Prices Bespeak

It seems that the rate of inflation
Is rising across our great nation
Demand remains weak
But prices bespeak
The need for some new Fed mentation

Does inflation still matter to markets? That is the question at hand given yesterday’s much higher than expected, although still quite low, US CPI readings and various market responses to the data. To recap, CPI rose 0.6% in July taking the annual change to 1.0%. The core rate, ex food & energy, also rose 0.6% in July, which led to an annual gain of 1.6%. For good order’s sake, it is important to understand that those monthly gains were the largest in quite a while. For the headline number, the last 0.6% print was in June 2009. For the core number, the last 0.6% print was in January 1991!

The rationale for inflation’s importance is twofold. First, and foremost, the Fed (and in fact, every central bank) is charged with maintaining stable prices as a key part of their mandate. As such, monetary policy is directly responsive to inflation readings and designed to achieve those targets. Second, economic theory tells us that the value of all assets over time is directly impacted by the change in the price level. This concept is based on the idea that investors and asset holders want to maintain the real value of their savings (and wealth) over time so that when they need to draw on those savings, they can maintain their desired level of consumption in the future.

Of course, the Fed has made a big deal about the fact that inflation remains far too low and one of the stated reasons for ZIRP and QE is to help push the inflation rate back up to their 2.0% target. Remember, too, that target is symmetric, which means that they expect inflation to print higher than their target as well as lower, and word is, come the September meeting, they are going to formalize the idea of achieving an average of 2.0% inflation over time. The implication here is that they are going to be willing to let the inflation rate run above 2.0% in order to make up for the last decade when their preferred measure, core PCE, only touched 2.0% in 11 of the 103 months since they established the target.

Looking at the theory, what we all learned in Economics 101 was that higher inflation led to higher nominal interest rates, higher gold prices and a weaker currency. The equity question was far less clear as there are studies showing equities are a good place to be and others showing just the opposite. A quick look at the market response to yesterday’s CPI data shows that yields behaved as expected, with 10-year Treasuries seeing yields climb 3.5 basis points. Gold, on the other hand, had a more mixed performance, rallying 1.0% in the first hours after the release, but ultimately falling 1.0% on the day. And finally, the dollar also behaved as theory would dictate, falling modestly in the wake of the release, probably about 0.25% on average.

So yesterday, the theory held up quite well, with markets moving in the “proper” direction after the news came out. But a quick look at the longer-term relationship between inflation and markets tells a bit of a different story. The correlation between US CPI and EURUSD has been 0.01% over the past ten years. In the same timeframe, gold’s correlation to CPI has actually been slightly negative, -0.05%, while Treasury yields have shown the only consistent relationship with the proper sign, but still just +0.2%.

What this data highlights are not so much that inflation impacts market prices, but that we should only care about inflation, from a market perspective at least, because the Fed (and other central banks) have made it part of their mantra. Thus, the answer to the question, does inflation still matter is that only insofar as the Fed continues to care about it. And what we have gleaned from the Fed over the past five months, since the onset of the covid pandemic, is that inflation is way down their list of priorities right now. In other words, look for higher inflation readings going forward with virtually no signal from the Fed that they will respond. At least, not until it gets much higher. If you were wondering how we could get back to the 1970’s situation of stagflation, we are clearly setting the table for just such an outcome.

But on to markets today. Risk is under a bit of pressure this morning as equity markets in Asia and Europe were broadly lower, the only exception being the Nikkei (+1.8%) which saw a large tech sector rally drive the entire index higher. Europe, on the other hand, is a sea of red although only the FTSE 100 in London is down appreciably, -1.1%. And at this hour, US futures are essentially flat.

Bond markets are less conclusive today. Treasury yields are lower by 1 basis point at this hour, although that is well off the earlier session price highs, but European government bond markets are actually falling today, with yields edging higher, despite the soft equity market performance. As to gold, it is currently higher by 1.0%, which simply takes it back to the level seen at the time of yesterday’s CPI release.

Turning to the dollar, it is definitely softer as in the G10, only NZD (-0.3%), which seems to be responding to the sudden recurrence of Covid-19 cases in the country, is weaker than the greenback. But NOK (+0.6%) with oil continuing to edge higher, leads the pack, followed closely by the euro and pound, both of which are firmer by 0.5% this morning. Perhaps French Unemployment data, which showed an unemployment rate of just 7.1% instead of the 8.3% forecast, is driving the bullishness. But arguably, we are simply watching the continuation of the dollar’s recent trend lower.

In the emerging markets, the CE4 are all solidly higher as they track the euro’s movement with a bit more beta. But the rest of the space has seen almost no movement with those currency markets that are open showing movement on the order of +/- 10 basis points. In other words, there is no real story here to tell.

On the data front, we get the weekly Initial Claims (exp 1.1M) and Continuing Claims (15.8M) data at 8:30, but that is really all there is. We continue to hear from some Fed speakers, with today bringing Bostic and Brainard, but based on what we have heard from other FOMC members recently, there is nothing new we will learn. Essentially, the Fed continues to proselytize for more fiscal support and blame all the economy’s problems on Covid-19, holding themselves not merely harmless for the current situation, but patting themselves on the back for all they have done.

With this in mind, it is hard to get excited about too much activity today, and perhaps the best bet is the dollar will continue to drift lower for now. While the dollar weakening trend remains intact, it certainly has lost a lot of its momentum.

Good luck and stay safe