Nothing to Fear

There is an old banker named Jay
Who, later, this St Patrick’s Day
Will tell us that rates
Right here in the States
Won’t change ‘til the jobless get pay

Inflation is nothing to fear
As there’s no sign it will appear
But should it arise
More tools he’ll devise
To kill it by end of this year

Welcome to Fed day folks, with the eyes of all market participants anxiously awaiting the stilted prose that is presented every six weeks.  At this point, there is no concern that the Fed is going to actually change policy as it stands, rather the anticipation is all about what they imply about the future path of activity.

Generally, the Fed statement will start off discussing the nature of the economy and their subjective assessment before going on to describe the actions they are taking.  As this is a quarter-end meeting, their team of PhD’s will have produced new economic forecasts, which based on the recently passed stimulus bill, as well as the recent trend of improving economic activity, is likely to highlight real GDP growth in 2021 of at least 5.0%.  There are many calls on the Street for growth rates topping 7% this year, so 5% would hardly be seen as aggressive.  In addition, while the Fed is acutely aware that inflation numbers are going to rise in the near-term, as the base effects of last year’s Covid inspired economic disaster will now form the comparison, we have consistently heard that any inflation will be transitory and so is of no concern at this time.

The question is, how will they justify continued ZIRP and QE with GDP growth of 5% or more?  And, the answer is that Chair Powell will simply focus on the unemployment situation and once again explain that until those 10 million jobs that were lost to Covid are regained, the Fed will be striving to achieve maximum employment.  It is doubtful there will be any mention of rising yields in the statement, but you can be sure that the first question in the press conference will take up the subject, as will a number of others.

The other thing we get at this quarter-end meeting is the latest dot plot, which is a compilation of each of the FOMC members’ views of where interest rates will be over the next 3 years as well as in the ‘long run’.  The median outcome for each year has become the key statistic and last time it showed that rates were not expected to rise until after 2023, although the longer term view was that 2.5% was likely over time.  However, currently the market is pricing a 0.25% rate hike by December 2022 and two more in 2023 which is far more than the Fed had indicated.  Of great interest to all will be whether this view is changing at the Fed, and some tightening is expected prior to 2023.  Certainly, the bond market is pushing that narrative, with yields continuing to press higher (10-year treasuries are +3bps this morning and, at 1.65%, trading at a new high for the move.)

Remember, too, that prior to the Fed’s quiet period, when the bond market was selling off and yields rising, Powell and friends showed insouciance over the issue, declaring it a vote of confidence in the economy.  At least two weeks ago, there was little concern over rising yields and how they might impact the Fed’s efforts to stimulate further job growth.  Is that still the case?  Since Powell last spoke, the 10-year yield has risen another 9 basis points and shows no signs, whatsoever, of stopping soon.

So, there you have it, the Fed needs to walk that fine line of explaining things are getting better but there is no reason for them to stop providing stimulus.  History has shown that the market reaction comes from the press conference, not the statement, as the nuance of some comment or answer to a question can easily be misinterpreted by market players, and more importantly these days, by algorithms.  FWIW, I anticipate that Powell will continue to slough off any concerns about rising yields and a steepening yield curve and remain entirely focused on the front end.  While I expect several more ‘dots’ to highlight a rise in rates, it would truly be shocking if the median changed.  And in the end, if the Fed looks comfortable with rising yields, they will continue to rise, and with them, I would look for the dollar to follow.

Ahead of the news, markets have been in a holding pattern.  In Asia, the major equity markets were essentially unchanged overnight, with no movement of even 0.05%.  European bourses are generally ever so slightly softer this morning (CAC -0.2%, FTSE 100 -0.3%) although the DAX (+0.1%) has managed to eke out a gain so far.  As to US futures, they too are mixed, with NASDAQ futures (-0.5%) amongst the worst performing of all markets today, although the other two main indices are little changed.

Not only are Treasury yields higher, but we are seeing that price action throughout Europe, with Bunds (+1.9bps), OATs (+2.0bps) and Gilts (+3.3bps) all following the Treasury market.  Either inflation concerns are starting to pick up, or belief in a rebound is starting to pick up, although given the continuation of lockdowns in Europe, and their recent extensions, the latter seems like a harder story to swallow.

Commodity prices are softer pretty much across the board, with oil (-1.15%) leading the way, although weakness in both the base and precious metals is evident as well as in the agricultural space.  And lastly, the dollar is beginning to edge higher as I type, although not by any significant amounts.  In the G10 space, AUD (-0.35%), SEK (-0.3%) and CHF (-0.3%) are the leading decliners although one would be hard pressed to find a fundamental rationale for the movement.  With all eyes on the Fed, essentially all movement so far has been position adjustments amid much lighter than normal trading activity.

In the Emerging markets, RUB (-1.25%) is the weakest of the bunch after a surprising comment by President Biden hit the tape, “Biden says he thinks Putin is a killer.”  Them’s fightin’ words, and it would not be surprising to see an escalation of a war of words going forward, although it is not clear this would impact any currency other than the ruble.  Beyond that, MXN (-0.5%) is the next worst performer, arguably following oil as well as the growing concerns that rising inflation in emerging markets is going to force policy tightening and slowing growth.  This evening, the Banco do Brazil will be announcing their policy with the market anticipating a 0.50% rate hike, the first of many as inflation there continues to run higher than target.  This is being seen as a harbinger of other central bank actions, where they will be forced to fight inflation at the expense of economic activity, and that typically is negative for a currency at the beginning of the battle.

On the data front, today brings Housing Starts (exp 1560K) and Building Permits (1750K) ahead of the FOMC decision this afternoon.  While those numbers are a bit softer than last month, the longer-term trend remains firmly upward.  And then it’s the Fed and Mr Powell’s comments that will drive everything.  Ahead of the Fed, I anticipate limited movement overall, but my expectations are that Powell will continue to ignore rising yields and focus strictly on the front end of the curve as well as the unemployment situation.  If the stories about Secretary Yellen being unconcerned about rising yields are correct, and they are quite believable, then look for the curve to steepen further, and the dollar to test key resistance levels against most of its counterparts.

Good luck and stay safe