A governor, Fed, name of Waller
Who previously had been a scholar
Remarked that inflation
Might have more duration
Which could cause a weakening dollar
As well, he explained that his view
Was rate hikes just might soon ensue
Were that to transpire
Then yields would move higher
While equity losses accrue
In what can only be termed a bit surprising, Fed governor Chris Waller, the FOMC member with the shortest tenure, explained yesterday that he is “greatly concerned abut the upside risk that elevated inflation will not prove temporary.” While refreshing, that is certainly a far cry from the narrative that the Fed has been pushing for many months. Of course, if one simply looks at the inflation data, which has been trending sharply higher, it seems apparent that transitory is not an apt description. As well, he is the first Fed member to be honest in the discussion about bottlenecks and supply chain issues as he commented, “bottlenecks have been worse and are lasting longer than I and most forecasters expected, and an important question that no one knows the answer to is how long these supply problems will persist.” [emphasis added].
During the entire ‘transitory inflation’ debate, the issue with which I most disagreed was the working assumption that these transportation bottlenecks and supply chain disruptions would quickly work themselves out. It was as though the central bank community believed that because economic models explain that higher prices lead to increased production of those goods or services, the result was a magical appearance of additional supply to push prices back down. Meanwhile, in the real world filled with regulations, restrictions and skill and resource mismatches and misallocations, these things can take a long time to correct themselves. There is no little irony that government regulations regarding truck drivers have significantly reduced the supply of available truckers which has led to those very bottlenecks that are now bedeviling the economy (and government). Alas, in the great Rube Goldberg tradition, rather than simplify processes to open up supply chains, it appears that government will be adding new regulations designed to offset the current ones which will almost certainly have other negative consequences down the road.
Finally, Governor Waller was refreshingly honest in his view of things like core inflation and trimmed-mean CPI or PCE calling them, “a way of manipulating data.” Of course, that is exactly what they are. Central banks have relied on these lower numbers as a rationale for continuing extraordinarily easy monetary policy despite the very clear rise in inflation. And despite Mr Waller’s comments, the Powell/Yellen narrative remains inflation is not that high and anyway it’s transitory.
As it happens, though, the bond market seems to have been listening to Waller’s comments as it sold off pretty aggressively yesterday with yields backing up 4 basis points to their highest level since May. While this morning Treasury yields are unchanged, it is becoming clear that a trend higher in yields is manifesting itself with the market clearly targeting the highs seen in March at 1.75%.
A fair question would be to ask if this price action is occurring elsewhere in the world and the answer would be a resounding yes. For instance, UK Gilts, which today have actually fallen 3.1bps, are trending sharply higher over the past two months and are at their highest levels since early 2019. Today’s UK CPI report showed inflation at 3.1%, which was a tick lower than forecast, but still well above their 2.0% target. In addition, virtually the entire MPC has acknowledged that CPI is likely to rise above 4.0% by December with a very uncertain timeline to fall back. Governor Bailey has made it clear that they will be raising interest rates at their next meeting in early November and there has been no pushback regarding the market pricing in 3 more rate hikes in 2022.
The upshot of all this is the carefully curated narrative by the Fed and its brethren is being destroyed by events on the ground and in addition to damage control, they are trying very hard to establish the new narrative. However, it is not clear the market is going to be so willing to go along this time. Too, all this price pressure is occurring with a backdrop of softening economic data, with yesterday’s Housing data the latest numbers to fall both from the previous month and below forecasts. As I’ve written before, were I Chairman Powell, I wouldn’t accept renomination even if it is offered. The Fed chair, when things hit the fan, will not have a very good time.
On the flip side of all this distress there is the equity market, which continues blithely along the trail of rallying on every piece of news, whether good or bad. Now that we have entered earnings season, with expectations for a strong Q2 (after all, GDP grew at 6.8%),
algorithms investors remain ready to buy more of whatever is hot. Yesterday saw solid gains across all three US indices and we continue to see more strength than weakness overseas. In Asia, for instance, the Nikkei (+0.15%) edged higher while the Hang Seng (+1.35%) had quite a good day although Shanghai (-0.2%) continues to suffer under the ongoing pressure from the Chinese real estate market. Today another Chinese real estate developer, Sinic, defaulted on a bond and by the end of the week the 30-day grace period for Evergrande will end and we will see if there are more ramifications there.
As to the rest of the world, both Europe (DAX +0.1%, CAC -0.1%, FTSE 100 +0.1%) and US futures are essentially flat this morning. The investor question is, can strong earnings offset tighter monetary policy? While we shall see over the course of the next few weeks, I suspect that a more hawkish Fed, if that is what shows up, will be very difficult to offset for the broad indices.
Commodities have taken a breather today with oil (-1.2%) and NatGas (-1.3%) slipping and dragging most other things down with them. So, copper (-1.3%) and aluminum (-1.1%) are feeling that pain although gold (+0.7%) and silver (+1.25%) are both benefitting from either the inflation narrative or the fact that the dollar is arguably somewhat softer.
Speaking of the dollar, it is best described as mixed today, with a range of gainers and losers versus the greenback. In the G10, NOK (-0.45%) is the worst performer, clearly suffering on the back of oil’s decline, with the pound (-0.3%) next in line after CPI printed a tick lower than expected and some thought that might dissuade the BOE from raising rates (it won’t). But other than those two, everything else is +/- 0.15% which is indicative of nothing happening.
EMG currencies are also mixed with the biggest winners INR (+0.6%) and KRW (+0.4%) both benefitting from equity market inflows amid hopes for stronger growth. After that, the gainers have been modest at best with nothing really standing out. On the downside, RUB (-0.2%) following oil and CNY (-0.2%) have been the worst performers. China is interesting as the PBOC set the fix for a much weaker than expected renminbi as it is clearly becoming a bit uncomfortable with the currency’s recent appreciation (+1.9% in past two months before last night). Remember, for a mercantilist economy like China, excessive currency strength is an economic problem. Look for the PBOC to continue to push against further strength.
On the data front, only the Fed’s Beige Book is released this afternoon, but we do hear from 5 more FOMC members. Remember, nobody expected Waller’s comments to be market moving, so we must keep our antenna up for something else.
In fact, my sense is that the Fed is going to try very hard to reestablish the narrative they want regarding inflation and the future of interest rates. That implies we are going to hear more and more from Fed speakers. The risk is that the divide at the Fed between hawks and doves will widen to a point where no consistent narrative is forthcoming. At that point, markets are likely to pay less attention to the comments and more to the data and expectations. If forward guidance loses its strength, the Fed will be in a much worse position and market volatility is likely to increase substantially. However, we have not yet reached that point. In the meantime, the dollar is searching for its next catalyst. Until then, consolidation of recent gains continues to be the most likely outcome.
Good luck and stay safe