A ZIRP Doctrinaire

The lady who once ran the Fed

And, Treasury, now runs instead

Explained higher rates

Right here in the States

Are something that she wouldn’t dread

But when she was Fed Reserve chair

And she had a chance to forswear

That rates should stay low

Her answer was, no

As she was a ZIRP doctrinaire

“If we ended up with a slightly higher interest rate environment it would actually be a plus for society’s point of view and the Fed’s point of view.  We’ve been fighting inflation that’s too low and interest rates that are too low now for a decade.  We want them to go back to a normal interest rate environment, and if this helps a little bit to alleviate things then that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing.”  So said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a Bloomberg News interview as she was returning from the G7 FinMin meeting in London.

What are we to make of these comments?  Arguably, the first thing to note is that the myth of Fed independence is not merely shattered, but rather that the Treasury now explicitly runs both fiscal and monetary policy.  Can Chairman Powell resist a call for higher rates from his boss?  And yet this is diametrically opposed to everything we have heard from the majority of the FOMC lately, namely until “substantial further progress” is made toward achieving their key goal of maximum employment, policy is going to remain as is.  In other words, they are going to continue to buy $120 billion per month of Treasury and mortgage backed paper.  However, QE’s entire raison d’etre is to keep rates lower.  Does this mean tapering is going to begin soon?  Will they be talking about it at next week’s FOMC meeting?  Again, based on all we had heard up through the beginning of the quiet period, there was only a small minority of FOMC members who were keen to slow down the purchases.  Is Yellen a majority of one by herself?

The other thing that seems odd about this is that elsewhere in the interview she strongly backed the need for the proposed $4 trillion of additional government spending, which is going to largely be funded by issuing yet more Treasury debt.  I fail to understand the benefit, for the Treasury (or taxpayers) of spending more on debt service due to higher interest rates.  Or perhaps, Yellen was simply saying she thought spreads over Treasuries should rise, so others paid more, but the US still paid the least amount possible.  Somehow, though, I don’t believe the latter sentiment is what she meant.  (A cynic might assume she was short Treasuries in her PA after Friday’s data and was simply looking for a quick profit.  But, of course, no government official would ever seek to gain personally from their official role…right?)

Regardless of her motivation, the market took it to heart and 10-year Treasury yields have backed up 2.5 bps this morning, although that is after Friday’s very strong rally (yields fell more than 7 basis points) on the back of the weaker than expected NFP report convinced the market that tapering was now put off for much longer.

Which brings us to Friday’s data.  Once again, the NFP report missed the mark, with a gain of 559K, well below the 675K expected.  Interestingly, despite last month’s even bigger miss, revisions were miniscule, just 27K higher.  So, at least according to the BLS, job growth is not nearly as fast as previously expected/hoped.  What makes this so interesting was last week’s ADP data showed nearly 1 million new jobs were taken.  It appears that Covid has had a significant impact on econometric models as well as the economy writ large.  Of course, the stock market took this goldilocks scenario as quite bullish and we saw equity markets rally nicely on Friday.

In sum, Yellen’s comments seem a bit out of step with everything we had previously understood.  There is, though, one other possibility.  Perhaps Ms Yellen understands that inflation is not going to be transitory and that the Fed may well find itself forced to raise rates to address this situation.  If this is the case, then the fact that the Treasury Secretary has already explained she thinks higher rates would be “a good thing,” it leaves the Fed the leeway needed to address the coming inflationary wave.  One thing is certain, the inflation discussion is going to be with us for quite a while yet.

Market activity overnight has been fairly dull despite the Yellen comments, with equity markets mixed in Asia (Nikkei +0.3%, Hang Seng -0.45%, Shanghai +0.2%) although European markets have started to climb after a very slow start (DAX +0.2%, CAC +0.3%, FTSE 100 +0.3%).  US futures are mixed to slightly lower as NASDAQ futures (-0.35%) feel the force of potentially higher interest rates, while the other two indices are little changed.  (Remember, tech/growth stocks are akin to having extremely long bond duration, so higher interest rates tend to push these stocks lower.)

As mentioned, Yellen’s comments have led to Treasuries falling, and we have seen the same behavior in Europe with sovereigns there looking at yields higher by between 1.5 and 2.0 bps at this hour.  Higher interest rates have also had a negative impact on commodity prices with oil (-0.4%), gold (-0.25%), copper (-1.0%) and aluminum (-1.0%) all under pressure.  The one exception in the commodity space is foodstuff where the grains are all higher by at least 1.5% this morning.

Finally, the currency market is mixed although arguably leaning toward slight dollar weakness.  In the G10, the most notable mover is NOK (+0.5%) which is gaining despite oil’s weakness on the assumption that it will be the first G10 country to actually raise interest rates, with Q4 this year now targeted.  But away from that, the other 9 currencies are within 0.2% of Friday’s close with no stories of note.  In the emerging markets, MXN (+0.85%) is the runaway leader after yesterday’s elections handed AMLO a loss of his supermajority in the Mexican congress.  It seems investors are glad to see a check on his populist agenda of spending.  Beyond that, we see TRY (+0.5%) benefitting from hopes that President Biden’s meeting with Turkish President Erdogan will result in reduced tensions between the two countries.  And lastly, KRW (+0.3%) continues to see investment inflows drive the currency higher.

On the data front, there was nothing of note overnight, but this week has some important activities, namely US CPI and the ECB meeting.

Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 100.9
Trade Balance -$68.5B
JOLTS Job Openings 8.3M
Thursday ECB Meeting
CPI 0.4% (4.7% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.4% (3.4% Y/Y)
Initial Claims 370K
Continuing Claims 3.7M
Friday Michigan Sentiment 84.2

Source: Bloomberg

Clearly, all eyes will be on CPI later this week as while widely expected to be rising again due to base effects, it is important to remember that it has risen far faster than even those expectations.  While the Fed remains quiet, the ECB is likely to reiterate that it is going to be keeping a ‘stepped up pace’ of asset purchases.  Although there is a great deal of belief in the dollar weakness story, I assure you, the ECB is not interested in the euro rallying much further.  Just like the Chinese, it appears most countries have had enough of a weak dollar.  Until the next cues, however, it seems unlikely that there will be large movement in the FX market.

Good luck and stay safe

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