QE is Our Fate

The Fed Chair, a banker named Jay
Will meet with his comrades today
Though no one expects
A change, it’s what’s next
That has traders set to make hay

Will guidance be tied to the rate
Of joblessness? Or will they state
Inflation is key
And ‘til there we see
Advances, QE is our fate

Today’s primary feature in the markets is the FOMC meeting where at 2:00 they will release their latest policy statement, and then at 2:30 Chairman Powell will hold a virtual press conference. As is often the case, market activity ahead of the meeting is muted as investors and traders are wary of taking on new positions ahead of a possible change in policy.

However, the punditry is nearly unanimous in its belief that there will be no policy changes today, and that the statement will be nearly identical to the previous version, with just some updates relating to the data that has been released since then. The big question is whether or not Chairman Powell will give an indication of what the next steps by the Fed are likely to be.

A quick review of the current policy shows that the Fed has a half dozen lending programs outstanding, which they extended to run through the end of 2020 in an announcement yesterday, and which are focused on corporate bonds, both IG and junk, municipal securities and small business loans. Of course, they continue to buy both Treasury and mortgage-backed securities as part of their more ordinary QE measures. And the Fed Funds rate remains at the zero bound. Consensus is that none of this will change.

The problem for the Fed is, short of simply writing everyone in the country a check (which is really fiscal policy) they are already buying all the debt securities that exist. While eventually, they may move on to purchasing equities, like the BOJ or SNB, at this point, that remains illegal. So, the thinking now goes that Forward Guidance is the most likely next step, essentially making a set of promises to the market about the future of policy and tying those promises to specific outcomes in the economic data. Given their mandate of full employment and stable prices, it is pretty clear they will tie rate movements to either the Unemployment Rate or the inflation rate. You may recall in the wake of the GFC, then Chairman Bernanke did just this, tying the eventual removal of policy accommodation to the Unemployment Rate. Alas, this did not work as well as the Fed had hoped. The first problem was that as the unemployment rate declined, it did not lead to the expected rise in inflation, so the Fed kept having to move its target lower. This did not inspire credibility in the central bank’s handling of the situation, nor its models. But the bigger problem is that the market became addicted to ZIRP and QE, and when Bernanke mentioned, off hand, in Congressional testimony, that some day the Fed would start to remove accommodation, he inspired what is now called the ‘Taper Tantrum’ where 10-year Treasury yields rose 1.3% in just over three months

You can be certain that Powell does not want to set up this type of situation, but, if anything, I would argue the market is more addicted to QE now than it was back then. At any rate, given the Fed’s need to show they are doing something, you can be sure that tied forward guidance is in our future. The question is, to what statistic will they tie policy? It is here where the pundits differ. There is a range of guesses as follows: policy will be unchanged until, 1) inflation is steadily trending to our 2.0% target, 2) inflation reaches out 2.0% target, or 3) inflation spends time above our 2% target in an effort to ‘catch up’ for previous low readings. This in order of most hawkish to least. Of course, they could focus on the Unemployment rate, and choose a level at which they believe full employment will be reached and thus start to pressure inflation higher.

The problem with the inflation target is that they have been trying to achieve their 2.0% target, based on core PCE, and have failed to do so consistently for the past 10 years. It is not clear why a claim they are going to continue to maintain easy money until they reach it now, let alone surpass that target, would have any credibility. On the Unemployment front, given what are certainly dramatic changes in the nature of the US economy in the wake of Covid-19, it beggars belief that there is any confidence in what the appropriate level of full employment is today. Again, it is hard to believe that their models have any semblance of accuracy in this area either.

And one other thing, most pundits don’t anticipate the announcement of new forward guidance until the September meeting, so this is all anticipation of something unlikely to occur for a while yet. But, as a pundit myself, we do need to have something to discuss on a day when markets remain uninteresting.

So, let’s take a quick look at today’s market activities. Equity markets remain mixed with both gainers (Shanghai +2.1%) and losers (Nikkei -1.2%) in Asia and in Europe (CAC +0.7%, DAX 0.0%, Italy -0.8%). US futures are edging higher, but not with any enthusiasm. Bond markets are all within a basis point of yesterday’s closing levels, although Treasuries did rally in the mild risk-off session we saw Tuesday with 10-year yields back below 0.60%. Yesterday, gold had a wild day, making new highs early in the overnight session and falling back 4% in NY before rebounding to close at $1960/oz. This morning it is little changed, but the trend remains higher.

Finally, the dollar is softer this morning, although yesterday saw a mixed session. The pound (+0.25%) has been a steady performer lately and is pressing toward 1.30 for the first time since early March, pre-Covid. While there was UK data on lending and money supply, this movement appears to be more technical in nature, with the added benefit that the dollar remains under pressure against all currencies. Elsewhere in the G10, oil’s strength this morning is helping NOK (+0.5%), while the rest of the bloc is just marginally firmer vs. the dollar.

In the emerging markets, the big winner today was THB (+0.8%) where the central bank is trying to make a change in the local gold market. Interestingly, gold traded in baht is a huge market, and one where the recent flows have resulted in excess baht strength. As such, the central bank is trying to change the market into a USD based gold market, which should remove upward pressure from the currency. But away from that, while the bulk of the bloc is firmer, the movement is 0.3% or less, hardly the stuff of dreams, and with no coherent message other than the dollar is soft.

And that’s really it for the day. There is no data of note to be released and so all eyes are on the FOMC. My money is on inflation based forward guidance, likely the most dovish type shooting for above target outcomes, but not to be put in place until September. And that means, the dollar’s recent downtrend is likely to continue to be the situation for the immediate future.

Good luck and stay safe
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