No Aberration

In Europe and in the US

The central banks have made a mess

The latter’s seen prices

Rise up to a crisis

The former is still in distress

But one thing the two of them share

Is neither believes in the scare

That higher inflation

Is no aberration

And tapering they’ll soon declare

We have seen another day of modest overnight activity as market participants across asset classes wait for the next key data inputs.  At this point, the three biggest things on the horizon are Thursday’s ECB meeting and US CPI print and then next Wednesday’s FOMC meeting.  Until those data points are known, tight ranges and lack of trading liquidity are likely to be the hallmarks of all markets.

One of the things that has been something of a mystery is the disconnect between the performance of the US Treasury market and the ostensibly rapid rise in inflationary pressures, with the former essentially discounting the latter completely.  In fact, I would argue this is the key question that must be answered in order to better understand the potential future outcomes.  Arguably, it is also this situation which has allowed the Fed to remain sanguine over the recent jumps in CPI and PCE.

Consider that the bond market is generally assumed to have the greatest sensitivity to future economic activity given its very nature.  After all, the meaning of fixed income is that regardless of future economic performance, bondholders get a stated amount of interest.  It is this feature that keeps bond investors so highly attuned to inflation and inflation expectations as these investors want to ensure the real value of their investments does not decline due to rising prices.  Historically, this has certainly been the case, with bond markets selling off before inflation really took off.  This is also the genesis of the term ‘bond vigilantes’, coined during the Clinton administration to describe the bond market’s unwillingness to fund hugely expansionary fiscal plans and run large government deficits.  My, how the world has changed!

But back then, the Federal Reserve was not in the business of QE.  In fact, while it may have been a theoretical concept, even the Japanese had not yet tried it on for size.  Two plus decades later, though, the role of the Fed has clearly changed given the economic stresses suffered in both the GFC and Covid induced crisis.  QE has gone from an emergency tool to address a unique situation to the go-to tool in the Fed’s (and ECB’s) toolkit.  Thus, have grown the central bank balance sheets and so there has been a lid on interest rates, even if not explicitly via yield curve control.

There is, however, another key change in the world since the bond vigilante days of the late 1990’s; the regulatory requirements for large banks known as GSIBs, (Global Systemically Important Banks) imposed after the GFC.  These 30 institutions are required to maintain additional capital buffers and hold them in so-called High-Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) which, not surprisingly, include Treasury bonds as well as mortgages and excess reserves.  One of the things that all of these banks do is adjust that portfolio of HQLA to maximize the available revenue, which in a world where yields are zero and negative, is very hard to achieve.  While Treasury bills and IOER pay virtually nothing, Treasury securities out the curve do have positive nominal yields and are thus relatively attractive for the purpose.

This leads to a potential alternative reason for the seeming lack of concern by the Treasury market over future inflation; price insensitive demand for bonds required to be held by large banks.  If these banks are buying and holding more Treasuries than they otherwise would have done in an unfettered world, the price signal from those bonds is likely to be somewhat skewed.  In other words, what if the Treasury market is not telling us there is no fear of inflation, but rather telling us that there are so many price insensitive buyers of bonds, even the excess supply being issued is not enough to scare holders out of the market.  In that case, we will need to get our clues about inflation elsewhere, perhaps from commodity markets.  And of course, commodity prices have done nothing but rally sharply across every class for the past year.  While there is no doubt that the first part of that move was to make up for the severe price dislocations seen at the beginning of the Covid crisis, it is not hard to make the case that the more recent price movement is a response to rising demand meeting inelastic supply.  It is the latter that drives inflation.

The point here is that both the ECB and Fed have consistently maintained that there is no reason to worry over recent high inflation prints and that there is no reason for either of them to adjust their policy mix anytime soon.  If the bond market ‘meter’ is malfunctioning, though, both of these central banks may well find themselves on the wrong side of history, yet again.  Rapidly rising inflation could well come to dominate the policy discussion quite quickly in that case, and maximum employment may recede to a pleasant dream.  Food for thought.

As to market activity today, as mentioned above, we have seen modest movements in both directions amid modest trading volumes.  Starting with equities, Asia saw small losses across the board (Nikkei -0.2%, Hang Seng 0.0%, Shanghai -0.5%) while Europe has been very modestly firmer (DAX 0.0%, CAC +0.2%, FTSE 100 +0.3%).  US futures are mixed as well with DOW (-0.15%) suffering while NASDAQ (+0.3%) are a bit higher and SPX futures are essentially unchanged.  Not much new information here.

Bond markets are mostly a bit firmer this morning with Treasury yields (-1.5bps) falling furthest and European sovereigns all seeing yield declines of about 0.75bps.  With 10-year Treasury yields back to 1.55%, it appears, on the surface, that there is no concern about rising inflation.  But if my proposed thesis is correct, that number could be quite misleading.

Commodity prices are generally coming under pressure this morning, certainly not a sign of imminent inflation, but I would argue this is simple daily price volatility more than anything else.  For example, oil (-0.9%) is leading the pack lower but we are seeing weakness in precious metals (Au -0.2%, Ag -0.5%) and base metals (Cu -0.5%, Ni -0.7%, Fe -1.9%) with only grains continuing to rally as all three major ones are higher by about 1.0% this morning.

Turning to FX, it should be no surprise that there is really no story here this morning either.  The dollar is probably marginally higher overall, but really mostly mixed with small movements in virtually all currencies.  In the G10, NZD (-0.3%) is the biggest mover, but this move has simply taken it back to the middle of its trading range.  And the rest of the bloc has moved far less.  In emerging markets, we have seen two movements of some note with HUF (-0.4%) declining after weaker than expected IP data was released, putting a dent in the idea the central bank may tighten policy, while RUB (+0.4%) rose after yesterday’s higher than expected CPI print has traders believing the central bank is likely to raise rates further.  However, beyond those two moves, there is very little to discuss.

On the data front, the NFIB Small Business Optimism index was released at a disappointing 99.6, below expectations of 101.0 and actually below last month’s reading as well.  That seems to be a result of the difficulty small firms are having in hiring staff.  We also see the Trade Balance (exp -$68.7B) and then the JOLTS Job Openings report (8.2M) later this morning.  But as mentioned at the top, I don’t think anything will matter until Thursday, so look for more range trading until then.

Good luck and stay safe

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