Gone Undetected

When Covid, last winter, emerged
Most government bond prices surged
As havens were sought
And most people thought
That price pressures would be submerged

But since then, with six months now passed
Economists all are aghast
Deflation expected
Has gone undetected
As price levels beat their forecasts

You may recall that when the coronavirus first came to our collective attention at the end of January, it forced China to basically shut down its economy for three weeks. At that time, expectations were for major supply chain disruptions, but concerns over the spread of the virus were not significant. Economists plugged that information into their models and forecast price rises due to supply constraints. Of course, over the next two months as Covid-19 spread rapidly throughout the rest of the world and resulted in lockdowns of economic activity across numerous countries, the demand destruction was obvious. Economists took this new information, plugged it into their models and declared that the deflationary pressures would be greater than the supply chain disruptions thus resulting in deflation, and more ominously, could result in a deflationary spiral like the one the US suffered during the Great Depression.

Central banks didn’t need their arms twisted to respond to that message, especially since the big three central banks, the Fed, ECB and BOJ, had all been struggling to raise inflation to their respective targets for nearly ten years. Thus began the greatest expansion of monetary stimulus in history. Throughout this period, central bankers pooh-poohed the idea that inflation would emerge by pointing to the financial crisis of 2008-9, when they implemented the previously greatest expansion in monetary policy, flooding economies with money, yet no inflation was recorded. At least, price inflation in goods and services, as measured by governments, remained subdued throughout the period.

But there is a very big difference between the current economic situation and the state of things back in 2009. During the financial crisis, banks were the epicenter of the problem, and printing money and injecting it into banks was all that was needed to prevent a further collapse in the economy. In fact, fiscal policy was relatively tight, so all that money basically sat on bank balance sheets as excess reserves at the Fed. There was no increase in buying pressure and thus no measured inflation. In fact, the only thing that inflated was financial asset prices, as the central bank response led to a decade long boom in both stock and bond prices.

In 2020 however, Covid-19 has inspired not just central bank action, but massive fiscal stimulus as well. At this point, over $10 trillion of fiscal stimulus has been implemented worldwide, with the bulk of it designed to get money into the hands of those people who have lost their jobs due to the economic shutdowns worldwide. In other words, this money has entered the real economy, not simply gone into the investment community. When combining that remarkable artificial increase in demand with the ongoing supply chain breakages, it is not hard to understand that price pressures are going to rise. And so they have, despite all the forecasts for deflation.

Just this morning, the UK reported CPI rose 1.0% Y/Y in July, 0.4% more than expected. Core CPI there rose 1.8% Y/Y, 0.6% more than expected. This outcome sounds remarkably like the US data from last week and shows this phenomenon is not merely a US situation. The UK has implemented significant fiscal stimulus as well as monetary support from the BOE. The UK has also seen its supply chains severely interrupted by the virus. The point is, prices seem far more likely to rise during this crisis than during the last one. We are just beginning to see the evidence of that. And as my good friend, @inflation_guy (Mike Ashton) explains, generating inflation is not that hard. Generating just a little inflation is going to be the problem. Ask yourself this, if the economy is still dragging and inflation starts to rise more rapidly than desired, do you really think any central bank is going to raise rates? I didn’t think so. Be prepared for more inflation than is currently forecast.

With that in mind, let us consider what is happening in markets today. Once again the picture is mixed, at least in Asia, as today the Nikkei (+0.25%) found a little support while the Hang Seng (-0.75%) and Shanghai (-1.25%) came under pressure. European exchanges are showing very modest gains (DAX +0.25%, CAC +0.1%) and US futures are all barely in the green. This is not a market that is excited about anything. Instead, investors appear to be on the sidelines with no strong risk view evident.

Turning to bond markets, we continue to see Treasury yields, and all European bond yields as well, slide this morning, with the 10-year Treasury yield down 2 basis points and similar declines throughout Europe. Commodity markets are showing some weakness, with both oil (WTI -0.9%) and gold (-0.6%) softer this morning. Add it all up and it feels like a bit of risk aversion rather than increased risk appetite.

And what of the dollar? Despite what has the feeling of some risk aversion, the dollar is slightly softer on the day, with most currencies showing some strength. In the G10 space, NZD is the outlier, rising 0.7% on the back of a massive short squeeze in the kiwi. But away from that, the movement has been far more muted, and, in fact, the pound is softer by 0.2% as traders are beginning to ask if Brexit may ultimately be a problem. In addition, while the UK inflation data was much higher than expected, there is certainly no indication at this time that the BOE is going to reverse course anytime soon. I have to say that the pound above 1.32 does seem a bit overextended.

EMG currencies are a more mixed picture with RUB (-0.3%) responding to oil’s modest decline, while ZAR has pushed higher by 0.6% on the back of strong foreign inflows for today’s local bond auctions. In what appears to be a benign environment, the hunt for yield is fierce and South Africa with its nominal yields above 9% in the 10-year and inflation running well below 3% is certainly attractive. But otherwise, movement has been uninteresting with most currencies edging higher vs. the dollar this morning.

On the data front today, the only US release is the FOMC Minutes from the July meeting where analysts will be searching for clues as to the Fed’s preferred next steps. More specific forward guidance tied to economic indicators seems to be in the cards, with the key question, which indicators?

Add it all up and we have another slow summer day where the dollar drifts lower. Arguably, the biggest unknown right now would be an agreement on the next US fiscal stimulus package, which if announced would likely result in a weaker dollar. However, I am not willing to forecast the timing of that occurring.

Good luck and stay safe

2 thoughts on “Gone Undetected

    • Hi Linda, thank you for the compliment, i’m glad you enjoy the note. It does post on both Linked In and Twitter every day, but I’m not sure exactly where it posts on LinkedIn. I only see it in the Notifications section, not on the front page. but i don’t know how to get it there. If you could help me with that, i would greatly appreciate it. Hope all is well with you

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