Outmoded

In Germany prices exploded
While confidence there has eroded
Now all eyes will turn
Back home where we’ll learn
On Tuesday if QE’s outmoded

The most disturbing aspect of the inflation argument (you know, is it transitory or not) is the fact that those in the transitory camp are willing to completely ignore the damage inflation does to household budgets.  Their attitude was recently articulated by the chief European economist at TS Lombard, Dario Perkins, thusly, “There is nothing inherently dangerous about inflation settling in, say, a 3-5% range instead of the 1-2% that’s been normal for the past decade.”  He continued, “the bigger risk is that hitherto dovish central bankers lose their nerve and raise interest rates until it causes a recession, like they’ve done in the past.”

Let’s consider that for a moment.  The simple math shows that at a 2% inflation rate, the price of something rises about 22% over the course of a decade.  So, that Toyota Camry that cost $25,000 in 2011 would cost $30,475 today.  However, at a 5% inflation rate over that time, it would cost $40,725, a 63% increase.  That’s a pretty big difference.  Add in the fact that wage gains have certainly not been averaging 5% per year and it is easy to see how inflation can be extremely damaging to anybody, let alone to the average wage earner.  The point is, while to an economist, inflation appears to be an abstract concept that is simply a number input into their models, to the rest of us, it is the cost of living.  And there is nothing that indicates the cost of living will stop rising sharply anytime soon.

This was reinforced overnight when Germany released its wholesale price index, which rose 12.3% in the past twelve months.  That is the highest rate of increase since 1974 in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo.  Now fortunately, the ECB is on the case.  Isabel Schnabel, the ECB’s head of markets explained, “The prospect of persistently excessive inflation, as feared by some, remains highly unlikely.  But should inflation sustainably reach our target of 2% unexpectedly soon, we will act equally quickly and resolutely.”  You know, they have tools!

On the subject of Wholesale, or Producer, Prices, while Germany’s were the highest print we’ve seen from a major economy, recall last week that Chinese PPI printed at 9.5%, in the US it was 8.3% and even in Japan, a nation that has not seen inflation in two decades, PPI rose 5.6% last month.  It appears that the cost of making “stuff” is rising pretty rapidly.  And even if the pace of these increases does slow down, the probability of prices declining is essentially nil.  Remember, the current central bank mantra is deflation is the worst possible outcome and they will do all they can to prevent it.  All I can say is, I sure hope everyone’s wages can keep pace with inflation, because otherwise, we are all at a permanent disadvantage compared to where things had been just a year or two ago.

Well, I guess there is one beneficiary of higher inflation…governments issuing debt.  As long as inflation grows faster than the size of their debt, a government’s real obligations decline.  And you wonder why the Fed insists inflation is transitory.  Oh yeah, for all of you who think that higher inflation will lead to higher interest rates, I wouldn’t count on that outcome either.  Whether or not the Fed actually tapers, they have exactly zero incentive to raise rates anytime soon.  And as to bonds, they have shown before (post WWII) that they are willing to cap yields at a rate well below inflation if it suits their needs.  And I assure you, it suits their needs right now.

So, what will all this do to the currency markets?  As always, FX is a relative game so what matters is the degree of change from one currency to the next.  The medium-term bearish case for the dollar is that inflation in the US will run hotter than in Europe, Japan or elsewhere, while the Fed caps yields in some manner.  The resultant expansion of negative real yields will have a significant negative impact on the dollar.  This argument will fail if one of two things occurs; either other central banks shoot for even greater negative yields, or, more likely, the Fed allows the back end of the curve to rise thus moderating the impact of negative real yields.  In either case, the dollar should benefit.  In fact, this is why the taper discussion is of such importance to the FX market, tapering implies higher yields in the back end of the US yield curve and therefore an opportunity for a stronger dollar.  Remember, though, there are many moving pieces, so even if the Fed does taper, that is not necessarily going to support the dollar all that much.

Ok, let’s look at this morning’s markets, where risk is largely being acquired, although there is no obvious reason why that is the case.  Equity markets in Asia were mixed with both gainers (Nikkei +0.2%, Shanghai +0.3%) and Losers (Hang Seng (-1.5%) as the ongoing Chinese crackdown on internet companies received new news.  It seems that the Chinese government is going to split up Ant Financial such that its lending business is a separate company under stricter government control.  Ali Baba, which is listed in HK, not Shanghai, fell sharply, as did other tech companies in China, hence the dichotomy between the Hang Seng and Shanghai indices.  But excluding Chinese tech, stocks were in demand.  The same is true in Europe where the screen is entirely green (DAX +1.1%, CAC +0.8%, FTSE 100 +0.8%) as it seems there is little concern about a passthrough of inflation, but great hope that reopening economies will perform well.  US futures are also looking robust this morning, with all three major indices higher by at least 0.5% as I type.

Funnily enough, despite the risk appetite in equities, bond prices are rallying as well, with 10-year Treasury yields lower by 1.7bps, and European sovereigns also seeing modest yield declines of between 0.5 and 1.0 bps. Apparently, as concerns grow over the possibility of a technical US default due to a debt ceiling issue, the safety trade is to buy Treasuries.  At least that is the explanation being offered today.

On the commodity front, oil (WTI +0.8%) is leading the way higher although we are seeing gains in many of the industrial metals as well, notably aluminum (+1.6%), which seems to be feeling some supply shortages.  Copper (-0.45%), surprisingly, is softer on the day, but the rest of that space is firmer.  I mentioned Uranium last week, and as an FYI, it is higher by 5% this morning as more and more people begin to understand the combination of a structural shortage of the metal and the increasing likelihood that any carbonless future will require nuclear power to be far more prevalent.

Finally, the dollar is broadly, although not universally, stronger this morning.  In the G10, only NOK (+0.2%) and CAD (+0.1%) have managed to hold their own this morning on the strength of oil’s rally.  Meanwhile, CHF (-0.7%) is under the most pressure as havens lose their luster, although the rest of the bloc has only seen declines of between -0.1% and -0.3%.  In the EMG bloc, THB (-0.75%) and KRW (-0.6%) lead the way lower as both nations saw equity market outflows on weakness in Asian tech stocks.  But generally, almost all currencies here are softer by between -0.2% and -0.4%.  the exceptions are TRY (+0.3%) and RUB (+0.25%) with the latter supported by oil while the former is benefitting from hope that the central bank will maintain tight policy to fight inflation.

On the data front, we have both CPI and Retail Sales leading a busy week:

Today Monthly Budget Statement -$175B
Tuesday NFIB Small Biz Optimism 99.0
CPI 0.4% (5.3% Y/Y)
-ex food & energy 0.3% (4.2% Y/Y)
Wednesday Empire Manufacturing 18.0
IP 0.4%
Capacity Utilization 76.4%
Thursday Initial Claims 320K
Continuing Claims 2740K
Retail Sales -0.8%
-ex auto -0.1%
Philly Fed 19.0
Friday Michigan Sentiment 72.0

Source: Bloomberg

With no recent stimulus checks, Retail Sales are forecast to suffer greatly.  Meanwhile, the CPI readings are forecast to be a tick lower than last month, but still above 5.0% for the third consecutive month.  Certainly, my personal experience is that prices continue to rise quite rapidly, and I would not be surprised to see a higher print.  Mercifully, the Fed is in its quiet period ahead of next week’s FOMC meeting, so we no longer need to hear about when anybody thinks tapering should occur.  The next information will be the real deal from Chairman Powell.

The tapering argument seems to be the driver right now, with a growing belief the Fed will reduce its QE purchases and US rates will rise, at least in the back end.  That seems to be the genesis of the dollar’s support.  As long as that attitude exists, the dollar should do well.  But if the data this week points to further slowing in the US economy, I would expect the taper story to fade along with the dollar.

Good luck and stay safe
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