Progress, Substantial

To everyone who thought the Fed
Was ready to taper, Jay said
‘Til progress, substantial,
Is made, no financial
Adjustments are reckoned ahead

If, prior to yesterday, you were worried that the Fed was getting prepared to taper its asset purchases, stop worrying.  It doesn’t matter what Dallas Fed President Kaplan, or even SF Fed President Daly says about the timing of tapering.  The only ones who matter are Powell, Clarida, Williams and Brainerd, and as the Chairman made clear once again yesterday, they ain’t going to taper anytime soon.

In testimony to the House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jay sent a clear message; nothing is changing until the Fed (read the above-mentioned four) sees “substantial further progress” on their twin goals of maximum employment and an average inflation rate of 2.0%.  Obviously, they have moved a lot closer on the inflation front, with many pundits (present company included) saying that they have clearly exceeded their goal and need to address that issue.  But for as much vitriol as is reserved for our previous president, both the Fed and Congress are clearly all-in on the idea that the 3.5% Unemployment Rate achieved during his term just before the pandemic emerged, which was the lowest in 50 years, is actually the appropriate level of NAIRU.

NAIRU stands for the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment and is the economic acronym for the unemployment rate deemed to be the lowest possible without causing increased wage pressures leading to rising inflation.  For the longest time, this rate was thought to be somewhere in the 4.5%-5.5% area, but in the decade following the GFC, as policymakers pushed to run the economy as hot as possible, the lack of measured consumerinflation, despite record low unemployment, forced economists to rethink their models.  Arguably, it is this change in view that has led to the fascination with MMT and the willingness of the current Fed to continue QE despite the evident froth in the asset markets.  Of course, now those asset markets are not just paper ones like stocks and bonds, but also housing and commodities.

But that is the situation today, despite what appears to be very clear evidence that inflationary pressures are not just high, but longer lasting as well, the Fed has their story and they are sticking to it.  They made this clear to everyone last year with the new policy framework that specifically explains they will remain behind the curve on inflation because they will not adjust policy until they see real data, not surveys, that demonstrate growth is overheating.  Yet, given the Fed’s history, where they have often tightened policy in anticipation of higher inflation and thereby reduced growth, or even caused recessions, the market has learned to expect that type of response.  While I personally believe prudent policy would be to tighten at this time, I take Mr Powell at his word, they are not going to change anytime soon.  I assure you that of the dots in the last dot plot, Jay Powell’s was not one of the ones expecting interest rates to be 0.50% by the end of 2023.

One of the things that makes this so interesting is the difference of this policy with that of an increasing number of other central banks, where recognition of rising inflation is forcing them to rethink their commitment to ZIRP.  Earlier this week, the RBNZ abruptly ended QE and explained rates may rise before the summer is over.  Yesterday, the Bank of Canada reduced its QE purchases by another C$1 billion/week, furthering the progress they started in June, and Governor Macklem made clear that if inflation did persist, they would react appropriately.  Last night it was the Bank of Korea’s turn to explain that economic activity was picking up quickly and inflationary pressures alongside that which would make them consider raising the base rate at their next meeting.  Finally, all eyes are turning toward the BOE as this morning’s employment report showed that the recovery is still picking up pace and that wage growth, at a 7.3% Q/Q rise, is really starting to take off.  Market talk is now focused on whether the Old Lady will be the next to start to tighten.

In truth, the only three central banks that have made clear they are not ready to do so are the big 3, the Fed, ECB and BOJ.  The BOJ meets tonight with no changes to policy expected as they seem to be focused on what they can do to address climate change (my sense is they can have the same success on climate change as they have had on raising inflation, i.e. none).  Next week the ECB will unveil their new framework which seems likely to include the successor to the PEPP as well as their already telegraphed new symmetrical inflation target of 2.0%.  And then the Fed meets the following week, at which point they will work very hard to play down inflation in the statement but will not alter policy regardless.

As you consider the policy changes afoot, as well as the trajectory of inflation, and combine that with your finance 101 models that show inflation undermines the value of a currency in the FX markets, it would lead you to believe that the dollar has real downside opportunity vs. many currencies, just not the euro or the yen.  But markets are fickle, so don’t put all your eggs in that basket.

Turning to today’s activities, while Chinese equity markets performed well (Hang Seng +0.75%, Shanghai +1.0%) after Chinese GDP data was released at 7.9% for Q2, just a tick lower than forecast, and the rest of the data, Retail Sales and Fixed Asset Investment all beat expectations, the rest of the world has been much less exuberant.  For instance, the Nikkei (-1.15%) stumbled along with Australian and New Zealand indices, although the rest of SE Asia actually followed China higher.  Europe has been under pressure from the start this morning led by the DAX (-0.9
%) although the CAC (-0.75%) and FTSE 100 (-0.7%) are nothing to write home about.  US futures are also under pressure (Dow -0.5%, SPX -0.3%) although the NASDAQ continues to power ahead (+0.2%).

In this broadly risk-off session, it is no surprise that bond markets are rallying.  Treasuries, after seeing yields decline 7bps after Powell’s testimony, are down another 2bps this morning.  Similarly, we are seeing strength in Bunds (-1.4bps) and OATs (-1.1bps) although Gilts (+1.4bps) seem to be concerned about potential BOE policy changes.

On the commodity front, oil fell sharply after the Powell testimony and has continued its downward move, falling 1.8% this morning.  Gold, which had been higher earlier in the session is now down 0.15%, although copper (+0.6%) remains in positive territory.  At this point, risk has come under pressure across markets although there is no obvious catalyst.

It should not be surprising that as risk is jettisoned, the dollar is rebounding.  From what had been a mixed session earlier in the day, the dollar is now firmer against 9 of the G10 with NOK (-0.5%) the laggard although the entire commodity bloc is suffering.  The only gainer is the pound (+0.1%) which seems to be on the back of the idea the BOE may begin to tighten sooner than previously expected.

EMG currencies that are currently trading are all falling, led by ZAR (-0.7%), PLN (-0.5%) and HUF (-0.5%).  The rand is very obviously suffering alongside the commodity story, while HUF and PLN are under pressure as a story about both nations losing access to some EU funds because of their stance on issues of judicial and immigration policies is seen as a negative for their fiscal balances.  Overnight we did see strength in KRW (+0.6%) and TWD (+0.4%) with the former benefitting from the BOK’s comments on tightening policy while the latter saw substantial equity market inflows driving the currency higher.

Data today includes Initial (exp 350K) and Continuing (3.3M) Claims as well as Empire Mfg (18.0), Philly Fed (28.0), IP (0.6%) and Capacity Utilization (75.6%).  Yesterday’s PPI was also much higher than forecast, but that can be no surprise given the CPI data on Tuesday.  In addition, Chairman Powell testifies before the Senate Banking Panel today, with the same prepared testimony but a whole new set of questions.  (I did reach out to my Senator, Menendez, to ask why Chairman Powell thinks forcing prices higher is helping his constituents, but I’m guessing it won’t make the cut!)

And that’s the day.  Right now, with risk under pressure, the dollar has a firm tone.  But the background of numerous other central banks starting to tighten as they recognize rising inflation and the Fed ignoring it all does not bode well for the dollar in the medium term.

Good luck and stay safe
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