premia.

The penultimate question remains: what will happen to asset prices when policy begins to normalise?

The Equity Market

Evidence the Treasury term premium is embedded in the S&P 500: when it's steep, hikes are already priced in

Figure 1: Evidence the Treasury term premium is embedded in the S&P 500: when it’s steep, hikes are already priced in

The mean monthly total return of the S&P 500 is 0.65%.  That return drops, but is still positive when the Fed Funds rate increases, to 0.45%. However, when the term premium between the 10y and Fed Funds rate is positive, the average return returns to 0.64%. When the term premium is above 1%, the average return is even higher than the sample mean – 0.82%!  When adding the condition that the benchmark rate falls, the mean monthly return climbs to 1.27%. This tells us something very significant to the discussion: the price of S&P 500 contains the expectation of monetary policy.  Thusly, monetary policy tightening has not negatively impacted the S&P 500 unless it happens more quickly than the market expects.   In fact, both the 10y and the equity market don’t necessarily negatively react to Fed Funds hikes.

Consider the simple equation:

EY = ERP + 10y

ERP = EY – 10y

Figure 2: ERP vs Real 10s, 2s10s and 1y SPX Realised Volatility dependent variables

Figure 2: ERP vs Real 10s, 2s10s and 1y SPX Realised Volatility dependent variables

The Equity Risk Premium, or ERP, contains the information on the spread of expectations between our benchmark asset (the 10y) and the equity market.  If the stock market assumed no growth, but the certainty of return on capital was 100%, the difference between the benchmark rate and the stock market would be minimal.  In reality, the expected difference in returns diverge with expected inflation, liquidity needs, and the expected future rate path.

The term structure, as represented by the 2s10s Treasury term spread, has contributed from 2.43% to -1.83% to ERP.

Figure 3: Decomposition of the Equity Risk Premium
Figure 3: Decomposition of the Equity Risk Premium

Let’s fill in a little more detail into the ERP equation:

ERP = (Real 10s * -0.58047) + (SPX 1y RV * 8.83836) + (2s10s * 0.85830) + (Residual Risk Premium)

A few observations: the most volatile term is the liquidity contribution, which we estimate as the sum of the SPX 1y Realised Volatility and residual error (viewed as the Residual Risk Premium). However, it is also the most mean-reverting.  The fundamental premise is that this is the true equity market risk premium, and although unknowable, will either compress, or ultimately be shifted to the other terms (real rates and the 10y). The Real 10y represents inflation expectations, and therefore the fulcrum on which the preference for fixed cash-flows rests.  The last two pieces of the equation, the term structure and 10y, represent the minimum required return, and the embedded expectations for how the discount rate will move in the future.

Using this framework, we can run some thought experiments on potential future interest rate scenarios.

The simplest scenario would be estimating a full policy normalisation – a Fed Funds rate at 4% (2% real, 2% nominal) as estimated by the FOMC for the long-term rate, and a 5% 10y (1% term premium).  In this scenario, the 2y is unlikely to be less than 4.5%, leaving a 2s10s spread of 0.5%, which is consistent with a post-policy normalisation mid-economic cycle value.  At first blush, since EY = ERP + 10y, the 10y portion of the EY equation is increased by 217bps.  However, simultaneously, the 2s10s term in EY likely declines by 186bps (216.5 * 0.85830).  Therefore, if neither inflation expectations or the liquidity premium change, EY would increase around 31bps – roughly 80 S&P 500 points lower than at the time of writing (4.8% of 1,665) if there were no change in EPS.  In the context of the discussion, this is a rounding error.

It is not necessarily the case that the other two terms, liquidity premium and inflation expectations, remain unchanged during this process.  Monetary policy normalisation would likely push real rates higher, which would be on balance positive for equities (recall that the real rate term has a coefficient of -0.58, which means real rates rising compresses ERP, which would increase the value of stocks if the benchmark rate & earnings were unchanged).  The last term, the liquidity premium, is the most difficult to forecast, but also the most quickly normalising.  It is likely unknowable where this will be on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis, but of all of the terms, it is the least stationary.

Monetary policy normalisation does not seem likely to adversely impact equities as long as it is occurs no more quickly than the market has already priced in.

The Corporate Bond Market

The Baa spreads

Figure 4: The Baa spreads

The bond market is, perhaps, more straightforward.  While the impact of the term structure must be teased out with techniques like component analysis and decomposition, the rates market has a term structure that directly conveys expected future rates.

Long-term rates are reasonably well anchored.  What happens in the intermediate-term is far more volatile, however, and the impact of intermediate-term expectations adds to the volatility to the long-term bonds because of the no-arbitrage condition embedded in the forward rates.

Figure 5: 2s10s vs the future Baa-10s spread

Figure 5: Scatterplot of 2s10s vs the future Baa-10s spread

The Baa spread between both 10s and 20s have enjoyed a very close relationship over many decades. As the expectation of ZIRP’s eventual end begins to ripple through the curve, the spread has blown out, and the Baa-10s has not normalised to previous post-recession levels, ostensibly because of the abnormally low short-rates this far in the economic cycle.

Figure 6: Discrete samples of 2s10s vs Next 52w Baa-10s spread

Figure 6: Discrete samples of 2s10s vs Next 52w Baa-10s spread

The expectation of higher (lower) future rates correlates with compressing (widening) future credit spreads.  After all, why take on credit-risk now when you expect you can purchase risk-free securities at competitive rates later?

Questioning the Veracity of the Term Structure

A termed risk-free rate in the future is the Net Present Value of the risk-free rates to maturity.  This is an opportunity-cost or no-arbitrage condition:  for instance, no-one will purchase a 10y now with the expectation purchasing a 7y to rolled into a 3y, or or that time-weighted average of overnight rates, will make more money.

Figure 7: Distribution of (Fed Funds - NGDP)

Figure 7: Distribution of (Fed Funds – NGDP)

The average FF-NGDP value in expansion -2.19%.  The same value in recession is 4.26%.

The consequence is that those predicting a policy normalisation are actually either implicitly forecasting an acceleration of NGDP to somewhere near 6%, or that the Fed will tighten prematurely (which would likely lead to recession).

Since 1Q 2012, NGDP %-y/y has declined every quarter but once, and as of the time of writing, is just 2.9% – the lowest ever outside of, or leading into, recession.  The policy neutral position as priced into the curve already assumes a level of acceleration or policy error that seems unlikely at this juncture.

If the expectations for Fed hiking soften, the benchmark rate could simultaneously soften with a flatter term structure.  Ceteris paribus, both would contribute to lower rates, credit spreads and earning yields.


Markets are not impacted by monetary policy normalistion so much as the shifting expectation of normalisation.

Not only is policy normalisation expected to have a minimal impact on asset prices moving forward, but the probabilities of a slower normalisation appear underpriced.

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Will this be a lost decade for profits?

On Memorial Day this year, we lost our best friend, Godiva.  This piece is dedicated to the wonderful memories she gave us.

It seems absurd to consider that 2013-2023 will be a decade of lost profits when they have grown explosively – +178% in the past decade.  Surely the next decade would be better for corporate profits than the decade that saw the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

Figure 1: Trailing 10y Corporate Profit growth

Figure 1: Trailing 10y Corporate Profit growth

Figure 2: S&P 500 EPS growth %-y/y

Figure 2: S&P 500 EPS growth %-y/y

As the private sector recovers with a return of housing and automobiles, consensus analyst estimates put 2014 S&P 500 EPS over $123, more than $20 — and 20% — above the present value, representing a substantial re-acceleration of profit growth.

In order to judge the veracity of these estimates, we must first ask ourselves – why are corporate profits already so high?

Figure 3: Foreign % of profits

Figure 3: Foreign % of profits

A unique combination of factors led to this scenario.  Technology boosted productivity, which allowed corporate output to be generated with lower labour intensity.  Meanwhile, large deficits stabilized end-demand so the less productive workers displaced out of their jobs could still consume the output.

At the same time, there was an explosion of foreign profits, partially due to growing export demand, and the balance attributable to the foreign exchange rates gaining strength, so USD-denominated EPS increased as foreign-denominated sales were booked in USD.

Figure 4: Taxes on corporate income / Profits before tax

Figure 4: Taxes on corporate income / Profits before tax

The level of profits, along with the consumer price level, form the tug-of-war between labour and capital, and the Great Recession provided much slack in the labour market, allowing the balance to shift towards capitalists.  The balance between labour and capital is probably most regulated through corporate taxes, which (like most taxes), are near all-time lows levels.

With all of these tail-winds, it is easy to see how corporate profits have exploded.Figure 5: Non-residential Fixed Investment/Profits vs next 10y profits

Figure 5: Non-residential Fixed Investment/Profits vs next 10y profits

At their core, corporate profits are what’s left after a business has invested to create a productive asset, has sold the output of the asset, and paid the costs to maintain and operate it.  The most important deduction is that revenue, hence profit, is limited by the productive capacity of a corporation.  That productive capacity is build out through investment.  Therefore future profits are governed by present investment.  As per figure 5, high (low) re-investment has a strong relationship to high (low) future profit growth.

American corporations now have turned from investors to rentiers, and that’s not just bad for present-day employment:  it’s also the ultimate limiting factor on future profit growth.

Figure 6: Corporate Profits as a fraction of NGDP vs future Corporate Profit Growth

Figure 6: Corporate Profits as a fraction of NGDP vs future Corporate Profit Growth

The profit level itself is well known to be anti-correlated with future profit growth.  Fat profits themselves are a target for other corporations, both domestic and foreign. Combined with the declining labour, real capital and financial intensity of production, technology enables competition to chip away at high profit levels.

Figure 7: Eurozone unemployment

Figure 7: Eurozone unemployment

Foreign revenue seems unlikely to provide the same boost as it has before, along with the companion foreign exchange gains.  With much of the emerging markets going through economic rebalancing growth pains associated with their rapid growth, and the Eurozone continuing to tread lower (unemployment continues to get worse despite the “solutions” implemented), this likely means at least tepid-at-best demand for American output internationally as the foreign cost of production adjusts downward.

Figure 7: Federal Deficit and Household Liabilities

Figure 8: Federal Deficit and Household Liabilities

If profit growth doesn’t manifest from trade, it must come from either the government deficits, or from the household sector.  It seems unlikely that, absent a new recession, there is any political support from either party to increase the deficit.  It already has been cut in half, now running at 4.89% of GDP, down 1.6% of GDP between 4Q and 1Q alone.  Concurrently, after years of leveraging, the de-leveraging process in US households may be finished in aggregate, but the demand for credit remains nearly zero despite record low interest rates.  It seems unlikely that these two factors will provide much support for corporate profits.

Figure 8: The Japanese labour experience

Figure 9: The Japanese labour experience

The weak labour market post-Great Recession that has provided a great boon to the corporate negotiations with the labour market will not last forever.  The Japanese, despite decades of balance-recession, have seen unemployment rates drop through scarcity of prime-aged workers.  This is not immune to cyclical effect, but over the long-term, the Japanese experience has seen their labour scarcity result in very low unemployment rates.  The US experience may be different, but it is also rapidly converging on higher dependency ratios.  Ceteris paribus, this will boost labour negotiating power over corporations.

Ultimately, future profit growth is predicated on realizing return on assets created through investment today.  Corporate behavior has instead been a rush to claim economic rents rather than creating new assets.  When or if the long-term growth outlook improves, investment to create new capacity will be more expensive due to fewer peak-aged workers.  It is impossible to know exactly how the future will play out, but though it is unlikely that profits will actually decline (this has not happened since the 1950’s), the great tail-winds that drove it to the present levels probably won’t persist into the next decade.  In fact, the most probably case is an unremarkable reversion to normal levels of profit/GDP with lower free-cashflow yields, lower unemployment and higher wage growth.

Figure 10: Levered Equity Risk Premium (the maximum EY - Baa yield)
Figure 10: Levered Equity Risk Premium (the maximum EY – Baa yield)

The ultimate question to most readers: how does it matter to asset prices?  Using the assumption that all assets have the same risk-adjusted expected return (why would you hold an asset that has an inferior one?), we can compare the yields on stocks and investment-grade corporate bonds through the Levered Equity Risk Premium to infer what rate the market already expects equities to grow earnings.   The present value of +0.78% indicates that the capital markets already discounted this.  Until LERP breaches sub-zero, investors should expect to be able to capture a risk premium as long as EPS don’t fall.

However, if profit growth does remain tepid, investment grade corporate bonds are likely to at least beat equities on a risk-adjusted basis.

What does this all mean?  My conclusion is that corporate profits are going to be weak over the next decade, but that it actually won’t matter very much to assets, and even be beneficial to labour.


Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 8.39.45 PM

Let me share two memories of Godiva.

My wife, Jillian, rescued her a year before she met me. The first time I met Godiva, it was the third date with Jillian, late at night after watching the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.  As we went up the two flights of stairs in her parents house, Jillian first, the dog in the middle, and me trailing, Godiva stopped and turned around on the second last step, baring her teeth and growling.  I don’t speak dog, but she was pretty articulate:  you’re okay, but this is where my family sleeps, and you’re going no further.  Jillian had actually wandered away into her bedroom, and I (not wanting facial rearrangement) had to call softly to her to intervene, trying not to startle the agitated beast in the process. She didn’t hear me over the air conditioning, but came back out a few moments later to see where I was.  After seeing the situation, she dragged Godiva fully up the stairs, we all sat down, and the unfamiliar 90lb black dog hopped in my lap and gave me plenty of compensatory kisses. This was the rocky start to our relationship, but I learnt the most important thing about her character that night: her pack was the most important thing to her.

The second story was in the loudest thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed.  We took a while to fall asleep with all of the banging and crashing.  Godiva, like many dogs, wasn’t a fan of thunderstorms.  When the loudest thunder rattled the house, we all woke up, and the dog immediately rushed to close the gap between the door and her “mother”, barking and growling in a valiant attempt to intimidate the invaders.  After she had successfully warded off the villainous thunder, she put her tail between her legs, and slinked up onto the bed (she rarely slept with us), balling tightly between us, obviously still very frightened.  It was at that point that I knew her character was noble and indomitable.  She was willing to face head-on something she greatly feared in order to protect her pack.

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 9.12.55 PMThat’s just the kind of girl she was, and we miss her dreadfully.

She waited for us to come home every night, and this is her face in the upper bedroom window of our old home.  I hope there’s a dog heaven, I hope that’s where we go, and if there is, I’m pretty sure this is what we’ll see when we get there.

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Unemployment in the Age of Capital Abundance

I – The Nominal and the Real

In economics, there are two kinds of problems:  real problems and nominal problems.

Moai_Rano_rarakuThe deforestation on Easter Island destroyed most of the Rapa Nui.  When it was necessary to leave the island and start new lives in a new land with an environment able to support their people, there were not enough large trees left to build ocean-worthy vessels.  Their population declined to 15-20% of their peak population within a century.

This is an example of a real problem. A real problem is a lack of natural resources, capital goods, land or labour, or when any combination of these factors of production sum to an inadequate value to produce enough to maintain (or better) the general welfare of a people.

A nominal problem is one which is contained in the abstract.  They can result from frictions in capital structure, uneven distribution of income, or simply in the collective choices of participants in an economy.

The wealth contained in an economy is its capital stock:  our oil fields, forests, farms, houses, offices, cars, computers, factories, data centers, software and construction equipment.  Our potential is richly governed by the quantity of our workers, the durability of their work ethos coupled with their experience and education.  This is the real economy.

Capital consists of raw materials, instruments of labour, and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are employed in producing new raw materials, new instruments, and new means of subsistence. -Wage Labour & Capital (Marx, 1847)

II – Marginal Capital Allocation

An economy with inadequate capital has firm prices and high capital returns.  An economy with a glut of capital has soft prices and low capital returns.

Economic growth is the expansion of capital – and subsequent expansion of capital utilization. Investment creates capital. Capital is the accumulated labour directed by the formation of financial capital.  This capital, or accumulated labour, represents capacity to sustain consumption.

High (low) capital returns don’t necessarily equate to high (low) capital prices.  An outsized capital return likely indicates that additional investment will be induced, which could compete to drive the price of its output down.

Growth in employment hinges on investment.  The utilisation of existing capital maintains the stability of existing employment, but new employment requires new investment.  This is demonstrated with Figure 1, showing a very strong relationship between the health of the employment market and Investment net of Capital Consumption as a fraction of GDP.

Figure 1: Variations in Net Investment explain 92% of unemployment from 1990-on.

Figure 1: Variations in Net Investment explain 92% of unemployment from 1990-on.

Unemployment is largely a result of rentierism, which we’ve defined as the behavior of collecting economic rent from existing assets instead of creating new ones. The act of collecting rent is a preference executed on marginal free cash flow dollars, principally by the corporate sector.  Corporate Management have three options, with increasingly expected yield requirements:

  1. Hold it as cash:  this is a liquidity preference, which is pro-cyclical, and becomes decreasingly attractive as the embedded put option in cash becomes too expensive to hold while it decays, thus becoming less competitive with capital accumulation options that have a positive real expectancy
  2. Purchase existing capital:  this can be either the purchase of used or previously existing fixed capital, such as machinery or real estate, or capital assets, including a firm’s own stock
  3. Invest in new capital:  building a new factory or drilling a new oil well

III – The Marginal Rentier Opportunity Curve

J. M. Keynes (and Irving Fisher before him) furnish us with the Marginal Efficiency of Capital as the excess return of a piece of capital over its supply price.  The supply price can be one of two values:  the market price (buying used or existing capital) or replacement cost (new net investment).

I define the marginal efficiency of capital as being equal to that rate of discount which would make the present value of the series of annuities given by the returns expected from the capital-asset during its life just equal to its supply price. This gives us the marginal efficiencies of particular types of capital-assets. The greatest of these marginal efficiencies can then be regarded as the marginal efficiency of capital in general. The reader should note that the marginal efficiency of capital is here defined in terms of the expectation of yield and of the current supply price of the capital-asset. It depends on the rate of return expected to be obtainable on money if it were invested in a newly produced asset; not on the historical result of what an investment has yielded on its original cost if we look back on its record after its life is over. -General Theory of Employment, Interest & Money (Keynes, 1933)

There in fact exist marginal efficiencies between all investment opportunities.

Figure 2: The Marginal Rentier Opportunity Curve outlines the yields on principal investment opportunities available for the marginal cash-flow dollar

Figure 2: The Marginal Rentier Opportunity Curve outlines the yields on principal investment opportunities available for the marginal cash-flow dollar

I propose, approximately illustrated in Figure 2,  the Marginal Rentier Opportunity Curve, which offers a comparison between the principal investment opportunities available. The current yield is not the same as the Expected Return.  We can, however, tease out the relative expected returns by spreading spots on this curve.

The investment opportunity set has ascending and encapsulating risk premiums:  Attractiveness of new investment is measured against the sum of all premiums between it and the risk-free rate.

Thus, I further propose:  The price of capital is the Net Present Value of Risk-adjusted Expected Return discounted from the Marginal Rentier Opportunity

 IV – Used Capital Competition

So far, I have postulated:

  1. The wealth of an economy, and the capacity for its income, is contained in the accumulated labour, or the capital stock, of its people.
  2. Economic growth, measured by real income, is the accumulation of labour and subsequent utilisation through net new investment.
  3. The marginal investment dollar purchases either existing capital assets, or the creation of new capital assets through net new investment.
  4. Marginal investment dollars that are not allocated into net new investment cause a reduction of income to the household sector, and increase unemployment.

Assuming the aforementioned postulates true, it can be observed that the rational business manager will, perhaps simultaneously:

  1. Increase liabilities from portion of the Marginal Rentier Opportunity Curve with the lowest expected return.
  2. Increase assets from the portion of the Marginal Rentier Opportunity Curve with the highest expected return.

This necessarily implies that, if the risk-adjusted expected return is not highest in net new investment, the business manager will instead invest the marginal dollar into existing capital. If the price of capital is the Net Present Value of Risk-adjusted Expected Return discounted from the Marginal Rentier Opportunity, and the business manager finds the most attractive investment opportunities in the purchase of existing capital, we can conclude:  the price of existing capital must be bid up high enough in order for new capital to be competitive.

V – Jobless Recoveries

Figure 6: The relationship between Net investment as % of GDP as 12-month payroll growth

Figure 3: The relationship between Net investment as % of GDP as 12-month payroll growth

The significance of existing capital available cheaply to allocators is that, until existing capital is expensive enough to make new capital competitive, net new investment will be muted, and so too will employment growth (figure 3).

The common understanding is stocks lead the economy at economic turning points.  This is not always true.  Coming out of the .com bust, the economy bottomed in 2001, more than a year before S&P 500 finally did.  The explanation is expectations lead the economy, but I find this argument runs counter my observations in expectations around cycle turns.  I offer an alternative: that which causes equities to (typically) bottom is also what causes the economy to recover.

The recovery after the .com bust recession was termed a jobless recovery, and for good reason:  jobs took even longer than the stock market to bottom!

Figure 3: The jobless recovery following the .com bust

Figure 4: The jobless recovery following the .com bust

Using our understanding of job-growth as net-investment driven, we can clearly see why there were no jobs:  there was no investment.  The next observation we can make from Figure 4 is the lack of investment, even years after the recovery, until after the S&P 500 had bottomed.  Finally, in later 2003, the Net Investment is elastic to the upward movement in the S&P 500.

For this argument, we approximate the S&P 500 as the aggregate price-level of existing capital.

The inference is that the jobless recovery of late 2001-2003 was the result of a net investment-less recovery, which was probably the result of existing capital being available more cheaply.

We can see the same pattern emerge, as demonstrated by Figure 4, in the present recovery.

Figure 4: The second jobless recovery

Figure 5: The second jobless recovery

Perhaps most incredibly, Net Investment went negative for the first time in history of the series going back to 1947 during The Great Recession (figure 6).  Our capital stock was depreciating at a greater rate than we were replacing it.

Figure 5: The long-run relationship between Net Investment and growth in employment

Figure 6: The long-run relationship between Net Investment and growth in employment

The explanation that jobless recoveries result from a scarcity of net-investment because existing capital is too cheap for new capital creation to be competitive enjoys intuitive sense, as well some recent historical evidence.

VI – Contemporary Interpretation

If the price of existing capital has been rising, and Net Investment has been muted, we conclude that the price of creating new capital is not competitive with existing capital.

The great irony is that, the richer the country has become, there is less work to be done, which leaves workers with less income.  This is our great nominal problem.

Figure 7: Labour force and population growth projections through 2050

Figure 7: Labour force and population growth projections through 2050

Figure 7: Labour force and Private Non-Residential Fixed Investment growth

Figure 7: Labour force and Private Non-Residential Fixed Investment growth

The CBO and BLS forecast around 0.7% annual labour force growth this decade, and just 0.5% in the 2020s.  This means the growth of future requirements for fixed capital and accumulated labour that support workers — such as office buildings or automobiles — will be subdued, even more so than the production of goods consumed by all demographic groups.

Combined with productivity efficiencies in the Internet age that provide a declining Real Capital Intensity of Economic Output, we require less capital formation.  This potentially explains why the price of real capital had been below its previous peak for so long, and consequently why net investment (and employment growth by proxy) has been limited.

With the S&P 500 (our approximate aggregate capital market value) closing once again near record highs, it seems likely that new investment will be more attractive.

Perhaps Conor Sen put it best:  Wringing the risk premia out of existing capital is a necessary precondition for new capital formation (and hiring!).

I hope and believe we are there, and maybe we’ve learnt something new about the nature of jobless recoveries.

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The Three Types of Marginal Capital Allocation

As we discovered before, the marginal decision on cashflow re-allocation drives cyclicality.

There are principally three types of capital allocation transactions.

If you are expanding capital stock, or you are funding the expansion of capital stock, you are investing.  This includes net fixed investment, the purchase of newly issued marketable securities which fund new investment, or otherwise funding ventures which do. Purchases of existing shares on the secondary markets, such as the purchase of stocks and bonds outside of IPOs do not represent investment, but simply swapping the ownership between the cash and security holders.

If you are underwriting convexity risk to capture theta, you are providing liquidity. You needn’t be doing this with options.  Any portfolio instrument or stance that pays an expected time premium for adopting convexity risk will do, whether it be buying a stock which has a temporary disconnection from fundamentals or shorting volatility instruments.

If you are doing neither, you are simply trying to exploit a monopoly on existing capital.  This can be accomplished by owning existing fixed capital assets and selling the output, or by ownership of securities which stake a claim in ownership of existing fixed capital assets and income.  The value of existing capital is relative to the supply of existing real capital to meet present demand for output.  This is most profitable when there is an existing deficit of real capital from inadequate past investment relative to present demand.  The value is bolstered by the frictions to competition by new investment to expand capacity.

While investment is the only non-rentier transaction type, the provision of liquidity, particularly during times of market dislocation, generates value by raising the unrealised equity value of other holders, thereby freeing their capital to service something more productive.  However, if the liquidity provider previously had liquidity preference — that is, he developed his monopoly on capital by first hoarding it through non-reinvestment accumulation — this reverts to unproductive behaviour on balance.

The decision to allocate like a rentier is not entirely autonomous.  There is a realistic limit to the amount of fixed capital which can be profitable and manageable by the agency of a single individual or household.  The purchase of securities (or shares) to defer the management of fixed capital thus also defers the decision to be a capitalist or a rentier.

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The State of Rentierism

Interest in rentierism has begun to percolate in the last few years.  I propose a framework for analysing and discussing the modern state of rentierism in the terms of behaviours, incentives and empirical impact on the economy.

Both the capitalist and the rentier seek to exploit their monopoly on capital to acquire more capital.  Rentier behaviour is typically found in households and corporations, with the public sector tending to run deficits to support the former two.

The distinction between the rentier and capitalist is that the capitalist reinvests her cashflow into creating new capacity – or new real capital.  The rentier more simply exploits his existing monopoly on capital for cashflow.  The capitalist accumulates new real capital, which expands the nation’s capital stock while rentier accumulates economic rent.

All other things equal (including return on capital), it is preferable to be a rentier.  The capitalist creates new things, and is constant competition with other capitalists to provide the highest quality cost goods and services at the lowest cost.  Because capital reinvestment is risky, return on capital is generally lower for collecting economic rents.

The fulcrum upon which the capitalist and the rentier are defined is the marginal decision to re-invest cashflows.

Unchecked, a reduction of re-investment subtracts income from the rest of the economy. When this happens in aggregate, the labour which was used to create the production won’t be able to purchase all of their own output.  Rentiers thus reduce labour demand and demand for the output their assets produce.


Figure 1: Saving as a % of Investment = Unemployment Rate

To approximate the Aggregate Rentierism in the econonmy, we look at the fraction of savings that investment comprise of.  We observe in Figure 1 that Gross Private Savings as a % of Gross Private Investment explains 70% of the unemployment rate. Rentierism is unemployment.

Figure 2: 85-country study regressing age against saving and investment

Figure 2: 85-country study regressing age against saving and investment

Rentierism itself is not morally objectionable.  The gap between savings and investment is explainable through demographics.  The relationship between age and both income and investment is well understood.  The young have little income and large risk appetite.  As they approach middle-age, their income and investment peak.  At the onset of old age, the high-income dramatically reduce investment to save with less risk towards retirement.  Retirees then dis-save and liquidate investments for sustenance.  Figure 2, drawn from Saving and Demographic Change: The Global Dimension (Bosworth, Chodorow-Reich), demonstrates this effect empirically.

Figure 3: Savings Rate over Age

Figure 3: Savings Rate over Age

The agents which make these decisions, even if impacted by household demographics, aren’t always households themselves, but we’ll start there.

Based on the 2011 Bureau of Labour Statistics’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, we imputed household a savings rates across age-groups using the difference between Income Before Taxes and Average Annual Expenditures.  This is an approximation, and we just use the shape of the curve in our analysis.

The shape of this curve intones a marginal propensity to accumulate rent based on demographics.  Can we really blame our middle-aged for saving with less risk for retirement?

Not all savings are accumulated equally.  The Bureau of Labour Statistic’s Personal Savings Rate accounts for Fixed Investment as consumption, whilst the Federal Reserve’s Z.1 Flow of Funds report reports that as a form of saving.

Figure 4: Consumer Expenditure Survey data on age-groups

Figure 4: Consumer Expenditure Survey data on age-groups

Both are valid in their own context.  The Z.1’s F.10 subsection details the breakdown, including comparison to the Bureau of Labour Statistics version.

The difference between the two provide the basis for rent-seeking savings and capitalist savings.  The capitalist household saves by creating new fixed capital, while the rentier household savings in cash and financial assets.  Thus, we find the household decisions that drive rentier behaviour are probably principally driven, at least over the long-run, but demographics.

Cyclical swings in the marginal propensity to save also invoke the paradox of thrift: when everyone saves, aggregate demand falls, and so too does income, and the value of assets frequently fall more than the cash balances increase.

Households aren’t the only agent which demonstrates rent-seeking behaviour.

Figure 5: The fraction of income which is reinvested into capex

Figure 5: The fraction of income which is reinvested into capex

Using historical data from the F.101 series of the Federal Reserve’s Z.1 Flow of Funds release, we form a ratio between Income before taxes and Capital Expenditures (figure 5).  We find something which looks strikingly like long-term government interest rates.

Business capex to income is proportionate to long-term government interest rates.

This draws us to our central conclusion: rentierism is a dependent derivative of capitalism.  A positive risk-free rate is the ultimate vehicle of the rent-seeker.

We can see that the cost of money is proportionate to the level of re-investment.  This infers that a high cost of money is dependent on a high level of re-investment.


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