Inflation’s Not Bubbled

Ahead of the Fed’s tête-à-tête
The CPI reading we’ll get
Though Jay remains troubled
Inflation’s not bubbled
The rest of us know that’s bullshet

Yes, it is Fed day with the FOMC set to announce their policy stance at 2:00 this afternoon and Chairman Jay scheduled to meet the press at 2:30. At this point, he and his colleagues have done an excellent job of leading market expectations toward no change, with the futures market pricing in a 0.0% probability of a cut. Interestingly, there is the tiniest (just 5.8%) probability of a rate hike, although that is even less likely in my view. While there will be a great deal of interest in the dot plot, certainly there has not been enough data to change Powell’s oft-stated view that the economy and monetary policy are both in “a good place.”

What should be of greater concern to all of us, as individuals and consumers, is that there has been an increase in discussions about the Fed changing their inflation targeting regime to achieving an average inflation rate of 2.0% over time, meaning that for all the time inflation remains below target (the past 10 years), they will allow it to run above target to offset that outcome. Now, we all know that the Fed’s constant complaints about too-low inflation ring hollow in our ears every time we go to the supermarket, or even the mall (assuming anyone else still goes there) as prices for pretty much everything other than flat screen tv’s has consistently risen for years. But given the way the Fed measures such things; they continue to register concern over the lack of inflation. And remember, too, that the Fed uses PCE, Personal Consumption Expenditures, in their models, which reflects not what we pay, but the rate of change of prices at which merchants sell goods. It is a subtle difference, but the construct of PCE, with a much lower emphasis on housing, and inclusion of the costs that the government pays for things like healthcare (obviously at a lower rate than the rest of us) insures that PCE will always track lower over time. In fact, it is an open question as to whether the Fed can even achieve a higher inflation rate, however it is measured, as long as they maintain their financial repression.

All of that is a prelude to today’s CPI release, where the market is anticipating a reading of 2.0% for the headline and 2.3% for the core. Arguably, this should be an important data point for the folks in the Mariner Eccles building today, but I forecast that they will only see weakness here as noteworthy, arguing for even more stimulus. However, whatever today’s print, it will simply be background noise in the end. It would take some remarkable news to change today’s outlook.

But inflation is important elsewhere in the world as well. For example, this morning Sweden’s CPI rose to 1.8%, a tick higher than expected and basically confirmed to the market that the Riksbank, who seem desperate to exit their negative rate policy, are likely to do so at their February meeting. (Expectations for movement next week remain quite muted.) Nonetheless, the Swedish krona has been a major beneficiary in the market, rallying 0.65% vs. the dollar (0.5% vs. the euro), and is today’s top performer.

Another place we are seeing prices rise more rapidly is in Asia, specifically in both China and India. In the former, CPI rose to 4.5% in November, higher than the expected 4.3% and the highest level since January 2012. This is a reflection of the skyrocketing price of pork there as African swine fever continues to decimate the hog population. (It is this problem that is likely to help lead to a phase one trade deal as President Xi knows he needs to be able to feed his people, and US pork is available and cheap!) In India, the October data jumped to 4.62% (what precision!) and November is forecast to rise to 5.3%. Here, too, food prices are taking a toll on the price index, and we need to be prepared for the November release due tomorrow. When the October print hit the tape, the rupee gapped lower (dollar higher) by nearly 1%, and although it has been slowly clawing back those losses, another surprise on the high side could easily see a repeat.

In contrast to those countries, the Eurozone remains an NPZ (no price zone), a place where price rises simply do not occur. Now, I grant that I have not been there in some time, so cannot determine if the European measurements are reflective of most people’s experience, but certainly on a measured basis, inflation remains extremely low, hovering around 1.0% per annum throughout most of the continent. Remember, tomorrow, Christine Lagarde leads her first ECB meeting and while she has spoken about how fiscal policy needs to pick up the pace and how the ECB needs to be more focused on issues like climate change, we have yet to hear her views on what she actually was hired to do, manage monetary policy. While there is no doubt that she is an exceptional politician, it remains to be seen what kind of central banking chops she possesses. Based solely on her commentary over the years, she appears firmly in the dovish camp, but given Signor Draghi’s parting gift of a rate cut and renewed QE, it seems most likely that she will simply stay the course and exhort governments to spend more money. One thing to keep in mind is that markets have a way of testing new central bank heads early in their terms with some kind of stress. That initial response is everything in determining if said central banker will be seen as strong or weak. We can only hope that Madame Lagarde measures up in that event.

The only other story is the UK election, certainly critical, but given it takes place tomorrow, we will look to discuss outcomes then. One interesting thing was that a Yougov poll released last evening showed PM Boris and the Tories would win 339 seats, still a comfortable majority, but a smaller one than the same poll from two weeks earlier. The pound fell sharply on the news, having traded as high as 1.3215 late yesterday afternoon it was actually just above 1.3100 when I left the office. This morning, it is right in the middle at 1.3150, which is apparently where it was at 5:00 last evening as the stated movement today is virtually nil. Barring a major faux pas by either candidate at this late stage, I think we will see choppiness in the pound until the results are released, early Friday morning. While a vic(Tory) by Boris will likely see a knee-jerk response higher in the pound, I remain of the view that any rally will be modest, perhaps 1%-2% at most, and should be seen as an opportunity to add hedges for receivables hedgers.

And that’s really it for today. I would look for modest movement overall, and don’t anticipate the FOMC meeting to generate much excitement.

Good luck