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April 11, 2014

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Posted: 11 Apr 2014 06:05 AM PDT

'Pseudo-Mathematics and Financial Charlatanism'

Posted: 10 Apr 2014 01:56 PM PDT

"Past performance is not an indicator of future results":

Pseudo-mathematics and financial charlatanism, EurekAlert: Your financial advisor calls you up to suggest a new investment scheme. Drawing on 20 years of data, he has set his computer to work on this question: If you had invested according to this scheme in the past, which portfolio would have been the best? His computer assembled thousands of such simulated portfolios and calculated for each one an industry-standard measure of return on risk. Out of this gargantuan calculation, your advisor has chosen the optimal portfolio. After briefly reminding you of the oft-repeated slogan that "past performance is not an indicator of future results", the advisor enthusiastically recommends the portfolio, noting that it is based on sound mathematical methods. Should you invest?
The somewhat surprising answer is, probably not. Examining a huge number of sample past portfolios---known as "backtesting"---might seem like a good way to zero in on the best future portfolio. But if the number of portfolios in the backtest is so large as to be out of balance with the number of years of data in the backtest, the portfolios that look best are actually just those that target extremes in the dataset. When an investment strategy "overfits" a backtest in this way, the strategy is not capitalizing on any general financial structure but is simply highlighting vagaries in the data. ...
Unfortunately, the overfitting of backtests is commonplace not only in the offerings of financial advisors but also in research papers in mathematical finance. One way to lessen the problems of backtest overfitting is to test how well the investment strategy performs on data outside of the original dataset on which the strategy is based; this is called "out-of-sample" testing. However, few investment companies and researchers do out-of-sample testing. ...

Fed Watch: When Will The Fed Change Its Reaction Function?

Posted: 10 Apr 2014 09:32 AM PDT

Tim Duy:

When Will The Fed Change Its Reaction Function?, by Tim Duy: The March FOMC minutes were generally interpretted as having a dovish tenor, contrasting with the generally hawkish reception for the statement and ensuing press conference. Overall, the Fed appears committed to a long period of low interest rates and I continue to think this should be the baseline view. But actually policy seems to remain hawkish relative to the Fed's rhetoric. By its own admission, the Fed is missing badly on both its mandates. Why then the push to reduce accommodation by ending asset purchases and laying the groundwork for the first rate hike? This leaves me wary the Fed could turn dramatically more hawkish with little provocation from the data. At the same time, one can imagine the Fed realizes that the current reaction function remains inconsistent its desired goals, and policy consequently shifts in a dovish direction.

Consider the Fed's take on labor markets:

In their discussion of labor market developments, participants noted further improvement, on balance, in labor market conditions.

Fair enough. But where is the majority of policymakers on the issue of slack?

While there was general agreement that slack remains in the labor market, participants expressed a range of views regarding the amount of slack and how well the unemployment rate performs as a summary indicator of labor market conditions. Several participants pointed to a number of factors--including the low labor force participation rate and the still-high rates of longer-duration unemployment and of workers employed part time for economic reasons--as suggesting that there might be considerably more labor market slack than indicated by the unemployment rate alone.

The opposing view was held by just a "couple" of participants. The "high slack" contingent holds of the upper hand, in my view, given the limited wage pressure to date:

Several participants cited low nominal wage growth as pointing to the existence of continued labor market slack. Participants also noted the debate in the research literature and elsewhere concerning whether long-term unemployment differs materially from short-term unemployment in its implications for wage and price pressures.

It seems fairly clear that the dominant view on the Fed is that labor markets contain more than sufficient slack to contain wage and inflation pressures. And inflation pressures are, by their own admission, nonexistent. But this concern is not as widespread:

Inflation continued to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective over the intermeeting period. A couple of participants expressed concern that inflation might not return to 2 percent in the next few years and suggested that a protracted period of inflation below 2 percent raised questions about whether the Committee was providing an appropriate degree of monetary accommodation.

Why is the majority not concerned? Because even as they use low wages to justify claims of sufficient slack in the labor market, they use a forecast of higher wages to dismiss the inflation numbers:

A number of participants noted that a pickup in nominal wage growth would be consistent with labor market conditions moving closer to normal and would support the return of consumer price inflation to the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal.

But how long will the process take? A long time:

Most participants expected inflation to return to 2 percent over the next few years, supported by stable inflation expectations and the continued gradual recovery in economic activity.

The Federal Reserve is clearing communicating the willingness to endure a sustained period of suboptimal outcomes on both the employment and price stability metrics. This suggest that actual policy - entirely directed at reducing accommodation - is considerably more hawkish than dictated by data. It sounds like policy fatigue. The Fed wants out of asset purchases and zero rates and are willing to dismiss the dual mandate to move in this direction. No wonder then that Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans is worried that policymakers will push too hard to normalize rates too early. Via the Wall Street Journal:

"One of the big risks is that we withdraw our accommodative policies prematurely," Mr. Evans said during a panel discussion at the International Monetary Fund's spring meetings. "I think it's just human nature to start thinking we've been doing this for a long time."

The Fed's benchmark short-term interest rate has been pinned near zero since late 2008, which could prompt some policy-makers to think "that must have been long enough. Maybe it's time to start the process of renormalizing," Mr. Evans said. Most Fed officials indicated last month they expect to start raising rates next year.

Consider also the Fed's willingness to continue the taper despite persistent low inflation in the context of this from Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo:

Last week Chair Yellen explained why substantial slack very likely remains. I would add to her explanation only the observation that, in the face of some uncertainty as to how best to measure slack, we are well advised to proceed pragmatically. We should remain attentive to evidence that labor markets have actually tightened to the point that there is demonstrable inflationary pressure that would place at risk maintenance of the FOMC's stated inflation target (which, of course, we are currently not meeting on the downside). But we should not rush to act preemptively in anticipation of such pressures based on arguments about the potential increase in structural unemployment in recent years.

Arguably, tapering implies that are already acting prematurely. Combine with this commentary by David Zeros via Business Insider:

"As the market prices in higher short-term yields and lower long-term yields, it is really making a bet that the Fed, by tapering our punchbowl drip, is increasing the risk of deflation," says Zervos.

"And at this stage of the game, with inflation BELOW target and plenty of slack in labor markets, that could very well be a mistake. The most important point here is to recognize that low long-term yields are not a sign of a healthy economy."

Indeed, it is reasonable to believe the Fed will make a mistake in the hawkish direction (or already has) given that policy already seems inconsistent with the dual mandate. In other words, the Fed has a hawkish reaction function.

Regarding that reaction function, the now infamous dots were also a topic of discussion. Policymakers knew exactly the implications of the dots:

A number of participants noted the overall upward shift since December in participants' projections of the federal funds rate included in the March SEP, with some expressing concern that this component of the SEP could be misconstrued as indicating a move by the Committee to a less accommodative reaction function.

The next line, however, is not particularly helpful:

However, several participants noted that the increase in the median projection overstated the shift in the projections.

This begs the question of "why?" Some dots moved forward. Why does that overstate the shift? That said, some participants noted that the shift should not be cause to worry:

In addition, a number of participants observed that an upward shift was arguably warranted by the improvement in participants' outlooks for the labor market since December and therefore need not be viewed as signifying a less accommodative reaction function.

This was my interpretation - the upward shift of the dots were consistent with a change in the unemployment projections given the Fed's reaction function. But that doesn't quite explain why the reaction function is so tight to begin with. This is I think the best explanation:

In their discussion of recent financial developments, participants saw financial conditions as generally consistent with the Committee's policy intentions. However, several participants mentioned trends that, if continued, could become a concern from the perspective of financial stability. A couple of participants pointed to the decline in credit spreads to relatively low levels by historical standards; one of these participants noted the risk of either a sharp rise in spreads, which could have negative repercussions for aggregate demand, or a continuation of the decline in spreads, which could undermine financial stability over time. One participant voiced concern about high levels of margin debt and of equity market valuations as well as a notable shift into commodity investments. Another participant stressed the growth in consumer credit to less creditworthy households.

I think the Fed's reaction function now includes some financial stability variable, but the Fed is loath to discuss that variable and the related parameters impacting policy. That said, we are fairly confident that the push to end asset purchases and plan the exit from zero rates were a response to bubbling financial stability concerns at the Fed. They simply hid that behind the "progress toward goals" language.

More surprisingly is that not only did they begin the exit from extraordinary stimulus in the face of clearly suboptimal labor outcomes, they did so in the face of clearly suboptimal inflation outcomes. Now, though, they may be realizing the error of their ways. Via Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:

Federal Reserve officials are growing concerned the U.S. inflation rate won't budge from low levels, the latest sign of angst among central bankers about weakness in the global economy.

So what comes next? To answer that, we again need to divide policy into movements along the reaction function and shifts of the reaction function. We should recognize that the SEP dots will shift in response to the data. If data comes in stronger than anticipated, then the dots will move forward. If weaker, then backward.

A more hawkish reaction function - the dots moving up and forward independent of the forecast - would most likely occur due to heightened financial stability concerns. A less likely cause is that inflation expectations suddenly jump.

What about a more dovish reaction function? I think it was expected that new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen would have already pushed forward a more dovish reaction function given her expressed concerned for the unemployed. So far, she has disappointed such expectations. Factors that could still trigger a downward shift include 1.) a desire to accelerate the pace of improvement in labor markets, 2.) a lessening of financial stability concerns, 3.) a heightened concern about the negative impacts of persistently low inflation.

The inflation concern is my leading candidate at the moment. Still, I would not want to overestimate the chance of such a shift. It is easy to see that ongoing improvements in labor markets could be sufficient to contain inflation concerns to low rumblings.

Bottom Line: Fed policy - dovish those it seems - is maddenly disconnected from their actual forecasts. What does that mean for future policy? Given the relatively dovish forecast, I am concerned that the balance of risk lies on the upside, which implies tighter policy along the existing reaction function. But at the same time I remain open to the possibility that even if the economy evolves as expected, the Fed could extend the low interest rate horizon via shifting the reaction function down. That said, I suspect there is a fairly high bar to such a shift. As unemployment drops further, they will become increasingly concerned about being caught behind the curve given the level of financial accommodation already in place.

Have Blog, Will Travel

Posted: 10 Apr 2014 08:53 AM PDT

I am here today:

INET: Human After All - April 10-12: The Institute for New Economic Thinking is hosting its fifth annual conference with its partner the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto. The conference topic is the economics of innovation and the impact of innovation on society. Speakers will include a roster of newsmakers, including former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and James Heckman, former co-CEO of Research In Motion Jim Balsillie, Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane, former head of the U.K. Financial Services Authority Adair Lord Turner, Harvard University professor and best-selling author Michael Sandel, and author, essayist and President of PEN International, John Ralston Saul. Watch Live beginning at noon EST.

 I will post the conference schedule as soon as I can -- for some reason it's not yet available

Update: Today's schedule (I'll post Friday and Saturday later):

CANADIAN ROOM 1:00–2:45 PM LUNCH KEYNOTE ( OPENING ) Is Innovation Always A Good Thing? Technology and innovation create "disruption." That basically means creating new markets or value networks, which eventually disrupts earlier technologies. New products, new inventions, new sources of demand are all possible. Yet, the very innovation that creates these opportunities also can create job losses as well as having significant distributional consequences for society as a whole.

The panel seeks to explore this duality.

  • James Balsillie Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation
  • Lisa Cook Professor, Department of Economics, Michigan State University
  • Robert Johnson President, Institute for New Economic Thinking
  • Richard Nelson Professor of Economics, Columbia University
  • Moderator Richard Waters Financial Times

Innovation: Do Private Returns Produce the Social Returns We Need? The machines of the frst age replaced and multiplied the physical labor of humans and animals. The machines of the second age will replace and multiply our intelligence. The driving force behind this revolution will, argue the "techno-positivists," exponentially increase the power (or exponentially reduce the cost) of computing. The celebrated example is Moore's Law, named after Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel. For half a century, the number of transistors on a semiconductor chip has doubled at least every two years. But the information age has coincided with—and must, to some extent, have caused—adverse economic trends: stagnation of median real incomes; rising inequality of labor income and of the distribution of income between labor and capital; and growing long- term unemployment. Are the great gains in wealth and material prosperity created by our entrepreneurs in and of themselves sufficient to produce desired social returns demanded in today's world?

  • Simon Head Fellow, Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University, and Director of Programs, The New York Review of Books Foundation
  • Mariana Mazzucato R.M. Phillips Professor in the Economics of Innovation, SPRU, University of Sussex
  • Stian Westlake Executive Director, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts
  • Dr. Joon Yun Partner and President, Palo Alto, LLC Moderator Quentin Hardy Deputy Tech Editor, The New York Times
  • Moderator Quentin Hardy Deputy Tech Editor, The New York Time

Have we Repaired Financial Regulations since Lehman? The 2008 global financial crisis led to the worst recession in the developed world since the Great Depression. Governments had to respond decisively on a large scale to contain the destructive impact of massive debt deflation, (although there is some question as to the degree to which this represented support for the financial ser - vices industry vs the needs of the real economy). Still, large financial institutions such as American International Group, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual, Wachovia, Northern Rock, and Landsbanki collapsed; thousands of small-to-medium- sized financial institutions failed or needed to be rescued; millions of households lost their retirement savings, jobs, homes, and communities; and numerous non- financial businesses closed. Five years later, we are still experiencing the effects of the crisis. Are the financial reforms and regulations introduced since the onset of the crisis likely to be effective in preventing another catastrophe?

  • Anat Admati Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Business
  • Richard Bookstaber U.S. Treasury with the Office of Financial Research and FSOC
  • Andrew Haldane Executive Director of Financial Stability, Bank of England
  • Edward Kane Professor of Finance, Boston College
  • Moderator Martin Wolf Financial Times

CANADIAN ROOM FOYER 6:15–7:15 PM Cocktail Reception

Innovation: To What Purpose? Innovation is said to be essential for survival in most industries. Yet, innovation can be very risky—some inno - vations can even destroy value. How can managers and entrepreneurs know what to do, and how should this trade-o ff between innovation and risk be treated? What are the broader social goals that ought to be achieved via innovation?

  • Presenter John Ralston Saul Novelist, Essayist and President, PEN International
  • Moderator Rohinton Medhora President, Centre for International Governance Innovation

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