Real Savoir Faire

There once was an aging Fed Chair

With poise and some real savoir faire

He claimed the foundation

Of rising inflation

Were objects that, right now, were rare

But soon when supply chains are mended

And joblessness falls as intended

Inflation will sink

To levels we think

Are fine, and the world will be splendid

Remember when the FOMC Statement and following press conference were seen as hawkish?  That was sooo last week!  There was talk of rate hikes in only TWO YEARS!  There was talk about talk about tapering the purchase of assets as monetary policy started to ‘normalize’.  (Not for nothing but given we have had the same monetary policy for effectively the past 13 years, ZIRP and QE might be considered normal now, not positive real rates and a stable balance sheet.)  Well, apparently the market reaction was not seen as appropriate by Chairman Jay and his cadre of central bankers, so we have heard a definitive retreat on those concepts in the ensuing six days.  

Just since Monday, we have heard from six different FOMC members and every one of them has essentially said, “just kidding!”  Yesterday, Chairman Powell testified to a House Subcommittee on Covid and was forced to explain, yet again, that policy changes were still a long way down the road and that inflation remains transitory.  It was not, however, just Powell delivering that message.  It was also Cleveland’s Loretta Mester, SF’s Mary Daly and NY’s John Williams amongst others.  Current policy settings are appropriate, inflation is transitory and there is still a long way to go before that elusive substantial further progress toward the Fed’s dual mandates will have been achieved.

History has shown that the Fed’s effective reaction function, at least since Alan Greenspan was Chair, is defined by an equity market decline of a certain amount.  This is especially true if the decline happens quickly whereupon they will jump in and ease policy.  It appears that the amount of market angst necessary to get the Fed to change their tune regarding infinite liquidity and monetary support continues to shrink.  It used to take a decline on the order of 15%-20% to get the Fed nervous.  This time, the S&P 500 fell less than 2% before virtually the entire committee was on the tape walking back their tough talk.  And yet, they would have you believe that when inflation is roaring higher for the rest of the year, they have the intestinal fortitude to fight it effectively by raising interest rates or reducing QE.  As actions speak louder than words, my money is on the Fed being completely unable to address rising inflation.  Be prepared.

This topic continues to be the primary narrative in markets around the world, with many other countries now grappling with the transitory inflation story as well.  Nothing else really matters, and rightly so.  If inflation is building a head of steam and will be rising around the world, central banks are going to be forced to respond.  Some will respond more forcefully and more quickly than others, and it is those currencies which are likely to outperform going forward.  Investors today are generally unfamiliar with investing in an inflationary environment.  The 1970’s were the last time we really saw inflation of substance and even I was still in college (and I am almost certainly much older than you) when that was the situation, with many, if not most, of the current investment community not yet even born.

A quick look at the chart of the Dollar Index (DXY) from that time shows that from the autumn of 1971, right after President Nixon closed the gold window and ended Breton Woods, through the end of 1979, right after Paul Volcker was named Fed Chair and had just started his inflation fight, the dollar declined about 28% (roughly 4% per annum).  Of course, once Volcker got going and US interest rates were raised dramatically to kill off inflation, the dollar rose more than 75% in the following four years.

The point is that while we may disparage the Fed’s actions as being wrong-headed, their policies matter immensely.  Jay Powell may wind up with his reputation in tatters akin to Arthur Burns and G. William Miller, the Fed Chairs who oversaw the sharp rises in inflation in the 1970’s preceding Mr Volcker.  It seems unlikely this outcome is his goal, however, his insistence on toeing the political line rather than hewing to sound money policies bodes ill for the future.

Anyway, while US equity markets have essentially retraced all their post FOMC losses, the rest of the world has seen a more mixed outcome.  In Asia last night, the Nikkei (0.0%) was essentially flat although there were gains in the Hang Seng (+1.8%) and Shanghai (+0.25%).  Europe, on the other hand, is under some pressure this morning with both the DAX (-0.5%) and CAC (-0.4%) feeling some pain based on softer than expected, though still strong, Flash PMI data.  The UK, however, is seeing a much better performance (FTSE 100 +0.35%) as not only was the PMI data stronger than expected, but there apparently is a breakthrough on the lingering Brexit issues of treating goods in Northern Ireland.  Meanwhile, US futures are essentially unchanged this morning, perhaps waiting for some more encouragement from today’s roster of Fed speakers.

Bond markets, after a very choppy few days, have calmed down greatly with Treasuries (+1.2bps) softening a bit while European sovereigns (Bunds -1.4bps, OATs -1.4bps) are seeing some demand.  UK Gilts are little changed as the market there awaits tomorrow’s BOE meeting, where some believe there is a chance for a more hawkish tilt.

Commodity prices are definitely firmer this morning led by oil (+0.7%) but also seeing strength in precious metals (Au +0.25%, Ag +0.7%), base metals (Cu +0.7%, Fe +1.4%, Sn +0.2%) and agricultural products (Soybeans +0.5%, Wheat +1.2%, Corn +0.4%).  Clearly the commodity markets see inflation in the future.

Finally, the dollar is mixed this morning but, in truth, the relatively small movements indicate a lack of interest.  Commodity currencies like NOK (+0.1%), AUD (+0.2%) and NZD (+0.2%) are the leading G10 gainers while JPY (-0.35%) continues to come under pressure, arguably suffering from the fact that Japan imports virtually all its commodities.

In the EMG space, the picture is also mixed with HUF (+0.7%) the leading gainer after the central bank raised its benchmark rate to 0.9% yesterday a 0.3% increase that was expected.  But the idea that they are joining the several other EMG central banks in tightening mode (Brazil, Russia, Ukraine) has investors buying up the forint.  Away from that, ZAR (+0.4%) is clearly benefitting from higher commodity prices as are RUB (+0.2%) and MXN (+0.1%) although the latter two are quite modest.  On the downside, KRW (-0.5%) saw the sharpest declines as a combination of equity outflows as well as a sharp rise in Covid infections was seen quite negatively.  But in truth, most APAC currencies were under some pressure overnight, albeit not to the extent seen in Seoul.

Today’s data brings the Flash PMI (exp 61.5 Mfg, 70.0 Services) as well as New Home Sales (865K).  But more importantly, we have three more Fed speakers set to reiterate the message that policy is not going to change for a while yet, so no need for investors to panic in any market.  The dollar responded logically to the idea that the Fed was going to tighten policy, but now that they have gone out of their way to walk that idea back, I expect the dollar is more likely to drift lower for now.  Perhaps when it becomes clearer that the Fed is actually going to move, we could see some strength again.  But that is likely still a few weeks or months away.  Trade the range for now.

Good luck and stay safe