Here To Stay

Fed speakers are starting to say
That lower rates are here to stay
It’s not about trade
Instead they’re dismayed
Inflation just won’t go their way

Since the FOMC meeting two weeks ago, we have heard a steady stream of Fed speakers with one main theme, current interest rate policy is appropriate for the economy right now. While the market continues to price in another rate cut for later this year, and economists and analysts are starting to lean in that direction as well, the Fed remains resolute in their conviction that they don’t need to do anything. When asked about the trade situation, they mouth platitudes about how free trade helps everyone. When asked about political pressures, they insist they are immune to any such thing. These responses cannot be any surprise and are what every FOMC member would have said any time during the past century. However, there is one theme that is starting to coalesce that is different; the idea that interest rates are going to be permanently lower in the future than they have been in the past.

NY Fed President John Williams has highlighted the fact that recent research indicates r* (the theoretical neutral rate of interest) for the five main economies (US, UK, Japan, Eurozone and Canada) has fallen to just 0.5% from something more like 2.5% prior to the financial crisis. The implication is that there is no reason for interest rates to rise much further, if at all, from current levels as that would result in tightening monetary policy with a corresponding slowing of economic activity. If this is correct, it bodes ill for central banks abilities to help moderate future economic downturns. After all, if rates are near zero when an economy slows down, interest rate cuts are unlikely to have a material impact on the situation. Of course, this is what led to unconventional policies like QE and forward guidance, and we can only assume that every central bank is trying to think up new unconventional policies as those lose their efficacy. Do not be surprised if legislation appears that allows the Fed to purchase any assets it deems appropriate (stocks, real estate, etc.) in its efforts to address the next downturn. This is also why MMT has gained favor in so many places (although not the Fed) as it removes virtually all restrictions on spending and fiscal policy and reduces the role of monetary policy.

One other thing that seems incongruous is the precision with which the Fed believes is should be able to manage inflation. Inflation is a broad reading of price pressures over millions of items ranging from houses to pencils. Its measurement remains controversial and imperfect, at best. Pricing decisions continue to be made by the sellers of products, not by government fiat, and so the idea that the Fed can use a blunt tool like the general level of interest rates, to fine-tune price changes is, on the face of it, absurd. Is there really a difference between 1.6% and 2.0% inflation? I understand the implications regarding compounding, and of course the biggest issue is that cost of living adjustments in programs like Social Security and Medicare have enormous fiscal consequences and are entirely dependent on these measurements. But really, precision is a mistake in this case. It would be far more sensible, and achievable, for the Fed to target an inflation range like 1.5%-2.5% and be happy to focus on that rather than aiming for a target and miss it consistently in the seven years since it was defined.

Now back to markets. While Asian equity markets continued the US sell-off, it seems that the course has been run for now elsewhere. European shares are higher by between 0.5% and 1.0% this morning, while US futures are pointing to a 0.75% or so rebound at the open. At this point, all the tariff news seems to be in the market, and there continues to be a strong belief that a deal will get done, most likely in June when President’s Xi and Trump meet on the sidelines of the G20 meetings in Japan. The dollar continues to hold its own, although it has not been able to make any general headway higher lately.

In the currency market, this morning shows that risk is being tentatively reacquired as the yen falls (-0.35%) while EMG currencies edge higher (MXN +0.25%, INR +0.3%). The G10 beyond the yen is little changed, although most of those currencies suffered during yesterday’s equity rout. One thing that appears to be ongoing lately is that central banks have been slowly reducing the dollar portion of their holdings, taking advantage of the dollar’s recent strength to diversify their portfolios. That would certainly be a valid explanation for the dollar’s inability to make any substantive gains lately.

On the data front, overnight saw a disappointing German ZEW Index reading of -2.1 (exp +5.0), which implies that the hoped for rebound in Germany may still be a bit further away than the ECB is counting on. At the same time, UK labor markets continue to show robust strength with another 99K jobs created and average earnings continuing to grow at a solid 3.3% pace. However, neither of these data points had any impact on the FX market. In the US, the NFIB Business Index rose to 103.5, slightly better than forecast and demonstrating a resiliency in the small business psyche in this country. However, we don’t see any further data here today, and so if pressed, I would expect the FX market to be uninspiring. If equity markets manage to maintain their rebound, then I would expect a modicum of dollar weakness as investors rush back into the EMG bloc, but I think it far more likely that there is little movement overall.

Good luck
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