Things Could Come To Grief

Said Harker, the Philly Fed chief
Two more hikes this year’s my belief
The issue I fear
Is inflation’s near
At which point things could come to grief

As equity markets around the world remain roiled on the back of concerns over the changing political and regulatory landscape for the tech sector, it is refreshing to have a Fed member ignore the issue in comments. This is all the more surprising since virtually everybody else who gets in front of a camera gives us his or her “insights” into what is causing the increase in volatility. But the reason this is refreshing to me is that it implies the new Fed leadership is far less concerned with equity price movement than the old. Rather, they are focused on their actual mandate of price stability and full employment. So in an interview yesterday, Philly Fed President Patrick Harker indicated he had increasing concerns that inflation was picking up and that he was now fully on board with two more rate hikes this year. Granted, according to the dot plots from last week’s FOMC meeting, it still appears that the core of the Fed is expecting three more hikes, but the fact that every Fed comment we have heard since the meeting has touched on the inflation risk is indicative of the fact that the hawks remain in command. And remember, Harker is not a voter this year, so while his opinion matters, he can’t vote against a fourth hike. In a nutshell, this is further proof that the Fed put is fading and that most Fed member’s individual economic models are pointing to higher inflation going forward. The real question seems to be the pace of rising inflation they expect, not whether it will come about.

This is all with a piece of another big market story, the rise in short term interest rates beyond what the Fed has actually done. This morning, the 2yr-10-yr spread in Treasuries is down to 50bps, it’s flattest since before the financial crisis, and after a two-month respite, seems set to continue flattening. Remember, an inverted yield curve remains one of the most well-known signals of a future recession. In fact, the argument in pundit circles is whether the Fed is about to make a key policy error, raising rates too far or too fast and thus driving the economy into recession. The way I view the issue is that despite the Fed having raised rates six times in this cycle, rates continue to be near historically low levels. If a few more hikes, such that Fed Funds was at 2.25% or 2.50% is sufficient to tip the US into recession then the long term damage that QE inflicted on the economy is even a bigger issue to be addressed. Apparently, a decade without actual price signals is a bad thing! Who’d have thunk it? It is still premature to say that things are going downhill, and after all, Q4 GDP grew by a more than expected 2.9% according to yesterday’s data, but I am very concerned over the timing of the next recession. My first concern is that we are already in the second longest growth period in the post-war years and so are likely coming close to the end. My second concern is that virtually every pundit and economist out there is so sanguine on the subject with forecasts that a recession won’t happen until late 2019 or early 2020. My experience with consensus forecasts is that if everybody agrees something will happen but is confident it will take a long time to occur, it will happen much sooner than expected. As such, my fear is that by the end of this year the picture will be much worse and recession either upon us or imminent.

And what will this do to the dollar? Well, that is a tougher question. My gut tells me that as the synchronized global growth story begins to unravel, as it will if I am correct, then expectations for the ECB and BOJ to halt their QE programs will rapidly diminish, and correspondingly, both the euro and the yen will suffer. In addition, our key trading partners, Mexico and Canada, would almost certainly see their own economies suffer and their currencies alongside them. Of course, the flip side to that argument is that the Fed would need to reverse its policy tightening and so perhaps undermine the appeal of the dollar. Much of this will depend on the exact timing of when it becomes clear that the global economic cycle has turned. However, I fear that the turn is much sooner than currently expected.

As to the overnight session, markets are clearly getting tired from the increased volatility that we have seen around the world, and so movement has been much less impressive heading into the long Easter holiday weekend. In fact, broad-based dollar indices are essentially unchanged, which given that both the euro and the yen are essentially unchanged makes sense. But in truth, looking across all currencies, I think the largest movement I saw was just 0.3%, not nearly enough to need an explanation. We continue to see European data point to the idea that Q4 2017 was the peak in growth there, with last night’s Swiss KOF index falling to 106 and extending its trend lower from last year. UK housing prices were also soft, although German employment remains quite robust. The one thing to remember about employment data though, is it is a lagging indicator and so will be the last thing to fall in the downturn. But on the whole, it has been a dull session.

This morning, however, holds the promise of some activity as we get a series of key data points. Personal Income (exp 0.4%), Personal Spending (0.2%), and Initial Claims (228K) will all pale compared to the PCE (1.7%, 1.5% core) which are the Fed’s key inflation inputs in their models. Any higher print in that series should have an immediate impact on markets, with an increased concern that the Fed will get even more hawkish driving equities lower and the dollar higher. Similarly, a soft number is likely to see equities rally and the dollar fall as relief spreads. Then at 9:45 Chicago PMI is released (62.8) and finally at 10:00 we get Michigan Sentiment (102.0) to finish the data for the week. In the end, I continue to look for the dollar to benefit from the data but do not see any large movement in the near future, especially with the holiday tomorrow and with much of Europe closed on Monday.

Good luck and good weekend