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Observations on January Release of S&P Claims Based Indices (Allowed Charge Trends): Part 4

Treasury Rates Are Up, But For How Long?

All Commodities Rise With Rising Oil

Tomorrow’s FOMC Minutes: More of the Same or Hints of Higher Rates

Currency Wars: Pandering to Debase

Observations on January Release of S&P Claims Based Indices (Allowed Charge Trends): Part 4

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John Cookson

Principal, Consulting Actuary

Milliman

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The overall medical trend rates covering all services have continued to be modest in the S&P data through the 3rd quarter of 2014—increasing up to 3.5% on a 12-month moving average basis as of September[1].

But the winter of 2014 was particularly harsh in much of the country and likely dampened utilization.  Late fall 2014 weather was cold and snowy, and recent weather in early February 2015 has become more severe.  If the severe weather reaches the equivalent level of 2014, there will likely be minimal impact on trends, since the effect in two successive years is likely to balance out, although regional impacts can vary with the weather differences by region between the two years.

Influenza results for the 2014-2015 season appear to be similar but possibly slightly less than the 2012-2013 season and higher than the 2013-2014 season based on several measures.  During the 2012-2013 season overall trends remained in the low single digits.  Charts A and B below show several years of history for outpatient flu visits (Chart A) and pneumonia and influenza mortality (Chart B) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

 

 

 

[1] We track the LG/ASO trends as representative of underlying trends, since Individual and Small Group are impacted more significantly by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Keep in mind that actual trends experienced by plans are likely to be higher than as reported in S&P data.  Trends experienced by large employers on plans that have not changed in the previous year could be higher by as much as 2% or more on bronze level plans and higher by 1% or more on gold level plans due to the effects of deductible and copay leverage.  So risk takers need to take this into account.  In addition, the S&P Indices do not reflect the impact of benefit buy-downs by employers (i.e., higher deductibles, etc.), since the indices are based on full allowed charges.  As noted above, actual trends experienced by employers and insurers in the absence of benefit buy-downs can be expected to be higher than reported S&P trends due to plan design issues such as deductibles, copays, out-of-pocket maximums, etc.   Benefit buy-downs do not represent trend changes since they are benefit reductions in exchange for premium concessions, but they can have a dampening effect on utilization due to higher member copayments, and this can have a dampening effect on measured S&P trends compared to plans with no benefit changes, further pushing up experienced trends relative to those reported in the indices.

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THE REPORT IS PROVIDED “AS-IS” AND, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW, MILLIMAN DISCLAIMS ALL GUARANTEES AND WARRANTIES, WHETHER EXPRESS, IMPLIED OR STATUTORY, REGARDING THE REPORT, INCLUDING ANY WARRANTY OF FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, TITLE, MERCHANTABILITY, AND NON-INFRINGEMENT.

 

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

Treasury Rates Are Up, But For How Long?

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Kevin Horan

Director, Fixed Income Indices

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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Having touched a low of 1.66% as of mid-February 2015, the yield of the S&P/BGCantor Current 10 Year U.S. Treasury Index bounced up to close at 2.05% on Feb. 13, 2015. The move away from the safety of Treasuries came as an impasse occurred in the negotiations between Greece and their EMU partners. European officials continue to wrestle over terms for a plan to support Greece, which could run out of money as soon as the end of March. If a deal cannot be struck, then the fear of European contagion could cause a move back down in yield for U.S. Treasuries.
For now, the focus of the markets may be circling back to the Fed and the possibility of a rate increase as soon as this June. The improving U.S. economy should naturally lead to higher rates, in order to match the economic growth. Such a policy change would move rates higher to the front-end of the curve, leaving the longer-end to represent investor outlook and reactions. The open-ended question is what other political, market, or global forces could curtail rising rates.

The S&P U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is up 0.78% YTD, though the rise in yields for February has translated to a loss of -1.10% MTD. The investment-grade corporate component of the aggregate index, as measured by the S&P U.S. Investment Grade Corporate Bond Index, is 29% of the parent index, and has contributed 1.09% of total return YTD, while also providing -1.44% return MTD. The only larger component of the aggregate index is the S&P/BGCantor U.S. Treasury Bond Index (38% of the parent index), which has returned 0.62% YTD, while losing 1.43% MTD.
Lower-rated credit indices such as the S&P U.S. High Yield Corporate Bond Index and the S&P/LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 Index have not greatly outpaced investment grade corporates YTD, given the increase in risks. For the month of February, however, they have performed well, as Treasury rates have been increasing. The high-yield index has returned 1.70% YTD and 1.19% for February. Likewise, the S&P/LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 Index has returned 1.11% YTD and 0.91% MTD.
10yr Yield History of the S&P/BGCantor Current 10 Year U.S. Treasury Bond Index

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

All Commodities Rise With Rising Oil

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Jodie Gunzberg

Managing Director, Head of U.S. Equities

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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What happens to other commodities when oil prices spike? On one hand, if oil rises so much that an economic slowdown overpowers the tax-break effect, then commodities might fall. However, oil is a main input to produce many other commodities so prices of goods can rise when oil prices increase. The latter scenario is more likely given the historical relationship of energy to inflation and to other commodities.

One of the hallmarks of diversification in commodities is how lowly correlated they are to each other from the individual supply and demand models.  Notice the highest correlation between any two sectors in the chart below is 0.27.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results.

The source of return that mainly drives the correlation between commodities to be unrelated is expectational variance or supply shocks.  When oil price falls, it may be demand or supply driven but most of the time the weakness has come from demand drops. When this happens, the correlation is higher between commodities at about 0.40 on average. However, the recent moves (both down and up) have been more driven by supply than demand, as the case has been in many historical oil price spikes.

This can be observed with the lower correlation of about 0.2 between oil and other commodities during oil price spikes, but despite the lower correlation, all commodities rise with rising oil.  A supply driven oil bull is the best because it pulls other commodities up with it but with very low correlation, a measure of lockstep but not magnitude.

Since the concept of  a strong upward force on commodities as oil prices rise but with low correlation can be difficult to explain and understand, below is a quick correlation refresher with a few hypothetical and real illustrations.

For example, both of these charts below show a perfect correlation of +1.0. However, the top chart on average has a down month of -1.0% for each oil and gold. The bottom chart has an average down month for oil of -1.0% but while oil is down gold only drops on average 25 basis points.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices.  This is hypothetical and for illustration purposes only.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. This is hypothetical and for illustration purposes only.

The next hypothetical chart shows zero correlation but a directional pull.  Both oil and gold are always up. Oil is up 1% every month on average while gold is up 4.6% on average. They are always both up at the same time but there is little control of lockstep despite a directional relationship.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices.  This is hypothetical and for illustration purposes only.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. This is hypothetical and for illustration purposes only.

Below is an actual example between WTI (blue) and unleaded gasoline (yellow) where the magnitude of average increases are almost exact, yet the correlation is only 0.6. Out of 66 positive WTI oil months in the past 10 years, there were only 10 months where unleaded gas dropped, showing it is difficult for gas to fall when oil rises.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results. Ten years of monthly data.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results. Ten years of monthly data.

Let’s pick copper as a different example. It has very low correlation of 0.18 to oil when oil is rising. However, it on average had a monthly return of 3.85% when oil was positive and returned positive in 71% or in 47/66 of those months. Copper generally was pulled up with oil, just at various magnitudes, making the correlation low.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results. Ten years of monthly data.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results. Ten years of monthly data.

Below are some highlights of commodity relationships to oil as oil prices rise and fall.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results. Ten years of monthly data.
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices. Past performance is not an indication of future results. Ten years of monthly data.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

Tomorrow’s FOMC Minutes: More of the Same or Hints of Higher Rates

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David Blitzer

Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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Fed watchers will study the FOMC minutes for hints of the next interest rate move.  However, the most important data – the January employment report – was published more than a week after the FOMC meeting. That report showed strong job growth not just in January but over the last few months as data revisions presented a clearer picture of the economy.  Many Fed watchers seem to be discounting the Employment Report and focusing on low oil prices and declines in the consumer and producer price indices.  Recent comments by FOMC members suggest that the era of the zero Fed funds rate could end as soon as June, only four months away.

With the unemployment rate at 5.7%, weekly initial unemployment claims running at about 300 thousand per week and payrolls expanding consistently there is no doubt that the economy is enjoying strong growth.  The inflation picture is more debatable.  The Core CPI – excluding food and energy – is up about 1.5% over the last 12 months and is close enough to the Fed’s 2% goal to support returning interest rates to normal (non-zero) levels.  Oil is a question. The price of WTI crude oil made a recent low of $44.45 on January 28th but has now advanced to $52.60 on February 17th. No one knows what oil will do next or when it might rebound to the over-$100 level of last June. However, many US oil producers cannot sustain their business at current prices. There is a growing sense that, sooner or later, oil prices will rise, even if they don’t return to triple digits. When oil prices do rise, they will echo through the economy and boost other prices as well. Both the employment strength and concerns about a possible rebound in oil prices argue for an increase in the Fed funds rate.

Comments from FOMC members since the last meeting in late January point to an early move on interest rates.  The data are cited as evidence that the economy is strong and that risks are shifting to more inflation rather than more unemployment. Among those suggesting an early shift to more normal interest rates are Jeffrey Lacker of the Richmond Fed, John Williams of the San Francisco Fed, Loretta Mester of the Cleveland Fed and Esther George of the Kansas City Fed.   The FOMC vote count  may be more interesting than usual in the last, and next, set of minutes.

Many Fed watchers are expecting, or arguing for, continuing the current policy of close to zero interest rates.  While agreeing that the US economy seems strong for the moment, they fear secular stagnation – the idea that potential US economic growth is capped at around 2%, less than the 2.5% to 4% experienced in recent decades.  Potential GDP growth can be gauged by the sum of labor force growth plus productivity. Among developed nations the US is one of the few where population is growing, although growth is slowing and the population is aging pointing for slower labor force growth.  Recent labor force growth is under one percent and productivity is about three-quarters of one percent giving potential GDP growth of 1.75%.  The argument is that if potential growth is this low, now is not the time to slow down the economy or dampen employment gains.

The FOMC members may be more concerned with near term risks that economic strength could run into rebounding oil prices and raise inflation expectations.  And the members are the people who make the rate decisions.

The FOMC minutes will be released at about 2 PM on Wednesday February 18th

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

Currency Wars: Pandering to Debase

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Tim Edwards

Managing Director, Index Investment Strategy

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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So far this year, we have seen a ravenous interest from U.S. investors in currency-hedged equity exposure.  Currency risks have increased; currency volatility is on the up:

FX pic 1

The reasons behind these trends can be understood in part via the nature of human psychology and power, and the reality of politics.

Consider yourself, for a brief moment, the ruler of a mid-ranking economy; the proud nation of Atlantis.  As in many parts of the world, your ministers, media and constituents are lamenting a series of profligate governments.  Mounting government and consumer debts are handicapping your hopes of Keynesian stimulus.  Meanwhile, international economic agencies besmirch your national pride: your labour force is “uncompetitive”; they and your social policies are at chiefly fault for your stuttering, moribund economy.

The choices are difficult.  You might impose drastic cuts in government services and raise taxes to “balance the books”, no doubt at the risk of further constraining the economy.  Or you could heed those plaintive calls from the IMF and drastically reform the marketplace for labour and businesses, reforming the tax code along the way for good measure.

Both options may engender significant opposition from vested interests to whom you are grateful for your position in power.  More certainly, such measures will cause abundant and vocal distress in the population.

I’m a politician – give me an easier option!

But what if you could simply debase your currency?  If the rest of the world is prepared to pay one U.S. Dollar for what is currently worth three of your Atlantan Mickles, how much more competitive would you be if you could sell the same thing for $0.50?  The answer seems obvious.  Lower your interest rates! Print money! Your currency will soon be worth nothing!

Having a less valuable currency might dent national pride, but there’s plenty to compensate.  Bond investors will benefit from falling yields; equity investors will celebrate your stimulus.  And remember those large debts? They are suddenly cheaper (in USD terms) to repay and your low-low interest rates mean that everyone’s debt just got easier to service.  Everyone’s a winner in Atlantis!

Sounds brilliant.  Are there any risks?

As anyone who has paid but the briefest attention to the critics of such programmes will know, the risk to such financial magic is the devastating consequences of too-high inflation.  Imports will immediately become more expensive, as will commodity prices in local terms.  Simply put, your citizens will have to pay more for what they buy.

And for politicians, this is a uniquely acute risk: there are few historic errors of government more stimulating to revolutionary sentiment than hyper-inflation, particularly in the absence of a rapidly growing economy.  One way of testing the extent to which your economy might be impacted by currency movements is to use the current account balance – a national measure which subtracts the value of imports from exports and accounts for other relevant financial flows (if you own property in the Bahamas and earn a rent on it, it is not an “export” but the income is nonetheless included in the current account balance).  Here are the current account balances for a few major economies:

FX 2 and a bit pic

So, can I debase my currency then?

Even if you are in command of economy with a positive current account balance, such as the countries on the right hand side of the table, only under certain conditions can one consider a strategy of currency debasement.  Inflation remains a risk and it would be incredibly helpful, for example, to have a collapse in energy and food prices before you start.

FX pic 2

Race to debase 

Well, you can see the temptation. Unfortunately, you may not be the only one to have thought of this:

FX Pic 3

So everybody’s doing it?

Therein lies the problem. We can’t all debase our currencies; it doesn’t work if everybody does it. But not quite everybody is.  The U.S. looks to be moving towards a rate increase in the next stage of its cycle, and it is no coincidence that the U.S. dollar strengthened more than any other major currency in 2014.  And that is why there is a renewed interest among U.S. investors in currency hedging their international exposures.  The stimulus and easing packages announced by central banks and governments across the world recently may well prove to deliver the anticipated benefit to local stock markets and economies.  But if a central component to their success is a depreciating currency, it makes sense to hedge it out.  In the meantime, versions of the conundrum facing Atlantis are being played out across the globe; not everyone can be a winner.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.