Venezuela’s proposed “petro” cryptocurrency

the petro

Yesterday Venezuela began pre-sales of its petrocurrency, called the petro.  The idea is that each token the government creates will be freely exchangeable into Venezuelan bolivars at the previous day’s price of a barrel of a specified Venezuelan crude oil produced by the national oil company.  According to the Washington Post,  $735 million worth of the tokens were sold on the first day.

uses?

For people with money trapped inside Venezuela, the petro may have some utility, since it will be accepted by Caracas for any official payments.  For such potential users, the fact that the government determines the dollar/bolivar exchange rate and that a discount to the crude price will be applied are niggling worries.

perils

The wider issue, which remains unaddressed in this case, is that the spirit behind cryptocurrencies is a deep distrust of government, a strong belief that practically no ruling body will do the right thing to protect the fiscal well-being of users of its currency.

In Venezuela’s case, just look at the bolivar.  The official exchange rate says $US1 = B10.  But the actual rate, as far as I can tell, has fallen from that level over the past year or so to $US1 = B25000.

a little history

The more serious worry is that the history of commodity-backed currencies isn’t pretty.

Mexico

In the 1980s, for example a struggling Mexican government issued petrobonds.  The idea was that at maturity the holder could choose to receive either $1000 or the value of a specified number of barrels of Mexican state-produced crude.  Unfortunately for holders, Mexico reneged on the oil-price link.  My recollection (this happened pre-internet so I can’t find confirmation online) is the Mexico also declined to make the return of principal on time.

the US

The fate of gold-backed securities around the world during the 1930s isn’t so hot, either.  The US, for example, massively devalued (through depreciation of the gold exchange rate) the gold-backed currency it issued.  It also basically banned the private ownership of physical gold and forced holders to turn in the lion’s share of their holdings to Washington in return for paper currency.

 

In short, when the going gets tough, there’s a big risk that the terms of any government-backed financial instrument get drastically rewritten.  This recasting can come silently through inflation.  But, if history holds true, government backing of a commodity link to financial instruments gives more the illusion of protection than the reality–especially so in cases where the reality is needed.

 

 

 

inflation and stocks

wage inflation in the US?  …finally?

In my earlier post today, I didn’t mention that in the Employment Situation report from the Labor Department a week ago Friday, the annual rate of growth in wages rose from the 2.5% at which it had been stuck for a very long time, despite declining unemployment, to almost 3%.

an aside

Inflation in general is about prices in general increasing.  Deflation is when prices in general are actually falling.  Deflation is scarier than inflation both because it’s less common/harder to treat and because we have the object lesson of Japan, where a quarter-century of unchecked deflation has moved that country from penthouse to basement among world economic powers.

curing inflation

In developed countries, inflation is always about wages.

The garden variety, which seems to be what the Employment Situation may be signaling, is easy to cure.  …a little painful, but easy.

Raise interest rates.

The idea:  businesses want to expand.  To do that they need more workers.  But everyone is already employed somewhere.  So firms have to offer big wage boosts to poach workers from rivals.  Raising interest rates (eventually) stops that.  It increases the cost of expansion and also slows down demand.

Also nipping incipient inflation in the bud prevents consumer behavior from becoming all about defending oneself from it.

who wasn’t expecting this?

For years, economists have been anticipating a rise in inflation.  The first (false, then) alarms sounded maybe six years ago.

But, as they say, nothing is ever fully discounted until it happens.  In addition, Washington is arguably compounding the problem by enacting fiscal stimulus almost a decade too late–making it more likely that rates will go up sooner and more rapidly than if Washington had done nothing.  (Where did the deficit hawks disappear to?)

calling for higher inflation

Last week a group of prominent economists wrote an open letter to the Federal Reserve arguing that the current Fed target of 2% annual inflation is too low.

Their basic view is:

–circumstances have changed a lot in the US since 2% became the economists’ consensus for the right level of inflation a quarter-century ago, so it isn’t necessarily the right number anymore, and

–the lack of oomph in the US economy is a result of maintaining an inflation target that’s too low.  So let’s try 3% instead.

Having a 3% inflation target instead of 2% isn’t a new idea.  I heard it for the first time about 20 years ago, from an economist at the then Swiss Bank Corp.  Her argument was that getting from 3% to 2% inflation would require an enormous amount of effort without any obvious payoff.  The whole idea of inflation targeting is to eliminate the possibility of the kind of runaway inflation–and associated crazy economic choices–of the kind the US had begun to experience in the late 1970s.  Whether actual inflation is 3% or 2% matters little, just as long as the current level is not the launching pad for a progression of 4%, 6% 9%…

Another way of looking at this would be to say that the nominal figures matter much more than academic economists realize, and that 4% nominal GDP growth (2% trend economic growth + 2% inflation) feels too much like stagnation.  Therefore, it undermines the entrepreneurial tendencies of ordinary people.

 

How to create 3% inflation?  …slower interest rate increases and/or increased government stimulus (meaning tax cuts and infrastructure spending).

 

The letter certainly won’t affect the Fed’s thinking about a rate rise in June.  But it seems to me that the debate on this issue can only intensify.

By the way, I think 3% inflation would be good for stocks, neutral/bad for fixed income.

 

the Fed’s inflation target: 2% or 3%?

There seems to me to be increasing questioning recently among professional economists about whether the Fed’s official inflation target of 2% is a good thing or whether the target should be changed to, say, 3%.

The 2% number has been a canon of academic thought in macroeconomics for a long time.  But the practical issue has become whether 2% inflation and zero are meaningfully different.  Critics of 2% point out that governments around the world haven’t been able to stabilize inflation at that level.  Rather, inflation seems to want to dive either to zero or into the minus column once it gets down that low, with all the macro problems that entails.  It’s also proving exceptionally hard to get the needle moving in the upward direction from t sub-2% starting point.  My sense is that the 3% view is gaining significant momentum because of current central bank struggles.

This is not the totally wonkish topic it sounds like at first.  A 2% inflation target or 3% actually makes a lot of difference for us as stock market investors:

–If the target is 3%, Fed interest rate hikes will happen more slowly than Wall Street is now expecting.

–At the same time, the end point for normalization of rates–having cash instruments provide at least protection from inflation–is 100 basis points higher, which would be another minus for bonds (other than inflation-adjusted ones) during the normalization process.

–Over long periods of time, stocks have tended to deliver annual returns of inflation + 6%.  If inflation is 2%, nominal returns are 8% yearly; at 3% inflation, returns are 9%.  In the first case, your money doubles in 9 years, in the second, 8 years.  This doesn’t sound like much, either, although over three decades the higher rate of compounding produces a third more nominal dollars.

Yes, the real returns are the same.

But the point is that the pain of holding fixed income instruments that have negative real yields is greater with even modestly higher inflation than with lower.  So in a 3% inflation world, investors will likely be more prone to favor equities over bonds than in a 2% one.

–Inflation is a rise in prices in general.  In a 3% world, there’s more room for differentiation between winners and losers.  That’s good for you and me as stock pickers.

 

current Japanese inflation? ..there is none

Deflation means that prices in general are falling.  If this is the case, it’s better to put off buying new things for as long as possible, until they’re 100% absolutely needed.  That’s because anything you buy today will be cheaper tomorrow.

After a while, non-consumption becomes a habit, and an economy stagnates.

Conversely, in an inflationary environment, everything is more expensive tomorrow than it is today.  So consumers buy in advance.  In addition to things they need, they may also purchase items they have no intention of consuming.  They may think that keeping physical objects which they can later resell is a better way of preserving or enhancing purchasing power than keeping savings in the bank.

Japan has been in a deflationary economic funk for over a quarter century.   When Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister of Japan in late 2012, he decided to attack deflation as a way of boosting economic growth.  He had a plan that has become famous for its three “arrows”:  a massive depreciation of the yen, large-scale government deficit spending, and corporate/regulatory reform.  Each of the three should have been enough by itself to spark inflation.

The expense of the plan has been enormous, both in terms of the loss of international purchasing power of yen-denominated assets and in increased national debt.

The result after close to four years?   ….as the Tokyo government reported last week, no inflation at all.

How can this be?

From its outset, I’ve believed that Abenomics would be unsuccessful.  I thought the stumbling block would be corporate reform.  The earliest evidence that would indicate I would be wrong would, I thought/think, take the form of an effort to remove the legislative barriers to reform that the Liberal Democrats in the Diet had installed after the deflationary crisis had already begun.  So far, for all practical purposes there’s been nada.  So I continue to be convinced that corporate leaders will resist any changes to the status quo, aided as they are by the Diet’s removal of any levers to force reform from the outside.

Of course, any inflation-induced oomph to consumption won’t last forever.  People and institutions adjust. If nothing else, consumers run out of storage space for the extra stuff they’ve bought.  They then have to throttle back their spending   …or rent a storage unit  …or contemplate a McMansion.

What’s surprising to me, however, is that the same reluctance to spend–although perhaps not to the same degree–is evident in both the US and in Europe.  We might figure that the austerity approach of EU countries wouldn’t exactly spur consumers on.  But the lack of inflation and the paucity of mall-storming or website-crashing consumption in the US after eight years of extraordinary stimulus seem to argue that the overarching economic theories about how to induce inflation are incorrect.

Demographics as the cause?

 

inflation on the rise?

Regular readers know that I like the economic work done by Jim Paulsen of Wells Capital, the Wells Fargo investment management arm.  His May 1st “Economic and Market Perspective” piece argues that the US has turned the corner on inflation, which will –contrary to consensus beliefs–be on the rise from now on.

His argument:

–the first signs of upward wage pressure in the US are now becoming visible (in developed economies, inflation is all about wages)

–recently, a rising dollar has kept the price of imported goods from rising (in some cases, they’ve been falling) and suppressed demand for US goods abroad.  That’s changing, turning the currency from a deflationary force into in inflationary one

–productivity is low, meaning that companies will have no way of offsetting higher wages other than to raise prices

–in past economic cycles, the Fed has somehow invariably remained too loose for too long.

 

I’m not 100% convinced that Paulsen is correct, and to be clear, he expects only mild inflation, but I’ll add another point to the list:

–although it doesn’t talk much about this any more, the Fed has clearly in mind the lost quarter-century in Japan, where on three separate occasions the government cut off a budding recovery by being too tight too soon.  In other words, there’s little to gain–and a lot to lose–by being aggressive on the money tightening trigger.

 

Suppose Jim is right.  What are the implications for stocks?  This is something we should at least be tossing around in our heads , so we can have a plan in mind for how to adjust our portfolios for a more inflationary environment.

My thoughts:

–inflation is really bad for bonds.  As an asset class, stocks benefit by default.  But bond-like stocks–that is, those with little growth and whose main attraction is their dividend yield–will be hurt by this resemblance.

–if the dollar is at or past its peak, it’s time to look for domestic-oriented stocks in the EU and euro earners in the US (the basic rule here is that we want to have revenues in the strong currency and costs in the weak).

–companies that can raise their prices, firms whose labor costs are a small percentage of the total, and consumer-oriented firms that are able to expand unit volumes without much capital investment should all do well.

–I think that average workers, not the affluent, are the main beneficiaries of a general rise in wages.  So firms that cater to them may be the best performers.

 

 

 

inflation: where we are now

Yellen

In the early days of the financial crisis, after the Fed had opened the monetary flood gates and aggressively pushed short-term interest rates down to zero, Janet Yellen commented on the cries of prominent hedge fund managers that this would immediately lead to disastrous runaway inflation of the type that plagued the US in the late 1970s.  Her reply was “We should only hope,” or words to that effect.

She didn’t elaborate   …but I will:

1.  The threat to the world at that time was just the opposite of inflation.  The real threat was deflation, or systematically declining prices.  If prices are falling at the rate of, say, 2% a year, making monetary policy accommodative means lowering the Fed Funds rate to -4%.  In practical terms, this is impossible.  So monetary policy is ineffective and a rerun of the Great Depression ensues.  Clueless financiers to the contrary, everything possible had to be done to avoid the deflationary outcome.

2.  Inflation , in contrast, is a little like the flu.  Treatment is well-understood and straightforward to put into effect.  So, yes, it may be unpleasant but we definitely know how to handle the situation.

where are we now?

The biggest problem the Fed has continues to be that it can’t create enough inflation.  The price level has remained stubbornly under the Fed’s target of a 2% average annual increase.

In the US at least, inflation is all about wages.  Nothing else is big enough to matter.  The (lack of) inflation problem is that there’s still enough available labor in the economy that employers don’t have to raise wages, either to find new workers or hold onto existing staff.

On the one hand, the Fed would like to begin to return interest rates to normal:  a

–five-year ICU stay can’t be good for a patient;

–with rates at zero the Fed has no ability to respond to any other economic disruption;

–world bond markets appear awfully bubbly at the moment; and

–the Fed is arguably an enabler of a dysfunctional Congress/administration.

On the other, the last thing the Fed wants is to choke off growth and create a recession.

my take

Personally, I’d expected the too-many-employers-chasing-too-few-workers syndrome to have developed long before now, and that we’d have 2%+ inflation already.  That’s because I believe that a lot of current unemployment is structural, not cyclical.  That is, I’ve been thinking that many long-term unemployed don’t have the educational or technical skills needed in the 21st century workplace.  Loose money policy doesn’t do them any good.  They need retraining, not low rates.

So far, that’s been wrong.

Taking back of the envelope numbers, there are about three million unemployed workers in the US.  The economy is now creating about a million new jobs a year more than the number needed to absorb people leaving school and entering the workforce for the first time.  If these are the only factors, and if I continue to be 100% wrong (that is, if there’s no structural unemployment), then we won’t reach full employment until 2017.

This would imply that we won’t have to worry about inflation for a long time.  This would also imply that the bond market–and, consequently, the stock market too–could get a lot weirder before the Fed pulls in the reins.